April 27, 2008

1. Gordon Wood

Saw an interesting interview with Gordon Wood, an American History professor at Brown. Wood is 74, but full of enthusiasm for his subject; he’s unpretentious, but not blasé. He’s unpolitical, and he decries the politicization of history; he also decries the current view that the most worthy topics for historical research are race, gender, and class. He insists that a historian should be disinterested. He says that history is a mode of understanding, a way of seeing the world, it isn’t vocational training, and it doesn’t equip you for a job. He says that historians should aim their work at a wide audience, they shouldn’t aim only at fellow academics. He says that his own books are part of an older tradition, a tradition that aimed at both a scholarly audience and a general audience. He says that the failure of academic historians to reach a wide audience has created an opportunity for non-academic, popular historians — David McCullough, for example, and Shelby Foote.

Wood mentions two contemporary historians who, like himself, aim to be both scholarly and popular: Joseph Ellis and David Hackett Fischer. Ellis wrote (among other books) biographies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Fischer wrote books on Paul Revere’s ride, and Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. Fischer also wrote Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, which argues that American mores were created in England. Wood says that this argument ran counter to the dominant tradition in American history — namely, the Turner Tradition, which says that America was shaped by the virgin land, the open spaces, the frontier.

When Wood was asked about Lincoln, he said that the leading Lincoln historians are David Herbert Donald and Doug Wilson. Wood said that Lincoln had a tragic sense that is unusual for an American. He said that Lincoln felt he was being carried along by fate — also unusual for an American.

When asked what historian he would recommend to a young student, he said, “Someone they would enjoy — perhaps Rick Atkinson, who writes military history, or Laurel Ulrich, who wrote Midwife’s Tale.” Wood also praised Philip D. Morgan, who has written about slave life.

Wood says that, among his own books, the most influential book is The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, which discusses political theory. He also wrote The American Revolution: A History, and several other books.

I sent e-mail to Wood, asking him to recommend a one-volume history of the U.S. I asked him if the best such book was Paul Johnson’s History of the American People. Wood responded, and said that Johnson’s one-volume history wasn’t the best, but he didn’t know what was the best; obviously, Wood isn’t a fan of Johnson’s popular, journalistic style. Perhaps the best one-volume history is The Growth of the American Republic, by Commager and Morison; for many years, this book was used in American schools. Commager and Morison are interested in style as well as scholarship.

Before leaving the subject of American historians, I’d like to mention Willard Sterne Randall. Like Joseph Ellis, Randall has written several biographies of people from the Revolutionary era; Randall has written biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen, etc. Randall went straight from high school to a career in journalism. He was a journalist in the Philadelphia area then, at age 40, he went to graduate school at Princeton, but never earned a Ph.D. He taught for several years at the University of Vermont, and currently teaches at Champlain College.

2. American Names

I picked up Johnson’s book, and began reading random passages. Johnson called my attention to a poem called “American Names,” by Stephen Vincent Benét:

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy's horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy’s Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman’s Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

The last line (“Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”) was used by Dee Brown as the title for his popular history of American Indians, a history which focuses on the mistreatment of the Indians.

3. Shakespeare’s Treason

A leading spokesman for the Oxford Theory, Hank Whittemore, is now performing a one-man show, “Shakespeare’s Treason.” The show deals with the Oxford Theory and also the Prince Tudor Theory. And finally, it deals with Hank’s own theory, the Monument Theory, which builds on the Prince Tudor Theory. Hank is an accomplished actor and public speaker, as well as an expert on Shakespeare. I look forward to seeing his one-man show. Initial reactions have been positive:

Just got back from Montana [Hank writes, in a recent e-mail], performing the 90-minute show (“Shakespeare’s Treason”) at the Flathead Valley Community College, in a state of the art theater (3/4 in the round) and crowd of 250, and this was a big test that turned out exceptionally well. Best part was that no one had to know anything about Shakespeare going into the theater; at the end a standing sustained ovation and an hour’s worth of students (and adults as well) coming up to me and expressing their enthusiasm and interest. This was co-written by me and Ted Story, a NYC director and member of the SOS. Ted directed the show and I know I could not have done it by myself, for various reasons related to both script and performance. The goal was to go over the heads of the bickering colleagues of the scholarly community and get on with life, eh? It worked. We’re in the process of gearing up for a long haul with this, on the road and in NYC as well, not to mention DVD and other outlets such as a printed script.

