By Randy Jackson
Concepts of the afterlife have shaped culture and behavior throughout human history, from the building of the Pyramids of Egypt, to the celebration of Día de los Muertos today. Whatever we think the afterlife is “like,” including the materialist concept of no afterlife at all, influences our worldview and how we interact with other people.
From Heaven and Hell to Spiritism
Western thought regarding the afterlife has evolved through time. The concepts of Heaven and Hell did not exist in early Christianity. Christian dogma evolved from the belief in an afterlife of deep sleep until the final judgment at the end of time. Over the centuries Heaven and Hell became eternal rewards or punishments based on the conduct of humans during their time on earth. This concept remained foundational through the centuries. Then in the late 1800’s, a movement that became known as Spiritism (Spiritualism in the U.S.), arose first in Europe and spread throughout the world, particularly among the elite and educated classes. Spiritism held a belief that the afterlife was a continuity of individual consciousness, a concept similar to Eastern religious thought. Spiritism also held the concept that spirits in the afterlife could be communicated with.
One adherent of this view was Francisco Madero, the elected president of Mexico after the downfall of Porfirio Díaz. Madero may have channeled the spirit of Benito Juárez for advice in the early days of the Mexican Revolution.
Madero and the Rise of Spiritism
For a variety of reasons, Spiritism flourished in popularity around the turn of the 20th century. A turn away from the orthodoxy of mainstream religion was a particularly strong cause in the United States. New religions, such as Mormonism and the Seventh Day Adventist Church, were founded in this period, in what is known as the “Second Great Awakening,” a religious revival movement in the U.S. (c. 1795-1835). (The original “Great Awakening” was similar and started in Great Britain, flourishing in the colonies from the 1730s-1770s.)
Another factor that moved western thought towards a different view of the afterlife was the groundbreaking publication in 1859 of “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. The acceptance that life arose on earth through a natural process rather than divine creation was an intellectual paradigm shift that is still reverberating today. Spiritism, fully embracing evolution as a concept, holds that evolution of individual consciousness continues in the afterlife.
The spiritual beliefs of Francisco Madero were consistent with these concepts. Francisco Ignacio Madero González (1873-1913) was from one of the wealthiest Mexican families of the time. He was educated in France and the United States. In the international educated elite circles where Madero moved, the concepts of Spiritism were widely held. The Spiritist held that there were seven hierarchical realms in the afterlife; Spiritism postulated lower “hell-like” realms, up to realms very much like our physical realm, through to higher angelic realms, and ultimately a realm where individual consciousness (the soul) merged with the divine.
This afterlife view of Spiritism, in which individual consciousness can evolve to higher realms, is fundamentally intertwined with the concept of reincarnation. But reincarnation back into our physical realm wasn’t seen as something that happened immediately. Rather, there is time between lives where spirits are believed to exist in the afterlife realm of their evolutionary attainment. This “between lives” period of the afterlife enables mediums to connect to the spirit of the deceased. In the case of Madero’s mediumship, most of his initial contact, he believed, was with his younger brother Raul, who had died at age three.
In 2011 (paperback 2014), C.M. Mayo published Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. In numerous interviews about the work, she makes the point that Madero’s spiritual beliefs are fundamental in understanding the motivations and actions of the person who is credited with initiating the Mexican Revolution.
Madero’s Spiritism and the Mexican Revolution
In 1908, Madero published La sucesión presidencial en 1910, after the long-serving president and dictator, Porfirio Díaz announced in an interview with American journalist James Creelman, that Mexico was ready for democracy and that he would retire in 1910. Díaz subsequently changed his mind, Madero organized the anti-reelection opposition, Díaz had Madero imprisoned, and proceeded to rig the election for yet another term. Madero escaped from prison and while residing in San Antonio, Texas, wrote a manifesto, the “Plan of San Luis Potosí,” considered the founding document of the Mexican Revolution. (Recall that the Mexican Revolution was more of a series of regional conflicts than a clear war; it might have ended in 1917, with the establishment of the Mexican Constitution, but fighting continued on for years.) Madero’s writing led to the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz and Madero’s winning the interim presidential election of 1911.
