Douglas Harper is a historian, author, journalist and lecturer based in Lancaster, Pa. He is the author of "If Thee Must Fight:" A Civil War History of Chester County, Pa." (Chester County Historical Society, 1990); "An Index of Civil War Soldiers and Sailors from Chester County, Pa." (Chester County Historical Society, 1995); "The Whitman Incident: Revolutionary Revisions to an Ephrata Tale" (Lancaster County Historical Society Journal, 1995); "West Chester to 1865: That Elegant & Notorious Place" (Chester County Historical Society, 1999).
Harper is a graduate of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., with a degree in history and English. He has been featured in a BBC production on the Welsh settlements in America, and has been interviewed as a source for historical articles by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post and many magazines. He was arguably the second-most-famous assistant city editor ever to work at the West Chester, Pa., "Daily Local News." The other was Dave Barry. The newspaper was affectionately known by its readers as the "Daily Lack of News."]
Carl Sandburg writes that Abe Lincoln, in his law office in Springfield, kept an envelope marked, "If you can't find it anywhere else, look here." Everyone should have such an envelope. This is mine.
This began as a site where I could share some books and writers I've loved. But since I put together the etymology dictionary, it's becoming a site for people who are curious about what sort of no-life obsessive-compulsive would do something like that. And I've also opened it up to include my stands in ongoing discussions and brawls about topics such as religion, linguistics, and the American Civil War. That's three topics, by the way; not one.
In 1960, when I was born, my parents lived in a place in Pennsylvania called Exton, a village given that name, for all anyone can remember, because it was just a crossoads "X" on the map. For those of you who know the area, their house sat across the Swedesford Road from what is now the sprawling mothership of Exton Mall, but was, in 1960, a bog.
Later we lived between Exton and West Chester, in a small development in the "suburbs" though that word conjures up a wrong image, one of Levittowns and asphalt avenues of identical families in pre-fab houses cut from one of three cookie-cutter designs. This was the older style of suburbs. They drilled two roads down into the old farm, staked off 20 or so quarter-acre lots, then the individual builders or families built on them according to their needs and abilities. Simple split-level ranchers, some of them little more than mobile homes, sat alongside upper-middle-class salt boxes. All these homes grew and changed over time, some getting seedier, some more posh. Older couples lived there along with the young families.
Some lots sat undeveloped -- chunks of wooded ridge or field too swampy or steep to build on. We kids roamed the woods and fields, discovering box turtles, gourds, and ruins of old spring houses and root cellars. We spent hours mucking around in old farm ponds for fat frogs and tadpoles.
In the few years we lived there, the balance of development and nature changed. The construction crews came and backfilled the ponds, buried the creek in a culvert, clear-cut the woods, and hacked a highway bypass through the cornfield. They built a road to connect the two streets of our little development, then built another one below that, and lined both with houses. All this seemed like more fun to us kids: a four-year orgy of bulldozers and raw earth, and we couldn't see what we were losing till it was gone.
Most of the years leading up to puberty I spent out in the woods with the other neighborhood kids, getting stung by hornets, building tree forts, hiding from the local bully (now an evangelist in Virginia, I'm told). I spent summers snorkeling coral reefs in the Atlantic at my grandparents' house in Boca Raton, and winters sledding down the rough ridge back of the old farm.
When we moved out, I was 11. We landed on The Main Line: that old, wealthy and sophisticated Philadelphia suburb. I entered sixth grade woefully behind all my peers in social development. I went from a place where the boys still ran away from the girls on the schoolyard to one where established "couples" had been "dating" for a year or more. One or two of each gender had even experimented with sex. I made no friends, despite the teacher assigning kids to befriend me. I really never tried to. In shyness and anxiety, I retreated into books.
In part, I sought a public identity, in that competitive environment, as a master of arcane knowledge. I memorized all the flags of the world, and was probably the only 6th grader in America to answer an assignment to write a famous person's biography with a paper on Boris III, King of Bulgaria during the Second World War. It made me an object of curiosity to the other kids, but only mildly interesting and occasionally useful. The next year, when my elementary school and four others dumped into a junior high school, and the hormones of puberty raged, I lapsed into a welcomed obscurity. Too shy for sports or girls, I made myself as invisible as a tall guy could be.
I got along reasonably well with most kids, but had no friends after school. I came home and read. Just so you don't get the wrong idea, I eventually did make friends, and good ones. I was a varsity swimming captain and got a lush and lovely half-Armenian girlfriend, played in bands, etc. But it took a couple of years, and even after I started adjusting I never stopped reading for pleasure.
The books I remember from this time were historical adventures like "The Man in the Iron Mask" and "Ivanhoe." And, of course, "The Lord of the Rings." The Main Line was dotted with hospital thrift shops, and in each one was a wall of shelves where you could pick out, for a quarter or 50 cents each, hardcover novels that had been printed in the late 1800s for Victorian families eager to load their homes with the best literature. As the old Main Line estates broke up, these books found their way into the thrift shops, and, from there, into my hands.
I landed in journalism after college without having taken a single course in it or worked a day on a student newspaper (except briefly for an underground high school publication). I learned on the job, and my first teachers were editors who tended to have a crusading streak. They taught me, sometimes by negative example, that a newspaper should never think itself bigger than, better than, or somehow aloof from its community. But they also taught me that newspapers should provide a voice for the voiceless in that community, and that they should not hesitate to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Since then, I've been a reporter, copy editor, editorial page editor, and entertainment editor in various papers in southeastern Pennsylvania. Got married 1988, son born 1990, divorced 1996 (best thing for all concerned, financially ruinous). Remarried in 2004 to the prettiest gal in town (that's her in the photo at the foot of the right column); lovely daughter born 2006.
Two local history books that I wrote were published by Chester County Historical Society, one a Civil War history of that county, the other a history of West Chester, the county seat, up to 1865. I've also tried my hand at poetry, usually when under the influence of some powerful emotion and some powerful scotch. Some of these, through editorial accident or oversight, have been published in microscopic literary journals over the years.
I've owned so many that at times I feared structural collapse in the houses I inhabited. I've used stacks of books as furniture.
I was raised on novels -- great, sprawling books like "War and Peace," Scott, Stendhal, Joyce, Dumas, Dickens, Faulkner, "Moby Dick." I was laid up with a double hernia the summer I turned 22, and couldn't do my usual summer break job on the assembly line. I used the time to read "Two Years Before the Mast" and everything written by Joseph Conrad. It wasn't just classics, though; I read Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, too. Stendhal taught me about life; Tolkien about language. Kipling, Bradbury and Chandler taught me how to tell a story.
My reading friends mostly have been post-modernists and new historicists, lovers of hard bop and William Burroughs. When I'd mention a weakness for Thornton Wilder, they'd get this sad look on their faces and change the subject. I learned to not mention it. Like I learned not to mention that I was moved by "Appalachian Spring" and the "Adagio For Strings." These pieces were modern, but backward-looking, like Wilder's novels and plays. And they were "romantic." The whole 20th century has swerved determinedly away from romanticism, and especially from any whiff of sentimentality.
Wilder, like Wyeth and Copland and Barber -- and John Coltrane, by the way -- could distinguish sentiment from sentimentality, and they didn't have to flee from both for fear of not knowing the difference. Sentimentality is a shoddy imitation of a fine human feeling, but in the determined avoidance of mush, many writers have abandoned valid emotions and high human feelings. Wilder was one of the few authors in the last century who attempted that dangerous ground, who walked toward sentiment with open eyes. And he did so with a craft as solid as Ezra Pound or James Joyce, the great writers who led the swerve away from Victorian pap.
In 8th grade, I didn't know any of this. I was a sullen, obnoxious kid who tended to ignore reading assignments. My English teacher, Mrs. Siler, a loud, proud daughter of Dixie, assigned us to read a play, and if we couldn't find a suitable play, she'd pick one for us. If I had been my teacher then, I probably would have assigned myself something by O'Neill. But she told me to read Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." I read it and was amazed. I date my adult interest in reading (and in writing) from that year, which was when I also read "Lord of the Rings." Over the years, I've enjoyed Wilder's novels more than his plays: "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," and then "The Ides of March," which fixed in my mind the persons of Caesar, Catullus and Cleopatra so well that, though I've encountered them in a dozen other fictions and films, if they don't match the Wilder version, I don't quite buy it.
"Heaven's My Destination" is a brilliant comedy centered on the kind of earnest, polite young Christian fundamentalist that grows so thick in this corner of the world you can't toss a Bible without hitting one on the head. But it's all done with genuine affection, and fictional George Brush [!] remains my favorite fundamentalist. But "The Eighth Day" is Wilder's masterpiece, weaving beautiful symphonic music out of the vaudeville of "Skin of Our Teeth." It's as hard-headed as Ayn Rand and as hopeful as a first love.
Wilder served in both World Wars; he suffered an ambivalent sexuality in an America that was intolerant of such things. And he wrote not with the grim "cold eye" of the mature Yeats (who never went to war), but with a warm, loving affirmation of the beauty in the big messy world. That's the concept Mrs. Siler, I suspect, was trying to whisper to the sullen big kid who sat in the back row of Ardmore Junior High School.
Stendhal is the most amazing observer of human nature I've ever read. In his youth, Marie-Henri Beyle campaigned with Napoleon in Italy, Germany, Russia and Austria, and after the final defeat of the French he retired to Italy, took the name Stendhal, and began to write. He eventually returned to Paris and wrote novels -- first "Le Rouge et le Noir" and then "La Chartreuse de Parme," completed in an astonishing 52 days. For Stendhal, Napoleon and his career were a brilliant meteor that blazed, never forgotten, never fully understood. Balzac appreciated his work, and Byron enjoyed his company, but for the most part Stendhal was ignored by his contemporaries -- a sure mark of genius.
Anyone who has ever been in love should spend some time with "De l'Amour," Stendhal's attempts to sort out his own feelings in the midst of a hopeless passion as he offers "a detailed account of all the phases of that disease of the soul called love." In a tribute to the book, the critic Michael Wood wrote,
"De l'Amour is a notebook, a collection of thoughts, memories, anecdotes, epigrams, patches of analysis. It is almost always delicate, often brilliant, a book to keep quoting from. ... He knew that truth is often fragmentary, that De l'Amour ... may ultimately say more for being less composed, less like a well-rounded essay, for being drastically unfaithful to its stiff intentions."Modern readers may be delighted by the frank feminism of many of Stendhal's digressions.
I also find Stendhal smiling from the shadows of some of my favorite modern fiction, such as W.G. Sebald's "The Emigrants," which blends fiction, memory, and history in just the way Stendhal does. Critics compared Sebald to Ingmar Bergman, Kafka and Proust. But "The Emigrants' " true antecedent is Stendhal's unfinished autobiographical "Life of Henri Brulard." The evocation of memory throughout the Sebald book recalls Stendhal's image, in trying to recall his own childhood, of ancient frescos in ruins. Here's an arm, precisely and vividly painted on plaster. And next to it is bare brick. Whatever it once attached to is gone beyond recall.
And poetry. Oceans and oceans of poetry. Most of it pre-1950. Why the old stuff? I think here is an answer:
"What we term Indo-European poetry was rather a society's sum of knowledge, which was orally transmitted. The features which our western tradition ascribes to poetry (feeling, inspiration, individualism, participation, etc.), and which the aesthetics of romanticism has particularly underscored, were for Indo-European poetry only a side issue, although they were present. The main thing was to preserve and increase cultural elements which presented something essential to the well-being, collectivity, and stability of the society. We are speaking of the magic spells which heal the sick, the legal formulas which settle disputes, the prayers which extort worldly goods from the gods, the genealogies which give to people consciousness of their past and pride in it; the eulogies which legitimatize rulers by the celebration of their greatness. He who fulfilled such important functions held a position of the first rank in his society, but his traffic with the Muses was neither particularly frequent nor paticularly necessary. For this kind of poetry one could prepare oneself only by years of study; what the Middle Irish Metrics texts tell us about the training of the Early Irish poet is basically valid for the Indo-European one as well." [Enrico Campanile, "Indogermanische Dichtersprache," 1987, Innsbruck, p.26]The clues from the Vedic texts, older than Homer, match the Irish poetic system, ancient by the time it emerges into the light of writing in the 7th century and stunningly stable for the next thousand years. Poets were a hereditary caste and closely associated with priests.
Five thousand years of tradition comes unglued relatively quickly; Wordsworth turns to natural language. Romantics chafe at rhyme and meter, the artificial aids to remembrance in an oral culture. Stendhal or someone like him says rhyme was fit for cavalry orders, not for great thoughts. A modern poet is not doing what Homer did. Would Homer contribute to a "Poets Against the War" anthology? If they wonder why he was the basis of a national education system for a millenia, and they seem as ephemeral as crickets on the lawn, consider what, or whom, is served in the verse.
My friend Peter and I started out with Keats when we were 17, and from there we roamed everywhere. In college, I noticed that the literature offerings skipped right from Pope to Wordsworth, omitting 50 years. So I dug up Cowper, Collins, Gray, Swift, Kit Smart, and Goldsmith and read them and thought they were great fun. The reason for their modern unpopularity jump right off the page: strict rules and a fully developed convention. Yet that's what makes this poetry so surreal. And what does it say about poetry that, from that age that wrote such controlled verse, four of the names on my list died insane?
From that infatuation I retain whole chunks of Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" by heart, along with much of Collins and a few other pieces by Gray. And I have an old four-volume set of Cowper's letters. Cowper was the most timid, refined old-ladyish poet imaginable, yet he wrestled with a crushing depression that would have killed most of us. And out of it all he wrote the most charming, erudite, self-effacing letters to his friends. They are not great poets, but every reader is entitled to choose a few favorites from the second tier. Or, as Samuel Johnson said, "Parnassus has its flowers of transient fragrance, as well as its oaks of towering height, and laurels of eternal verdure."
My literary love in my college years was Yeats. I found in him then a romantic intensity that matched my own, but he had wings to soar in words. I find in him now a matchless excellence as a writer. Anyone who wrote poetry in the 20th century, or who read modern poetry seriously, had to confront Yeats. Every serious writer was aware of him, either flowing through channels he cut or else trying to scramble out of them. Yeats was in many ways a bridge for the best of the 19th century to cross into the 20th, and that's a formidable legacy.
Kant knew that philosophy thrived when it was deemed trivial by priests and bankers and social reformers and prime ministers. If those people had thought philosophy important, they would have sought to control it or repress it or buy it or pervert it. The quest for truth can only occur in the autonomy known by the scorned and neglected. Yeats knew the same thing about poetry when he wrote "Adam's Curse." In a modern, commercial society, unless poets and philosophers are deemed dreamers and fools, no human thought will be free.
He is, I admit, a man's poet, with all the folly and foolish nobility that implies. Lately I've been reading the later Yeats: "The Winding Stair and Other Poems." I see these poems that I've known since I was 18 with fresh poignancy and power. I had read then, but never felt till now, his bitterness at leaving youth just when he'd finally mastered its arts. The powers I feel now: to please a young woman's heart, to lead her to the well of her sensual self and clear the rushes and clarify the water so that she may drink deeply and long -- all these attained powers arrive at the same time I begin to find gray hairs and my hip hurts.
As a man, however, I find very little that engages or attracts me in "Jane Eyre." Emily Brontė, on the other hand: Now there's a stone-cold goddess of sadistic fiction. She out-Burroughs Burroughs. I never read a more sadistic, sexual and disturbed novel than "Wuthering Heights," and Juliet Barker's excellent biography of the Brontė sisters confirms my notion that Emily was the weirdest, most fascinating woman in literature.
Anyone who's serious about American poetry, or about poetry, or about America, has to read "Leaves of Grass." But be careful what you get. The 1855 original version doesn't have some of the better-known pieces, which were added over a lifetime of revising and expanding, but it crackles with wild lightning as Whitman surveys a new reality like some Blake titan.
In each subsequent reprinting, he trimmed his vision to the unmoved world. In altering his poems to fit the (mostly negative) critical reception, Whitman marred their original angelic stride. He became a poet of causes, rather than a poet who contained causes. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but fortunately the 1855 original is still printed, and often sold more cheaply than the revised anthology of Whitman's work.
The more I think about it, the more impressed I am that I grew up beside a city that actually has a "Walt Whitman Bridge" as a major artery -- given that name only after an end-run around the blinder sort of Christians and patriots who despised his morals, but named that nonetheless. America surprises you in unexpected places.
I've long been a champion of Robinson Jeffers. Though he's not the most popular American poet, he seems to have gained ground in recent years. He is probably the best heir of Whitman's long-line style. He's also an embodiment of whatever California used to be in the '20s and '30s: the magical, wild place before half of America moved there and trampled it to fragments. California when California was a refuge from America's vulgarities rather than their factory. Trawlers coasting slowly through the fog, heron-cries, wild horses, hawks on the headland and cruel, cruel fires.
His father was a professor of Old Testament studies. He began learning Greek at age 5. Unlike many poets of his generation (Pound, Williams, Eliot), Jeffers turned his back on the cosmopolitan culture and sought the primeval, which he found on the (then) desolate California coast around Carmel. There, he felt, "for the first time in my life I could see people living -- amid magnificent unspoiled scenery -- essentially as they did in the Sagas or in Homer's Ithaca. ... Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life."
An excellent book about poets, by the way, is "Their Ancient Glittering Eyes," by Donald Hall. Hall, himself a poet of some repute (I confess, I never got into his work) is a wonderful interviewer. As a young man, he did "Paris Review" style interviews with the grand old men of American poetry: Frost, Eliot, and Pound, along with the melifluous train wreck that was Dylan Thomas. What's published here are more than just interviews, however. What makes the book resound are the anecdotes about what it took to get into the presence of these men and what it felt like to be there.
The book also includes Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore, and Archibald MacLeish, though they feel like something of an afterthought beside the big four. Hall writes eloquently of the down-home poet Robert Frost that the real Robert Frost wore for much of his career. Readers who only know the "Best-Loved Poems" Frost can read Hall's stories of him and better understand the nihilism of "Acquainted With the Night," the suicide musings of "Come In," or the sensuality of "Putting In the Seed."
He was vain, he could be cruel, he was rivalrous with all other men; but he could also be generous and warm -- when he could satisfy himself that his motives were dubious. He was a man possessed by guilt, by knowledge that he was bad, by the craving for love and the necessity to reject love offered.Hall also writes of the anguish of the elder Pound, who saw his whole world go to hell, twice.
Form is important in poetry. It's unfortunate that the very idea of form has become associated, in academic literary circles and somewhat in the common mind, with reactionary patriarchy. Take Wordsworth's definition of poetry as "powerful emotion recollected in solitude," or Frost's tighter version, "enthusiasm tamed by metaphor," and you see that form, or at least the awareness of it, is half of what allows poetry to be poetry. It is the magic ritual that allows us to approach the most terrifying aspects of our selves and our lives.
Form also allows you to approach important topics that might easily slip into sentimentality. Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy" is one of the most moving things I've ever read: a tightly controlled little sonnet by a father about his child who has died. Once again, the tight lacing of the form allows the power of the content. Poetry shares this with music, and one of my favorite albums is the set of standard ballads that John Coltrane's quartet cut with Johnny Hartman on vocals in 1963. Coltrane was already pushing the boundaries of tonality, and his foursome was forging a style of "hard, unfaltering attack and furiously intense, extended improvisations that bordered on free-jazz." But he deliberately chose Hartman, a smooth-baritone crooner, and came out of the studio with a breathtakingly beautiful set of sides ("Lush Life" may be the most perfect thing ever recorded) that was elegant, respectful, and not a bit sentimental. McCoy Tyner's rich piano fills and the thirteen tenor notes Coltrane blows at the end of "Lush Life" are as thrilling for their restraint as for the intensity beneath it.
Anyway, poetry. As you can see, I can still get carried away.
Such non-fiction as I first read -- Bruce Catton, for instance -- had the feel of fiction. It was books by people who are obviously in love with their discipline and fairly falling over themselves to share their enthusiasm for it, like George Gamow's books on physics.
But my reading history underwent a polar shift right around the time of 9-11, and I keep waiting for it to shift back again, but it hasn't happened. I found I got restless reading any length of text -- fiction or poetry -- that didn't expand my factual knowledge. There was so much I didn't know that I needed to know. I needed to soak up more, to understand the modern world.
It wasn't entirely a casualty of 9/11. It had begun a little before that. I think more than anything it was the Internet. The first thing I looked for when I went online in the late '90s (after slinky pictures of Alyssa Milano) were people who shared my love of literature. I spent an unfortunate week as a member of a Yahoo! club dedicated to "literary criticism," where I got to watch a couple of people expertly mock anyone who didn't toe the marxist-feminist line. Nobody seemed to have the slightest interest in literature. But how they loved to bicker about critical theories, and about what one critic said about another critic!
It made my head spin, and I said so, and I got called a pompous middle-aged male ass or something like that, and I dropped out of it, telling them I'd rather spend an hour reading Shelley than a lifetime among their ideological duels. The passion for writing and the argument about it never seem to dwell together. It was the difference between writing love letters and collecting postage stamps. The sad thing is, the bullies in that club are all professors of literature somewhere or another.
But all over the Internet, polemical debates rage like hellfires. And to navigate that landscape, you have to master great mounds of facts. After literature, my online friend and I wandered into Civil War discussions, and instantly got pinned down by withering crossfire (we were on the Southern side) that sent me scurrying for ammunition from bigger and more obscure books. Soon I had a whole shelf full of them handy (I had sold off my Civil War library after finishing my own book about it).
I still understand the importance of fiction and poetry. Believe me, I preached from that pulpit for most of my life. But that flame went out in me, and I don't know if it will ever catch again.