White Death and Hot Coffee: Minnesota, Frankenstein, Norway, Poe, Erdrich, and Fargo

Rockwell Kent, Snow Fields

The Deception: the sun gleams on luminous snow and makes the rimed trees shimmer. The sky is bright blue. Chickadees flit at the bird feeder. How welcoming! Step outside and you and your pathetic goose-pimples will die. Maybe not immediately if wrapped in dead fur and feathers. But heed the warnings because in Minnesota as I write the windchill is minus 50.

The Fact: for a week, the Midwest temperate zone is colder than the North Pole.

The Circumstance: Polar Vortex.

The Conclusion: Weather is murderous.

Deadly weather is no surprise in human history or literature. Extreme weather events and climates are sublime sources of death and transfiguration in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. Coleridge’s albatross killer, the “Ancient Mariner,” was storm-driven into the polar south of “wondrous cold” where the ice “cracked and growled and roared and howled.” (In this weather, my joints do the same.) Mary Shelley’s Monster fled from the torture of human society toward the North Pole, and his creator Victor Frankenstein exhausted himself to death in cold pursuit.

Frankenstein by John Coleman Burroughs

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a strange novella–what what by Poe is not strange?–“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” Poe also wrote “A Descent into the Maelstrom” set in the whirlpools off Norway’s Lofoten Islands within the Arctic Circle: by rights that narrator should have died of hypothermia.  Arthur Pym heads in the opposite direction.  His departure from shore is a drunken undertaking that eventually takes him to the Antarctic.  After a murderous escapade with dark-skinned islanders, Pym travels into paradoxical heat and a peculiar whiteness that is a precursor of a Twilight Zone episode I can’t quite remember or a nuclear cloud. The white becomes a “white ashy shower,” “pallidly white birds,” a “veil,” a “cataract,” and a shrouded figure “the perfect whiteness” of snow. That phantasmagoric figure could be an escort into Hollow Earth theories or a hell where one must parse forever Melville’s Moby Dick. African American writer Toni Morrison has parsed the color peculiarities of Poe’s Pym and links to racism in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Novelist Mat Johnson plays with Poe and racial identity in his subversive homage, Pym.                                 

Then there’s Jack London. I had to read “To Light A Fire” in middle school. Takeaway one: bleah. Takeaway two: dogs are smart.

For Minnesota writers, there’s O.E. Rolvaag (I can see his house from here) who sent Norwegian immigrant Per Hansa into a blizzard in Giants in the Earth. F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Babylon Revisited” has a drunken married couple leave in a snit a Paris bistro named “Florida.” Then the husband shuts the wife out in a snowstorm, the beginning of the end. Louise Erdrich opens her award-winning Love Medicine with the native woman June Kashpaw disappearing into an Easter snowstorm.

For a contemporary thriller, check out Brian Freeman’s Alter Ego which threateningly abandons a “summer man in a winter place.”

And we’ll always have Fargo.  Watch for the weather report in the last seconds of this clip.

This blog has been powered by hot coffee.

Me on a Norwegian fjord, in JUNE.