Historians have given Francisco Madero a couple of significant titles: “Apostle of Democracy” and “Father of the Revolution.” He has been frequently described as having been a decent and honest man. In 2013, Michael Benjamin Amoruso, a doctoral student at the University of Texas in Austin, published a paper for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, “A Transcendental Mission: Spiritism and the Revolutionary Politics of Francisco I. Madero, 1900-1911.” (The author is now an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Occidental University in Los Angeles). Amoruso argued that Madero “understood his political action as the earthly component of spiritual struggle.” Madero expresses a
prescriptive Spiritist vision, in which democracy represents a triumph of human’s “higher nature” over the “base, selfish passions” of Porfirio Díaz and his regime.
In his memoir, Madero wrote that beings in the afterlife instructed him in moral and spiritual matters. The political documents that launched the ousting of Porfirio Díaz were likely channeled from a source noted by Madero as “Jose.” Other journals from his channeled works were noted as being from “BJ,” considered by some to be Benito Juárez, the president of Mexico who preceded Porfirio Díaz.
Madero’s beliefs and practices of Spiritism were not a secret in Mexican society of the time. There were cartoons in Mexico City newspapers lampooning the president performing seances; the press described Madero as a “loco que se comunicaba con los muertos” (a madman who talks with the dead). In 1913, a segment of the army rebelled against Madero, and General Victoriano Huerta joined them. Huerta had risen to General under Porfirio Díaz, and Madero apparently did not completely trust him but felt he needed him.
The rebellion resulted in a coup d’etat – aided by the U.S. – against Madero; Huerta had Madero and his Vice-President, José María Pino Suárez, murdered in an alley within the week. Madero was 39; Suárez 44. The New York weekly newspaper The Sun trumpeted huge headlines: “MADERO AND SUAREZ SHOT DEAD ON WAY TO PRISON.” Madero’s overthrow and execution seemed to have nothing to do with his beliefs in the evolution of individuals across lifetimes towards a selfless growth in divine love. His fate was rather a raw power grab by Huerta.
I can’t imagine that Madero and Huerta ended up in the same realm in anyone’s version of the afterlife.
By Carole Reedy
Catch up on your reading now, because the last few months of this year are filled with new works from our favorite writers.
But who’s missing? Donna Tartt fans are combing the web in search of her next book. It seems she publishes one every ten years: 1992, The Secret History; 2002, The Little Friend; 2013, The Goldfinch. 2023? Tartt’s novels are long and lush with unforgettable plots that twist and turn. They always feature vivid characters and an imaginative writing style that captures the reader from the start. My search for her next work has been unsuccessful as of this writing.
In better news, here’s a selection of new books that have been published or will soon be during the second half of 2023. This list includes some of my favorite writers and, judging from your messages to me, yours too.
Provocatively, there are three books of short stories on this list. I consider myself and readers of this column literary novel admirers, but these brilliant collections just may just have turned my head.
This is Whitehead’s second novel in his Harlem Trilogy. While you can enjoy Crook Manifesto on its own, for maximum pleasure take time to read Harlem Shuffle (2021) first. I like to call the Trilogy Whitehead’s love story to Harlem. This second novel takes place in 1976 as the bicentennial celebrations are in full swing. However, it’s business as usual for crooked politicians and the manipulation of the poor and disadvantaged by up-and-coming “wannabes.”
Ray Carney, everyone’s favorite furniture vendor, seems to find himself once again in the midst of the machinations of less-than-savory company, including a shady candidate for political office who is ironically actively supported by Ray’s wife Elizabeth. Ray’s family has a welcome presence in this second book, and we hope will again in the third.
Delightfully dark and mysterious characters, though tinted with affection, sprinkle the text. This is Whitehead’s magic: he gives us the harsh reality of Harlem from the inside out. He goes to the heart of the city, as well as to the heart of his characters, offering a glimpse into the soul of the ‘hood and the denizens who struggle there daily.
Zero-Sum: Stories, by Joyce Carol Oates
Despite more than 100 extant novels, short story collections, nonfiction books, and essays, Oates delivers every year new creations to equal and even surpass her past successes.
Oates is audacious and intrepid, conveying that which often goes unsaid. Her latest collection does just that with a wide range of characters, emotions, and settings in place and time.
The most memorable of these is a story called “The Suicide,” told from the point of view of the one attempting to commit it. He mesmerizes us with his confusion, determination, apprehension, and pain.
Three other stories especially will remain with us and even haunt our dreams. We who have experienced a pandemic now have visions of our future world. Oates delivers a triad of stories about the future years of our planet. Need I say more?
Cravings: Stories, by Garnett Kilberg Cohen
Garnett Cohen popped into my life several years when a Chicago friend gifted me her novella, How We Move the Air (2010). A collection of seven linked stories, it was an unusual and stunning read in many ways, leaving me craving (no pun intended) more from this author. Since then I’ve religiously read Cohen’s collections of short stories as well as her individual works published in a diverse range of magazines. I and my band of avid readers highly recommend her short story collection Swarm to Glory (2014).
Through the details of everyday life, Cohen opens up a character’s world. The slightest phrase evokes a flood of emotions. At one point I felt, “This author knows me; I feel this way too.” There is good variety in the selection of these stories: they’ll make you laugh, cry, or just sigh. Like Joyce Carol Oates, she can be dauntless, an admirable and necessary quality in a writer.
Thoughts of Proust and involuntary memory come to mind when reading these stories. From the end of “Hors d’oeuvres,” the first story: “Our memories travel with us over the years, popping up when least expected.” As an avid traveler, I love to think of my memories traveling with me, at home and abroad.
I would have liked to point to my favorite story from the collection, but I can’t. I admired them all, each in its own way.
Roman Stories, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Many of us were crushed a few years ago when Lahiri announced she was moving to Italy to write and publish her future books in Italian. This endeavor proved successful, and we’ve now been rewarded for our patience. Lahiri has created an homage, a collection of short stories where the main personage is the magical city of Rome. She wrote these stories in Italian and translated them to English with Knopf editor Todd Portnowitz.
Kirkus gives the collection a starred review, praising this new work from a veteran writer: “A brilliant return to the short story by an author of protean accomplishments … filled with intelligence and sorrow, these sharply drawn glimpses of Roman lives create an impressively unified effect.”
This is Lahiri’s first short story collection since she published Unaccustomed Earth in 2008.
It’s also appropriate to mention here Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian, which she then translated into English. Called Whereabouts (2021), it consists of 46 chapters, or rather entries into a diary, that are one woman’s reflections on her life. Highly praised by critics and a definite thumbs-up from me.
Baumgartener, by Paul Auster
One never knows what to expect from this icon whose repertoire over 38 years always surprises and never disappoints. His range of subject matter is vast, as are the style and breadth of his 18 novels.
This newest asks, “Why do we remember certain moments in our lives and not others?” The protagonist is a soon-to-be retired philosophy professor and phenomenologist. Auster’s prose takes us on a literary journey with characters Sy Baumgartner, his dead wife Anna, and his Polish-born father, a dressmaker and revolutionary.
This is his first novel since the extraordinary 4 3 2 1: A Novel was published in 2017.
Recently, Siri Hustvedt, Auster’s renowned philosopher/author wife, posted on Instagram that Auster is suffering from cancer and being treated with chemotherapy and infusions. As a fan since 1972, this news breaks my heart.
Day, by Michael Cunningham
It’s difficult to contemplate writer Michael Cunningham without conjuring up thoughts of an equally imposing author, the illustrious Virginia Woolf. Cunningham resurrected the memory of Virginia Woolf with his Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours: A Novel (2019). In The Hours, Cunningham relates moments in the life of Woolfe through three separate characters and stories. It is a tour de force that will haunt you long after you finish it.
In his newest novel, Cunningham takes us through three days (April 5 in 2019, 2020, and 2021) in the lives of a New York family.
The highest praise comes from another famous writer, Colum McCain (Let the Great World Spin, 2009) “Michael Cunningham crafts a glorious sentence, and at the same time he tells an achingly compelling story that speaks precisely to the times we live in. And it all flows so damn gorgeously that at times you just want to suspend the sacred day itself and hold it close, never let it, or the characters, go.”
The Bee Sting: A Novel, by Paul Murray
Rave reviews everywhere. Long waitlists at the library that include yours truly. The Los Angeles Times calls it a masterpiece, saying “it ought to cement Murray’s already high standing…it’s a triumph of realist fiction, a big, sprawling social novel in the vein of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The agility with which Murray structures the narrative around the family at its heart is virtuosic and sure-footed, evidence of a writer at the height of his power deftly shifting perspectives, style and syntax to maximize emotional impact. Hilarious and sardonic, heartbreaking and beautiful.”
