Category Archives: Collection Spotlight

Collection Spotlight: Give War and Peace a Chance, by Andrew D. Kaufman

Reviewed by Harold Henkel, Associate Librarian

“To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s
sufferings, in undeserved sufferings.” (from Pierre Bezukhov’s dream in War and Peace)

Something must be in the air. In the past two years, three journalists and scholars have written books with the intention of convincing readers to tackle what are perhaps the three most formidable novels of the nineteenth century: Moby Dick1, Middlemarch2, and War and Peace3. The common thread in this approach to criticism is that reading great works of literature is not an exercise in self-abnegation, but a journey of discovery, and an enjoyable one at that.

The most recent of these worthy efforts is Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, by Andrew Kaufman. Kaufman is Lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia. In 2009, he served as a sort of “scholar in residence” for Regent’s Big Read, conducting workshops and delivering the culminating lecture of the Library’s Tolstoy festival.

Give War and Peace a Chance comes three years after Kaufman’s scholarly monograph Understanding Tolstoy and is the fruit of the author’s desire to reach a wider readership. The book is quite a hybrid work, weaving elements of biography, critical analysis, philosophy, and memoir. In twelve chapters, Kaufman takes us on an excursion through the fundamental elements that form our lives, such as happiness, love, family, and death. He explains how these themes operated in Tolstoy’s life and how he gave expression to them in War and Peace.

Along the way, Kaufman also shares episodes from his own life to illustrate how works like War and Peace help us make sense of lives. Some readers might object to the author including his personal story into a book on Tolstoy, but for my part, Kaufman’s accounts of falling in love as a student with Natasha Rostova, or his grief as an adult at the death of a beloved kitten, illustrate the dual refraction that takes place when we read literature. Our temperament and past experiences combine to form our interpretation of a work, but books like War and Peace ultimately change us by enhancing our understanding of ourselves and compassion for others.

At the end of the introduction, Kaufman quotes Tolstoy’s explanation, written during the composition of War and Peace, of his philosophy of art: “The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” These words also appear movingly in Kaufman’s dedication of the book to his wife and son and encapsulate what he considers to be the ultimate reward awaiting readers who give War and Peace a chance.


1Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (New York: Penguin, 2013).

2Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (New York: Crown, 2014).

3Andrew D. Kaufman, Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, by Robert Alter Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

Reviewed by Dr. Carrie White

Directly or indirectly, the thoughts, actions, and lives of generations of Americans have been influenced by the Bible. Many of the laws, customs, and traditions of American society are based on Scriptural tenets. Robert Alter, in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, suggests that the Bible, specifically the 1611 King James translation, has also affected the literary styles of American authors. Alter examines “how the language of the King James Version is worked into the texture of the writing, making possible a kind of strong prose that would not have existed otherwise.”

Alter believes, and I agree, that emphasis on style is lost in today’s world for several reasons: first, because we read less, watch television more, and write primarily in texts and to-do lists; second, because the line between popular and literary prose has become blurred; third, because today’s critics do not have the language or the experience to argue convincingly about style; fourth, because literary criticism focuses on discourse and ideology; and finally, because novels are comprised of many different aspects, including “events, individual character, relationships, institutions, social forces, historical movements, [and] material culture,” all of which marginalize discussions of style. Alter says that today, “the practice of reading the Bible aloud, of reading the Bible at all, and of memorizing passages from the Bible has drastically diminished.” Nevertheless, because of its omnipresence and overreaching influence in early American society, not only have the stylistic particularities of the KJV lived on, but novelists, wittingly or unwittingly, have used its resources “to fashion different versions of a distinctive American style for prose fiction.”

