Counting Crows

Crows in snowy downtown Portland, 2017. Photo by Walker Berg.

Crows are in Portland and Seattle what pigeons are in New York and so many other cities: everywhere. I can’t look out the window of my home office for more than a minute without seeing one fly past. I can’t walk the dog without encountering several of them. On winter evenings thousands of crows famously congregate in the downtown treetops (see above), posing ominously and raining waste on unwary pedestrians. When the winter roost gathers together at dusk or disperses before sunrise, they paint the sky black.

Lucky for me, I like crows. The winter roost has broken up now and I begin to see mating pairs selecting twigs for nests. We had a pair of them last year that I befriended by placing handfuls of dried grubs or cat food on the roof of our outdoor firewood cabinet. They had a single fledgling and when he could fly they brought him to visit our backyard every day. If the regular hour had come and I hadn’t yet put out treats for them they would sit atop the pergola where they could peer at me through my office window.

I had a single visitor in the backyard this morning, a big healthy-looking crow (male, I think, though it’s hard to tell). He sat on the pergola awhile and then hopped down into the grass. He was even bold enough to walk onto the back porch to spy things out. He retreated to a neighbor’s rooftop when I stepped outside but immediately swept down again when I placed a handful of kibble on the firewood cabinet for him. Clearly, this is one of last year’s crows. But (crows being monogamous) where’s his wife? Or is this last year’s fledgling?

Goth Girl

~ Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen ~

The year 1998 was more exceptional than you may remember. Not only did my wife and I get married that summer (as reported in the international press) but it was a banner year for the “twin film” phenomenon. The animated movies Antz and A Bug’s Life were released in 1998, each following the adventures of an underdog ant tackling big odds to save the world and win the girl. It was also the year both Deep Impact and Armageddon were released, sci-fi blockbusters with plots involving comets or asteroids on course to smash the Earth in an orgy of special-effect shock and awe.

In 1818, long before Hollywood was born, the publishing version of the twin film phenomenon struck when Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey hit the bookshops. Not only do the books have remarkably similar titles but both satirize those gothic novels of the Anne Radcliffe variety which were so popular at the time. Surely this coincidence has been remarked upon before and some probably second-rate term papers have been written on the subject.

I admire both books very much. I read the Peacock ten years ago. It helps to have some familiarity with the personalities of the English Romantic poets but Nightmare Abbey must be one of the funniest things written in the nineteenth century. Austen’s book (published posthumously) isn’t generally considered among her best, but it’s more properly a novel and nearly as funny.

The joke (and also the pleasure) of Northanger Abbey is that Austen’s heroine-in-training Catherine Morland isn’t really up to the task of fulfilling her role as the protagonist of a gothic romance. First, her happy home life and equanimity of spirit count against her. Then the plot conspires in various ways to put Catherine among scenes and characters, like those in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, that might excite her passions or poison her imagination, but she refuses almost every occasion. Worse, when she is wronged by others, she fails to counterplot against her enemies.

Catherine’s beau Henry Tilney gives the sentence against her in what must be one of English literature’s most winning declarations of love: “Your mind is warped,” he says, “by an innate principle of general integrity, and, therefore, not accessible to the cool reasoning of family partiality, or a desire of revenge.”

Because Austen is herself too wise a writer to think otherwise, Catherine concludes that her failure to live the life of a gothic heroine may not be so blameworthy after all. Why should any but mental infants pattern their lives after the romantic excesses portrayed in books (or movies)? That would be to aspire to something less than real life. Do we somehow imagine that novels tell us the truth about human nature? Well, they don’t. But then again, Austen seems to suggest that in the novel’s capacity to capture the contradictions of our inward lives and our inability to finally refuse ourselves every last drop of fantasy, perhaps sometimes they do:

“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were all the works of her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France, might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities.”

The Blond-Headed Kid at the Back of the Room

My sixth-grade teacher Mr. Daily liked to play the eccentric. He made us listen to Grateful Dead records while taking tests. He once demonstrated the power of gravity by standing on his desk and dropping a textbook to the floor. One day he painted a mole on his cheek, donned a suit and tie, and presented himself in the classroom as his own twin brother, substituting for our usual Mr. Daily. It half fooled us.

Another thing about Mr. Daily: he could never remember my name. He began calling me “The Blond-Headed Kid in the Back of the Room,” and the nickname stuck. I disliked my anonymity. I understood he meant no harm, but Mr. Daily didn’t forget anyone else’s name. I was shy at eleven years old and didn’t participate in classroom discussions unless called upon, but I still wanted to be memorable. I wanted people to know me as more than the boy whose name no one could recall.

I sometimes wonder how much trouble we might spare the world if we could relieve people – young people in particular – of that desire to make a mark, to be known and admired. It’s a long way from childhood anxieties to pining for fame, but in our culture of extended adolescence the desire for notoriety may often distract from forming adult relationships and taking on adult responsibilities. I’ve known forty-year-old men who still thought they could make it as rock stars.

Closely allied to the desire to be the center of things is the desire to be at the center of things. It brings would-be actresses to Hollywood and would-be writers to New York. It brings all kinds of grifters and baby Machiavels to Washington, D.C. The tech barons of Silicon Valley believe they sit at the center of the universe, and the intensity of their conviction has persuaded half the globe; meanwhile they peddle dreams of instant celebrity to the masses through social media.

Any ambitions I ever had for fame and glory and influence have dwindled away over the years, and happily so. They were smothered by unexpected contentment. I am content never to publish a novel. I am content with my job. I am content now even with those decisions I would change if I could make them over again. I am more than content to be overlooked and unknown and to live a quiet life. I hope to deserve the love and admiration of my family, and I’m gratified to be the idol of my dog, but I don’t care to hear my name on the lips of strangers.

My hair has darkened considerably since sixth grade, but perhaps Mr. Daily got it right. I am the Blond-Headed Kid in the Back of the Room, but I’ve found a joy in not being at the center of things.

All By Myself

~ A Pelican in the Wilderness: Recluses, Solitaries and Hermits by Isabel Colegate ~

Isabel Colegate and her husband bought an old country house in the west of England in the 1960s. While making some landscape renovations they discovered the site of a small hermitage built two hundred years earlier, when there was a real craze for such things. Georgian-era landowners would even go so far as to hire bearded old men to live in their quaint, rustic hermitages on a permanent basis, to lend the place a gothic air and make a picturesque background for summer picnics.

The discovery and renovation of the old hermitage on her property must have sparked a passion in Colegate, who is mostly known as a novelist. The product of her research into the lives of “hermits, solitaries, and recluses” is discursive and enjoyable, learned but not stuffy or academic. It reads like a travelogue, and it makes a pretty grand tour. From Lao-Tse and the Taoist mountain hermits of China to St Anthony and the early Christian anchorites of the Egyptian desert; from those ornamental hermits of the 18th and 19th centuries to the solitary nature worshipers of the early environmental movement; from reclusive celebrities and poets to modern-day monks and nuns living alone off-grid in the English countryside.

Who hasn’t fantasized about turning recluse? When I was a boy we lived on the edge of a river delta, a flat maze of waterways, earthen dykes, and semi-submerged islands bordered in oaks. I had a boating map of the area and would stare dreamily at it for hours, making plans to renounce the world and disappear into the delta with a canoe. I would build a shanty for myself on the edge of some farmer’s sunflower field and live on whatever fish I might catch.

In middle age the fantasy still returns. Once each year I take a day entirely to myself and spend it alone in the wilderness. Last year my destination was Cooper Spur, a rocky shoulder of alpine tundra and volcanic debris on the northeast slope of Oregon’s Mt Hood. Halfway up the trail to the summit of Cooper Spur is a little stone-built shelter dating from the 1930s, where hikers can stop to rest or find protection from storms. I had the spot to myself for a half hour that morning and couldn’t help but imagine setting up shop there as a hermit, though maybe not in the winter.

A Sense of Vocation

~ The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss ~

“There is no real distinction between the pulpit and the classroom,” writes Louis Auchincloss in The Rector of Justin (1964), and perhaps that’s always been true. The teaching profession certainly presents itself today as a vocation for would-be evangelists. I see billboards around town for a teacher certification program at a local college enticing new enrollees to “teach the change you want to see in the world.” God help us, I say to myself when I consider the applicants likely to be inspired by that slogan.

But in fact I nearly became a high school teacher myself once, and I still wonder if I might have found a more rewarding career in that direction. It was almost twenty years ago. I was accepted into a graduate teaching program and was only prevented from enrolling by the caution flag of a pink line on my wife’s over-the-counter pregnancy test. “Is it really wise just now to take on new school debt?” it seemed to ask. “And can you really support a family on a public school teacher’s salary?”

It’s just as well, I’m sure. I might have had a good run for a while but by now, with retirement still years off, I’d have found myself in trouble with the administration for my inability to comply with the agenda of the New Puritanism.

Back to Auchincloss. What an exemplary novel The Rector of Justin is, and how finely drawn is the character of Frank Prescott, headmaster of the fictional New England boys school St Justin Martyr. Auchincloss gives us Frank Prescott not as Prescott sees himself or through the mediation of an omniscient narrator, but as he is seen by others, in the journals and memoirs and conversation of former students, family members, and acquaintances. He draws Prescott the way my childhood art teacher sometimes made me sketch portraits: from the outside, by describing the shapes and shadows of the space around the subject until its essential form is revealed.

The method of The Rector of Justin is something like hagiography, but is Auchincloss writing the life of a fictional saint? Not in the way we’re used to thinking about sainthood. Frank Prescott’s high ambitions are never really severable from his mistakes, inadequacies, and contradictory impulses. His achievements (beyond those measured in bricks and donors’ gifts) are hard to gauge; the toll of his failures is more apparent. But if sanctity is achievable by special tenacity without special grace, then perhaps it’s “St Frank Prescott” after all. “With you and me faith will always be a matter of exercise,” Prescott says to a friend. “But the faith that you work for is just as fine as the faith that is conferred.”

I once heard a story told by a Catholic high school teacher who periodically asked priests to come and address his class. Most of these were of the “Fr. Cool” variety. They used slang, threw out pop-culture references, and generally tried to make the Church relevant to the interests and fashions of the young; one even brought a skateboard. The students seemed to enjoy these visits. But one day the teacher invited a different sort of priest. He made no attempt to meet the kids “where they were.” Instead, his message was: “Christ is real. Sin is real, and holiness is real. Every single one of you is called to be a saint. Take that calling seriously!”

He talked this way for a half hour. The room was silent and no one asked questions. Then the bell rang and they all went home for the weekend. In the classroom next week the teacher apologized for inviting the priest. He’d never meant to make these visits such heavy occasions, he explained. Then a student raised his hand and said that, in fact, this was the only guest priest who had made an impression on him. He’d spent all weekend thinking about what the priest had said. Could they invite him back again? It turned out the whole classroom felt the same way. “These kids didn’t really care about the sort of ‘relevance’ I assumed was important to them,” the teacher said. “They just needed to know they had a vocation as Christians.”

Perhaps that’s something to differentiate human beings from other animals: the need for a calling. Have you noticed that almost no one – especially no one with any pretensions to being educated or enlightened – is satisfied with a simple “job” anymore? It’s not enough to have a job, a career, or even a profession; everyone wants a vocation. Even in business and industry, where metaphysical considerations used to nap from 9 to 5, people want a sense of calling, the conviction that the work they’re doing serves a higher purpose, a transcendent goal. The preacher-teachers of today are really no different from others in this respect.

The Christian faith used to provide that calling for most of us in the West. Some answered it in a special way through the priesthood or the consecrated life, but everyone was summoned, and everything was subsumed into that calling: our inward life, our family life, our community life, our life as citizens, and our work: even the most menial job, when undertaken for Christ’s sake, became a means of working out your eternal salvation.

The old faith is waning still and there’s an unmistakable note of desperation in the public square. As someone devoted (however imperfectly) to that older calling, I can’t help but shudder at the fashionable and distorted alternatives that so many of my colleagues and neighbors will accept in its place, and the fervor with which they pursue them. But I recognize the longing and the insufficiency in themselves that they feel.

The Order of Things

In the February 2021 issue of The New Criterion (the only print magazine I subscribe to), Anthony Daniels reviews a book by Judith Flanders titled A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order. This is not, I gather, a book about how it was decided that A should come before B and both before C, etc., but about how we got into the habit of arranging things in alphabetical order.

Among the last notable objectors to the practice was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who apparently felt this was as good a place as any to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” He preferred libraries, for example, arranged on the medieval pattern, descending from the Holy Scriptures down through the Church Fathers and then the pagan philosophers before passing on to more vulgar literature, like the works of Shakespeare. Daniels explains:

“The hierarchical way of arranging books pointed to a stable worldview; the method symbolized the great chain of being which gave order and meaning to the universe. Alphabetical order, by contrast, was arbitrary, symbolizing the one-damn-thing-after-another view of life. In English, ants come before bees, but in French, ants come after bees; which, then, was higher or lower in the great chain of being?”

Daniels is teasing, but I hadn’t thought of it like that before. Does this explain why none of the books in my house are arranged in alphabetical order? Am I subconsciously acting out a deep-seated commitment to the hierarchical vision of the universe? I doubt it. I’m probably just lazy and prefer my books arranged (if you can call it that) by subject matter, genre, or form.

Later in his review Daniels takes Flanders to task for making use of the dating designations BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) rather than the traditional BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini). Daniels bemoans this particular innovation as “odious, weasely, and absurd – but now very widespread…, surely a manifestation of modern ideological mania,” and I feel the same way about it.

But I also wonder if Daniels isn’t being inconsistent in taking issue here while earlier making it clear that he personally has no objection to ants coming before bees in English but not in French. After all, the BC/AD reckoning, invented in the sixth century by the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus (“Humble Dennis”), is rooted in the notion of the hierarchical universe, with Christ the axis round which the years (and hence the whole created order) revolve.

All of this is enough, perhaps, to make a well-intentioned Christian ask himself (and I put it to you with a wink): Is it heresy to arrange one’s books in alphabetical order? I think not. We have it on the Savior’s own authority that He has no objection to arrangements of this sort and is equally present at both ends of the alphabet. Did He not say, I am the Alpha and the Omega?

Two Virgils

When I was a teenager our town’s library was located at the west end of Lincoln Park, near the high school. It had a nice collection of records and I used to spend afternoons there listening to music through bulky headphone and thumbing through interesting-looking books. One book in particular I remember: a folio facsimile edition of Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, bound in cream-colored imitation leather. I wasn’t entirely clear who Virgil was and had no idea how to pronounce the title of the book. On the flyleaf there was a portrait of John Dryden in a curled wig.

The book was hard going for me at the time, thanks to its seventeenth-century poetic diction, irregular spelling, odd use of capitals and italics, and its endless references to Greek gods and heroes. I read it slowly and I’m sure I never finished it, but the story caught me. Some years later I read (and loved) Robert Fitzgerald’s widely respected translation of the Aeneid and in my Latin class attempted, and was quickly defeated by, a long passage from the original.

Remembering the fascination of that old library book, I recently picked up a copy of Dryden’s Virgil in the Penguin paperback edition and read it end to end. I’m sure there are fine reasons one may prefer more modern translations (they’re sometimes more accurate, they don’t force the unrhymed dactylic hexameter of the Latin into rhymed English lines, etc.); I don’t care. Dryden’s Virgil is wonderfully alive in a way that even Fitzgerald’s rendition simply is not.

Consider, for example the following passage from Book II when Aeneas describes Priam at the fall of Troy. Dryden has:

Perhaps you may of Priam’s Fate enquire.
He, when he saw his Regal Town on fire,
His ruin’d Palace, and his ent’ring Foes,
On ev’ry side inevitable woes;
In Arms, disus’d, invests his Limbs decay’d
Like them, with Age; a late and useless aid.
His feeble shoulders scarce the weight sustain:
Loaded, not armed, he creeps along, with pain;
Despairing of Success; ambitious to be slain!

Note the cadence of the lines, how the clauses snap together neatly but in unexpected ways, and the triple rhyme at the end that draws out the pathos of the pitiful old king. The chopped phrasing of the penultimate line mimics overloaded Priam’s shuffling gait, helping us to see him better. By contrast, here’s Fitzgerald:

What was the fate of Priam, you may ask.
Seeing his city captive, seeing his own
Royal portals rent apart, his enemies
In the inner rooms, the old man uselessly
Put on his shoulders, shaking with old age,
Amor unused for years, belted a sword on,
And made for the massed enemy to die.

The lines are about the same length as Dryden’s, in terms of syllables and accents, and the meaning is clear enough, but there is no music in them. Compared to Dryden’s translation, it’s flat, dead prose masquerading as poetry, and the emotion of the scene is muted as a result. Dryden’s rhyme helps to keep things moving, perhaps, but it’s almost beside the point (Milton achieves similar effects without rhyme). Does Virgil’s original include a phrase corresponding to Dryden’s memorable “ambitious to be slain”? I don’t know, but it hardly matters. The idea is there in the description and Dryden’s instincts serve him, and his readers, well. Dryden, in fact, has a passion for spring-loaded, aphoristic descriptions that stick in the mind. When Aeneas describes the murdered Priam, for example, Dryden gives us:

On the bleak Shoar now lies th’ abandon’d King,
A headless Carcass, and a nameless thing.

Fitzgerald renders the lines:

On the distant shore
The vast trunk headless lies without a name.

It’s straightforward enough, but the description of feeble old Priam’s body as “vast” feels odd; and “vast trunk headless lies” is awkward; and, to my ears at least, Fitzgerald’s lines have a faint but distracting echo of the opening lines from Shelley’s Ozymandias. Dryden’s version communicates palpable horror, emphasized by the repetition of the viperish “s” sound in the second line.

Let’s look at another passage. In this one, from Book IV, Dido is plunged deep in her love madness. She suspects Aeneas of making secret plans to depart Carthage for his fated Italy. Let’s give Fitzgerald the first reading:

Furious, at her wit’s end,
She traversed the whole city, all aflame
With rage, like a Bacchante driven wild
By emblems shaken, when the mountain revels
Of the odd year possess her, when the cry
Of Bacchus rises…

And here is Dryden’s version (for his “houl” read “howl”):

Frantick with Fear, impatient of the Wound,
And impotent of Mind, she roves the City round.
Less wild the
Bacchanalian Dames appear,
When from afar, their nightly God they hear,
And houl about the Hills, and shake the wreathy Spear.

There seems to be some disagreement on the facts: do the Maenad revels occur “nightly,” per Dryden, or every other year, as Fitzgerald states? It simply doesn’t matter for non-academic readers. What matters is that Fitzgerald’s lines seem to dawdle along distractedly while Dryden’s build force: “Frantick with fear,” “impatient of the wound” (winning phrase), and “impotent of mind” – each of them turns the screw on Dido to rhetorically intensify our appreciation of her jealous passion. Dryden’s “rove the city round” suggests a raving directionlessness, while Fitzgerald’s “traversed the whole city” sounds more like a cross-town errand or a charity walk-a-thon. And again Dryden deploys a lingering triple rhyme at the end, and the wonderful image of the Bacchante’s thyrsus as a “wreathy spear.”

It may be true, as I said, that Fitzgerald takes the prize for accuracy and contemporary “readability” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) but the performance feels like the dissection of a cadaver. Dryden’s translation is a living English poem. There’s no comparing the relative investment of genius in each.

What’s the point of poetry that doesn’t make you want to commit passages to memory? Nothing in Fitzgerald’s Virgil offers itself to us that way. But again and again in Dryden, I found myself marking pages, resolving to make this or that passage a permanent part of my inward life. On the chaos of battle, for example, there’s: “Who fights finds Death, and Death finds him who flies.” On the open road that’s always close at hand to lead us to our mortal end: “The Gates of Hell are open Night and Day; / Smooth the Descent and easie is the Way.” And on the indomitable will to overcome all obstacles: “But thou, secure of Soul, unbent with Woes, / The more thy Fortune frowns, the more oppose.”

Now to hunt down a copy of Pope’s Iliad.

Losing His Religion

~ The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic ~

It’s easy enough these days to pick out those consumed with puritanical fanaticism: “The Puritan’s idea of hell is a place where everyone has to mind his own business.” So Harold Frederic writes in The Damnation of Theron Ware. What’s harder – and it’s as difficult in our day as it was in Frederic’s – is to pick out the mentally flabby, the spiritually corrupt. Frederic’s 1896 novel tracks the progress downward – or upward, depending on your point of view (the British edition’s title was Illumination) – of a young Methodist minister whose faith crumbles on first contact with intellectualism, Bohemianism, Darwinism, and the more tawdry aspects of organized religious life.

Theron Ware and his wife are assigned to a backwater Methodist congregation in upstate New York, though they had hoped for something more glamorous. The rigorist trustees of their new congregation (two of whom own mortgages on the church property) don’t appreciate his reputed oratorical gifts or the flowers young Mrs. Ware puts in her Sunday bonnets. They certainly don’t want any subtlety or soft-mindedness from their new minister. As the trustee Brother Pierce puts it to Theron:

“They tell me there’s some parts where hell’s treated as played-out – where our ministers don’t like to talk much about it because people don’t want to hear about it. Such preachers ought to be put out. They ain’t Methodists at all. What we want here, sir, is straight-out, flat-footed hell – the burnin’ lake o’ fire and brimstone. Pour it into ‘em, hot and strong. We can’t have too much of it. Work in them awful deathbeds of Voltaire an’ Tom Paine, with the Devil right there in the room, reachin’ for ‘em, an’ they yellin’ for fright – that’s what fills the anxious seat an’ brings in souls hand over fist!”

Theron unexpectedly makes friends with Fr. Forbes, an alarmingly liberal but dedicated priest serving the town’s growing Irish Catholic population, and through him is swept off his feet by other new acquaintances more worldly than he’s used to: Dr. Ledsmar, the town atheist who loans Theron books by Renan and Feuerbach; and Celia Madden, an over-educated young woman who introduces him to art and music and a moral laxity Theron finds intoxicating.

Attempting to enter the ranks of scholars in his own right, Theron sets out to write an investigation into the ancient Chaldaeans (from whom patriarchal Abraham sprang) but his former heroes of the Old Testament now limp pitifully across the page:

“Heretofore a poetic light had shone about them, where indeed they had not glowed in a light of sanctification. Now, by some chance, this light was gone, and he saw them instead as untutored and unwashed barbarians, filled with animal lusts and ferocities, struggling by violence and foul chicanery to secure a foothold in a country which did not belong to them – all rude tramps and robbers of the uncivilized plain.”

At the same time Theron’s church finds itself in a dire financial predicament and he’s forced to bring in the Soulsbys, a husband and wife team of itinerant “debt raiser” revivalist preachers, whose theatrical performances fill the pews (and the coffers) but whose savvy worldliness disillusions him further. Theron plays sick at the parsonage while they wind up the congregation next door. Sister Soulsby (who ought by rights to be a celebrity character of American fiction) tries to cheer him up and help him see the bigger picture:

“Did you ever see a play? – in a theater, I mean. I supposed not. But you’ll understand when I say that the performance looks one way from where the audience sits, and quite a different way when you are behind the scenes. There you see that the trees and houses are cloth, and the moon is tissue paper, and the flying fairy is a middle-aged woman strung up on a rope. That don’t prove that the play, out in front, isn’t beautiful and affecting, and all that. It only shows that everything in this world is produced by machinery – by organization. The trouble is that you’ve been let in on the stage, behind the scenes, so to speak, and you’re so green – if you’ll pardon me – that you want to sit down and cry because the trees are cloth, and the moon is a lantern.

Under such encouragement, Theron somehow revives, but only outwardly, and temporarily. His preaching, everyone says, was never better; but he doesn’t believe a word of it. Half-initiated into a free-thinking fraternity the bounds of which he only vaguely intuits, he begins to feel like a new Adam:

“Evidently there was an intellectual world, a world of culture and grace, of lofty thoughts and the inspiring communion of real knowledge, where creeds were not of importance, and where men asked one another, not ‘Is your soul saved?’ but ‘Is your mind well furnished?’ Theron had the sensation of having been invited to become a citizen of this world. The thought so dazzled him that his impulses were dragging him forward to take the new oath of allegiance before he had had time to reflect upon what it was he was abandoning.”

Is The Damnation of Theron Ware, as some say, an overlooked masterpiece of American literature? It may be. I stumbled on it serendipitously at the bookshop and I have to admit I’d never heard of it – or its author – before. But I consider it a near-perfect performance, an outrageous satire, and great fun to read. It’s a novel to launch a thousand college term papers, if the themes it trades in still have any purchase in contemporary American society, which is questionable.

Part of its success, I think, lies in the ambiguity of the author’s own judgments on his characters and the equivocal nature of the story’s conclusion. It’s not quite – though partly – a burlesque of Evangelicalism; not quite – though partly – a sendup of American nativism; not quite – though partly – an indictment of what passes for enlightenment in secular culture. In The Damnation of Theron Ware Harold Frederic is an equal-opportunity tipper of sacred cows.

Anticipating what arguably became the motive philosophy of mainline Protestantism and its secular inheritors in the United States, Theron near the end of the book says to Fr. Forbes: “It seems to me that as things are going, it doesn’t look much as if the America of the future will trouble itself about any kind of a church. The march of science must very soon produce a universal scepticism. It is the nature of human progress. What all intelligent men recognize today, the masses must surely come to see in time.”

Fr. Forbes responds with a laugh: “My dear Mr. Ware, of all our fictions there is none so utterly baseless and empty as this idea of human progress.”

“No More Monkeyshines”

~ Herbert Knapp (1931-2021) ~

Last November I received a small package from Herbert Knapp of Mount Vernon, New York. It contained a friendly letter and a book of poems he had written. Mr. Knapp had come across my blog by way of Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence. “A gift book is almost always a presumption,” wrote Mr. Knapp, “but where would we be without presumption?”

I did not consider it a presumption at all. I was delighted. As I read through Mr. Knapp’s slim volume I felt a kinship with him. We had read and loved so many of the same books. The authors and works he referenced might have come from my own library: Chaucer and Melville and Dickens and Hopkins and Dickinson, Thomas Traherne and the King James Bible, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico.

I found Mr. Knapp’s blog online. I learned he was an octogenarian who had worked alongside his wife Mary as an English teacher for the Panama Canal Company. Together they had written and published One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children and later Red, White and Blue Paradise: The American Canal Zone in Panama. Back in the United States they had settled in Massachusetts and then in New York. In retirement Mr. Knapp devoted himself to writing poems (read this one) and painting.

In the introduction to Reading and Rhyming, the book he sent me, Mr. Knapp described how he came to love books:

“Some drink. Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade ‘with reservations,’ Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation, just as I was on my way outside after breakfast, she grabbed me, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch, plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said, ‘Now read! No more monkeyshines!’ I was to stay there ‘til noon every day, except to go to the bathroom.”

Young Herbert whined and complained at first, but then he began to read, and read, and read. He never entirely left that front porch, it seems.

I wrote back to Mr. Knapp to thank him for his letter and the book he had sent me. Three months passed.

This past Friday, just as the snow began to fall at my house, the postman delivered me another letter from Mount Vernon, New York. Hand-written on simple stationery, this one was from Mary Knapp. In it she told me that Herbert, her husband of 66 years, had died on the 13th of January after contracting the COVID-19 virus. He read my letter, she said, from his hospital bed.

In the epilogue to Reading and Rhyming is a short poem Mr. Knapp wrote titled “A Reader’s Prayer.” He begins by remembering how, when younger, he planned to “resurrect” – by reading – “every character who’d ever been / buried by an author in a book,” but of course there is no end of books, and so he had come to accept (as every reader must) the countless numbers of them that he would finally leave unopened. He concludes:

So now I pray that when I die,
that God, who has more time than I,
will read my life as if it were a book,
and I, enlivened by His look,
will read again inside His head
as if I were at home in my own bed.

I had hoped to exchange more letters with Mr. Knapp, but it wasn’t to be. There’s more I would like to have said, and to have asked. But I’m grateful for this little chapter in which our stories briefly overlapped. It’s easy for me to forget sometimes – as an introvert and a man so perfectly content in his family life – that we are mysteriously sustained by bonds with others unknown to us. But I believe art and literature, at their best, speak to that secret fraternity of souls.

Wish Fulfillment

Last Friday we got the snow I’d been longing for. We weren’t forced to endure any frightening Midwestern temperatures but over the course of three days we had as many rounds of snow, about eight inches in total. Interspersed with these we had ice storms, which are less fun. At the end of it all the car doors were sealed shut by an inch of ice, and a number of the bigger, older trees in the neighborhood came down. Under its dome of glass the bulging mound of snow in our front yard was transformed to glazed marshmallow lava. The thaw began in sunshine Monday morning with cracks and explosions and cascades of crystal shards falling down from the eaves and the still-standing trees and the overhead power lines.

I am satisfied. Now, when spring comes, I’ll be ready.