Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Israel Potter

Spasms of virtue have been a curse in my life, sort of like the grand mal seizures suffered by epileptics, only we don’t call them grands bons.  One came upon me a couple of weeks ago.  It occurred to me that though the clock keeps ticking, I still had never read Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities.  I was determined to read one or the other of them.  I am prepared to allow that, as existential crises go, this one is pretty rarefied.  I realize that there are probably many quite sensible people prepared to meet their Maker without having ever read Pierre, or the Ambiguities; but they may not be retired professors of English.  So I metaphorically girded my loins and reached for the relevant volume of Library of America.

There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world.  Not bad, I guess, but I still had 140,000 words to go.  Then God sent me a message.  I actually nodded in my easy chair, just for a millisecond, and the book fell from my grasp, closing as it dropped into my lap.   When I reopened it, somewhere toward its thick middle, it was fortuitously at the title page of a completely different novel: Israel Potter, His Fifty Years of Exile.  I am not sure that I had even heard of this title before, but as though responding to the command of some invisible power, I abandoned Pierre Glendenning in favor of Israel Potter.

Israel Potter is an historical novel—sort of.  When it appears as a Netflix film it will be prefaced by the claim “Based on a True Story”.  But modern sociology teaches us that the superstructures erected atop even firm foundations may be rather rickety.  Here’s the story, the rudiments of which Melville found in an obscure autobiography, dictated by or ghosted for its author in the 1820s.  Israel Potter was born into a pioneer colonial family in what is now Vermont somewhere around 1750.  Youthful disappointment in love led him to flee his rustic family farm in favor of the life of the loner-adventurer.  He first became a trapper, following the life of the Canadian mountain men.  Later, he went to sea, a part of the burgeoning merchant marine industry that was a mainstay of the New England economy from early times.  In June of 1775 he was conveniently in port in Boston when the Battle of Bunker Hill went down.  If he didn’t personally fire the shot heard round the world, he still played no mean part in those famous early encounters with the Redcoats.  As the Revolution got serious, the Continentals desperately needed a navy.  They were facing the greatest naval power the world had ever known.  So Potter, an experienced seaman, became an American sailor.  Very soon his vessel was captured by the Brits, and the whole crew shipped as prisoners back to England.  In England this was thought of as “military recruitment.”  There were not all that many young men who truly volunteered for the life of a common sailor on a man-of-war in the service of King George.  But Potter was a hard case, and thrown into chains.

This is where the possible historical part wanes, and the unquestionably novelistic part takes off.  The rest of the book is the account of repeated escapes, recaptures, narrow scrapes, marvelous adventures with famous men, and decades of proletarian misery as a fugitive in the dark Satanic mills of industrial poverty.  Potter was finally repatriated only in 1826, arriving in the Back Bay of Boston on the Fourth of July.  Nobody remembered him, certainly not the American government, which denied him a pension “by certain caprices of the law.”  No one ever knew (save Melville), the details of Potter’s service as a secret diplomatic courier between radical sympathizers in Britain and Ambassador Benjamin Franklin in Paris, that he had served as chief lieutenant to John Paul Jones in that madcap admiral’s most desperate exploits, including the combat with HMS Serapis in which a saber slash across Potter’s chest joined with the signs of an ancient wound at Bunker Hill to render him the “bescarred bearer of a cross,” or that he had witnessed the disgraceful treatment of the American hero Ethan Allen in his British captivity.  So far as I know he never met the infant Abraham Lincoln or Sojourner Truth, but otherwise it was pretty much a clean sweep of our early notables.  Particularly memorable is the “portrait” of Benjamin Franklin in his Paris rooms.  His American contemporaries practically idolized the man, to whom they always gave the honorific “Doctor,” and whom they regarded as a combination of Rousseau, Kant, and the great naturalist, the Compte de Bouffon.  Here is Israel’s account of his first glimpse of the great man: Wrapped in a rich dressing-gown—a fanciful present from an admiring Marchesa—curiously embroidered with algebraic figures like a conjuror’s robe, and with a skull-cap of black satin on his hive of a head, the man of gravity was seated at a huge claw-footed old table, round as the zodiac.  It was covered with printed papers; files of documents; rolls of MSS.; stray bits of strange models in wood and metal; odd-looking pamphlets in various languages; all sorts of books; including many presentation-copies; embracing history, mechanics, diplomacy, agriculture, political economy, metaphysics, meteorology, and geometry….

Israel Potter is one of Melville’s minor works.  The funny thing about minor works, though, is that you first have to have some major works against which they can be judged slighter.  Everything about the great writer is here, especially his fastidiously researched details, his wit, his keen sense of narrative, and his boldness of symbolic conception (Israel in the brick factories of Egypt being one particularly brilliant touch).  But the thing that struck me most is the book’s enthusiastic patriotism.  Melville was no political patsy or company man.  One of his themes is the unseemly haste with which Americans were already able by mid-century to forget their revolutionary origins.  His sense of irony never grows dull from periods of long disengagement.  But for him the American Revolution was irrevocably about human freedom, and those who won it were the champions of the whole human race.  This was still the national consensus expressed in the Fourth of July celebrations of my own early years.  You won’t find much like it in the editorial pages of our opinion-makers today.  Of course there is still the minor problem of Pierre, or the Ambiguities.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

How I Became a Famous Scholar

 D. D. Home Getting a Rise Out of His Aucience

One of my two academic children, the anthropological one in Montreal, recently approached me to voice concern about my scholarly Nachlass.  I use the German term, which is slightly less spooky than the English relics or remains.  Luke knows that I have written quite a lot of stuff over the years, including boxfulls of still unpublished papers, just lying around. What is worse from a scholar’s perspective is that I do not even have a complete list, or bibliography, of published works.   He wants all this to be available to the world; and it speaks eloquently of his character that the legacy that concerns him is this one.

This is where comes in.  Luke suggested it is the solution to the Nachlass problem. is a huge platform, a single vast composite scholarly journal where academics can display their work, completed or in progress, and discover interesting work by other scholars.  It is a showcase of brainy Zuckerbergian “connectivity”. Many famous scholars participate, include numerous of my friends and old students.  It seems to be particularly well-patronized by younger scholars, for whom it can serve as a professional showcase.  The Academicians tell you how many readers you have, how many times your name has been mentioned by others.  It’s sort of like Tinder, as I understand it, except that position aimed for is not temporary and horizontal but vertical and tenured.

I actually had signed up a long time ago, though I had forgotten.  I forgot, too, that I had even published an essay there—a piece about Delmore Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”. I won’t tell you how I came to write that.  But since I clearly didn’t understand the system, my method of presenting it was as effective as filing it in a locked drawer.  So I needed to begin again.  The first scholarly squibs I committed to posterity are probably in the pages of Notes & Queries around 1963.  Pending further searching, I can do nothing more on that score. But my very first published essay I did remember well.  It dealt with philological minutiae in Browning’s dramatic dialogue “Mr. Sludge the Medium”.  The model for the satirized subject of this poem was a famous Hiberno-American spiritualist, D. D. Home (1833-1886), who had a sensational international career as a psychic, clairvoyant, levitator and table-rapping medium.  Browning obviously thought him a humbug.  Home had emigrated to America as a boy and spent his years of linguistic formation in upstate New York before returning to Britain to conduct séances for the rich and famous.  It occurred to me in reading “Mr. Sludge” that among other objects of Browning’s scorn were possible Americanisms in Home’s English.  They are the subject of “Browning’s Yankee Medium”, which was published in the journal American Speech, vol. 29, in 1964.  Were I to write a précis of this brief essay it would go something like this: “A seminar paper dealing with some minor philological points in a poem you have never read by a Victorian poet most people have forgotten.”  I mounted this paper into my barren niche at

What happened next was dramatic.  Within twenty-four hours my paper had attracted one thousand, three hundred readers from all over the interconnected world. congratulated me upon being, at the moment, among the top 1.6% humanistic scholars in their whole outfit.  They further suggested that I upgrade from the free service to “Academia Prime,” which I could do for the mere pittance of a hundred bucks.  The advantages of Academia Prime, though actually a little opaque to me, clearly promised yet more cossetting of the ego, and I sprang for it.  Maybe I could get it down to 1.5%?  Having satisfied the demands of historical priority, I then set out more seriously to implement Luke’s suggested plan, which was to begin by posting now and again a previously unpublished essay in conjunction with one that, though published, was to be found only in a rather obscure place.  As the example of the former I mounted “The Many Musics of Luís de Camões,” a literary-musico study of the Portuguese epic poet.  From the latter group I sought out an underappreciated essay on the relics of Thomas à Becket in his medieval shrine at Canterbury.  The first of these is merely brilliant, the second transcendentally so.

You can accordingly imagine my puzzlement at what can at best be described as a muted response from the Internet.  I did not attract thirteen hundred new readers.  Five people took a look at the Camões essay; that was the same number that over a period of probably three years had read my essay on dreams.  However, nobody had looked at the masterpiece on the Becket relics.

A few nights ago, at a friend’s book-launching party, I talked with an eminent nonagenarian colleague with whom I had not conversed in many months.  He told me he was writing a book.  That did not surprise me.  He has written many fine books, one of his themes in retirement being his youthful military service as an aviator in World War II.  But the subject of the work-in-progress did surprise me: Shakespeare’s King Lear.  He said he had at last understood the essence of Lear’s tragedy, as crystallized in a terrible scene (iv, 7) in which the King in his insanity is able to recognize neither his loving daughter Cordelia nor his faithful liegeman Kent.  The King says I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward…a likely prospect for a upgrade, I’d say.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Menacing Medievalists

A very large convention of medievalists is about to convene in Kalamazoo, MI; and in this regard our newspaper of record on Sunday published a lengthy article that has fluttered the medieval dovecotes by advertising Medieval Studies as another battlefield in the culture wars.  Specifically a growing group of medieval scholars, generally of the younger generation and of radical political stripe, are attacking "traditional" Medieval Studies for fostering racism and other criminal bigotries, and particularly for providing aid and comfort of proponents of white nationalism and hawkers of white supremacy.  Members of an emergent group called "Medievalists of Color" have become prominent in the discussion.

Medieval Studies have by no means been exempt from controversies.  A lot of my own career has involved debate and polemic.   A fruitful ferment is not foreign to any aspect of humanistic study. Disciplinary expansion and adjustment is more or less constant.  There is an unceasing undertow of intellectual revisionism, new models and schools of thought, improved techniques, new “approaches”, many accompanied by new insults to the English language in the “foregrounding of marginalized voices” and that sort of thing.  Engagement with “real-world” problems is a common aspiration.  Ivory tower types are an endangered species.   There is also the ambiguous operation of a generational or Oedipal imperative.  Young scholars may be inclined to revere their mentors but they also want their jobs.  There are still happy evidences of the ancient apprentice system in academic life, but young people do seek their place in the sun.  The possession of tenure, while not exactly the Olympian superiority of Christminster port-drinkers to the blighted aspirations of Jude the Obscure, can seem oppressive to the untenured.  Tenure once gained, the transformative process by which the Young Turk becomes the Old Fart is a mysterious one which few of us who have experienced it can date with specificity, and none who has not yet can even imagine. 

The term “Medieval Studies” is a rather vague one, denoting no sharply defined object of study or particular scholarly discipline or approach.  But if the term is elastic it is not unbounded.  “Medieval” is an adjective used in European languages to identify an historical period.  If you know a little Latin you can see that it must be a medial period between two other ages.  The pre-medieval period is often called the “Ancient World” or “Classical Antiquity.”  The “age” following is “the Renaissance”.  The period, roughly, is 500-1500.  These are manifestly Eurocentric categories.  But a millennium is a very long time and Europe is a very big space populated by vastly different peoples, frequently on the move.  Medievalists include historians, literary scholars, experts in the history of art and architecture, archaeologists, liturgists, archivists and codicologists, dendrochronologists, musicologists and numerous other ists.   It is all great fun, but the price of admission for most distinguished medievalists, really knowing one’s way around a vast Latin literature, requires years of apprenticeship.  The idea that Medieval Studies is some kind of narrow or parochial enterprise is ludicrous.

The Medieval Academy of America, of which I once had the honor of serving as President for a year, was founded not a hundred years past.  Its mission: teaching, scholarship, and useful publication of materials.  The Academy’s founders were mainly learned Harvard historians and philologists; its headquarters remain to this day in Cambridge, MA.  Like the rest of the human race, they were products of their time.  Among the greatest of them was Charles Homer Haskins (in those days academic gravitas, which Haskins had aplenty, nearly required three sonorous names).  He was a man of parts who had been among President Wilson’s most important lieutenants, an energetic administrator, a master of ancient and modern languages, and a superb writer.  I still recommend his great book, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927) to people wanting to sample the intellectual excitement of one enduring style of Medieval Studies.

According to the Times, the field of Medieval Studies is inherently “conservative”.  I don’t know that this is true, but I hope it is.  Obviously I do not speak of the “politics” of its practitioners.  In my experience the political profile of medievalists in American and European universities is not much different from that characteristic of other large swaths of the academic humanities, meaning that by large majority they are leftists.  But the twin traditional aims of academic study have been the conservation of old knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge.  Very often the new challenges, modifies, or even demolishes the old.  But only cultural Philistines, fascist book-burners and Communist cultural revolutionaries glory in intellectual vandalism.  It was a very foolish librarian who threw away his Shakespeare first folio once the second had issued from the press.  As the recent fire at Notre-Dame de Paris might remind us, the material relics of medieval Europe remain pitifully vulnerable; and that is no less true of its great spiritual and intellectual legacies.  God bless the conservators.

One of the madder aspects of current political polemic is a free-for-all iconographic frenzy—a kind of Rorschach test in which the inkblots are linked by trip-wires to contemporary cultural anxieties—that fosters alarming interpretations of strange signs and symbols like Pepe the Frog or the circling of the index finger and thumb of the human hand.  That some racist marchers in Charlottesville carried emblems similar to that on the shield of the Knights Templar, which actually says absolutely nothing about the opinions or methods of medieval historians, is cited in the Times’s bill of particulars.  A fair amount of my own scholarly energy was spent in iconographic analysis.  It ought not be a casual pastime. 

One might recall another such episode of cultural illiteracy.  Rudyard Kipling, who died in 1936, had in the 1880s, some years before the birth of Adolph Hitler, adopted as his personal icon of good luck an ancient Indo-European emblem popular with Indian Hindus, among many other groups.  In medieval European heraldry the sign is called the croix gammée or cramponnée.  We all know it as the swastika.  Many early editions of Kipling’s works are decorated with this ornament.  Kipling was fanatically “anti-Hun”.  He practically moved heaven and earth to get his son into the Great War, in which he perished.  In his last years his attitude toward Chancellor Hitler was no more friendly than that toward Kaiser Wilhelm had been.  Nonetheless there is a fairly copious left-wing literature of the Thirties indicting Kipling for Nazism.  The iconography of his good luck charm was said to confirm his imperialism and jingoism.

Several of the more bizarre charges of today concern the alleged medievalism of the Confederate States of America.  But the cavaliers of the South were reading Sir Walter Scott, not Marsilius of Padua.  Scott was no less entitled to his version of the Middle Ages than were other nineteenth-century writers like Marx, Ruskin, Carlyle, Pugin, the brothers Grimm, Maitland, the younger Troeltsch--or for that matter Gilbert and Sullivan: “Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high Aesthetic band / If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand.”  The same indulgence is of course available to the Medievalists of Color, as also to those of colorlessness.  Let a thousand flowers bloom—unchoked by the tares of virtue-signalling and political correctness.  But the way to handle ideas you don’t like is to examine and dispute—not censor—them.

The white supremacists in the Charlottesville march are advocates of inchoate but reprehensible ideas that have no purchase in American intellectual life.  The totalitarian political movements of the twentieth century, Fascist and Communist alike, had widespread representation in European cultural life, including in its universities.  If there is a self-identified American fascist or white supremacist on any American campus, I have yet to hear of that person; and I am inclined to be skeptical of political “identifications” volunteered by others.  The idea that our contemporary racists are inspired by serious medieval scholarship of any stripe is absurd.

It is my opinion that we have too many Harrisons in our academic institutions.  I refer to an imaginary character in a well-known Frost poem.  “Harrison loves my country too, /But wants it all made over new…/his mind is hardly out of his teens:/With him the love of country means/Blowing it all to smithereens/And having it all made over new.”  There are other approaches.
In 1823 the great philologist, historian, and medievalist Ernest Renan was born into a Breton landscape still physically maimed by the violence of the Revolution.  He was raised in the reactionary intellectual milieu of the Catholic “rechristianization” of the French countryside and trained for the priesthood.  His profound researches into Christian origins occasioned his abandonment of Christianity.  His intense lifelong secular faith would become that of the political Liberals—a term meaning roughly what it means in American English today.  Since he wrote about so much, including the origins of the nation state and the role of inconsistently defined “race” in its development, he has not escaped a certain amount of contemporary opprobrium.  In his own lifetime his deeply reverent but demythologizing Life of Jesus (1863), an international bombshell bestseller, was hardly less influential than the nearly contemporaneous work of Darwin in shaking the already crumbling foundations of the old creedal faith.  A reactionary pope called him “the arch-blasphemer of Europe”.  Late in his life this son of the Antichrist wrote as follows in the preface of a charming memoir of his youth.

In seeking to add to the treasury of truths which comprise the capital acquired by the human race, we are the successors of our pious ancestors, who loved the good and the true in the form received in their time.  The most distressing error is to believe that one serves one’s country in the calumny of those who founded it.  All a nation’s ages are the leaves in the same book.  The true progressives are those who begin with a profound respect for the past.  All that we do, all that we are, is the culmination of a time-honored labor.  As for me, I am never more firm in my Liberal faith than when I dream of the miracles of the ancient faith…

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Three Against One

I have on my shelves an incomplete set (seven of the eight volumes), rather garishly bound in a bright blue buckram with lavish gold stamping, of Edward Arber’s An English Garner: Ingatherings from Our History and Literature.  An unsigned inscription on the flyleaf of the first volume reads “To James Abel Esq in memory of the editor of this series May 1913”—that is, precisely 106 years ago.  The publication dates of the various numbers are curiously specific, that of the first volume being “15 Nov. 1877”.  Arber was a transitional figure in the history of British literary scholarship.  Born in 1836, a year before Victoria ascended the throne, he died in 1912 in the early years of George V.  During his lifetime the study of literature moved from amateur antiquarianism toward more solid bibliographical science.  Arber, who became the first Professor of English Literature at Birmingham, represented both the old and the new.  His Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (1875–94) and three-volume Term Catalogues, mainly published at his own expense, were major scholarly contributions.  The miscellanies printed in the Garner show his more antiquarian instincts.

There is a clue to Arber’s sensibility in the two authors from whom he took title-page epigraphs. From Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614) we get this: “Yea, History hath triumphed over Time; which besides it nothing but Eternity hath triumphed over.”  And there is a single phrase from Milton’s Areopagitca: “[Who shall silence all the] Airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers.”  One major theme of Arber’s prose collections is the greatness of English sea-power, particularly in the sixteenth century.  And he anthologizes a very large amount of Tudor and Caroline poetry and song, much of it by famous hands and now available in smart scholarly editions, some of it still rightly obscure and bordering on the unreadable. 

One of the maritime themes favored by Arber are tales of combat, especially three-against-one combat.  There may well be a study of this genre or theme somewhere; there certainly ought to be.  I suspect that it may be related the theological commonplaces of the “three enemies of man” (world, flesh, and devil) and the scriptural cognate of the “three temptations” (lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, pride of life).  Nor do I doubt that it is related to the various tales of three wishes, three obstacles, three challenges, etc., so frequent in European folklore.  Arber would appear to have been an enthusiastic Victorian imperialist, certain that any Briton of any historical period was capable of taking on any three foreign combatants, especially if they happened to be Catholics resident in parts below the Olive Oil Line.  I first became aware of this attitude in Sir Thomas Urquart’s spirited account of the mano-a-mano trifecta performed by the Admirable Crichton at the Court of the Duke of Milan in 1592.  Crichton’s unadmirable reward, of course, was base Italianate perfidy.

I turn to my blue-clad Arbers from time to time either when moved by whimsy or when mentally jostled to do so by some emergent event.  It was the horrible Easter terrorism in the churches in Sri Lanka that sent me back to the first volume, where (I recalled) a certain Robert Knox, one among so many unfortunate mariners, gives an account of his captivity on that island between 1660 and 1679.  The coastal cities of the island were under the control of vying European powers, but the interior (called by Knox “the Kingdom of Conde Uda in the island of Ceylon”) was a heart of darkness, which swallowed up Knox as in Conrad the Congo would swallow up Kurtz.  But Knox at length escaped to write about it.  One thing led to another and I soon enough found myself perusing a piece actually entitled Three Against One. It purports to be the autobiographical account of an English merchant-warrior, one Richard Peeke of Tavistock in Devon, who in 1625 took part in a sanguinary Anglo-Dutch assault on the Spanish military stronghold at Cadiz.  The Protestants had great success from their ships.  They drove the defenders from the fort and captured it.  Imprudently rushing ashore, Peeke was  captured, severely wounded, and placed under sentence of death.  His sporting captors, however, offered him one chance for survival—if he could first sustain battle against three Spanish champions.  The Spaniards were armed with rapiers and poniards.  Peeke’s weapon of choice was an iron halfstaff from which the halberd-head had been removed, but with a “small pike” still one end.  With this formidable tool he immediately knocked one adversary to the ground dead and soon enough disarmed the other two. His captors, irate but honorable, set him free to walk 1500 kilometers to a French port from which he might find a ship bound for England.

Maritime (mis)adventure is a major subject of our early modern prose.  One endlessly fascinating quarry is the collection in many volumes of Hakluyt’s Voyages, also on my shelves; but the great classic remains Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe. Even in the “truest” accounts it may be hard to distinguish the vero from the ben trovato; one must take Peeke’s narrative with an ample pinch of old salt.  An Anglo-Irish bishop is supposed to have remarked that he “doubted a good deal” of Gulliver’s Travels!  In the same vein I think it’s safe to trust “certain parts of” Three Against One.

It is clear that the disaster of the Armada of 1588 had not quelled Spanish military ambitions against England and that the Spanish authorities ran an excellent intelligence operation that gave them detailed knowledge of the fortifications at Plymouth and other English ports.  All this came out during Peeke’s interrogations at the inland military headquarters in Jérez (“Sherrys”, that viticultural capital that was a Mecca for Falstaff and so many other topers of the Elizabethan period).  The attitude taken toward him by his Spanish captors oscillated between competing impulses—an incandescent hatred of Protestant heresy and a medieval chivalry that honored courage and prowess in ceremonial combats.  Fortunately for Master Peeke, it was the latter that prevailed.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Thoughts About High School

At a recent birthday party for an old friend I met an obviously talented high school history teacher who teaches at a huge school—it looks to be about the size of the Pentagon—that I used occasionally to drive by in my suburban expeditions.  It is located in a rapidly developing part of Middlesex County that transitioned from potato farms to tracts of McMansions in what seemed like a trice, certainly during the active lifetime of one pickup truck.  Even the most casual observer will note, passing along its freshly landscaped borders, the evidences of a significant immigration of persons of subcontinental Asian origin—a detail not without significance to my current musings.  For as the field of competition for the Democratic presidential nomination takes shape, I have found myself particularly interested in some of the various ideas concerning education that are beginning to emerge.

As I see it, there are at least two major questions about our high schools that should greatly concern Americans.  This first is this: do our schools, in general, set a high enough standard when compared with the schools in other prosperous nations?  The answer to this is “No”—in my opinion a resounding “No”--but as the question is seldom so much as asked, I leave it aside from this essay.  The second is this: what accounts for the marked disparity in educational outcomes of our high school students along racial lines.  This question is frequently asked, and frequently answered.  But how good are the answers?

The Federal Government first became seriously involved in secondary education in 1965, the year I began teaching college. In connection with the “War on Poverty”, the Johnson administration commissioned an ambitious sociological survey of American public schools in an attempt to pinpoint as accurately as possible the facts of the racial achievement gap and its larger sources.  The so-called Coleman Report of 1966 drew attention to a dramatic chasm of about a full standard deviation separating the academic achievement of black and white students in our high schools.  Race itself was an important correlating factor in educational success, along with levels of parental education and family income.  Local budgetary factors—class size, and per-student expenditure—were relatively minor factors.

Lots of people saw the Coleman Report as a wake-up call.  Our government educational experts didn’t wake up, exactly, but they did go on a spending spree.  Over the next half century per-capita expenditure on the public schools roughly quadrupled.  Kids were given head starts.  No child was left behind.   With what concrete results?  A new major study—we’ll call it Son-of-Coleman—has just summarized the state of the achievement gap for American children born between 1954 (the year of my graduation from high school, as it happens) and 2001.  Simplifying only slightly, the needle has barely moved!  The efforts of the last fifty years, which were far from trivial, half-hearted, unimaginative or niggardly—have failed even to dent the problem of racially disparate educational outcomes in the public schools.  There is still essentially a full standard deviation separating the performance of black and white students. 

A problem so huge and so persistent is unlikely to have a single or a simple cause, but there is in my opinion one major factor that too seldom commands serious discussion because of its intractability and social sensitivity.  That is the traditional educative role of the family, as opposed to that of the school.  My two Montreal grandchildren have been with us over Easter, and yesterday my six-year-old grandson took me for a little walk.  We saw many interesting things to discuss: flowers, birds, the worms that had been driven to the surface by a heavy rain some hours earlier.  Since in his school they speak French as well as English we tried to identify objects of interest in both languages.  We stopped to admire a lush clover patch.  He knew about clover, and about the lucky four-leaf instances thereof.  But he didn’t know the French: trèfle.  He repeated the word, amending instinctively and without comment my lame pronunciation.  How could there be such different words for the same thing?  That led me to English trefoil, thence to bibliographical folios, thence to what it might mean “to turn over a new leaf”.

It is hard not to make this sound like a philological seminar rather than what it was, a perfectly natural conversation between a young boy and his old grandfather.  Yet, like dozens of other daily exchanges he has with his parents, it will certainly be a small part of the foundation upon which the boy’s formal education can be constructed.  The schools can do a great deal, but they are much better at building on a foundation than at laying one.  That has since time immemorial been the task of parents and other familiar elders.  This brings me back to the high school teacher of my first sentence.  She teaches elective Advanced Placement courses in history.   Performance in AP courses (sometimes called “college preparatory” courses) is measured by a single nationally administered test that aims to establish an objective and uniform standard.  The degree to which this goal is achievable is not beyond debate, but I know from personal experience that the College Board, which administers the program, strives mightily to achieve it.  For several years I was on the committee that makes up the AP exam for English.

Although a quarter of the students in her school are black, she has no black students in her classes this term.  She thinks most black students are “lost”—her word—to the aspirations of AP well before they get to high school.  On the other hand students of Asian background, another sizeable demographic in the student body, are significantly overrepresented.  She told me that AP is nearly the cultural norm among this broad section of the immigrant community, and one widely supported by parents “actively involved” in all aspects of their children’s school careers.  That was also her phrase.  She clearly thinks that parental involvement can be too “active” in monitoring homework and demanding high grades.  She spends a certain amount of time with pressurized teenagers.  But in terms of outcomes—such as those that are causing such anguish in the New York City system with regard to the admissions to elite high schools—the heavy hand seems to triumph over even the most benign neglect every time.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Great Church Burns

With unaccustomed efficiency I was already well advanced with a blog essay for the week when news began to arrive about the fire at Notre Dame de Paris.  This news was coming, as it was to the whole world, though all our major journalistic organizations, and from the very start it was accompanied by shocking photographs of the spreading blaze in the timbers of the vast roof.  But we also had more in personal communications from friends at the American cathedral, of which we are members and, when lucky enough to be in residence in Paris, fairly active ones.  Personal connections, even rather casual ones, can add immediacy to generality and abstraction.

            Speaking as a medievalist, I do not regard Notre Dame de Paris as my favorite medieval French church.  I’ll be provocative and say I’m not sure it even makes my Top Ten.   You’ve got Chartres, Amiens, Mont-Saint-Michel, Sens, Saint-Hilaire in Poitiers.  That’s before you even take into consideration monastic masterpieces like Vézelay or Conques.  A short walk from Notre Dame itself you have the Sainte Chapelle, possibly the most remarkable building wrought by the Gothic hand in all of Europe.  I could plausibly go on before arriving at the crucial but.  In this instance the but is all important.  But Notre Dame has a unique significance for Parisians, for all of France, and indeed for all of us for whom France has been a teacher.

            The French ambassador, interviewed by the PBS “News Hour”, declared that the cathedral was intimately connected with “what it means to be French”.  This same phrase, or one very similar, was used by several others, including “ordinary” Parisians interviewed on the streets. I try in vain to imagine a building that many people in this country would say is integral to “what it means to be American”.  Certainly in this country—which is still in the western context a fairly religious country—it would not be a house of worship.  But in France, which underwent a sanguinary revolution directed in large measure against the Church, where militant anti-clericalism has been a more or less permanent feature of the political scene, and where the doctrine of laïcité (separation of Church and State on steroids) is as the law of the Persians and the Medes, it is there, in France, that a musty old limestone fossil is the “essence of what it means to be French.”

            The gewgaw collector in Paris can probably find a Notre Dame ashtray if he wanted to; but he would be overwhelmed with opportunities in the genre of the Eiffel Tower.  Had the Frenchman in the street told me that the Eiffel Tower was all about “what it means to be French,” I might have been scornful, but I would not have been surprised.  The Eiffel Tower is a very American kind of erection.  It’s like the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis or the world’s largest polyurethane peach in Gaffney, S.C. or for that matter the imposing prestressed concrete pillars surrounding the Woodrow Wilson School on my own campus.  It does absolutely nothing beyond exulting in the audacity of its own existence.  And having no intrinsic meaning, it is available as a repository for meanings supplied by others.

Americans seem to like to define the national character by the technique of the via negativa—ruling out what it is not.  I notice that several of our current presidential candidates, when confronting some instance of quintessentially American behavior of which they disapprove, are prone to say “This is not America” or “This is not who we are.”  I actually resent being told who I am not by people I have never met, but let it pass.  The French are very much into national navel-gazing.  Mr. Macron has just completed God knows how many hours of a much-touted national conversation about the French national character; so when he associates the ancient church of Notre Dame de Paris with the essence of French identity, I take it very seriously and find it very moving.  It is striking not merely that this great sacred building has been appropriated by the civil state, but that the civil state would appear to aspire to a monopoly on it.  Among the talking heads who have been speaking with great emotion about it on American television are historians, political pundits, erudite art historians, sociologists and random tourists from many nations.  I have not heard the single opinion of one of the cathedral clergy or of frequent worshippers at its altars.  There are still a few of these, as I know from personal experience, having attended the odd service there myself over the years.

For a world in which there often seems to be a paucity of good news, the devastation of one of the great monuments of Christian civilization offers paradoxical relief.  It became clear within hours that the cathedral can be, and will be, rebuilt.  Mr. Macron promised that it would be done within five years.  I suspect it will be achieved more quickly yet.  The cathedrals of the Middle Ages—often poetically called the “Age of Faith”--took generations to build in large part because of challenges presented by capital markets that in retrospect seem primitive.  The financing of Saint Peter’s in Rome was so dodgy that it played a part in inciting the Protestant Revolt.  We live in an Age of Money.  Even as I write this, even before the embers are cool, even before we have a reliable survey of the damage, a significant portion of the funding that will be needed for the church’s restoration has been promised.  France has not forgotten where she came from, nor have the rest of us forgotten France.  It’s all rather amazing actually.  At least for a brief season we can do something more satisfying than argue about Brexit.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


Déguignet family, circa 1875

Fewer pleasures are more direct or immediate than the pleasure of good conversation.  We all know what a good book can do.  In Milton’s famous definition it “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”  Conversation does not aspire to immortality, even the self-conscious immortality of the archive.  It has a spendthrift and wastrel nature, like a libation that leaves only its moist and rapidly drying shadow in the sand, a unique outpouring treasured up for no other time or place or company than those who are creating it in the moment.  Of course, books often lead to conversations, and, as today’s little anecdote will demonstrate, conversations may lead to books.

            Two very old and dear friends from New York recently visited us.  Jerry is an eminent historian, Jayn an eminent flautist; both are wonderful conversationalists.  We touched on various topics, domestic and foreign, drifting for a moment into the literary and artistic life of France in the middle of the nineteenth century.  It was in this context that Jayn mentioned a friend who had translated from the French a book* that had received a good deal of attention upon its publication in 1994 by a provincial editorial house, the memoir of a nineteenth-century French peasant, published from manuscripts that had somehow survived a century of oblivion, neglect, and even conscious disdain. This was all news to me, but within a week a perfect remaindered copy was in my hands at a cost of four dollars, inclusive of postage.