Plus a sneak preview …
James, by Percival Everett
Move over Demon Copperhead, James is coming. Everett reworks Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884 in the UK, 1885 in the US) in this most anticipated novel. We’ll be eager to see if he can accomplish what Barbara Kingsolver was able to achieve in her brilliant and award-winning novel Demon Copperhead: A Novel (2022), which possesses the bones and heart of the beloved Dickens classic David Copperfield.
Percival Everett’s most recent books include Dr. No: A Novel (2022, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award), The Trees: A Novel (2021, finalist for the Booker Prize and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award), and Telephone (2021, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize).
By Jane Bauer
“When we name an inanimate object, we are intentionally building a relationship, elevating it to a character in our lives. Not only do we feel closer to things that we name, but perhaps we name our things in order to feel closer to them.”
Kathryn Hymes in The Atlantic
Words. Where would we be without them? We marvel at a baby’s first words- usually little more than a gurgle, we learn the names of objects, we learn to read, we learn to manipulate and interpret their meanings and along the way we take them for granted, until the day when we start losing them one by one.
In translation, beyond word substitution, there are gaps of meaning within languages. We’ve all heard about how some tribes in the Arctic have 50 words for snow. There are other languages that have words that give more specific meaning to things, such as the German word Treppenwitz which translates to stairs (treppen) + wit- and means “the perfect retort that comes too late”, what you didn’t respond in the heat of the moment because you only thought of it while you were already leaving. I need at least seven English words to describe what this German word captures with one. By the way it’s a noun, in case you were wondering how to integrate it into your speech. German is full of amazing compound words like Lebensmüde, which means “life-tired”.
In Iceland they have Gluggaveður – which describes when the weather looks pleasant from your window, but is actually really cold and you need a jacket. Gluggaveður literally means “window-weather”.
One of my favorite words is the Japanese Komorebi, which refers to the scattered sunlight that filters through the leaves on the trees. So poetic and gentle feeling. What do you think… noun or adjective? If you are a native English speaker I bet you guessed it is an adjective because it feels so descriptive. It is actually a noun which makes it even cooler because it is a thing, it has form, it’s more than a description- it’s a slice of a moment and the Japanese have captured it with a word, naming it gives it heft.
This month our writers explore the naming of things. On the surface this topic feels flat but it is anything but. Naming is the first act bestowed upon us when we are born. Attaching words to things, people and emotions is how we find our place in the world and give form to our experiences. In fact, naming is such serious business that many countries have regulations regarding naming. In Mexico, in the state of Sonora, the name Hermione is banned, as is the name Robocop. Sarah is a banned name in Morocco, although without the ‘h’ it is permissible. Linda is banned in Saudi Arabia due to its association with Western culture.
Names have so much power. In Harry Potter there is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Judaism avoids mentioning G-d other than when reading the torah. This is because he is thought to transcend the word as no word can capture the essence of G-d.
And for when you start forgetting the names of things or people, the Hawaiian language has Pana Po’o – the act of scratching your head in an attempt to remember something you’ve forgotten.
See you next month,
By Randy Jackson
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet professes her love for Romeo despite the underlying feud between their families, by saying: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In saying this, Juliet expresses the notion that the name of something is of less importance than the underlying thing the name is referring to. This might be true for the beloved Romeo, he would still be the person Juliet loved even if his family name (Montague) were something else. But if names, more broadly words, have little to no meaning in relation to that which the word is referring to, then what of mantras, prayers, or even magic spells? Would any choice of words get the same results?
“Abracadabra” is a word we are all familiar with. In modern times, this word is associated with a campy version of magic, as when a rabbit is pulled from a hat. But its origin is far more serious. “Abracadabra” was first recorded in the Liber Medicinalis (Medical Book) by Serenus Sammonicus, a tutor and physician to the Roman Emperor, Geta (Publius Septimius Geta), around 200 CE. It was a medical incantation to cure certain illnesses. The treatment involved intoning “abracadabra” while inscribing it so that it could be worn as an amulet for eleven days which, it was believed, would cure the patient.
