“It is February,” Anne Carson once wrote, perhaps from within the polar vortex. “Ice is general.” By the time we get to February, the days may be getting longer, but there is a weariness to the winter. Hibernation’s novelty has long expired, and the fruits of the fall harvest are running low. On the coldest day of 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” (He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers.)
But in the middle of the month the calendar calls to break the ice with romance. We’ve settled on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine, as love’s holiday, but there’s little evidence that any of history’s St. Valentines were linked to romance until Geoffrey Chaucer, first artificer of so much in our language, joined them in his Parliament of Fowls: “on Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.” (And even he may have had an Italian St. Valentine’s festival in May, not February, in mind.) We celebrate birthdays too in February: Lincoln’s, for instance, a holiday Richard Wright chose for his first novel, Cesspool (published after his death as Lawd Today), a violent and raunchy satire of one day in the lives of a Chicago postal worker and his friends. And some authors have celebrated their own February birthdays: James Joyce asked that Ulysses be published on the day he turned forty, February 2, 1922, while Toni Morrison, one of the least autobiographical of novelists, nevertheless tucked a small hint of herself into the first page of Song of Solomon: the day the insurance agent Robert Smith announces he will fly from the cupola of Mercy Hospital is February 18, 1931, the date of Morrison’s own birth in Lorain, Ohio.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for February, full of love, birthdays, and late-winter gloom:
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Austen readers looking for a love story in the month of valentines have many choices, but her last novel, the story of an overlooked but independent woman finding love despite obstacles of her own creation, offers perhaps the most moving moment in all her work: the unexpected delivery of a love letter upon which all depends.
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Mrs. Trollope’s February arrival in the frontier town of Cincinnati (she left her future-novelist son at home in England) may have led to business disaster — the glamorous department store she struggled to build there failed — but ultimately it made her fortune, thanks to this sharp-tongued and coolly observant travelogue, a scandal in America but also a bestseller.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
There are plenty of obstacles between Bathsheba Everdene and true love in Hardy’s breakthrough novel, beginning with an idle and frolicsome Valentine’s Day joke that turns deadly serious. This being Hardy, more death follows.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892)
The third autobiography of Douglass, who chose to celebrate his unrecorded birthday on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t carry the compact power of his original 1845 slave narrative, but it’s a fascinating and ambivalent self-portrait of a half-century in the public life that was launched by that bestselling Narrative.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
Every day is more or less the same at the Buckets’ tiny ramshackle house—watery cabbage soup for dinner and the winter wind whistling through the cracks—until young Charlie Bucket finds a dollar in the snow and then a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar inviting him to appear at the Wonka factory gate on February 1 at 10 o’clock sharp.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
One of the most challenging and imaginative of love stories takes place entirely in winter, as an envoy from Earth has to learn to negotiate an ice-bound planet populated by an androgynous people who can take the role of either sex during their monthly heat.
Moortown Diary by Ted Hughes (1979)
These poems from the decade Hughes and his third wife took to farming in North Devon, the country of her birth, are journal entries hewn rough into verse, wet and wintry like the country and full of the blood and being of animals.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (1981)
February is doldrums season in the National Basketball Association, well into the slog of the schedule but still far from the urgency of the playoffs, and few have captured the everyday human business of the itinerant professional athlete better than Halberstam in his portrait of the ’79-’80 Trailblazers’ otherwise forgettable season.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (1989)
Over four Maine winters, with as much ingenuity and persistence as his intelligent subjects and an infectious excitement for the drama of the natural world — the “greatest show on earth” — Bernd Heinrich tried to solve the mystery of cooperation among these solitary birds, better known as literary symbols than as objects of study.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1996)
“By the second week in February, the city’s wholesale calendar salesmen pack up their samples and enter a state of self-induced hibernation,” begins one of the comic-strip tales in Katchor’s second Knipl collection, which celebrates the minor industries, fading establishments, and idle off-seasons of his unnamed city with a profound, if paunchy, elegance.
February House by Sherrill Tippens (2005)
Fans of literary anecdotes and surprising artistic encounters will find an embarrassment of riches in this account of the short time in the early ’40s when Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, stripper-turned-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, and others shared a Brooklyn brownstone that got its nickname because so many among them (McCullers, Auden, Jane Bowles, and house organizer George Davis) had birthdays in this month.
The park ranger wore a pannier. The side-hooped undergarment held her dress out about a half foot at each side at the hip, creating even wider girth for the already stoutish civil servant. Over the frock, she wore an apron, and over her flushed cheeks and damp curls, a white ruffled mob cap.
