Wednesday, July 8, 2020
All politics is local, and so at heart is most journalism. I once read an anecdote concerning the reporting by a regional paper in New York State of Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in 1927. Its headline was “Lindbergh Flies Over Poughkeepsie on Way to Paris”. Ever since I can remember I have been struck by a kind of morbid parochialism in the way our papers treat disasters: “Four Americans Die in Crash of Pan-Am Flight.” When you read the story, you learn that there were thirty-six others who lost their lives as well. The daily pandemic statistics of recent months have also tended slightly in this direction. American leadership in coronaviral morbidity may be humiliating, but it is also fascinating, and certainly fully reported. Beyond that I have wanted to know what has been happening specifically in New Jersey. How about in my immediate community? In both instances the answer has not been good. But our own most distressing experiences have not been local.
Our second coronavirus fatality—I’ll come to the first in a moment—occurred during the past week. The man’s name was Eric Dean, a South Carolinian, and he was an uncle of one of our daughters-in-law, Melanie. I did not know Mr. Dean personally. From all testimony I have heard he was a lovely fellow. I perhaps met him at the wedding, but if so I have no clear memory of doing so. There is a lot I don’t recall these days. Yet despite the lack of any actual relationship with this man, news of his death has brought vivid grief to our house. Friendship and kinship are broad channels of vicarious experience and sympathy. Melanie’s distress, amplified by that of her father, who had been very close to his brother, radiates out into our home and no doubt many others as though conducted by shiny copper wires. To say that our nation has suffered a hundred and thirty thousand coronavirus deaths is a somber but somewhat abstract statistical statement until you think of the intricate emotional networks and sympathetic grids through which each individual loss crashes down on half a dozen, or twenty, or a hundred concerned neighbors, friends, and family relations. From this perspective the statement that “the nation is grieving” or even “the world is grieving” moves from metaphor to simple fact.
What I now regard as “my” first coronavirus death was of a different sort, beginning with the fact that, so far as I know, the cause of death was not coronavirus. It happened on April 10 in New York, though I did not learn about it until mid-June and then only fortuitously. All this requires some explanation.
I shall identify him only by his first name, Eli. I know little about his background, but I suppose he was of that second-, possibly even first-generation of American-born offspring of the large Eastern European Jewish immigrantion so important to the cultural history of the country, and to New York City in particular, the subject of Irving Howe’s memorable book The World of Our Fathers (1976). Eli and I met while serving together on the board of the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni. His graduate degree had been in Politics. Only our American educational meritocracy, imperfect as it is, could have brought people of our very different backgrounds together—or put us on the board of anything. I mention this sociological detail as it is relevant to the larger anecdote. Eli and I became “periodical” friends, getting together at widely distanced board meetings. He got interested in my blog and, especially in my work on The Anti-Communist Manifestos, which he proofread for me in galleys. His interest stemmed from the fact that he was a 1959 graduate of Hunter College, one of the oldest components of the City University of New York, a conglomerate of institutions significant in the history of American Communism, with a radical political tradition from the 1930s not yet entirely dead in his own day. Hunter was long an all -female institution; Eli became the first male president of its alumni association. He was a great cataloguer, and he played a prominent role in the herculean task of organizing Hunter’s alumni records.
Time passed. We rotated off the board. Illness prevented me from attending some meetings at which we might have met. In short, we fell out of touch for a few years. Then, in the initial stages of soon aborted research into decipherers of mystery languages, I came upon a letter (published below in an appendix) written by a grateful student to her old teacher at Brooklyn College, Dr. Alice Kober. Both Professor Kober and her admiring correspondent Mrs. Green (née Popper) were typical products of the magnificent free New York City university system, which had taken as its explicit mission the advancement through education of the city’s large population of youth of modest means, most of them the offspring of immigrants. As you can see from the letter, however, this was not exactly what we usually regard as vocational training. Kober was a great classical scholar, long under-sung, who did important work on cracking the ancient Minoan script called “Linear B.” There’s an excellent popular book dealing with this adventure, but I wanted to know more. Alice Kober was a Hunter alumna, and I personally knew the world-class expert on Hunter alumni. So about the beginning of June I wrote a “catch up” letter to my friend Eli, its centerpiece being an inquiry about Kober. One of his eccentricities was that he did not use email.