There is some thought that “abracadabra” is much older, handed down from the Aramaic (as early as the 11th century BC) to Hebrew; in that scenario, it would be roughly translated as “It will be created in my words,” “I create what I speak,” or perhaps – in the Hebrew – “It came to pass as it was spoken”; in any event, all the meanings had to do with the connection between the word and the creation of a reality. Indeeed, the word was still being used in the 13th century, inscribed above London doorways to ward off the plague.
In today’s world, the notion that words or sounds have some power to affect physical reality seems ludicrous to many. But this, I think, is shortsighted. To start, one would have to dismiss the solid research on the placebo effect, which, according to Harvard Medical School’s online magazine Harvard Health (2021) can range between 30% and 60% effective in a certain range of conditions. If the placebo effect is to “work,” the patient has to believe they are receiving treatment. To me, it doesn’t seem that much of a leap from someone receiving an amulet with “abracadabra” written on it in the 3rd century to a patient today who receives a sugar pill from a doctor in a white coat.
“Abracadabra” had particular meaning(s), based on the context, in the distant past, but it has a different meaning to us today. It is the meaning of a word to the person who hears it that fastens a name to an object (or concept) it refers to. In the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), author Walter M. Miller, Jr., describes a post-apocalyptic world where monks study an artifact for its spiritual significance. This artifact is in fact a contemporary grocery shopping list: “Pound Pastrami” has a different meaning after a nuclear holocaust than it would have had to a sandwich maker in 1959.
So, what’s in a name?
Our meaning of things. Romeo Montague is the guy Juliet loves, a rose is a beautiful flower with a delightful scent, and Sarah Palin™ (yup, she trademarked her name), is, well, Sarah Palin. Names hold our understanding of the objects they represent. Although it is possible to talk about names as being separate from the object or concepts they represent, we cannot talk about an object without using “its” name. Names (with the help of a few other types of words, like verbs) are how we transmit our thoughts to others. So … there’s a LOT in a name.
Then there’s the universal meditation mantra of “OM” (pronounced ah-uu-mm). Not a name per se, but it is still a sound we make to express something. “OM” is thus in a different category of sounds we make than those we call “names” or “words.” Names/words are the sounds we make to collectively understand the structure of our world. This is a “rock,” that is a “cup,” and we call that guy “Romeo.” “OM” is different. It is our imitation of a sound that in most Eastern religions is thought to represent the sound of the universe. By our vocalization of this sound, we seek something beyond the collective understanding of our structured world view.
Through our meanings of names like “rock,” “cup,” and “Romeo,” we lock down the structure of our perceived world, creating our reality. “OM” and other mantras are our attempt to reach beyond our reality, to understand something more. How could we puny humans with a bit of air passing over our vocal cords vibrate the sound of the universe? Well, maybe that’s all we’ve got. We use our vocal cords to name, structure, and communicate our reality, so why not use it to call upon the universe? Then to answer Juliet’s question about what’s in a name – everything, Juliet, everything.
By Carole Reedy
Myriad factors enter into the success and sales of a book: the popularity and marketing reach of the author, the book’s jacket and design, the reviews, length, friends’ recommendations, and, of course, the subject, style, and focus.
Add to that list the title of the book.
Authors generally prefer to create their own titles, but since publishers take part in the financial risk and success of the book, they, too, have input. Based on market research, a publisher may have a better insight into reader expectations than the author. Of course, a well-established, proven-popular author may have more influence in the final decision than an unknown writer.
Authors themselves may change their title decisions as the process of publication proceeds. Usually, the author starts with a working title but is certainly not wedded to it. Books go through several metamorphoses before the final sentence is penned, so honing the working title is likely.
Titles can reflect the subject and general ambience of a book. They can be clever, funny, explanatory, or express a feeling. The title is the first thing a reader sees or hears and is significant in swaying a reader to purchase and read a book.
To understand the process of choosing a title, let’s look at actual titles of famous novels to understand how they were named and even re-named.
Often authors derive their titles from other sources familiar to their readers. The most popular seem to be the Bible, Shakespeare, poetry, popular phrases within or outside the book, or the names of particular characters. The idea is to attract attention to the book by conveying the essence of the book and the intentions of author in a succinct phrase.
Inspired by the Bible
The Grapes of Wrath, the title of John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is a reference to a passage in the Book of Revelations that reads, “So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.”
The title is also a phrase from the first stanza of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the lyrics penned by Julia Ward Howe in 1861 to what was until then a military marching song called “John Brown’s Body.”
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.
The title was suggested by Steinbeck’s wife Carol, and the author deemed it a worthy choice.
The title East of Eden, another Steinbeck novel (1952), is a symbolic re-creation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel woven into a history of California’s Salinas Valley, a popular location for Steinbeck’s novels. The title refers to Genesis 4:16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden” (King James Version).
Inspired by Shakespeare
The title Remembrance of Things Past, the approximately 1,250,000-word novel by Marcel Proust, could also fall into our “Inspired by Poetry” category below. The first English translation of the title (by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, 1922) was derived from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Proust wrote his 1913 seven-volume masterpiece in French, with the title À la recherche du temps perdu, which more directly translates into In Search of Lost Time. Proust did not approve of Moncrieff’s, title although he made no attempt to change it. He felt it did not accurately convey his intended meaning of memory as involuntary rather than voluntary. Proust did, however, praise Moncrieff’s translation of the first volume, Swann’s Way, possibly the only praise he ever handed out to a translator of his works.
The working title David Foster Wallace originally used for his thousand-page magnum opus Infinite Jest (1996) was A Failed Entertainment. The novel is partly based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the ultimate title refers to Act V, Scene 1, when Hamlet holds up the skull of the court jester Yorick and says
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962; film version 1983) is a dark fantasy novel featuring two 13-year-old best friends and their nightmarish experience with a carnival. The title is taken from MacBeth Act 4, Scene 1, when the witches predict the outcome of the play:
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
A most appropriate title for Bradbury’s novel, as it teeters between fantasy and horror. On his 80th birthday, Bradbury enjoyed the writing process as much as ever before. “The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me. The feeling I have every day is very much the same as it was when I was 12.”
Inspired by Character Names
J.K. Rowling named the first book of her blockbuster Harry Potter series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Scholastic, the publisher, felt children might reject a book with the word “philosopher” in the title and changed it to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998).
The Great Gatsby (1925) was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg by the author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The publisher thought the title too obscure (Trimalchio was a character in the Satyricon of Petronius, a Roman writer in the late 1st century CE), and suggested a change. All agreed, and the book came to become one of the most beloved pieces of American literature.
Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The perfect title for this classic stream-of-conscious masterpiece written by Virginia Woolf, which takes place one day in 1923 in the life of the title character. The working title for the book was The Hours.
Fifty years later author Michael Cunningham wrote a highly regarded novel with exactly that title. It relates the stories of three different women – Virginia Woolf, on the day in 1923 she starts writing Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown, a depressed American housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949; and Clarissa Vaughn, who (sometime in the 1980s or 90s) is hosting a party to celebrate her friend Richard, a poet and novelist who has just received a lifetime achievement award but is dying of AIDS.
The film The Hours, starring Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn, came out in 2002 (a British film titled Mrs. Dalloway was released in 1997, is a faithful retelling of the book and starred Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway); The Hours was turned into an opera by composer Kevin Puts; it debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in November 2022.
Charles Dickens (1812-70) is known for colorful characters in his trove of novels and writings. His unique style incorporated linguistic technique to invent characters whose actions were reflected in their names (Mr. Bumble, Scrooge).
In all, Dickens created 989 characters, and many more individuals, for his books. No wonder he titled many of his works with the main character. Among those are some of his most beloved works: Nicolas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, Little Dorrit, Barnaby Rudge, and Edwin Drood.
Inspired by Phrases (often from the text of the book) and/or general theme
Ayn Rand at first chose the title The Strike for her monumental classic novel Atlas Shrugged (1957), her last and longest book and one she considered her magnum opus. However, she thought perhaps that title revealed too much. Her husband actually suggested the title we know, which refers to a conversation between two of her characters. One personage notes that the greater the effort Atlas made, the heavier the world became and the best one can do is “to shrug.”
Faith Martin’s DI Hillary Greene series, about a British detective who lives on a narrowboat, originally had “Narrow” in all the titles: A Narrow Escape, On the Straight and Narrow, Narrow Is the Way, etc., but the titles were changed when a new publisher took over. In place of “Narrow,” the word “Murder” was used to reassure the readers they were getting a murder mystery (Murder on the Oxford Canal , Murder of the Bride , etc.) The new titles seem to be selling better than the originals.