Alter primarily uses Melville’s Moby Dick, Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom, Bellow’s Seize the Day, and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to prove his thesis. Melville begins the American tradition “of violating linguistic decorum with the greatest gusto” by creating “a language for the novel out of violently heterogeneous elements,” namely Milton, Shakespeare, colloquial Yankee diction, and the KJV. Alter sees the KJV’s influence in Melville’s use both of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words and of parataxis, the stringing together of parallel phrases with the word “and.” Alter gives the language used to describe Rebekah at the well as an example of both stylistic expressions: “And she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels” (Genesis 24:20). Next, although the study concerns style and not content, Alter discusses the Biblical allusions and parallels in Absalom, Absalom. His argument about style boils down to a list of words and phrases, for instance, “dust and clay” and “flesh and blood, flesh and bones,” that Faulkner uses in ways reminiscent of the KJV. Finally, Alter says that Bellow’s and Hemingway’s habit of presenting “narrative data in ways that allow them to speak for themselves, without a sense of elaborate literary mediation, without an obtrusive feeling of language calling attention to itself” also derives from the KJV. Both Hemingway and Bellow use parataxis, with its “refusal to spell out causal connections, to interpret the reported narrative data” and with its avoidance of characters’ feelings in ways similar to the KJV. He finishes the book with briefer discussions of Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.

Alter’s study shows an impressive facility with the material. His analyses of individual passages in all the texts are quite detailed. However, at times the text seems to apologize for its thesis: “Perhaps Hemingway would have devised this kind of style without having read a word of the Bible”; and “I do not mean to claim that [Bellow] was consciously imitating the Bible in this project but simply that he had internalized something of its dignified, even stark, simplicity of diction”; and “Faulkner’s deep engagement in the Bible . . . is well known, but whether it impinged on the extravagantly idiosyncratic texture of his writing is not altogether clear.” Also, in several sections, Alter appears to conflate the Bible in general with the KJV in particular; some of his points are not specific to the KJV and could apply to any translation of the Bible, although he specifically sets out to prove the influence of the KJV.

Despite these reservations, the study is interesting, and leaves the reader with much to ponder about stylistic influence—indeed, about influence in general. For instance, although most of the authors discussed in Pen of Iron use the language of the Bible to subvert the lessons of the Bible, the Bible nevertheless shaped their “distinctly American constructions of reality” because of its prominence in early American society. In other words, these writers absorbed the Bible’s worldview, even if they did not adopt it. Extrapolating from this conclusion makes contemporary society’s ignorance of and apathy towards Scripture all the more frightening: People can’t absorb something—whether to accept or reject—if it’s not a part of their lives.

Dr. Carrie White is Associate Professor of English and Communication Arts in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Collection Spotlight — Style

by F. L. Lucas. (Petersfield, Hampshire, Great Britain: Harriman House, 2012), 263 pages, ISBN 978-0-85719-187-8

Reviewed by Harold Henkel, Associate Librarian

“I would say to [William] Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: ‘Read over your compositions and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'”—Samuel Johnson

In June 2011, the New Criterion published a review by Joseph Epstein of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.1 Finding not a single thing to commend Professor Fish’s book, Epstein, by way of comparison, turned to a better guide, Style, by F. L. Lucas (1894 – 1967), originally published in 1955 and out of print since 1974. According to Epstein, Lucas “wrote the best book on prose composition for the not-so-simple reason that, in the modern era, he was the smartest, most cultivated man to turn his energies to the task.” Epstein’s accolade apparently awakened considerable interest in Lucas’s book, with the happy result that in 2012, Style was again in print in a high-quality paperback edition.

Style is not a guidebook, and it cannot be perused for writing tips. Written towards the end of his life, Lucas’s book is an aesthetic and even moral testament by one of the most distinguished scholars and men of letters of his generation.

