The Dead One Touched Me From the Past

by Arthur Seamans
ISBN: 1550811940

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A Review of: The Dead One Touched Me From The Past: A Walk With Writers Through The Centuries
by Shane Neilson

Art Seamans is professor emeritus of English Literature at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is also the author of the terribly-titled The Dead One Touched Me From The Past, his attempt at hybridising travel literature and bio-criticism. Seamans's book is the product of transcribing his own recently undertaken visits to the literary haunts of John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, Robbie Burns, Alfred Lord Tennyson, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Perce Bysse Shelley, Lord Byron, E.J. Pratt, Theodore Drieser, and, strangely, E. J. Pratt. Yes, Pratt.
Why did Seamans make the journeys in the first place? In the book's introduction, he explains it to his brother-in-law Glenn' thus: "I wanted to visit and photograph places significant in the lives and writing of the authors I teach." An admirable enough enterprise, but the writing that results must itself be memorable. Glen needs more than an explanation; he must become captivated in the telling, as must we. But we are not led to expect much when in the same section Seamans writes:

"I pulled the Jeep off the Interstate 10 to Business Loop 10 at Rosendale. After three hours of driving, my rear end was melted to the seat and my legs developed the early stages of rigor mortis. I unfolded myself from the wagon, grabbed my journal and a paperback, made sure I had the car keys and that the windows were closed and side doors and hatch were locked, and headed for the Western Hotel Caf. After coffee and a sandwich, I discover that my wallet is not in my trousers"

Indeed: the reader is transported to the quotidian territory of butt-cheek rigor mortis before the journey really begins. And it continues:

"I ran to the car, unlocked the door, reached behind the front seat and located the wallet. After making sure that the key was in my hand, I locked the front door, ran back to the caf, paid the bill, walked back to the car, unlocked the door and settled again into my statuesque position behind the wheel."

Are we there yet?
At its best, travel literature is able to drop the reader into foreign environs and provide the textures, tastes, sounds and sights thereof with a credible authenticity and without any of the risk, cost, or messiness involved in actually going there oneself. Perhaps the greatest attribute of travel literature is its ability to connect cultures; great travel writers reflect on the superficial differences between the host and native cultures while mordantly revealing that, underneath those differences, there remain common motivations that make us all human. In contrast, tourist literature is propaganda, pamphlets and guidebooks provided by companies seeking to sell something.
As a travel book, The Dead One Touched Me From The Past fails miserably. Seamans's people,' after all, are dead; the places are unevoked shadows projected from the barest of biographical skeletons. However, this book does succeed as tourist literature; one could use it as a guide to track down the abodes and haunts of dead white males all over the U.K. (+ Pratt's Newfoundland + Dreiser's New York.) Whole pages read like the following passage:

"My ticket to witness this how consisted of a train trip from London to Lincoln, a bus trip from Lincoln to Hagworthingham, and a hike from Hagworthingham to Somersby. Since the train arrived at Lincoln late in the afternoon, I decided to put up at the local youth hostel."
In the morning, I walked down to the bus station to find out how to get to Somersby by bus. The clerk informed me that there was no bus going to Somersby; however, the bus to Boston would pass through Hagworthingham, which was four miles away from Somersby. Only one bus a day traveled to Boston, and it would leave at eleven thirty in the morning. I would have to return on the only bus that went through Hagworthingham on the return from Boston."

This is itinerary, nothing more. Seamans expects chanting place names to substitute for the real meat of travel writing, namely investigating the humanizing aspects of geography and encompassing the intercalation of cultures.
I speculate that the reason The Dead One Touched Me From The Past was published in Canada-St. John's, Newfoundland specifically-is because E.J. Pratt's home is one of Seaman's destinations. The rest of the book is stock fare for generic undergraduate courses-the kind Seamans used to teach. Yet I wonder, sans Pratt, if the book could have been published anywhere else, for as a whole it is little more than a summary of biographical facts. Seamans's essays contain the most basic incidents of his dead writers' lives. That these writers-except for Pratt and Dreiser-form the canon of Western literature make the book especially underwhelming. That the facts are recounted melodramatically is another affront to interest. Here's Seamans's version of Tennyson's reaction to news of Byron's death:

"I saw [Tennyson] dimly beyond the arbor not prone, but kneeling towards the layered hills rising gradually to the horizon. His body was bowing before the great world's altar stairs that slope through darkness unto God. He stretched out his hands to the horizon, to the Spirit whose dwelling is the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the blue air. But rather than some vision a (sic) supernatural beauty and assurance, the chaff from the day's threshing gathered at the edge of Tennyson's mouth, and his hands grasping for life were filled with garden dirt."