Inspired by Poetry
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934; film version 1962, TV mini-series 1985), is the fourth and final novel by the formidable jazz-age writer. It was not well-received by critics at the time, but time proved them wrong. The title comes from John Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale”:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874; film versions, 1967, 2015, among others) bears a title drawn from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750), which was inspired at least in part by the death of the poet Richard West in 1742:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
In a review of the 2015 film (The Guardian, April 15, 2014), British writer and journalist Lucasta Miller tells us that the title of the book is an ironic literary joke; in his poem, Gray is idealizing noiseless and sequestered calm, whereas Hardy “disrupts the idyll, and not just by introducing the sound and fury of an extreme plot … he is out to subvert his readers’ complacency.” (Note that “madding” means “frenzied” in this context.)
When the Title Comes First
Many authors have the title for their book ready before they start writing. In the words of Jhumpa Lahiri, “Interpreter of Maladies is the title of one of the stories in the book of the same name. And the phrase itself was something I thought of before I even wrote that story.” Beloved Irish author Frank McCourt is supposed to have said – perhaps about his memoir Angela’s Ashes (1996; film version 1999), “I think I settled on the title before I ever wrote the book.”
To close on a lighter note, here’s a quote from everyone’s favorite humor writer, Dave Barry: “It isn’t easy, coming up with book titles. A lot of the really good ones are taken. Thin Thighs in 30 Days, for example. Also, The Bible.”
By Brooke O’Connor
When I think of traditional Mexican music, I think of mariachi bands, brass instruments, and loud emotional singalongs. Although fun, they are not the original music from Mexico.
What We Know about Pre-Hispanic Music
Until recently, pre-Hispanic music was believed to be basic and pentatonic (based on a five-note scale). In 1940, for example, the Museum of Modern Art staged a major exhibition of Mexican art; as a “sideshow” to the exhibition, Carlos Chavez, Mexico’s best-known composer/conductor, led a performance of what he called Xochi-pili-Macuilxochitl after the Aztec god of music, claiming that it was a reconstruction of Aztec music. With “all the proof” for the reconstruction being the instruments in the Mexican National Museum and the “crude” illustrations in Friar Bernardino Sahagún’s Florentine Codex (1575-77), Time Magazine was doubtful that what sounded like an “Aztec jam session” represented the real thing: “Flutes and pipes shrilled and wailed, a trombone (subbing for the snail shell) neighed an angular melody, to the spine-tingling thump-and-throb of drums, gourds, rattles. Xochipili-Macuil-xochitl sounded almost as primitive as Stravinsky.”
Despite Time’s outdated prejudices, their skepticism was probably justified. Archeologists and ethnomusicologists have discovered a diversity of instruments – whistles, vessel flutes (ocarinas), conch shells, wood, reed or bone flutes, rainsticks, stone marimbas, stringed instruments and more. Drums were made of hollow wooden cylinders. The huéhuetl was a vertical drum with a skin top, played with bare hands. The teponaztli was horizontal in form, played with a mallet, and had slits that varied the tone. We know these instruments created a variety of tones and they used a diatonic scale (the familiar seven-tone scale), polyphony (part singing and call-and-response), and microtonality (musical intervals smaller than a half-tone). In other words, they were quite sophisticated. It wasn’t just a primitive melody.
Pre-Hispanic Instruments and Their Sounds
Some archeological finds in museums can still be played today. Particularly notable is a triple clay flute found in the Hidalgo region. Unlike most flutes where you use a finger to alternately cover holes, creating different notes, this flute has a piston to modify the airflow.
Near Michoacán, they found whistles made of wood or bone, which were placed inside the mouth. A hunter would hold it between the teeth and the lips and be used to call animals.
We know from murals in the Mayan region, in particular those in the ruins of Bonampak in Chiapas, as well as Mayan vase paintings, there were trumpets – made of wood, clay, or gourds – as tall as the people blowing them. The murals of Bonampak date from the end of the 8th century; in three separate rooms, they depict the rule of King Chan Muán (reigned 776-c. 795) tells us quite a lot about Mayan music, with richly attired musicians, playing a variety of instruments, accompanying the king in procession.