Should you be puzzled about the relevance of a seventy-five-year-old letter to coronavirus death, it is this: although a wild good chase never ends in bagging a goose, it sometimes stirs up other interesting game. About ten days later I got a letter back from Eli’s sister, with whom he had lived in Woodside, Queens. She told me that Eli had died two months earlier. He had been overwhelmed by a sudden debility, gone into hospital and, after a few days, died. She had been late in answering my letter because she, too, had been in hospital. This news was abrupt, brutal, and final. I had heard nothing of it because the normal channels through which I might have were disrupted during the coronavirus crisis. I tried to learn more from one of the deans at Hunter with whom Eli had worked. He had not learned of the death either. I scoured the Internet and eventually found a brief obituary in one of those sad little sites established by funeral homes for “memory books”. The only memorial then registered was that of a hospital transport worker, limited in education perhaps but rich in human decency, relating his brief moments of friendly exchange with a dying patient. “Rest in peace friend,” he wrote, “in your ‘Deluxe Apartment in the Sky’.” Whatever actual ailment was fatal for Eli, this, too, is “coronavirus death”: abrupt, capriciously communicated, forbidden such public solace as customary obsequies foster, caught up in a vast and undiscriminating sadness, rushed over, passed by as we stumble on to the next stupefying statistical chart.
Readers sometimes ask me, no doubt in puzzlement, where I get my topics for blog posts. The answer is: mostly from my random reading. The letter below, which is of a kind any old professor would practically die for, is available on-line in a scholarly archive at the University of Texas devoted to materials relating to archaeological discoveries in Crete and elsewhere. The archive was founded by the great American archaeologist Emmett Bennett and is now curated by another distinguished scholar, Thomas Palaima. It has no relevance to Linear B or any other object of Kober’s scholarly research, but it is a delightful testimony to her accomplishments as a teacher. My small effort to identify Fritzie Green was without success. But her letter, written three weeks after D-Day, is replete with tidbits of social history. If you do what I did—use the Google Maps function to check out the two addresses in the letter—you will see something of the “two Americas” that are troubling so many of us today.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
The most precious book in my library is a small format edition of Petrarch’s famous Canzoniere, or book of love poems, brought out in Lyon by the French humanist printer Guillaume Rouillé in 1551. Though it qualifies as a “rare book,” its value to me is mainly sentimental. It was given to me as a gift, probably in 1959, by my future wife. She found it in a little shop in Arezzo while on a singing tour with the Oxford Schola Cantorum. What made it affordable were certain imperfections. Most obviously an earlier reader had cancelled one of Petrarch’s sonnets in heavy black ink, scratching so heavily as to tear a hole in the page. Only recently did I discover that another leaf of the book containing a sonnet on each side had been very tidily cut out nearly without leaving a trace. A theme in all three “disappeared” poems, one of Petrarch’s persistent criticisms, was the equation of the migration of the papacy from Rome to Avignon with the Babylonian captivity. This may not strike you as a hot-button issue, but some deeply offended papalist, possibly as late as the eighteenth century, found Petrarch’s hate verse intolerable. This unknown censor was probably a high-minded and educated man. John Ruskin certainly was, but that didn’t stop him from ostentatiously burning a rare collection of Goya’s etchings called the Caprichos, now regarded as a harbinger of modern art, though it does contain some pretty disturbing stuff, including, famously “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”.
The paradoxical demonstration of virtue through the venue of vandalism was already on my mind with regard to press notices concerning the attacks on commemorative statues in various parts of the country when a somewhat cognate local issue captured my attention. I received a courteous and confidential advance notice from the Princeton Dean that the University would very soon announce the removal of the name of Woodrow Wilson from our School of Public Affairs and from the residential college of which I was the master fifty years ago. I don’t live in my email box these days, and the deed had probably been done by the time I read the message. I do not fault a decision thoughtfully deliberated by diligent trustees both morally and legally authorized to make it. Four or five years ago I could make a case for retaining the Wilson name, which was originally proposed not by university officials but by idealistic undergraduates in the Woodrow Wilson Society seeking a more mature, democratic and inclusive social scene on campus. But an argument based in local subtleties cannot withstand the urgency of this terrible national moment, and I believe the trustees acted wisely.
Even such urgency, however, should not induce the Sleep of Reason. If you want to deface a book you own or incinerate etchings which you have purchased especially for that purpose, you may be a philistine or a prophet or a self-righteous prig, but you have not committed a tort against a fellow citizen. The officers and trustees of an educational institution are specifically charged with ordering institutional affairs, and they can hire and fire, build and demolish, institute and terminate, christen and dechristen with broad legal latitude. The destruction of public property seems to me something else.
The desecration of the dead is a widespread anthropological atavism from times we otherwise consider barbarous. The police agents of Louis XIV dug up and scattered the bones of the Jansenist “saints” buried at Port-Royale. At the time of the Restoration of 1660 British crown agents disinterred the rotten cadavers of dead regicides and exposed them for the unhygienic gratification and political instruction of the crowds crossing the Thames bridges. This is not exactly the same as defacing the effigies of Confederate officers practically nobody has ever heard of sculpted by artists absolutely nobody has ever heard of, and in actual practical terms more important to pigeons than to people; but it has spiritual echoes. Lynch law exercised on cultural artefacts is obviously less grave than lynch law exercised on human bodies, but hardly more attractive as a civil practice. If a monument has been commissioned and erected by a legislative body or established by a recognized civic society, is it right that “any eight guys with ropes,” as a friend of mine has put it, should claim the authority to remove it without further consultation?
The means of redress already do exist, democratic means. It is all too easy to break eggs without getting omelets, but even in this long moment’s pain there are signs of hope in a vigorous, youthful generation rededicated to the old proposition. There was a great photo in the paper the other day: two Mississippi state legislators hugging each other in congratulation over the landslide vote to remove the “stars and bars” motif from the state flag. Yes, Mississippi: Senator Theodore Bilbo, author of Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, the White Citizens’ Councils, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, that Mississippi.
Passion is not the same thing as purpose or persuasion. We have had passionate iconoclasts and vandals galore. Some smashed exquisite marble heads in the Via Sacra in Rome. Protestant fanatics shattered the glorious Gothic windows of the churches of the Scheldt. Spanish missionaries torched the manuscripts of the Mexica. German military engineers transformed a Jewish burial grounds into a latrine. The Taliban blew up the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan. And these things were not done furtively, but brazenly and with utter certainty of moral superiority.
Erasures, cancellations, book burnings, the creation of “former people” and Unpersonen, airbrushing Trotsky out of the photograph—we generally think of these things as characteristically totalitarian. But an honest engagement with our past can have other foundations than self-righteousness, one of them being righteousness without so much self. To attempt to understand the past with some sympathy and humility is hard work, and I know many historical scholars who regard it as no large part of the job. Indeed life is for the living. We cannot incubate diphtheria on the grounds that it played an important role in our medical past, but we better not forget how to make the vaccine.
In his inaugural address President Trump deplored a state of “American carnage” and promised that with his advent it would now end. I did not actually understand what he meant by “American carnage,” presumably something metaphorical. But Lincoln, in his great second inaugural, did know what carnage was. Try to imagine the mood of Lincoln’s audience. We have now been living in anxiety and constraint for several months. They had been fighting a bloody war for years. The country was far past Gettysburg with its fifty thousand casualties, more than six thousand of them corpses on the ground. How many who heard the President speak had not lost a father, brother, son, or friend? One can imagine that the audience was a pretty sick and tired and angry bunch. And still the president proposed that the war must end—though that end was not yet clearly in sight--with charity for all, with malice towards none. I say this not to make an easy point about contrasting “leadership styles,” though that is a subject to make the soul weep, but to remind myself of still available reservoirs of true American greatness.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
A special commission or committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has recently published a hefty pamphlet entitled Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. I think every voter in the country should read it. The AAAS, one of our nation’s oldest cultural institutions, was founded two hundred and forty years ago by various worthy colonials—including Sam Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin—who, one might think, could have been too busy with the rather strenuous efforts then in progress to become post-colonial to indulge in such luxuries. But the Americans prevailed in their Revolution, and the AAAS, with its geographical headquarters in the new nation’s version of Cambridge, was there at the birth. As with the French Legion of Honor, whose numbers are legion, at any given moment several thousand people at least somewhat prominent in the arts and humanities, sciences, business, industry, public service, philanthropy, etc., are elected members of this august fellowship.