I'm sure Seamans was trying to be lyrical, but such hackneyed attempts make me wonder: is this book pseudonymous and actually an intentional parody of what can be published in Canada with the flimsiest of Cancon excuses?
Further decreasing the book's appeal is it's provision of expected poems and prose passages; there's nothing unusual, and even the most unregenerate literary tourist could do without Keats's "Ode to Solitude" or Yeats's "The Second Coming."
Furthermore, the point of this book-to walk in the footsteps of great, dead writers-is often eschewed for conjectural conversations like one between Seamans, Matthew Arnold, Tom Arnold, and Arthur Hugh Clough:
"Are you sure you can afford to take the day off from your studies to go hiking in the hills and boating on the Thames?" [says Seamans]
"Tom and I can hardly escape the influence of our father, who is our teacher at rugby," said Matthew.
"He has become a sort of father to me as well as a teacher," joined in Arthur.
"My father has a broader and deeper idea of education than our teachers," Matthew spoke again. "He preached to us about character."

What is the point of such fantasized (and rather embarrassing) table-talk?
Still further, Seamans meets too many people in his travels that conform to important historical players in the lives of his dead literary quarry. For example, two Leigh Hunt-like people are happened upon in the case of the Keats essay. In the case of the Arnold essay, a latter-day "Scholar Gypsy" is discovered. Nearly every essay has a living person wrenched into a role that Seamans constructs in order to spur silly imagined conversations like the one above. It's just too convenient, an overused and cheap narrative trick.
Worse are Seamans's pointless admonishments to dead people. One egregious example comes in his essay on Keats: "If you want to become a great writer, turn down any invitations to meet this Leigh Hunt. If you happen to run into him, avoid the enchantment of Circe that he offers. Stay lonely. Retreat to the Hebrides or take a coach to the Isle of Wight or an isolated seaport in Devon." Hey Art: Keats is DEAD!
As perhaps can be divined from the title, The Dead Ones Touched Me From The Past's style is stilted, overwriten and portentous. Here is Seamans on Ruskin:

"What did seem powerful was the presence of the prophet, the magician himself. The wizard was revealed; his powers of understanding nature, the arts and society were a fraud. The pyrotechnics of his powerful language and the psychic force of his dogmatic certainty only covered his true poverty of knowledge."

Coming to the end of this paragraph, after "psychic force," "pyrotechnics ofpowerful language," and "poverty of knowledge" I have to wonder: could anyone pack more abstract, high-flown concepts into such a short passage? But when not filling his book with abstractions, Seamans reverts to clich. See if you can catch them all in this paragraph:

"Soon I saw the bridle path and debated whether to take it or the long route by the road. The temptation to take the shortcut won, and I decided to live dangerously and follow the path, knowing how tricky paths can be. The inevitable fork in the trail appeared. I carefully determined to take the one more traveled by hoping that it would make all the difference. After crossing the several sloughs of despond, I spotted a farm, a house, a church and a man. My good fortune knew no bounds."

This kind of prose makes me want to expire in a slough of despond. Worst sins have yet to come. They occur when Seamans reaches for the metaphysical:

"The chasm of night separating day from day was bridged. The light of one day's sun clasped the light of the following day's sun. The alchemy of the universe surprises those people deadened in the routines of making a go in the world. For those who stay up later than the revelers of the day, for those who read beyond the surface of word recognition not with the mind, but with the total being, that alchemy is experienced and chasms that divide one day from the next, and death from life are bridged."

Chasms' dividing one day from the next,' bridging death and life-this abracadabra is nonsense.
I admit that the poetry tourism market in Canada is uncrowded. I cannot think of another volume out there to compete with this one-though the Canadian element is supplied in the form of Pratt only. Perhaps one day we'll have books that memorialize places like a Purdy's A-frame in Ameliasburgh or the charred remnants of Malcolm Lowry's shack on Burrard Inlet. In the meantime, I recommend those interested in the Seamans's roster of dead men of letters to read the source texts and biographies. The poetry and lives are more comprehensive, the writing much better.

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