Stokesay Castle in Shropshire: “…quite simply the finest and best preserved fortified medieval manor house in England.”

June 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Anglophilia, History, To Britain and back 2011, Travel)

By the end of the thirteenth century a wool merchant named Laurence of Ludlow had become one of England’s richest men. In the way of the wealthy throughout history, he wished for a material representation that would stand as a  signal to the world of his new found prosperity. This was the result of that quest:

Stokesay Castle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I could wax philosophical about the passage of time, the persistence of memory, ghosts in ruined castles and abbeys, but others have already done so with far more eloquence than I could ever summon. Instead, I offer our pictures as mute testimony to all of the above:

The north tower

Inreicate carving on the overmantel in the solar

The South Tower

The majestic Hall. Writing in the English Heritage Guidebook, Henry Summerson tells us that "The three great wooden arches over the hall are a rare survival for this period." (The third arch is just out of range of the camera.) Built in 1291, it stands essentially unaltered since that time.

The picturesque gatehouse, added on in 1640-41

Look out beyond the few outbuildings: the countryside, green and undulating, stretches out, seemingly without end.

              If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot

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Click here for more on the history of Stokesay Castle, and here for more visuals.

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Post the Fifth; in which we travel to Shrewsbury in search of Brother Cadfael and have coffee with Edward Marston

June 4, 2011 at 1:13 am (Anglophilia, books, History, Mystery fiction, Spiritual, To Britain and back 2011)

Ellis Peters with her manager and her Dutch translator Peter Jones, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Ellis Peters, real name Edith Mary Pargeter, was born in 1913 in Shropshire. An autodidact, she never attended university but manged to produce an impressive  body of historical fiction. She’s probably best known for the Brother Cadfael mysteries. These are set in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. Peters envisioned Shrewsbury Abbey as the monastic dwelling of her protagonist, a monk, a healer, and a skillful problem solver, the problem being as often as not  whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom.

Here is Cadfael, memorably played by Sir Derek Jacobi:

The journey from Ross to Shewsbury was a fairly long one, so Pam, our Blue Badge Guide, had plenty of time to fill us in on the history and legend of the region. My notes on her fascinating disquisition are alas, extremely scatter shot. The bus ride was somewhat rough, and one was continually distracted by the incredible beauty of the countryside. (Well, darn it anyway!) One notation informs that the Welsh flag is Europe’s oldest:  . Now let’s see what else… “Celtic Welsh were great guerrilla fighters. They wore only ONE SHOE! I was actually able to verify this bizarre fact, courtesy of a site called Castles of Wales. In a section called Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare, Jeffrey L. Thomas informs us that “Several manuscripts depict Welsh warriors as having only one shoe and their other foot bare – this probably allowed them to keep a balance on hilly or rough terrain.”

When reading the Brother Cadfael novels, one hears a great deal about King Stephen and Empress Maude (unhelpfully also known as Matilda). Pam gave us a quick rundown of the history of the British monarchy, starting with the Conqueror. It is a tale of fiendish complexity; I won’t even attempt to recount it here. (This site explains the cause of the conflict between Stephen and Maude, and its eventual outcome.)

We learned much about place names: the suffix “-caster” or -chester” denotes a Roman settlement. “Stretton” – as in Church Stretton – indicates a Roman road. There’s more, but it is of a fragmentary nature in my notes. So, let’s proceed to the main attraction on this segment of our journey:

This image graces the cover of the guide book.

The Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury was established in 1087 by Roger de Montgomery, newly named as Earl of Shrewsbury. The Abbey flourished up until the Dissolution, after which time it was allowed to fall into disrepair. A full restoration was begun in 1885; the work continues to the present day. Click here for more on the history of the Abbey.

Our guide informed us that the Abbey chooses not to emphasize its association with Brother Cadfael. No specific reason was given for this rather odd seeming policy. There is a Brother Cadfael window – or rather, a section of a window – with the initials E.P. barely discernible therein:  

The Shrewsbury Visitor Information Centre does provide a booklet entitled “In the Steps of Brother Cadfael.” These steps can quite literally be found embedded in the cobbled  streets of the town:

Here are more photos we took of the church’s interior:

In 1137, the remains of Saint Winefride were conveyed from her burial place in Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey. There, they were interred in the west end of the Abbey Church. The Guild of St. Winefride was established in 1487. In 1540, in the time of the Dissolution, the shrine was destroyed and the guild disbanded. In 1987, after a lapse of nearly five centuries, the Guild was restored. Among its other tasks, members are pledged to prayer and to assist in the maintenance and beautification of the Abbey.

Here is the St. Winefride Window:

Ellis Peters took the known facts about the Saint’s removal from Wales by the monks of Shrewsbury and fashioned a cunning mystery entitled A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first entry in the Cadfael series. 

During our visit to the Abbey, greatly to our delight, the organ was being played:

After this intensely pleasurable experience, we proceeded to the Prince Rupert Hotel to have coffee with Edward Marston.

Marston is the prolific author of several historical crime fiction series. Most relevant to our tour was the Domesday series, set in eleventh century Britain and featuring Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret. The title especially germane to our tour was The Dragons of Archenfield. Although the novel is short, I found the plot convoluted and somewhat hard to follow. Marston is a mesmerizing speaker; he put the conflicts of  the era in an understandable context. I would now like to revisit the novels in this series.

  The novel opens with a  memorable sequence  of events in which the image of the red dragon of Wales, pictured on the flag above and on this book cover, is brought to vivid, if terrifying, life.

Edward Marston spoke eloquently of Ellis Peters, with whom he had been acquainted. Her research, he averred, was flawless, to the extent that her books are now used in academic settings where medieval monastic life in England is being studied. Marston alluded with respect and affection to Peters’s “slightly Victorian prose style,” an attribute of her novels that many of us consider a major attraction.

(In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting Edward Marston in London, at the conclusion of our Smithsonian tour. )

Ellis Peters also wrote detective fiction set in the Shropshire of her own time, featuring Inspector Felse and his enormously appealing son Dominic. I particularly recommend The Piper on the Mountain.

(In 1997, Marston published Murder in Perspective under his real name, Keith Miles. The protagonist is a Welsh architect, Merlin Richards, newly arrived in the U.S. in the 1920’s. The plot centers on Frank Lloyd Wright and a controversy concerning the building of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The novel was based on actual events; I found it illuminating and enjoyable.)

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“This prolific author’s last book is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” – A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss

February 22, 2011 at 7:28 pm (Book review, books, History, New York City)

When I heard that a memoir by Louis  Auchincloss was due to be published posthumously, I knew I’d want to read it. Born in 1917, Auchincloss grew up in a world of wealth and privilege among the creme de la creme of New York society. This slim volume is filled with lively anecdotes. One of my favorites concerns Auchincloss’s Uncle Ed, who sent his shirts to Europe so they’d be properly laundered!

The Auchinclosses moved in exalted circles, although as is usual with children, young Louis took it for granted that the family should socialize with the elite of the period, including the Vanderbilts. I liked this summing up of that high profile clan by one of the era’s supreme chroniclers:

Edith Wharton spoke of the family as engaged in a constant Battle of Thermopylae against bad taste, which they never won.

(Wharton, a huge influence on Auchincloss, was known to his grandmother from their summers at Newport, Rhode Island.)

Edith Wharton

Some of the author’s recollections are poignant. For instance, he went to law school (University of Virginia) with Marshall Field IV. This scion of the wealthy Chicago department store and newspaper owners suffered a nervous breakdown in 1956 and endured a lifelong struggle with drug use. He died in 1965 at the age of 50. Auchincloss comments that “the story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus.”  (These allusions to the classics and to ancient history serve as a dismaying reminder that a basic knowledge of these fields of study used to be presumed for all and any educated Americans.)

In the domestic sphere, Auchincloss’s mother did not have to do without: she had two nurses to assist with the care of four minor children, a cook, a waitress (!),  a chambermaid for general housekeeping, and a chauffeur: “Her days were thus free for some not very taxing charity work, lunches with friends at her clubs, matinees or concerts, visits to museums.” Once again, this profusion of servants, a state of affairs that seems almost unimaginable to us now, would have been something that Louis and his siblings took for granted. To this description, Auchincloss appends some provocative observations on the status of women of that era:

It was commonly said that because so many women were possessed of great wealth in their own right, that they exercised considerable economic power. It is truer to say that they could have. But all that was left by tacit consent to the men. Women, before they took jobs in the professions,  were content with the power they exercised in the home, where they ran the household and the children, selected the life style and the friends, chose the vacation spots and the charities to be supported and even the church to be attended.

In this passage, Auchincloss delineates those that comprised the entity called “society,” as it existed in New York City in the 1920s and’30s:

These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square  and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn’t seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics.

He adds that “Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one, either.” I suspect that’s a bit of an understatement. Re Roosevelt: does one not frequently hear that he was considered “a traitor to his class”? I also liked the part about “nonpracticing Jews.” Better lose the skull caps and prayer shawls, fellas, if you want in!

Louis Auchincloss crossed paths with many who would later attain fame (or in some cases, notoriety).  At the elite private boys’ school that he attended in Manhattan, he knew two future actors of some disctinction: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Mel Ferrer.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (198 - ) as Don Alejandro in the made-for--TV film "Zorro," in 1990

 

Mel Ferrer, 1917-2008

Then it was on to Groton, the prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, where he counted William Bundy as a classmate. Bundy and his older brother McGeorge – called “Mac” by intimates – went on to become security advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At the time that Auchincloss was at Groton, Reverend Endicott Peabody, the school’s founder, was still headmaster. (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, was an earlier scion of the same illustrious clan.)

William P. Bundy

McGeorge Bundy on the cover of Time Magazine 1965

Reverend Endicott Peabody

Auchincloss went to Yale and then, as mentioned above, to the University of Virginia Law School. Finally in 1941, he obtained employment at the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. The movers and shakers there were the Dulles brothers, Allen, the fifth director of the CIA, and John Foster, future Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At different times during his tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, the author worked for both brothers. He makes interesting observations about them:

Foster was sober, grave, dedicated to work, deeply religious, and utterly unimaginative in his dealings with clerks and staff. Allen, on the other hand, was hearty, cheerful, outgiving [sic], full of charm and humor.  Where he was devoted, perhaps too much so, to the fair sex, Foster was strictly a faithful monogamist.

Allen Dulles

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956

Probably Auchincloss’s most intriguing connection entered his life in 1942, when his father’s cousin Hugh D. Auchiincloss married Janet Lee Bouvier. It was his third marriage and her second. She already had two daughters, one of whom was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous women: . (Hugh Auchincloss’s second marriage was to Nina S. Gore, mother of author Gore Vidal.)

Louis Auchincloss recounts a fascinating anecdote about Jackie Bouvier, as she then was. He had just written Sybil, and Jackie, at the time engaged to one John Husted of New York, strongly identified with the novel’s eponymous protagonist. She told him:

‘Oh, you’ve written my life….Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.’

Auchincloss writes that at that moment,  he had a premonition of an entirely different fate awaiting his pretty cousin. Still, he admits that no one in the family “…predicted her remarkable destiny.” (One week later, her engagement to Husted was broken.)

In his introduction to this memoir, Louis Auchincloss voices the hope that in taking us on this journey to the past – his past and ours – he will bring that past to life. In this effort, he has succeeded admirably.

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Louis Auchincloss was a remarkably prolific writer. Here is his oeuvre, courtesy of  Wikipedia:

Novels

  • The Indifferent Children (1947)
  • Sybil (1952)
  • A Law for the Lion (1953)
  • The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956)
  • Venus in Sparta (1958)
  • Pursuit of the Prodigal (1959)
  • The House of Five Talents (1960)
  • Portrait in Brownstone (1962)
  • The Rector of Justin (1964)
  • The Embezzler (1966)
  • A World of Profit (1968)
  • I Come as a Thief (1972)
  • The Dark Lady (1977)
  • The Country Cousin (1978)
  • The House of the Prophet (1980)
  • The Cat and the King (1981)
  • Watchfires (1982)
  • Exit Lady Masham (1983)
  • The Book Class (1984)
  • Honourable Men (1986)
  • Diary of a Yuppie (1987)
  • The Golden Calves (1988)
  • Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits (1989)
  • The Lady of Situations (1990)
  • Three Lives (1993)
  • The Education of Oscar Fairfax (1995)
  • Her Infinite Variety (2000)
  • The Scarlet Letters (2003)
  • East Side Story (2004)
  • The Headmaster’s Dilemma (2007)
  • Last of the Old Guard (2008

Short story collections

  • The Injustice Collectors (1950)
  • The Romantic Egoists (1954)
  • Powers of Attorney (1963)
  • Tales of Manhattan (1967)
  • Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations (1970)
  • The Partners (1974)
  • The Winthrop Covenant (1976)
  • Narcissa and Other Fables (1982)
  • Skinny Island: More Tales of Manhattan (1987)
  • False Gods (1992)
  • Tales of Yesteryear (1994)
  • The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss (1994)
  • The Atonement and Other Stories (1997)
  • The Anniversary and Other Stories (1999)
  • Manhattan Monologues (2002)
  • The Young Apollo and Other Stories (2006)
  • The Friend of Women and Other Stories (2007)

Nonfiction

  • Reflections of a Jacobite (1961)
  • Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists (1965)
  • On Sister Carrie (1968)
  • Motiveless Malignity (1969)
  • Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time (1972)
  • Richelieu (1972)
  • A Writer’s Capital (1974)
  • Reading Henry James (1975)
  • Life, Law, and Letters: Essays and Sketches (1979)
  • Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle (1979)
  • False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King (1985)
  • The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age (1989)
  • Love without Wings: Some Friendships in Literature and Politics (1991)
  • The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others (1994)
  • The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles (1996)
  • Woodrow Wilson (Penguin Lives) (2000)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (The American Presidents Series) (2002)

Adaptations

Auchincloss’s The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) was adapted for television in an episode of the Climax! series (Season 4, Episode 22; Broadcast 27 March 1958).

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It is difficult to believe that it was only only last that we bid Louis Auchincloss adieu. His work and his life belong so completely to a bygone era. The Kirkus reviewer of A Voice from Old New York commented that this last book from the author’s pen “…is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” Auchincoss would most certainly have agreed with this assessment.

Louis Auchincloss receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2005

Louis Auchincloss in the Yale yearbook, 1939

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The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times; by Ilyon Woo

February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm (Book review, books, History)

I recently received two invitations to make a piece of Shaker furniture. The first one arrived just today via e-an mail from the Shaker Workshops Online Catalog. “Don’t let cabin fever get you down,” it exhorted me. Instead, build a chair like this one from one of our kits!

The second invitation fell into my hands in the form of a slight yet beguiling volume pulled off the library’s new nonfiction shelves last week: Was I right to see these two instances as invitations? Or, should I rather consider them gifts…

In The Great Divorce, author Ilyon Woo explains: “In Shaker parlance, a ‘gift’ meant an inspiration, a revelation, or an order from above.” And this of course puts us in mind of  “Simple Gifts.” The melody of this Shaker hymn, originally penned by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848, attained its apotheosis through Aaron Copland’s sweeping symphonic treatment in his “Ballet for Martha,” Appalachian Spring * :

If you’re like me, the hymn and the furniture pretty much sum up what you know about “The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers or Shaking Quakers” (so denominated in the Wikipedia entry). I had also heard that the sect was celibate, able to replenish or increase its ranks only through acquiring converts from the outside world. This was a tricky business, as the outside world was perceived as being full of snares for the unwary – or for the wary also, in some cases.  But Ilyon Woo’s book is about those who knowingly choose to become part of a Shaker community and those, like Eunice Hawley Chapman, who  make a try at the life but reject it. Her story would have stopped there except for one critical point: her estranged husband James did join. He joined, and he took his and Eunice’s children with him.

In early nineteenth century America, he had every right to do this. In accordance with the laws of the time, the children was his property. So, for that matter, was Eunice. Never mind that James was an alcoholic who deserted his family on several occasions and failed to provide for them on a consistent basis. Men did far worse and still retained their rights in the law. Even more crucially, their wives’ divorce petitions were repeatedly rejected,  even in cases where physical abuse had occurred.

The Great Divorce describes an epic legal  battle that played itself out in the New York State legislature. The logistics may have been complicated, but the reason for the action was simple and straightforward. Eunice Chapman’s three children – George, Susan, and Julia – had disappeared behind the high walls of the Shaker community. She wanted them back, and she was prepared to go to any lengths and use any tools to hand in order to achieve her purpose. (You’ll be surprised by just what those tools were.)

Ilyon Woo provides a fascinating glimpse into the Shaker world, from its founding in England by Mother Ann Lee to its establishment in the New World in the early nineteenth century. Some admirable qualities characterized the Shakers. The communities they built with their own hands were models of cleanliness and efficiency, contrasting favorably with some of the cities and towns of the period, with their poor sanitation and general slovenliness. Members of the sect were staunch pacifists. In addition, their settlements provided a haven for those who were living in dire poverty or suffering some kind of abuse in the outside world. This was particularly true of women and children. The relentless industry of the Shaker men and women not only produced the furnishings and smaller objects for which they became famous; it also resulted in an abundance of food deliciously prepared and graciously served up at meal times.

A precisely choreographed form of social dancing formed an integral part of the Shaker worship service (click on picture to enlarge):

Shakers, their mode of worship, a lithograph by D.W. Kellogg

But you gave up much when you joined the sect. You could not own anything, you were expected to feel, or at least to express, nothing but the mildest affection for your fellow beings. Idle talk was discouraged; idleness in general was not tolerated. The men and the women had prescribed clothing which they wore at all times. The activities for each day, including and especially the Sabbath, were set out in advance and did not vary.

As I made my way through this thoroughly engrossing narrative, my feelings about the Shakers kept changing. Believers, as they called themselves, were for the most part caring, generous, and above all, kind. The level of commitment to the community and the striving to attain perfection before God were impressive, even moving. At the same time. the almost aggressive plainness of their surroundings seemed oppressive. Beauty belonged  solely to the spirit, and was not to be indulged in where material objects were concerned. A chief value advocated by the sect was the loss of all that made an individual unique, as he or she merged with a group that became almost like a single organism. For me, that loss of selfhood was the single most incomprehensible and troubling aspect of a Believer’s life within the Shaker community.

The story of Eunice Chapman’s struggle to win back her children plays out against the backdrop of a country that even in the early 1800s was on the cusp of legal and social change. Eunice’s law suit was instrumental in bringing those changes about. It is unfortunate that she went after the Shakers as she did, but she felt she had no choice, and once you’re fully apprised of the circumstances, it’s hard to disagree with the actions she took. They were born of desperation. She would surely have left the Believers in peace if they had not been harboring her children and making it nearly impossible for her to see them. This is a convoluted tale, and Ilyon Woo’s ability to explain and clarify its various aspects, especially the legal ones,  while preserving the narrative’s forward thrust is truly impressive. Far from getting bogged down in the details, I actually had trouble putting the book down.

Ilyon Woo does a great job of illuminating an obscure corner of early American life. For instance, here she describes what Eunice, her parents, and her siblings would have encountered when the family emigrated from Connecticut to Durham New York around the turn of the nineteenth century::

…Durham fell along the route of the brand new Susquehanna Turnpike, which was crowded, day and night, with all manner of men–homesteaders and farmers, peddlers and grave diggers, itinerant preachers and traveling portrait painters, as well as herds of cattle, turkeys and other beasts being driven farther west. It was said of this road that the dust never settled, and in the evenings, the fields glowed with the makeshift hearths of campers stopping to rest.

In the course of her travails, Eunice Chapman was influenced by a novel called Charlotte Temple. Written by Susanna Rowson and first published in this country in 1794, Charlotte Temple is the classic seduction tale. Young and impressionable, the eponymous heroine allows herself to be seduced by a callow villain who spirits her off to America, gets her pregnant, and then abandons her on this alien shore to fend for herself. Ilyon Woo calls this novel “America’s first best seller.” 

I’m always finding rather startling stories of true crime in the most unlikely historical tomes. So it was with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale; so it is in The Great Divorce. The case to which I refer was contemporaneous with the Chapman imbroglio. Here’s what happened: one Abraham Kessler had deserted his wife on their wedding day. Five years later he returned to their home, not for the purpose of reconciliation but in order to poison said wife. He had found someone else he wanted to marry, and knew that as things stood, it would be impossible for him to secure a divorce. Woo observes: “The Kessler case provided yet another reminder of the limitations of New York’s marriage laws, trumping even the Chapmans’ in its degree of tragedy.”

Here is Ilyon Woo:

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The Shaker Workshops Online Catalog provides a succinct history of the sect; in addition, there are links to fascinating historical sources. I clicked on “Life with the Shakers,” edited by Frederick W. Evans (1888) and was immediately struck by this sentence: “Then all seat themselves and eat the meal with speechless assiduity.” It was once again driven home to me why I am increasingly drawn to reading the classics…”speechless assiduity.” I do love that kind of felicitous phrase making!

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*Some of my favorite nonfiction books are found in the juvenile collection of the Howard County Library. The call number for Ballet for Martha is J 784.21 G.

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The eternal fascination of Rome

August 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy)

It all (re)started with my first visit, last year, to chaotic, fabulous Naples – Napoli, as it is known in Italy. But the city has had other names: it was founded in the 700s BC by the Greeks. It was then Neapolis – “new city.”

But no – before that, there was Robert Harris’s riveting novel. I read Pompeii shortly after it came out in 2002. Like many the world over, I’ve been intrigued by the story of this lost and resurrected city since I was a small child. I had been to Italy several times, when I was in my twenties, but not since; while there, I had been to Rome, Florence and Venice – never to the southern portions of the country. I was pretty certain that I would never see Pompeii. I was wrong – gloriously wrong!

But I must go back further…to the appearance, in 1991, of Roman Blood, the first book in Steven Saylor’s superb series, Roma Sub Rosa.

Actually, now that I give it careful consideration, I think I know when and where I first became fascinated by ancient Rome. It was when Mrs. Gelber, my ninth grade Latin teacher, had us do projects concerning the Romans. I took two small plastic dolls and dressed them up in togas. My satisfaction with this effort was all out of proportion to the rather modest effect I achieved. Mrs. Gelber, an inspiring teacher if there ever was one, praised my efforts nonetheless. From then on, I was well and truly hooked.

Of course, I can provide no image of these small effigies. Nevertheless, they are clearly etched in my mind’s eye.

Recently, I listened to Part One of The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome. These lectures are given by Professor Garrett Fagan, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Penn State University. (Professor Fagan is from Ireland; this makes him an especial pleasure to listen to on this recorded course.)

I’m also thinking and writing about Rome because I’ve just finished listening to Conspirata, the second novel in Robert Harris’s projected trilogy based on the life of Cicero. The events are narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. Tiro took dictation for Cicero and managed his garden as well his finances. He made himself  quite indispensable to his master and was ultimately freed in 53 BC.  Despite his new status, Tiro continued to work for Cicero. (The audiobook versions of the novels in this series are read superbly by Simon Jones.)

The following commentary is from an article on Cicero by William Harris, Emeritus Professor at Middlebury College:

Tiro, a diligent slave perfected a system of Latin shorthand, which served to preserve fairly accurately Cicero’s speeches. A number of medieval MSS in “Tironian annotation” survive, containing much of the master’s speeches and perhaps more than we are aware of, since the specialization required for a study of this esoteric field deters all but the most laborious of scholars. The list of extant speeches is immense, the text fills several volumes.

The story Tiro tells in Conspirata and Imperium, its predecessor, is extremely complex. The characters are numerous; keeping track of them is made challenging by the fact that Roman names are easily confused. Nevertheless, I got completely caught up in the story, and in the author’s vivid re-creation of a vanished world. The last thing I expected, as Conspirata was concluding, was to be moved to tears by the events being narrated – and yet, I was.

The third volume in the trilogy is due to appear in 2011. (Note: for some reason, Conspirata was published in the UK as Lustrum.)

On his wonderful site, Steven Saylor provides terrific links to ancient world websites. (Scroll down to “Links to Classical World web sites.” This site also links to my review of the most recent Gordianus the Finder novel, The Triumph of Caesar. Scroll down to the bottom and look for Books to the Ceiling under “Reviews & Misc.”)

I have purchased the Penguin edition of Livy’s The Early History of Rome: . I immediately needed to know more about that eerie, vaguely familiar cover image. It is The Capitoline She-Wolf. It resides in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, where, I  now realize, I first saw it some forty years ago. This video brings the viewer up close to this remarkable sculpture:

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So, to recapitulate, I recommend the following:

Pompeii, and Imperium and Conspirata (aka Lustrum), the first two books in a trilogy based on the life of Cicero. (The versatile Robert Harris is also the author of the contemporary thriller The Ghost, the novel upon which the film The Ghost Writer is based.  )

The entire Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. I’ve read and loved all twelve books!

The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome, with lectures by Garrett Fagan.

Livy’s History, fascinating but quite challenging. I’m reading it in small  – very small – chunks.

Finally, there’s a novel I read years ago and have never forgotten: The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. This is a demanding but hugely rewarding work of fiction that lays bare the heart and soul of an Emperor who proves only too human. It is on my list of books to re-read.

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Soundtrack for this post: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Here is the final paragraph of program notes written by Richard Freed for a performance of this Heaven-storming work by the National Symphony in 2008:

As the dawn mists rise and settle, the tread of ghostly legions is felt and, in Lionel Salter’s splendid phrase, “fanfares begin to echo down the centuries.” The mists disperse in the blaze of thousands of burnished helmets and breastplates. The already large orchestra swells with the addition of an organ and the augmented brass already noted. Respighi summed up, “To the poet’s fantasy appears a vision of past glories. Trumpets blaze, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly rise sun toward the Via Sacra, mounting the Capitoline Hill in final triumph.”

If you ever have a chance to hear this piece performed live – drop everything and go!

Here is the finale, in a 2004 performance by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by the venerable – born in 1924! – French conductor Georges Pretre:

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The Belles Heures of the Limbourg brothers: exquisite masterpiece at the Met

August 7, 2010 at 2:16 am (Art, History)

Time spent in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is magical. I got to experience that magic once again during my June visit to New York City.

The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was being displayed in a small lower level gallery. This magnificent work, which dates from 1405 to around 1408, is normally housed in the Cloisters, a separate branch of the museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Individual pages had been detached from the binding for purposes of conservation and study; the inspired decision was taken to make them accessible to museum patrons in this dismantled form before the manuscript was reassembled.

This was a one time opportunity to get a close-up view of this masterpiece by the Limbourg Brothers. The weekend that I saw it marked the close of the exhibition.

Museum patrons were provided with magnifying glasses with which to view the amazingly intricate paintings and the elegant, delicate lettering. Each page was enclosed in plexiglass and mounted on a pedestal.

Since childhood, I’ve loved the story, as told by C.W. Ceram, of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tut. As he peered into the dimness of that ancient space, Carter was asked if he could see anything. When he was able to speak, he replied: “Yes, wonderful things.”

I felt a similar sensation as a took my spyglass and gazed into the perfection of these tiny, miraculous works of art:

To see more of the art, and to learn more about the exhibit, view the video:

Timothy B. Husband, whom you see touring the exhibit with Thomas P. Campbell, is Curator of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. He is also the author of the book that accompanies the exhibition:

This is some magnificent tome, I can tell you. (It is beside me on the desk, at this moment.)

In the Introduction, we learn the history of the Belles Heures, and how it has come down to us. Commissioned by the wealthy connoisseur Jean de France, Duc de Berry, work on the Belles Heures was begun by the three Limbourg brothers – Herman, Paul, and Johan – around 1405 and completed some three or four years later. Jean de France died in 1416. The following year, the manuscript was purchased Yolande of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou. There exists persuasive evidence that the manuscript remained in the environs of Anjou for the next several decades. And after that:

No history of it is known from that point until May 1879 when its rediscovery, in the possession of Pierre-Gabriel Bourlier, baron d’Ailly, was announced to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres by Leopold Delisle, then director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Well, gosh, that is one long dormancy period – approximately four hundred years, by my estimate. But once the Belles Heures came to light again, things moved swiftly. In 1880, the manuscript was acquired by Edmond James de Rothschild. Upon Baron de Rothschild’s death in 1934, the Belles Heures became the property of his son, Maurice. Maurice was living in Paris at the time. Shortly after the Nazis began their occupation of the city, he fled to Montreal. Before leaving, Maurice de Rothschild had hidden his priceless manuscripts in a bank vault.  In 1941, the Nazis raided the bank and seized the boxes containing the manuscripts. Ultimately these priceless objets d’art ended up in the storied Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, where much of the art looted by the Nazis was stored.

Neuschwanstein

In April 1945, the treasures were recovered by the American Seventh Army. This detachment included Second Lieutenant James J.Rorimer, a member of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives teams of the Civil Affairs Division, the curator of The Cloisters, and later Director of The Metropolitan Museum.

Here’s where matters become murky. There was a book of hours by the Limbourg brothers found in this hoard of manuscripts, but it was the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux – not the Belles Heures. There was some confusion in the identification of the various works. (Lt. Rorimer enlarges on this topic in his book, written in 1950:  Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.)

Careful review of the material found at Neuschwanstein yielded no trace of the Belles Heures, which in all probability was never conveyed to Germany.

Meanwhile, at war’s end, Maurice de Rothschild elected not to return to Paris but to take up residence on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in a chateau which had been owned by his great-uncle. He decided to offer some of the manuscripts for sale. First, they had to be catalogued.  Sure enough, in its  final form, this catalog contained an entry for the Belles Heures. It was back among Maurice de Rothschild’s possessions, if only briefly.

The Belles Heures and the Hours of Jean d’Evreux were first offered to the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The Morgan specialized in medieval art (and still does), but its funds were committed elsewhere, and it declined to make the purchase. The manuscripts were then offered to Harvard’s Houghton Library; they were once again declined. A private collector was then offered them, but he also responded in the negative. At last, they were offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they finally found a permanent home. Both the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux and the Belles Heures, purchased together in 1954 for the sum of $300,000,  are now housed at the Cloisters.

Timothy Husband concludes the introduction by observing that this is “…certainly one of the most fortuitous acquisitions of medieval art on record.”

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The Limbourg brothers were from Nijmegen, a proud and ancient city in what is now the Netherlands. A medieval festival (which looks like great fun) is held there and is named for this trio of famous citizens. There is a nicely made video on the festival’s site; it is (mostly) in English.

Alas, for these precocious geniuses: all three died in 1416, before reaching the age of thirty. The cause is presumed to be the Plague.

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Here are some pages from another great masterpeice by the Limbourg brothers, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The music is the Mass for St. Anthony of Padua by Guillaume Dufay.

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Much have I studied in the pages of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club

July 14, 2010 at 2:40 am (Book review, books, History)

And much did I struggle with and not quite comprehend…

The subtitle of Menand’s book is “A Story of Ideas in America.” Some of those ideas were sufficiently abstract – not to mention abstruse – that it was as though I had strayed into “how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin” territory.  I felt this all the more keenly because most of the passages to which I refer came after a description of a Civil War battle – the so-called Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania – that was so horrifying that I knew at once that I could never read an entire book about that savage conflict:

‘In a small space along the breastworks of Confederate trenches, in the pouring rain, the two sides had fought hand to hand continuously for eighteen hours in a kind of blood frenzy. Men thrust bayonets through the logs or jumped onto the barricade and fired into the mass of soldiers below until they were themselves shot down. A tree eighteen inches thick was completely severed by bullets.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was not at this battle; nevertheless, as a first lieutenant in the Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (aka “the Harvard Regiment,”), he saw plenty of action and was wounded more than once. In later life, he rarely  spoke of his wartime ordeal.

(I have ever confused Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – eminent jurist and Supreme Court Justice – with his father, who was a physician and a poet. OWH Senior wrote one of my favorite poems: “The Chambered Nautilus:”

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sail the unshadowed main,–
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,–
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:–

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

In my youth, I thought this poem sappy. I now find it beautiful and am grateful for its optimistic spirit.)

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These days, America’s favorite luminary of early 19th century New England is Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau barely figures in Menand’s narrative, whereas Ralph Waldo Emerson is a crucial figure:

“…Emerson was a genuine moralist whose mistrust of moralism led him continually to complicate and deflect his own formulations. He was a preacher whose message was: Don’t listen to preachers. ‘I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching,’ as he put it in the essay on ‘Self-Reliance’…Emerson represented the tradition of the New England churchman, which is one reason he became an honored and respected figure despite his anti-institutionalism; and at the same time, he represented that tradition’s final displacement. Unitarianism had rescued the integrity of the individual conscience from Calvinism. Emerson rescued it from Unitarianism–which is why after his famous address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, in which he scandalized the Unitarians by renouncing organized Christianity in favor of personal revelation, he was not invited to speak at Harvard again for thirty years.

In 1958, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. received, as a birthday gift from his parents, a five volume edition of Emerson’s writings. At the time, Holmes was a freshman at Harvard. Writing many years after the fact, he says of  Emerson that he “set me on fire.”

There is much in The Metaphysical Club concerning Holmes’s philosophy of jurisprudence. I admit that I found the material tough going.

At the conclusion of the section of the book devoted to Holmes, the author describes a poignant scene.In 1932, the distinguished jurist, now retired, attempts to read a poem about the war to Marion Frankfurter, wife of Felix Frankfurter. Unable to proceed with the reading, Holmes  broke down and wept:

‘They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent.

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Next we turn to William James.

In our house, we have frequent recourse to that stale bit of humor in which one person asks, “Do you have trouble making decisions?” and the other responds, “Well, yes and no.” The chapter on William James is entitled, “The Man of Two Minds.” He was, apparently, a master equivocator.

He was also a formidable intellect, from a family of formidable intellects. His father Henry was a theologian who came to embrace Swedenborgianism. William’s younger brother was the novelist Henry James.

Part of Henry Senior’s formative experience involved being swept up in what is called the Second Great Awakening, which began in New England at the turn of the 19th century:

‘From one point of view, the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from 1800 to the eve of the Civil War, was, as Tocqueville interpreted it, a kind of democratization of European Christianity, a massive absorption onto American popular culture of the Protestant spiritual impulse, , stripped of most of its traditional heirarchies and formalities. But from another point of view, it was the last blast of supernaturalism before science superseded theology as thee dominant discourse in American intellectual life.

(I wanted especially to quote the above passage as an illustration of the sheer elegance of Menand’s prose.)

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Next we meet Swiss paleontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, who relocated to the U.S. in 1846 and eventually accepted a professorship at Harvard University. In 1850, the widowed Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary, a pioneer is women’s education who eventually became the first president of Radcliffe College.

Here’s an interesting fact concerning the state of scientific inquiry in the U.S. in the early 19th century:

‘One of the things that had held back scientific education in American colleges…was the dominance of theology in the curriculum, which obliged scholars in every field to align their work with Christian orthodoxy.  Theology was the academic trump card.

One of Louis Agassiz’s great contributions to intellectual endeavors in this country was his insistence that the study of science be divorced from all aspects of religious belief.

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At this juncture in his narrative, Menand once again focuses on William James, who first met Agassiz on a research expedition to Brazil in 1861. At this point, Darwin’s discoveries and theories begin increasingly to dominate scientific discourse in America. Here’s how Menand explains James’s take on Darwin, as elucidated in James’s masterwork The Principles of Psychology (1890):

‘There is intelligence in the universe: it is ours. It was our good luck that, somewhere along the way, we acquired minds. They released us from the prison of biology.

(My first thought on reading this was, We have not been entirely released from that prison: along with every other organism on the planet, we are still mortal.)

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Next we meet Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was “…an all-around prodigy of science, mathematics, and philosophy, and he was not shy about displaying his erudition or his disdain for less initiated minds.” (Peirce’s father Benjamin was a mathematician who taught at Harvard.)

In a never-published manuscript dated from 1907, Charles Peirce gives this account of the founding of the Metaphysical Club in 1872:

“‘It was in the earliest seventies that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves, half-ironically,  half-defiantly “The Metaphysical Club,”–for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics,–used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James.’

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was also a member, but the prime mover was Chauncey Wright, a gifted mathematician and philosopher. Wright’s story is a poignant one. Brilliant and intense, he was also gentle and kind. He suffered repeated bouts of depression and ultimately died of a stroke at  the age of 45.

The Metaphysical Club was in existence for less than a year. But it retains its luster due to the sheer brain power of its members and the fact that the discussions engaged in by those members helped give birth to the philosophy of pragmatism. (This was yet another topic in this book that challenged my understanding.)

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The last major figure profiled in this work is philosopher, psychologist, and educator. John Dewey. Dewey’s achievements and influence were tremendous. I won’t try to recount them here but will refer you instead to Wikipedia’s comprehensive entry.

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As I’ve indicated, there were times when I bogged down in my reading of The Metaphysical Club. The soft cover edition currently before me runs to 442 pages. I own that as I was approaching the home stretch I gave myself permission…you’ve probably guessed… (gasp!!) to skim some of the material.

But  then I was stopped in my tracks. Just shy of the book’s conclusion, there’s a chapter entitled “Pluralisms.” It deals with the concept of the Melting Pot, with racism, anti-Semitism – how these forces were playing out at the turbulent beginning of the twentieth century. It’s riveting stuff. Immigration comes in here, too. This is the kind of reading in which you discover that although the players are different, many of the crucial social and political issues confronting us today were equally contentious in the past. A hundred years ago, these same battles were being fought, and with equal ferocity.

In this chapter, we encounter the great W.E.B. Du Bois. One of Du Bois’s many groundbreaking accomplishments was that he was the first African- American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. (The year was 1895; the subject was history.)

I had, of course, heard of the author of The Souls of Black Folk. But I hadn’t heard of Alain Locke (though obviously I should have). Menand enumerates the challenges faced by this individual:

‘He had heart trouble and an unusually slight physique (he was five feet tall and weighed ninety-nine pounds); he was homosexual; and he was black.

Locke earned his undergraduate degree in English and philosophy from Harvard in 1907. He then went on to be the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. Subsequently, he studied philosophy at the University of Berlin and attended the College de France in Paris in 1911. Locke returned to Harvard to complete his doctoral work in philosophy. He then went to Howard University, where he chaired that institution’s philosophy department until his retirement in 1953. In the course of his life in academia, Locke wrote numerous books and articles.

Some people are just unstoppable…

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I recommend the site History of American Thought for additional reading on the history of American philosophy.

The Metaphysical Club is  filled with riches; I have barely skimmed the surface here. It was a challenging but ultimately hugely rewarding book, and it won for its author the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history.

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GALLERY

W.E.B. Du Bois

William James

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr

John Dewey

Chauncey Wright

Alain Locke

Louis Agassiz and Benjamin Peirce

Henry James Senior and Junior

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Here is Louis Menand being interviewed at the University of California at San Diego in 2004:

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‘For her, living was to be measured in doing. Nothing was trivial.’ – A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 – 1812

July 5, 2010 at 1:55 am (Book review, books, History)

In the early 1700s, Cotton Mather refers to the women of New England, noted for their piety, as “the Hidden Ones.” But, as author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observes, “In real life,…women weren’t hidden at all. They fed travelers, bargained with neighbors, and moved about their towns at will, on horseback, in canoes, or afoot.” But, she adds, ” in one sense they were hidden, even in Martha’s diary. Women, to use a Biblical metaphor, performed their works under a bushel; men’s candles burned on the hill.”

One is tempted to add that in the annals of history, until quite recently, it was ever thus…

For Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine, the diary is the sole thing that rescues her, as a distinct individual, from complete obscurity. And yet, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich tells us: “Those few historians who have known about the diary have not known quite what to do with it.”  The document is filled not only with her experiences as a midwife but also with the details of her labors in her house and in her  beloved garden As such, there has been a tendency to regard it as not being particularly germane to historical inquiry. As recently as the 1970s, a work entitled Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America had this to say about it: “‘Like many diaries of farm women, it is filled with trivia about domestic chores and pastimes.’

Ulrich’s book stands as a corrective to that dismissive assessment:. In her introduction, she avers that “…it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies.”

Each chapter of A Midwife’s Tale begins with a section from the diary. The spelling and capitalization are eccentric, but that was not unusual for the time. Dating from 1809, here are some sample entries:

‘1  2  At John Shaws. Birth 2nd. June 16 receivd 7s and 6d of Mr Shaw.
Clear. I was Calld about midnight to John Shaws wife who is in Labour. Shee was safely delivered at 8 hour this morning of her 2nd child and daughter. I returned home about noone. Mr. Ballard went to Town meeting. Magr Samuel Howard was chosen to represent the Town in general Coart.
Birth John Shaws daughter [illegible]

2  3  At home. Feel unwell. Patty T Came here.
Clear. I have been doing work about my soap. Feel very feeble. My husband been to Hallowell. Came here at Evening.

3  4 At home Daughter Ballard sent us 4  1/4 lb. chees.
Clear and warm. I have helpt do my hous work. Patty washt andd Cleand bed rooms. We removd Cyrus Bed and Chest up Chamber. Mrs Smith and Brooks Calld here. Inform me Mrs Mosier is very sick.

4  5 At Daughter Lambards and Mr Mosiers.
Cloudy and some rain. I went to Daughter Lambards. Calld to see Mrs Mosier. Find her very sick.

5  6   At Daughter Lambards. To Lecture & son Ephraims.
Rained part of the day. I went to Lecure from Daughter Lambards. From there to son Ephraims. Sleep there.

And on and on it goes, delivering babies, tending the sick, visiting family members and friends and  receiving them at home, and endless housework: moving furniture, making soap, and endlessly cooking and cleaning. In the midst off this endless round of hard work, Martha records that she feels “very feeble.”  And wherefore should she not? She is 74 years of age or thereabouts, and has three more years to live. But age and feebleness are no excuse: she is still assisting with household tasks, some of them quite arduous. The weather is always of great concern. Will she be able to reach her patients? (These include not only women in labor put anyone who is sick or injured and in need of the hand of a healer.) And in the precious summer months, there is the unremitting care of the garden that provides for friends and family.

Read  A Midwife’s Tale and you will encounter the contradictions and strangeness of rural America in its early years. You will meet people who are kind, considerate, and compassionate, for whom no trouble is too great when it comes to helping family, neighbors, and friends. You will also encounter cruelty, rape, and murder. (And wait till you read about the Purrinton family – what a shocker!) You will learn the fascinating history of medical practice in the early days of the republic. You will find yourself with Martha Ballard as she attends an autopsy. But most of all, you’ll travel back and forth, to and fro, across the Kennebec River and back again, as the intrepid midwife delivers baby after baby – 816 in all!

