Ancient Valor and Modern Humility: A Reading of Othello

In Shakespeare’s Othello, we are whisked off to the sixteenth century cosmopolitan empire of Venice as it wrestles with the ongoing military conflict with the Ottoman Turks. The setting is the Mediterranean which serves as a backdrop for the war between the East and West, and on a much deeper level, it conveys the longstanding dispute between classical antiquity and modern culture. In the war between Venice and the Ottomans, I took note of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a particularly hard-fought naval battle where Miguel Cervantes served (author of the ever-illuminating Don Quixote) before he was captured and enslaved. For Shakespeare’s Venice in Othello, these kinds of battles are common along the outer Venetian colonies, and since war is a horrifying teacher of many things, the setting of Othello provides a unique testing ground for Shakespeare to explore a troubling moral conflict as in Hamlet and Macbeth. In all three plays, Shakespeare takes us to the geographic outer periphery of Europe, each of which which forms a triangulation along the extant borderlands of the Continent: Hamlet (Northeast in Denmark), Macbeth (West in Scotland), and Othello (South in the Mediterranean). In Hamlet, our young protagonist is driven mad by the impossibility of heroic revenge in the modern world, in Macbeth, an older classical war hero is compelled to commit the grave crime of regicide, and in Othello, an aging Turkish mercenary is consumed by delusions that his young bride has been unfaithful. In each play, the tragic hero is confronted by various competing notions of The Good which are found to be tragically irreconcilable.

Now, to examine The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Who is Othello? He is a Moor from North Africa, perhaps approaching his older years or at least middle-aged. His mother has died some time ago. After many years of fighting on the Turkish battlefield, he has developed an impenetrable reputation as a warrior, even though in the play we do not actually witness any of his military successes in action. For example, at the very moment Othello is set to confront the Turks on the high seas, the Turkish fleet is destroyed not by military conquest, but rather by a foul tempest. Thus, we rely exclusively on Othello’s reputation alone to verify his military valor –notably, a person’s reputation and the rumors therein serve as key themes in the play.

Desdemona and Othello, by Antonio Muñoz Degrain, 1880

Like Macbeth or Hamlet, Othello represents a classical hero tragically confronted with his placelessness in modern Christian civilization. He is regularly addressed as “noble Othello” or “valiant Othello” who has a “constant nature” which is “all sufficient.” Of course, this stands in stark contrast to the “wealthy curl’d darlings” of Venice, a city devoid of thumos and the warrior spirit. We may surmise that Othello takes place during the Ottoman-Venetian War (1570-1573), which was only a few short decades before Shakespeare’s Othello was first performed. In the play, Venice is portrayed as a prosperous commercial hub filled with financiers and businessmen –a cosmopolitan pleasure capital which allows for relatively open sexual tolerance (in contrast to the rumors of the austere Ottoman Turks). Venice is a republic which controls the commercial shipping lanes between North Africa (to the south) and Europe (to the north) as well as the Silk Road (to the east). As such, Venice has devolved into a vast seafaring empire, claiming colonies like Corfu, Crete, and Cyprus, the latter of which is a key strategic military outpost perched along the Mediterranean. Cyprus serves as a disputed territory in Othello –a borderland region caught between opposing worlds, the Christian West and the Ottoman East. It is in this context that we are asked to consider the play.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are often rife just such a metaphorical borderland, a confluence of ideas and a conflict of values. Shakespeare’s own age, the Renaissance, was a unique moment that found itself looking both backward and forward at the same time, not unlike the Roman god Janus. With nostalgia, it gazed back at the majesty of the ancients (i.e. ancient Greece and Rome) and at the same time, it hailed a newfound philosophic optimism for the dominant modern Christian ethos in the hopes that it could somehow be harmonized with the virtues of classical antiquity. We see a tragedy begin to emerge as this apparent contradiction is shown to be impossible, at least for Othello, echoing the conflict in both Hamlet and Macbeth. In each play, Shakespeare exposes the tragic impossibility of two opposing value systems –under these circumstances, the spirit of classical antiquity cannot be revived– and as such, the Renaissance comes to light as a uniquely tragic era. The greatest values in Venice can either be meekness and humility (the Christian ideal), or else pride and magnanimity (the classical ideal). Will Venice decide to be compassionate or valorous? In Othello, it attempts to maintain the former while importing the latter from abroad.