I was very pleased to be elected some fifteen years ago or so, and I enjoyed the induction ceremony and conference at the Academy’s headquarters in Cambridge. Since then, however, my association with the Academy has been limited to that of a debtor, chased down once a year for my dues and a second time for a voluntary contribution. From time to time the Academy issues special white papers on miscellaneous topics, and I do frequently read its intellectually upscale journal, Daedalus, which often has interesting essays, and not all of them written in the leaden prose apparently favored by academic social scientists and economists. This booklet entitled Our Common Purpose, however, is the best thing I have seen to issue forth from the Academy. I speak of its thoughtful and exciting ideas. The last committee to achieve memorable English prose were the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible working for James I in 1611. The Common Purpose generally achieves clarity, which is all one can ask for. Admittedly, there are a few passages like this (Strategy 1.1, p. 13) speaking of the historical ratio between congressional representatives and those they represent, that take a minute to soak in: “While the original proportions are no longer achievable, the goal of closer connections between members of Congress and constituents should not be.”
I first learned of this document from an Academy email, but I really took notice when it was featured on the PBS “News Hour”. Judy Woodruff, the program’s anchor, was actually on the Commission. Even more interesting to me was the fact that Danielle Allen, who appeared on the PBS program, was one of its three co-chairs. Professor Allen is a superstar classicist at Harvard, but she gained something of a popular reputation a few years ago with a terrific book entitled Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. I came to know her reasonably well and admire her greatly when she was an undergraduate at Princeton and a member of the residential college of which I was allegedly in charge.
Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that our country is in a real mess from which our current dysfunctional politics is incapable of extracting us. We have a President that a majority of our citizens disapprove of and a Congress that a huge majority disapprove of. They are symptoms of the mess rather than its causes. The causes are the infirmity and failure of American democracy. There is no substitute for reading the Commission’s document, a task requiring perhaps half an hour, and I shall mention only a few of its six major clusters of recommendations or “strategies” as the committee calls them. The overarching goal is the actualization of democracy and the fullest possible participation of informed citizens in it. The suggestion of a significant expansion in the size of the House of Representatives, already noted, aims to make possible nearer equality in constituency size and some actual possibility of a vital connection between citizens and those who represent them. At the moment the average member of Congress has three quarters of a million constituents. Another proposal that wins my assent is term limits for justices of the Supreme Court, organized within an orderly schedule of transition. The authors call for a compulsory, universal, and compensated civic obligation of national service. And they get serious about “campaign finance reform”—which is not their term, but the ludicrous one we keep hearing from our do-nothing politicians compromised to their eyeballs in their scramble for money. A large part of the genius of the Commission’s recommendations is that they could mostly be achieved by legislation; but this absolutely indispensable cleansing of the political temple does require one constitutional amendment. They recognize that this would be a heavy lift, but it really is worth the while to duke it out, if necessary, and this time one hopes metaphorically, over whether we actually believe that all men are created equal.
Constitutional knowledge is a good thing, constitutional idolatry less good. As more and more Americans have abandoned the more traditional ideas of transcendence illuminated by a sacred text, they have turned in their bereavement to the Constitution, apparently regarded not merely as infallible but probably also untouchable. But we have plenty of real sacred texts still available: the Bible, the Koran, the I-Ching, the Rig Veda, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Fountainhead, The Awakening, and Beatles lyrics. Invest your transcendental hopes in one of those, or another of your choosing. It would be best to regard the Constitution for what it is, a highly contingent practical rule book designed for real people in a rapidly and unpredictably changing world. It may still be valid even if the word “Congress” is not printed in eighteenth-century Caslon type, Congreff. That is why such Founders as Jefferson thought that, as a matter of course, there should be frequent periodic constitutional conventions to review and update it.
Before immediately obsessing over dubious and debatable interpretations of “what the Founders intended” by “a well-ordered militia” or an “establishment of religion,” it might be better to start with one certain and indubitable intention: the achievement of a more perfect union. They knew that their bundle of bright ideas and painful compromises was far from the last word on this topic. That is why they included an amendment process and got off to a flying start with the Bill of Rights. What amendment means is improving, making better.
I agree with most though not all of the recommendations; and I doubt that the report will be greeted with unqualified enthusiasm by any large number of its readers. Unanimous votes are generally characteristic of “people’s republics” and other sham democracies, not real ones. But my general reaction is enthusiastic, as I hope it will be for most Americans. What shines through the recommendations is something very rare in recent political discourse. Some very smart people, coming to their task from differing perspectives but united in patriotic ambition, have thought long and hard about the nature and causes of our obvious national malaise, but also tried to seek its potential remedy. The document is not merely intelligent but civil and optimistic. In the constricting mental framework in which everything must be either reactionary or radical, bright red or deep blue, this proposed enterprise for the “reinvention” of democracy presents a challenge of classification. It is a deeply conservative reaffirmation of the radicalism of our nation’s founding as famously described by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln did not use the word “reinvention”; his better phrase was “a new birth of freedom.”
