Book Report: The Great Optimist by Leigh Mitchell Hodges (2003)

Book coverI bought this book in December at ABC Books because it was inexpensive, and as it was filed with the poetry, I thought it was an old collection of poems. As it stands, though, it is a collection of essays or newspaper columns–apparently, the author was a columnist in Philadelphia back when a lot of the people mentioned in Heroes and Outlaws of the Old West, the lawmen anyway, were still alive.

So we have ten short essays–I would put them at 600 words, tops, and it’s only 35 pages total. The column/essays are:

  • “The Great Optimist”, a column about Christmas and how Jesus was the Great Optimist. I wondered as I started it whether I was in for a dozen sermons, but no; although the author is Christian, he’s a columnist and not a pastor.
  • “A Darkened Cage” about how a little darkness teaches a songbird to sing. You know what it’s a metaphor for; it reminded me of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s autobiography I was assigned in freshman English. The same metaphor, anyway.
  • “A Spring Song”, which talks about the optimism of spring and mirrors a poem that I’ve put down the first lines of somewhere.
  • “Making the Most”, which is about making the most of your talents (of course).
  • “The Flag”, a patriotic piece whose sentiments we might look askew at today, as it says all Americans can rally around it, which is not the 21st century reality, ainna?
  • “Ma Brither”, which recounts this story:

    Ian MacLaren tells somewhere a sweet story of his native Scotland–what while sauntering along a country lane one hot afternoon, he met a bonnie wee lass, all humped up and red, puffing with the weight of the chubby laddie she was carrying.
    “Isn’t he too heavy for you?” asked the dominic.
    “He’s not hivvy, sir,” came the reply, with a smile of loving pride; “he’s ma brither.”

    I tried to track down the source of this story; although Hodges attributes it to Ian Maclaren (pen name of John Watson), apparently it appears in The parables of Jesus, an 1884 book by James Wells. So it was already an established trope by 1903.

  • “Failure”, about how failure leads to success, which is a strangely contemporary message delivered to you by all your software that breaks easily.
  • “The Grasshopper”, about finding beauty in everyday things.

    Notable because:

    One Wednesday afternoon back in the baby days of the last century, three poets who were friends met together, as was their custom. Before parting, each agreed to write a sonnet on “The Grasshopper,” and to read it the following Wednesday. How would you like to have been there when John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Leigh Hunt–for they were the friends–read each his fourteen lines!

    The poems are from 1816. So the poems were newer to Hodges than Hodges book is to our day.

  • “My Friend,” about real friends. Shades of the first essay in that Montaigne book I have not finished yet.
  • “Thanksgiving,” which is about the holiday and gratitude. Which go together!

So the book kind of follows the year from Christmas to the next Thanksgiving.

The essays are nice, but I probably won’t remember much from the book except that it was old and that I read it. Which is what this post is for, ultimately, gentle reader–to remind me of what this book was actually about.

Also, as a side note, I have read three of the six books I bought at ABC Books that day and I have started the fourth (the English novel Pamela which I will undoubtedly mention over and over as the serious book that I am reading whilst posting book reports on smaller books I have read during the span, much like the recently completed David Copperfield. Dare I make this a twee goal for 2021, to complete all six of these books, kind of like I made it a goal in 2019 to read all of the books that I bought at Calvin’s Books that May? The collection of Paul Dunbar might be daunting, though–although it is only the beginning of May.

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