Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Not So Common Core

             McGuffey's Eclectic Reader: Back to the future

              Social scientists warn us to beware of “anecdotal evidence.” They prefer “data”—that is, a more or less sizable accumulation of anecdotes laid out in graphs and statistical charts.  Despite my often serious discontents with various contemporary cultural trends, fundamental pessimism seems almost willfully perverse if you are surrounded on a daily basis with phalanxes of smart, energetic, capable, purposeful and optimistic young people.

            Any college campus is bound to be a “bubble”.  The campus of a “highly selective” institution, such as the one on which I spent my active career, can often seem an exotic preserve for Golden Youth and a laboratory of social opportunity.  Of course an important part of that opportunity is the insistent invitation to look beyond the bubble and think about what you see there.

            If you accept that invitation the relationship between fiscal and cultural capital becomes obvious, even if the question of cause and effect may be murky.  Speaking in the most general terms, financially successful Americans are more likely than unsuccessful ones to know the distinction between its and it’s, there and their, and imply and infer.  (I have about given up on the distinction between the verbs lie and lay.)  Competence in one’s native language isn’t a finite resource that Smith will have less of if Jones has more.  It requires no “redistributionist” mentality to imagine a literate citizenry.  Why, then, are we incapable of imagining a school system that might create one?

            For a time the proposed new national public educational standards gathered beneath the shorthand phrase of the “Common Core” seemed to be gaining the “momentum” so prized in various aspects of our national life.  This momentum fell far short of a shared enthusiasm, but still appeared somewhat more powerful than mere grudging support.  Words are generally more prolific than deeds, however, and as the moment for implementation arrives the pseudo-consensus is fraying.

            I think this is a pity, but probably inevitable.  It is a pity because the new “Core” aims at sensible goals that if achieved even partially would enrich the lives of millions of our young people and measurably strengthen the national cultural fabric and our national economic prospects.  It is probably inevitable because we long ago surrendered our public education system to the untender mercies of the realm of the partisan political arena and to the dead hand of an intellectually moribund trade union mentality.  We have created the circumstances least favorable to broadly supported educational reform and most favorable for its plausible rejection on overtly political grounds.  In particular self-styled conservatives are framing it in such a way as to guarantee its unhelpful presence as an issue in the Republican Party presidential primary of 2016—which of course has already begun in late 2014.

            There is no partisan political content in the Common Core reforms.  This needs to be said because so many of its critics seem to think there is.  The Common Core is supposed to improve, in concrete and objective terms, American students’ mastery of the skills of reading and of mathematics.  Educational reform must therefore address two demonstrable problems with American public education.  The first of course is that judged in the world context, which is the proper context for any sensible evaluation, American schools are on the whole pretty mediocre.  There are places, lots of them, where things are worse.  But there are also quite a few places where things are better.   A second problem is that most American students think they—meaning both their individual selves and their own schools--are just fine.  That is, actual objective surveys of the mathematical attainments of American high school juniors, say, place them well below the level of achievement of their contemporaries in numerous other countries.  But if you ask an American high school student where American students rank in international surveys you are very likely to get the confident answer “Number one!” 

            It is probably not reasonable to hope that America, with its large pockets of social pathology unknown to many smaller and more culturally unified countries, is in fact going to be “number one”.  But on this issue default American optimism is an instance of “the man who knows not, and knows not he knows not”.  The proper response to the man who knows not, and knows not he knows not, as I recall, is—pity him.  The first two steps toward doing better are acknowledging that we must and realizing that we can.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Special Tree

 Conventional Christmas tree

            On Sunday we went out to get the tree.  It was our first priority following the girls’ arrival from New York.   They arrived, as they have on several earlier occasions, in a large, beautiful shiny black SUV driven by Mr. Singh, the proprietor of a Manhattan car service.  This is no big deal for my granddaughters, in fact no deal at all, and I have learned to take it in stride myself.  But the shiny metallic blackness still triggers in my mind a phrase from my high school history text book: “the rise of the Middle Class,” a phrase vaguely suggestive of hot air balloons or perhaps bread dough, though harder to visualize in concrete terms.   As some wit pointed out, the Middle Class has been rising for so long in history texts that it should now be visible only with the help of powerful optical instruments.

            To set out to buy a Christmas tree four days before Christmas might seem to be cutting things a little fine even for those who live by the procrastinator’s creed: Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow.   But on this question everything depends upon whether you view Christmas from the perspective of the red or from that of the black.  I allude of course to the chromatic shorthand of the title of a famous novel by Stendahl in which those colors suggest the tensions between secular and ecclesiastical values still very much alive in post-Revolutionary France and not quite finally settled even today.

            Not quite, but almost.  According to the American commercial calendar, which is redder than the star on Trotsky’s cap, the Christmas season begins no later than the Friday following Thanksgiving, which is somewhat confusingly called “black Friday.”  Black Friday, which this year fell on November 28, is the official beginning of the shopping orgy.  On the basis of black Friday sales grim number-crunchers are able to predict, before a week is out, whether or not American commerce will exit the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace in the red or in the black.

             According to the old really black calendar, however, Christmas began on, well, Christmas, December 25, and extended through the twelve-day period until the Feast of the Epiphany, which is its thematic and theological complement.  Vestiges of the medieval importance of Epiphany as the culmination of Christmas are still prominent in various parts of the world, including multicultural America, in celebrations of the “Day of the Kings”—i.e., the kings of Orrey and Tarr.

            If you think that Christmas ends rather than begins on December 25 you are going to miss out on everything except the partridge in a pear tree.  All the really good stuff—golden rings, geese alaying, lords aleaping, etc., comes later.  But historical sensibility, supplemented by a raised liturgical consciousness and about three dollars and a quarter, might get you a small latte at a central Jersey Starbucks.  My tardiness in the tree search, though ideologically justified, was practically motivated.  After all the essence of the tree search is the active participation of the grandchildren. 

            The girls arrived only about three o’clock, and they needed at least a brief period of decompression and refreshment before being packed into another vehicle to be carted back to the arterial highways of central New Jersey.  Sunday was, as it happens, the day of the winter solstice, alias “the shortest day of the year”.  That meant that the shades of night were threatening to fall even as we got on our way.  To give the girls due credit, however accustomed they have become to black late-model SUVs, their spirits rise noticeably when they are riding around in a faded red Ford pickup somewhat older than their own combined years.  Most of the actual Christmas tree lots and “cut your own” farms having packed up by then, we made a beeline to the belly of the nearest big box beast—in this instance the Lowe’s on Route One in West Windsor.

 Co-conspirators with the Delivery System

           It was not a good omen that the sliding mesh doors of its horticultural division were closed, though our hearts leapt up when we got within reading distance of the affixed sign, which promised that ingress was possible via the main entrance to the huge store.  We hurried through aisles bustling with prospective buyers of snow blowers and toilet floats to the Garden Shop.  It was not quite empty.  There was a young couple—of Rumanian Orthodox confession I conjectured on the basis of my awesome deductive skills—and a middle aged woman with a small, electric-powered chainsaw.  She was cutting three untidy inches off the withered trunk of the tree the Rumanians had just purchased.

            That left six trees for us, now the sole customers in that barn-like place, to choose from.  All of them were special trees in the recently acquired sense of that adjective as exemplified, for example, in the phrase Special Olympics.  And we bagged the most special one of all.  The bagging was literal.  The Chainsaw Lady had a cunning apparatus that wrapped the tree in a giant hairnet of strong but nearly invisible webs, thus accommodating suburbanites with shiny black SUVs who, unlike us, have to strap their booty to their shiny black roofs.  Among the other advantages of buying special trees four days before Christmas is an apparent discount of about ninety-five percent.   In practical terms that means that you get change for a ten dollar bill.  Our gorgeous tree is now in place awaiting the first day of Christmas and young and vigorous enough to flourish for the following eleven without needling us.
Special Christmas tree

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Aristotle's Poetics and Rape Culture

 Plato 1, Aristotle nil

Principles of literary criticism are seldom visibly applicable to widely discussed current events, but the current discussion of “rape culture” at the University of Virginia obligates me to make one of my rare descents into the politico-cultural maelstrom.

            Most people know that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic.  They made things up.  Putting it another way, they were liars.  Ulysses didn’t really do all that stuff.  There is in fact in the Western cultural tradition a continuing strain, persistent if minor, of this kind of thinking.  But the doctrine seems grim, extreme, or simply wrong-headed to people who like stories.  Plato’s ace student Aristotle came up with an alternate theory that most English professors prefer as it keeps bread on their tables.  We must distinguish between literal or historical truth and moral truth.  Fiction can actually be truer than what we laughingly call reality.  Fiction should and can have pleasing artistic shape, harmony and economy of organization, and clarity of moral tendency—features often sadly lacking in real life.  Though King Lear never existed, an audience can grasp more eternal verities in watching three hours of Shakespeare than Lear himself was able to absorb in a long lifetime.

            Many of us carry around with us in our heads certain legendary or literary couples: Dick and Jane, Hansel and Gretel, Frankie and Johnny.  Jack and Jill grow up to be Darby and Joan, perhaps.  Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw grow up to be—well, they don’t exactly grow up.  As most readers of this blog surely know already, the new couple in town are Jackie and Drew, two undergraduates at the University of Virginia.  Drew arranged the mise en scène for seven guys to gang rape his date Jackie at his fraternity house.  That at least is the ballad of Jackie and Drew according to Jackie, according to Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a professional writer for Rolling Stone magazine.  Erdely’s article “A Rape on Campus” gained wide attention and triggered an outpouring of opinion about a supposed “rape culture” on college campuses.  It had an immediate chilling effect on Greek life in Charlottesville but a warming effect among MSNBC pundits. 

            The article caused such a ruckus, indeed, that a reporter on the higher education beat at the Washington Post, undertaking the story behind the story, so to speak, started doing some fact-checking.  Everybody already knew, and accepted, that Jackie and Drew were made up names.  But the first gestures of prudential research, with which neither Ms. Erdely nor her editors had bothered, soon suggested that a great deal else had been made up, including quite possibly the very existence of Drew and the alleged fact of a gang rape.  As reported by Ms. Erdely, Jackie’s tale is fantastic.  One claim is that some male friends and presumed comforters of Jackie encouraged her not to make a fuss about having been brutally gang-raped by seven violent criminals atop shards of broken glass lest it compromise their own hopes of rushing a fraternity.  Though Drew hasn’t shown up, the friends have, and they have been unable to recognize themselves in the published account.

Pitchforks and torches at the Phi Kappa Psi house

           A single instance of rape is one too many, but is there an epidemic of campus rape?  Is there a “rape culture” in many of our colleges and universities?  Is campus sexual assault as common as Joe Biden, among many others, claims?  I have to say I doubt it.   To be sure, my doubt is based not in statistical study but in mere personal experience.  I was for more than a decade the faculty master of an undergraduate residential college within Princeton University.  My principal job was to foster a wholesome symbiosis of students’ residential and classroom experiences.   I saw or became aware of a lot of undergraduate life up close.  On the whole I enjoyed those years immensely, but there were some seriously unpleasant episodes—including a probable rape. 

            Looking back at those years I come to some conclusions.   The first is that such episodes of sexual unpleasantness as appear on our college campuses—and they are many--differ in style rather than in substance from those in many parts of contemporary American society, which has indeed witnessed, during the comparatively brief span of my own lifetime, what is accurately called a “sexual revolution”, the contradictions of which are still far from resolved.  The second is that campus sexual incivility and violence are so frequently associated with alcohol abuse that in proposing “solutions” it is almost pedantic to separate the two.  My third conclusion is that charges of rape, as a serious felony long established by our criminal codes, ought to be treated with genuine as opposed to rhetorical seriousness.  That is, they should be investigated and prosecuted by the relevant police authorities and other professionals in the criminal justice system.  College discipline committees are no more competent to deal with rape than they are to adjudicate other violent criminal behavior such as armed robbery, kidnapping, or murder.

            The ballad of Jackie and Drew really need not be the stuff of ideological duels between television pundits.  Conservatives and Liberals do have some common ground, and I would have thought that one shared plank might be opposition to felony rape—on campus or off.  Furthermore I grant that fiction may well influence national social life for the better.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin unquestionably played a role in ending chattel slavery.  Perhaps a required reading of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons might have an analogous effect in reforming the sexual mores of select southern campuses.  Then again, probably not.  But though fiction may be exemplary, it squanders that possibility when it seriously claims to be fact.  It then becomes a mere fib or a hoax.  The strange ballad of Jackie and Drew was presented as exemplary fact by Ms. Erdely and published as fact by the editors of Rolling Stone.  It is these people, not their critics, who are trivializing rape.  For various reasons it is a less serious hoax than the infamous Duke Lacrosse fiasco of a few years ago, though it shares the central feature of an obscurely motivated false accusation easily credited by people who don’t like rich kids, jocks, frat boys, or some other group on the list of authorized stereotypes.  The relationships between young men and young women on our university campuses are unlikely always to be Platonic.  But discussion of them need not be so enthusiastically Aristotelian either.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lord Leverhulme's Shelf Life

            You have probably had the experience while shopping of stumbling upon the perfect necktie or coffee pot only after you have bought and paid for another.  The phenomenon is well known to writers as well.  Indeed, it is something of a rule of thumb that a researcher will find the perfect ornament for his argument only after he has made it.  In a recent talk at the American Philosophical Society I touched briefly upon the catastrophes that befell London in 1665 (the Plague year) and 1666 (year of the Great Fire).  These events launched an epidemic of apocalyptic terror among the general populace, and an orgy of superstition that one would more easily attribute to the Age of Savonarola than to that of Newton. (See, after buying of course, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, p. 53.)

            My personal home library, though considerably downsized, is still too large for the space available, and far too many of my books must be double parked, as it were.  The truth is that I no longer remember where many of my “back row” volumes are stored.  Last week when I took down some volumes of Browning for blog-related purposes, I found lurking behind in the dark recess my long-missed set of the principal works of T. H. Huxley, the Victorian biologist, and a great scientific popularizer of his day.  His ferocious defense of the theory of evolution earned him the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog”.  He also coined the concept of the intellectual “agnostic.”  The book I plucked out was the first volume of his Collected Essays (1892), with the general title Method and Results, and the first essay within it (not counting a brief but most interesting autobiography) is entitled “On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge”.  It happens to be a talk or “lay sermon” first delivered in the year 1866, and Huxley seized the opportunity of the date—precisely two centuries following the London disasters alluded to in my first paragraph—to emphasize the progress made by the scientific mind in freeing itself from superstition.  How elegantly some plundered sentences from Huxley might have stiffened my own much less competent talk.

            But that was only the beginning of what I got from stumbling upon one of my own books.  In recent months I have been in close touch with my old Oxford friend Andrew Seth.  Andrew is now a writer of books in the field of business history, a subject on which he may be presumed to know whereof he speaks, as he is a retired CEO of one of his nation’s business giants, Unilever (Britain).  The founder of the vast commercial empire of which Unilever Britain is but one modern fiefdom was William H. Lever (1851-1925), who in one of his lesser roles unifies the disparate, not to say incoherent, elements of my story so far.  My own edition of the works of “doubting” Thomas Huxley once belonged to this man.

            I have no memory or where or when I bought them.  I can see from my bookplate that they came into my library in the 1970s, but it is the bookplates that were already in the volumes that are of interest.  Lever’s career, while extraordinary, in one sense typifies the biographical pattern of a number of Anglo-American captains of industry.  "Rags-to-riches" overstates it, but points in the right direction.  He was born in Bolton, in the north of England, the son of shopkeepers.  (Like Margaret Thatcher’s parents, they ran a modest grocery store).  With a brother he founded a firm, imaginatively called Lever Brothers, that after a while gained an international strangle hold on the soap market.  The rest is history.  There can be few twentieth-century lives in the Anglo-American world that Lord Leverhulme didn't touch.  I retained from my childhood years none of the wonderful old Irish ballads my grandfather used to sing—strange versions of “Barbara Allen” and “The Golden Vanity” among them—but my head is still cluttered with a pre-television soap jingle written by the Lever Brothers’ ad men:
            Singin’ in the bathtub, singin’ for joy,
            Singin’ the song of--Life-Boy.*
            Singin’ in the bathtub, cuz I know
            Life-Boy really stops B. O.
William Lever was a serious practicing Christian, a business innovator, and a Liberal politician.  The photograph at the head of the essay shows him in the ceremonial regalia of the Mayor of Bolton--that office being one of dozens of civic responsibilities he undertook at various times.  He was something of a utopian social reformer.  He became one of the most munificent philanthropists of the twentieth century.  The continuing good works of the Leverhulme Trust are of a kind and scope  that Americans perhaps more easily associate with the Carnegie, Ford, Guggenheim, and Mellon Foundations—among numerous others.


          The career of Lord Leverhulme—Hulme being the family name of his wife—can be traced through the bookplates in my volumes of Huxley.  There are three of them—the first on the inner board, the second and third on the recto and verso of the fly leaf.  He began (1) simply as W. H. Lever, Thornton Manor, Thornton Hough, Cheshire.  But when he was knighted in 1911 he naturally recorded his new style (2): Sir W. Hesketh Levert, Baronet.  He came up with a fine cock-a-doodle-doo heraldic device and a suitable Latin Motto: Mutare Vel Timere SpernoI disdain to change course or be fearful.  When he was elevated to the peerage (3) a couple of elephants with Tudor rosettes joined the rooster, for the former humble Mr. Lever was now a Viscount, “Baron Leverhulme of Bolton-le-Moors.”  For the past several decades, the book has been back in the hands of commoners (4), and any commoner with his own printing press can make his own baronial bookplate.

all bookmark photos by Joan Fleming

            It says something about British culture that a soap baron would amass a splendid general library, or that one of his modern successors should take up the writing of business history in his retirement.  I am not sure one would find many parallels in this country. 

 Life-Boy flanked by Life-Dad and Life-Mum

*The brand was of course Lifebuoy, but my mind’s orthography insisted on Life-Boy.  Anyway buoy, supposing it might have been in my spoken vocabulary, was pronounced boó-ee in my parts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Murder into Art

A passage in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield has become a familiar adage: “I love everything that is old; old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines.”  Two items in that catalogue—old friends and old books—have gained a particular significance in my life.  A good deal of my daily reading, accordingly, is re-reading.  And sometimes, without my conscious planning, a pattern emerges.  In the past couple of weeks the theme might be called Murder into Art, though I was strangely slow to apprehend it.


            I’ve had on my bedside table for the past couple of weeks a copy of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925).  It’s a book I like to dip into now and again.  Only in middle life did I come to appreciate Dreiser, when I read his remarkable “Trilogy of Desire”.  If you are interested in understanding American capitalism, I know of nothing better.  Sister Carrie is a masterpiece, too, but there is a depth to An American Tragedy that makes me return to parts of it repeatedly.  It revels in moral ambiguity, and in its exposure of the limitations of human agency. 

Don't go near the water

           Its anti-hero Clyde Griffiths is a young man of ambition and ability but of limited social capital.  He gets his working-class girlfriend pregnant.  She demands that he marry at the very moment that  a far more desirable sexual and social opportunity appears in his life.  Clyde plots to break free by murdering his knocked-up factory girl in a fake boating accident.  After hundreds of pages of legal and courtroom stuff that walks a fine line between the riveting and the tedious, he is convicted and executed.   Dreiser “based” the novel in an actual murder case in Herkimer County, New York, in 1906, in which one Chester Gillette was convicted of having drowned his pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown.  The case had been a sensation, and Dreiser researched the voluminous journalistic literature with meticulous care.  His fiction frequently transposes the “historical reality” with extraordinary fidelity, down to textual details of the betrayed girl’s pathetic letters.  Yet he morally confiscates his material.  It is one of the brilliances of the novel that Clyde might actually be “innocent.”   Art imitates life, but enjoys (or simply takes) liberties that, if we are willing to play along, change everything.


            Another long and challenging book I found myself coincidentally rereading makes that claim explicitly.  It was probably in the summer of 1860 that Robert Browning stumbled upon a curious old book in a Florentine flea market.  Because of the color of its aged vellum binding, it would come to be known to literary history as the “Old Yellow Book”.  The Old Yellow Book was a unique anthology, or perhaps dossier, of pamphlets concerning a sensational murder case in Rome at the beginning of 1698.  Count Guido Franceschini was charged with the homicide of his estranged young wife Pompilia and her parents, Pietro and Violante Comparini.  Franceschini was found guilty and beheaded; his four plebeian henchmen were hanged.

The Old Yellow Book--now at Balliol College

            Most of the pamphlets are legal documents, written in the repellent technical Latin of the lawyers, prepared for Franceschini’s trial.  But if you have the learning and the stamina to make your way through them—and Browning had lots of both--they tell a story, or rather several stories.  There is a mismatched married couple—an arrogant and brutal aristocrat joined in an arranged marriage with a thirteen-year-old girl.  There is the girl herself, practically a cipher, but a template of pathos.  There are the girl’s shadowy and grasping parents looking out for the main chance.  There is a worldly young cleric with a penchant for abused young wives.  From every signature fold of the Old Yellow Book rises the faint sickly sweet smell of a Roman society and a Roman Church at an exquisite moment of decay.

            From this unique, antique scrapbook Browning drew the materials for what most people consider his masterpiece—the long, complicated, and very difficult poem entitled The Ring and the Book.  The title expresses by way of metaphor Browning’s theory of the relation of “art” to “truth”.  A fine goldsmith making a ring must stiffen his pure gold with a firmer alloy to make it strong enough to withstand his hammers and incising tools.  Once the desired form is achieved, however, he burns away the alloy in an acid bath, leaving the ring perfect and pure.  For Browning the Old Yellow Book was the alloy, the story he made from it the perfect ring.

            In the latter years of his life, and for decades following his death in 1889 Browning commanded the celebrity of a rock star.  There were Browning Societies both in England and America, with many flourishing local chapters.  So great was the poet’s vogue only a hundred years ago, and so highly regarded was this poem of his, that the Old Yellow Book itself was reproduced in facsimile and also in English translation as one of the volumes in Everyman’s Library—a collection designed to publish the thousand books deemed most necessary for an educated English reader.

            But I own neither the facsimile published by the Carnegie Institution (1908) nor the translation in Everyman’s Library.  What is on my shelf might be called the New Puce Book.  This is a 1970 reprint of The Old Yellow Book as translated and commented upon by John Marshall Gest for the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1925 (same year as Dreiser’s novel).  John Marshall Gest (1859-1934) was an eminent Philadelphia attorney, later a judge, and a rare specimen of a now probably vanished Anglo-American type: the lawyer/man of the letters.  It’s still very much worth reading The Lawyer in Literature (1913), which gathers together several of his studies of individual writers.

            This time I actually read Gest’s commentary on the Old Yellow Book.  He is a Browningite, but no Browningolator.  He waxes indignant at the poet’s goldsmithing procedures, and his flippant attitude towards musty Latin briefs.  As a legal historian he finds them fascinating, particularly in their casual assumptions concerning judicial torture, and he rather debunks Browning’s versions of the characters in the drama.  Of course when history battles with poetry, poetry is bound to win.  Murder becomes more respectable when it is Art.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Admirable Crichton


 He knew it all

          On the assumption that my views of the Ferguson grand jury or the resignation of the Secretary of Defense would command about as much enthusiasm among my readership as those of the anointed punditocracy have stimulated in me, I shall take up the compelling subject of the Admirable Crichton.  If you have heard of the Admirable Crichton at all, which may be unlikely, it is probably in connection with J. M. Barrie’s once-famous play of that name (1903).  The Admirable Crichton is an imaginative satire on the theme of the British class system, sort of a combination of Downton Abbey and Lord of the Flies.  It is rather brilliant, but now probably hopelessly “dated”.

            Barrie’s “Crichton” is an imaginary butler in the stately home of a limousine liberal peer, the Earl of Loam; but his name alludes to an actual if shadowy historical figure of the sixteenth century, the Scotch polymath James Crichton (ca. 1560- ca. 1583).  Youthful genius too soon cut down is one of cultural history’s recurrent tragic themes.  Think of John Keats, “one whose Name was writ in Water,” dead of consumption at twenty-five.  Closer in spirit to the original Admirable Crichton, and indeed a probable biographical model, was the great Renaissance occultist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), although he made it all the way to thirty.  Pico knew everything there was to know, and so did the Admirable Crichton.  The laudatory adjective must be understood in the sense of the Latin admirabilis—that which inspires wonder, something marvelous.

            Young James came of good stock.  His mother was a Stuart of the Stuarts, and his father was for a time under the reign of Queen Mary the Lord Advocate of Scotland.  The youngster studied the trivium at Perth before going on to take a precocious baccalaureate degree at Saint Andrew’s.  At the age of eight Crichton’s eloquence in his native vernacular was compared with that of Demosthenes and Cicero.  By fifteen he knew “perfectly” Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic (presumably classical), and Syriac; and commanded native conversational fluency in Spanish, French, Italian, “Dutch”, (i.e., German, Deutsch), Flemish, and, oh, “Sclavonian”.

            That was the mere beginning of Crichton’s admirableness.  He was also a champion athlete, a horseman, a fencer, a dancer, a singer of rare voice, and the master of most known wind and string instruments.  His St. Andrews professor, Rutherford, a noted Aristotelian commentator, judged him to be one of the leading philosophers of the era.

            The cultural ties between Scotland and France were particularly strong, and it was quite natural that the adolescent Crichton, having sucked Scottish erudition dry, should move on to the College of Navarre at the University of Paris.  Here the young Scotsman cut a broad swath, though according to his jealous fellows his arenas of greatest activity were the taberna and the lupanar, rather than the lecture hall.  Young Crichton did like the ladies, who in turn found him most--admirable.

            Unfortunately our sole source for the more dramatic episodes in Crichton’s short life is Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, the mad philologist and English translator of Rabelais.  This worthy is given to exaggeration and even, perhaps, fabrication; but I reckon we can credit at least sixty percent of his testimony.   I am now in a stage of life when I know less and less about more and more.  How attractive to me seems the age of the Renaissance, when aspiration to universal and encyclopedic knowledge was at least plausible.  Crichton decided to emulate a famous feat of Pico della Mirandola’s.   He had posters printed up declaring that on a day six weeks hence, at nine in the morning, in the main hall of the College of Navarre, he intended to present himself to dispute with all comers all questions put to him regarding any subject.  He had these put up on all the appropriate notice boards and church doors, before disappearing into the red light district to prepare himself for the contest.  His adversaries had to quit laughing when on the appointed day Crichton appeared as advertised and bested the greatest local experts in grammar, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, logic, and theology.

            The Crichton Show, having conquered Paris, moved next to the Italian peninsula.  The young Scot performed memorable feats of academic disputation first in Rome and then in Venice.  There he became fast friends with the famous scholar-printer Aldus Munitius, who is a credible witness to some of his more amazing intellectual performances.  One of his specialties was the off-the-cuff invention of Latin hexameter verse suitable for any emergent occasion—Virgiian Stand-Up, so to speak.

Rigoletto: not so funny

            It is perhaps ironic that the Admirable Crichton met his death at the hands of his own tutorial pupil Vincenzo da Gonzaga, the son of the Duke of Mantua, a spoiled wastrel who was nearly his own age and perhaps also his unsuccessful rival in love.  One night during Carnival Crichton was set upon in the streets of Mantua by four masked youths.  Very Italian this, and very Renaissance: you may remember the street brawl in Romeo and Juliet.  Or you have seen Rigoletto?  With superb sword play Crichton disarmed them all and forced them to show their faces.  One of them, their leader indeed, turned out to be Vincenzo!  Thinking then that it was all a jest, Crichton surrendered his own sword to him in semi-mock obeisance.  Vincenzo, drunk and humiliated in front of his friends, took it and ran him through.  I suppose there are less noble ways of passing from this vale of tears than being killed by a jealous lover; but this brute Vincenzo was as Awful as Crichton was Admirable.  There is textual uncertainty whether the Admirable Crichton was twenty-two or thirty-two when a rapier blade went through his liver.  Either way, it seems an awful shame, and a great waste of admirabilitas.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Penelope Fitzgerald, Morrisian

The current number of the New York Review of Books* has an important article about the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald.  A major contemporary writer who started publishing her fiction at the age of sixty would be an object of interest under any circumstances, all the more so with the recent appearance of an engaging biography by a major literary scholar, Hermione Lee of Oxford.  We know a little bit about this.  In a recent post I mentioned some of the excellent lectures we heard at the Oxford “Meeting Minds” conference in September.  One I didn’t mention was Hermione Lee’s account of the subject of her book—an account sufficiently engaging to induce Joan to buy a signed copy afterwards.  Explaining the further dimensions of her interest will require digression.

One day in 1975 I was in the office of my late friend and colleague Carlos Baker.  As we chatted, he was “going through his mail,” meaning setting a few things aside for later attention and throwing rather more things directly into the wastebasket after the briefest of glances.  One of the pieces that fluttered unheeded toward the circular file caught my printer’s eye.  It was a piece of two-color work on high quality paper, obviously letterpress.  I dived for it and retrieved it.

It was an announcement by the William Morris Society of Great Britain of their intention to appoint a Resident Fellow of the Center in Kelmscott House, Morris’s old “town” residence in Hammersmith, London.  The duties of the Fellow would be vaguely to “supervise work” and to give a series of several seminars on some aspect of William Morris’s life and work.  The emoluments would be (1) free housing for fellow and fellow’s family in elegant Georgian mansion on the Thames, and (2) an honorarium of £1000.  The deadline for receipt of applications was, as I remember, about a week away.
Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, viewed from the Thames

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Any amateur printer knows something about Morris.  I also knew a little about the Victorian interest in the Middle Ages.  So, I sat down and in about as much time as I now spend on a blog essay, wrote up a barely plausible proposal for a series of seminars on “Morris and Medievalism.”  I suspect that my proposal was successful because it was the only proposal, but I don’t second-guess Providence.  Thus came about one of the happiest years of our family life, and one that had a formative influence on our two older (and then only) children.

The life we knew at Kelmscott House would supply the matter for a dozen blog essays and probably a substantial comic novel.  The house was indeed an elegant Georgian mansion, but it was in a semi-ruinous state.  Its maintenance requirements far outstripped the resources of the underfunded William Morris Society, which may explain why its trustees not too much later sold it to Faye Dunaway!  The William Morris Society itself was a barely stable compound of William Morris enthusiasts, including Communists, book arts people, fantasy literature fans, and little old ladies who loved “Willow Leaf” wallpaper.  There were several other Morrisian and pseudo-Morrisian students living in various parts of the house, and an odd couple of ancient family retainers of “the Stevensons”, the previous freeholders, squatted unseen but not unsensed in the bowels of the cellar.  But my subject today is Penelope Fitzgerald.

Morris had set up the Kelmscott Press in the large cellar floor of the house, and it was there that the immortal edition of Chaucer was produced.  Morris’s friend, the great book-binder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, lived next door.  Sir Emery Walker the typographer was right around the corner.  But that was then.  Now there was practically nothing left of the press except for one of the original Albions and a few banks of commercial foundry type.  This was enough, however, for me to be able to offer to the public a short course in elementary techniques of letterpress—thus satisfying the “supervise work” clause of my fellowship.
The typography shop, Kelmscott House, circa 1975

A housewifely type named Penelope Fitzgerald showed up at my seminars.  It was probably good that one could not tell from her timid manner that she had just published a biography of Morris’s great friend Burne-Jones and that she almost certainly knew more about my topic than I did.  It was only when she appeared for the sparsely attended printing “lessons” that we got to know her a bit.  I say “a bit” because we were wholly unaware of various important things happening in her life just as our paths crossed.  According to Lee’s biography 1976 was the year her husband died (we never heard word of a husband) and that she began the rampage of fiction writing that would make her posthumously famous.

I think there is still extant somewhere in my vast but sadly undisciplined “archives” one copy of my handsome little brochure entitled Morris & Mediaevalism, a Bibliography, printed by me and Penelope Fitzgerald at Kelmscott House.  Supposing I could ever locate this item, and supposing that people might credit my account of its origins—both probably suppositions “contrary to fact” in legal lingo—it might be worth a little money.  It would be worth far more, though, as a souvenir of our brief friendship with the bright, odd, self-effacing lady who would before too long command a major literary biography by one of England’s most distinguished literary scholars.

*Alan Hollinghurst, “The Victory of Penelope Fitzgerald”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Madisonian Musings

The American Philosophical Society, with atmospherics

         I had a most enjoyable experience this past weekend as a guest speaker at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.  This venerable academy, the nation’s premier intellectual “club”, was founded by Benjamin Franklin and other worthies in 1743.  In its early years practically all the great names of the Revolution and nascent Republic were members.  Jefferson was president of the Society at the same time he was President of the United States.  The APS has a beautiful building in Philadelphia Old City, just a stone’s throw from Carpenters’ Hall, the venue of the meeting of the first Continental Congress.  The Academy maintains an important library with many unique holdings.  One area of special strength is American Indian history and culture in the period of the first two centuries of European contact.  The society’s Latin motto is Nullo Discrimine, from a line in the first book of Virgil’s Æneid in which Dido, Queen of Carthage (“Tyria”), welcomes the sea-born foreign refugees from Troy: “Trojan and Tyrian shall be treated by me with no distinction”.

            Philosophy had a rather capacious meaning in the eighteenth century, and the Society defines its purpose broadly as “promoting useful knowledge.”  Such knowledge is of many kinds, and the several talks were somewhat disparate in character, with topics including the physiology of gustation, the history of cookbooks, Sephardic music in Brooklyn, and early protocols for making treaties with Indians.  Useful knowledge can also be aesthetic.  There was a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren of the University of Chicago.  Three young string players from the Curtis Institute of Music performed Mozart’s “Divertimento” in E-flat major (K. 563).  There is not a lot of music for string trios, and this was the first time I had heard this marvelous piece live.

            The penultimate talk—my own being the very last—was by Jack Rakove, an American historian from Stanford, among whose many achievements is the edition of the Writings of James Madison for the Library of America.  His provocative title was “James Madison’s Dilemma—and Ours”.  Oversimplifying only grossly, the shared dilemma is what to do about an aging constitution, and the solution is to change it.  Rakove was speaking four days after a national election that had in unequal proportions anesthetized and electrified the nation and continues to monopolize journalistic punditry; yet so clear was his intellectual focus on the subject at hand that by no wink or nod did he reveal his personal political preferences.  He did, when questioned, suggest what he regards as fairly obvious imperfections in the Constitution.  One of them was the electoral college, which can defeat the fundamental democratic principle of voting equality.  A second was life tenure in the Federal judiciary, instituted to preserve the judiciary from politicization and now guaranteeing that political motivation plays a prominent if not principal role in judicial nominations and confirmations.

            For probably obvious reasons James Madison is the Favorite Founding Father on my campus.  We call him “the first Princeton graduate student.”  After taking his baccalaureate degree here in 1771, he stayed on for some post-graduate study under John Witherspoon, college president and Signer of the Declaration.  Nonetheless, I realized in a flash that I have read too little Madison.  Both he and Jefferson (among others) fully recognized the experimental element of the republican venture and assumed that Americans would learn from their experience and act upon it.  That means they would change the Constitution when it needed changing.  Jefferson at one point seems to suggest that the document should be rewritten every twenty years or so.  Contemporary America seems to regard it as an untouchable sacred text.  I have a theory about this: the pseudo-sacrality of the Constitution has waxed as the sacrality of the Bible has waned.  But never mind.

 Statue of John Witherspoon on the Princeton campus

            When I got home I fetched my Madison down from the shelf and poked about a bit.  Very soon I came to the following.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated from Philadelphia on March 27, 1780, Madison expresses his alarming opinion that at no previous moment of the Revolution has the situation been more dire.  “Among the various conjunctures of alarm and distress:…Our army threatened with an immediate alternative of disbanding or living on free quarter, the public treasury empty; public credit exhausted…Congress complaining of the extortion of the people, the people of the improvidence of Congress, and the army of both; our affairs requiring the most mature & systematic measures, and the urgency of occasions admitting only of temporizing expedients, and those expedients generating new difficulties.”  Although this makes mere “gridlock” sound venial, it would be difficult to characterize the American government’s performance of the last several years more succinctly than does that final phrase.   But Madison himself tops it with this zinger: “Congress from a defect of adequate Statesmen more likely to fall into wrong measures and of less weight to enforce right ones…”

            I ask you in all candor, and entirely without partisan inflection, whether you can point to any member of Congress whom you would identify as a Statesman, let alone an “adequate” one?  The population of the United States is now roughly a hundred times what it was in 1780.  The voting franchise has been hugely expanded since that time.  What we now count as the first Congress didn’t meet until 1789.  How is it to be explained, then, that in and around this pathetic group of Continental congressionals of whom Madison is complaining there were probably twenty undoubted Statesmen?  On the other hand, no current member of Congress is a slave-holder, either.  The only Africans covered by Nullo discrimine, unfortunately, were Carthaginians.   So there is gain, and there is loss.