4. Selling Philosophy

I finally completed revising my book of aphorisms. I’m planning to print a few copies through Lightning Source, who specializes in print-on-demand. Lightning Source only charges about $100 to setup a book, and then about $5 per copy. This is much cheaper than a traditional printer, so I can print revised versions, new books, etc. Print-on-demand makes self-publishing much easier. You don’t need to print hundreds of books, then wait years to sell them; you can print just enough copies to meet demand, and revise frequently.

More than ten years after publishing in China, I finally got my first piece of reader feedback, an e-mail message from a young woman who read my book when she was a high school student. She says she’ll translate my new version into Chinese; she’s a good translator, and has already translated enough to show to publishers. Hopefully, I’ll be able to publish my new version in China and Taiwan — two countries where my old version had some success.

5. Neocon Fallacies

The Neoconservative movement arose in the Sixties and Seventies as a reaction against the student radicalism of the Sixties, a reaction against the anti-tradition, anti-establishment, anti-American spirit of the Sixties, a reaction against the riots, the protests, the spirit of anarchy, a reaction against Great Society social programs, etc. In short, the Neoconservative movement was against many contemporary trends, and supportive of religious tradition and other kinds of tradition. I’m inclined to think that the Neoconservative movement was against more than it was for. Here are some neocon fallacies:

  1. The neocons and Straussians are anti-Nietzsche. They insist that Nietzsche was a nihilist. In fact, Nietzsche wasn’t a nihilist; he affirms life, he affirms traditional culture, he affirms the past and the future, he opposes Schopenhauer’s pessimism. True, he opposes traditional moral attitudes, and he opposes traditional religions, but this doesn’t prevent him from admiring pre-Christian culture (especially Greco-Roman culture), it doesn’t prevent him from admiring Renaissance culture (Montaigne, Machiavelli, etc.), and it doesn’t prevent him from admiring later writers such as Goethe, Emerson, Stendhal, etc. Nietzsche isn’t a nihilist; Nietzsche is for more than he’s against.
  2. The neocons are opposed to anti-Americanism, but they should remember that most leading intellectuals were critical of their own nations. Since the days of Socrates, leading intellectuals have often viewed themselves as citizens of the world, not of a particular nation. Nietzsche never tired of castigating his fellow Germans, castigating German nationalism, etc. Joyce often spoke scornfully of Ireland. Ibsen left Norway, and lived in voluntary exile. The Hebrew prophets, who were the leading intellectuals of their time, decried the ways of their countrymen. Criticism may be more beneficial, more healthy, than praise. Anyone with a high ideal, and a fervent admiration for earlier cultures, will criticize his own nation. Indeed, such a person will be inclined to criticize institutions in general — churches, universities, etc. — because institutions fall short of the ideal, and are often inhospitable to the independent thinker. I’m not suggesting that all anti-Americanism is appropriate and beneficial; doubtless much of it is shallow and misguided, and deserves the scorn that the neocons pour on it. But the neocons should be judicious in their criticism, and should remember that there’s a long and glorious tradition of criticizing one’s own country.
  3. The neocons and Straussians ignore Eastern philosophy completely, but it’s too important to ignore. Traditional monotheism can’t meet the spiritual needs of today. The neocons criticize those who break with traditional monotheism as “seculars” but there are new approaches to religion that are neither traditional nor atheist. We can break with traditional religion and with rational philosophy, but still not fall into chaos; there are other approaches to religion, and other approaches to philosophy. A non-rational approach can satisfy both spiritual needs and intellectual demands. There’s a kernel of truth in the New Age thinking that the neocons despise, just as there’s a kernel of truth in the counter-culture movement of the Sixties.
  4. One of the neocons’ favorite words is “citizen” (or “citizenship”); to be a good citizen is one of their highest values. I’d like to ask them, “Did Proust ever think about being a good citizen?” Proust focused on literature, not citizenship, and he made a lasting contribution to civilization. And we can’t tell who’s the next Proust. The kid next-door, who seems merely odd, might be the next Proust. If the neocons themselves want to strive to be good citizens, I applaud them for it, but they shouldn’t set up their values as universal values, and criticize others for falling short of them. Let each march to his own drummer. Let Proust stay in his cork-lined room; he may accomplish as much there as the soldier who dies for his country. All honor to the soldier and the citizen, but their ideals aren’t the only ideals.

6. Innisfree

I’ve long been fond of a poem called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by William Butler Yeats. During his childhood, Yeats spent much time in County Sligo; Yeats’ attachment to Sligo might be compared to Proust’s attachment to Illiers. Yeats had a special fondness for Innisfree, an island in Lough Gill. In his Autobiography, Yeats said that, as a teenager, he thought about building a cabin on Innisfree, in imitation of Thoreau. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” was published in one of Yeats’ first poem-collections, The Rose.

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
    And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
    I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Click here for a recording of Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”; I recommend it.

Another old favorite of mine is Milton’s stanza about philosophy:

How charming is divine philosophy!
Not harsh and crabbèd, as dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo’s lute,
And a perpetual feast of nectared sweets,
Where no crude surfeit reigns.1

Milton’s rosy view of philosophy is similar to Montaigne’s. Philosophy, says Montaigne, “preaches nothing but jollity and merry-making. A sad and dejected air shows that here philosophy is not at home.... The most manifest sign of wisdom is a constant happiness; its state is like that of things above the moon: always serene.”2

7. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

I recommend a 2-hour Whitman documentary that is part of the “American Experience” series. In general, I prefer prose fiction to poetry, but I find that poetry works well on TV, perhaps because it’s made to be read aloud.

I was struck by Whitman’s poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which I wasn’t familiar with. It has a self-consciousness that is characteristic of Whitman. It addresses the reader as if the reader and author were in the same room. And finally, it has a wonder at being alive:

Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
It avails not, neither time nor place — distance avails not;
I am with you — you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself — also I return — I am with you, and know how it is.

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,
I was refreshed;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.

I too many and many a time crossed the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the twelfth-month sea-gulls — I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.

I loved well those cities;
I loved well the stately and rapid river;
The men and women I saw were all near to me;
Others the same — others who look back on me because I looked forward to them;
The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.

What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not.
I too lived — Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walked the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it....

Closer yet I approach you:
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you —
I laid in my stores in advance;
I considered long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-hemmed Manhatta,
My river and sunset, and my scallop-edged waves of flood-tide;
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter;
Curious what Gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as I approach;
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face,
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you....
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you.

Whitman is the poet of New York City, as Melville is the poet of the open sea, and Twain is the poet of the half-civilized frontier, and the Mississippi River.

I also recommend a Hemingway documentary, part of the American Masters series.

8. White Fang

Jack London reminds me of Thomas Wolfe. Like Wolfe’s novels, London’s White Fang is a fast-moving, hard-charging story, but it doesn’t have one, all-embracing plot; rather, it has a series of episodes. London is rougher than Wolfe — closer to the frontier, closer to nature. Wolfe has more education, more degrees, more literary ambition, and is more introspective than London.

White Fang is full of action, but you never lose the feeling that this is a novel, this is an author trying to entertain the reader. White Fang doesn’t draw you in, it doesn’t make you suspend your disbelief, it doesn’t convince you that it’s a real world, it doesn’t make you empathize with the characters as if they were real.

Forster once said that the best writers of his time had an “esoteric tendency”, an interest in the occult.3 Jack London is interested in the occult. In the following passage, London describes how a man named Beauty Smith interacts with the wolf-dog, White Fang:

He made overtures to White Fang from the first. White Fang began by ignoring him. Later on, when the overtures became more insistent, White Fang bristled and bared his teeth and backed away. He did not like the man. The feel of him was bad. He sensed the evil in him, and feared the extended hand and the attempts at soft-spoken speech. Because of all this, he hated the man.

With the simpler creatures, good and bad are things simply understood. The good stands for all things that bring easement and satisfaction and surcease from pain. Therefore, the good is liked. The bad stands for all things that are fraught with discomfort, menace, and hurt, and is hated accordingly. White Fang’s feel of Beauty Smith was bad. From the man’s distorted body and twisted mind, in occult ways, like mists rising from malarial marshes, came emanations of the unhealth within. Not by reasoning, not by the five senses alone, but by other and remoter and uncharted senses, came the feeling to White Fang that the man was ominous with evil, pregnant with hurtfulness, and therefore a thing bad, and wisely to be hated.

White Fang was in Grey Beaver’s camp when Beauty Smith first visited it [Grey Beaver is an Indian man, the owner of White Fang]. At the faint sound of his distant feet, before he came in sight, White Fang knew who was coming and began to bristle.4

In the following passage, White Fang senses that his new owner, the kindly Weedon Scott, is preparing to leave the Klondike region, and return to California:

It was in the air. White Fang sensed the coming calamity, even before there was tangible evidence of it. In vague ways it was borne in upon him that a change was impending. He knew not how nor why, yet he got his feel of the oncoming event from the gods themselves. In ways subtler than they knew, they betrayed their intentions to the wolf-dog that haunted the cabin-stoop, and that, though he never came inside the cabin, knew what went on inside their brains.5

9. Panofsky

Still plodding along with Panofsky’s study of Durer, which I began more than two years ago. It’s a dry book, a book for specialists, not laymen, but when it’s good, it’s very good. I enjoyed Panofsky’s discussion of a Durer painting called The Four Apostles. Panofsky argues that, in Durer’s painting, each apostle represents one of the “humors.” (According to medieval psychology, there were four “humors” — the sanguine, the choleric, the melancholic, and the phlegmatic.)

We know enough [Panofsky writes] about the physical and psychological criteria of the four humors and about their association with the four seasons, the four times of day and the four ages of man to tell which temperament “belongs” to each of our figures. St. John [leftmost figure, wearing a red cloak], a young man of about twenty-five, of ruddy complexion, composed and serious, yet gentle and kindly, must be the sanguine. St. Mark [third from left] — whose symbol is the lion! — is a man of middle age, and not only this, but also his greenish, “gall-colored” skin, his gnashing teeth and rolling eyes characterize him as the choleric. St. Paul [rightmost figure, wearing a white cloak], a man between fifty and sixty, domineering, forbiddingly austere (it was he who had introduced the element of asceticism into the Christian religion), and showing the “dusky face” repeatedly mentioned as a symptom of atra bilis [black bile], must be the melancholic. Finally, St. Peter [second from left], by far the oldest of the four, has a pallid, fleshy, tired countenance which, together with his downcast eyes, indicates the phlegmatic. Now, the theory of the four humors implied, not only a differentiation of physical and psychological qualities but also a hierarchy of values; and it appears that the figures dominant from a compositional point of view are also the representatives of the “noblest” temperaments. As we know, the sanguine disposition of St. John was always considered as the most balanced and desirable one; it represented, according to some, the happy condition of man before the Fall. The melancholy of St. Paul, on the other hand, had been invested by Durer’s period, and by Durer himself, with the halo of the sublime. As characters, St. Paul and St. John are as opposed to one another as the rigidity and elasticity of their postures, and the cold white and warm red of their cloaks. But both of them exemplify human nature at the height of its powers, and religious faith at the height of its assurance and intensity: perfect youth and dignified virility — gentle, yet unshakable devotion and stern, yet self-possessed strength. Set out against these maxima, or optima, are attitudes which, by comparison, are deficient either in fervor or in poise: the patient resignation of old St. Peter and the fanaticism of the excited St. Mark.... St. Paul was the hero of a new creed just as melancholy was the signature of a new human type which we call genius.... St. Paul was so universally accepted as the spiritual father of Protestantism that Protestants were called “Paulines” by friend and foe alike. [Paul had said that salvation comes “through faith [per fidem]... it is the gift of God, not of works.” Protestants likewise emphasized salvation through faith.]

St. Paul looms large in Durer’s painting partly because of his importance in Protestantism, and St. John looms large partly because he was Luther’s favorite evangelist, and Durer was a Luther fan.

I enjoyed Panofsky’s quick sketch of the Reformation in Germany:

As is always the case with revolutionary movements, the Reformation had produced a series of phenomena which by their radicalism repelled and in some cases alienated its original supporters, and forced its very founder into a “counter-revolutionary” position. Monasteries and convents were broken up by force; the peasants revolted; the poor demanded a “redistribution of wealth”; the teachings of Luther were interpreted as a justification of iconoclasm, communism and polygamy.6

One wonders what revolutions Panofsky has in mind when he says, “As is always the case with revolutionary movements...” Doubtless he has the French Revolution in mind, but what others? His remarks fit China’s Cultural Revolution, but they were written in the 1940s, and the Cultural Revolution started in the 1960s, so he couldn’t have that revolution in mind. Perhaps his remarks also fit the Reformation in England; one thinks of the Levellers, and other English radicals.

One of Durer’s friends, Pirckheimer, was so appalled by Reformation radicals that he longed for Catholicism: “The old crowd has cheated us with hypocrisy and trickery; the new one proposes to do shameful and criminal things in the open, and they pull wool over people’s eyes by saying that they ought not to be judged by their works.”

10. R. H. Blyth

I received an e-mail from someone who’s looking for R. H. Blyth’s edition of Thoreau’s Journals. My correspondent noticed that I mentioned Blyth’s edition on my website. I told him I found it at Brown’s Rare Book Library. It’s a good edition, albeit only a few dozen pages. Blyth himself recommends a longer edition, which he used to make his edition: The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals. My correspondent reminded me that Blyth also made an edition of Thoreau’s Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Hopefully, all of Blyth’s works will be available online soon.

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. Comus back
2. “On the Education of Children” back
3. See 1/16/08 issue. back
4. White Fang, “The Mad God” back
5. “The Long Trail” back
6. The Life and Work of Albrecht Durer, ch. 7 back