Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by Nicholas A. Basbanes

July 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm (History, Poetry)

In my youth, when my parents were still very much alive and very ardent fans of the opera, especially the productions of the Metropolitan Opera, I recall how when they got home from a performance, they were filled with exultation – such art! such beauty!

This seems like as good a time and place as any to insert one of my favorite pictures of my parents. The place is Bayreuth, Germany, home of the world famous Bayreuth Festival. They are standing beside the Festspeilhaus, the hall purpose built for performance of the operas of Richard Wagner. Mother and Dad loved this music. At the time this was taken, mid-twentieth century, they were in their glamorous heyday, as this photo will attest:

So, as I said, they’d come from the opera, almost always exultant at the memory of what they’d seen and heard. And then they’d read the review in the New York Times. More often than not, the opera they’d just seen had received a review more or less in the ‘meh’ range. My father would thunder to anyone within range, “Did this idiot see to the same opera we did?!”

So, there are times when I read a review of a book I’ve just read and highly esteemed, when I am genuinely perplexed, not to say dismayed, by the reviewer’s take on that same work. For instance, Charles McGrath’s review of the new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appeared  last month in the New York Times. Here’s part of it:

Nicholas A. Basbanes thinks that the tumble in Longfellow’s reputation was not the natural, inevitable result of changing tastes. In his new biography, “Cross of Snow,” he argues, on not much evidence, that Longfellow was done in by a cabal of modernists and New Critics who conspired to expel him from their snobbish, rarefied canon. So his book, which has at times a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder, is a rehab mission of sorts, and seeks to restore Longfellow in our present eyes mostly just by reminding us how important he was back in his own day.

Wait just a second…”a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder…”? Yes, Basbanes writes about the issue of Longfellow’s reputation, but he does not, at least in my view, belabor the subject.

But wait – there’s more:

…by the time of Longfellow’s centennial, in 1907, he was already beginning to be dismissed as old-fashioned, and nowadays, if he’s remembered at all, it’s mostly as the author of lines almost laughable in their badness: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water”; “I shot an arrow into the air, /It fell to earth, I knew not where”; “Thy fate is the common fate of all, /Into each life some rain must fall.”

“Laughable in their badness?” Okay, dated, quaint, I’ll grant you. But ludicrous? Just plain bad? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

It’s true that some of Longfellow’s poetry has not worn well. It can be sentimental, and his insistence on rhyme imbues some of the poems with a childish quality. But others have a timeless essence that I for one find appealing; plus the language can be quite beautiful.

One of my favorites is called “Resignation.” I did not know this poem before I encountered it in The Escher Twist, a mystery by Jane Langton:

There is no Death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb of the life elysian,
Whose portal we call Death.

Toward the conclusion of The Escher Twist, Eloise Winthrop, a widow who has daily visited her husband’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, suddenly finds herself welcomed to a tea party given by none other than Isabella Stewart Gardner!

It was so exciting! There was the little stone bridge across Auburn Lake, and there was Mrs. Gardner herself on the other side, her long skirt trailing on the grass. She was holding out both hands.

“Welcome, my dear,” called Mrs. Gardner, laughing. “Welcome to the other side.”

Overjoyed, Eloise hurried across the bridge. The party was in her honor! Gently Mrs. Gardner took her arm and introduced her to the other guests. “Mrs. Winthrop, have you met Mr. Longfellow? Do you know Mrs. Farmer? Oh, Fanny, dear, your triangular sandwiches are so delicious.”

This is one of my favorite scenes in all of crime fiction – in all of fiction, for that matter.

(Fanny Farmer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are all three buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Longfellow mentions the place very particularly in a letter:

Yesterday I was at Mount Auburn, and saw my own grave dug; that is, my own tomb. I assure you, I looked quietly down into it without one feeling of dread. It is a beautiful spot, this Mount Auburn. Were you ever there?)

Jane Langton (1922-2018) never made it into  the top tier of famous mystery authors, but I’ve long considered her to be one of the best. Her mixture of inventive storytelling, wit, mercurial characters, and perhaps a soupçon of the supernatural I find captivating.

Anyway, back to Longfellow:

Charles McGrath obviously is no fan of either Nicholas Basbanes or Longfellow, but he does offer this grudging admission:

…whatever you think of Longfellow the writer, Longfellow the person is hard to dislike.

What an understatement. Longfellow was kind, empathetic, generous to a fault, and endlessly patient.  For most of his adult life, he mixed readily with the great and the good of this country and Europe, but throughout, he retained the modesty and forthrightness that characterized his interactions with others.

More things I learned about Longfellow from this book:

The house in which he and his family lived had, some sixty years before they moved into it,  been inhabited by George Washington as he planned a strategy for dealing with the Siege of Boston.

The National Park Service now administers The Longfellow House –  Washington’s Headquarters National Site. They have made a lovely welcoming video:

Longfellow was a scholar of languages, able to read at least fifteen different ones, and to speak almost as many. In his position as a professor at Harvard, he taught literature in many languages. He did a great deal of translating, often aided in these endeavors by his brilliant wife Fanny; in some cases they were the first to introduce works in various foreign tongues to American readers.

Longfellow translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. The late, great critic Harold Bloom has high praise for it:

[Longfellow’s] “translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy seems to me undervalued, and compares favorably with the current versions.” In an interview for this book, Bloom went further, saying that he preferred the Longfellow translation to “all the current versions.” His reason: the “fidelity” it shows to Dante’s original Italian.

Although we associate Longfellow with the constellation of worthies who inhabited the Boston-Cambridge area in the early to mid nineteenth century, he was actually born and raised in Maine. Moreover, he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825, the same year as his classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Bowdoin has an impressive list of alumni.)  Longfellow taught for a time at Bowdoin before moving on to Harvard.

There’s much more in this lively biography.  Longfellow’s personal life receives welcome attention. He was married twice. His first wife Mary died at the age of 24, following a miscarriage. He later wed Frances “Fanny” Appleton, after an arduous courtship of several years. Once she finally accepted  him, though, theirs proved to be a marriage of true minds, if there ever was one. They shared a deep love of literature and the arts, and together they had six children, losing one, a daughter, not long past infancy.

Longfellow, Fanny, and their two eldest sons, Charley – a real handful, apparently – and Ernest

(Many years ago, I visited the Longfellow home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I came away with a vivid memory of the story, told by a docent, of the terrible accident which cost Fanny her life. It took place in the house. She was 44 years old at  the time. I confess I read a large part of this book with mounting dread, as I was not sure at what point I would encounter this story.)

The book’s title refers to both a photo and a painting of a site in the Rocky Mountains where  a cross made of snow lingered on the mountain’s face the year round.

The Mountain of the Holy Cross, by Thomas Moran, 1890

 

Mountain of the Holy Cross, Colorado, photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1873

Here is Longfellow’s poem, “The Cross of Snow:”

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

 

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‘Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land….’

April 10, 2020 at 8:43 pm (History, Poetry)

First, let me say:

I am deeply grateful to Osher Life Long Learning (affiliated with Johns Hopkins University) for making our classes available by means of Zoom technology.

The subject of one of my classes is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Numerous translations of this work are extant; for our class, our instructor, Dr. Lederman, uses this one:

Herewith are the opening lines from Tablet I:

He who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
He it was who studied seats of power everywhere,
Full knowledge of it all he  gained,
He saw what was secret and revealed what was hidden,
He brought back tidings from before the Flood,
From a distant journey came home, weary, but at peace,
Set out all his hardships on a monument of stone,
He built the walls of ramparted Uruk,
The lustrous treasure of hallowed Eanna!

Gilgamesh, supposedly

This passage continues to limn the glories of Uruk; then we return to the subject of Gilgamesh the praiseworthy. Except that he actually isn’t very praiseworthy. He is, at least at the story’s  beginning not much more than an arrogant brute. He is cruel and rough with the young men of Uruk; worse, he exercises his “right of the first night” ( known also as jus prima noctis, or droit du seigneur) with every new bride, on her wedding night.

The people of Uruk cry out to the gods about Gilgamesh’s abuses, and they realize that a way must be found to inculcate civility into the wild ruler. The god Anu summons another god, Aruru, and more or less kicks the ball into her court. These are Aruru’s orders:

Let her create a match for Gilgamesh, mighty in strength,
Let them contend with each other, that Uruk may have peace.

So Aruru gets to work, and this is the result:

She created valiant Enkidu in the steppe,
Offspring of silence*, with the force of the valiant Ninurta.
He was made lush with head hair, like a woman,
The locks of his hair grew think as a grain field.
He knew neither people nor inhabited land,
He dressed as animals do.
He ate grass with gazelles,
With beasts he jostled at the water hole,
With wildlife he drank his fill of water.

*The footnote says of the phrase “Offspring of silence” that it may refer to the fact that Enkidu, having been formed of clay, did not enter into the world with “the tumult that normally accompanies childbirth.”

Is all of this starting to seem weird? Trust me, we’re just beginning.

Chief agent in charge of “civilizing” Enkidu is a harlot named Shamhat. She knows just how to proceed:

Shamhat loosened her garments,
She opened her loins, he took her charms.
She was not bashful, she took his vitality.
She tossed aside her clothing and he lay upon her,
She treated him, a  human, to woman’s work,
As in his ardor he caressed her.
Six days, seven nights was Enkidu aroused, flowing into Shamhat.

Well golly! You could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather when I first read that. Pornography in an ancient Mesopotamian epic??!! And depending on the translation, this episode is rendered in even more explicit language. Click here for an example. And no, I’m not going to place the actual text here. This is, after all, a family friendly blog!

Now, as a topic of study, this epic is hugely complex and many-faceted. I don’t mean to be flippant and/or dismissive. People give their entire professional lives to the explication, translation, and study of the epic of Gilgamesh and its place in Mesopotamian civilization. And our lecturer, Dr. Richard Lederman, is himself a marvel of scholarship. In a recent class, he came out with a throwaway line which I will cherish: “My Akkadian is a bit rusty.” Oh and he is fluent in Hebrew and a scholar of the Old Testament as well.

So I have to say that for myself, from a purely esthetic standpoint, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a bit lacking. Here’s why I’m of that opinion:

1. Repetition. There’s too much of it. The first four lines of the first passage quoted above are typical. This may be due to the fact that at times, the story may have been presented orally.

2. The plot disjointed, not especially compelling, and sometimes just too strange to summon forth any empathy.

3. The same is true for the characters. I had a lot of trouble caring about what happened to them.

4. The writing, for the most part, is flat and uninspired. Admittedly, the exact language is dependent on the translation you’re reading. Nevertheless, I was hoping to encounter some of the literary devices that occur in the Homeric epics – you know, epithets such as “rosy-fingered Dawn,” “wine-dark Sea,”” bright-eyed Athena,” and the amazingly vivid extended similes and metaphors. They simply were not there.

Dr. Lederman recommended this video to us. I found it both enlightening and engaging:

 

 

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The Lure of Ancient Egypt

March 28, 2020 at 4:50 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

I am most fortunate to own this book: The author, John Boardman, boasts a most impressive CV. From the publisher Thames & Hudson:

Sir John Boardman was born in 1927, and educated at Chigwell School and Magdalene College, Cambridge. He spent several years in Greece, three of them as Assistant Director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, and he has excavated in Smyrna, Crete, Chios and Libya. For four years he was an Assistant Keeper in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and he subsequently became Reader in Classical Archaeology and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He is now Lincoln Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology and Art in Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy, from whom he received the Kenyon Medal in 1995. He was awarded the Onassis Prize for Humanities in 2009. Professor Boardman has written widely on the art and archaeology of Ancient Greece.

You can see and hear Sir John Boardman talking about his life’s work here.

Professor Boardman’s graceful prose is redolent of times past:

The civilization and arts of Egypt have revealed themselves to the rest of the world in dramatic ways. In antiquity Greeks, then Romans, were attracted to Egypt’s obviously extreme antiquity and the exoticism of its arts….Biblical associations and the longevity of its styles of art and writing seemed to mark it out as something exceptional in the history of man….

Sporadically, the country divided politically into North and South. Overall, however, there was undisturbed unity of culture, language, and art which must have contributed to the fact that the highly distinctive idiom for the arts which had been developed in Egypt by the third millennium BC lasted with very little basic change in appearance, styles, subjects and techniques, for more than three thousand years….

Egyptian art is overwhelming in its stylistic idiosyncrasy, its at-first-sight unlikeness even to the various other arts of the urban world with which it made contact. In this must lie much of its unceasing appeal to modern eyes.

There is, of course, so much more in this section, where Sir John’s erudition shines forth in a way that is never pedantic but invariably engaging.
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Rahotep and Nofret

Rahotep ruled during ancient Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty.   These statues of Prince and his wife Nofret were discovered deep inside their mastaba in 1871, by Albert Daninos an assistant to the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette.

These statues are in such superb condition due to  the fact that they had not seen the light of day for several millennia. Particularly striking are the  eyes, which were crafted chiefly of rock crystal:

Indeed, so lifelike were they that when the workman shone their lights upon them, they thought they were in the presence of living beings. Terrified, they fled the premises.

 

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What I was supposed to be doing, what I actually did

March 12, 2020 at 12:35 am (Art, History)

Today I was scheduled to attend two sessions of my Lifelong Learning classes. First (AM):

The Epic of Gilgamesh!

Possible representation of Gilgamesh as Master of Animals [Wikipedia]

I’ve been enjoying the study of this ancient text. For three weeks now, I’ve been wandering around the house declaiming “Gilgamesh!!” ” Enkidu!!” “Utnapishtim!!” and my personal favorite, “Lugalbanda!!” (with Ron gamely trying to replicate my occasionally flawed pronunciation).

Our lecturer has a doctorate in languages of the ancient Near East. He is amazing! (And no, this is not him; I just  thought it was pretty cool):


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In the afternoon, Rembrandt/Velasquez – a delicious immersion in the greatest of the old masters.

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Thus far, our lecturer has introduced us to Annibale Carracci:

Annibale Carracci Boy Drinking, 1582-1583

Self-portrait, 1590-1600

and the Caravaggisti, so-called followers of Caravaggio, who were mostly active in the late 1500s to the early 1600s:

Mars Chastising Cupid, by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622)

Christ Amongst the Doctors, by Orazio Borgianni (1574-1616)

Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and an Angel, by Carlo Saraceni, c.1608-1610

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Alas!! Classes were canceled today, due to  the corona virus outbreak. So instead of hearing about the fascinating history of Mesopotamia in which Gilgamesh is embedded, and seeing the gorgeous slides of the Old Masters, I found myself at the local CVS, beseeching the saleslady.

This excursion, at least, was a success. Behold: a 32 fl. oz. container of CVS brand hand sanitizer (photographed beside  a 16 fl. oz bottle of Snapple to establish scale):

I waited in line for about fifteen minutes. This was the only size available, and they were allowing only one container per customer. Still, I felt lucky to get it at all.

Hopefully, this will end soon, and I pray that the sick and vulnerable will be spared.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

To conclude on a more upbeat note, here are two flash mob videos for you to enjoy. The first one I just discovered today; the second is one of my all time favorites.


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This flash mob was staged in a shopping mall in The Netherlands; the occasion was the reopening of Amsterdam’s celebrated Rijksmuseum in 2013, after a renovation that went substantially over budget and took ten years to complete instead of the projected five.

‘Onze helden zijn terug’ translates into English as “Our heroes are back.’

 

 

 

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“The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful…”

February 23, 2020 at 3:54 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

Retold countless times down the centuries, there are as many versions of Egypt’s story as there are those to tell it. And so this is simply my version, featuring the people, places and events that have fascinated me my whole life.

And it is fair to say Egypt has pretty much been my life. Familiar and accessible through my family’s books, photographs and wartime recollections, the ancient Egyptians were, it seems, always around during my childhood, as the inspiration for my earliest drawings, the way I dressed my dolls, the things I read and collected.

The defining moment came in 1972, when the Tutankhamen exhibition arrived in Britain. His beautiful golden face appeared everywhere in the media frenzy for all things pharaonic, and Egyptologists of the day were regularly asked for quotes by the press. The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful – so at the age of six, I announced that I was going to do that too.

Introduction to The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped the World, by Joann Fletcher

Upon reading this, I identified powerfully with the author. I, too, was around six years old when I first became fascinated by ancient Egypt. But whereas Joann Fletcher went on to forge a distinguished career as an Egyptologist, I went on to live a more or less ordinary life, for which I am profoundly grateful. The   Egypt enchantment stays more or less underground, a stream flowing in the darkness. But every once in a while…

I recently signed up for a course in Egyptian art at a local lifelong learning institute. We had a our first meeting last Monday, and it was wonderful. I have obtained through interlibrary loan The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter. This particular edition, published in 1977, “…is the unabridged republication of Volume I of The Tomb of Tut*ankh*amen Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter originally published…in 1923….”

The tomb was discovered in November of 1922.

Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter Lady Elizabeth Herbert, and Carter’s assistant Arthur Callender are gathered before the door to the chamber. Keep in mind that Carter and Carnarvon, his generous patron, had been searching for this burial site for years. This was to be their final effort.

Here is Howard Carter’s description of what happened next:

The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as  far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gasses, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle, and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold–everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment–eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by–I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense and longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

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When I was in London a few years ago, I visited Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane was a distinguished architect and also a compulsive collector. His house is filled with strange and wondrous objects. Along the way, he managed to acquire several beautiful scenes off Venice by Canaletto.

Canaletto; View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni); Sir John Soane’s Museum

But possibly the most astonishing object in this bewildering welter of astonishing objects is this:

Behold! It is the sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I (1290-1279 BCE).

Here is what the sarcophagus currently looks like in situ:

This fantastical object was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a  freewheeling adventurer and archaeologist sometimes referred to as the Indiana Jones of his day.  Having brought this cumbersome artifact to England, Belzoni offered it to the British Museum. That institution deemed the price – £2,000 – too high. But ut wasn’t too high for Sir John Soane, who snapped it up. Hence, it currently resides serenely on the bottom floor of the museum, being much too heavy to be safely placed elsewhere in the building. You can stand right beside it, walk around it, even touch it. I can attest to this personally.

The mummy of Seti I is exceptionally well preserved. It currently resides in the Cairo Museum.

For more information on the sarcophagus, click on this link to the museum’s website. And don’t miss this ‘digital fly-through’ of the museum.
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I want to return briefly to the subject of the discovery of the tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamen. The moment of triumph in November 1922 was followed by a sudden and unexpected tragedy the following April when Lord Carnarvon died unexpectedly. Here is Howard Carter’s supremely eloquent dedication:

…I dedicate this account of the discovery of the tomb of Tut*ankh* Amen to the memory of my beloved friend and colleague

LORD CARNARVON
who died in the hour of his triumph.

But for his untiring generosity and constant encouragement our labours could never have been crowned with success. His judgment in ancient art has rarely been equalled. His efforts, which have done so much to extend our knowledge of Egyptology, will ever been honoured in history, and by me his memory will always be cherished.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon 1866-1923

 

Howard Carter 1874-1939

Giovanni Battista Belzoni 1778-1823

 

The Great Belzoni, 1824, by Jan Adam Kruseman

 

Sir John Soane 1753-1837

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Last year, I visited the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC to see their exhibit ‘Queens of Egypt.’ This occasioned another eruption of Egypt mania in the heart and brain of Yours Truly. I got rather carried away with the blog post I created to memorialize this splendid experience. Here is a snippet of video by which I, along with other visitors, was transfixed:

 

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Stop the presses! It’s the return of Susan B. Anthony

January 18, 2020 at 9:38 pm (Family, History)

Now in third grade, Etta was assigned  a biography project. Her subject was Susan B. Anthony.

According to her Mom, she really got into it. So much so that she seems to have channeled her subject. This was the result:

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Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

December 14, 2019 at 2:49 pm (Book review, books, History)

I was  casting about for a single word or phrase to describe this book. I came up with:

blood-soaked.

The Sand Creek Massacre. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. The Wounded Knee Massacre. Shooting, knifing, scalping, mutilation – there seemed to be no end to the carnage.

And yet…there were moments of grace, of peace, like this one, taken from A Day with the Cow Column in 1843 by Jesse Applegate, one of the leaders of what became known as The Great Migration of 1843.

It is not yet 8 o’clock when the first watch is to be set; the evening meal is just over, and the corral now free from the intrusion of cattle or horses, groups of children are scattered over it. The larger are taking a game of romps; “the wee toddling things’ are being taught that great achievement that distinguishes man from the lower animals. Before a tent near the river a violin makes lively music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green; in another quarter a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still night air, which, as they float away over the quiet river, seem a lament for the past rather than a hope for the future. It has been a prosperous day; more than twenty miles have been accomplished of the great journey….

But time passes; the watch is set for the night; the council of old men has been broken up, and each has returned to his own quarter; the flute has whispered its last lament to the deepening night; the violin is silent, and the dancers have dispersed; enamored youth have whispered a tender “good night” in the ear of blushing maidens, or stolen a kiss from the lips of some future bride for Cupid here, as elsewhere, has been busy bringing together congenial hearts, and among these simple people he alone is consulted in forming the marriage tie.

Earlier in the day of this particular journey, a woman had given birth. Mother and infant were doing well.
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Near the end of this book, there’s a chapter entitled John Muir’s Last Stand. The ‘stand’ in question involved the building of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a project to which John Muir was vehemently opposed:

“These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, life them to the Almighty Dollar….Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Don’t know about you, but after I read  this, I wanted to stand up and shout, YES!! And I couldn’t help thinking, with apologies to Wordsworth:

John Muir, thou shouldst be living at this hour;
America hath need of thee…

John Muir, c1902

Finally, there is this speech, a model of eloquence and heartbreak, spoken by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, 1877

As you have no doubt gathered, Dreams of El Dorado was a wrenching reading experience. Yet at the same time deeply learned and memorable, beautifully written and meticulously researched. I do recommend it – but fortify yourself.

‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….’

H.W. Brands has appeared on C-Span BookTV to discuss this book.

 

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Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen – a Discussion with the AAUW Readers

September 19, 2019 at 9:15 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, History)

  Okay, I admit it – I’ve complained about book groups being burdensome and borderline irrelevant. I want to read what I want to read, when I want to read it! Thus have I cried out, the lament of a fanatical reader.

But I have to say, there are times when book groups more than justify their existence. In fact, they can be just plain great. I attended just such a discussion this morning.

First off, Jared Cohen’s Accidental Presidents was so filled with fascinating revelations that it was a joy to read. Cohen’s book covered eight presidents who assumed office upon a president’s death. Four of the fatalities were due to assassinations; the others were due to illness of the Chief Executive.

John Tyler survived  a catastrophic explosion aboard the warship USS Princeton. The young woman he was in love with was also on board, escorted by her father. Her mother had been withholding permission for her to marry him; however, after losing her husband, she relented, and they were soon wed. So: a poignant love story  emerged from a scene of horror. (Tyler became president upon the death of William Henry Harrison.)

One must, of course, relive the killing of Lincoln and the evils that resulted from Andrew Johnson’s ill disguised sympathy for the defeated Southerners.

I was saddened once again to read of the death of James A. Garfield, surely one of the most honorable, decent, and compassionate men ever to serve the public. He never even wanted to be president, yet chose this path when his party and his friends convinced him that he was needed. Anyone who is interested in what happened to Garfield needs to read The Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. I never thought a history book could break my heart, but that one did.

There was so much more: Millard Fillmore, who succeeded Zachary Taylor; Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded William McKinley; Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Warren G. Harding: Harry Truman, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt; and finally, the great tragedy of our own era, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the pursuant struggles of Lyndon Johnson. Stories about each of these critical moments in U.S. history had me mesmerized.

Page after page of Accidental Presidents astonished me. I could not help wondering: Was I ever actually taught American history? Obviously not  in a meaningful way, or a way that stayed with me, or a way that awakened to me to the fact that this subject could be so riveting.

It was evident from the reactions of the participants in the discussion that they shared my enthusiasm for this book and its subject matter. The amount of knowledge brought to bear, the questions raised, the points brought to light, all made for an exceptionally stimulating session. Jean’s insights about the South, gleaned from her granddaughters’ experiences; Phyllis’s memories of growing up in Kentucky, Peggy’s perspective as a person of Korean heritage, Doris’s first hand knowledge of the workings of the Federal government – these and many more  contributions flowed freely. I sat there thinking, What an exceptional, and exceptionally impressive, group of women!

I felt deeply fortunate and grateful to be among them.

Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. (Ford was not included in Jared Cohen’s book.)

 

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‘It’s a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization….’ – Queens of Egypt at the National Geographic

May 2, 2019 at 8:14 pm (History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Yes, there she is, in all her beauty and mystery: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, wife of Akhenaton, the iconoclast Pharoah who instituted worship if the sun as the sole deity of the kingdom. But this exhibit at the National Geographic is not about him. Rather, it is about her, and the other notable queens whose reigns span this remote and exotic era.

The bust pictured above is a copy of the original, which was found in Amarna by a team of German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt. It currently resides in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, much to  the annoyance of its country of origin, which has been trying to get it repatriated since 1924. Museum officials claim that the bust is too fragile to travel.

Meanwhile, it is listed on Time Magazine’s list of Top Ten Plundered Items.

I digress. But it’s hard not to, when dealing with so vast a subject.

Six queens are highlighted in this exhibit. The first is Ahmose-Nefertari; her dates are 1539 BCE to 1514 BCE.

I quote from the exhibition guidebook:

Ahmose-Nefertari was the first queen of the 18th dynasty and of the New Kingdom. She was a powerful and influential queen who enjoyed widespread acclaim. After her death, she and her son were deified in Deir-el-Medina, where she was worshiped as a goddess of resurrection.

Ahmose-Nefertari   1539-1514 BCE

Hatshepsut (1479-1425 BCE), rather singular and remarkable, reigned as Pharoah for some twenty years in the mid-fifteenth century BCE. (The exact dates are disputed.) To emphasize her masculine qualities, she was sometimes depicted as bearded:

Hatshepsut with beard

 

Hatshepsut, clean shaven, as it were

The third queen was Tiye (1390-1340 BCE):

Tiye is found at the nexus of powerful rulers, being the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, mother of Amenhotep IV, who became known as Akhenaton, and grandmother of Tutankhamun. Still, she held her own in the game of power.

Queen Tiye 1390-1340 BCE

Tiye’s mummified remains were discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1898:

Then, there was Nefertiti, wife of AmenhotepIV/Akgenaton (see above).

Nefertari was the Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II. At a time when life expectancy was all too brief, Ramesses II reigned for an astonishing sixty-six years. He ascended the throne in 1279 BCE, ruling until his death in 1213 BCE.

Ramesses lived to be ninety-six years old, had over 200 wives and concubines, ninety-six sons and sixty daughters, most of whom he outlived. So long was his reign that all of his subjects, when he died, had been born knowing Ramesses as pharaoh and there was widespread panic that the world would end with the death of their king. He had his name and accomplishments inscribed from one end of Egypt to the other and there is virtually no ancient site in Egypt which does not make mention of Ramesses the Great.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Here is the beautiful Nefertari:

Nefertari 1279-1255 BCE

As the passage above indicates, Ramesses was plentifully supplied with wives and concubines. But Nefertari was his great love. On the wall of her tomb enclosure he caused the following to be inscribed:

“My love is unique — no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”

Just by passing, she has stolen my heart….

As well as  being a loving helpmate, Nefertari was apparently an accomplished woman in her own right:

She was highly educated and able to both read and write hieroglyphs, a very rare skill at the time. She used these skills in her diplomatic work, corresponding with other prominent royals of the time.

Wikipedia

In 1904,

Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of Queens was unearthed by a team of Italian archaeologists. It is an exceptionally gorgeous burial place.

 

This picture depicts Nefertari playing an Egyptian board game called Senet. According to Wikipedia, the rules of this game are not precisely known, yet a site called Discovering Egypt provides a  fairly complete description of how the it is played.

The Geographic exhibit had two stations set up side by side, and folks were trying their hand at it.

Finally, Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt(51-30 BCE). What can one say about this storied woman? Perhaps we had best leave it to Shakespeare:

‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;’

……

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.’

Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 2

What did Cleopatra look like? The exhibit featured this sculpture, purportedly of her:

Yet it’s my understanding that no one is certain of the answer to this question and that the most reliable likeness is to be found on a coin:

For a more in depth look at  the life of Cleopatra, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine. This piece features a number of striking images, including, inevitably, that of Elizabeth Taylor.

I also recommend Stacy Schiff’s biography. What I remember best from this book is the author’s description of the city of Alexandria. It sounded so glorious, I wanted to go there immediately. Alas, a period of some two thousand years separates us from that magnificent ancient city.

The Geographic exhibit was about more than just the queens. For instance, there was a set-up whereby people could inscribe their own names and see what they would look like in hieroglyphic script. I found a site online where you can do the same thing, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Here’s what my name looks like: You can try it with your own name by clicking here.

One of the most fascinating components of the exhibit concerned Deir el-Medina. This was a village composed of artisans whose brief it was to help build the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was located on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes. There was a recreation of the place being shown on a large screen in a dimly lit room. I kept circling around and coming back to it. I’d just sit on the bench and stare. In short, I was mesmerized.

Our docent – a wonderfully knowledgeable young woman – passed around two items of great interest. One was a swatch of linen of the type that would have been used in the mummification process. The other was a piece of actual papyrus. This last was thrilling to me. It felt like a kind of nubby parchment. It was strange  to hold it in my hand and rub it gently between my fingers.. I was reluctant to give it up.

Numerous archaeologists won fame in the course of their explorations in Egypt. The exhibit featured one, a woman – two, actually – of particular interest, whom I’d never heard of: Margaret Benson (1865-1916) and her friend Janet Gourlay (1863-1912). There’s a detailed recounting of the life and professional accomplishments of Margaret Benson on the site of Egyptologist William H. Peck.

Janet Gourlay, left, and Margaret Benson

In 2013, an historical novel came out about ancient Egypt. Written by Kerry Greenwood, it was called Out of the Black Land. Once I got it, I could do nothing but read it. It brought the era of the rebel Pharoah Akhenaton so vividly to life that I was  seeing it in my dreams. I particularly remember the description of Queen Tiye, Akhenaton’s mother, struggling to give birth, her women grouped around her providing help and support.

An amazing  book.

“It is a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization, extending back to the childhood of the human race, preserved for ever for our instruction in its own unchanging monuments like a fly in a block of amber. Everything connected with Egypt is full of an impressive solemnity.  A feeling of permanence, of stability, defying time and change, pervades it.  The place, the people, and the monuments alike breathe of eternity.”

R. Austin Freeman, The Eye of Osiris: A Detective Romance, 1913

 

 

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‘One of the most arresting jobs of ancient – as well as modern – sculptures was to be some kind of antidote to death and loss.’ – How Do We Look by Mary Beard

October 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm (Art, History)

  What a lovely gift to art lovers  and history buffs this book is! Renowned classicist Mary Beard has ranged far and wide to set before our eyes stunning images of ancient art. In some cases, the works and locales are familiar – Greece, Rome, Egypt – but even in these places, she introduces us to previously unseen objects – unseen by me, at any rate. Some examples:

 

This is the mummy of a Greek youth, between the ages of 19 and 21. It is owned by the British Museum. It dates from some time in the second century AD. The inscription on the painted stucco case reads: “Artemidoros – Farewell.”

The Boxer_of_Quirinal, dated somewhere between 330 and 50 BCE

Unlike the heroic, flawless athletes usually depicted in classical sculpture, this boxer is battered by past injuries and seems to be nearing the end of his career as a pugilist.

Boxing was always an important part of the ancient athletic repertoire, and the conceit of this sculpture is that the man must once have had a fit and toned body – but it has really suffered. The anonymous artist has focused on a wreck of a human being, devoting all his skill to a broken nose and cauliflower ears, flabby from all those blows. In fact, he appears to be still bleeding from fresh wounds. The blood is shown in copper and the bruises on his cheeks are brought out by a slightly different colour of a slightly different bronze alloy. It is almost as if the  bronze has become the mans skin.

Mary Beard, in How Do We Look

Compare him, for instance, to the Belvedere Apollo, the subject of Johann Winkelmann‘s rapturous description:

In gazing upon this masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing upon it. My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honored with his presence—for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion’s beauty.

Back to  the subject of rough sport: Behold the Olmec Wrestler:

Made of basalt and described as nearly life size, this piece was found  by a farmer in 1933 in Veracruz, Mexico. (One is tempted to imagine his astonishment when, upon turning up a clod of earth, he finds himself confronted by this strange, otherworldly object.) There being little or no archaeological context with which to work, the Wrestler is extremely difficult to date – anywhere from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. He is called a wrestler for lack of anything else to call him. He may not be a wrestler. He may even be a fake. If he is, he’s a mighty compelling one.

Probably the single most amazing surviving art from the Olmec culture – and certifiably genuine – is represented by the gigantic heads:

These heads, seventeen of which have this far been recovered, vary in height from between four and five feet to just over eleven feet. At least one weighs as much as fifty tons.

Above you see one of the the La Venta Heads. There are three more, located at La Venta Park, a premier archaeological site in Mexico.

Again, Mary Beard:

It is hard not to feel just a little bit moved by the close encounter with an image of a person from the distant past. Despite that distance in time, and despite the fact that he is, after all, just a face of stone, it is hard not to feel some sense of shared humanity.

But oh, the questions raised and not answered by this strange artifact of a remote time and place:

Ever since it was rediscovered in 1939, it has defied explanation. Why is it so big? Was he a ruler or perhaps a god? Was it a portrait of a particular individual, or something much less specific than that?Why is it just a head – and not even a complete one at that, but severed at the chin? And what on earth was the image for? It was carved using only stone tools, out of a single block of basalt that came from more than fifty miles away from where the head was found. It could not have been made without huge amounts of time, effort and human resources. But why?

Many other such phenomena are surveyed in this slender volume, packed as it is with riches. How Do We Look is a companion to the tv series Civilizations: From the Ancient to the Modern:

Episode Two featuring Mary Beard can be viewed in its entirety here.

 

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