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
The long-term social and institutional dislocations likely to be caused by the current medical pandemic are by no means all predictable, but they certainly will involve higher education. Just as the medical crisis has brought to the surface and made visible numerous imperfections and weak points in the social fabric, such as a dangerously low national level of family financial savings, so also has it thrown light upon the highly iffy finances of many of our colleges, quite a few of which are simply going to go belly up. No such fate awaits the rich ones—some of them, like my own, almost obscenely rich—but they, too, are likely to experience significant change. I suspect that one crisis area will be post-graduate education in the humanities: historical studies, language and literature, the arts.
Around 1960, on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan (at a retreat conference of Danforth Fellows) I heard a once-famous dean of Harvard College explain that the daunting challenge facing the humanities departments of our great graduate institutions for the rest of the twentieth century would be producing Ph. D. scholar-teachers fast enough, and in sufficient quantity, to supply a rapidly expanding academic “market” of indefinite duration. This was the orthodoxy of the day, and it commanded a huge expansion in humanities graduate programs. In retrospect, this sort of thing is why people want to ask college professors, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” In my first year of teaching, 1963-1964, I believe I was one of eight beginning “hires” in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin. These days if one in eight finishing graduate students gets an academic appointment commensurate with her training, it is regarded as a good year for the credentialing department. In economic terms, supply vastly exceeds demand. It has been this way for many years now.
We are likely to see a significant and difficult reduction in the size and number of graduate humanities departments—difficult because of entrenched faculty expectations and because so many institutions have depended on graduate students to do the heavy lifting of large undergraduate courses. I am leery of making specific predictions, but I allow myself to dream of the return of the amateur scholar and poet. Want to be a famous intellectual and literary person? Well, instead of mastering a dialect of opaque jargon in a Ph. D. program in literature at Yale or sitting around pretentious workshops in your M.F.A. program at Iowa, how about getting a good liberal arts bachelor’s degree at a prestigious university in Boston and follow that up with a career in the insurance business? It is perhaps not likely that you will gain the scholarly fame of Benjamin Lee Whorf or the literary celebrity of Wallace Stevens, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
Whorf (1897-1941), perhaps the most important theoretical linguist America has ever produced, took an engineering degree at MIT and put it to good social and personal use as an expert in fire prevention at a large insurance company. That is, he increased public safety and he kept bread on his table. On the side and of an evening he studied old and new languages and, more importantly, thought profoundly about the nature and implications of human language itself. I have only recently come to appreciate the importance of his revolutionary thinking through my highly credentialed linguistically anthropological son Luke. If this interests you, check out the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity.”
It is impossible to imagine American poetry of the twentieth century without Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). He did study a good deal of literature as an undergraduate at Harvard, and he did take a graduate degree (Law) at NYU, but he spent most of the daylight hours of his adult life in an executive office at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity company. It is worth pointing out that neither Whorf nor Stevens thought of their day jobs in the spirit of the star-struck would-be actress “temporarily” waitressing until her big break comes along. Both of these guys were really into insurance. They were no less into linguistic theory and poetry, but didn’t seem to think that it had to be a “professional” activity.
Both the professional poet and the professional scholar—especially the latter—are relatively new cultural developments. There have doubtless been bards, scops, and singers of tales since time immemorial; but few of these were without a real day job. And in the Old World deep, scholarly learning was generally ancillary to religious vocation. There is some debate about the identity of the first English professional man of letters, one plausible candidate being Doctor Johnson in the eighteenth century. The English woman of letters must appear considerably later, after a series of brilliant female amateurs had in effect created the novel. It is not easy to imagine Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte applying for a Guggenheim grant. Charles Dickens, it is true, was a commercial writer in something like the modern sense. He was an early “famous author” who milked the lecture and reading circuit for all it was worth. But Anthony Trollope, who was as fully invested in the fiscal bottom line as was Dickens, did his prodigious writing in the early morning hours so as to be able each day to be at his desk in the Post Office on time. So also was it with scholars, most of whom either enjoyed the benefits of family money or were gainfully employed in decorous professions of Church or State.
