Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rogue Scholars (II)

 Crime, and...

In theory the most democratic land on earth should be the “Republic of Letters,” as the learned men of the eighteenth century metaphorically referred to the bourgeoning international class of scholars, intellectuals, and artists of that age.  In fact, the world of learning was long the province of wealth and social prestige.  To a greater extent than I am happy to acknowledge it still is.  I note a newspaper discussion in the last few days stimulated by an article entitled “Generation Later, Poor Still Rare at Elite Colleges”.  That could have been “Centuries Later”.

            The Rogue Scholar of today’s essay, Eugene Aram, was born in Ramsgill in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1704, the son of a gardener.  His life ended on the Knavesmire gallows at York on August 6, 1759, when he was executed for capital murder.  On the basis of some scant boyhood schooling Aram somehow, by sheer force of the intellectual will, became an autodidact with a sharp focus on languages and language theory.  He earned a paltry living as an “usher” (assistant master and general dogsbody) in a school.  For long hours at night, by candle light, he taught himself the classical and sacred tongues. 

            He was a real-life Jude Fawley (the protagonist of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) in more ways than one.  In the country town of Knaresborough he married a local slattern with whom he shared little love but lots of sex and too many children.  Motivated by vulgar cupidity, he murdered a local cobbler, Clark; but the meaning of the sudden  disappearance of this fellow, whose corpse was never found, was not at first grasped, even when Aram abandoned his numerous family and took off for parts unknown.  This was in 1745.  In London, and later at King’s Lynn in Norfolk, Aram continued his obscure career as a teacher and his ever more ambitious philological researches, which were now obsessive.  The cold case of the vanishing shoemaker warmed up in 1758 with the accidental discovery of a skeleton (not Clark’s, as it turned out) just about when, again by accident, a citizen of Knaresborough passing through Lynn, a hundred miles away, was startled to run into Eugene Aram on the street.  It had taken more than a decade, but the jig was now up.

            Aram’s trial at the York Assizes is of apparent interest to historians of English law.  The defendant, acting as his own counsel, made a brilliant speech, which has been preserved.  It proves (at the hypothetical level) that a man of such scholarly attainment was incapable of common greed, let alone base homicide.  Unfortunately, he did not refute the much less hypothetical testimony of a former confederate who ratted.  In an effort to avoid a public hanging, the philologist attempted suicide; but he was unsuccessful, and the hangman had the last word.

            Since he never occupied an academic position favorable to the publication of his scholarly findings, Aram’s philological speculations went entirely without public notice or discussion.  But surviving notes make it clear that he was in advance of the scholars of his age on at least two important questions.  He recognized, in the first place, that the relationship between Greek and Latin was a cognate one.  That is, the two languages were cousins rather than parent and child.  Secondly, although the theory of an hypothetical “Indo-European” language had not yet been formulated, he recognized that the marginal Celtic languages known in Britain were not exotic “outliers” but members of a large interrelated group that included English, the ancient classical languages, and the modern romance tongues.

            But the murderous etymologist lived on in song and story.  In eighteenth-century Britain lurid crimes and ghastly punishments were great engines of popular literature.  The “true crime” genre, still very popular, really got going then.  The “penny dreadful,” before the inflation of the nineteenth century, cost a mere farthing. Cheap broadsheets with crude but emphatic woodcuts depicted the violence.  Moralizing accounts of the criminal’s last words from the scaffold, occasionally brushing up against textual plausibility, edified the morbid spectators.  Above all, juicy crime was the stuff of the improvised song.  The gore of some of the Border ballads, in which so much of the old proletarian aesthetic is confusingly preserved, approaches parody:

And Withrington I needs must wail, as one in doleful dumps ;
For when his legs were smitten off, he fought upon his stumps.

The tradition of course was brought to America, where it took root and flourished.  Murder is an indispensable motif of our old folk music, which largely eschews bloodless crime.  You can hear a great recording of Mississippi John Hurt singing “Stagger Lee”, but you’ll probably not find an equivalent ballad devoted to “The Legend of Bernie Madoff”.

            Aram’s murder of Dan Clark was rich with potential, made for media.  He had bashed the man’s skull in, and then secreted the body in a riverside cave that had centuries earlier been the abode of a medieval hermit!  What could be more ghastly or more Gothick?  Of the dozens of poems, plays, and novels devoted to the celebrated crime of this rogue scholar, two have had considerable staying power.  Thomas Hood is a minor poet, but his art ballad “The Dream of Eugene Aram” shows that he could have been a contender.  I have never read Bulwer Lytton’ s novel Eugene Aram and can now safely say I never shall.  If writing this essay is not a sufficient stimulus to do so, I cannot imagine what would be.  Indeed I now regard my youthful perusal of The Last Days of Pompeii as an indiscretion.  But Bulwer Lytton commanded a very large audience in the Victorian era and has his readers still.