From the Florentine Codex, we also know that Aztec palaces hosted a space for court musicians, the Mixcoacalli (House of The Cloud Serpent), a multi-room space where musicians could practice, build and store instruments, and generally be at the beck and call of the tlatoani (Aztec leader).
It has not been determined what pre-Hispanic music sounded like. However, found artifacts, and references to music in indigenous languages, can give us some insight. Many people in the state of Oaxaca are reviving the memory of ancient tunes. Thus, what is now called pre-Hispanic music, is musical imagination or improvisation with ancient instruments. Though not a complete view, it brings us closer to how music may have sounded in pre-Hispanic times.
The “Day the Music Died”
In Aztec culture, music and dance were considered acceptable gifts to the gods and common practice in day-to-day lives, for commoners and royalty alike. Music was a central focus at parties, preparing for war, obtaining health, ensuring good harvests, asking for rains, and preparing for conquests. Voices were also considered an important component of ritual music.
Musical instruments were boldly decorated and carved according to their musical message. According to the Spanish conquerors, the music was powerful and impressive. This, however, did not prevent them from “killing all the musicians.”
The 20-day month of Toxcatl (approximately May), comprised a feast in honor of the god Tēzcatlipōca, which ended with a celebration and human sacrifice. On May 22, 1520, as Toxcatl was drawing to a close, the Spanish, led by Deputy Governor Pedro de Alvarado, entered the hall and “attacked the musicians first, slashing at their hands and faces until they had killed all of them. The singers – and even the spectators – were also killed. This slaughter in the Sacred Patio went on for three hours” (from an account collected in Miguel León-Portilla (1926-2019), The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston, MA: English editions 1962 – 2006). None of the Aztecs were armed in any way.
Cortés had been off fighting some rival Spaniards, but he was allowed to return to the Mexican capital in peace. A day later, however, the Aztecs attacked; the war ended a year later – Cortés took the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, on May 22, 1521. Within 50 years Mayan and Aztec temples were destroyed, and the priests, noblemen, and musicians were annihilated. Soon after, there was a school formed in Mexico City to teach a new form of music brought from Europe. This music taught reading from notes, using stringed instruments, and singing in parts. These songs sang praises to Catholic saints, while paganism and all its forms of practice were outlawed.
And What IS the Pre-Hispanic Sound?
In the years that followed, every part of Mexico was pulled into submission, and Spanish music and practices supplanted the native ones. However, in remote areas, there were tribes who refused to conform. They kept some form of worship and integrated their traditional music. We can still see the result of that in some modern-day rituals.
Many pagan and Christian holidays were merged culturally, including music and musical instruments. Some pagan rites were renamed with Roman nomenclature. Or some tribes added Christian gods to their list of gods.
Even today, we can clearly see two sets of holidays practiced by the Huichols of Jalisco. Their ceremonial life is a blend of pagan holy days and Christian rites. During the pagan holidays, more traditional music is played, while on Christian holidays there are violins and strings, a clear reminder of the Spanish. Chiapas also has a similar history, where stringed instruments accompany native songs.
In recent years, there’s been a revival of indigenous practices, culture, and music. Many Mexican musicians have blended flute and drumming into modern scores. But don’t be fooled. The guy standing on the corner with a three-part reed flute and a boom box is playing for the tourist’s ears, and not the indigenous ones. We can appreciate that as its own kind of fusion music.
If you’re interested in learning more:
Kathryn Goldberg’s senior thesis, submitted to Haverford College in 2018, ‘Music and Meaning in Three Zapotec Songs’ (https://scholarship.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/bitstream/handle/10066/20794/2018GoldbergK.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y).
Linguistic anthropologist professor David Tavárez of Vassar College, “Nicachi Songs: Zapotec Ritual Texts and Postclassic Ritual Knowledge in Colonial Oaxaca”
Want to listen?
Antonio Zepeda is a musician and composer of music for pre-Hispanic and traditional musical instruments. According to online music service Last.fm, “Inspired by the sonority of pre-Hispanic musical instruments such as drums, flutes, rattles, water drums, turtle shells, conch shells, ocarinas, clay pots, and log drums, he re-creates with them the mystical ambiance smothered by the dust of history”