Most of the huge efflorescence of scholarship in nineteenth-century England, humanistic and scientific alike, was the work of amateurs working outside any formal academic setting. The amateur scholarly work of possibly underemployed Anglican clergymen alone was staggering. Their contributions to my special bailiwick, medieval English literature, really created the “field,” but amateur scholarly erudition was no clerical monopoly. We might consider the example of Sir E. K. Chambers (1866-1954), for instance, among the greatest literary scholars who ever lived. He was a parson’s son with a studious bent and a flair for research. After an early rich education in a highly cultivated household he went on to school at Marlborough College and took his undergraduate degree at Corpus Christi, Oxford, about 1890. He very early developed a special interest in Shakespeare, and while still at Oxford brought out an edition of Richard II. Though he would today be thought a natural for a professional academic career, his thoroughly Victorian view was that the highly pleasurable activity of literary study was an amateur avocation, not a profession. He made his career as a civil servant with the Board of Education, rising, by the time of his retirement, to be its second-in-command. In the evenings and on week-ends, he did very little else than read and write, producing among many other things stunningly erudite studies of The Medieval Stage (2 vols., 1903), The Elizabethan Stage (4 vols, 1923), and William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (2 vols. 1930)—and these are only the encyclopedic works. He also excelled at editing, at criticism, and at literary biography. As the first President of the Malone Society, he was a major force in Shakespeare scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century. Chambers had no Ph. D. and didn’t need one. After all Shakespeare, the object of his life-long researches, didn’t even have a B.A., and he turned out OK.
We know from the memoirs of various friends that when the Chamberses entertained, as they not infrequently did, Sir Edmund would join his wife and guests for a single glass of sherry in the library before going into dinner. When the dessert course was ready to be served he would say to his guests: “I hope you will now excuse me. I leave you to be entertained by my excellent wife.” He then retreated for three or four hours to his research and writing. By all accounts Lady Eleanor was indeed excellent, and most entertaining, eager to conspire in her husband’s amateur exertions, knowing that existentially as etymologically what is amateur is motivated by love.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
It is an ill wind that bloweth no man good, and I suspect that future commentators will find that even in the lowering sky of a viral pandemic there was an odd silver lining or two. I certainly hope so, for like so many others I am left exhausted and jittery by the duration and uncertainty of the imposed social restrictions, and seriously depressed by the national trauma accompanying, and to a significant degree exacerbated by them. Here on our little acre we have already been delighted by one apparent development, a redress in the animal kingdom that is to a measurable degree humiliating some of the imperial claims of the human species.
We live on a fairly quiet street, though we see little of it, there being no windows facing onto it. All the house’s kinetic instincts, and thus also those of its inhabitants, are directed towards the open and inviting land to the back of the house, which features about thirty feet of wall to ceiling windows, successfully designed to blur to a large extent the indoors/outdoors distinction. Nature, which is highly visible, seems very close. And since our modest private property abuts a largish track of heavily wooded commons, one has the very real sense of rustication: not quite Walden Pond, but not suburbia either.
About two weeks into the lockdown we became acutely aware of birdsong. There has always been a lot of it in our yard, but suddenly the dawn chorus was sounding more like a symphony. Then there simply seemed to be more and brasher birds around the yard all day. The traffic on the bird-feeder in the atrium, of which I have a view from my study, suggested a sudden increase in the feathered population altogether. Objective means of testing these impressions were lacking, but people with whom we spoke often shared them. Then we saw in the Times a brief piece confirming the idea with regard to New York City. The explanation was twofold. There was in the first place much less sonic competition with vehicular movement virtually eliminated; so one heard the birds more clearly. Then, too, the birds themselves were enjoying cleaner as well as quieter air, and tended to feel bird-frisky. And as you know, if you read it in the Times, it’s bound to be true.
And as with the birds, so also with the beasts. Of the latter there has always been a considerable variety resident in the back yard, mainly little, furry critters: chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, and of course the dreaded groundhogs. All of these suddenly seem more numerous, darting or waddling about the lawns, climbing trees, popping in and out of stone crevices according to their various natures. Except for the groundhogs, which remain as timorous as they are obnoxious, these little animals also seem to be growing bolder, showing little concern for any human beings who happen to be sharing their space. In insomniac moments I sometimes hear the creatures of the night—opossums and raccoons—feuding or scrapping around the garbage bins, and in daylight hours abundant spoor is to be seen in places likely and unlikely, such as the flat tops of stone walls, from which small, dark, shiny, dew-covered turds sparkle in the rising sunlight.