            Jean-Marie Déguignet was born into abject poverty in Brittany in 1834, the sickly son of landless agricultural laborers.  He died in Quimper, a few kilometers from the place of his birth, in 1905.  But quite a bit happened to him in between—in Russia, Africa, and Mexico, among other places.  In his later life Déguignet was a radical anarchist and a priest-hating anticlerical, usually penurious, oppressed on every side, walking that fine line between mumbling, street-person eccentricity and certifiable madness.  His seemingly simple but unattainable dream was to become a hermit-beekeeper. The latter part of his book will have the greatest appeal for most readers, but it was his formative boyhood that I found most arresting.

            Being “born into poverty” was no figure of speech.  There was no money, and very often no opportunity to earn any.  Distressed families lived by begging, and for years it was the children’s taxing occupation to go house by house through the sparsely settled farm country trying to scrounge a few half-rotten potatoes for his penniless family.  I find it most interesting that the embittered free-thinker, looking back on those experiences, turned to no political, let alone Marxist paradigm.  Instead he turned to the Gospels, whose official ecclesiastical interpretation he so despised—and in particular to those passages in which Jesus imposes a life of mendicancy upon his closest followers, adding with terrifying indignation that Judgment Day will be kinder to Sodom and Gomorrah than to those who denied food to his poor.  Any scholar of Franciscanism will recognize in the texts alluded to the very heart of Francis’s vision of religious life.

Jean-François Millet: Man with the Hoe

            Déguignet’s attitude toward peasant Catholicism is remarkable.  He hated it, and regarded it as the great millstone weighing down his countrymen.  One of his longest and most interesting chapters—an account of his visit to Jerusalem in the company of believing Russian peasants—is mainly a catalogue of vituperation and blasphemy.  Yet he never entirely broke free of the despised faith.  His remarkable self-education began with the priests, from whose rustic service books he first deduced written Breton and then Latin—all this before acquiring even the rudiments of standard French.   His mental acuity was of a particular kind occasionally documented in the old medical literature.  Among the early disasters of his life was a terrible skull fracture, the result of having been kicked by a horse.  He was convinced that this accident had “rearranged his brains,” leaving him with a photographic memory and intuitive powers of grammatical analysis and the power to master writing merely through imitation.  He then read widely and indiscriminately, achieving on his own many of the markers of a middle-class education.  At some point he started writing cahiers (notebooks) full of biographical reminiscences and essays on historical, scientific, and mythological topics that interested him.  His book is laced with classical allusions, Latin tags, and snippets from the poets of the Pléiade.  A surprising number of notebooks survived to be sought out and rescued by an indefatigable researcher who recognized their importance.  One of the poems I memorized in school was Edwin Markham’s “Man With the Hoe,” a socialist response to Jean-François Millet’s painting of that title.  Markham’s poem concludes thus:
  How will it be with kingdoms and with kings —
    With those who shaped him to the thing he is —
    When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world.
    After the silence of the centuries?
There is a sense in which this book suggests an answer.  A few months before he died, Déguignet concluded his biography thus:  “I end by wishing mankind the power or rather the will, to become true and good human beings capable of understanding one another and getting on together in a societal life that is noble and happy.  And….Doue bardono d’an nanaon.”   According to the translator, that ritual phrase of Breton means “God forgive in the beyond.”

A good deal of the book is explicitly or implicitly about language, both as an instrument of oral communication and as the nearly magical key to the author’s autodidacticism.  The Déguignets were illiterate monoglot speakers of Breton, an ancient Celtic tongue distributed among several dialects throughout the westward-jutting bump of land between the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel, due south of English Somerset and Cornwall, with Brest at the west and Rennes at the east.  It is usually called Brittany; Chaucer calls it “little Britain”.  One Breton name for the land is Cornwall (Cornouaille)—reminding us of a vanished age in which the coastal refugees of the south of England and those of the west of France had been a conjoined linguistic community.  The last Cornish-speakers in England vanished in the eighteenth century; but in France the language was so deeply entrenched that even until today it has to some extent survived the usual attempts of nationalist idiots to improve the culture of native minorities by obliterating it.  Déguignet did not speak or read French, hardly even heard it spoken, before he entered the army at the age of twenty.  What he heard then was mainly obscenities.  If we are to believe him, his first conversation “in the language of Voltaire” was with a Russian officer after the Battle of Sevastopol in 1855.  Like most French intellectuals of his century, Déguignet had a madcap theory of the origins of human language.  It came to him while boning up on Italian in preparation for a campaign in 1859.  The distinctive beauty of Italian, he claimed, derived from the fact that all its words were “pronounced with the tip of the tongue and the lips, unlike the Anglo-Saxon languages, which are pronounced with the throat; which proved that these languages were transmitted to mankind by wild beasts, whereas the Latin ones came from birds.”

Jean-Marie Déguignet, Memoirs of a Breton Peasant, trans. by Linda Archer (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004)