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Portland Seminar

Dive deep into literature with a community of book lovers.


Karen Myrick
Administrative Assistant
(207) 773-5051


Portland Seminar: Past Programs

Black Boy2016: “The Outsider”

  • March 31 | Black Boy by Richard Wright
  • April 21 | Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • May 2 | Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • June 4 | Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

In concert with other MHC programming exploring the impact and reach of the 14th Amendment (submitted to the states for ratification 150 years ago), the texts of this seminar deal with both the issue of racial inequality that was the Amendment’s initial target, and the subsequent application of the Amendment to civic rights and equal protection involving sexual orientation and poverty


2015: Better Angels

  • March 19 | The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  • April 9 | The Orestia by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles
  • May 7 | Black Robe by Brian Moore
  • June 4 | 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

In his recent The Meaning of Human Existence, E. O. Wilson (he of the modest titles) makes a fresh case for the importance of the dialogue between science and the humanities. Among other reasons he gives for the need of such dialogue is our growing ability to “retrofit the human genotype” (hijacking natural selection) and the opportunity given by new insights into our evolutionary past to extend the story of humanity into what used to be pre-history.

The Better Angels cover Steven PinkerThe “Better Angels” seminar is an attempt to engage in such a dialogue, beginning with Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I suspect Pinker wanted the second part of the title to be provocative, and hope it proves so. At any rate, it is a text full of sweeping ideas drawn from evolutionary psychology, historical and archaeological records and statistics, often in the service of battering preconceptions about the history and frequency of violence. The book is interesting not simply because of his thesis, but for the entertaining compendia of human behaviors over the millennia, and for Pinker’s portrait (disturbing and encouraging in equal measure) of human potential.

The other three books (with short associated readings), while interesting reads in their own right, aim to engage in a dialogue with some of Pinker’s anatomy of human behavior in relation to violence and its “decline.” Be forewarned: I don’t know where that dialogue will go, and as in the past will rely on participants to let me know what I was thinking when I planned the seminar.

In truth, our second reading, Aeschylus’s monumental trilogy of plays, the Oresteia, would serve as ideal illustrative literature for one of Pinker’s “civilizing stages,” since it dramatizes with Greek mythology the transition from a clannish eye-for-eye cycle of vengeance to a community-based institution of justice. The scope of the Greek playwright’s imagination, pairing divine and human actors together in a cosmic drama, has been aptly compared to Michelangelo’s Sistine paintings.

Brian Moore’s novel Black Robe, set in 17th century Canada, tells the story of a French Jesuit making his way to a missionary outpost in a Huron village located several weeks of canoeing from Samuel de Champlain’s Quebec. The close quarters of canoes and camps require intimate contact with the priest’s Algonquin escorts, and are, along with the band’s encounters with the Iroquois and Hurons, Moore’s vehicle to explore and compare the functions of religion and violence in different cultures and groups. In conjunction with Black Robe we will also read short selections from historical Jesuit reports (the Jesuit “Relations”), a critique of Moore’s portrayal of Aboriginal Peoples, and a snippet of Francis Parkman’s history of the Jesuits in North America. Beresford’s 1991 movie is worth seeing.

Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave is now, like Black Robe, better known as a movie, but is equally gripping as a literary narrative. Northup recounts how he was kidnapped from upstate New York into slavery on Louisiana plantations. His story is remarkable not only for his detailed, intimate portrait of slave and slave-owner society, but also for his analysis of slavery’s effects and of institutional violence. Northup’s memoir will be paired with Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses, tying the readings not only back to the title of the seminar, but to the violence of the war that abolished U.S. slavery.

2014: Spring Break in Italy

Whether you’ve survived the icy winds of St. Petersburg, or simply endured the long nights of another Maine winter, you deserve a trip to the sunnier climes of Sicily, the Po Valley, and Naples. The trip may be fictional, but the savings are real! Led by Peter Aicher.

The Leopard book coverApril 10, 2014 The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (trans. by A. Colquhoun)

The Leopard, the only major piece of fiction written by Lampedusa, was published posthumously to great and continuing acclaim in 1958 (thanks to the backing and some controversial editing by Bassini, our next author). The novel tells the story of the Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio and his family as their aristocratic status and wealth begin to crumble and the Prince must make arrangements in the new world of a united Italy. The historical dimension of this decline, while scrupulously rendered, is filtered through Lampedusa’s remarkable style–a unique blend of sensuously depicted physicality and observations that manage to be simultaneously humorous, cynical, and compassionate.

May 8, 2014 The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani (trans. by W. Weaver)

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, published in 1962, is one of a series of novels that Bassani, drawing on his own experiences in Fascist Italy, wrote about the lives of Jewish families in Ferrara. The Finzi-Continis are one such family, intriguingly set apart from the lives of other townspeople, including more assimilated Jews, both by their rituals and the walls that surround their estate, a garden paradise on the outskirts of town. As told by a narrator looking back on his friendship with the two Finzi-Contini children, the novel is a love-story, a horticultural hymn to Italian villas, a depiction of the complex reactions to the “racial laws” in Italy, and a meditation on memory and loss.