The idea at the center of Style is that character is the foundation of good writing. “Therefore, if you wish your writing to seem good, your character must seem at least partly so. And since in the long run deception is likely to be found out, your character had better not only seem good, but be it … Authors may sell their books, but they give themselves away.” Now for a modern, secular audience, this is a radical, even subversive idea, but Lucas is relentless in defending his thesis, bringing in, among many others, Aristotle (“To carry conviction, a speaker needs three qualities … good sense, good character, and good will towards his hearers”) and Socrates (“As a man is, so is his speech”).2

If character is the foundation of style, what moral qualities of authors are revealed in their writing? Lucas devotes a chapter each to six:

  1. Clarity
  2. Brevity and Variety
  3. Urbanity and Simplicity
  4. Good Humor and Gaiety
  5. Good Sense and Sincerity
  6. Good Health and Vitality
    1. What makes Style so lively and enjoyable is the combination of Lucas’s graceful erudition (in this, he resembles his contemporary, C.S. Lewis) and his examples from literature, culled from a lifetime of reading. Here to give some flavor of his thought are three examples:

      1. On Clarity: “…in the first century of the Roman Empire, Quintilian mocks at the obscurantism fashionable in his day: ‘We think ourselves geniuses if it takes genius to understand us.’”
      2. On Brevity: After giving several examples of classical haiku, including the exquisite “A butterfly sleeps on the village bell,” Lucas muses, “A Japanese writer in this form, contemporary with Milton, Yasuhara Teishitsu, for the sake of posterity destroyed all his poems but three. There was brevity indeed!”
      3. On Humor: Gibbon on Gordian II (c. 192 – c. 238): “His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested to the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions he left behind him, it appears that both the one and the other were designed for use rather than ostentation.”
        1. Lucas is not a museum curator, dusting marble statues for our admiration. He is a reader, fully engaged with the authors he is reading. When Swift, for example, writes “Proper words in proper places makes the true definition of style,” we lesser readers would consider this an epigram to commit to memory. But Lucas will have none of it: “One might as well define good talk as proper remarks in proper places; or the good life as proper conduct on proper occasions.”

          For anyone who takes words seriously and wishes to write (or read) better, I can think of two additional reasons to commend this book. The first is that an occasional scrubbing-down regarding our pretensions to wide-reading and culture is good for all of us. To return to character, Lucas writes, “It is, I believe, personality above all that sets Virgil and Horace higher than Catullus and Ovid: Chaucer than Dryden; Shakespeare than his contemporaries.” As Joseph Epstein remarks about a similar judgment, “Pause a moment to consider the wide reading required to have written that last sentence.” The second reason is that, like C.S. Lewis, Lucas is a most amiable companion who shares hard-won learning lightly and without pretense. Also like Lewis, he is a scholar who views wisdom as the true purpose of learning:

          “It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they have inherited from their faiths, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us, and to be forgotten, when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not wholly governed by its ‘stars.’”


          1Joseph Epstein, “Heavy Sentences,” The New Criterion 29, no. 10 (June 2011): 4-8. Available from Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.

          2Cf. Luke 6:45:  “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”

Collection Spotlight—A Christian Woman’s Secret: A Modern-Day Journey to God

A Christian Woman’s Secret: A Modern-Day Journey to God
by Lilian Staveley, edited by Joseph A. Fitzgerald, foreword by Phillip Zaleski. (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008), 144 pages, ISBN 978-1-933316-58-1

Reviewed by Mara Lief Crabtree, DMin, OSL

Lilian Bowdoin Staveley, (1878-1928), published three accounts of her spiritual life: The Prodigal Returns, The Romance of the Soul, and The Golden Fountain or, the Soul’s Love for God: Being Some Thoughts and Confessions of one of His Lovers. Staveley’s spiritual journey speaks to the serious scholar of the Christian mystical life and theology as well as to others who desire a rich spiritual life and the practice of contemplation. Her writing is especially meaningful to Christians not called to the vocation of a cloistered life, but rather to outward, public responsibilities requiring daily engagement with family, local community and the wider world. Staveley provides a clear example that authentic contemplative life is also a fully practical life. Her model of spiritual life evidences that the mundane aspects of everyday engagement with practical matters fit within the call to contemplation and are inclusive to a life of prayer—not outside of it.

