Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hugo the Puppy, Victor Hugo, and John Steinbeck

Jan brought back a puppy from San Diego, a gift from her parents. It is supposed to be a poodle crossed with a Maltese, but he looks like a small poodle to me. I wanted to name him Danton or Robespierre after the French Revolution figures, but eventually we settled on Hugo, after Victor Hugo, the author. Jan is a big Victor Hugo fan.

Hugo, as a puppy

Victor Hugo's best known works include The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. In the latter work he alternates between chapters about Paris in general and chapters in which we follow the characters while the plot moves forward.

California author John Steinbeck used a similar pattern in The Grapes of Wrath, a justly famous book. I just finished reading it, for the fourth time in my life, this week. Steinbeck had become famous upon publication of Tortilla Flat, a novel where questions of ethics are raised to high humor, but in which poverty is made to seem more fun than middle-class existence. But the poverty of Tortilla Flat is an established, well-worked out poverty. In Wrath the leading characters are well-removed from their former middle-class farm existence, having become tenant farmers on land they formerly owned, before the book begins. But a new and terrible poverty is their fate in California, where they were treated with an amazing lack of hospitality. They are not treated as citizens, or as people, just as movable and expendable pieces of farm equipment.

I have written a great deal about the problem of overpopulation in the United States and the world. Immigration to the U.S. is a perplexing problem. Even legal immigration contributes to overpopulation. Yet I believe every human being should be treated with dignity and respect where ever in the world they go, no matter what their national origin.

It would be nice if we could persuade humans to voluntarily control their reproduction, and of course many do. But too many do not, and I don't buy the argument that as the world gets wealthier reproduction rates always go down. I don't believe that the poor of the world, lets call that about 3 billion people, are going to get wealthier any time in the near future. This year, because of inflated food prices, most of them became much poorer. I also believe there are cultural issues that determine the number of children women have. Religious beliefs play a big part.

I don't know what Victor Hugo would think, but I suspect John Steinbeck would be having the same dilemma. Steinbeck had a fine appreciation of the natural world and natural science. Two of his best novels, Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row, feature a biologist protagonist. John would tell you that when all the fish in the sea are caught, there will be no more fish to eat. And animal populations that get out of control always crash eventually, for one reason or another.

Here's a bit of The Grapes of Wrath, near the beginning of Chapter Five:

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless they were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.

More data:

John Steinbeck
Victor Hugo

Books at

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Les Miserables
The Grapes of Wrath
Tortilla Flat
Cannery Row
Sweet Thursday

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