When I'm restless or bored and want to get lost in time, I reach for Pausanias">Pausanias.He was a citizen of the Roman Empire (apparently he wrote in the 140s to 160s of our era) who travelled all around Greece, visiting the shrines and temples and cities, and wrote what is arguably the first tourist guide in history ["Periegesis Hellados"]. It didn't make him rich. But nowadays it is regarded by scholars as a priceless sourcebook for archaeologists and historians trying to make sense of ancient ruins and records. Pausanias begins his description of each city with a synopsis of its history followed by an account of the monuments in topographical order. He also discusses local daily life, ceremonial rituals, legend and folklore. His main concentration is on artistic works from the glories of classical Greece, especially religious art and architecture. That he can be relied on for building and works which have since disappeared is shown by the accuracy of his descriptions of buildings which do survive.As another introduction puts it: A careful, pedestrian writer, he is interested not only in the grandiose or the exquisite but in unusual sights and obscure ritual. He is occasionally careless, or makes unwarranted inferences, and his guides or even his own notes sometimes mislead him; yet his honesty is unquestionable, and his value without par.Pausanias' descriptions are so reliable that, when he writes of some gigantic bones offered up as the remains of Ajax, his measurements are good enough that modern paleontologists can guess which gigantic Ice Age mammal they really came from. But it isn't his accuracy that makes me lose myself in his prose. What I find delightful in Pausanias is that it's history preserved in history.On several levels. The man himself, conventional and a touch pedantic, is a figure from history. In reading him, I get to know him, I feel like I travel with him. It's like making a friend in ancient Rome.He was the first of us, the historial tourist, and he gazed as we gaze, noticing what we would notice. Not just monuments and heroes, but the details: pines that rose in dark spires from the seacoast of Elis, the deer, the wild boar, the crows. Live oaks and wild strawberries. Tortoises. Read enough of it and you will be there.But more. His text is a telescope to look deeper into history than we ever could see unaided. Scattered throughout it are names of cults, local deities, whole towns, small rivers -- now all lost save in his text. No one now knows where the towns are, under what modern hill's thistle-grass and shrub, or beneath what silted-up rivermouth. No one would have remembered these cult goddesses -- two in one paragraph from Sparta, for instance, "Mouse Artemis" and "Athene of the Cheeks" -- but for his casual mention of them.Mouse Artemis. Delightful! Was this for the little girls? The Brownie troops, the Mousketeers? Whatever, it had its rituals and its followers and its annual devotions and processions. All lost now. All lost but the name. It is like a complex and colorful feather somehow preserved in Jurassic amber, startling in its glimpse of a past we hitherto had constructed out of thick gray bones. No matter how carefully we rebuild ancient Greece from archaeology, we will never do more than accomplish a blocky and pixilated rendition of the real life there.History caught in history. Pausanias was describing the temples of the ancient Greeks in their state of decay as of Roman times -- sun-bleached and moss-stained stones, cracked and spalled, stacked up around wooden goddesses black with age. Now, when we look for those places, we only find a few unmovable slabs of marble scattered across a sheep meadow. It's a difference of 500 years instead of 2,500.He toured Greek pagan culture in its decline -- one gets a strong sense of superstition, but no sense of a vibrant relationship of the people with their gods, and Pausanias himself, a scrupulous and superstitious man of conventional religion, seems more devout than many of those he encounters. The priests, so far from being guides to the community, often are ignorant old yokels who can't even tell an ungarbled version of their own temple's myth.It was doomed, this pagan Greece: If there had been no Christianity, which swept over this region like wildfire, some other robust faith would have done the same.Greek pagan culture was in effect as much a relic to Pausanias as it is to us; it had reached that extreme of decadence where the culture is as good as dead but doesn't realize it yet. With one signal difference: He could visit standing temples and speak with living priests; in Thebes he saw not only the temple stones but the honored shields of those who died at Leuctra. He could visit the Greek world on its sickbed. We only can gaze at its mute tomb.There is a trick those of us who love history forever attempt. To peer as far back into the past as our sight will carry our imaginations, seeking some glimpse of a beginning, the origin. We forget how really far off we are from our object and how limited are our powers of sight. As though we stood on Plymouth Rock and, staring hard to the east out over the ocean, believed we could somehow glimpse Europe. Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbsAlways wrong to the light, so never seeingDeeper down in the well than where the waterGives me back in a shining surface pictureMy myself in the summer heaven, godlikeLooking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,Something more of the depths-and then I lost it.Water came to rebuke the too clear water.One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a rippleShook whatever it was lay there at bottom,Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.Robert Frost, "For Once, Then, Something"


BORING POSTCARDS: I still don't know any more about these postcards than what they show and tell. I couldn't tell you the history of the various printers, or the hallmarks of collectibility. And I love it like that. ... more ...ALLURE: A half-concealed woman is a power, if she chooses how to display herself and does so with an eye to drawing my eye. A naked woman's body is a biological fact. A woman dressed to seduce is an inhabited beauty, a promise of pleasure, a flame from Heaven. ... more ...MOTHER TONGUES: A dictionary half in an unknown language is a fountain of inspiration. Delightful connections are expressed there, along with conceptions that convince me that, in ancient India, the world had a civilization that has hardly been matched in subtlety and sophistication. ... more ...TIME TRAVEL: Yeats and Pound wrote about "the Nineties," meaning the 1890s. Those Nineties persisted in popular memory into the 1960s. But say "The Nineties," today, and you will be taken to mean something entirely different. Gulf War, grunge, Bill Gates. When did the change happen? ... more ...HERACLITUS: We painted and planted peas and sewed and sang. Impossibly ancient: Those people were six times more distant from ancient Mycenae than ancient Mycenae is from us. And we live yet within the echo of their voices. ... more ...VIRTUE: Classical virtue was not meek. It strove to be first in doing good for one's country and coveted the glory that comes with unrelenting devotion to the good of the people. It expressed itself in endurance, industry, frugality, and probity -- "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private." ... more ...TURNING POINT: I had been instinctively opposed to an invasion of Iraq until then. But I began to be persuaded. This is an archival record of a mind being changed. ... more ...WMD: None of us knew at the time what weaponry Saddam had up his sleeve. Probably not even Saddam knew. We all chose — overthrow him or leave him alone — based not on our wisdom or our ignorance but on the gap between them, the fog of uncertainty. ... more ...MARATHON MAN: It's part of being a "liberal," in the old, good sense of that word -- the only sense of it I can still claim -- to believe in the consistency of the human experience. ... more ...HEROES: These are the honorable dead of a new war. Not all of them are soldiers, but the new war sweeps up more than soldiers in its causes. And all believed in something. They believed in it enough to get up and do something about it, at peril of their lives. They went to the war to do something about it. ... more ...EARTH DAY: Environmentalists often share with creationists the utterly unscientific view that the world was set spinning in one complete, harmonious form, until evil Anglo-American corporations come along and destroy it. ... more ...OUR GEORGE: George Washington was the steady hand on the tiller when we set sail as a nation. Steadiness, not reckless innovation, was the thing America needed at the time. It's to his credit that we forget the serpents of tyranny and mob rule that slithered about the American cradle. ... more ...'WASHINGTON'S CROSSING': Hessian prisoners were so well treated that, once they had got over the shock of it, they could be sent from one holding place to the next without an armed escort. ... more ...UNDER the GRASS: Memorial Day began not in one place but in many. Hilltop cemeteries across the North, behind old stone churches and meetings, with long views across the farms. On the grass where fathers and mothers -- the ones who could find the corpse among the slain -- laid their boys. ... more ...SNAKEHIPS: She cued the tape, and the music swelled and she just lit up, improvising every move. I have seen nothing so stunning and powerful in decades. She wasn't a dancer, and it wasn't music. She was an elemental force that pulled music into her body and merged both into something more than human. ... more ...The LAST FARMER: "I've been offered several million dollars by developers. But I'm almost 80; what good's that money going to do me? I don't need it. I wouldn't know what to do with it. And I know what to do with a farm." ... more ...GROUND ZERO: Down each street, through the reek of smoke and steam, we saw wilted girders droop from broken foundations or the black box of a ruined building with banks of windows like dead men's mouths. The wrecked buildings looked organic; like melted candles or rotting chunks of flesh. ... more ...LOLA AND BOB: She was old enough to be mother to many of them. She crooned "Lili Marleen" to the boys as the snow drifted down in Luxemburg. None of them ever forgot it. She was fearless; she wore a GI's uniform and stayed so close to the front lines she almost got caught up in the German push when the Battle of the Bulge began. ... more ...FAITH HEELER: America is a Christian nation. Yet it's no more unified in its religion than ancient Rome was in its faiths. Or modern India. They are a collective tradition of individualist faiths. ... more ...LUSH LIFE: Coltrane and his quartet already had taken their tools to tonal music and drilled through it, sawed it open. But here they went back to the studio, with a very conventional crooner, to draw a map for listeners to follow them. ... more ...PAUSANIAS: He was the first of us, the historial tourist, and he gazed as we gaze, noticing what we would notice. Not just monuments and heroes, but the details: dark spires of pines that rose from the seacoast of Elis, the deer, the wild boar, the crows. ... more ...OLD ENGLISH: It was an English without all the cobweb words. It was an English with far more strong verbs, with their juicy evolutions. It was an English that had far more plurals of the "man-men" type, and more possessives with a suffix -an rather than the hiss that's now tacked on to the end of words in both cases. ... more ...ODD WORDS: English is typical of languages in that some of its most common words are some of its oddest and have convoluted histories. "Do," "be," and "you" are among them. ... more ...ROBERT G. INGERSOLL: "God cannot send to eternal pain a man who has done something toward improving the condition of his fellow-man. If he can, I had rather go to hell than to heaven and keep company with such a god." ... more ...GREATEST GENERATION: America was supremely gifted in the generation of administrators and bureaucrats -- the middle men of the federal government -- it had from roughly 1940 to 1960. We haven't been so lucky since the Founders in any one generation having just the right skills the times demanded. ... more ...COLD WAR NIGHTMARES: We grew up thinking there was a pretty good chance, maybe 50:50 or worse, that the whole world was going to go up in a nuclear fireball holocaust some day in the near future, without any warning to any of us. ... more ...LONE RUNNER: Individualism is the dynamo that drives Western culture, from eco-feminist performance art to plutocratic wealth-hoarding. Separation of church and state, the rule of law, social pluralism, representative government, all these hallmarks of Western civilization either define or protect the individual's autonomy from collective power. ... more ...WITCHES: Men stopped burning witches not because they stopped fearing them, but because they stopped believing in them. ... more ...MASTERS and DEATH: We tend to think of death as a country for the old. It was not so then. People of all ages were vulnerable, the cold calculus of contagion meant that if a bacterium got into a household parents could lose some or all of their children in a matter of days. ... more ...FRENCH SLAVERY: The French turned four times as many Africans into slaves as the Americans did, they used them far more brutally, and French slavers continued the trade -- legally -- until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had given it up. ... more ...FOUNDERS: The people made the revolution. Their political theory may have been wanting, their views on race certainly were deplorable by modern standards, but neither were they sitting passively at home in June 1776. If they did not hear the Declaration read aloud that day, it was because they were too busy, about and doing. ... more ...GEORGE W. BUSH: The chance I had been waiting all my adult life for: To see America use its power and good will to clear a path for millions of people who had done nothing to earn the suffering that had been visited on them as a side-effect of the Cold War. To give them a chance to take hold of part of our lucky legacy of wealth of freedom. ... more ...SOUND FAMILIAR?: He was an egotist and a pain in the ass, but he could wield the rhetorical whip. Jefferson, the infidel, did heed advice like this and buy Louisiana away from France the next year. I haven't done enough research to know whether Cobbett praised him for this, but I rather doubt it. ... more ...GUY DAVENPORT (1927-2005): Davenport was one of the last living disciples of Ezra Pound. He was a brilliant and learned man, but with a warm, salt-of-the-earth, Southern sensibility. Think Pound without the prickly aestheticism and the Ivy League snobbery, without the fascism. ... more ...ENTREPRENEURS: That in seeking private gain, the Englishman also would seek the common good of England, Hakluyt presents as an obvious matter. ... more ...PRINCE KROPOTKIN: Peter Kropotkin lived through the crashing collapse of the Russian Empire and the opening of the nightmare that came after. "Revolutionaries have had ideals," he said. "Lenin has none." ... more ...WAR and PACIFISTS: Peace movements in Britain began to take shape only gradually, after the 1730s. They were children of the British Enlightenment, with its remarkable marriage of evangelical Christian values and rational humanist ones. ... more ...EZRA POUND: He lived among a literary public so revolted by carnage that it turned its back on the heritage of Western Civilization. He arrived at maturity with the skills of a great poet, only to find his audience half-slaughtered, half-disgusted. So he wrote for the dead. ... more ...The ENEMIES WE MAKE: When Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall approached him with the idea, he demurred, saying he'd never made a documentary before. Marshall told him, "Capra, I have never been Chief of Staff before. Thousands of young Americans have never had their legs shot off before. Boys are commanding ships today who a year ago had never seen the ocean before." Capra apologized and signed on to make "the best damned documentary films ever made." ... more ...J.R.R. TOLKIEN: Tolkien was a devout Catholic. But as a scholar Tolkien was deeply immersed in the pessimistic, pagan world that he studied and taught every day. Look at Middle Earth: there is good, but it is not sure as the strongest thing going. Its durance depends on heart and wit and luck. And there is evil, limned and solid and vastly strong. ... more ...SUPPORT the TROOPS; OPPOSE TORTURE: The troops now fighting on our behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan need to see that the criminals in their ranks will be found and purged. They need to see that we at home don’t make excuses for bad behavior. ... more ...BERLIN MEMORIES: West Berlin was an artificial child of the Cold War. You take a big, sprawling capital, smash it flat in a war, then split it in two, and isolate one of the halves -- cut it off from its outer suburbs and garden farms. Then you build a huge concrete wall around that half. ... more ...ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN (1918-2008): He lived in Vermont, and his heart never left Mother Russia. His courtesy to us, his gift to us in exchange for our hospitality, was to look at America as a patriotic dissident would, and say the things about it a dissident nationalist would say about us, if we had one. ... more ...'IN the RUINS of EMPIRE': It's convenient for the organizers of curricula and the writers of textbooks to break up the world like that. So 1945 joins other convenient "zero" dates that punctuate history: 1914, 1815, 1776, 1492, 1215, 476. ... more ...WARSAW: On January 17, 1945, Warsaw's war was over. Or was it? The war in Europe began when Germany attacked Poland, followed soon, by agreement, by a Soviet stab in the back. In 1945, one of the two conquerors pushed the other out of Poland and settled down to own it. ... more ...LEFT BEHIND: The liberals I know have no interest in the Kurds, because the Kurds made the unforgivable mistake of liberating themselves with the help of American military power. The only indigenous people a modern liberal approves are those that burn American flags. ... more ...AMATEUR HISTORIAN: The academics succeeded. They turned out the amateurs, imposed objectivity, and turned a craft into a profession. They banished the author from the text and the values-booster from the national history. ... more ...NECESSARY WARS: I'll give you my version of a necessary war: The brief 1936 conflict between Germany, alone, and France, Britain, and Czechoslovakia. ... more ...HALLIBURTON: The "Catcher in the Rye" style inverts him entirely. You need that, too. You need both to achieve full maturity. But we've lost too much in collapsing the space between childhood and adulthood. The transition of adolescence needs open rooms to linger in. People mature at different paces. ... more ...ERNIE PYLE: Pyle said he wanted "to make people see what I see." But Arthur Miller wrote that Pyle "told as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting," which is probably closer to the truth. ... more ...DEUTSCHLAND über ALLES: The official name of the German National Anthem is Das Lied der Deutschen "the Song of the Germans," though it is popularly known also as Das Deutschlandlied "the Germany Song." But most Americans, if they know it at all, would call it Deutschland über Alles, which are the opening words of the first stanza. ... more ...YANKEE at OTAKON: We sat on a restaurant balcony and heard the passing remarks by the "normal" people about the oddballs and the freak show. That's when I realized where my instinctive sympathies lay. ... more ...LIES and SPIES: In World War II, the British had the best-balanced espionage. Americans had decent intelligence-gathering (especially as a result of code-cracking), but iffy analysis. The French, before they got knocked out, had superb espionage in Nazi Germany, but they lacked the political will to act on it. The Soviets also had a vast network of spies -- in the capitals of their nominal allies Britain and America. ... more ...SEPTEMBER 11 and AFTER: So I sat down in my bathrobe at the computer. And I kept looking at the pictures, and the words, and thinking, "That can't be right. That can't be right." ... more ...9/11 PLUS FIVE: "Tuesday" is as much a part of 9-11 as the date or the month. It was a workday. The people who died almost entirely died at their jobs, or commuting on work-related matters. And every workday is different. ... more ...'AMONG the DEAD CITIES': Did bombing civilians hasten the end of the war and thus spare the Allies greater battlefield casualties? Some say so. But saving military lives by substituting civilian ones is, Grayling says, like using civilians as human shields on the battlefield. ... more ...ORIGINAL ZINN: Howard Zinn's vew is the new triumphalism -- the triumph of negativity. America is left with a history without heroes. Only the ones who fought against whatever prevailed in America at the time can claim the heroic mantle, and then only if they were some sort of approved minority. ... more ...GUNS: I came of age associating firearms with Christian enthusiasm, flag-waving patriotism, fondness for the military, and other irrational fixations of the right-wing loonies in this country. ... more ...WHY IS THERE A CIA?: Is there any entity in modern America that has eaten up more money, wasted more lives, and done less good to the American people? Is there any group representative of America in the world that has brought more humiliation to our friends and more delight to our enemies? ... more ...MISSING PIECES: I appreciate being able to lock or unlock the entire vehicle with a click of a button on my keychain from 30 yards away in the pouring rain. On the other hand, having to turn the key in the ignition just to crack a damn window drives me nuts, in a crotchety old man kind of way. ... more ...OLD MONEY: When I was in West Berlin in the '70s, I bought in an antique shop a stack of old German World War I-era currency. You could get it by the fistful, out of a cardboard box, for, I think, 5 for the Mark. ... more ...PATRIOTISM: "He is not a citizen who is not disposed to respect the laws and to obey the civil magistrate; and he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens." ... more ...OCCUPATION: West Germany was a faithful American ally through the Cold War, and the united Germany is a rock of stability in the center of Europe. Yet almost all the things cited as American mistakes in Iraq also were done in Germany. ... more ...NEW TIMES: "Neue Zeitung, like a chameleon, continually changed its color. It represents the often confused, reluctant, and incoherent course of U.S. policy in postwar Germany." ... more ...COLUMBIA TRAGEDY: She was a double-wide trailer fitted with angel wings. She could heft 4 million pounds into space and fly 17,000 mph and pass unscathed through a blast furnace that would pulverize a solid block of concrete and melt battlefield armor. ... more ...KEYS VACATION 2002: I didn't realize that Key Largo was named for the movie, not the other way around. The good citizens, seeing the film's popularity, got the bright idea of rechristening the place, which they did in 1952. Whoring after tourist bucks, but the name was much improved by the change. ... more ...TRISKELION: He told her of his great sudden passion. She told him forget it, cast it away, there is no use in hoping for fulfillment. But he asked her name, and she told him: Halwa, that is, "Solitude." ... more ...DEMOCRACY: To understand the founders of American democracy, and the system of government they devised, you have to stand where the founders stood, and then look back, from there, at the past they knew. ... more ...HIGH ENOUGH TO SEE THE WORLD: I lived from ages 2 to 11 in a bedroom community along a west-running wooded ridge. We moved there when suburban development had just begun to crowd out the farms. ... more ...HEARTS and MINDS: The Paris peace agreement reserved the U.S. right to oppose Hanoi if it broke the accord. But any remaining U.S. will to defend South Vietnam was dragged down by the rising malaise in America, the domestic political scandals, and the media war against all things Nixon. ... more ...KIDS MENU: And I know he has to grow and I would never hold him back, but I'm going to miss the child that he is. I'm going to have to say good-bye to that kid. It puts the seal on a lot of "somedays" that will now never happen. ... more ...VOTING 2004: At this moment in history, it's absurd to vote for a man who doesn't have a single good word to say for millions of Iraqis looking to America to guide them out of political squalor, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans who are risking their lives to do it. ... more ...WILSONIANS: The Statue of Liberty has no wings; she is not an angel. The nation that reveres her often does things unwise or unjust. Like Athens, like Rome, like America. ... more ...'The END': Yet however close we get to those lost lives, and we try and try, they have crossed over -- gone under. No traveller returns to tell what they felt, falling, burning, crashing down. ... more ...JOURNALISM: Journalism is 90 percent the art of deciding not what to tell you. You pay us to decide what's essential to you. The news editor dispatches reporters to cover an accident or a meeting. The reporter picks out the relevant facts, among thousands of facts he might choose. ... more ...MEDIA and IRAQ: If only perfect nations could act, none ever would. We won our independence with the help of a French fleet and a Dutch loan. Were the Dutch and the French pure at heart? Did they have a self-interest in seeing Britain lose its colonies? ... more ...JOURNALISTS and HISTORY: Journalists should not try to write with historical perspective. Because among all people, journalists uniquely lack it. ... more ...FIFTH COLUMNISTS: The belief in the media that the sole purpose of a printing press or a television camera is to shine a light on every fault and failure of American authority has its uses. It may at times be what saves democracy. But too steady application of it can be a water torture. ... more ...GAYS, GODS, and JOURNALISTS: Gays and Christianity are crossing paths all over the place these days, and the local newspaper is writing about it. ... more ...PRONOUN TROUBLE: One thousand years of using English language pronouns based on physiology just went out the window. ... more ...CHE TRIPPERS: "The Motorcycle Diaries" is bound to induce a whole new generation of disaffected youth to hitch their dreams of liberation and freedom to this handsome rebel. ... more ...MISCARRIAGE: Months after the miscarriage a phone call came, a sales pitch for a diaper service. I figured out it was just about the time the baby would have been born. Apparently, the HMO sold the mailing list from that first-baby program to all sorts of marketers. We were on it and it was too late to get off. ... more ...'UNDER GOD': The "under God" part of the public school Pledge of Allegiance is clearly unconstitutional, but only the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals could say so. ... more ...'GOD BLESS AMERICA': I know some people see that slogan, and the song that embodies it, as creeping Christianism. Which is amusing, since it was written by an Ashkenazi Jew, albeit a Republican. ... more ...TEN COMMANDMENTS: Amid boos and chants and civil disobedience, fifty-by-29 inches of Old Testament bronze on the courthouse in West Chester disappeared behind 50-by-29 inches of blank plastic. ... more ...JUDGE MOORE'S ROCK: Roy Moore snuck into the Alabama Judicial Building in the middle of the night three years ago and plunked down a 5,280-pound rock chiseled with the Ten Commandments. He paid for that with his job, after being given many chances to think better of his misdeeds. ... more ...'IN GOD WE TRUST': "In God We Trust" got inscribed on the money only after a coalition of Protestant church groups failed to rewrite the Constitution to "indicate that this is a Christian nation." ... more ...'UNDER GOD' AGAIN: Would you replace the mosaic of American Christianity with another faith? Which one? Where would you find one more inclined to steer its adherents toward public virtue, love of humankind, humility, tolerance, optimism, and non-violence? ... more ...The NAZI SLUR: There is something about the Germans' stagger into darkness in the 1930s that thoughtful Americans can take as a warning. And maybe, by keeping the "Nazi" insult alive as the worst one in our cultural vocabulary, the partisan loudmouths are doing us a small favor. ... more ...WHY WE FIGHT: In 1946, at a beautiful society wedding in London, a Tory MP remarked to Lady "Emerald" Cunard how quickly life had returned to normal. "After all," he said, gesturing to the crowded room, "this is what we have been fighting for." "What," she replied, "are they all Poles?" ... more ...DIPLOMACY: "Diplomacy" is thrown up as a sort of magic word that seems to mean "getting good results without getting any Americans killed," but it does have a real meaning, and it presents severe challenges for any modern-day American president who plans to use it as a policy. ... more ...DR. SUZY: Even the Islamic gutter-press, which twisted this stupid venting of a dull mind into a news story, had the smidgen of humanity required to change its tune -- after it was too late, of course. A prominent writer admitted the rape reports were "without any foundation." ... more ...CROSS and CRESCENT: Many bloggers will confuse the historical realities of Christianity and Islam, as human constructions, with their natures as revealed religions. As a skeptic of both, damned by both, perhaps I can be of some help. ... more ...ISLAMIC REFORMATION: There already was an Islamic Reformation. It happened while we were sleeping. The result is Wahhabi dominance, and Islamic Brotherhood, and Bin Laden. This is the Islamic Reformation. We're fighting it now. ... more ...The IMPURITY of TEARS: In what other place in the world would a man, obviously gravely injured, have to shout out an explanation of his religious affiliation before he got help to save his life? ... more ...READING ISLAMISTS: I think it would be a valuable exercise to have the whole nation take a day off work and read what Osama Bin Laden has said and written about us and what he plans to do to us and why. ... more ...SHARIA in CANADA: Ontario has authorized the use of sharia law in civil arbitrations. A group calling itself the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice will hold tribunals in which marriage, family, and business disputes can be settled according to fundamentalist religious law. ... more ...NECESSARY BLASPHEMY: Nobody's going to cut your head off for mocking American fundamentalist Christians who oppose physician-assisted suicide. That's hardly a test case for free speech. It's more important to hold up a candle in the