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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, June 28, 2010

She's Everywhere: Pretty thin gruel and Mr. Woodhouse's constitutional laws

As I watched President Obama field questions on a variety of subjects yesterday at the press conference which marked the close of the G20 summit in Toronto, my Janeite antennae were triggered into full activation when Obama answered a question about the leadup to the confirmation hearings (which began today) for Elena Kagan, who, as most of you probably know, is his latest nominee to the US Supreme Court:

“As I examine some of the arguments that have been floated against her nomination over the past several weeks, it's PRETTY THIN GRUEL...”

My first reaction was--of COURSE he has read some Jane Austen, and therefore he knows very well that he is making an allusion to Emma!

After all, he's not only a very intelligent guy, he's also a very literate guy with a gift for rhetorical expression who has himself written two best-selling books; he has a strong, independent wife, and two precocious and well loved daughters; and his behavior is unusually gentlemanly for a participant in the political arena, especially the brutal US politics of the past decade. In fact, he catches criticism from some of his supporters for being too much of a gentleman, and yet, he almost always keeps his cool and composure, even when passions are highly elevated all around him--like Mr. Knightley deftly deflecting Mrs. Elton's verbal thrusts, or Colonel Brandon tactfully absorbing Marianne's disdain.

And I also instantly recalled, as I am sure many of you did, too, as you read this message, that only 6 short weeks ago, the factoid that Elena Kagan was a literature lover who reread P&P every year briefly went viral in the Janeite online world.

So, given all of that, is it just a coincidence that Obama happened to use an expression regarding Kagan's confirmation which would automatically trigger a very specific association in the minds of every Janeites (especially the many American female Janeites who would take particular pride and interest in Kagan's nomination) to the following passage in Emma:

"The GRUEL came and supplied a great deal to be said -- much praise and many comments -- undoubting DECISION of its wholesomeness for EVERY CONSTITUTION, and PRETTY severe PHILIPPICS upon THE MANY HOUSES where it was never met with tolerable; -- but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth GRUEL, THIN, BUT NOT TOO THIN."

And isn't it also quite interesting that in that same passage, we read references (which I've shown in ALL CAPS) to Philippics, houses, decisions and constitutions, all of which are terms associated, in JA's Great Britain as surely as in today's U.S.A, with the judicial, legislative AND executive branches of government--branches which just happen to be the three protagonists in the political drama about to unfold in the American Capitol? And recall also that Obama made his reputation as a Constitutional law professor, and that he is most famous as a politician who can deliver a pretty powerful Philippic when he needs to!

Strange business indeed, I think Tom Bertram would have said to Dr. Grant, if they had heard that press conference. But we know what Mr. Woodhouse would have said about Kagan had he been asked his opinion about Kagan's nomination:

"Young ladies are delicate plants."


Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Google gave me the icing on the cake of this message, when it informed me that the Democratic National Committee's communications chairman is named "Dick Woodhouse"!


Anonymous said...

Arnie: I think your theory on President Obama and 'thin gruel' are just going into the realms of fantasy.Gruel was the main diet of many people and is mentioned in many books....Oliver Twist, David Balfour reaceived a bowl and many of the Dotheboys types of schools talk of gruel and even Scrooge huddled over a bowl of thin gruel!
I don't normally read your posts on jasna as I find your near obsession with Jane Austen, subtexts etc. borders on fanaticism but Obama caught my eye so leaving you on an indulgent note I'll just say 'he can't help it' and "Oh, he is away with the faeries"! Gerry

Arnie Perlstein said...


It is also possible that our President had Dickens in mind, but then, we did not hear about Elena Kagan being a fan of Dickens. I prefer my reading, but thanks for yours.

I think you must be referring to the Janeites group, not JASNA, and yes, I am obsessed with Jane Austen, there's no question about it. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE