Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Graduate

On My 21st our wonderful eldest granddaughter, Sophia Elizabeth Fleming-Benite, received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Her field of concentration was Cognitive Science.  As they did not pass out bumper stickers, I have to do my bragging on-line.  Her professors had noted her extraordinary achievement by awarding her departmental honors in that subject, and of course she was the recipient of “general university honors” in recognition of a high grade-point average as well.  I say “of course” not because this outcome was foreordained or easily achieved, but because I had been the intermittent eye-witness to the energy, determination, and luminous intelligence with which she had pursued her work of the last four years.
documentary evidence from photographer Cora Louise

            The root of the word “graduation” is the Latin gradus, a step or a ladder-rung, and graduating from college, though a very important step, has had steps before it and will have steps after it.  Though born in California Sophia was destined by parental fate to be a Gotham rather than a Valley Girl.  That same convenient fate compelled her to spend her four high school years in Paris, where she pursued and obtained her international baccalaureate.  As for future steps, we share an awareness that the economic situation in our country is far from robust, even for highly qualified graduates.   Hence we are particularly pleased (though not particularly surprised), that Sophia landed a challenging job in a rather glitzy cybernetic field in which she will apply in imaginative but practical terms some of her theoretical training in brain science. 

            The world is full of bloggers, true, but how many of them can (like your bloguiste) claim semi-professional expertise on issues of academic ritual?  I was for seventeen years the Chief Marshal for University Convocations at Princeton, where pomp is matched only by ceremony and spit is ever redeemed by polish.  It would be invidious of me to make adversarial comparisons among distinguished American universities; so I must let the facts speak for themselves.  The Hopkins Commencement ceremony was held in the football stadium during three hours of determined, cool drizzle.  We were midway up the bleachers on the opponents’ forty-yard line.  This might have been enough to tax the average parental patience even without the president’s superfluous observation that he and the other big shots were seated snug on a covered stage.

            The Commencement speaker was one of the honorary degree recipients, Edwin E. Catmull, the President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.  Dr. Catmull is the winner of no fewer than five Academy Awards, as well as the much-lauded author of a highly successful business book entitled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.  His theme was once again “Creativity” and, protected by an overhanging arch that shielded him from the precipitation, he pursued it at some length.  The young no doubt are more familiar with the intricacies of computer-generated animation than am I.  Perhaps they also follow with greater attention than I the rise and fall of start-up empires and the complex rhythms of Silicon Valley mergers and acquisitions.  It was a little hard for me to concentrate.  The forces that were standing in my way were neither unseen nor unfelt.  I was distracted by the slowly dawning realization that the left-side fringe of my suit jacket was gradually becoming soaked and heavy as it sponged up the water first deflected by my plastic surcoat and the funneled by it onto my bleacher seat.  I wanted Up but seemed temporarily trapped in Monsters University.
            Yet like everyone else in that large transparent-ponchoed crowd our pride in, and happiness for, our graduate conquered all physical discomfort.  The marathon aspect of the Hopkins graduation is an inevitable result of one of its nicer features: every single graduate is called out by name.  This is done quite briskly, reducing the statutory envelope of fame from fifteen minutes to something closer to 1.5 seconds; but that it is done at all for such a large group is remarkable.  The graduates sprint across the stage as summoned, their academic perp-walks captured by camera and largely magnified on twin Jumbotrons flanking the presidential platform.  Among their many other advantages, Johns Hopkins graduates thus enjoy credentials confirmable by Instant Replay.

A distant mirror: Sophia scores on the Jumbotron

            Johns Hopkins is in Baltimore.  Baltimore is a complex and variegated city.   It has serious problems involving poverty and race.  Some of its chronic pathologies are on permanent local display, but this year they claimed national attention at the end of April when some serious rioting and looting accompanied community protests.   Johns Hopkins is an elite, highly selective, expensive educational institution.  Like other such institutions it is brim-full of life’s winners.  A certain sense of irony might have hovered over its Commencement jubilations had some obvious contrasts or contradictions not been brought to mind.

            But they were, and thoughtfully, as was appropriate for a great center of learning.  University President Ronald Daniels made them the principal substance of his remarks.  It happened, furthermore, that Representative Elijah Cummings, one of the leading members of Congress, and certainly one of the most eloquent, was another among those receiving honorary degrees.  He, too, made a brief but powerful speech.  And while speeches do not solve problems, they may help inspire dedicated people to try to solve them.  And we saw a lot of dedicated people in that football stadium.   Our own lovely granddaughter was but one of many thousands of graduates throughout our land who, we have sound reason to hope, will put their fine educations to the work of leaving our troubled world a bit better than they found it.

 The Graduate with proud grandparents

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Capital Punishment

              It is probably attributable to mere cultural habit that despite the many conveniences of on-line reading I still prefer to read from an actual printed object held in my hands.  But I generally begin my day rather early, quite a while before the arrival of the printed copy of the New York Times, so that I often have a first shot at it sitting in the dark before a flickering screen.

            One unique advantage of on-line journalism, from the reader’s point of view, is that one often has access to some sense of the popular reaction to events in the news through the feature of published readers’ comments.  Certain stories very quickly attract a large number of them.  It was still long before the crack of dawn when I read the Times’s coverage of the outcome of the penalty deliberations of the jury hearing the arguments concerning the convicted Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but even then there were already more than a thousand of them.  After reading a certain number, I had the depressing realization that I would feel compelled to add to their number, as I am now doing.  My next post cannot fail to be more cheerful and uplifting.

            As everyone knows, the jury recommended a capital sentence for this young man who, in concert with his brother, randomly murdered some people and maimed many more in a terrorist bombing.  The unpleasant outcome seemed to me quite probable, indeed nearly inevitable, given our legal codes, the unmitigated iniquity of the crime, and the particular instructions given to the jury. My view of the matter, however, was far from being shared by many of my fellow readers who had chosen to leave comments.

            Without wanting to suggest that such comments could be easily grouped into categories of opinion, I was nonetheless struck by the large number that seemed to equate judicial execution with murder pure and simple.  One of the first I read was  “Now we are as bad as they are.”  Another sizable group complained that the jury’s opinion violated some specially indulgent and enlightened ambiance peculiar to the city of Boston.  Several commentators suggested that determinative weight should have been given to the opinion of the parents of one of the murder victims, a young girl.   They had expressed their preference that Tsarnaev be given a sentence of lifetime imprisonment that would preclude the highly likely prospect of many years of irresolution and repeatedly rekindled anguish as the process of legal appeal slowly grinds on.  One group of comments seemed to me particularly obtuse concerning legal realities.  They complained that the deck has been stacked against Tsarnaev because all those who expressed a categorical opposition to capital punishment had been excluded from the jury pool.

            Many comments abused the jurors, attributing to them a want of courage or of intelligence.  This I found rather shocking.  Serving on a “high profile” jury must surely be among the most grueling and thankless tasks that can fall upon a citizen.  I certainly would hope to be spared any such duty, and the apparent ease with which opponents of the death penalty attributed incompetence or base motives to the jurors alarmed me.  Especially disturbing were remarks that implied that justice is primarily a matter of private family revenge or compensation—as though we were still operating under the early Germanic system of wergild.  The relatives of murder victims must necessarily have a claim on our empathy; but they cannot claim a special status in law.

            An important part of the social contract, as I understand it, is that living in community means living according to the laws we have, whether we like them or not.  Justice is communal and social, not private and individual.  We do not seek justice "for Michael" or "for Lisa" or for any particular private person.  We seek justice, period.  Actually, even though I am not a Bostonian I am opposed on principle to capital punishment.  Like many of my other political and social opinions, this one was highly influenced by “literary” experience, and in particular by reading a nearly forgotten work of Victor Hugo: The Last Days of a Condemned Man.  Hugo, a great man condemned to the disappointment of all genuine idealists, could not believe that the guillotine, which had become so prominent in the Revolution of 1789, had survived the corrective Revolution of 1830.  It often takes a while for enlightened individual opinion to gain a large social consensus.  Hugo died in 1885.  Capital punishment was abolished in France only in 1981.  Hugo could lament the French law of his time, but he could not simply ignore it.

            Though American public opinion concerning capital punishment has not yet arrived at a universal reforming consensus and may still not do so for some years to come, the likely drift of things is clear enough.  In many arenas of progressive American thought “diversity” has become a nearly terminal good—except, that is, for the many manifestations of actual cultural diversity that one may find strange, embarrassing, or even threatening from one’s own local perspective.  Ours is a vast country, and despite many powerful institutions working toward a cultural homogeneity it is a country of marked regional differences.  The number of places in which there is a firm consensus in favor of the death penalty in diminishing, partly on practical grounds.  When each capital judgment becomes a marathon of legal appeals, and when the effectiveness of high-tech “humane” ways of killing people has fallen under just suspicion, what might be doctrinally sound is pragmatically dubious.  Just at the moment a number of conservative legislators in Nebraska are trying, with good chances of success, to arrange a vote for abolition in that state.  In the meantime I greatly admire the Boston jurors and will not second-guess them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Proverbial Paucity

One of the special pleasures of living in an academic community is that the most ordinary of daily experiences often become informal seminars.  Last week I benefited from an amusing conversational seminar with my friend Ron Surtz.   In his day job Ron is a distinguished scholar of early Spanish literature and the prolific author of numerous important scholarly studies.   And if you think Oliver Sachs’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is interesting, and it is, you really ought to dip into Ron’s The Guitar of God, which is about a nun who mistook herself for a musical instrument.  But before the day properly begins Ron shows up for a workout at the gym, where he not infrequently crosses paths with Joan around the machines in the Torture Chamber and later with me around the shower room.  One day last week Joan was late in showing up, and in explaining her absence I passed on the excuse she had peddled to me.  “By mistake I put the alarm ‘off’ instead of ‘on’.”

            “Not that one,” said Ron.  “That’s one that undergraduates use.  As they say in Spain, you’ll have to find another dog to toss that bone to.”    When I asked him if they really say that in Spain, he quoted it for me in Spanish: A otro perro con ese hueso.  I love old folk saws, and here was a terrific new one.  In terms of canine proverbs its seems roughly comparable to, though better than, our own American That dog won’t hunt.  I believe it was LBJ who mainstreamed that particular bit of wisdom from the bayous and the boskies.

            The episode made me aware of a previously unappreciated poverty in my life: the fading of the old world of proverbs that I knew as a kid.  Proverbs were on every lip in Baxter County, where absence made the heart grow fonder but then again out of sight was out of mind.  Many hands made light work even if too many cooks spoiled the broth.  I could devote two or three essays to my father’s folk wisdom concerning pigs alone.  We all aspired to live high off the hog and to be as happy as a hog on ice.  You should never buy a pig in a poke.  When he told somebody off, he told them right where the hog ate the cabbages.  When he was absolutely determined to do a certain thing, he was going to do it “even if it costs Pa a pig”.

            The gradual disappearance of the proverbial in everyday speech would seem to be an aspect of the general waning of the folkloristic, and I regard it as a cause for lament.  Our old poets are full of proverbs, often moralizing ones.  Chaucer’s good parson tells us that “a man can sin with his own wife, even as he can cut himself with his own knife”—a rhyming saw that has disappeared with the gloomy moral theology which saw its birth.  Shakespeare’s Polonius is a geyser of popular and proverbial sententiousness so approved by my own elders that it was only when I got to graduate school that I was allowed to recognize the large portion of windbag in the old guy’s personality.  Still his punishment was extreme.  Nobody deserves to be stabbed in the arras. 