June 5, 2014 My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (trans. by A. Goldstein)

Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend (the first of her planned Neapolitan trilogy, the second of which, The Story of a New Name, appeared in Fall 2013) chronicles the evolving, often competitive bond of two women growing up in working-class Naples. Told in retrospect by one of the women (the sensible, studious Elena Greco), the first installment covers the childhood and adolescence of the two girls.

2013: On Music: 5 Novels and an Opera

Facilitator: Peter Aicher

Location: The Atrium at Cedars, 640 Ocean Avenue, Portland

  • January 17: Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann (Vintage, 1999)
  • February 7: A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2011)
  • March 7: Song of the Lark, Willa Cather (Penguin, 1999)
  • April 4: Body and Soul, Frank Conroy (Delta, 1998)
  • May 2: The Soloist, Mark Salzman (Vintage, 1995)
  • May 23: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Richard Wagner (DVD, directed by Levine, Metropolitan Opera, 2005)

2012: Gathering by the River

Rivers have been playing a central role in literature ever since Gilgamesh, gazing down from strong-walled Uruk, saw his own mortality in the corpses floating down the Euphrates. The six works chosen for this seminar are more recent examples of the river in literature. Though all were written in English (with the possible exception of Joyce’s contribution), they explore rivers from a variety of angles, never stepping in the same one twice.

Facilitator: Peter Aicher

January 19 H.D. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Written at Walden Pond just before Thoreau began Walden and based on a two-week trip with his brother some years earlier, A Week chronicles their trip in a home-made boat from Concord, MA to Concord, NH, and back. Thoreau’s style blends sharp-eyed observations of nature with oracular meditations on history, poetry, and religion; its takes him only half of the first sentence to go from the Concord to the Nile and Euphrates.

February 9  Edward Abbey, Down the River

“Not another river trip? Yes. This time it’s the San Juan.” The river trips that are the subject of many of Abbey’s essays in this collection take place in the American West, where “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over.” On one of his river voyages, Abbey brings along and comments on the classic work of the writer who almost equaled Abbey in bad attitude: Thoreau’s Walden.

March 8  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“Traveling up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” Clearly the Congo (“a mighty big river… resembling an immense snake uncoiled”) is being asked to carry some symbolic freight in Conrad’s novel, as the narrator, a steamboat captain named Marlow, makes his way towards the darkness that is Mr. Kurtz.

April 5  Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Dillard’s meditative sensibility, exercised here while resident near a creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, is laced with scientific insights and paired with a sharp and at times shocking eye. The rivers of Thoreau, Abbey, and Conrad involve journeys and boating expeditions; Tinker Creek is rather the scene of hard-won and fleeting perceptions, and stocked with metaphysical fish.

May 3 James Dickey, Deliverance

James Dickey was better know for his poetry (Poet Laureate in 1966) until his novel Deliverance was made into a movie in 1972. In a way, Deliverance is Conrad’s river updated for urban Americans, as civilization goes savage among banjo-playing hillbillies. Four guys with contemporary problems canoe down a wild river soon to be dammed, and soon wish they hadn’t.

May 24  James Joyce, a selection (!) from Finnegans Wake

There is much that is riverine in Joyce’s last work, from the first word to the closing scene where Dublin’s River Liffey lapses into the sea. Rather than tackling the whole work or sampling various sections, we will read, and hear a recording of, the famous chapter set on the banks of the Liffey, consisting of the gossip of two washerwomen. Joyce camouflaged hundreds of references to water and rivers in this section, as in the delta-formatted opening exclamation “O tell me…” ( “eau”), but this is only the least interesting facet of his homage to the River, which also represents one of the Wake’s great archetypal characters, Anna Livia Plurabelle.

2011: Welcome to New York

One of the common themes found in writing about New York City is the existence of a multitude of different New Yorks. I suspect, however, that they all have it in for Boston. From the Introduction to The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, quoting the historian Thomas Bender : “The Puritan dream of the ‘city upon a hill’ and agrarian Jeffersoniansim [the two foundational and opposing myths of the meaning of America]…both reject the idea of difference. … Each in its own way is xenophobic, and that distances both of them from the conditions of modern life, especially as represented by the historic cosmopolitanism of New York…”

Jan. 13:  Pete Hamill, Downtown, My Manhattan (2004)

Hamill’s book contains the reflections of a veteran reporter on the streets and people of his downtown (Battery Park to Times Square). In his concern for the background of what he experiences, his narrative is interwoven with the history of Manhattan. It also introduces themes, such as nostalgia, neighborhood, the immigrant experience, and the stimulation of city life, that will run through other readings as well.