It was not regulation National Park Service issue, the olive uniform topped with a Smokey the Bear hat. But nor was it a dress code violation, for the date was July 8th, which all will immediately recognize as the anniversary of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Every year, Independence National Park celebrates the occasion with a dramatic re-enactment of the first reading, performed by park rangers in period costume on a bunting draped stage behind Independence Hall. The program begins with scene-setting – on this day in 1776, the mood would have been tense and uncertain. The Declaration was an act of treason for its writers and backers, a gamble that would result in either in the glory of a new country or a death warrant.
“But we’re here to encourage you to have some fun,” said the ranger at the microphone, straightening his wool brass-buttoned waist coat. “Think of this as an interactive event. Join in with cheers and with huzzahs!”
“Or join in with boos,” he added, wiping sweat from his brow. Among the thousands of people who attended the first reading, many were loyal to the British crown. He inquired whether anyone in the crowd was of British descent, (“or even Canadian”). After a beat of dead silence, he dispatched a few costumed rangers into the crowd, to play the part of the dissenters.
Among them, the ranger in a pannier.
“Long live the King!” she shouted, over the cheers, whoops and dog whistles that came during the Declaration’s first reliable applause line, we-hold-these-truths-to-be-self-evident-that-all-men-are-created-equal.
“You all shall hang!”
I should confess that I’m not a habitual attendee of historic re-enactment events. I’d only wedged myself into the crowd behind Independence Hall that day because Domestic Manners of the Americans had gotten into my head.
Domestic Manners was published in 1832, written by a British writer named Frances Trollope who had just spent four years traveling in the United States. She’d set sail enchanted with the egalitarian promise of the United States and left revolted not only by the poor state of American manners, morals, and lifestyle, but also by what she saw as American hypocrisy about equality. The book made its harsh assessments through a collection of finely observed and often hilarious sketches of everyday life, and a personal chronicle of “the general feeling of irksomeness, and fatigue of spirits, which hangs upon the memory while recalling the hours passed in American society.”
The book was an instant sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Over here, Domestic Manners sparked popular outrage, making Trollope among the first authors that Americans loved to hate. In reviews and in conversation, she was described as a harridan and a troll, and as a vulgar, improper, and silly lady.
In Britain, the book became a best seller, and it launched her writing career which would eventually include five other travel books and 34 novels.
Domestic Manners appeared poised to stand the test of time. The book was admired by her peers — Charles Dickens consulted her work during his own travels in America. It was praised by writers that followed: Mark Twain took her book with him on his Mississippi journeys, and compared the clarity and accuracy of her writing to photography. In the mid-twentieth century, scholars credited Trollope with pioneering the now-familiar approach to travel literature, which relies on vivid scenes, lively dialogue, memorable characters and a strong authorial voice. “The most justifiably famous travel book of the century,” wrote scholar Helen Heineman, in her 1969 biography of Trollope.
And yet today, neither the author nor her debut book are well known or much discussed. Frances Trollope is best remembered for giving birth to her son, the novelist Anthony.
I first read an excerpt of Domestic Manners in an out-of-print anthology of women’s travel writing. As soon as I finished, I downloaded the book. I was immediately captivated by her observations of early American behavior. There was the way men tended to sit with their legs propped up, “tossing their heels above their heads.” There were her thoughts on native eating habits: “They consume an enormous quantity of bacon.” And on table manners: “Their manner of devouring watermelon is extremely unpleasant; the huge fruit is cut into half a dozen sections, of about a foot long, and then, dripping as it is with water, applied to the mouth, from either side of which pour copious streams of the fluid, while, ever and anon, a mouthful of the hard black seeds are shot out in all directions, to the great annoyance of all within reach.”
I had to side with her inability to excuse the regular expulsion of saliva, especially when mixed with tobacco: “I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings, as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans.” And while I don’t object to anyone using my first name, I knew exactly what she meant when she described this interaction: “I am sure she intended to be a very good neighbor, but her violent intimacy made me dread pass her door; my children, including my sons she always addressed by their Christian name, excepting when she substituted to the word ‘honey.’”
That was all good fun, but what kept me thinking about the book long after I’d finished it were her more serious observations, which centered on the wide gap between American rhetoric about equality and, well, reality.
For instance, she describes an incident that took place in the slave state of Virginia, where a young slave girl owned by a neighboring family had inadvertently ingested rat poison.
“As a matter of course I took the little sufferer into my lap,” Trollope writes. “I observed a general titter among the white members of the family, while the blacks stood aloof and looked stupefied. The youngest of the [white] family…after gazing at me for a few moments in utter astonishment, exclaimed ‘My! If Mrs. Trollope has not taken her into her lap and wiped her nasty mouth! Why I would not have touched her mouth for two hundred dollars!”’ When she inquired after the girl’s health later that day, the family “burst into uncontrollable laughter. The idea of really sympathizing with the sufferings of a slave appeared to them as absurd as weeping over a calf that had been slaughtered at the butcher.”
