Blue HousePortland, Oregon – November 2018


Turnpikes and Sand Roads

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee ~

The New Jersey Turnpike is not a highway. It’s a sleight of hand, a confidence trick. I drove it for the first time this past summer on a family vacation. In our rented car we entered the Turnpike at the Delaware River near Wilmington and followed it up the length of the state until we passed under the Hudson, by way of the Lincoln Tunnel, into Manhattan.

The swindle of the Turnpike is that it leads you through the middle of New Jersey while denying you any evidence that New Jersey exists. You do not see it: no towns, no countryside. Trees and shrubs hem you in completely. When you want to stop for gas or lunch, you are channeled into service centers immediately alongside the highway. There are, I think, fewer than a dozen exits in more than one hundred miles of road. The point is to move you as efficiently as possible out of the state.

Forbidden any real acquaintance with the place, I drove through the New Jersey of my imagination, humming Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.” Somewhere to the left, in the direction of Philadelphia, one of my ancestors had settled, a yeoman farmer of the colonial period. Somewhere ahead was Princeton, where my brother had attended graduate school twenty years ago. Off to the right, for mile after mile, vast and dim in my reverie, were the Pine Barrens.

The name sounds like a doom, a place of exile. The Pine Barrens are a broad elevated tract of sparsely settled land, poor in soil, thick with woods, drained by slow molasses-colored rivers with strange names like Batsto and Mullica. In John McPhee’s telling it is a place of social isolation, ghost towns swallowed in undergrowth, dead industries, real-estate bubbles, anomalies of flora and geology, mafia murders, moonshiners, cranberry bogs, and mythological creatures like the Jersey Devil.

When McPhee published his book in 1967, a new round of development was planned in the Pine Barrens, including an international air hub and a modern city of a quarter million people. A spur of the Turnpike was proposed that would have cut through the Pine Barrens from approximately Trenton to Atlantic City. Like the grandiose ambitions of planning committees in earlier generations, none of these has materialized, which I find gratifying.

Himself a native of New Jersey, John McPhee found perfect subject matter in the Pine Barrens: a bit of wilderness, with a history and culture all its own, in the middle of the country’s most densely populated state. He does it justice. How much better it is to ride along with McPhee and his companions through the labyrinthine sand roads of the Pine Barrens than to find oneself dozing off, in need of coffee, on the featureless Turnpike of the mind.

A Frilly Senchman

Maxims by Francois de La Rochefoucauld ~

La Rochefoucauld writes in the Maxims that “age makes men both sillier and wiser.” He does not say that progress in one entails progress in the other but it would be convenient to believe so because, as my children will agree, I am sillier now than I used to be. I indulge in bad puns and gratuitous spoonerisms. I make, and enjoy making, “dad jokes.” In my middle age I find that most of the old vices and temptations loosen their grip (La Rochefoucauld: “When the vices give us up we flatter ourselves that we are giving them up”). The exception is this vice of silliness, which perpetually expands its dominion in me. It would be nice to know I’m growing wiser too.

La Rochefoucauld is to the modern aphorism what Montaigne is to the modern essay, a sort of godfather. Neither, of course, invented the forms with which they are associated. Montaigne, however, brought to the world of letters a fresh… Well, I was going to say a fresh “disillusionment,” but that’s not quite right. Whatever it was that Montaigne brought, La Rochefoucauld borrowed it, and likely from Montaigne himself. Some passages in the Maxims read like crib notes from the Essays. For example: “At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others” and “It is easier to know man in general than to understand one man in particular.”

Perhaps the most famous of La Rochefoucauld’s aphorisms states that “neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” This isn’t quite true, of course. One can stare wide-eyed at the sun for a week, but there will be consequences. The Maxims train a fairly unblinking gaze not at death but at the moral squalor and weakness to which we are all susceptible. According to La Rochefoucauld we are gorged on self-regard (“Whatever good we are told about ourselves, we learn nothing knew”). We are base hypocrites (“If we had no faults we should not find so much enjoyment in seeing faults in others”). Most of our virtues are pretended (“Self-love is the greatest flatterer of all”). We are lacking in compassion (“We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others”). We have no spiritual fortitude (“Philosophy always triumphs over past ills and ills to come, but present ills triumph over philosophy”).

You might say that the frilly Senchman really takes it to the maximum. [Sorry.]

But if all of this is too democratically demoralizing, you’ll appreciate the disclaimer La Rochefoucauld once offered, inviting the reader “to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities. After that I guarantee that he will be the first to endorse them and he will believe that they do credit to the human spirit.”

Hiawatha in the 21st Century

Girl Scouts Performing Longfellow Song of Hiawatha 1928

In a series of black-and-white photos taken in the 1920s a group of girls at a New England summer camp act out scenes from The Song of Hiawatha. Old Nokomis is wrapped in a blanket and seated by the fire. Five noble braves in feather headdresses pose in a row with arms crossed. Hiawatha leads Minnehaha by the hand away from her father’s wigwam in the land of the Dacotahs.

Americans of European ancestry have tried for centuries to claim a share of the heritage of those their forebears conquered and displaced. The impulse that inspired Longfellow’s Native American verse epic is perhaps the same that inspires Anglo-American families of colonial vintage to believe in a fabled Cherokee ancestor. Charitably, it arises from a desire to belong here, a longing which can still trouble us four hundred years after our first Puritan grandfathers stepped ashore at Plymouth.

It’s easy to mock this kind of thing, especially when (as recently happened) such claims are publicly hawked for dubious reasons and founded more on a wish-that-it-were-so than on any very compelling evidence. Longfellow’s poem had its hecklers too. It lends itself easily to satire with its sing-song rhythm and somber repetitions. Lewis Carroll memorably joined in the hilarity with “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” which begins:

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
From the second book of Euclid.

It often happens, however, that a conquering people find their imagination invaded by those they have vanquished. The Ptolemaic Greeks adopted the ways of the Egyptians. The Romans imported Greek art and literature wholesale into their spacious culture. The Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain made their own the Arthurian lore of the Celts. The borrowing of culture is always a big part of the making of culture.

Clearly, The Song of Hiawatha is no authentic Native American artifact, though Longfellow borrowed stories and names from the Ojibways of Lake Superior. Neither is it a product of European culture, though he modeled it on epics like the Finnish Kalevala. Instead, the poem lives in a middle place where, in Longfellow’s day, a distinctively American culture was still taking shape. Beyond poetry, its appeal lies in its vigorous synthesis and its acknowledgement of those catholic aspects of human experience and aspiration that lie deeper than culture.

Some today will insist that the secret aim in such acts of cultural borrowing can only be to celebrate the degradation of a conquered people, but this is ridiculous. Those twelve-year-old girls in their feather headdresses at a summer camp in the 1920s were certainly celebrating something, but it was not the humiliation of the Indians.

Below Ambition

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell ~

“He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.”

Gordon Comstock wants no part of the money-grubbing workaday world. As poet and down-at-heels bookshop clerk, he makes his life a rejection of middle-class values, a rebellion against home and family and the aspidistra plant in the window of pre-war British respectability. He daydreams of German bombers overhead.

There was a time in my life (circa ‘96-’97) when I felt the same way, or something near it. There are stories it becomes increasingly embarrassing to tell. Orwell must have known that gutter-lust too. (I always felt a kinship with Orwell since we had both, like Comstock, done time as bookstore clerks, which is no career for the ambitious.)

But “you can get anything in this world if you genuinely don’t want it,” as Comstock discovers (I learned it too). “Going to the devil isn’t so easy as it sounds. Sometimes your salvation hunts you down like the Hound of Heaven.”

A strange choice of words for an atheist, which Orwell claimed to be, though he was a regular church attender. But like his avowed socialism, Orwell’s atheism is sometimes less than convincing (read Simon Ley’s essay on Orwell in The Hall of Uselessness).

As Gordon Comstock discovers, love is the miracle that transforms a dingy and apparently irredeemable world into a piece of God’s body, and a taste of that transformation can change everything. Even the aspidistra may suddenly become the tree of life.

Hoffer’s Golden Rule

~ The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer ~

Was Eric Hoffer a misanthrope? The self-educated longshoreman philosopher of San Francisco might be read that way, but if you watch his 1967 interview with Eric Sevareid you’ll find a man brimming over with joy. It’s possible, after all, to see people for what they lamentably often are and yet to wake each morning free of bitterness.

That said, there are certainly some bitter truths lurking in Hoffer’s The Passionate State of Mind. It reminded me very much of Emil Cioran’s strangely bracing but wildly misanthropic The Trouble With Being Born. A few passages from Hoffer that might easily have come from Cioran’s pen:

“Much of a man’s thinking is propaganda of his appetites.”

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

“The pleasure we derive from doing favors is partly in the feeling it gives us that we are not altogether worthless. It is a pleasant surprise to ourselves.”

“Humility is not renunciation of pride but the substitution of one pride for another.”

“We do not really feel grateful toward those who make our dreams come true; they ruin our dreams.”

I called Hoffer a philosopher, but he was not an academic. For that we can be grateful. He was a philosopher in the classical sense of the term. He wanted to understand what it is to be a human being, to understand what societies are and might (or might never) become. If his assessment of things was often less than cheery, he suggested in an oblique way that honesty and sobriety of mind might show us at least what we ought to avoid in the pursuit of a worthy life.

A few longer passages:

“It is doubtful whether we can reform human beings by eliminating their undesirable traits. In most cases elimination comes to nothing more than substitution: we substitute a close relative for the bad trait we have eliminated, and the dynasty continues. Envy takes the place of greed, self-righteousness that of selfishness, intellectual dishonesty that of plain dishonesty. And there is always a chance that the new bad trait will be more vigorous than the one it supplants.”

“To have a grievance is to have a purpose in life. A grievance can almost serve as a substitute for hope: and it not infrequently happens that those who hunger for hope give their allegiance to him who offers them a grievance.”

“The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are tolerant toward others when we are tolerant toward ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves. It is not love of self but hatred of self which is at the root of the troubles that afflict our world.”

The Latter-Day Voyageur

~ The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee ~

Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods that the making of birch bark canoes “will ere long, perhaps, be ranked among the lost arts.” And yet we have in John McPhee’s 1975 book, as promised, the tale of its unlikely survival in the gifted hands of young Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, New Hampshire.

McPhee’s own gift, apart from a command of sinewy American English prose, is his ability to find the interest in anything. Here McPhee discovers it in the science of selecting trees for canoes, the carving of thwarts and ribs and gunwales, the stitching of bark with split roots — and in the history of the North American fur trade and the lives of French-Canadian voyageurs and Penobscot loggers.

The foremost point of interest, however, is Vaillancourt himself and the 150-mile trip through northern Maine which McPhee and three others make in his company aboard two of his canoes. It is a rough traverse, in more ways than one, retracing the path of Thoreau. But our narrator’s eyes are keen and there’s plenty of McPhee-brand humor to charm the way. The men toil against headwinds and over portages (“Henri is using the word ‘bummer’ at about double the rate he was using it an hour or two ago”). They squint hungrily for sign of that elusive north woods ruminant which they expect to surprise around every corner, in the buzzing “stillness of a moose intending to appear.”

I wonder how Henri Vaillancourt judged The Survival of the Bark Canoe. It would be in character if he resented it. It’s true that McPhee’s Vaillancourt can be arrogant, antisocial, a bit of an oddball. But he’s also an artist, a sort of genius. Forty years on (my research confirms) Vaillancourt still lives in Greenville and still makes bark canoes, but his website contains no reference that I could find to McPhee’s book, though he must owe it some portion of his fame and success.

Like Vaillancourt’s canoes, McPhee’s books offer the satisfaction of something handmade. For the lithe little vessel of this volume, McPhee has selected his materials skillfully, and he knits them together with care. He reminds us, without actually saying so, that the writing of a book, no less than the making of a bark canoe, may be “an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.”