Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Best Book You've Never Read, Sheppard Lee

"The psychologist (I hate big words but one cannot do without them) and the metaphysician will discover in my relation some new subjects for reflection; and so perhaps will the doctor of medicine and the physiologist: but while I leave these learned gentlemen to discuss what may appear most wonderful in my revealments I am most anxious that the common reader may weigh the value of what is at least in appearance more natural, simple, comprehensible."

So begins the adventure of Sheppard Lee, a lazy property owner who discovers an ability to reanimate dead bodies with his own spirit. Through this power, Lee experiences life as a wealthy brewer, an impoverished dandy, a miserly usurer, an exploited philanthropist, and a slave, and other lifestyles of Jacksonian America. Through the body-hopping Lee, Robert Montgomery Bird creates a scathing satire of American society as brutally honest and as humorous as the best of Mark Twain, that still celebrates the depth and breadth of American character. Lee narrates with a vibrant cynicism that reminds me of Lawrence Sterne's masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Bird's talent with image and event prefigures Moby-Dick. And, in a lot of ways, there is something very Dude-like about Sheppard Lee. Originally published in 1836 Sheppard Lee is a uniquely American novel and should be a corner stone for the canon of American literature.

But the book is more than just a compelling artifact from our past. Occasionally Sheppard Lee breaks from narrating his adventures to reflect on what he has learned about society from his possessions. Lee's lessons are as wise and potent today as they were in 1836:

"It is no wonder that poverty is the father of crime, since the poor man sees himself treated on all hands like a culprit."
"In this way I have known a stock tossed up and down like a ball, while every ascent and downfall served the purpose of filling the pockets of the fraternity and emptying those of the victims."
"Why should the folly of a feudal aristocracy prevail under the shadow of a purely democratic government? It is to the stupid pride, the insensate effort at pomp and ostentation, the unconcealed contempt of labour, the determination manifested in a thousand keep the 'base mechanical' aware of the gulf between him and his betters--in a word, to the puerile vanity and stolid pride of the gentile and refined that we owe the exasperation of those classes in whose hands lie the reins of power, and who will use them for good or bad humour."
"The same arguments, varied categorically according to circumstances, convinced me that if my imperial elevation, or the notion thereof, was not sheer insanity on my own part, my doctors thought so--which was the same thing in effect."
"I can be happy or not just as I may choose to make myself."

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