No Lasting City

~ Bad Land by Jonathan Raban ~

Every few years we crossed the Great Plains, back and forth. It took three days to drive from the West Coast to Iowa, where family reunions were held on a great-aunt-and-uncle’s farm. After descending the Rockies, the high plains were a long disappointment: the barren wastes of eastern Wyoming, the abstract badlands of South Dakota, the impossibly flat, cornfield monotony of Nebraska. The only reliable point of interest was the sky. Outside the car window, cumulus clouds piled up into imaginary Himalayas. After dark we watched distant lightning storms of Miltonic grandeur and fury.

Reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land made me want to pack up the car and revisit what used to be called the “Great American Desert.” Raban is a Brit transplanted to the Pacific Northwest (turns out we lived a short walk from one another circa 1997). In Bad Land, he says, he was searching for an older immigrant story to make – vicariously – his own. He tracks the history of homesteaders from Back East and Europe who came to eastern Montana in the early 1900s to claim their 160 acres and try their hand at dry-prairie farming. The railroads had clamored for settlers to support their investments; crackpot scientists guaranteed that modern farming techniques could transform the arid zone into a second Ohio; Teddy Roosevelt made it all happen with a signature.

The old cattle ranchers shook their heads when the starry-eyed settlers came but for a while things went roughly to plan. Then the rains failed, the locusts arrived, bank loans came due, and by the 1920s and ‘30s most of the embittered ex-homesteaders had moved on, westward.

In good but unostentatious prose, Raban traces the histories of several homesteader families, the Wollastons, Camerons, Zehms, and Worsells. Researching his book, he drives back and forth, a thousand miles each way, between Seattle and once-booming towns like Ismay, Baker, and Mildred that today have no more than a couple dozen residents apiece. He four-wheels over the stony ribs and gumbo soil of the landscape to search out faded wagon paths and discover the sites of vanished houses and barns. With his fancy SUV and English accent, he must have cut an odd figure for the folks he interviewed at local diners. He writes a convincing “middle American” dialect but gives himself away now and then – for example, when he uses “on the up and up” to mean increasing in value, though most Americans would insist it means trustworthy or legal.

Raban brings a combination of fellow-feeling and objectivity to his work that makes Bad Land good reading. But there are limits, and the last couple chapters are marred when he drops the sympathetic reporter act and begins offering personal takes on politics and religion. It’s as if he feared we might think he approved of the Branch Davidians, the folks at Ruby Ridge, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, or other unsavory elements of 1990s fly-over country. “Don’t worry,” you can almost hear him say, “I’m a liberal urbanite too; you’re not ethically compromised by enjoying my book.”

That said, Bad Land is, on balance, a fine meditation on the quasi-nomadic nature of American life. The story of the Montana homesteaders is in miniature the story of America. It echoes the history of families like my own: a first toe-hold in the eastern colonies followed by a slow progress inland, every second generation pitching its tent farther west until, ten or twelve generations on, all the children are scattered to the wind. Whether found in the countryside or the city, we are, perhaps, a contradictory species: conservative but anxious to throw off constraints; self-sufficient but lonesome for a community of likeminded others; devoted to a Platonic ideal of “home” but rootless, wanderers.

We just knew it was talking about us (wasn’t it?) when we read in the family Bible, or heard from the pulpit, that we are but pilgrims and sojourners in this life, “for here we have no lasting city.”

The Shape of Winter

We begin to see the shape of winter. Half the trees in the neighborhood dropped their leaves last week. They carpet the sidewalks. They’re raked and piled up in waist-high drifts along the street. Without their cheery camouflage, the trees are transformed again to ancient tentacled monsters. The dog steps by them warily, as if they might snatch her up in their steely arms at the least provocation. Thanksgiving has come and gone but there’s still a hint of Halloween in the air: crows picking at the corpse of a squirrel flattened at the intersection, dogwoods wet and red as if they had been dipped in blood. The life-sized plastic skeleton that decorated our front porch in October is seated now on a bench in an ivy-thick corner of the backyard, smiling.

Ideas, Gratis

While driving in the car the other day, my son and I came up with the two ideas below, which I present to would-be entrepreneurs free of charge. You’re welcome.

Blarney!