Perhaps written in 1601-1602, Othello may well have been influenced by an August 1600 visit from the ambassador of the King of Barbary to meet with Queen Elizabeth I for a ‘half year’s abode in London.’ His delegation very likely witnessed a performance by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, during the Christmas season of 1600-1601. Perhaps this meeting inspired the character of Othello, and it may have even sparked the “willow” folksong once sung by Desdemona’s maid named Barbary, which Desdemona uses as her death song. Shakespeare also likely consulted John Leo’s A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600), along with Pliny’s Historie of the World (1601), and Sir Lewis Lewkenor’s The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (1599).

Additionally, Shakespeare’s other chief source for Othello was likely a 1565 prose story by Italian writer Giambattista Giraldi (nicknamed “Cinthio”) entitled “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”) as found in Gli Hecatommithi (1565), a collection of tales a la Boccaccio’s Decameron. The original story is something akin to morality play warning European women against the dangers of marrying foreign men because they are temperamental and unaccustomed to the virtues of Western culture. While generally regarded as a vice in our own present cosmopolitan age, this notion of inalterable racialized “otherness” is central to Othello’s character. He is a militaristic Turk in search of an entry point into the high culture of Venice, a city which has lost its capacity to successfully defend itself and so it employs a foreign mercenary to fight its war against the Turks. And while, Othello is welcomed into Venice as a commander, he is never fully embraced as a Venetian –he remains foreign, exotic, strange, and “other.” Yet it is precisely his permanent status as a stranger which beckons Desdemona to fall in love with him. She loves the myth of this great-souled man, a warrior who proudly declares himself in possession of a “perfect soul” –unlike the tender commercial businessmen of Venice.

Whereas Othello desires to become fully Venetian by embracing their senatorial bureaucracy, he views Desdemona as his point of entry into the dignified material comfort of Western society (Desdemona’s father is Senator Brabantio, her cousin is Lodovico, and her uncle is Gratiano –are all prominent members of Venice), however, in contrast, Desdemona sees Othello as her way out of Venice. She has grown unimpressed by the wealthy tradesmen of Venice, and she longs for excitement. She is infatuated with Othello’s tall tales of faraway lands, cannibals, and Anthropophagi (or “man-eaters” in the vein of Homer’s Odyssey) –do we trust Othello’s story-telling? Perhaps not, he might be a weaver of yarns not unlike Odysseus. Regardless, Desdemona falls in love with the idea of Othello, and above all, she yearns for him to remain a Turk. While Othello longs for safety in Venice, Desdemona years for Turkish adventure. Thus, their marriage is troubled from the start. Perhaps their marriage would have collapsed with or without the conniving aid of Iago. In truth, their matrimony actually occurs prior to the start of the play –offstage and in secret– and already we can see Othello’s foibles begin to unfold. Why does he not seek Brabantio’s blessing for Desdemona’s hand in marriage? Surely, to secretly marry the morally-upstanding daughter of a prominent Venetian senator would have raised quite a stir in the city, and also it might have led to a fraught political relationship between Othello (Venice’s military commander) and his superiors in the Senate, where his father-in-law currently serves. Despite having a reputation of being a great warrior, Othello is not a particularly shrewd politician, nor is he a strong judge of character. Love and war make for strange bedfellows when disharmoniously united within Othello. He does not seem to understand the delicate art of statecraft. In the case of lies and deception, Othello is impressionable, almost like a child. During the heat of battle, Othello is not fooled when the Turks make a deceptive military maneuver –they feign a landing at Rhodes when, in truth, they make haste for Cyprus. Yet, on the other hand, Othello is quite easily swindled by the whims of Iago, whom he routinely regards as an “honest” man. In the former instance, he is able to see through the fog of war clearly, but somehow he cannot see not through the deceptions of his own ensign.  