            Most of my forebears were Irish, but there was one tenuous English branch to the family.  My paternal grandmother’s name was Harrington (Herrington), and her own immediate ancestors, despite being nonconformists, had been English Tories who in the 1780s fled the American Reds for the loyal haven of Windsor, Ontario.  She had some distinctive expressions, one of which was “Don’t try to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs.”  The general meaning of this was clear—do not presume to instruct people in an art of which they are already masters—but its effect was strengthened by the fact that she actually was my grandmother, and the thought of her actually sucking an egg preposterous.  I never heard anybody outside the immediate family use the expression, but I was delighted many years later to see it turn up in Fielding’s Tom Jones.

            She had one very mysterious expression, also pig-related, to which I hope one day to devote a learned article.  Her husband and their adult children were world-class bickerers, and when exasperated by their squabbling she would express her fervent desire for what sounded like “a bite of done more bacon”—meaning, so far as I could tell, some peace and quiet.  In Chaucer’s prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale (lines 217-218) there is allusion to “the bacon…that some men han in Essex at Dunmowe”.  The reference is to a quaint and delightful medieval custom long practiced in the village of Little Dunmow.  “It was that any person going to Dunmow, in Essex, and humbly kneeling on two sharp stones at the church door, might claim a gammon of bacon if he could swear that for twelve months and a day he had never had a household brawl or wished himself unmarried.”

            My grandmother was no Chaucer reader, but I learn from the indispensable reference tool from which I have just cited a passage (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) that “Allusions to the custom are frequent in 17th- and 18th-century literature, and the custom was revived again in the second half of the 19th century.”  General family bickering is not exactly the same thing as marital strife, and “done more” is not exactly the same thing as Dunmowe.  Nonetheless, I think the case is open-and-shut.  You may think I’d better look for a different dog.

The old public house in Little Dunmow, Essex

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Goodbye to Gooch

Once we actually got home we found that the elation born of our Spanish pilgrimage was heightened rather than compromised by the nightmarish return trip, involving the unexplained cancellation of a flight to Madrid, racing about Galicia from one Podunk airport to another by bus, diversions to London, bureaucratic hassles and a shamefully inefficient and unpleasant passage through Immigration Control and Kennedy Airport.  But the fashion in which our nation chooses to receive its visitors and its returning citizens is a subject that would demand its own lament.  Today’s lament is of another and probably more familiar kind.

            Princeton in the springtime is magnificent, and we returned to find our garden in the finest full bloom--forsythia ablaze, large beds of daffodils, the red and purple bursts of such tulips as the deer had somehow missed.  Looking up, one saw everywhere the lighter whites and pinks of flowering trees.  After a cold winter that tarried we seem destined for a hot summer that is arriving early, and it has taken only three successive hot days to start the dissolution of the floral display.  This brings me to my theme:  “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.”

            When I resumed my regular schedule of exercise and showed up at Dillon Gymnasium for an early morning swim I sensed an oddly subdued tone about the place.  Very soon I learned its cause.  “Gooch” had died on April 30th—probably while I was still sleeping off my bad trip.  Gooch was one of the part-time facilities managers for the Princeton Athletic Department.  For the better part of twenty years it was he who unlocked the gym’s front door at 6:30, then supervised our entry through the turnstile.  He handled the assignment of lockers.  He ran a Lost and Found overflowing with unclaimed eyeglasses and swimming goggles.  Once, with a mighty bolt-cutter, he removed an unauthorized padlock left by a scofflaw on one of the long lockers.

            I cannot account for the name Gooch, which was however affectionately used and cheerfully received.  His real name was Americo A. Arcamone.  He was a Princetonian by birth and a graduate of Princeton High School.  He was born in 1925 and carried away by a stroke a few months short of his ninetieth birthday.  The Italian-American community of this college town is an old and distinguished one.  The early immigrants included a number of skilled stone masons who worked on the fine neo-Gothic buildings of the campus, especially the cathedral sized chapel, which was completed shortly after the First War.  Many of them had originally come from a single village on the island of Ischia, not far from Naples.  As late as the early ‘sixties, when I first saw Princeton, linguists from some Italian university showed up to study the speech of various little old ladies dressed in black—a demographic then numerous but now apparently vanished—who constituted what they called an isola linguistica, a kind of language island or bubble of rapidly disappearing dialect.

            Whether Mr. Arcamone’s forebears were part of this group I cannot say, but it’s wonderful to imagine the pride and optimism of parents who name their child after their new home.   Even fleeting and superficial conversations, when conducted on a nearly daily basis over a period of many years, yield a good deal of information.  Gooch had spent most of his working life—in what capacity I do not know--at McGraw Hill, the publishing company.  His work in the Athletic Department was post-retirement and part time, but it was wholly consistent with his enthusiasm for Princeton University sports teams.  I could count on him for a quick debriefing on any football or basketball game I happened to have missed—meaning, of course, most of them.  He was a keen golfer, and loved especially to pursue that sport in the state of Florida.

            Gooch knew my name even as eventually I had come to know his (by asking).  But he always called me simply “Professor”.  He said it in a way that made it clear that for him it was a term of the highest possible respect.

            Gooch’s wife died a while ago.  I was going to say “recently,” but internet research has proved to me that it a was whole decade past.  These days I am frequently caught up by the shortening of perceived time horizons, a theme not irrelevant to this post.   That news, too, traveled about the gym community on invisible wings, and Gooch accepted my belated condolences with a kind of stoic appreciation. 

            For all of us human community is a kind of globe of concentric spheres: family and intimate friends; work mates--co-religionists, co-enthusiasts, co-whatevers—and so on, spreading out to actual strangers and beyond that to the millions unmet and unseen.  But one group whose importance is often missed is that comfortable world of habitual friendly contacts, of bus drivers and mail carriers and crossing guards.  It is rather wrenching to realize that at any moment, and to your utter oblivion, one of them can be snatched away.   Americo Arcamone: may he rest in peace!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Pilgrims' joy

            The somewhat obscure battle cry of medieval French warriors was Montjoie, a shortened version of the more expansive Montjoie Saint-Denis.  As we know from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Montjoy could also be a personal name.   For pilgrims, the joyful aspects of mountains, if there are any, must be retrospective.  Dante’s vision of Purgatory is that of a steep and steeply ramped mountain.  It feels really good when you quit climbing, and the whole mountain quivers in joy when a soul finally completes the task. 

            Even though our pilgrimage was Camino light and mainly diesel-powered I was accordingly happy, and perhaps even joyous, to arrive at the Monte do Gozo a few kilometers above Santiago.  That means the Mount of Pleasure, roughly speaking, the pleasure being that in earlier, more deforested centuries a pilgrim could from this steep place catch the first sight of the distant towers of the cathedral that had been the object of such long and arduous toil.  The experience was pleasing to me not only in spiritual but also in linguistic terms.   Having recently finished writing a book about an old Portuguese poem, I reacted favorably to the Galician form of the preposition.  It appears that Galician and Portuguese are the closest of cousins.  However I later made the mistake of asking our Galician guide Diego a question about the current state of the Gallegan “dialect”.  Diego is a cheerful and irenic chap, in addition to being witty and knowledgeable, but he rather bristled at the implied slur in the word dialect.  Galician, he assured me, is a language.

            Things are a good deal quieter in Santiago than they were when I was last here.  There is a thinner stream of pilgrims than there will be a few weeks hence, let alone in the height of summer, but the place is still pretty much of a madhouse.  No aspect of the medieval pilgrimage has been more perfectly preserved than its often-impenetrable ambiguity, the rich mélange of naïve spirituality, manifest commercialism, and utterly irreligious high-jinks.  I suppose it is precisely because of the grave difficulty we have in cleanly separating flesh and spirit that the Apostle must remind us that we have our treasures in earthen vessels.

            On our final full day in Compostela we were determined to take in the noontime service arranged especially for pilgrims, a group from many lands, speaking many tongues.  One special part of the Pilgrim’s Mass, a justly famous one, is the censing of the congregants gathered in the Cathedral’s two transepts.  The cathedral chapter has a gigantic thurible—and I mean gigantic--called the botafumeiro.  It works on an elaborate pulley and suspension system requiring several strong and skilled bell-ringers to operate.  The censing of the medieval pilgrims probably had a practical as well as a symbolic motive.  Tramping for weeks on end along dusty roads and through muddy bogs is a considerable challenge to personal hygiene.  I was sitting in the very first row of the south transept, and next to the aisle separating the transept seating into two halves.  It is over that aisle that the heavy thurible swung in its awesome pendulum stroke, swishing and fuming, the bright fire of the coals clearly visible through the ventilations in the silver.  I suppose that one is allowed to ask God for almost anything in a pilgrimage church, but I still felt a little awkward entertaining a mental petition to be kept safe from what seemed to be an all-too-real threat of liturgical decapitation.  My prayer was answered.  Thus passed the only sure chance I shall ever have of exiting this vale of tears in the odor of sanctity, guaranteed.

            It would not be easy to identify a single “high point” of a journey so enjoyable in so many ways.  We saw mile upon mile of varied and beautiful countryside in its spring glory.  Each day we feasted our eyes on architectural and artistic treasures.  We dined liked monarchs.  But near the top, surely, I would have to place the peculiar form of companionship and camaraderie—Chaucer used the word felawschipe—that so swiftly binds together a disparate band of pilgrims briefly and fortuitously thrown together.  I shall not soon forget the fully occupied glazed poultry coop kept in the church of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in testimony to one of James’s more extravagant miracles—the only known example of the sacral de-fricasseeing of a chicken.  But no sooner will I forget the pleasures born of new and unexpected friendship, and of the companionship born of intensely shared experience.

            On Monday night most of us had taken advantage of our coach to drive to Finisterre, the “end of the earth” as it was known in the Middle Ages to such as Chaucer’s Shipman.  That day had begun with bad news.  One of our fellow pilgrims had just learned of a sudden death in his family that would require him to set off for home as soon as possible.  The fleeting nature of human life no less than its preciousness is one of the great themes of pilgrimage.  The art and architecture of the pilgrimage roads to which we had devoted much of the last ten days is largely funereal and memorial.  Our absent friend was very much in our hearts as most of the rest of us gathered on the rude rocks surrounding the Fisterra lighthouse to sip a glass of champagne and congratulate ourselves on journey’s end as we watched a huge sun set beneath the western sea.  How many others, in legend or in history, had seen such a sight?—among them Dante’s Ulysses at the Pillars of Hercules, Henry the Navigator at his wind-swept maritime academy on Cape Saint Vincent, Columbus as he pressed toward the Azores.  But we knew something they could not yet have known, that beyond that setting sun lay our own homeland and our own homes.  There we would now return and, however greatly enriched by our journey, return eagerly.  Perhaps no pilgrimage is really done until all is done.  I thought of the strange old Romance word shouted out by medieval pilgrims to encourage themselves and their fellows not to flag, to keep on moving faster and further: Ultreia!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Buen Camino


 Architectural ambition and technical innovation characterize the winery of Bai Gorri, where we had a three-and-a-half hour "tasting lunch."

             Having completed the first three full days of our pilgrimage, I have far more to relate than would fit into a single essay, or indeed several essays, not that I am entertaining any serious ambitions in that direction.  The brief report is most positive.  Our random companionship of thirty pilgrims is cheerful and cohesive, the kind of students any teacher is blessed to have—and certainly the kind who justify both the glad learning and the glad teaching ostensibly characteristic of this blog.  The weather, though for one moment approaching the brink of catastrophe has been tolerable to excellent.  Unlike medieval pilgrims we are enjoying motorized support that allows us to see all manner of wonders and still cover the required distance.  One might describe our rather modest walks along the Camino as “scenes from a pilgrimage.”  Our rather minimal hiking, while enough to task my soles and calves, can hardly make a dent in what appears to be a mandatory daily intake of seven thousand calories, more or less.

            Almost everything has been new to me.  I was last in the Basque country in 1959, and then only briefly.  I was young and Francisco Franco not only alive but considerably younger than I am now.  It was, in short, a different world, and though Navarre’s antiquities and its dramatic landscape are unchanged, the general “vibe” was so radically different as to make it feel a different country as well.  It was a few years before the serious phase of the Iberian revolution in tourism.  There were at that time comparatively few automobiles in Spain--paradoxically that fact made for pretty good hitchhiking—and the whole country seemed coated in dust and impecuniousness.  Now, by contrast, amidst a universally recognized economic crisis and a twenty-four percent unemployment rate, it seems pretty prosperous.  Any American has to be impressed by its bright and shiny infrastructure of roads and bridges.  Of course the only economic “sectors” with which we have had much first hand experience—tourism and the wine trade—are doubtless anomalies in the larger picture.

            We started out in Pamplona.  It is a very interesting place, of course, but I found myself rather annoyed by the young English-speaking guide who seemed to think that all we would want to hear about was the running of the bulls and role played by Ernest Hemingway in transforming an obscure local Spanish tradition into an international phenomenon.  My late senior colleague Carlos Baker, who wrote the “official” biography of Hemingway, was both a mentor and a friend to me; and I know how seriously tedious he found Hemingway’s tauromachic machismo.  John (the aforementioned Anglophone cicerone) was a font of surprising statistics.  Would you believe, for instance, that “only sixteen” runners have been gored or trampled to death in the running of the bulls since the publication of The Sun Also Rises in 1923?  Or that the town fathers have erected a bronze monument for them worthy of war heroes?  But one statistic was enough to explain all the enthusiasm.  Last year, during the eight-day festival of San Fermin in July, the merchants, hoteliers, restauranteurs, and (especially) bar-keepers of Pamplona grossed a cool seventy million euros.  No wonder that there are statues to Hemingway all over the town.


            We did zip down to Roncevalles, just to be able to say that we were truly beginning at the beginning of the Camino in Spain.   But our progress is of course westerly, and we have seen many beautiful things, all of them new to me.  They include the hauntingly beautiful and rather mysterious octagonal church of Eunate, the splendid medieval bridge that gives its name to the town of Puente la Reina, the extraordinary cloister of the church of San Pedro in Estella and the yet more remarkable church of San Miguel in that same town.  Its location fully vindicates the well-known opening sentence of Henry Adams’s Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, “The archangel loved heights.”

 Puente la Reina

            Logroño, which had been to me no more than a vague place name, was a particular delight, and I shall leave you with two images that especially arrested my attention.  The first is a superbly politically incorrect Santiago Matamoros, from atop the façade of the church dedicated to that saint, in which the horse of the ferocious apostle is practically knee-deep in Saracens’ heads.  The second is a small crucifixion in the Cathedral of la Rotunda.  It has only fairly recently been recognized (and authenticated) as the work of Michael Angelo.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Sweet Glimpse of the Past


   Only five words into the NYT article about it, I decided not to address Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.  The article begins “Ending two years of speculation…”  If the Times editors really think that Hillary’s presidential ambitions were speculative, they probably don’t know what speculation is.  So here’s some real speculation.
An unrelated photograph of Mr. John Corea (Credit:

            I have never actually been in Hoboken (as opposed to around, through or over it) to cruise along the scenic Frank Sinatra Drive.  I do frequently travel by train to and fro the City, however, and I do on occasion pick up and read abandoned north Jersey newspapers left on the seats.  So over the past decade I have acquired a journeyman’s knowledge of Hudson County politics.  I know, for example, that Hoboken has an admirable reforming Mayor, Dawn Zimmer, who almost beat the crook who preceded her and whom she did replace when he was indicted for bribery and thrown in the hoosegow.   I also know that around 2009 there was a major scandal in the Hoboken Parking Authority when $600,000 went missing—that is, 2,400,000 quarters!  The local felon du jour for that caper was somebody named John Corea—some papers preferred the spelling Correa—who had been colluding with some Toms River associates of "mob boss Nicodemo 'Little Nicky' Scarfo."
Little Nicky

            With junk like this monopolizing the few remaining storage cells of my brain, you can see why I struggle with my scholarship.  But struggle I do, and as I was consulting a learned tome from my library shelves the other day out from its pages fell someone’s ancient bookmark in the form of an elegantly printed “at home” card, probably from the turn of the twentieth century: “Mrs. E. H. A. Correa / Second Thursdays / 920 Bloomfield Street / Hoboken NJ.”    You know what that means.  You’ve read some Edith Wharton.  Mrs. Correa was “at home” to visitors on the second Thursday of every month.  Drop in for a cup of tea.  What a wonderful whiff of a vanished civility!  And how very far away from “Little Nicky.”

            Not that I’m leaping to conclusions about the name Cor(r)ea, which is unfamiliar to me.  I don’t even know whether to pronounce it like the Asian country or like that Richard Cory who was a gentleman from soul to crown.  But a few moments Binging away yields some interesting facts.  For instance one learns from the indispensable International Insurance Encyclopedia that Emanuel H. A. Correa, born in New York in 1855, was by the dawn of twentieth century a leading executive of the Home Insurance Company.  In an archived copy of The Weekly Underwriter there is the sad news that Mr. Correa died too young on October 24, 1912, with a net worth of $38,606.  That was a while ago.  The Titanic disaster was only six months earlier.  One estimate of the current value of Mr. Correa’s fortune is $17,800,000—quite enough to afford a fine brownstone in such an exclusive suburb as Hoboken!  One deduces that Mr. Correa must have been a man of mild manner and cultivated taste.  We are not surprised to find his unopposed election to the New Jersey Philatelic Association on October 5, 1892.  Is there still a New Jersey Philatelic Association?  Do you still have to be elected to be a member?

            As for the spouse of this admirable man, the lady whose card had been closely preserved for at least the better part of a century between the pages of a Mermaid Series edition of The Two Angry Women of Abington, I have not discovered her given name.  But as Mrs. E. H. A. Correa of 920 Bloomfield Street her good works are lavishly spread upon the social and charitable records of early twentieth-century Hudson County.  I shall conclude this whimsical indulgence with a particularly sweet message she has left us from the grave.
a rare first edition

            In 1907 Christ Hospital in Jersey City, a charitable foundation of the Episcopal Church, published as a fund-raiser something called the Kirmess Cook Book: A Collection of Well-Tested Recipes from the Best Housekeepers of Jersey City and Elsewhere.  The cutesy title is an obeisance to the kind of ye-olde ethnic theme characteristic of do-good undertakings to this very day.  “Kirmess” is a version of the old Dutch word for a certain kind of village church festival, and it will be familiar to lovers of classic Dutch painting.  In 1900 the Dutch influence in New York and northeast Jersey, while waning, was still visible.  Here is the contribution of Mrs. E. H. A. Correa. 

David Teniers the younger


Mrs. E. H. A. Correa, Hoboken, N. J.

Soak one box *Cooper’s gelatine in one quart of California port wine, three cups of sugar, juice of four lemons, one ounce stick cinnamon.  Stand on extreme back of range for one hour, stirring occasionally.  At the end of an hour, add one quart of boiling water, strain and put in a cool place to stiffen.  When cold, serve with whipped cream.

*Peter Cooper (1791-1883) was the inventor of Jello.


Readers should be advised that I shall be attempting my next essay from somewhere on the road in northern Spain.  If you haven't heard anything for three weeks, say, somebody probably ought to inform the authorities.