Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My First Century of Blogging

 This post witnesses the completion of my first century of blogging. If this claim seems implausible, the problem is probably philological. Cricket fans and readers of Thomas Traherne will have no difficulty, but quite a few other people seem to have forgotten the primary meaning of the word century, which is “a hundred of something”. A hundred years is only one possibility. Long before that it was the hundred centurions making up that division of a Roman legion called a centuria.

A similar fate has befallen decade, “ten of something,” now used almost exclusively to mean ten years. We don’t think that the only thing you can have a dozen of is eggs, do we? But our universal anxiety with time sweeps all before it, including your bloguiste as he sets about writing his one hundredth blog post. For the wheels of Time’s Winged Chariot have been clattering rather than whirring softly since my last effort. For starters, I turned seventy-five on the very day I flew to Europe. Yet more sobering was the news that reached me when after several days I reconnected with my email in Compostela. My Sewanee classmate and long-time friend Dave Evett had died on May 25 at his home in the Boston suburbs.  Herein, perhaps, is a topic of sufficient solemnity for the occasion.

David Hal Evett (died 25 May 2011).  May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.

David was a great man—brilliant, talented, energetic--an athlete, a singer, an actor, a powerful writer. Our careers, personal and professional, had several external parallels. When we first met in the fall of 1954 we were amused by the coincidence that we both came from small towns called Mount Pleasant—one in Michigan, the other in Texas, but both double misnomers. After college Dave went to Dijon on a Fulbright Scholarship, then on to Harvard for his Ph. D. in English and, as it turned out, an equally doctoral spouse, with whom he would raise three highly accomplished children. We almost but not quite overlapped in the English Department at Wisconsin, from which he later moved on to a long and distinguished career at Cleveland State University. He was the author of important studies in the field of Renaissance Literature. In retirement he and Marianne removed to the Boston area, where all three of their children had put down roots. He died peacefully, as I understand it, after a meal at which his whole family was gathered.

Dave was also an excellent poet. In lieu of a Christmas card he would send out each year an original Christmas poem, and we never could regard our seasonal preparations as complete until it arrived. Naturally in my state of disorganization I cannot now lay my hands on the anthology of these poems he prepared for distribution at our fiftieth class reunion a few years past. But I do have one poem of his in my computer—one not entirely inappropriate for this blog century. It is called “Alumni News,” and it responds to the announcement of the death in 2004 of another classmate (called by the poet’s sensitive pseudonym Matthew George Todd), once close friends to us both.
Probably no more lost than most

Gertrude Stein famously called her fast-living expatriate Parisian friends of the 1920s “a lost generation”. But I doubt that her generation was much loster than mine—or perhaps yours, or any other. The sheer number of my bright shining classmates who crashed upon the shoals of life, not a few of them last seen adrift on a sea of alcohol, is appalling. Of them there might seem no more poignant example of sheer waste than that afforded by “M .G. Todd”. Evett’s evocation of the “inheritors of unfulfilled renown”—a famous and tragic phrase from Shelley’s “Adonais”—was hardly hyperbolic, given this man’s talent and potential. Like most good poems, this one tells a story, the outlines of which are sufficiently clear, even without any footnote explication of its enriching details:


Matthew George Todd, ’58, of Austin, Texas, died March 11, 2004.

Lean, cool,
with a voice like George Sanders'
and a wry snort of a laugh
and a graduation watch identical to mine.
Riding the Southern on the last leg together,
Nashville to Cowan, Tennessee,
through leads in the senior play,
basketball, Hemingway,
we frisked into cronyhood
like two dogs into a wood.
Bronze hours:
dismayed to find him deadly from the key,
though I was stronger off the boards,
I challenged him at tennis,
and lost there, too;
we both paid homage to Bill Rotten
if the last trump refused to fall.
When the old Dodge balked
an hour north of Knoxville
on the way to some Virginia college weekend
we watched the winter sun strike
through the window of a clean, well-lighted place
the silver bubbles rising through the Bud,
the plywood booth, the green baize; Keats
was more real to us than the bodies of girls, then,
and we were all inheritors
of unfulfilled renown.
Later, he dared auditions and casting calls
off Times Square, the high life
of singles in D.C. played
against a barren federal job,
too much drink and sex,
while I took a safer road
through graduate school and marriage.
After this fraying globe
spun him back to Rose City, Texas,
an epistolary confession
twenty years long
on sheets from yellow legal pads
tracks his battles
with the flesh and the world and the church:
addiction was the Devil,
he knew, and wrote a long, strange book
to prove it that no-one would publish.
When a draft of this sat unread
while I tried to finish a book of my own
the letters stopped. I let it lie.
Can we not think about how he died last month,
leaving me this glum rage
over the slow corrosion
of bronze hours and my failure as a friend,
and about that devilish voice instead?
Three no trump? Double, I say. Snort.
Is there any more beer?  [David H. Evett, 2004]

The concluding lines about the obligations of friendship cut to the quick.  After twenty years of silence "Todd" had resurfaced in my sphere as well, first with a mad and truculent essay about the Cathars, then with the searing but incoherent manuscript about addiction to which the poem alludes.  One didn't know where to begin.  I, too, "let it lie".  But a couple of years later, around 2000, an academic conference took me to Austin.  By a near miracle I tracked "Todd" down by mail, and arranged to meet him for a meal.  He had greeted my initiative with something like enthusiasm, but the night before our scheduled meeting he called me at my hotel.  He abruptly, rudely, indeed angrily cancelled, then hung up the phone. I never saw him nor heard from him again.

As for David and me, the friendship was continuous if seriously intermittent.  In the last decade (of years, I mean) we tried to meet at least once each year, in New York in November, at an annual conclave of the somewhat Trollopian group known as the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church.  We had in fact pre-scheduled a private conversation on the topic of "the nature of religious faith" for last November, but I bagged it when I had the chance to go to Paris instead.  At the time it seemed to me one of life's easier choices--between talking about religious faith or going to Paris, I mean.  Now I am not quite so sure.  I'll think about it more during the next century.

 The Cumberland Mountains around Sewanee TN


  1. I've recently started to follow your blog. However, I find it hard to search your past posts. Have you discussed the Frick St. Francis or have you lost interest? If not, perhaps you could discuss the unwillingness on the part of scholars to accept your very well researched thesis in From Bonaventura to Bellini. I just visited the Frick after the restoration and they still seem to ignore your very convincing interpretation.

    I've posted on the painting and your interpretation on my blog, Giorgione et al. http://giorgionetempesta.blogspot.com

  2. Dear Dr. F: Thank you so much for your interest. I do try to “index” the posts through the use of “labels”. However, GLGT is devoted to episodes of personal experience or what I regard as topics of general social, political or literary interest, and not to technical scholarship, which I publish elsewhere. Very few of my blog posts overlap with my scholarly writing. But I have been delighted with the success of my old Bellini book. Its findings have been accepted by all important Bellini scholars known to me, and pirated by several of them. Its reputation in what I regard as its proper field—Franciscan Studies—is gratifyingly high. The current interest in the painting by the Frick curators has been explicitly focused on technical and material questions having nothing to do with iconographic analysis. But in years past I have lectured at the Frick about Bellini, and they sold the book in their shop until it went out of print about twenty years ago. No book of mine sold out its edition more quickly. My allusion to Time’s Winged Chariot in this week’s post is not entirely facetious. Like most scholars, I have far more interests than I shall be able to explore in my lifetime. Were I to undertake another single-painting monograph the painting would be Bellini’s “St. Peter Martyr.” Were I to do more work on Franciscan iconography, Sassetta would be my man. But right now I am working on other things.

  3. Thanks for your kind reply. I’m glad to hear that your study of the Frick St. Francis has received such acceptance among scholars. Nevertheless, if you go to the Frick website, you will see that despite all their technical artistry they seem to gloss over some of your more significant findings.

    For example, in the “Fauna” video they refer to St. Francis in a “rural habitat.” Why can’t they call it a desert? In the “Flora” section they repeatedly call the Onager a donkey and refer to the donkey that carried the saint to LaVerna. The “heron” is a large water bird of the wilderness, not the Nile delta. The rabbit in the rock is right out of Beatrix Potter, a curious, innocent little fellow.

    More importantly, I’ve just read “Between Form and Representation: the Frick St. Francis,” a puzzling essay by Emanuele Lugli that appeared in Art History in Jan. 2009 (v. 32, #1). The author mentions your book in the endnotes but then just lumps it together with some others and ignores your interpretation. Once again, we are back on LaVerna with St. Francis receiving a kind of faux stigmatization. The interpretation ignores practically all the iconographical details except for the laurel tree.

    What does it take for a seminal study like yours to gain wide acceptance? Your book is out of print and can’t even be found on ebay. I know the web has its pitfalls but you could reach as many people on your blog in the next year as your book has reached in the past 25 years. I for one would love to see even your incomplete ideas about Sasseta. Time is fleeting for all of us.

  4. I hate to belabor the point but see yesterday's (June 9) NY Times.