“You will see them with one hand hoisting up the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves,” Trollope wrote. “It is impossible for any mind of common honesty not to be revolted by the contradictions in their principles and in their practice.”
Although the specifics have changed since Trollope’s day, the spirit she described is still plainly evident in current events. The 2012 presidential election, for instance, has included debates over equal access to marriage and economic opportunity, and ongoing arguments over equality for immigrants and for people of color.
Centuries of struggle, and such slow progress, to make equality a self-evident truth and not just a line we recite, in period costume, on muggy days in national parks in early July.
Before I joined the audience for the anniversary reading of the Declaration of Independence, I stopped at “The President’s House,” a new permanent exhibit in Independence Park. It was built on the footprint of the house where George Washington lived during his presidency, along with the men and women that he’d owned as slaves.
Now, it’s not exactly a secret that Washington owned slaves. But we generally think of him as “a man who fought for liberty and who came to recognize the evils of bondage, freeing his slaves in his will,” which is the description Laura Bush went with in her remarks at the recent groundbreaking ceremony for the new African American museum in D.C.
This elision glides over Washington’s personal devotion to the institution of slavery. During his presidency, he moved his enslaved servants back to Virginia several times a year so they would not achieve the greater freedom afforded by Pennsylvania state laws. And he doggedly pursued slaves that attempted escape.
“The President’s House” shares this historical counter-narrative history through recorded monologues, performed by costumed actors playing the role of African Americans in Washington’s household. These continuously play on flat screen TVs, mounted on partial brick walls marking the house’s perimeter.
While I was waiting for the reading of the Declaration to begin, I realized that every single person in the audience had to walk past the new monument – it’s directly across Market Street from the Visitor’s Center and directly in the flight path to Independence Hall. Even if they hadn’t stopped there, the walkway was close enough to hear at least a few unsettling phrases from the soundtrack: “They wouldn’t admit we were fully human… labor extracted at a terrible cost… we, too are founding fathers of the United States.”
It is a definite disruption to the patriotic, rah-rah, we-the-people vibe in Independence Park.
I thought of Frances Trollope.
I thought she would approve.
As I waited for the reading to begin, my Trollope-influenced mind began to wonder whether anyone in the audience would display any discomfort, demonstrate any recognition of irony, or even subtly squirm when “all men were created equal” was proclaimed a self-evident truth.
I knew that was highly unlikely. I mean, a well-delivered line about universal equality at a historic national park? That’s like a lead singer asking the stadium “how ya doing?”
And indeed, the only person in the crowd to indicate anything other than full approval of equality was the woman playing the role of a British loyalist – the park ranger wearing the pannier.
This leads me to this one final, and reluctant observation about Domestic Manners: there’s a good reason why it’s generally excluded from the modern canon of classic travel literature.
For after her scathing indictments the hypocrisy of American inequality, she reached a conclusion that seems strange to a modern reader: since equality isn’t working, let’s just scrap it.
She forcefully argued that the world would be far better off without equality and instead with a class-based system, ruled benevolently by the 1%. “How greatly the advantage is on the side of those are governed by the few,” she wrote, “instead of the many.”
This argument was one reason why the book was successful in England. At the moment of its publication, the country was debating legislation that would expand the right to vote beyond a tiny, wealthy, portion of the population. Trollope’s anti-equality message pleased powerful conservatives who were opposed to reform — which gave the book a broader audience than a travelogue by a female writer would have otherwise found.
This marketing advantage would have been incredibly important to Trollope. For although she presents herself as an affluent traveler having a grand American adventure, she was actually in the United States to alleviate her family’s desperate financial straits. It was only after her various ventures failed that she noticed the success of Basil Hall’s Travels in North America, a book which also passed harsh judgment on the United States. She’d kept a journal up until that point with no specific purpose, but she realized her notes were a potential gold mine. Which, indeed, they turned out to be.
Still, a political argument that ensures success at the time of publication is often what consigns a book to historic obscurity. And an argument against the very idea of equality is so far outside the mainstream today that it’s only publicly expressed at historic re-enactments — or by people who are fond of other costumes, such as those that are accessorized with white pointy hoods. This is unfortunate for many reasons, including for the way it obscures what’s enduring about Domestic Manners – the way Trollope depicts the absurdities that occur in a country whose premise is equality, and where reality continually falls well short of the mark. Although her conclusion is itself absurd, Trollope’s observations still remain wincingly accurate.