Above all, there are the deer. The deer are a perennial subject of controversy in the neighborhood, and for understandable reasons. They make it very difficult to have a vegetable garden without investing in expensive fencing more appropriate for a maximum security prison. Though they seem to move lightly and gracefully, their dainty hooves are specially designed for smashing flower beds. What they eat from those beds is a bit hit-or-miss, a favorite hit unfortunately being all varieties of tulips, and practically any seedling of anything . (Daffodils are safe, thank God.) People also worry, and not unnecessarily, about the small deer ticks that can spread Lyme disease. This is not a problem to be pooh-poohed, as anyone who has suffered from Lyme will appreciate. But I am from Arkansas, and you don’t really know what ticks are, or how to combat them, if you have never been to the Ozarks. I tend to think that they are just one of the prices paid for living in a beautiful place. Can you imagine Vermont without noseeums? Of course my view that the inconveniences of a vast deer herd in your backyard is on a level with that of poor cell-phone reception in a national park is not widely shared.
Be that as it may, the deer herd has been ostentatiously flourishing throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The fawning season, if there is such a term, pretty much coincides with the sprouting of the bamboo recently covered in this blog, and one frequently sees tinies on the margins of a squad of ten or twelve adults. No fewer than three deer babies have been born in my yard in the last three weeks. We are getting used to being a cervine maternity ward. Faithful readers of the blog may remember that we had a birth on our actual doorstep two years ago. But now the numbers seem to me staggering. I also detect, unless my imagination is running away with me, a measurably higher degree of deer self-confidence and adventurousness. They seem to know they are now living in a more deer-friendly world.
We had an interesting “incident” a few days ago. The guys who do the lawn, sort of, use a large and noisy riding mower. While starting off on the front they seriously frightened a mother and her fawn, who had been hanging out I know not where in the bushes, and the panicked youngster fled to our open carport and hid, for a time successfully, behind a piece of heavy printing equipment stored among the chaos of the back wall. It took me some real effort first to find this deer-child and then to free it from its dangerous refuge. The whole time the terrified mother champed on the front tarmac. When I finally freed the fawn, both fled, but not very far, to our neighbor’s lawn and thence to the middle of the currently underused public street. The mother bathed her infant with her tongue. I suspect that the dramatic reduction in vehicular traffic on the roads has been gratefully absorbed in the consciousness of animals no less than in my own.
The speed with which “my” animals seem to be responding to environmental amelioration leads me to hope, against the global-warming apocalyptics, that the extinction of Mother Earth would be much harder to achieve than some believe. And on a simplified, purified planet we might even see the emergence of a new Peaceable Kingdom. A fox family has recently taken up residence in the vicinity, and Papa Fox is partial to a short-cut at the bottom of my garden. The other days I saw him marching purposefully past a cohort of ten or twelve munching deer. Neither fox nor deer paid the slightest attention the one to the other beyond, of course, the observance of appropriate social distancing.
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
There are good and bad things about aging. One of the good things is the possibility at least of an increment in wisdom based on actual lived experience. You have the opportunity to know more things because you have lived more things. One of my sardonic amusements in recent decades is listening to thirty- and forty-year-old pundits tell me what it was like living in the South in the late ‘Forties. I hope I have done a better job over the years telling my students what it was like living in fourteenth-century Kent; but I actually doubt that I have, and that is disconcerting. The bad things often include serious illness that hastens and magnifies what might be called the normal decay that comes with age. But just at the moment being old and sick is particularly grievous as an obvious emblem of the state of our beloved country.
We were both so whacked on Sunday that we retreated to bed very early. I must have been in the Land of Nod shortly after eight. Much restored, I did not arise until after daybreak on Monday. In my study, where the telephone answering machine resides, I was surprised to hear its half-hearted bleep. It was a message from good friends recorded at eight-thirty Sunday night. They are a couple in our age group and members of the “Dinners for Six” to which I have alluded in earlier posts. The husband of the couple was scheduled for an elective surgery at a Philadelphia hospital, to be performed on Monday. Procedures regarded as “routine” necessarily have a different valence for octogenarians, and his close friends have been aware of his forthcoming appointment. The phone message, from his wife, was informing us that he would not after all be going into hospital. His doctor’s office had called him to say that the rioting in Philadelphia made it unsafe either for medical professionals or for patients to be there for anything but emergencies. I then opened my computer to learn that Philadelphia was in an uproar, that SEPTA (the Philadelphia mass-transit system) had been closed down, and that there were large protest demonstrations, in several instances descending into riots, vandalism, arson, and looting, in about forty urban centers throughout the country. By Monday night it was a hundred and forty.
