The Dead One Touched Me From the Past|
by Arthur Seamans
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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
"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
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
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
"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
"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)
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
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 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.