Staveley, a British citizen, was raised in a privileged and wealthy family with a heritage, on both sides of her family, descending from the Huguenots of French nobility. She grew up during an age when the emerging faith in scientific, rather than spiritual solutions to life’s needs, became prominent. Although Lilian attended Anglican services, her early life was not fully awakened to the possibility of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It was not until the end of World War I that Lilian brought to John M. Watkins, London, her first manuscript for publication, yet insisted upon anonymity in view of her very pubic social standing. Staveley’s autobiography, expressed in The Prodigal Returns and in her other books, is atypical of some historical examples of Christian women mystics, in that she did not seek vocational affiliation with a religious order. Although her accounts of spiritual life contain only brief mention of specific religious traditions or denominations, she recounts one of her earliest significant experiences in a traditional Christian context:

We went to one of the great ceremonies in the Vatican: we had seats in the Sistine Chapel . . . as [the Pope] came slowly along he raised his hand in a general blessing upon the multitude. As he came nearer I saw the delicate ivory face—the great dark eyes shining with a fire I had never seen before. For the first time in my life I saw holiness. I was moved to the depths of my being. Something in my gaze arrested his attention . . . and leaning over me, he blessed me individually—a very great concession during a large public ceremony. There was no longer anything anywhere in the world but Holiness—and my enraptured soul. Holiness then, was far beyond the beautiful, I had not known this until I saw it before me (7).

She also describes the dimensions and events of her outward life: marriage to a prominent military figure, Brigadier General William Cathcart Staveley, and the daily responsibilities of her social station in life. Staveley has been characterized as “a hidden saint” due to the nature of her life which required engagement in all the normal responsibilities of daily existence in society while inwardly committed to a constant, passionate pursuit of God. The formation of Staveley’s spiritual life, concomitant with the formation of her marriage relationship and social life, instructs and encourages those Christians called to the milieu of social, public vocations “in the world” yet who desire an authentic, inward spiritual life that is “not of the world”.

Lilian expresses, with honesty and in detail, her spiritual autobiography beginning with the pre-Christian years of her youth. Staveley’s narrative of faith follows the classic pattern of formation common to other mystics. She recounts her understanding of the stages of spiritual awakening, purgation, illumination in truth, and her sense of spiritual union with God. Staveley carefully explains her struggles in the life of prayer; her experience of both the kataphatic (God revealed) and the apophatic (God concealed) aspects of her spirituality as well as the joys and tensions in the life of prayer. She does not neglect other themes that are common among Christian mystics: abandonment to God, detachment from seeking worldly possessions and happiness, the nature of ecstatic experience, the Ignatian concepts of spiritual consolation and desolation, and the tension between God’s perfection and eternal life as compared with both the joys and sufferings of temporal life.

Lilian’s faith is strongly Christocentric as well as balanced in expressing the Trinitarian reality experienced in both the development and maturing of her spiritual life. Staveley expresses her contemplative life of prayer to the Father; prayer for the purpose of desiring to seek and to know the Son. She does not neglect the Third Person of the Trinity, writing specifically of the presence and movements of the Holy Spirit as essential to her life of faith.

On becoming truly desirous of finding God it is necessary that with great persistence we pray to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ that He will give us to Jesus Christ and fill the heart and mind with love for Christ. Only through Jesus Christ can we find the God head . . . The soul is awakened, revived, re-glorified by Grace of Jesus Christ; and the Holy Spirit effects the repentance and conversion of the heart and mind, for without this conversion towards a spiritual life the soul remains in bondage to the unconverted creature (13).

Staveley’s narrative expressing her journey of spiritual formation, conformation and transformation through her relationship with Jesus Christ is a profoundly meaningful and valuable contribution to her readers. As common in personal narratives of mystical Christianity, Staveley recounts that during a season of intense crisis preceded by a traumatic event, she was drawn to a more intimate relationship with Christ. During ten years of “almost unendurable” suffering, the result of being struck by lightning in Africa, Lilian noticed a change in her husband’s love and was “deeply pained, almost horrified by this revelation of the natural imperfection of human love” (12). It was this revelation that led her to reflect deeply on the true nature of Jesus’ love: “I began to know that nothing less than His perfect love could satisfy me. In this illness I was tremendously alone.” (12). At the age of 36 she “commenced to meditate upon the life and the character and the love of Jesus Christ. Gradually He became for me a secret Mind-Companion” (12).

