Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Barnes Foundation


The constraints of the pandemic have proved trying for us as for everyone else, especially as they have coincided with those of aging.  The cloud’s silver lining has been an enforced leisure.  Though I have not exploited it as I undoubtedly should have, indeed though I have sometimes found it rather trying, it has allowed me the time and the impetus to think a little more deeply about certain questions that have long interested me.  Against the backdrop of really terrible world and national problems, I have had the luxury to read and think about art, literature and music with licensed self-indulgence.  Mark Twain famously  said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”.   Quite a crack, and too close to true.  I now realize that as a young man I invested much time in reading classics of this sort, books that I didn’t quite “get” but I knew on the excellent authority of somebody else were very good for me.  One of these was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun.  I didn’t get it at all, but about thirty years later something of Hawthorne’s plan may have dawned on me when I started reading Henry James seriously and began to understand the degree to which so many nineteenth-century American intellectuals were ambivalently fascinated by Old Europe, and especially by its opulent artistic heritage.  One never stops learning, thank God, and I may have progressed a little further in understanding this matter on Friday last.


The pandemic has surely been particularly severe for elderly people who have been isolated or solitary.  We have been blessed to enjoy the constant, cheering support of our children and grandchildren and, at the local level, numerous good neighbors and friends.  One of these, who is both a former student and a former colleague, has done us innumerable kindnesses.  It was he who on Friday drove us door-to-door to Philadelphia to visit the art collection of the Barnes Foundation.  This was our first visit , but I certainly hope not our last.


Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) was a Philadelphia physician who accumulated considerable wealth by developing an eye medicament called Argyrol.  As sources of nineteenth-century baronial fortunes go, Argyrol had a good deal more social beneficence than most.  Barnes had developed a serious interest in art, especially what was “modern painting” around the year 1900.  While not exactly a conventional philosophical deep thinker, he had definite ideas about aesthetics and the educational role that art could play in public life.   He had a pioneering sense of the potential role of elite art in a democratic society.  It was with a large if at first unformed sense of social mission that he set out energetically and purposefully to construct a great collection of paintings.  In retrospect his success seems nearly incredible.  He was the right man in the right place at the right time.  Barnes was a high school chum and artistic soulmate of William Glackens, a prominent leader of the “Ashcan School” of painters, and a man with a faultless eye.  As Glackens was setting off for a trip to Paris in 1912 Barnes slipped him a line of credit in the amount of $20,000 with a commission to buy up some post-impressionists of the sort both men admired.  It was not the most famous transatlantic voyage of that year, as it evaded icebergs, but it was of signal importance in the history of American art collections.  At the time Barnes was particularly interested in Renoir.  Glackens was able to negotiate essentially wholesale prices and scored thirty-some now priceless works by Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, and others.  Twenty grand was a lot of money in 1912, but still…Such was the nucleus of one of the greatest private art collections ever constructed in America—or anywhere else, for that matter.


Barnes’s private residence was in Merion, a ritzy Main Line suburb west of Philadelphia, and it was there that the treasures were housed.  Once started in his self-conscious role as collector, it was full steam ahead, and he never again bought a painting he had not himself first examined.  He read voraciously among the leading art authorities of his day, and he cultivated personal friendships among artists and intellectuals, particularly the educational guru John Dewey, a fellow patrician democrat in the Emersonian tradition.  By the 1920s, his collection burgeoning, he built a separate gallery in Merion to house it and established a foundation to preserve and shepherd it. 


                                      Giorgio di Chirico: Albert C. Barnes


There is much more to be said about Barnes the man, but I need to say at least a few words about the paintings.  He had very definite ideas about how they should be displayed.  When in an act of the highest philanthropy—a word meaning the love of mankind—he gave them over for public access, he did so in a narrowly framed will that required them forever to be displayed in the Merion gallery and in the exact spatial configurations in which he had left them at his death in 1951.  Residential Merion, PA, was never a great site for a public museum intended to attract crowds.  It became ever less so in the next five decades.  A half century after his death the Foundation eventually gained legal authority to build a new and magnificent gallery, itself a work of art, on Philadelphia’s “Museum Row,”  and to remove the paintings to it.  But his personal (eccentric?) concept of presentation continues to be honored.  That is, the paintings are displayed in the clusters or groupings (he called them ensembles) exactly as they were in Merion. 

ensemble presentation 


Barnes thought painting should be appreciated with as little intermediation as possible, with a minimum of textual explication.  (This was also the theory of the “New Critics” behind the teaching of poetry in my undergraduate years in the 1950s).   Most of the paintings merely have small brass plaques with the artist’s surname.  As for their organization on the walls, arrangement is not by artist, period, or genre.   The controlling principles seem to be harmony of size and placement.  The collector’s principal interests naturally took him to what was for him recent or contemporary, so there is a lot of the late French nineteenth century.  But along the way he picked up classical artefacts, African art, and numerous old masters.  So you will find an El Greco flanked by a French post-impressionist and a panel separated from a medieval altar, if the sizes seemed right.  He also loved Pennsylvania Dutch “primitive” cabinets and dowry chests, one of which is centrally placed in most rooms, and little bits and pieces of old forged iron.  And through it all runs the bright red thread of thought touched upon in my initial paragraph: questions of the universality of art, the nationality of its expression, the possibilities of its democratic appreciation and influence.  Maybe that’s what The Marble Faun is about, though I somehow doubt it.



 Around the periphery of this fabulous modern collection are some almost accidental delights for a medievalist.  One that surprised and captivated me is a small panel (“Westphalian, About 1400” says the little brass marker) of Dives and Lazarus, otherwise known as the Rich Man and the Pauper (Luke 16: 19-31).  My Franciscan preachers loved this text’s apparent support for their doctrine of evangelical poverty.  The chief indication of the wealth of Dives seems to be his very classy hat.  But the context in which I came upon this surprising piece complicates the usual interpretation of the parable.  Barnes was a rich man whose private wealth is now the public good of thousands.





Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Supremes in Dubious Battle



            The week’s domestic news has been dominated by a leak of the draft of a Supreme Court decision in a legal action called “Dobbs versus Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” a case with implications for the legality of fetal abortion.  The leak’s ethical breach is appalling, but in the context of a politics in which appalling is the default setting, it seems of small importance, especially as no one appears confident about the leaker’s “side” and motives.  We probably already knew that whatever decision the Court renders will exacerbate serious social divisions and, indeed, invite rage.   I wrote about the abortion issue once and vowed to write of it no more.  So I won’t.  But as an American citizen I do allow myself comments on how our government does or does nor work, and as an English professor I can say a word about John Milton.


            Among a few unstated but governing assumptions of the founders of our nation was one seldom mentioned for the reason that it was taken for granted.  I mean their assumption of a literate electorate.  If the people were in any real sense to practice “self-government” through representative legislators they needed to be able to communicate with them in written form and to understand the written results of their deliberations.  In the eighteenth century the hope of a fully literate adult citizenry was an ideal rather than an achieved reality, as it remains still today.  But we have good reason to believe that a significant majority of adult Americans were literate in the 1780s, perhaps as many as ninety percent.  As we know also the books used to school them and the books most likely to circulate through their homes, we have some sense of the level as well as the mere fact of literacy.


            The staples of the modest home libraries of the early republic are hardly surprising, given the religious constitution of most of the English colonists.  The most common single title was unsurprisingly the Authorized (“King James”) English Bible of 1611.   The “authorization” had been Anglican, but the book was authoritative for virtually all Protestants.  Another staple was Pilgrim’s Progress by the Baptist preacher John Bunyan, first published in 1678 and itself deeply influenced by the English language of that Bible.  The evidence of reading in Milton’s Paradise Lost (first published in 1667, but much of it certainly written earlier) is more surprising, given the poem’s erudite content and classical presentation.  The first of many early American editions of the poem, however,  antedates the Constitution.  Thus, eighteenth-century Americans found their preparatory literary nourishment in some seventeenth-century texts written in a living and changing language.


            I shall assume you know at least a bit about Paradise Lost.  It is the imaginative retelling, in learned language and epic form, of the story of the corruption of Adam and Eve by Satan in the Garden of Eden.  The poem, though it could hardly be called unsophisticated, is based in and expounds the unquestioned beliefs of many previous centuries, that God is good and Satan is bad.  It is Genesis at one artistic remove.  But during the revolutionary period of the end of the eighteenth century another great English poet, William Blake, famously said this: In Paradise Lost, Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”  I should stress the final phrase: without knowing it.  Not a few modern literary critics have followed him.  And one does have to say that in grabbing people’s literary interest,  nasty generally trumps nice.  Milton’s Satan is rebellious, daring, dynamic, and ingenious.  Milton’s God is, well, you could even say patriarchal.  I know exactly what Blake means.  He thinks that Milton must have had the same ideas about poetry that he himself has, even though Milton himself didn’t know it.  What Blake offers is a brilliant hypothesis of literary criticism though, in my opinion, an errant one.  It tells us what Blake consciously thought, not what Milton’s subconscious was discovered to have leaked.  Blake wrote in an intellectual and spiritual milieu very different from that of Milton.  Social and intellectual change are real things.  And we are now considerably farther away in time from the writing of the Constitution than the Continental congressmen were from the writing of Paradise Lost.


            From whence arises the crisis of the current moment?  Our founding document lays out the functions of three branches of government.  After explaining the principal function of our legislature—which is to legislate--and then of the executivethe Constitution turns to the third branch, the judiciary.  “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court…” Article III of the Constitution says that  “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority…”  Note the unequivocal all in “all Cases, in Law and Equity.”   Both the matters of “Roe versus Wade” and of “Dobbs versus Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” clearly being cases at law, are thus subject to the judicial power.  And in order to decide the present case (Dobbs) it appears that it may be necessary to review the manner in which the older case (Roe) was settled in 1973.


            Even many of the most committed legal experts supporting the substance of the decision in “Roe versus Wade” have been worried about the “fragility” of its form.  While obviously controversial, it had the superficial appearance of unassailable strength.  It enjoyed a big majority (seven to two) and Harry Blackmun, its author, was a Republican.  But it relied for its constitutional validity not on concrete legislative enactment but on a “right to privacy” said by Blackmun and others to be implicit in the Constitution’s fourteenth amendment and important in the resolution of an earlier crucial case (Griswold), this one involving contraception.  Here is the perceived point of “fragility”.  The English language benefits from an extraordinary reference tool: an exhaustive dictionary “on historical principles” usually called the Oxford English Dictionary or simply the OED.  It naturally has a substantial historical entry on the word privacy in its several nuanced connotations at various historical moments.  It has seemed to many, including me, that the concept of privacy invoked by Blackmun did not exist in the eighteenth century.  Blackmun found it the way Blake discovered Milton’s partiality for Satan, through a bold act of literary criticism.


            The philological history of the word privacy is hardly a definitive argument, or much of an argument at all.  There are lots of things that didn’t exist in the eighteenth century or its English lexicon that are very much a vital part of the twentieth-first century and effectively addressed in our legislative codes, like wire fraud and grand-theft-auto and everything else concerned with the huge increments in the technological, scientific, and medical knowledge of two centuries.  But it is our legislators in our Congress, not our judges on their benches, who are charged with making our laws.  Law-makers can make any law they want so long as it does not violate the supreme controlling law, which is the Constitution.  The power of deciding the constitutionality of any law is the province of  “one supreme court…”  We now have a good idea of gist of their forthcoming pronouncement about “Dobbs versus Jackson Women’s Health Organization.”  What happens next, apart from more bitter division?


            I am not an admirer of either of the current party leaders of the Senate, both in my view narrowly political and partisan in the worst sense and largely devoid of the instinct of statesmanship.  But I think that Senator Schumer’s stated intention to introduce a debate and a vote on an actual legislative proposal that would affirm the last half century’s implementation of “Roe versus Wade” in legislative terms, not those of literary criticism,  is a positive step.  He may be presenting the initiative as a largely symbolic and performative act, but a very great deal that happens in our Congress is performative, and at least he is being honest about it.  More importantly, it is a move that returns this vexed, divisive, but absolutely urgent matter to its proper venue, the Congress of the elected representatives of the people, who are not merely authorized to deal with it but in my mind duty-bound, in the current circumstances, to do so. Despite the bold confidence of so many others, I am far from certain how the matter would go.  In a democracy, there are by the very nature of things opinions that prevail and opinions that do not prevail.  It is indeed a crucial requirement of democracy—one so recently questioned by some among us—that losers as well as winners accept democracy’s results.  Such civil commitments are imposed upon us all—differentiating us from Milton’s Satan and his minions, openly committed to the “study of revenge, immortal hate,” and to  the “resolve to wage by force or guile eternal Warr.”








Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Ampelopsis brevipendunculata

 porcelain berry runs amok

            Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.  It’s a funny name, but no funnier than most of the names imposed by botanists in the Linnaean tradition.  It is very common.  Of course the more common the plant, the more likely is it to be buried within a confusing anthology of differing vernacular names, and thus all the more in need of a definitive and unique designation in Latin.  I call it porcelain berry, but I have heard it called several other things, including wild grape (which is a real thing, though  definitely not this thing), peppervine, and most commonly and accurately simply the creeper or creeper vine.  If you live in the northeast or mid-Atlantic states, you are bound to be familiar with it.  I think of it as Yankee kudzu, though by now kudzu has long since escaped the South.


 varietal leaves/berries

             The reason that I have ampelopsis on my mind is that I spent the better part of the week engaging it in dubious battle.  My horticultural tastes, whether guided by aesthetics or sloth, tend definitely in the direction of simplicity.  We do not have an abundance of ornamental plantings.  The deer population is so large and hungry that such flowering spring plants as we enjoy are in the category of the “safe yellows”—meaning mainly a number of large, coarse forsythia bushes and an abundance of daffodils. Some of these are actually in shades of pink and white.   As any gardener knows, tulips won’t work.  They are like caviar, or maybe Cadbury chocolates, to the deer.  So once the spring glory is finished, we are mainly dependent on various shades of green, the essential color of Nature.


            The porcelain berry, an Asian native, is the second powerful Eastern adventurer to threaten us.  We are already saddled with the bamboo I have written about in the past.  I believe our house was built about 1960 by an eminent scientist, whose scientific expertise was not, however, in botany.  Cherishing happy memories of his boyhood home in California, he imported a few boulders and planted among them some baby bamboos which he apparently thought would offer the effect of a delicate Chinese print.  By the time we moved in thirty years later his little patch had become a forest in which the boulders are now invisible.  By a ruthless policy of infanticide each May I have been able to direct the spread away from the house.  For the last couple of years I have been fairly ambitious in harvesting the edible shoots.  The vigilance and rigorous thinning required really pays off.  Our bamboo grove, shifting and swaying with the breeze, spectacular when bowed down with winter snow and ice, by early summer vibrantly alive with mostly hidden bird life in the thick upper leaves, is a real delight.  But the price of enjoying it is eternal vigilance.

 innocent-looking infant


            The porcelain berry is a different matter.  The reproduction of the bamboo is achieved through long subterranean rhizomes or lateral roots shooting out unseen in straight lines.  The new sprouts pop up in regular formations, like the soldiers sprung from the dragons' teeth scattered by Cadmus.  The phenomenon is alarming but still manageable.  The porcelain berry, on the other hand, soon becomes incorrigible.  The vines are very much like wild grapes.  The can multiply by reduplication at any point they touch the earth.  They also spread, easily, by seed.  This means they can show up anywhere that birds can poop, and birds can poop anywhere they can fly.  Fresh seedlings are easily uprooted, but if left on their own they soon become unmanageable.


            Unfortunately, those around here have been left on their own for the better part of three years, giving them time to form root clusters the size of small trees and spread their suffocating tentacles ten yards or more through established plantings.  Seizing the opportunities presented by natural pathologies—my own debilitating illness and the more general , wide-spread disturbances of the pandemic—they moved unopposed through a mighty forsythia hedge I had established just beyond the liminal stone wall of my back garden.  This year, instead of a vigorous wall of yellow, there was an ugly jungle of large but dead forsythia bushes wrapped in the unappealing thick green and muddy brown spaghetti of wild vines.


                                                                     mummified Concord Grape arbor


            I can’t say that I exactly tackled this challenge.  My days of horticultural tackling are over.  The better phrase would be “whittled away.”  But slowly and in fits and starts punctuated by frequent wheezing sit-downs I have finally cleared part of the mess.  It took me only ten days to achieve what I once could have done in three hours.  The experience left me enervated and, by nightfall, aching in muscles I didn’t even know I had.  I employed two principal tools: an industrial-sized limb-lopper and high-grade hand secateurs.  At the end I could use a chainsaw to remove dense, thick trunks of the dead forsythia.  I have temporarily left one huge, naked ampelopsis vine, just to remind myself what I was up against.  I want to involve some grandchildren in its ceremonial execution.


            There are some famous lines in “In Memoriam” (1850), among the language’s most powerful poems about death, in which Tennyson is thought by many to presage the “Victorian crisis of religious belief” induced by advances in biblical and scientific knowledge and already evident before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.  One phrase in particular has gained permanent fame: …“Who trusted God was love indeed/And love Creation’s final law–/Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw/With ravine, shriek’d against his creed…”  This is an unforgettable statement of the discovery of a pathology of Nature incompatible with the harmonious Providential order imagined by the eighteenth-century philosophers.  Like most other people, I had to come to terms with the Victorian crisis of belief a long time ago.  Coming to terms with natural malignancy in its very personal form is for most people the unfinished task of old age.


            There is something sufficiently disturbing in the very thought of actually noxious plants, amply represented in these parts by an abundance of poison ivy.  But at least poison ivy is native to New Jersey.  The snakes lurking in the grass ought at least to be of a native species.  The ampelopsis is identified by botanists and horticulturists as an invader, like the Russian conscripts dealing out mayhem in Mariupol.  Here the analogy itself is defeated,  as the “victory” of several days of hard work is nothing more than a hundred and fifty square feet of ugly scraped earth.  And I already know I haven’t gotten all the roots out yet.  

Victory (genus pyrrhic)

 Post number 660 in the continuing series

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Death and the Maiden


                     All art has the power to move us, but there is a particular potency in music.  Augustine’s treatise about music (De musica), an early work that antedates his full conversion to Christianity, is derivative and in truth very dull, yet nonetheless of interest in suggesting some of the widely shared aesthetic assumptions of Latin antiquity.  It was a common Neoplatonic belief that experiencing music could actually move the soul for good or ill, thus presenting the listener with an ethical problem as well as a perceptual one.  The rational faculty, supposedly unique to the human race, was required for the appreciation of music.  Boethius and others use the image of “the ass before the harp”—a brute animal unable to respond to celestial harmonies.  This may be a slander against jackasses, of course.  Recent studies suggest that even houseplants thrive more vigorously if frequently exposed to classical music.  The old doctrine is difficult to understand, since it requires as a preliminary the belief in something called the soul, or at least a union of the material and the immaterial in the self.  Self-conscious spiritual experience is hard to come by, but I am more likely to find it at a concert than a church service.  And “spiritual experience” is the term I would choose to describe my sense of a performance of the Tetzlaff Quartet last week.

Franz Schubert

            They played three pieces so beautifully that I was able to respond even to the Alban Berg, whom I continue to regard as a far-out modernist, despite the fact that he died the year before I was born. But the piece that transported me—really all of us, I think—was Franz Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden”.  We call the impulse to the preservation of life the essential human instinct.  What “maiden” means in the Germanic languages is a young woman, a sexual virgin, with implications of innocence and a tender vulnerability and sacred potentiality.  And if life’s preservation can seem an unquestionable imperative even to one ancient of days and already much reduced by natural decay, how much greater is the cosmic insult of the death of infancy or youth?

                What is “Death and the Maiden” about?  Are works of art about?  Archibald MacLeish gained permanent fame with two short lines: “A poem should not mean/ But be.”  My own view is that all art is about aboutness, an aboutness prone to vary considerably among readers, viewers, and especially listeners.  This is because it is a necessary collaboration with moving parts between a creator and an audience.  “Death and the Maiden” (the quartet) is in one sense about “Death and the Maiden” (the poem written by a minor poet named Matthias Claudius and set to music by Schubert), which is itself about the whole tradition of the Danse Macabre or Dance of Death, which is about the somber fact that in Adam we all die, and seldom in our view opportunely.  It is also implicitly about love, because Schubert was a Romantic and that’s the way he saw things.  If there is a beginning to the romantic tradition, surely it is in the first line of the Old French Tristan: “Milords, would you hear a beautiful tale of love and of death?...”


            The implication of a theory of aesthetic cooperation is that no two experiences of a work of art are likely to be identical, or perhaps even markedly similar.  We all recognize that in music the quality of performance plays its role.  No less do the associations brought by the audience.  Schubert wrote the quartet in 1824.  He had a dread disease and knew he was dying—which he did four years later, at the age of thirty-one.  The sorrow of young death is timeless, boundless.  But any lover of English poetry who hears this piece and knows something of its circumstances must immediately think of another doomed youth whose early death seems a similar cosmic crime: John Keats.  Keats was already three years dead when Schubert composed “Death and the Maiden.”  He had died at twenty-five!  Surely some scholar—literary critic or musicologist—has written about this parallel.  Perhaps many scholars have.  For Keats, too, wrote brilliantly on Schubert’s subject and in the same complicated way.  He wrote a song “about” a song.  Keats’s “Death and the Maiden” is his “Ode to a Nightingale,” written in 1819 amid a burst of genius without which the history of English poetry could not be as it is.

 Keats's gravestone

            The medieval Dance of Death was a grave moral genre that applied to human morbidity the gloomy attitudes of the ascetic mind as it meditated upon the terrors of a punitive theology.  The ubiquity and capriciousness of human mortality, a reality of the actual conditions of human existence, were there for all to see, and all to dread.  Death, the Universal Enemy, though a Latin feminine (mors) was almost necessarily personified in masculine form--as an animated skeleton, or the Grim Reaper, or the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, pale rider on pale steed.  In Schubert the terror is made more ambiguous, and in Keats it is perhaps finally overcome entirely.  In both there is an element of complicated eroticism: love and death, as in the romance of Tristan and Iseult.  Death was the fourth element added by the Romantics to the scandalous triad known in our own age as sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.


            The “plot” of “Nightingale” is ostensibly simple.  The poet is thrilled by the singing of a nightingale, rather as I was thrilled, I suppose, by the Tetzlaff Quartet’s rendition of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”.  The bird’s song makes him think of his own mortality—in a world where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies—but it also seems to offer a kind of immortality through art.  The poem behind Schubert’s composition borrows the medieval legend, but is Romantic in substance.  Death is an importunate male lover, the Maiden the terrified object of advances against which all resistance is futile.  The eroticism is overt.  The Maiden is loath, indeed, but Death’s seemingly benign promise to her is rest within his arms.  The situation in Keats is very different.  For many a time/I have been half in love with easeful Death/called him soft names…/Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/to cease upon the midnight with no pain/while thou [nightingale] art pouring forth thy soul abroad/in such ecstasy!  


            There is another ancient legend complicit in “Death and the Maiden” and the “Nightingale” ode: that of the swan’s song, an achieved supernal beauty so great as to be fatal.  Not everyone who uses the term swan-song to denote an artistic finality or indeed a last act of any kind may be familiar with its ancient origins in the unnatural natural histories of Antiquity and the Middle Ages.  The swan, a bird whose beauty inharmoniously contrasted with its honking and hissing voice, was supposed, just before the moment of death, to sing one song of transcendent loveliness.  The fatal beauty of art is a common theme in the Romantic period.  Schubert’s own response in his “Swan-Song” * might be described as something to die for.  Metaphorically of course.



Wednesday, April 20, 2022

O. Henry


            Once or twice a year this space takes a quasi-commercial turn as I encourage all literate Americans to become subscribers to  or even patrons of the Library of America, the non-profit publishing venture devoted to producing handsome, durable, and authoritative editions of the best work of the best writers to grace our land since the seventeenth century.  America’s extraordinary literary heritage is in some ways like our national parks, something to be preserved, cherished, and explored, an intellectual and spiritual treasure house, and a licit source of pride and patriotism.  What particularly impels me to this subject today is one of their most recent volumes (no. 345 in the Library’s continuing series) that arrived in my box last week: O. Henry, 101 Stories.


            Though I have spent much of my life in libraries, including some of the most famous of the world, what the word "library" first brings to mind is the eccentric and disorganized collection of books shelved behind a wood-burning cooking stove in a farmhouse I once lived in with several of my uncles and aunts.  The collection was eclectic.  There were several old religious books, which were however overwhelmed by a multi-volume set of Brann the Iconoclast, a Texas free-thinker and scourge of Baylor Baptists, one of whom shot him to death in demonstration of his love for our Lord.  Brann’s pungent essays included “The Mistakes of Moses,” dealing with the narrative absurdities of the Pentateuch.  I read it with mixed terror and delight.  There was a select collection of “How To” books, the most important being Audel’s five-volume Carpentry and Builder’s Guide, which had been used by my Uncle Wayne in building his own house, all made from timber he and his sister had themselves  cut and stone they had quarried on his wild Ozark land, in about 1932.  For me the most treasured volumes were those my Uncle John called “literature”—a few classic English novels, The Bible in Spain, A Treasury of Great Poetry, and what seemed to me a whole shelf of the individual collections of short stories by O. Henry.  “This man,” my Uncle John told me, “is a really great writer.”  Like so much else this beloved guru conveyed to me, the judgment was spot on.


            O. Henry didn’t invent the short story, but it is nearly impossible to imagine the genre without him.  In terms of output and consistent quality, there are but two other giants whom I can class with him: Maupassant and Chekhov.  (John O’Hara gets an honorable mention, and there are doubtless others I am neglecting.)  Amazingly the three were near contemporaries.  O. Henry was twelve years younger than Maupassant and two years younger than Chekhov.


            O. Henry is of course a pseudonym of still slightly uncertain origin.  The man’s real name was William Sidney Porter.  As a human being he was notably imperfect.  He was a petty embezzler who fled to Latin America to avoid prosecution but soon returned to face trial and a three-year stint in an Ohio prison.  His early death (at age 47) was hastened by his serious alcoholism.  All of us are in large measure “products of our times and circumstance”; but one can detect in certain writers a particularly strong sense of autobiographical burden.   One of the things that that draws me to Porter’s work is the particular nature of its connections to biographical circumstance.  Porter was born into the white middle class of the South during the Civil War, and thus inherited the curiously complex sense of being a loser that still animated many of the older people I knew when I was much younger.   Faulkner’s novels are replete with them in many forms, almost all of them involving dimensions of fantasy and denial, geographical escape, and the reinvention of a plausible self.  O. Henry became a kind of populist cosmopolitan for whom New York City—the city of How the Other Half Lives as well as the baronial palaces of Park Avenue-- would be the inexhaustible laboratory of his fictional examinations of the vagaries of human nature in their peculiarly American manifestations.  The first of his books I picked up in the family home was The Four Million, twenty-five New York stories first gathered together in 1906.  This collection unites several of his most famous pieces, including what is probably the most famous, “The Gift of the Magi”.  Some of them I hardly understood, and all of them had references I couldn’t catch.  Only many years later did I realize the political message of the book’s title.  It was a democratic put-down of the four hundred prominent families supposedly on Mrs. Astor’s exclusive list of people who counted in New York society.


            O. Henry’s production of short stories was prodigious and during his most intensive periods of production nearly incredible.  Out of many hundreds of stories I presume there must be a few clunkers, but I have so far found none in the selection of a hundred and one gathered in the Library of America volume.  When I became a professional student of literature in the 1960s I discovered that this author was regarded by many professional literary critics as rather primitive and passé.  His distinguishing characteristic was said to be the “surprise” or “trick” ending, as though cunning plotting was child’s play.  In fact, O. Henry’s skills as a writer do include narrative mastery.  He writes stories in the sense that most people understand that word.  Something happens.  There are characters in relationship who engage the interest of the reader.  Character is related to action.  But the narrator is always there too, and usually important in controlling the emotional or dramatic tone of the piece.  O. Henry was a very funny guy with a very subtle and modulated wit.  An excellent feature of the Library of America editions is the very discreet, disciplined and helpful collection of editorial notes, many of them explaining topical or historical references few of today’s readers are likely to appreciate without some help.  Certainly I need it.  For a “popular” writer, there is an impressive richness to his web of reference, allusion, and silent quotation.   My relatives were not college graduates, but they came from an era, as Porter himself had come, when a high school diploma had genuine significance as a guarantor of a certain level of cultural sophistication.  This was the man’s intended audience, as it had been also for Mark Twain and other of our great American masters of narrative.  He enjoyed and well deserved his high reputation among what used to be called general readers.  And given the fact that he has been dead for more than a century, one finds a surprising, unexpected currency in his pages.


 O Henry, 101 Stories, ed. Ben Yagoda (New York: the Library of America, 2021), pp. 828.

ISBN 978-1-59853-690-4


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Sticks and Adders



pilgrim/prophet: St. James of Compostela 


           My late close friend Michael Curschmann was one of the greatest scholars of medieval German literature of the twentieth century.  We were neighbors as well as intellectual buddies, and for years we had lunch together two or three times a month.  Our conversations were rich and wide-ranging.  His sudden death in 2017 was a terrible shock; I miss him terribly.  He was brilliant and erudite.  Those characteristics are not uncommon among professors at major universities, but in Michael they were directed by something rather rarer: a quirky and mellow wisdom.  One example sticks in the mind.  In his last years he was afflicted with very painful back and leg issues that made walking quite difficult.  His doctor recommended a walker, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  “I shall use a stick.  A stick is sensible, dignified.  A stick can even be elegant.  Kant always walked with a stick.”  And indeed I later learned that the highest-end model of the highest-end European stick-maker is called the “Emmanuel Kant.”  It costs €333, and you can’t imagine sticking it into a mud puddle.


            I had reason to remember this a year after his death when I myself was suddenly rendered unstable of foot.  A dramatic side effect of the medical treatments that were staving off disaster on another front was bad neuropathy in my feet and ankles leaving me with an uncertain inebriate’s gait.  First I got a couple of conventional canes.  My daughter got me a quad-cane, but I feel about that the way Michael felt about the walker.  I’m reasonably steady inside buildings and on paved surfaces, but I still like to get off the beaten track a bit.  In the woods I need something fairly heavy duty, a really strong stick that offers support but can also beat around in the bush a bit.  A major “off road” problem—fallen tree limbs—proved to be its own solution.  I dragged a likely one home and cut a stout pole of convenient length.  It worked fine.  But as William Morris said,  Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.   This is the classical literary aesthetic of Horace from the Art of Poetry—a poem should both please and instruct—adapted to the industrial arts.  My stout pole was useful, but was it also beautiful?


            And so the medievalist in me kicked in.  For reasons unrelated to my increasing antiquity, I am a bit of an expert on the iconography of canes, crutches, and walking sticks. Romantic artists thought that ancient prophets and Celtic bards, in addition to speaking very loudly, were wont to carry big sticks.  So you get pictorial versions of Isaiah, Homer, Ossian, and others walking about with small tree trunks in hand.  


            There is something impressive in a seven-foot staff, but also something very heavy—seven linear feet of wood, perhaps—that diminishes the “useful” part, unless it is a skinny multitasking shepherd’s staff capable of serving as buttress, lasso, or club, all of which (and more) were implied in the symbolism of a medieval bishop’s crosier or crook.   Both of those words derive from crux (cross) and therefore recall the metaphor of the Good Shepherd (who “lays down his life for his sheep,” John 10:11), famously used by Jesus of himself and then of the office of episcopacy and indeed of all good shepherds, such as Chaucer’s Parson, who visits the sick and needy throughout his far-flung parish not on horseback, but upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.  But I must reserve  the fascinating topic of crosses as crutches for another possible occasion.  It vividly demonstrates some of the ways in which rank popular Christian superstition could link with deeply learned scriptural exegesis in creating the fascinating world of the medieval imagination.  Today my plate is already full with sticks and adders, as opposed perhaps to snakes and ladders.  For there is indeed a strong iconographic connection between staff and serpent.   



        Think first of the medical symbol of the Caduceus, emblem of the Greek healer-god Aesculapius.   Snakes—non-poisonous ones, naturally—were a feature of the Aesculapion or “dream hospital” of ancient Greek medicine.  They were considered benign rather than scary.  In the Hebrew Bible there is the famous stick-and-snake contest between Aaron and the Egyptian magicians Jannes and Jambres (Exodus 7:10-12) and many places in classical mythology invoke the episode of the blind seer Tiresias, who had a major snake-and-stick problem.  He had rashly intruded upon the sexual congress of two serpents with his walking stick, calling down upon himself a bizarre divine punishment.  Scepters and snakes do have much in common, though one is unbending, the other curvaceous.  So what I shall call the “snake staff” is perhaps an artistic idea so inevitable that it could penetrate even my mind.  Just because you happen to be lame doesn’t mean your stick has to be as well.


            In unkempt woods around these parts one frequently finds an unprepossessing multi-stemmed shrub, kind of semi-hardwood with a good bark, often ten feet or higher and taking up a lot of room, growing in near symbiosis with coarse, strangulating vines of pseudo-honeysuckle.  The wood is fairly light weight, but sturdy.  The vines, which are very strong, sometimes cling to a mini-trunk of this plant with great tenacity and, as the wood expands in its annual growth constrict and become buried in it.  I first discovered this effect on a holly sapling, actually, while out searching for last year’s ad hoc Christmas tree.  The visual results of this process are very striking and very serpentine.  The holly has a fine-grained white wood which is quite elegant when stripped, but its smooth, thin, tight-fitting bark also presents a very handsome appearance.  I found the serpentine scars on several scrub species, and I have been harvesting a few likely lengths from which I have experimented in making walking sticks of various designs.

my first effort: holly wood Christmas tree

            From the functional point of view a stick used for walking on rough surfaces needs to be reasonably straight, very strong,  yet fairly light.  It also has to offer a firm grip, though this need not be of traditional semicircular form. Traditional manufactured canes achieve their curved handles through steaming, sometimes in conjunction with lamination.  Finding suitable pieces of wood with proper “natural” handles is difficult but not impossible.  My best so far is a fine, strong, light-weight length of black locust limb felled by a windstorm at my son’s farm.

some raw materials

            The natural serpentine design can be more or less emphasized by digging out the entrapped vine (not always possible) and by the partial or total removal of the bark.  The possibilities are endless, and one really needs a different stick for every day of the week.  I probably need to lay down tools soon, however, if I want to save my marriage, for one man’s heptad of walking sticks is another woman’s patio clutter.  Besides, my enterprise may be less original than I supposed.  Somebody else—several somebodies--must be doing this somewhere because there are whole pages full of sturdy rubber cane tips of various diameters available cheap on Amazon.