The malaise is palpable everywhere you look online. Take a deep breath and say it out loud with me: It’s time for a new social media platform.

That’s where Blarney! comes in. Now you can document your daily life and opine on events of world-historical importance in a creative new way: in the form of a limerick!

Blarney!’s AI and machine-learning technology actively scans your text as you write to ensure you get the rhyme scheme correct and hit the proper number of syllables per line. No free verse allowed!

Sign up for Blarney! and join the social media renaissance today.

Blind Rage

Let’s face it: the blind are easy targets for predators. Walking downtown with dark glasses and a red-tipped cane, you might as well be holding a sign that reads, “Attention, muggers and pickpockets!”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to qualify for a concealed-carry handgun license when you’re legally blind. So, how can you defend yourself? The answer is Blind Rage™!

Leveraging the Cold War principle of Mutually-Assured-Destruction to serve today’s visually impaired community, Blind Rage™ explosive vests will make any would-be mugger think twice before messing with you.

Get your Blind Rage™ on today.

Legal notice: The use of Blind Rage™ explosive vests may result in collateral damage for which you (or your estate) may be held liable. Blind Rage™ explosive vests will not act as a deterrent against, and may encourage, suicidal attackers.

Black Magic

~ The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori ~

You can place Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir on the shelf of exceptional twentieth-century autobiographies between Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows.

With humor and melancholy, von Rezzori describes life in the caesura between the wars and the shadow of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. His family of decayed gentlefolk lived in Czernowitz, ex-capitol of the ex-duchy of Bukovina, beyond Transylvania, farthest flung of the old Habsburg dominions. It was a city of ethnic Romanians, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Hutsuls, Gypsies, and a few leftover Austrian functionaries – a cross-roads of the continent, and yet a Nowhere. After much trading of hands before and after WWII, Czernowitz today is the Chernivtsi of western Ukraine.

Each chapter of The Snows of Yesteryear is focused on a different member of von Rezzori’s family: his bright and dauntless sister, who died in her twenties; his controlling, hypochondriac mother; his cheery but distant, hunting-mad father; his governess “Bunchy,” who in her youth had been a companion of Mark Twain.

The opening chapter is about von Rezzori’s childhood nurse Cassandra, an illiterate “barbarian” from a village in the Carpathians. Dark, earthy, and passionate, Cassandra was a human encyclopedia of folk tales and superstitions, who spoke a mish-mash dialect no one but her young charge could understand. Some of the stories von Rezzori tells about her are unforgettable and I won’t spoil them for you. I’ll only share his take on her fear of books, which she considered demonic:

That certain things had been recorded between the covers of these books which could be grasped mentally and transformed into speech and knowledge by initiates in the shamanic craft of coding and decoding those runic symbols – this could be understood only as a supernatural phenomenon. It irritated her to see that we had lost the sense of its terrifying uncanniness and that reading was an everyday custom, publicly performed… With the instinctive certainty of the creature being, she felt that such casual handling of the irrational was bound in turn to generate irrationality.

She realized that for those who had acquired it, the ability to read conferred power over those for whom the written or printed word remained a sealed mystery. But she also knew that this was a power pertaining to black magic – that it turns against its own practitioners and transforms them into slaves of the abstract. She saw in it a truly devilish power, since its manipulators, who were also its most immediate victims, were not even aware of its nefarious effects.

There may be more to this than I care to admit, but who can deny the dangers of reading? Some of them are mortal. As I type, sitting here at my desk, I am at risk. There’s no more open space on the shelves and when I finish a new book now, I set it atop one of the leaning stacks, waist high, that line the walls of my home office. If nothing worse happens to me from reading, sooner or later I’ll find myself trapped in the room or buried under an avalanche of well-thumbed paperbacks.

Eat Your Pudding

~ The Princess Casamassima by Henry James ~

I was going to begin by saying that if anything’s missing in Henry James’s 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima, it’s an American. James is perhaps at his best when his protagonist is a specimen of his native country. I was going to begin this way but then remembered that the princess of the title is, or at least began as, an American, though you wouldn’t know it unless you’d read James’s earlier novel Roderick Hudson or his own introduction to the present title. Set almost entirely in London, The Princess Casamassima has to do with underground revolutionary movements and political violence, an unusual theme for James. If the book is not so fun or recommendable as The Bostonians, it is as careful a work of art and in a similar way reminds us – if we need reminding – that there really is nothing new under the sun.