Perhaps Staveley’s most moving revelation is her doxological expression of love for Christ: a relationship that is both worshipful and orthodox in understanding the Savior’s completed work of salvation. In this, her writing also evidences an evangelistic tone. She reveals a balanced understanding of the Christian life: the presence of both joys and sufferings as normative to the spiritual journey:

The point to remember here is this, that whether we follow Christ or no we shall have woes; if we forsake him, we are not rid of woes, if we follow Him, we are not rid of woes –not yet . . . Christ leads through the woe, because it is the shortest way. The unguided soul wanders beside the woe, hating and fearing it, unable to rid herself of it, gaining nothing by it, suffering in vain, and no Companion comes to ease the burdens with His company (35).

Staveley recognizes the reality of spiritual struggle in the life of contemplation, asserting that “The Spirit of Christ easily overcomes every spirit, every evil, every fear, and in order to ourselves overcome all things, we need to unite with the Spirit of Jesus Christ by concentrating upon Him with love and ignoring spiritual obstructions”(40). She embraces the common practice of the mystics in viewing “the key to progress” in the contemplative life as:

. . . a continual dressing of the will and mind and heart towards God, best brought about by continually filling the heart and mind with beautiful, grateful and loving thoughts of Him. At all stages of progress the thoughts persistently fly away to other things in the near and visible world, and we have need quietly and perpetually to pick them up and re-center them on Him (133).

The holiness of the mystics is often revealed in their limitations and imperfections; in their struggles to understand and interpret the Scriptures. These weaknesses reveal the treasure of God existing, as St. Paul explained, in imperfect “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7). For example, Staveley asserts her concern with a perceived prejudice of some toward her gender: “How often I noticed . . . both in the monks of today with their averted eyes as if the shadow of a woman falling on them were pollution, and long ago, Paul, and Peter also, and Moses, and many others, showed surprising weakness of intolerance and harsh judgment against Woman!” (31). In regard to gender, her commentary aligns with certain, but not all, feminist interpretations of the historical and cultural aspects of gender issues in Scripture.

Staveley’s trilogy expressing the nascency, development and continuing maturation of her spiritual life, follows closely the classic pattern of spiritual development as “noetic, transient and ineffable.” As with Evelyn Underhill, Staveley describes stages of spiritual development that align with awakening, purgation, illumination and union. The author describes the life of prayer as “the golden wedding ring between ourselves and God” (133). She distinguishes her spiritual and emotional struggles in the life of prayer moving from self-effort in petitioning to, by grace, embracing a generous surrender to God. Lilian’s surrender resulted in a lifting away of the “pain and fatigue,” the “strain and difficulty” in prayer to a place of self-giving joy in prayer. She discovered the spirit of intercession: that “God causes the soul to pray this joyous, this exquisite prayer for total strangers . . . holding them up before God for His help and His blessing” (51-52).

Although Staveley reveals little of a personal rule of life, those specific daily disciplines that are characteristic of a contemplative vocation, she explains that her prayer is:

. . . under His command; and of offering, that I come to it of my own high, passionate desire. I make upon my knees, three times a day, three short and formal prayers of humble worship as befits the creature worshipping its Ineffable and Mighty God; and for the rest of my time I sing to Him from my heart and soul, as befits the joyful lover, adoring and conversing with the Ineffable and Exquisite Beloved” (133).

Though not lacking in the intellectual and theological aspects of Christian spirituality, Lilian Staveley’s autobiographical trilogy provides a profoundly intimate, experiential account of her spiritual development and life of faith; one that provides a meaningful and encouraging message to believers desiring authentic spiritual growth.


Mara Lief Crabtree, DMin, OSL is Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation and Women’s Studies in the School of Divinity.

Online Foreign Language Software from the Library

Regent students, staff, and faculty wanting to brush-up on a foreign language or learn a new one have access to online software from the Library. Mango Languages is an innovative foreign language program that offers users several important benefits: