Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dante in the Sphere of the Sun

 Dominic and Francis, with Thomas Aquinas hovering (illustration to Paradiso xi)

            I cannot avoid recognizing that this essay falls clearly within the category of tooting my own horn, though I can postpone its worst excesses for a couple of paragraphs.  This year I am teaching Dante’s Paradiso at the Evergreen Forum, a local adult education program (or “geezer college”) with which I have been associated for several years.  In a community like the one in which I live there are many brilliant elders who form a large and receptive audience for courses even on difficult subjects.  That is certainly the category I might use to classify the final cantica of the Divine Comedy.  In the previous two years I taught the Inferno and the Purgatorio.  They are not exactly milk for babes, but they are driven by strong narratives full of action, character, and significant setting.  The Paradiso is more a poem of ideas—hard  theological and “scientific” ideas.  Dante knew that it would be difficult, and he wrote it for the happy few.  He gives us a mind-boggling initial canto and then, at the beginning of the second, tells his readers that if they can’t take the intellectual heat they had best get out of the poetic kitchen.  This is not a poem for ordinary readers, he says, but one for those “other few who craned your necks in time for angels’ bread, which gives us life on earth, yet never leaves us satisfied.”  It is hard enough to teach any difficult text.  To be called upon to be the chef at an angel food restaurant is beyond my pay-grade.

            We are moving rapidly through the poem and have arrived at one of my favorite parts, the cantos of the sun (10 to 13).  Dante’s “geographical” conception of Heaven is built around an ascent outward from the Garden of Eden through the spheres of the Ptolemaic system to the paradisal rose above the ninth or crystalline sphere.  The poet exploits the peculiar astronomy of all the spheres for thematic purposes, but the solar cantos are particularly rich from this point of view.  Canto 10 features a kind of dancing circle of twelve stars, each of which is the vita or living soul of a great teacher of the Church, especially academic theologians from near Dante’s own time, but including one Old Testament figure, Solomon.  (I regard the image as a prefiguration of the emblem of the European Union.)  A principal speaker in this and the following canto is Thomas Aquinas, from whom Dante, rightly described by one famous Church historian as a “pseudo-Thomist”,  took many of the structural conceits of his poem.

            The overarching theme of the “sun cantos” is the recent reinvigoration of the Church led by the founders of the two principal mendicant orders, Saint Francis and Saint Dominic.  In the eleventh canto Thomas, a member of the Dominican Order, praises Francis of Assisi and his first brethren.  Then in the twelfth canto Saint Bonaventure, most famous of Franciscan theologians, praises Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominicans or Blackfriars.  This ecumenical love-fest reveals the extraordinary importance Dante attributes to the spirituality of the friars of those two orders, who between them achieved the major evangelical revival of the thirteenth century.

            The “sun cantos” are particularly interesting to me because I spent so much of my career studying friars, particularly Franciscan friars, and their remarkable contributions to the spiritual and cultural life of the late Middle Ages.  In a book published long ago (An Introduction to the Franciscan Literature of the Middle Ages, 1977) I sought to explain how the friars’ mission, in synergy with the coming of age of the European vernacular tongues, fostered new modes of religious literature of permanent importance to European cultural history.  I pursued cognate ideas in other books and especially in numerous essays.  The enterprise was not without its ironies.  I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and I hardly started out with pious motives.  Rather, my initial interest was in the decidedly negative, not to say scurrilous manner in which admired writers like Rutebeuf, Jean de Meun, Langland and Chaucer satirized the friars of their day.  When I started out I didn’t know the difference between a friar and a monk—the emblem of an ignorance that I must say is widely shared even among professional medievalists.  But the attractive figure of Francis of Assisi was irresistible.  As Goldsmith says with regard to the good pastor of the “Deserted Village” those “fools who came to scoff remained to pray”.

            Hence I took a no doubt unseemly pleasure—and here we get to the real horn-tooting part—when I learned last fall that I was to be awarded a medal for my contributions to Franciscan Studies.  It is simply called, indeed, the Francis Medal.  It is sponsored by the Franciscan Holy Name Province, which includes St. Bonaventure’s University and its Franciscan Institute.  My awareness that I cannot possibly deserve it does nothing to qualify my pleasure at receiving it.  In fact getting what I actually deserve would probably turn out badly for me.  As this is not the kind of award generally treated in the sports pages of major newspapers, I thought I would just tell you about it myself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

To Be a Pilgrim

 on the Way of Santiago

Tomorrow night in the Princeton University Chapel the celebrated singing group “Tenebrae” will perform the “Path of Miracles” by the English composer Joby Talbot, an extraordinary choral sequence inspired by the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  The head of the sponsoring body, the Princeton University Concerts, has asked me and Joan to give a brief introductory talk.  Joan has some real credentials.  In addition to being a musician, she actually walked the roughly thousand miles from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Compostela.  Such knowledge as I have is more professorial, but I have welcomed the opportunity to think about the subject and the many happy memories with which it is associated.
Tenebrae singers
 Pilgrimage, or travel undertaken at least ostensibly to satisfy spiritual obligation or desire, characterizes all the world’s leading religions.  Pilgrimage played a particularly important role in pre-Reformation European Christianity.  Statistics show that it is by no means a spent force even today.  280,000 pilgrims picked up their certificate of completion at the Compostela Pilgrims Office in 2016.  Many more visited pilgrimage sites in Israel and Italy.  The Holy Land and Rome, indeed, as the ancient sites of the earthly ministry and Passion of Jesus Christ and the founding martyrs of the Roman church, had been the principal goals of the medieval pilgrims.  It was interference with the pilgrims’ routes that was the presenting cause of the first Crusade.   By the year 1300 there were hundreds of small, local pilgrimage sites and dozens of larger ones, including Cologne, Canterbury, Paris, Mont Saint-Michel, Monte Gargano in Apuleia, and Trondheim in Norway.  Pilgrims came to Compostela by sea and by at least four major land routes or viae, “ways”, including the famous one from Paris that began in the Latin Quarter on the rue Saint Jacques—Saint James Street.
Pilgrimage was often enough a taxing and even dangerous undertaking.  The word journey means the distance a healthy walker could cover in a day (un jour).  In the English word travel we see the French travail, work or labor, the direct reflex of which, “travail” is used mainly of the pains of childbirth.  Canon law required that long-distance pilgrims prepare their testamentary wills before departure, as there was a significant chance they would not return.  Illness, accident, local food scarcities, military activity, highway robbers—the potential dangers were many.

The remarkable music of Joby Talbot, a modern artistic response to pilgrimage, has many artistic antecedents.  For forty years I had the pleasure of teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at Princeton.  I never tired of the task, nor ever felt I had exhausted the richness of a text that remains uniquely informative in its incidental testimony concerning medieval pilgrimage.  The poet instinctively grasped the almost natural allegory that forced comparison between the journey of a life’s course and that of a slog along a dusty road.  But he captured much more, especially a sense of the extraordinary diversity of pilgrims and their motivations that is no less striking in the twenty-first century than in the fourteenth.  In any random pilgrim band, all ostensibly bound by the same vow, one might find mixed together the deeply devout, the curious, the adventurous, and those who simply had to get out of town for reasons best unmentioned.  One might be traveling with a criminal whose pilgrimage had been court-ordered.  Chaucer’s Pardoner is one of the greatest con-men in world literature.  His Wife of Bath would better described as cruising than as traveling.  Like so much in Christianity, a deeply sacramental system in which the material and the visible betokened unseen spiritual reality, the truth of any pilgrim heart could be known by God alone.

Santiago Matamoros

The Compostela pilgrimage was fabulous in its origins and uniquely bellicose in its historical development.  All pilgrimage sites cherished their relics, but he gold standard for sacred corpses was the body of one of the Twelve Apostles.  By the ninth century, they had practically all been claimed by major basilicas throughout Europe, but Saint James the Greater (son of Zebedee and brother of John the Beloved) was still surprisingly available.  He is the only Apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the Bible.  In the ninth century his remains washed up in a stone boat, or perhaps a stone coffin, on the rugged Galician headlands; and almost immediately the saint was seen on horseback and in full armor traversing the night sky at the head of a Christian army on his way to a place called Clavijo, where he aided in the defeat of a large Saracen army and began the slow southward progress generally known as the “Reconquest,” which finally culminated in 1492 with the total defeat of Muslim power on the Iberian peninsula.  In Spanish the bright part of the galaxy we call the Milky Way is called the Camino de Santiago, and the saint himself is known by the terrifying name of Matamoros, “Moor-slayer”.  The peculiar tenor of militant Spanish Catholicism, which in the Americas would have some unhappy results, was encouraged by the military order of Saint James.  The saint’s more pacific doppelgänger, the horseless pilgrim with walking staff, gourd water-bottle, and above all the scallop-shell or “cockle” hat—that is, the saint on his way to his own shrine--is more familiar and more reassuring, or perhaps more haunting.  Recall the “mad song” of Ophelia in Hamlet:

How should I your true love know
    From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
    And his sandal shoon.

Santiago peregrinus

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Russian Meddling

 Special Counsel Mueller has brought a number of indictments against some Russian cyber-villains.  Like many of my fellow citizens I found some satisfaction in this news.  After all, speculations about Mr. Mueller’s investigations, animated in equal parts by righteous indignation and wishful thinking, have claimed many square inches of type on many front pages for many months without revealing much more news than that Washington political apparatchiks often tell lies, and sometimes under oath.  It is good to see that something is happening.  But what, exactly?

The Russians are accused of meddling in the American electoral process by introducing, through fraudulently employed social media sites, false and misleading reports intended to cause political confusion, and to foster or exacerbate social, racial, and political divisions and animosities.  What makes this “meddling” is the fact that its perpetrators are foreigners without political standing as American citizens, and that by fraud they disguise their true identity and motives.  The actual content of the injurious “information” is often very similar to that of the hugely expensive television attack ads that form such an important part of many if not most of our congressional, gubernatorial, and presidential campaigns.

There have been some pretty sensational instances of phony information.  In the final months of the presidential campaign there emerged among a not insignificant section of the electorate a belief in a pseudo-scandal involving a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., named Comet Ping Pong.  The claim was that Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and perhaps other high-ranking members of the Clinton campaign were using the cover of this stromboli-emporium to run a pedophilia operation.  There was documentary proof of the criminal enterprise in Podesta’s  pirated emails, where he and/or members of his staff sometimes wrote of ordering “pizza,” this word, along with certain other alimentary denominators, being code for child sex slaves.  The manifest implausibility of this story reaches the threshold of the insane.  Nonetheless it was duly believed by a sector of the American electorate.  A righteous vigilante, rifle in hand, came up to Washington from somewhere in the South and strode into the premises of Comet Ping Pong to sort things out.

This episode was immediately named “Pizza Gate”.  Perhaps some linguist has already written the essay explaining why all scandals must now be “gates,” but I hope we might soon get beyond it.  Neither do I know whether the origins of Pizza Gate have any definite connection with Russian cyber-meddlers.  The limited research I have been able to devote to it suggests good old-fashioned home cooking.  But the conclusion that I reach is not that we have met the enemy, and it is Russian cyber-meddling; rather we have met the enemy, and we are it.

Chasing malicious foreign pranksters from Facebook cannot possibly safeguard “the integrity of the American electoral system” if a large number of American electors are invincibly ignorant.  And they are.  I refer not exclusively or even primarily to voters who are prepared to believe that the Comet Ping Pong Pizza Parlor is actually an infantile brothel—and then act upon their belief.

We too often forget just how radical is the idea behind our democracy: that every American citizen is equal in political rights to every other American citizen.  The fact that an ideal may seem to be blatantly contradicted by social reality does not mean it ceases to be an ideal, but it does invite us to examine the historical and intellectual context out of which the ideal emerged.  The Founders greatly expanded the idea of the electoral franchise as it existed in eighteenth-century England, but it was still by our current lights very narrow.  After the Civil War racial restrictions were abolished.  Early in the twentieth century the sex barrier fell.  Much more recently the age limit was lowered from the traditional twenty-one to eighteen.

There is no constitutional educational requirement for voters, and the “literacy tests” once common in southern states were actually bad-faith instruments of voter suppression.  But there was an assumption, and one upon which the health of the system depended, of the “reasonably informed” citizen.  In informal fact the level of “reasonable information” was taken to be that provided by the primary level of public education about the middle of the nineteenth century.  This included sound training in the two basic skills of literacy, and some mathematics, history, and “civics”.

There has always been a considerable gap between the ideal and the reality when it comes to a “reasonably informed” citizenry; but the fact is that these days about half of the American electorate is not merely somewhat deficient but appallingly ignorant.  At the height of the Iraq War, only sixteen percent of high school seniors were able to locate Iraq when presented with a map.  A few years ago Rick Shenkman, of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We?  Statistics answer the question.  Huge number of voters cannot name a single right from the Bill of Rights, cannot identify the three branches of government, cannot distinguish between the Senate and the House of Representatives, do not know that “Congress” has anything to do with either, cannot name their own senators or representatives, cannot define the word “judiciary”, and have not read a serious news article or analysis within the last year.  This is at a time when larger and larger numbers of young people are immersed in the Internet, often for hours a day.  According to David Brooks’s current column one sixth of the nation, across age lines, would approve of a military government for America.  Under these circumstances to identify “Russian meddling” as the great threat faced by American democracy seems just slightly myopic.   "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” Jefferson once wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be."

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Some Family History

James Alexander Davidson, ca. 1945
 Ambiguity characterized our return from the Renaissance Weekend in Santa Monica on Wednesday last.  On the one hand we had been exhilarated by a rich diet of lectures, panels, discussion groups and simple high class schmoozing among the remarkably able thought-leaders gathered in a luxury beach hotel.  One of my own talks touched upon the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, which at the beginning of the seventeenth century had modestly announced itself with the publication of a plan “for the comprehensive and thorough-going reformation of the whole wide world” addressed to “all the learned people and leaders of Europe.”  Though far less megalomaniacal, the Renaissance Weekends, festivals of ideas, do have a little of this spirit.  Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,” writes Browning, “Or what's a heaven for?”  For all of fifteen minutes I convinced myself that I understood Bitcoin.  No less enjoyable, in a somewhat different register, were two days spent with a dear old friend in his stunning Hollywood condo.  Thanks to Larry we had our first visit to the Getty Museum: magnificent art in a magnificent setting.   The “ambiguity” part began to appear on the return flight.  With each eastward mile I was getting sicker and sicker.  A nasty flu, showing utter contempt for my prudential inoculation months ago, laid me low and delayed this essay by a week.  However, resurgo, and let the deed shaw.

The Renaissance Weekends are not the Judaeo-Masonic conspiracies that the Czarist police spies once attributed to any meeting of the learned people and leaders of Europe, but they do observe an informal, consensual off-the-recordness designed to ease the candid, open and respectful exchange of experimental and sometimes conflicting ideas.  One of the most fascinating things I learned at the weekend was in the category of personal family history, and hardly politically controversial; but in identifying the midwife of my enlightenment I shall say only that she is an eminent expert in environmental law and the one-time majority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives.

My maternal grandfather, James Alexander Davidson, was born just before the Civil War and died in his nineties in the late 1950s.  He was a true Colorado pioneer, most of whose life was spent as an engineer of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, an instrument of cardinal importance in the economic history of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico.  For a time in the first decade of the last century he was a member of the Colorado legislature.  He lived in the railroad town of Salida, where my mother and her three older siblings were all born. This tale concerns her oddly named sister, my aunt Evangeline Heartz Davidson.  My brothers and I spent the War years living with my grandparents in Denver, where they had retired.  Heartz (the Evangeline part was for documentary use only) lived with her retired husband amid spacious undeveloped fields toward the edge of the city, then just about half its current size.

This man Jodie Stewart, nearly two decades her senior—he had actually been in the first war--had about him an air of mournful mystery.  He was a Mississippian, a retired Army chaplain with the rank of colonel.  He had briefly served as a Presbyterian minister in a parish, but he never talked about his civilian life, which had been indelibly stained by divorce—a huge social disgrace for his time and place and calling.  Later, when I became a reader and came upon Faulkner’s Light in August, I thought: “Uncle Jodie.  Gail Hightower!”  Aunt Heartz had no children of her own, but tried to play beneficent stepmother of Jodie’s son Gerry, another career Army officer (captain) and his wife Virginia.  This was a little awkward, given that Heartz, Gerry, and Virginia were approximately the same age.

The Stewarts had spent their married life on army bases in the Philippines.  Their furniture seemed exotic, practically all of it being made of blond palm fibers and strips of bamboo, what Heartz called “our rattan work”.  The social perceptions of a lad of seven or eight are unlikely to be authoritative, but I believe that Jodie had reached mandatory retirement in 1937 or 1938, and that his resentment at having to “miss” the war was exacerbated by the certain knowledge that his former American friends and colleagues in Manila were suffering horrors in a Japanese death camp.

Mrs. Evangeline Heartz, Populist of Arapahoe County, ca. 1915

Heartz, when asked about her name, always answered that she “had been named by an act of the legislature”.  This was true, and thanks to the help of my dynamic Renaissance contact from Boulder, I am now in possession of the details.  It’s a charming story, and rather inspiring, as it reminds us of the vibrancy of American democratic ideals long since smothered by carpets of money.  Around 1900 it was not merely possible but unexceptional for a workingman to be a citizen-legislator in a western state house.  It was more exceptional, but still possible, that one of his distinguished colleagues might be a woman not yet enfranchised to vote in Federal elections.  This would describe the situation of my grandfather (Democrat, Chaffee County) and Mrs. Evangeline Heartz (Democrat-Populist, Arapahoe County).

My source for the following is the House Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Colorado, for the session of March 7, 1902.  (Colorado of course became a state in 1876—hence the Centennial State—but the relevant documentary archive has this title.)

H.R. No. 13, by Mr. Burwell:
“Whereas, The wires announce the arrival of a little princess at the home of our esteemed fellow member, James A. Davidson, of Chaffee; be it
“Resolved, That we extend to our fellow member, the mother and the child, the good wishes of the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth General Assembly.
“May happiness light the life of this little one as our almost cloudless Colorado sun does our beloved state.
“Resolved, That the clerk be instructed to furnish the little one with a copy of these resolutions.”
The resolution was adopted.
It was further moved and seconded that the little one be named Evangeline Heartz Davidson
The motion prevailed.
The House adjourned.

A wonderful bit of true family lore, but before I wax too euphoric about the egalitarian spirit of the old republic, I do note that these same documentary records clearly show that on the day of my Aunt’s birth in Salida my grandfather was present and voting in the State House in Denver.  The easier part of childbirth is probably the handing out of the cigars.

Headwaters of the Arkansas River at Salida CO

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Town and Country

In the digital Times magazine I recently came upon an engaging essay by Wesley Morris entitled “The Cost of Being ‘Savage’ in a Supposedly Civilized World.”  It’s not exactly about philology, but it’s not exactly about politics either.  It perhaps illuminates some of the problems of what I call politology—the study of social abrasions exacerbated by a want of linguistic sophistication.  I ran into an interesting politological instance in my scholarly reading a few months ago.  In one of his numerous dedicatory sonnets to the Faerie Qveene (aka Fairy Queen)—this one addressed to the Earl of Ormond and Ossory—Spenser invites the dedicatee to accept his offering of “a simple taste of the wilde fruit which saluage soyl hath bred.”  What I take this to mean, in simpler English, is this: I wrote this poem in Ireland, and it shows.  A critical book I happened upon draws from the postured language of this obscure poem a plenary indictment of Spenser’s imperialism—indeed of three centuries of English foreign policy.  And the adjective savage is “racist.”

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner as they (supposedly) say in France. To understand all is to forgive all.  I don’t believe that, but I do want to suggest that even full-throated condemnation is more plausible when founded in a certain degree of linguistic comprehension.  When it comes to city slickers and country bumpkins such comprehension might begin with an acknowledgement of our tongue’s undisguised bias against the country, also known as the sticks, the boonies, the backofbeyond, flyover country, rural idiocy, etc., etc.

At first blush our old literature often idealizes rustic life.  Cicero celebrates what modern sociologists call the “twilight farm”—that place that most of us dream of retiring to.  Rural simplicity trumps urban complexity in several of Horace’s poems.  One of the most famous meters of Boethius extolls the human felicity of the Golden Age—a mythic time prior not merely to urbanization, political organization, and commerce, but even before the first plow had cut the first furrow.  But if we look to philological history, all that is exposed as philosophical posturing.  Cities are good, the countryside—not so much so.

Let us briefly revisit savage.  It would be hard to find unambiguously benign uses of that word in today’s English.  But Spenser, who loves to write in pseudo-ye-olde half Latin, has the form saluage.  The U is in there because in written Latin there was no distinction between the vocalic and the consonantal (V) graphemes.  We still write double-V (W) but call it double-U.  But the intrusive L shows you that Spenser knew that what was savage was characteristic of the silva, that is, the forest or woodland.  Now it seems to me that living in a forest is not, in and of itself, evidence of moral turpitude.  Yet aside from some Romantic authors from Rousseau to Fenimore Cooper, most folks would seem to think so.  Live in a city (civitas) and you are civil and enjoy civilization.  Live in the woods and you are a savage practicing savagery.  Live on a rural route in the country (rus, ruris) and be a rustic.  Live in a town (urbs) and be urbane.

The examples of this sort of thing in English are very numerous.  An annotated glossary could easily make a volume.  Here I have time for but a few, beginning perhaps with villain.  This word in modern American English is limited to literary usage, meaning the bad guy (almost always masculine) in a work of dramatic or narrative fiction.  From there we derive the general metaphoric sense of “the villain of the piece,” meaning the bad actor in any number of situations.  But if you watch enough British cop shows on Netflix you will hear the word used of actual criminals.  Yet a “villain” was originally simply a person living in or associated with a villa, or farmhouse.  Thence came the associations of low social status characteristic of indentured agricultural labor in the medieval feudal system and also, of course, of all the vile characteristics of such persons as viewed through the eyes of their social superiors.

Farmers have gotten a particularly bad linguistic rap.  The German word for “farmer” Bauer, is still relatively neutral, though it is not entirely free of the negative social implications of peasant and other Romance terms derived from Latin pagus (a rural area), which also gives us pagan.  The old Germanic root seems to have meant simply a “dweller” or “inhabitant”, and in old agrarian societies the dwelling place was the country-side.  But the Dutch version, boer (as in the Boer War) hints at what happened in English.  If you came from down on the farm you were likely to be a boor, pick your nose, eat your gruel with your fingers, fart in church, and do other unpleasant, boorish things.  What is uncouth can also be comical.  This fact perhaps explains the semantic development of the word clown.  Though more linguistically obscure than the other examples I have given, clown was another term for countryman or farm hand.  Ben Jonson wanted to connect the word with Latin colonus, a dweller in a particular region, but I have my doubts.  From its first early modern appearances it seems to invite the associations of risible contempt that come with yokel, which first appears in sporting lingo of the nineteenth century.  This word, says the great philologist C. T. Onions, is “identical in form with the dialectical yokel green woodpecker, yellowhammer, of which it may be a figurative application.”  Who knew?  But better a peckerwood than a savage.

My next post will probably be delayed, once again, as we shall be for a spell in indisputably urban Santa Monica.  Harry Shearer, a very funny guy whose weekly show I used to listen to on NPR, called Santa Monica “the home of the homeless.”  We have social problems in this country so severe that you’ve got to laugh if you are going to keep from weeping.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Dana's Travels, and Mine

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

From the two mini-posts of the last week a faithful reader will know that I spent some of it traveling by car with my granddaughter Sophia over a somewhat erratic course from Little Rock in Arkansas to Murfreesboro in Tennessee.  It was a wonderful experience, worthy of an extended essay of its own, did I not feel obliged to return to more professorial pastures.  Thus I mention only its one down-side.  I left Princeton with a mildly infected tooth, which abandoned the mildness part on my way to the airport.  I would not have believed that it is possible crave root canal work  “like as the hart panteth after the water brooks," but I did, and achieved it within hours of my return.  This seamless segue brings me to today’s real subject, and that is Richard Henry Dana’s wonderful book, Two Years Before the Mast.

I always travel with some book or another, even when I know that the opportunities for actual reading will be few and brief.  And I want a real book, not an electronic device.  I grabbed my Library of America edition of Dana mainly on the basis of its comparative slimness.  Dana (born in 1815) was a Harvard undergraduate in 1834 when he fell dangerously ill with an attack of measles that threatened his eyesight.  The recommended therapy of the day was fresh air and travel.  What the medicos had in mind was probably something like a cossetted visit to Baden-Baden, but Dana, thinking outside the box, instead signed up as a common merchant sailor on a boat sailing to California to gather a vast load of cowhides to bring back to Boston.  His account of his experiences is not merely one of the world’s greatest sea stories; it has deservedly achieved the status of a literary classic.  No less is it precious as a witness of social history.