The Princess Casamassima is the tale of a man moving almost regretfully up the social ladder and a woman moving willfully down it, and of the fateful spell during which they find themselves together on the same rung. The former, and the real protagonist of the novel, is Hyacinth Robinson, orphaned son of a French murderess, raised by a spinster dressmaker in an impoverished corner of the metropolis. Early on, Hyacinth is apprenticed to a bookbinder and immersed in radical political circles. Encouraged by an artistic temperament and several chance encounters, Hyacinth begins to fall in love with high culture, but not before he’s committed himself irrevocably to an act the prospect of which he comes increasingly to abhor.

One of Hyacinth’s chance encounters is with a quasi-Italian aristocrat known as the Princess Casamassima. Collecting exceptional examples of society’s lower orders, she hits on Hyacinth and invites him to a country manor where, in the midst of incredible wealth and privilege, she tries to convince him that she is also, at heart, a militant socialist awaiting the revolution. Before long she begins to divest herself of the trappings of her position and to involve herself more and more deeply in underground political conspiracy.

The problem of the novel is the relationship of principles to life, what it means to commit oneself to an ideal, and how far one can go for the sake of principle without becoming a monster. Hyacinth moves from a view of life blinkered by principle to a broader panorama of complex considerations and unexpected allurements. His experience is rather like what used to be called education. The princess, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction, from a naturally broader view of life to the righteous satisfactions of an ideology that judges the world according to its own distorting frame. This is what passes for education now.

Ironically for the princess, as for many like her today, the rejection of the messy, broader view for the sake of tidy but abstract principles becomes a mark of enlightenment and hence of rank. It’s a performance with herself placed center stage; the downtrodden she would raise up would be happier without her. As Hyacinth’s friend Paul Muniment says to Lady Aurora, another of the gentry who spends her time doling out charity and warbling sympathy for revolutionary ideas, you’d be a fool to think your sentiments will save you: “It’s no use trying to buy yourself off. You can’t do enough; your sacrifices don’t count. You spoil your fun now,” he says, “and you don’t get it made up to you later. To all you people nothing will ever be made up. Eat your pudding while you have it; you mayn’t have it long.”

St Martin and the Cow

St Martin of Tours was born in the year 316 in the Roman province of Pannonia, quite far from Tours, where he eventually served as bishop. He first came to Gaul as a young soldier. The most famous story about St Martin describes how, on a winter evening, he passed a half-naked man begging alms at the gates of Ambianum (Amiens). Martin cut his cloak in two with his sword, giving half to the man. That night in a dream Martin saw Christ conversing with the angels, wearing the same half cloak he had given the beggar. Jesus said, “Look! Though he is only a catechumen, Martin has covered me with his cloak.” In the morning Martin ran to the church and asked to be baptized immediately.

You won’t find a “Life of St Martin of Tours” without that story. It’s central to his biography in even the most sober-minded presentations. In The Golden Legend, a compilation of saints’ lives by thirteenth-century Dominican friar Jacobus de Voragine, however, you will find much, much more. Some of the most amusing tales about St Martin involve animals. Once, for example, St Martin passed by a sheep that had recently been shorn. “That sheep has obeyed the Gospel mandate,” he said. “She had two tunics and gave one of them to someone who had none.” Another time, he was bathing in a river when a venomous snake came swimming toward him. In Christ’s name he commanded it away. “At the saint’s word the reptile turned around and crossed back to the opposite bank,” de Voragine says, and then adds with a wink: “Martin groaned, ‘Serpents listen to me, and men do not!’”

An even more delightful tale involves a demon-possessed cow:

“There was a cow that was possessed by the devil, and she roared and raged and gored many people. Once this cow rushed in a fury at Martin and his company as they passed on the road. Martin raised his hand and ordered the cow to halt. Halt she did, and he saw a demon sitting astride her. Martin rebuked the demon, saying: ‘Get off her back, O evil one, and stop tormenting this harmless animal.’ The spirit departed immediately. The cow then fell to her knees at the bishop’s feet and then, at his behest, ambled peaceably back to the herd.”

In Christian art there are thousands of depictions of St Martin cutting his cloak in two for the naked beggar. I’ve never seen a single one of the grateful cow bowing to him in thanks.

It would be foolish, of course, to insist on the strict historicity of every tale that comes down to us about the saints or (for that matter) most any other historical figure. After the material fact of a person passes out of tangible experience, accretions may cling to his memory like snow compacted around a stone as it tumbles downhill. And yet in a certain sense all these things really did happen, even the most absurd, the most outlandish. What I mean is explained, perhaps, by this passage from Paul Valéry’s Dialogue of the Tree:

“Don’t you think, O wise man that you are, that our knowledge of anything whatsoever is imperfect if it is confined to the exact notion of that thing, if it is limited to the truth? …I certainly think, for my part, that reality, always infinitely more rich than the true, comprises, on every subject and in every matter, the quantity of misunderstandings, of myths, of childish stories and beliefs which the minds of men necessarily produce.…I have noticed that there is not a thing in the world that has not been adorned with dreams, held for a sign, explained by some miracle, and this all the more as the concern with knowing the origins and first circumstances is more naively potent. And that is doubtless why a philosopher whose name I have forgotten coined the maxim: IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE FABLE.”

Valéry gets a little carried away at the end , but who can deny that reality is always more comprehensive than the merely true? This is not to say that we should neglect, or cease to insist, on facts. Some facts we cannot do without. The Christian faith itself is based on facts which, if they were not facts, would put us pretty high up the list of the most deluded fools ever to have lived. But a life made only of facts would be rather poor. If we were always trimming off bits of fabric here and there in the interest of strict historicity, we might end up with something less than half a cloak – and the world can get chilly.

One thing is certain: if by God’s grace I’m ever granted a personal introduction to St Martin, I’ll definitely ask him about the cow.

Orb Weaver October

It’s been a good year for garden spiders in the Pacific Northwest. With the summer weather stretching into early October, they’ve grown fat and wise. One in particular – I’ll call her Morgan – lives in the backyard, just outside the window of my office. Her abdomen is the size of the first joint of my thumb. When I check on her at night with a flashlight, her shadow against the house is as large as a tennis ball.

Morgan is an example of Araneus diadematus, a variety originally introduced to North America from Europe (we have that in common). She spends her days on the stump of the old smoke tree, where it’s hard to distinguish her from a thick flake of bark. She stretches out one or two legs to feel the runners of her web, like a boy dozing by the pond with a fishing line tied to his toe. When she senses a catch (a honeybee, a fly, a katydid), she rushes out to kill and package her prey, then bundles it back to her hiding spot to drain. If she were less careful, she might have been snatched up by a bird long ago.

After dark Morgan cuts away what’s left of the prior night’s web, then weaves a new one as big as a dart board between the tree stump and the flower bed. The darkness makes her confident and she takes up position in the center of it. Every night I come out to admire her, but our trysts won’t last much longer: last night I saw my breath in the beam of the flashlight. Morgan will die no later than the first frost, but she’s hidden her egg sac in a crevice of the stump.

The Woman Question

~ The Bostonians by Henry James ~

The “woman question” is back. Ten years ago you might have been forgiven if you thought it had all been sorted out when our great-grandfathers gave our great-grandmothers the vote, but everything old is disappointingly new again, though the “question” today is cast in terms that would horrify Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We no longer ask why a woman shouldn’t have the same rights as a man; we ask instead, “What is a woman?” and “Who gets to be one?” According to the most enlightened authorities, the answer to the former question (as Matt Walsh discovered) is “No one really knows,” while the answer to the latter seems to be “Anyone who feels like it.”

The present confusion is disorienting for most of us; a few find it liberating. Whatever your take, it’s a good time to revisit The Bostonians, the 1886 novel that Henry James devoted to the woman question as posed in his own time. This is not the difficult James of the later novels; this is James at his most readable, and in fact The Bostonians proves that, believe it or not, James had a sense of humor. The Bostonians will not cast any special light into the perplexing abyss of transgenderism but James’s characters, and the impulses that drive them, certainly have cognates in our own time. Readers may also be consoled to discover that our generation is not alone in being given to magical thinking and utopian follies.

The “Bostonians” of the title are two young women. The first is spinsterish Olive Chancellor who has consecrated herself a sort of vestal virgin to the cause of women’s emancipation. She is possessed, as James puts it, by “a mania for ‘reform’” and an unquenchable resentment of men. “She was willing to admit,” says James, “that women, too, could be bad; that there were many about the world who were false, immoral, vile. But their errors were as nothing to their sufferings; they had expiated, in advance, an eternity, if need be, of misconduct.” Olive’s trouble is that while she possesses the funds and fervor, she lacks the personal charisma to lead the charge herself. What she needs is a champion to bankroll.

She finds her unlikely Joan of Arc in Verena Tarrant, daughter of a down-at-heels medium turned “mesmeric healer.” Olive discovers Verena at a gathering of like-minded reformers where Verena gives an improvisational speech on women’s emancipation that stuns everyone present. Verena has all the charm Olive herself lacks, a seductive stage presence, and a gift for inspirational public speaking. Olive reflects on Verena’s curious pedigree:

“Such strange lives are led in America, she always knew that; but this was queerer than anything she had dreamed of, and the queerest part was that the girl herself didn’t appear to think it queer. She had been nursed in darkened rooms, and suckled in the midst of manifestations; she had begun to ‘attend lectures,’ as she said, when she was quite an infant, because her mother had no one to leave her with at home. She had sat on the knees of somnambulists, and had been passed from hand to hand by trance-speakers; she was familiar with every kind of ‘cure’, and had grown up among lady-editors of newspapers advocating for new religions, and people who disapproved of the marriage-tie.”

James’s “hero” is Olive’s distant cousin Basil Ransom, a Mississippian and former Confederate officer impoverished by the Civil War, now pursuing a law career in New York City. Over dinner at her home in Boston the two soon discover they are philosophical adversaries. James says of Ransom that “he was by natural disposition a good deal of a stoic” and “in social and political matters, a reactionary…much addicted to judging his age.” When Olive pleads the cause of “the new truths,” Ransom responds that he has never encountered anything but old truths. When she asks if he cares nothing for human progress, he responds, “I don’t know – I never saw any.” Olive is revolted by her cousin’s conservatism but reflects that “unfortunately men didn’t care for the truth, especially the new kinds, in proportion as they were good looking.”

Ransom is also present in Boston for Verena’s inspired speech on women’s emancipation and, though he rejects the message, he too is struck by the messenger. The rest of the novel plays out as a sort of tug-o’-war (a civil war, you might say) between the two cousins for the fate of Verena. For Olive, Verena is an oracle, a female messiah to usher in the new age; for Basil, Verena is simply a woman, remarkable in her own right, made by nature for love, being seduced into a nonsense philosophy she can’t really believe in and which he is sure will never satisfy her.

Olive senses the threat. When Ransom returns to New York she takes charge of Verena’s education, shaping her talents for the great work. The two young women move through a post-Transcendentalist New England of teetotalers, vegetarians, spiritualists, and social reformers who, after the abolition of slavery, have turned to the woman question. If only women had the vote, if only they had the rights of men, if only men would hand over to them the management of society, then all should be well. No more wars, no more want. Sin and suffering would become a thing of the past, a bad dream from which civilization would wake to the dazzling light of a new dawn. That’s the lofty idea.

And yet a shadow passes now and then over Olive. There are energies in the vibrant, open-hearted Verena that will not be corralled, intimations she is not so committed as Olive to their holy calling. “There were so many things that [Verena] hadn’t yet learned to dislike,” Olive reflects. “She had the idea vividly (that was the marvel) of the cruelty of man, of his immemorial injustice; but it remained abstract, platonic; she didn’t detest him in consequence.” One musical evening in the rooms of a wealthy young Harvard student who is in love with Verena, Olive briefly imagines that relations between the sexes need not be “internecine,” but she shakes it off and accuses Verena of lack of zeal: “I’ll tell you what is the matter with you – you don’t dislike men as a class!”

More trouble comes with the reappearance of Ransom. Verena is clearly attracted to him, despite his mockery of all that to which, through Olive’s influence, she has dedicated her life. Walking with her through Central Park, Ransom holds nothing back. “The sort of thing she was able to do, to say,” he explains, “was an article for which there was more and more demand – fluent, pretty, third-rate palaver, conscious or unconscious, perfected humbug; the stupid, gregarious, gullible public, the enlightened democracy of his native land, could swallow unlimited draughts of it.” Anyway, he says, it is not women that need saving, but men. Verena demands to know from what, and Ransom replies:

“From the most damnable feminization! …The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t look out soon, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and most pretentious that has ever been.”

James does not make it easy for us to like Ransom. He’s often right but he indulges now and then in what qualifies today as outright misogyny. And yet, he’s not entirely consistent. He wants to fit Verena to a more traditional woman’s role, but he also conceives a sincere admiration for elderly Miss Birdseye, who is as fervent in the cause of women’s emancipation as she had been for the abolition of slavery. And then he develops an unlikely but respectful friendship of equals with Dr. Prance who, though a woman herself, has little patience with the philosophy of her would-be emancipators.

In the end, James seems to suggest, we can only judge the fevers of our age – and our own participation in them – retrospectively. He offers no final judgment on the “woman question” of his era; the final settlement of his characters might be summarized as, “It’s complicated.” Likewise, twenty years from now, who can say how people will judge the sexual politics of our day. They might conclude we all lost our minds. Some (like Louise Perry) are already wondering aloud if maybe the old sexual morality and gender roles weren’t so bad after all. And who’s to say how the children who are being sterilized and surgically mutilated today will judge the parents, physicians, and government authorities who “affirmed” them with the very best intentions. As James says:

“These hours of backward clearness come to all men and women, once at least, when they read the past in the light of the present, with the reasons of things, like unobserved finger-posts, protruding where they never saw them before. The journey behind them is mapped out and figured, with its false steps, its wrong observations, all its infatuated, deluded geography.”

Getting Lost

~ All the Time in the World by Hugo Williams ~

“The best thing to do is get lost, or into some utterly ridiculous situation which will break down people’s reserves as they rescue you from it.”

That’s the young poet Hugo Williams’ advice on first arriving in a strange city when you have no human contacts and little to no money in your pocket. For the most part, he seems to have followed it. All the Time in the World is a winning travelogue of his 1962 rag-tag trip round the globe. There’s a lot to like in this book but perhaps my favorite part is Williams’ meetings in Calcutta with Satyajit Ray and the Hungryalists. He draws the scene memorably:

“Howrah Bridge, Calcutta, is one of the ganglions of the world. Along its rails are tinkers, magicians, lepers, monkey-pipers, snake-charmers, doctors, astrologers, dying septuagenarians and glassware salesmen. The eight-lane roadway is blocked with bullock carts, taxis, phaetons, herds of goats, stray cows, double-deckers packed like pigeon crates, and coolies, crazy with merchandise, dodging them like matadors… In the sky were a hundred jigging kites, some twined in battle, others severed and tacking downwards. The trees were dotted with the fallen squares of colored paper. And the buildings with monkeys. On window sills, locked out, they sat like gossips, hearing, seeing and speaking evil.”

He had only one item on his to-do list in Calcutta:

“Next morning I half-heartedly looked up Satyajit Ray in the telephone book. If there was one man I wanted to meet in India, it was him, but I knew you didn’t just look up international film directors and ask yourself to tea. I didn’t even expect to find his name there, but there it was and almost before I had woken up properly I was speaking to him and arranging to go to tea with him the same afternoon.”

As it happens, my wife and I just tried to hunt down a copy of Satyajit Ray’s Two Daughters at the last-standing movie rental place in town. It’s a wonderful film we used to rent on VHS semi-regularly in the early years of our marriage. Unfortunately, it’s not streamable, it seems never to have been issued on DVD in the United States, and we no longer have a VHS player.

Anyway, I won’t spoil the surprises of Williams’ time with Ray. After their first meeting, Williams spent an afternoon with the young Bengali poets known collectively as the Hungry Generation, or the Hungryalists. He found them gathered in a stifling, fanless room with a pile of poems on a bed. According to Williams, they had a three-part manifesto:

“1) To disclose the belief that world and existence are justified only as artistic phenomena.

2) To lash out against the values of the bi-legged career-making animals.

3) To abjure all meretricious blandishment for the sake of absolute sincerity.”

“But the face behind the mask of jazzing anarchy was meek and anxious,” says Williams. They were helplessly shy in each other’s company. Someone suggested they bus out to the botanical gardens to see a famous banyan tree covering three acres, and all accepted with relief. It was a long ride and the monsoon broke by the time they had arrived. “A smell of wet jasmine and creeper came temptingly through the high iron gates,” but for no clear reason (it was only three o’clock in the afternoon) officials were turning people away and the gardens were closed.

Old Bill

My grandfather wrote a fifty-page autobiography which he titled I Was Here World, Did You Notice? On Christmas morning in 1985 he gave type-written copies to us kids. Grandpa had been an Iowa farm boy and much of his book is filled with stories from his childhood in the 1920s and ‘30s, stories my brother and I were always asking him to tell us. It’s a family document, but as some of the events it records are now a century gone, it’s also becoming a historical document. In the American Midwest of Grandpa’s boyhood, the typical family farm was 160 acres. The land was still worked by horse teams rather than by tractors. Few rural homes had electricity and almost none had indoor plumbing. Children were born on the front porch.

I recently made a digital copy of Grandpa’s autobiography to more easily share it with extended family and guard against the thing being lost if the two or three known “hard” copies ever got misplaced. In typing it into Word, I read it for probably the fourth or fifth time. As a twelve-year-old I most enjoyed most his tales of boyhood adventures. As an adult I’m impressed (and often, horrified) by how much work was involved in operating a family farm, and what a desperately risky venture it was. If it was a simpler era, its simplicity brought you into more direct contact with the hard facts of life: birth and death, sickness and injury, the power of weather, the relentless, back-breaking toil needed to stave off creditors and winter hunger. Dark threats lurked round the edges of the calendar.

This was especially true during the Great Depression. Farmers who worked their own land did better than many – between kitchen gardens and livestock they could generally feed themselves and their families. Others often became itinerant farm hands. The going rate for a good farm hand was room and board plus $1 a day, but many were happy to forgo the dollar.

One such was Old Bill, who only ever worked for room and board and chewing tobacco. He wasn’t that old, really, probably in his fifties, but Old Bill put my young grandfather in mind of Abraham Lincoln, tall and lanky with dark hair and whiskers. He would just show up on the farm one day, and even if Grandpa’s father didn’t exactly need him (Bill required lots of supervision), he always took him on.

Old Bill was what people used to call “simple.” He had never been to school. He could neither read nor write. Grandpa remembers when this fact came home to him:

“I remember one time while he was helping us with the hay; we were short of pitchforks. Dad asked Bill if Charlie (Bill’s brother-in-law) had any extra forks. Bill’s reply was, ‘Yeah, he has three, and then two more besides.’ He couldn’t count to five!”

Even so, Bill came in handy. Once my grandfather slipped round the neck of a pony that began charging away with him over the fields. Bill heard him calling for help and came running as quick as could be on his long legs and caught the animal. Grandpa felt sure in that moment that Bill had saved his life. Which means, if not for Bill, I might not be here either.

I’ll just quote a couple more paragraphs from my Grandpa’s book to close up the tale of Old Bill:

“Bill didn’t ask for extras. He did so much admire my Dad’s pocket watch. Dad always carried a $1.00 Big Ben watch. Of course the watch was carried in the watch pocket in the bib overalls that every farmer wore. It was fastened with a shoe lace so it wouldn’t fall out and get lost. One Saturday Dad was feeling especially generous so he bought a Big Ben for Bill, complete with shoelace! Bill was like a kid with a new bicycle! It didn’t do him any good, he could never learn to tell time. When the neighbors would ask Bill what time it was, he would proudly pull out his watch and show it to them and say, ‘There she is!’ He faithfully kept it wound but never reset it. It could be off as much as several hours but he didn’t know it.

“I have often wondered what ever became of Old Bill. He was very unpredictable. No one would ever hear from him, he would just ‘pop in’ and ask for a job. You would wake some morning and Bill would be gone, no goodbye or explanation at all. He might be gone for six months or so and one day he would be back. No one ever knew where Bill went on these occasions. One day he left and never returned. In some unknown place rests the body of an ignorant but yet a very kind and gentle man.”