Who is Iago? He is a Venetian soldier, presently serving as Othello’s ensign (or “ancient”). He has been fighting the Turks for at least several years during which time he has witnessed Othello’s skills in fighting both ‘Christians and heathens’ in places like Cyprus and Rhodes, among others. In other words, Iago has witnessed Othello in battle prior to his defection to Venice, and perhaps Iago has become aware of Othello’s deep paranoia of betrayal, as Othello, himself, has essentially betrayed the Ottomans. At any rate, Iago is a deeply envious person (in the spirit of Nietzschean ressentiment) and he is a schemer who hides his true intentions (“I am not what I am” –is his infamous inversion of the Biblical God’s declaration). Iago begins the play by expressing dissatisfaction at being passed over for the position of Othello’s lieutenant in favor of a soft-handed Florentine, Michael Cassio, a bookish “arithmetician” who has hardly seen the field of battle (in fact, he has “never set a squadron in the field nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster”). Cassio’s somewhat possessive mistress (not his wife) named Bianca lurks frequently in his shadow. Iago despises Cassio. In addition to his existing grievances, Iago claims there were “three great ones” in Venice who supported his bid for lieutenant, but Othello still chose Cassio for the position instead. With this in mind, I might suggest that Othello’s selection of an inexperienced, non-Venetian lieutenant, like Cassio, is yet another instance of his lack of tact. Othello may be a great warrior, despite being a clumsy politic. Iago observes these failings, and he concocts an elaborate ploy in which to ensnare Cassio in the hopes of taking over as lieutenant. However, he does not stop there. Why? Because Iago is bitterly resentful. He longs not only to witness the advent of his own personal fortunes, but rather he hopes to bring down a great-souled man like Othello, and in doing so, he hopes to witness the ruination of a classical hero. Iago represents a uniquely modern source of rage, or wrath –a brand of vengeance which seeks a scorched earth path of destruction because “we cannot all be masters.” His steady diet of revenge is a perverted form of justice which comes by means of certain excesses and deprivations –it is the nasty presence of schadenfreude which gives him a vicious, discontented soul that ‘gnaws at his innards.’

The people surrounding Iago become mere pawns in his nihilistic plot –including poor Roderigo and his impossible love for Desdemona, but also, and perhaps most strikingly, Iago’s own wife, Emilia, who serves as a mere cog in his ugly machinations. Even prior to his plans, the marriage of Iago and Emilia seems to ring hollow – Iago believes his wife Emilia is too loose-lipped, and, in general, he believes women are deceptive creatures “who rise to play, and go to bed to work.” In some respects, he echoes Hamlet in their mutual suspicion of women whose attractive exterior betrays an evil interior. In turn, Emilia, claims men are mere stomachs which consume and belch up women –both spouses carry a most vulgar prejudice against the opposite sex. While serving as Desdemona’s handmaid, Emilia suggests there is indeed a price she would accept to cheat on her husband, because ‘every small vice has its price.’ Unlike Desdemona, Emilia had chosen a customary and acceptable husband in Iago, the Venetian military ensign, and when Desdemona’s cousin Lodovico arrives, Emilia claims she knows “a lady in Venice who would walk barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.” Here, again, we see the loose sexual mores of Venice on display. However, Emilia still obeys her husband’s whims, going so far as to steal Desdemona’s prized handkerchief (“her first remembrance from the Moor”) which Othello later explains was an important keepsake from his dying mother, a gift from an Egyptian which carries mysterious supernatural powers –its magic will offer an amiable marriage to its possessor. The handkerchief was apparently crafted by a sibyl using the silk from hallowed worms and mummified maidens. Do we believe Othello? A skeptical reader might suggest Othello is again spinning elaborate yarns. However, if this account of the handkerchief is true, perhaps there was witchcraft involved in Othello’s courtship of Desdemona after all –an accusation her fearful father once leveled. Regardless, the handkerchief comes to symbolize the collapsing marriage between Othello and Desdemona, especially Othello’s growing rejection of domestication and his reassertion of his heroic spirit. Continually fed an unfolding web of lies from Iago, Othello is driven mad at the thought that his wife has been unfaithful. On the field of battle, Othello is accustomed to simply taking what he pleases a la Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, however a marriage requires listening, compromise, and mutual subordination. Building on his initial transgression (taking Desdemona as his bride without the blessing of her father) Othello suddenly snaps after discovering her handkerchief is missing, and he berates and smacks Desdemona in front of a delegation of Venetians, yielding audible shock from the gentle senators. In a mere three day’s time, Othello has been turned against his wife and has devolved into an epileptic marital tyrant. He is convinced that Desdemona must die, so as to prevent her infidelity from ever occurring again –evil must be rooted out from the earth. In spite of being born a Turk, Othello assumes the garb of the Christian West and becomes intoxicated by the resentful, envious spirit of Iago’s embodiment of its greatest extreme. His perceived victimhood is transformed into righteous vengeance.

The murder of Desdemona comes in spite of the fact that Othello is driven mad by pure mania and suspicion, rather than true evidence of infidelity. At first, he plans to poison her, but even that is too weak a punishment for Iago to accept (recall the poisonings in Hamlet), and so Othello suffocates Desdemona instead –snuffing out her light in a most uncharacteristic fashion for a brutal warlord. In the end, Roderigo is murdered, Cassio is wounded (“by and by a fool, presently a beast!”), Emilia is killed, Iago is wounded, and Othello sorrowfully commits suicide when he realizes the horrid truth. He asks that the Venetians remember him not as a villain, but as their hero (he reminds the Venetians of a time that he smote a Turk at Aleppo). He dies while kissing his late bride, a brief reclamation of the heroic ethos as Othello shows that he would rather die than live with the shame of dishonour (perhaps not unlike Ajax as portrayed in Sophocles’s Ajax). In life, Othello struggled to distinguish love from war, and friends from enemies, but in death, Othello manages to claw back a piece of his ragged reputation (“who can control his fate?”). Cassio is then given command in Cyprus (how might this relate to the popular rule of Montano, governor of Cyprus?), Iago is led away to be tortured, and Lodovico returns to the senate in Venice. The empire of Venice continues onward, only without a heroic leader at the helm.  

Of course, history has brought to light what has happened to Venice. By 1573, Venice had lost its colony at Cyprus and in the ensuing century or two it would also gradually lose its other colonies as the empire fell into a state decline. At the time of Shakespeare’s writing, Venice was still a powerful trading rival of England with roughly the same population size as London. Therefore, Shakespeare’s Venetian plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) were of great public interest upon release. However, his portrayal Venice speaks to something more universal, addressing questions which extend beyond a particular time or place. In Othello, Venice and its colony of Cyprus come to light as a Renaissance mirror held up to our own world. Perhaps in some ways we share certain commonalities with a cosmopolitan republic like sixteenth century Venice, with an expansive international empire in support of commercial activities, various proxy wars which require the employment of foreign mercenaries, and a boundless belief in the rule of law which engenders a vast senatorial bureaucracy. On the periphery of this empire, Cyprus becomes a unique testing ground for the virtues and vices of the Venetian republic. And even today, Cyprus remains a politically disputed island, tenuously divided between the Greek West and the Turkish East.

For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd Edition of Shakespeare’s Othello as well as the magnificent writings and lectures of the late Paul Cantor.

A Note on Shakespeare’s “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet

Arden, the greatest of contemporary Shakespeare publishers, has released an edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which includes the controversial “1603 and 1623” texts of the play. Just what exactly are these editions two plays? And how are they distinct from the authoritative version? During Shakespeare’s lifetime, there were multiple versions of his plays, some shortened and others pirated. In 1602, a shortened and heavily revised version of Hamlet was entered into the Stationer’s Register and subsequently published in 1603 by Nicholas Ling and John Trundell, publisher of the authoritative First Folio. However, this early version of Hamlet is called the “First Quarto.” It was a largely unknown version of the play until its discovery in 1823 by Sir Henry Bunbury. This “First Quarto” version of Hamlet is odd –it is a much faster-paced play filled with scenes of action, revised dialogue, and different characters. Unlike in the standard First Folio version of the play, Hamlet and his mother Gertrude jointly seek vengeance on Claudius as Gertrude claims no knowledge of his machinations, and she wishes to support her son. In addition, soliloquies like Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech are moved to entirely new sections of the play, and the contents of the speeches are different, story arcs are left incomplete (such as Hamlet’s escape from the ship to England and his return to Denmark), and character names are changed (in this version, Polonius is named “Corambis” and Reynaldo is named “Montano”).

Since its discovery, the First Quarto (or the “Bad Quarto” as defined by A.W. Pollard in 1909) was long regarded as simply one of the many stolen and surreptitious copies of the play which were widely circulated in Shakespeare’s day but denounced upon publication of the First Folio in 1623. Perhaps this is why the Second Quarto was immediately published after the First Quarto in 1604 by Shakespeare’s company, to combat the rise of forgeries (the Second Quarto later became the basis for the more widely accepted version of the play which appears in the First Folio on 1623). Still, theories persist –was the First Quarto an early draft written by Shakespeare? Or was it created by an acting troupe in order to remove some of the more existential sections of the play? Was it published in a hurry to prevent other theatrical groups from stealing the story? Is it merely based on the vague recollections of an early performer in the play? Was it an organic version of the performed play? At any rate, scholarly debate persists, even though occasional performances of the First Quarto of Hamlet continues to offer something new for actors who are seeking a fast-paced, altered version of the story.

Several other Shakespearean plays also have “Bad Quartos” which were the first published editions, such as Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, however the First Quarto of Hamlet is perhaps the most notorious.

1950 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Way West by A. B. Guthrie Jr.

The 1950s for the Pulitzer Prizes begins with a celebrated Western novel about a wagon train traveling overland along the Oregon Trail. The Way West is actually the second book in a series that A.B. Guthrie Jr. wrote about the growth of Montana throughout the 19th century (1830s-1880s). The series contains the following sequential novels: The Big Sky (1947), The Way West (1949), These Thousand Hills (1956), Arfive (1971), The Last Valley (1975), and Fair Land, Fair Land (1982).

Dedicated to Guthrie’s wife, Harriet, The Way West serves as a nice stand-alone novel despite being part of a broader series. It begins in dreary Independence, Missouri circa 1845 where thirty-five year-old Lije Evans (perhaps short for “Elijah”) decides to join a wagon train headed westward toward the Oregon territory. Why make the risky trek to Oregon? Lije’s father once traveled down the Ohio River in a flatboat, and his sage advice to his son was: “there wasn’t any place as pretty as the one that lay ahead.” The impetus to uproot and migrate to Oregon is based on a mix of hopes and dreams, plus a patriotic urge to prevent the villainous British from ever settling in North America. Lije hopes to escape miasmal sickness rampant in the hazy low country of Missouri. He and his friends dream of greener pastures and warm sunshine, a place with plenty of land, blue skies, rich soil, new people, and a new land to cultivate –the Willamette Valley. After all, “a man didn’t make history, staying close to home” (13), says Lije.

“He didn’t guess he would join up for Oregon, for all that he would be proud to have a hand in it, to build up Uncle Sam and stop the British. Missouri was a good-enough country… It was just that he wanted something more out of life than he had found” (4).

In the town of Independence, all the talk is of Oregon. From Mexican hired hands on the Santa Fe trade, to men like Tadlock from Illinois who intends to travel overland by himself without the aid of a company, or Henry “Hank” McBee from Southern Ohio with his large family (including his attractive daughter Mercy), Curtis Mack and his wife Amanda who is reluctant to sleep with her husband in fear of becoming pregnant in the wilderness, and Charles Fairman and his wife Judith who suffers from depression. There is also an amusing preacher named Brother Weatherby. They invite veteran frontiersman Dick Summers to be the pilot of the wagon train. Dick is a rough and tumble outdoorsman with plenty of experience traveling through the country and fighting Indians (Dick Winters previously appeared in A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s The Big Sky). Yet he is also a melancholy man pushing fifty whose sickly wife has recently died, hence why he decides to leave his farm in Missouri and return to the open frontier. Throughout the novel, we are given vague glimpses of Dick’s life –such as the ghostly memories of yesteryear’s trailblazing mountain men who populate his mind, and his young love affair with a beautiful Crow girl. He is one of the more elusive and compelling characters in the novel.

Joined by his faithful wife, Rebecca “Becky” Evans, and their son Brownie (as well as the family dog Rock) Lije and his family make haste for Oregon, despite Becky’s initial reservations. Along the way, they encounter innumerable situations –sickness and storms, pregnancy and stillbirth, indiscretion and impropriety (like the embarrassing problem of defecating in the wilderness without wandering too far from the train), camps along nameless place-markers, signs of civilization like Fort Laramie, buffalo stampedes, rattlenakes (whose poisonous bites kill Toddie), friendly Shoshone (like Dick’s old friend White Hawk), and hostile Kaw, Pawnee, and Sioux Indians. At one point, Brownie stays behind to scrawl his name on a rock and he is then kidnapped by unfriendly Sioux who bargain him for meat, supplies, and tobacco. There is also infighting within the group as some turn back and Lije unseats the headstrong Tadlock as captain, but the conflict is further complicated when an intimacy-starved Mack in unable to control himself one evening and sleeps with Tadlock’s daughter, Mercy. In time, she realizes she is pregnant and quickly marries Brownie shortly before the troupe arrives in the Edenic paradise of the Willamette Valley.

Once again, I was lucky enough to read a first edition copy of this book, courtesy of my local library. Later editions apparently included a foreword by Wallace Stegner which I wouldn’t mind reading in the future. Needless to say, I thought this was a wonderful installment in the pantheon of Pulitzer Prize winners –certainly a breath of fresh air after the 1949 winner Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. Clifton Fadiman, the distinguished book reviewer and public intellectual, once dubbed The Way West “the finest novel on the subject in existence.” A Hollywood film was released in 1967 starring Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark.

The following are some notable quotations I came across while reading:

“The day dawned clear, but it had rained the night before, the sudden squally rain of middle March” (1 -opening lines).

“Each stick and splinter of this place was built by Lije, each little touch of prettiness put there by her or him. Everything had something in them in it. They had come here young and sure and seen the years pass and known trouble and happiness. It was, she thought again as she worked her broom, as if the house had shared their time and feelings, as if, quiet in the walls, sad in the empty rooms, was the memory of their doings, was the dread of strangers come” (36-37, Rebecca Evans reflecting on departing from her home in Missouri).

“Summers sat on his horse and watched, thinking how things had changed. This country was young, like himself, when he saw it first, young and wild like himself, without the thought of age. There wasn’t a post on it then, nor any tame squaw begging calico, but only buffalo and beaver and the long grass waving in the Laramie bottoms. The wind had blown lonesome, the sound of emptiness in it, the breath of far-off places where no white foot had stepped… Now there wasn’t a buffalo within fifty miles or beaver either –the few that were left of them—and the wind brought words and the hammer of hammers and the bray of mules and the smells of living under roof” (136).

“Evans knew this time would pass. He was right to try for Oregon. He had been all along. It was just that the country overpowered the mind” (276).

“Here, from Boise to the Dalles, was the windup of the trail, the finish of the test, the yes or no Oregon. Here by slow wheel tracks at last was being written the answer to a question raised years ago last spring, raised so long ago a man lost its beginning across the plain-peak, sage-tree, sand-rock field of time. He lost it along with places, people and doings remembered from before, so that none of them came real to him and he asked himself is sure enough there was an Independence, a Missouri and a spot he once called home, or were they vapors in his mind” (306).

About the 1950 Pulitzer Prize Decision

The 1950 Fiction Jury was composed of the prior year’s returning trio: David Appel, Joseph Henry Jackson, and Frederic Babcock. As far as I can tell, David Appel was a book editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of several children’s books; Frederic Babcock was a journalist and travel writer for The Chicago Tribune; and Joseph Henry Jackson was a longtime editor of The San Francisco Chronicle where he penned a daily column “A Bookman’s Notebook” and he also helmed a popular radio program entitled “The Reader’s Guide.”

Interestingly enough, the musical play South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. James Michener’s novel of the same name had also won the Pulitzer in 1948.

About A.B. Guthrie Jr.

Alfred Bertram “A.B.” Guthrie Jr. (1901-1991), known to his friends as “Bud,” was born in Bedford, Indiana, where his father was a newspaperman, before the family relocated to the small town of Choteau, Montana. Here, Guthrie was raised to love the high country of the Mountain West. Upon entering adulthood, he studied at the University of Washington before transferring to the University of Montana. Later, he attended Harvard University under a Neiman Foundation scholarship where he started writing.

Guthrie first entered the newspaper business as a devil’s printer for the Choteau Acantha newspaper. He worked a variety of odd jobs –the Forest Service, an irrigation project in Mexico, Western Electric in California, and even in a grocery store, before moving to Lexington in 1926 where he began working as a reporter at the Lexington Leader. He married Harriet Lawson, they had two children, and after his books became bestsellers, he began teaching writing courses at the University of Kentucky. Following the successes of The Big Sky and The Way West, Mr. Guthrie relocated his family back to Choteau, Montana where they typically split their time between Choteau and Great Falls, Montana. He also dabbled in Hollywood scriptwriting after penning the Academy Award-nominated script for Shane (1953), and he also wrote the script for The Kentuckian (1955).

Mr. Guthrie died in 1991 at the age of 90 at his ranch near Choteau, Montana.

Guthrie Jr., A. B. The Way West. William Sloane Associates. New York. 1949.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Thoughts on Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (1955)

“Peace In Our Time -This Time”

The third novel in Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series, Moonraker, offers a unique story –one that shares very little in common with the silly 1979 Eon film of the same name. Whereas other 007 adventures take us across the world to various exotic locales, Moonraker remains grounded entirely in England. This wonderful tale is a drastic step up from the previous outing Live and Let Die. In it, we return to the thrill of high-stakes card games a la Casino Royale, and from there an investigation leads to the cliffs of Dover, a high-speed chase in London, and finally an experimental rocket launch.

One of my favorite parts of this book occurs at the beginning, as Ian Fleming paints a colorful portrait of daily life inside the Secret Service. James Bond, freshly sunburned from a recent vacation down south somewhere near the equator, is completing target practice before he takes a lift to the eighth floor of MI6 where he is greeted by his motherly secretary Loelia “Li” Ponsonby (she hates to be called “Lil” by Bond). We learn that Bond is one of only three active assassins currently working inside the 00 program –the other two being 008 (“Bill”), who recently escaped from Peenemunde and is now resting in Berlin, and the other is 0011 who disappeared without a trace two months ago in the “dirty half-mile in Singapore.” We also learn that Bond typically has only 2-3 assignments per year, the rest of the time is spent like a civil servant in a desk job at headquarters. Personally, his hobbies include: evenings spent playing cards, making love to married women, and playing golf. He rarely takes holidays and earns approximately 1,500 pounds per year while living in a small, comfortable flat at King’s Road. I thought these details of the true Bond were helpful to round out this somewhat elusive character.

At any rate, Bond is summoned to M’s office on the ninth floor –Ian Fleming describes a large green baize door and inside is a pipe-smoking M and we also meet his flirtatious personal secretary Moneypenny. M makes an interesting reference to the events of Live and Let Die in which he mentions that the UK will likely retrieve the missing gold after all, despite some ongoing deliberations in the Hague. The conversation quickly turns to quiet suspicions that M has one Sir Hugo Drax, a popular millionaire magnate in the British metal industry. Sir Hugo Drax is always in the papers, and even Bond regards Drax as “a national hero.” He is a man of the people who bears scars from the war after being injured in a German “werewolf” guerilla explosion behind enemy lines wherein half his face was blown away causing amnesia for over a year. Since he could not remember his identity, he just assumed the name of Hugo Drax, an orphan from the Liverpool docks. Drax has since risen to become a multi-millionaire as a successful ore magnate of a material known as Columbite, necessary ingredient in jet engines. Drax quickly cornered the Columbite market via his company, Drax Metals, which has become a global conglomerate by buying up uranium mines in South Africa and selling military products to the Americans. Presently, Drax is a member of a high-class London gentleman’s club, Blades, where he plays cards but still cannot fully recall his true identity. He has begun to live a lavish lifestyle and has recently gifted his entire holding of Columbite to Britain as a national gift in order to build a “super atomic rocket with a range that would cover nearly every capital in Europe -the immediate answer to anyone who tried to atom bomb London” (18). Naturally, the queen graciously accepted Drax’s gift and has bestowed a knighthood upon him. Now, Drax’s rocket is nearly ready for a test launch –The Moonraker.

Anyway, M frequently plays cards with Drax but he has begun to grow suspicious after he realizes Drax has been cheating. In hoping to avoid any attention from the press, and since Bond is the best card player in the business, M asks Bond to join him at Blades for the evening to investigate Drax’s cheating. Naturally, after an intense exchange involving Bond ingesting copious amounts of Benzedrine and champagne, he defeats Drax in a high stakes card game. Drax, an arrogant contemptible redhead, scoffs: “Spend it quickly, Commander Bond,” he snidely remarks, and the tense exchange leads Bond to psychoanalyze this strange titan of industry:

“Why should Drax, a millionaire, a public hero, a man with a unique position in the country, why should this remarkable man cheat at cards? What could he achieve by it? What could he prove to himself? Did he think that he was so much a law unto himself, so far above the common herd and their puny canons of behavior that he could spit in the face of public opinion?” (77).

Bond considers spending his new windfall on a Rolls-Bentley convertible, some diamond clips, and a few other things like a new coat of paint for his flat and so on while investing the rest in gold so he can retire –but he is quickly summoned back to M’s office where he learns that two men from the Moonraker plant have been killed at a nearby public house. Both men were German experts at the R.A.F. installation located along the southern coast, a facility totaling about 1,000 acres in Kent along the cliffs between Dover and Deal. Since the entire novel takes place over only a few days, Drax intends to conduct a test launch of the Moonraker on Friday in four days-time.

Following the suspicious murder-suicide, Bond is sent out to investigate the situation on the remote coast of Dover. M reminds him that there are apparently fifty or so Russians working on the project, and it would be a colossal victory for the Soviets to sabotage the Moonraker on the eve of its test run. When he arrives, Bond meets with Drax, and his sadistic henchman named Krebs, as well as a leading rocket scientist Gala Brand (secretly a double agent). Bond is given a tour, and he notices many of Drax’s employees are men with shaved heads and thick, bushy moustaches. Gala and Bond sneak away in the morning but they are nearly killed in a cliff-fall (it appears to be a sabotage attempt).

The story then leads to London where Gala manages to sneak Drax’s notebook from his pocket which outlines an alternative route for the Moonraker, one not previously notated anywhere –according to these new coordinates, the rocket will fire upon London! “On each page, under the date, the neat columns of figures, the atmospheric pressure, the wind velocity, the temperature…” (171). However, before she can report the crisis to MI6, she secretly returns the notebook to Drax’s pocket, but Krebs catches her in the act thereby revealing that Gala is actually a spy. She is then dragged away and tortured in a radio homing station in London.

Meanwhile, Drax Metals has begun selling large holdings of sterling, which sends the pound fluctuating wildly. Bond is then sent again to investigate the disappearance of Gala, but following a wild car chase around London, Bond is captured and tied up with Gala. They are taken back to the location of the Moonraker which appears to Bond as “a giant hypodermic needle ready to be plunged unto the heart of England” (200). As it turns out, Drax is German, his real name is Graf Hugo von der Drache. He was educated in England until the age of twelve, and then went to work in family’s German steel business which produced shells for the war, before joining the Nazi German army during WWII in the 104th Panzer Regiment and then was finally transferred to intelligence. He claims Hitler was betrayed by his generals as the English and Americans were allowed to land in France –he is filled with resentment and anger. Drax was then sent behind enemy lines into the Ardennes in 1944 along with Krebs, a skilled executioner, as they were both part of the secret “werewolf” German assassin troupe. While behind enemy lines, Drax was accidentally injured and, still undercover, was mistaken for a British soldier named Hugo Drax so he simply accepted the identity and returned to England. First, he robbed and killed a Jewish moneylender, and then began to build his Columbite empire around the world. He built an elaborate supply chain which extended far behind the reach of the Iron Curtain with products traveling via submarine to the cliffs of Dover in order to create a volatile nuclear warhead within the Moonraker rocket. All the bald men with moustaches that Bond spotted were merely disguises to hide their true identities.

As with all megalomaniacal villains, Drax is eager to explicate his diabolical plot before leaving Bond and Gala to die alone. He abandons them to be destroyed the following day when the rocket is set to strike London. However, Bond works quickly to use Krebs’s nearby blow torch to free one of Gala’s hands, allowing both of them to escape. They silently sneak through the base so Gala can inform Bond on how to redirect the coordinates of the Moonraker so that it falls into the sea instead of the center of London. Before the rocket launches, Drax addresses the British people in an oddly ominous, yet triumphant speech, but he then escapes into a Soviet submarine to flee to freedom, however it, thanks to Bond, it is unexpectedly struck by the Moonraker when it launches according to the new coordinates. The blast has apparently killed everyone on board –including Drax and Krebs—as well as a couple hundred other people along the southern coast of the British shoreline unfortunately.

Back in London, #10 Downing attempts to twist the story so that Drax is portrayed as a noble patriot who sacrificed for his country in order to preserve some sense of national unity. Meanwhile, Bond reflects on what might have happened to London had the rocket actually hit its originally intended target:

“How nearly it had come, thought Bond, to being stilled. How nearly there might be nothing now but the distant clang of the ambulance bells beneath a lurid black and orange sky, the stench of burning, the screams of people still trapped in the buildings. The softly beating heart of London silenced for a generation” (239).  

In the end, 008 is headed back to MI6 while Bond and Gala are instructed to immediately flee the country until the Drax scandal finally blows over. While Bond looks forward to his time alone with Gala, she has a confession. She solemnly explains to Bond that she is actually engaged to another investigator in the agency. Sadly, they must part ways. Bond says he pursues “no false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette” (244). Moonraker concludes on a touchingly poignant note as Bond is once again alone in the world.

Moonraker is often highly regarded among fans as one of Ian Fleming’s best, and ironically it could not be more different from the amusing 1979 Roger Moore film of the same name. In fact, the plot of the book and film have almost nothing in common, aside from the villain’s name (Hugo Drax), the presence of the Moonraker rocket, and a particular moment wherein M makes an offhand acknowledgement that he plays cards with Drax. Otherwise, in the film Drax is not a secret Nazi, but rather he launches a new human civilization in space based on his own theories of eugenics. In my view, Ian Fleming’s novel greatly overshadows the film. Apparently, Fleming conducted significant research in preparation for the novel –particularly on the German “Werewolf” resistance forces and the V2 rockets.

Moonraker is a patriotic novel –an homage to England– which expresses deep skepticism toward the Ayn Randian mega-millionaire magnate class. The “otherness” of Hugo Drax, aside from him being secretly a Nazi, is highlighted in his physical features. He is a large, lurching man with fiery red hair and bad teeth, as well as a horribly scarred face. A war wound garnered in the service of England is honorable, but his injury sustained in the service of Germany is shameful. Drax manages to navigate his way through these cultural biases without failure. His rocket is the symbol of his ultimate revenge on behalf of the German people. Moonraker is a cautionary tale about what happens when the public trust is placed too strongly in the hands of one man.

Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1955 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.

Click here to read my review of the film Moonraker (1979).