This book is the story of a life lived and a land transformed. It is a remarkable chronicle of perseverance and ultimate triumph. I feel deeply grateful to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Professor of History at Harvard University, for bringing Martha Ballard so vividly to life. It’s a quintessentially American story, and I’m especially pleased to be posting this on the evening of  July 4, just as the fireworks are starting to go off.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for A Midwife's Tale


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The pleasures of Archaeology

June 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm (archaeology, books, History)

I don’t normally buy this magazine, even though like most people, I am fascinated by archaeological expeditions and discoveries. I bought this particular issue because of the photograph of the Tollund Man on the cover.

Many years ago, when I was teaching high school English, I used a text book that contained an excerpt from The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, by Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob. At the time, I was faced with the usual cohort of bored, antsy teenagers, and I don’t recall getting mush of a response from them when we discussed this piece. But I have never forgotten the effect it had on me.

The English translation of The Bog People appeared in this country in 1969.

Gods, Graves, and Scholars, another landmark volume on archaeology by C.W. Ceram, was written in 1949. It was translated from the German and published here in 1951, A  revised edition appeared in 1967. That was already some years after my mother had first urged me to read it.

It is the second revised edition, dated 1979, that sits before me on my desk at this moment. Ceram states in his foreward to the first American edition:  ‘My book was written without scholarly pretensions. My aim was to portray the dramatic qualities of archaeology, its human side.” He goes on to describe the fruits of his research:

‘Archaeology, I found, comprehended all manner of excitement and achievement. Adventure is coupled with bookish toil. Romantic excursions go hand in hand with scholarly self-discipline and moderation.  Explanations among the ruins of the remote past have carried curious men all over the face of the earth.

Two stories made a lasting impression. The first was that of Heinrich Schliemann and the search for Troy. This particularanecdote has stayed with me:

‘Incredible as it may seem, this actually happened: the rich and eccentric foreigner one evening sat in the village square and read the Twenty-third Book of the Odyssey to the descendants of those who had been dead for three thousand years. Overcome by emotion, he wept, and the villagers wept with him.

The second is the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The year is 1922. Archaeologist Howard Carter has enlarged a hole in the door to the newly unearthed burial chamber. Lord Carnarvon, his backer on the project, and others, are crowded around him:

‘Nervously Carter lit a match, touched it to the candle, and held it toward the hole. As his head neared the opening–he was literally trembling with expectation and curiosity–the warm air escaping from the chamber beyond the door made the candle flare up. For a moment Carter, his eye fixed to the hole and the candle burning within, could make out nothing. Then, as his eyes became gradually accustomed to the flickering light, he distinguished shapes, then their shadows, then the first colors. Not a sound escaped his lips; he was struck dumb. The others waited for what seemed to them like an eternity. Finally Carnarvon could no longer contain his impatience. “Can you see anything?” he inquired.

Carter, slowly turning his head, said shakily: “Yes, wonderful things.”

As with so many books that shaped my young mind (such as it was),  it is probably time to revisit Gods, Graves, and Scholars. (It is thought that C.W. Ceram – real name Kurt Wilhelm Marek – wrote so eloquently of the distant past in an effort to escape from his own recent past. Read this and judge for yourself.)

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While working on a review of Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Fall of Troy, I discovered this fabulous photograph of  Heinrich Schliemann’s wife Sophia wearing some of the jewels comprising what he called “Priam’s Treasure.”

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In The Bog People, this is how P.V. Glob describes the discovery, in 1950,  of the body that came to be known as Tollund Man:

‘Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His  face wore a gentle expression–the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.

The men digging up peat to use as fuel thought they had found the victim of a recent murder. They called the police. The officers, knowing that similar mummified remains had been found in the area before, called the local museum. Thus did Tollund Man pass once again into history. (He is thought to have lived during the fourth century BC.)

The men cutting fuel for the coming winter were not entirely mistaken in their surmise about the body they had uncovered. Tollund man was found with a noose around his neck.

The Bog People has been re-issued by New York Review Books, a publisher that’s doing a terrific job of bringing the classics, both fiction and nonfiction, back into print.

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A single day in a museum – and the turbulent, fascinating history of this country comes alive…

May 23, 2010 at 8:23 pm (Art, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

When I was in high school, American history was not so much taught as drummed into us. The process was strictly chronological and concerned primarily presidents and wars. There was no room for inference or subtlety. It was boring beyond belief.

he truth is, of course, that American history is anything  but boring. That point was driven home for me on a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum. First off: what’s with the double title?  The edifice actually houses two museums. Collectively they are now known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Before I introduce several of the paintings I especially admired, I’d like to say something about the building itself. Work on the Old Patent Office was begun in 1836 and completed some thirty years later. It is a grandiose vision in the Greek Revival style, and worth seeing just  for itself. And oh, the riches within!

We spent most of our time in the National Portrait Gallery, specifically in the collection called “American Origins.” Here can be found paintings,  sculpture, and artifacts dating from 1600 to 1900.

We saw many portraits of famous Americans. Even if the subjects were known to us, the artists, for the most part, were not:

General William Tecumseh Sherman, by George Peter Alexander Healy (1866)

Daniel Webster, by Francis Alexander (1835)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Alanson Fisher (1853)

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (1806)

More astonishing was encountering so many figures from our history who were completely new to us:

Ira Aldridge, by Henry Perronet Briggs (c.1830)

Born in 1805, Ira Aldridge was a gifted actor. Unable to pursue his profession in the United States, Aldridge moved to England in the 1820s. He never returned to his native land.

In this painting, he is portraying Othello. A Russian critic commented that “…he was Othello himself, as created by Shakespeare.”

Anne Catharine Hoof Green

After emigrating from the Netherlands, Anne Catharine Hoof Green lived with her husband Jonas in Annapolis, Maryland. Jonas Green  was the editor of the Maryland Gazette; when he died in 1767,  Anne Catharine continued to print the Gazette until her death eight years later.

This daguerreotype of John Brown (1846 or 1847) is a famous image of the uncompromising abolitionist. What is not so well known is that it was made by Augustus Washington, son of a former slave.  While a student at Dartmouth College, Washington took up photography in order to help pay his bills. Eventually he set up a studio in Hartford, Connecticut.

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When you click on American Origins (above), you will hear a fragment of the most poignant, evocative music. It is from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Here is the famous “Simple Gifts” from that justly beloved work, paired with some spectacular photographs by Ansel Adams:

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