Princeton is about half way between two great cities, New York and Philadelphia, with good and frequent public transportation to both. That is one of its selling points, as it were. I was not born to be an urbanite, but I have come to love New York on my somewhat eccentric terms as a father of two of its residents and an unapologetic exploiter of the wealth of its cultural institutions, especially its museums and concert halls. Broadway shows and fine restaurants not so much, but a lifetime would not be enough to exhaust Museum Mile. Not to mention the city’s specialized libraries. Does anybody even know what is behind the doors of the Hispanic Society of America in Washington Heights? Now New York City is the coronavirus capital of the country, probably of the world. Such delights as I describe, alas, are for people like me, not for the millions who toil in the city’s buildings and streets but never enter those doors. But now nobody can. In the past week passionate demonstrations of nearly perfect righteous indignation have descended into chaos and violence in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. This is national tragedy born of national disgrace and an everlasting shame.
I was slower in coming to appreciate Philadelphia, but eventually circumstances joined to guide me. For several years I served on our regional academic accrediting body, which had regular meetings in the city. Then our son Luke spent some years doing his doctoral work at Penn, of which a close personal friend was president. Above all, I was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society, which holds two exciting annual meetings in its historic building in the center of the old city, within shouting distance of Independence Hall, perhaps the most sacred civic site in the republic. I came to enjoy the city as I enjoyed New York. The APS is a big deal for academics, though not so grand or so preposterous as the Académie Française, more along the lines of the British Royal Society, of which it was at the time of its founding by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 an intellectual offspring. When I call its meetings exciting I am being neither hyperbolic nor ironic. A number of the best lectures and discussions I have enjoyed in a long academic career have taken place in Philosophical Hall, the Society’s gravely classical auditorium. The Society includes many of the nation’s finest minds and scholars.
At the time of Independence, the young society really came into its own. Its early membership reads like an alternative listing of the Founding Fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Madison—they were all there. Thomas Jefferson was president of the APS at the same time that he was President of the United States. And that’s a problem. For at the very same time that he was actively pursuing the vigorous study of Native American languages, and establishing a scholarly archive of immense utility to those who would follow him, he was also the legal owner, by American law, of a sizable number of American human beings, slaves on his Virginia plantation. It is conceivable to me that for temporary and strategic purposes, which alone might make possible a united colonial war of independence and allow a viable union of its socially disparate victors, great Americans of that age might, holding their noses, tolerate an abomination that they believed was doomed to a natural and proximate demise. But this?
I am not a fanatic, and I don’t like fanatics. But within the last year I was moved to reread most of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body (1928), one of few epic poems written in English since Milton’s time. Its subject is our Civil War of the 1860s. It is in my opinion very good, and unwisely ignored. Brown was a prophet, and like others with whom we are familiar wild-eyed, Bible-crazed, utterly convinced of his own righteousness. I would not have liked John Brown. It’s hard for me to imagine that anybody actually liked John Brown. People probably didn’t like Jeremiah either, but genuine prophets are rare, and deserve their due. As he was being led to the gallows, Brown passed the following note to an attendant: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” How could we as a nation have squandered the enormous blood-letting and destruction he there prophesied? Must our national agony be ever protracted and renewed in venom and in loathing, in lawlessness from those invested with the powers of law-keeping, and with the burning and trashing of our great cities that should be engines of productive industry, cultural beacons, and havens of civility and cooperative enterprise? Our ancestors who named their city Philadelphia had been trained in the classical tongues and shared a once commonplace Christian social doctrine. In its Greek derivation, Philadelphia is the city of Brotherly Love, as in the second tenet of the “New Law” as announced by Jesus: Love thy neighbor. As I write this I cannot remember a time in my life when I have heard an allusion to the city’s name untinged by irony or cynicism. But our country was born of sincere idealism, not of world-weary scorn. Lincoln was not speaking in the voice of a political comedian when he said “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” Right now both of “my” cities, along with dozens of others, are smoldering under curfews. Is the whole country so old and sick that we no longer care?