On the return journey, as the crew faced the daunting prospect of rounding Cape Horn in terrible winter storms, Dana was attacked by an infected tooth, facial swelling that seemed to double the size of his head, and agonizing pain.  There was no root canal for him, nor palliative medicaments of any kind.  The few drops of laudanum in the medicine chest had to be saved in case something “serious” arose.  He just had to tough it out.  Wooden ships and iron men, indeed!  This narrative episode was naturally of special interest to me under the circumstances, but it was not what struck me most forcibly about Dana’s book.

Dana was among the first Americans (meaning here, as it generally did in his time, citizens of the U.S.) to visit and describe California, then a Mexican backwater, though destined to be the great dynamo of western expansion and to this day a beckoning American mythscape.  Dana never got far inland.  He spent a year coasting back and forth between San Francisco and San Diego, stopping at the few sleepy mission settlements for periods of back-breaking labor required by the cowhide trade.  But he was a sharp observer and a plain speaker, and his judgments of the californios (Hispanic Californians) are arresting.

The heroic version of the “Turner thesis” that was the stuff of my primary schooling—rugged, aspirational Anglo-Saxons and other European pioneers manifesting national destiny with yoked oxen, plowshares, and pickaxes—had already been supplanted, by the time of my children’s schooling by a grimmer, racialized legend featuring distilled greed, rapine, and genocide.  Anyone who has watched Ken Burns’s “The West” will be familiar with its drift.  Dana’s description of Californian society fifteen years before the Gold Rush is from this point of view fascinating.  He sees a sparsely populated, backward and culturally desolate colonial outpost abandoned to political corruption and misgovernment by a distant and ineffective Mexican capital.  It is riven with race-based social inequities, with the mission Indians oppressed in de facto servitude.  The social dynamic, if one can call it that, is the privileged indolence of Castilian blood.  Here we have a country, writes Dana, “embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast, with several good harbors; with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate, than which there can be no better in the world; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold.  In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!”  But, alas, according to Dana, the whole land seems subject to “the ‘California fever’ (laziness).”

At the time of the Gold Rush there were precious few real American authorities on California.  Two Years Before the Mast sold like hotcakes among the rushers eager for any authentic information, even the incidental musings of a seafaring Harvard undergraduate, about the new land of their dreams.  And they doubtless thought of themselves as “an enterprising people”.  Dana himself was very far from a jingoist or a money-grubber.  Indeed he was a man of high principles and admirably progressive opinions.  Before the Civil War he was an ardent abolitionist.  After the War he was a civil rights activist.  His major cause was the amelioration of the state of the working classes, especially the merchant mariners whose life he had shared and permanently memorialized in a literary masterpiece.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Interim Report

A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words.  This one is worth more than that, and way more than the unwritten eight or nine hundred that I chose to sacrifice last week while I played hooky from GLGT to drop in on a road trip undertaken by our eldest granddaughter, Sophia.   She is in the process of switching jobs and coasts and was driving with all her gear from Los Angeles to New York.  According to Alexa, that’s 2,797 miles by the quickest Interstate route.  Sophia, giving the interesting priority over the hasty, added the better part of another thousand miles to that.  She picked me up in the Little Rock airport on Monday morning and we drove north to my old homestead in Baxter County, now occupied by my cousin Millie and her husband Doug, lovely people with whom we had a delightful, mellow visit.  It was a joy to introduce Sophia to parts of my youth that thus far have been for her only legendary.  We stomped around the farm a very little bit, enough to verify visually that my own couple of hundred adjoining acres still seem to be there, and indulged in a long show-and-tell with family memorabilia.  The next day we drove eastward toward Memphis—meaning that we had made half of the full circuit of the most beautiful parts of the Ozarks.  From Memphis we drove next morning to Murfreesboro, in Middle Tennessee, where we had lunch with John and Betty Dixon, the parents of our daughter-in-law Katie.  I don’t know any technical term for that particular status of relationship, so “superb hosts” will have to do.  Thence Sophia drove on eastward without me, and I flew home from Nashville the next day.  I reckon I made only about fifteen percent of Sophia’s miles with her, but I think that neither she nor I shall soon forget them. 

O, yes, the photograph.  Here are granddaughter and grandfather on the bank of the White River at the spot where the Shipps Ferry Road deadends, about seven miles south of Mountain Home, Arkansas.  The ferry had long since disappeared like so much of my childhood.  But Old Man River—he just keeps rolling along.  May the beauty last forever.