Feb. 10: H. Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street (1853); Walt Whitman, 3 poems in Poems of New York  (1860, 1856, 1888; also note the Melville poem)

Bartleby, with his signature “I would prefer not to,” is a strange character even for Melville. His story is narrated by a Wall Street lawyer, who hires Bartleby as a copyist. An almost absurdist drama unfolds when Bartleby ceases to work but refuses to leave the office (familiar as this scenario may sound). Although the story rewards numerous approaches, one of them is Melville’s take on social, urban, and economic conditions symbolized by Wall Street.

In contrast to Melville and Bartleby, Walt Whitman’s enthusiastic embrace of the city and its people seems to avoid preference altogether.

March 10: Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence (1905)

Wharton mines the urban village of New York’s elite in this tale of class and marriageability. We experience the city through the eyes of the young and conflicted Newland Archer, beginning with his engagement to May, a classic American beauty who, to the detriment of a placid betrothal, has an exotic bohemian cousin with a European past. Wharton portrays classic struggles between the sexes, old money and new, social convention and individual fulfillment.

April 7: Henry Roth, Call it Sleep (1934)

Roth’s novel chronicles three years in the life of a young Jewish boy growing up in the slums of the Lower East Side. Roth remains faithful to the gritty urban realities of this immigrant community, while experimenting with ways to capture the complexities of family life in general, and of living in two different linguistic and cultural worlds, in this case Yiddish and English, Jewish and Christian.

May 5: Joyce Johnson, Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir (1983)

Johnson (née Glassman but briefly married to the eponymous painter) is a novelist in her own right and native of the Upper West Side. The heart of her memoir is her relationship with Jack Kerouac in the late ‘50s, the time when On the Road was published and he became famous. In addition to this angle on the Beat literary scene and Kerouac’s life, Johnson explores the roles of women, not just as “minor characters” in a cultural scene that gave the serious roles to men, but as teenagers growing up in the 50s and as mothers afterwards.

June 2:  Jonathan Lethem, Fortress of Solitude (2003)

Lethem’s novel begins in the Boerum neighborhood of Brooklyn, intensely focused on the sidewalks and the rugged street-life that Dylan experiences as the one white child growing up there in the 70s. The novel (switching styles along the way) follows him and his friendship with Mingus, son of the black soul singer who moves next door, into the very different circumstances of the 90s. Race relations, parenting (oy vey!), comic books, graffiti, drugs, prison, gentrification, and especially the music of the period all figure prominently as themes and shifting cultural markers.

2010: Literary Road Trips

Wanna get away? Reserve your chair now on literary road trips. All participants must enjoy great literature; a sense of adventure is highly recommended.

Jan. 20: Ryszard Kapuscinski, Imperium

Published in 1994, Imperium gathers the celebrated Polish journalist’s writings about the Soviet empire, based on his travels there over many years. The first section begins with his boyhood memories of the Red Army’s advance into his hometown. The longest section of the book chronicles Kapuschinski’s journeys from 1989 to1991 as he witnesses the collapse of empire.

Feb. 10: Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road

The “gentlemen” of this fast-paced adventure tale are two Jewish bandits—one an axe-wielding Abyssinian, the other a melancholic Frank—who become embroiled in a dynastic dispute in the medieval kingdom of the Khazars.  Attractions of the book, in addition to intrigue, include the entertaining style and the historical setting: the Khazars were Turks who settled in the Caucasus region and adopted Judaism. The novel’s portrayal of the region’s intersection of different faiths is eye-opening.

Mar. 10: Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana

Published in 1937 and based on a journey Byron took a few years earlier, The Road to Oxiana has become a classic of travel literature, on the strength of Byron’s style and the keenness of his perceptions. For readers today, the interest of the narrative is compounded by the regions in which he travels, from Jerusalem to Bagdad, Teheran, and Afghanistan.

Mar. 31: Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another

Gellhorn built her reputation as a war-correspondent, but sees herself first and foremost as a born traveler. The book recounts some of her travels throughout the world, often in the company of a man she calls “U.C.” (for “Unwilling Companion”), aka E. Hemingway. Wherever she goes, she packs an attitude, and conveys it in a vivid and humorous style.

Apr. 28: W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

Sebald’s uncanny meditations are structured by a walking trip the narrator took through East Anglia, England. The exotic places Sebald takes us, however, are reached not on foot, but on the magic carpet of sentences that circle through history. The view is not always pretty, but the mode of conveyance lends a strange beauty to a landscape in decline.

May 26: Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Matthiessen’s journey to the mountains of Nepal is both a naturalist’s travelogue and a spiritual journey. As a naturalist, he is part of an expedition to study an elusive species of sheep and the still rarer snow leopard. The rougher part of the adventure, however, is interior, and part of the path that leads him to becoming a Zen priest.