demon-haunted darkness than in broad daylight. ... more ...TOLERATING the INTOLERANT: Paradox of paradoxes: Is Western separation of church and state an idea rooted in Christianity? ... more ...WHAT is IT GOOD FOR?: A little familiarity with history does disabuse one of the sort of sham shock some people seem to feel on entering a war down one hole and coming out another. ... more ...LUCKY BOMB: Is it possible that something as awful as the nuclear holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was -- in the cold, long view of historical time -- a positive good, a lucky break for the human race? ... more ...'YOU WOULD WEEP': The Arab women who had slipped between the lines and warned Eaton of their enemies' plots and plans, were left to their fate. Everyone knew the town would be looted and the inhabitants massacred when the Americans left. ... more ...'RISE of AMERICAN DEMOCRACY': "The Rise of American Democracy" sees the past too much through the filter of current events. Wilentz even lapses into modern catch phrases like "support the troops" that have dubious utility when applied to the War of 1812. ... more ...ALGERIA: Algeria was the first modern terrorist thugocracy, a nation born of a cowardly father -- European lack of will -- and a cruel mother -- unrelenting terrorism on a grand scale. Naturally, the country fell into complete economic collapse. ... more ...PARAPHILIA: Sexuality is something you receive, in one form or another, in one measure or another, early in life. How you cope with it, that is a different matter. Sexuality is the hand you've been dealt in life. How you play that hand is your character, your ethics. ... more ...DEBATE: Where the word problems in the math worksheet used to begin, "John is an engineer ..." they now as often began "Jane is an engineer ...." On another page was the same simple line drawing illustration of a group of kids on a playground. But now some of the faces were stippled over with black Benday dots to make them African-American. ... more ...SLAVES in the FAMILY: When I hear people ask why Washington, Jefferson, and Madison didn't live up to their principles and free their slaves, I think of Henry and Pauline. ... more ...WONDERLAND: "Was this really the way a post 9/11 American government was supposed to be operating," she wondered. "Where were the careful security measures, where was the record-keeping, the checking and double-checking?" ... more ...WHAT WOULD KLEISTHENES DO?: The Founders looked to classical models when they built the American political system. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we continued that policy. ... more ...PROFESSOR CHURCHILL: Ward Churchill's "Chickens coming home to roost" explanation of 9/11 was hardly unique to him, though he may have been one of the first to rush it into print. It's hardly perceptive, either. ... more ...CHOMSKY, COULTER, and MOORE: I have no more use for someone who calls his book "Stupid White Men" than I do for someone who calls his "Stupid Black Lesbians." Yet some of the white men I work with adore this guy. ... more ...UNCLE GULLIVER: Since Americans forced the issue of their independence, the intellectuals in the former colonies have tried to cozy up to the Mother Country, who has returned the affection with scorn. ... more ...TAGS and FLAGS: Across the street stood a gutted McDonald's; its shatter-proof windows all spider-webbed by some massive assault, and the whole thing plastered in posters proclaiming McDonald's is dead and merde a McDonald's. I learned more of the story when I got home. ... more ...COWBOYS: John Jay was among the Founders who feared the frontier's influence on Americans. "Shall we not fill the wilderness with white savages," he wondered, "and will they not become more formidable to us than the tawny ones who now inhabit it?" ... more ...DEEP IMPACT: There's a fascinating, but unexplored, subtext to meteorite hunting, since it converges astronomy and geology. The boys who sit on the hills gazing out at the heavens take one path into science, and it's different from the path taken by the boys who clamber into caves and come home muddy at dark. ... more ...LOOSE BUCHANAN: To dismiss James Buchanan's adherence to the Constitution as a cover to allow treason is to write off the foundation of the American republic. It overlooks the seriousness with which Americans once regarded their government. ... more ...'TEAM of RIVALS': Goodwin's starry-eyed Lincoln biography grows whiggish. If some crisis erupts and Lincoln does nothing, then his masterly inactivity proves his genius. If some crisis erupts and he makes a sudden change, then the bold stroke proves his genius. ... more ...LINCOLN on DISSENT: The Great Emancipator shows his political skill, in a way Bush and Cheney can only envy and never hope to match, in pulling the rug out from under the Democratic opposition without stepping down from his own high ground. ... more ...WAR WITHOUT END: Every generation has its own Civil War. Now, I think, we have ours. ... more ...RACE in AMERICA: Should we work to reconcile ethnicity with citizenship, or the other way around? In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. offered us a choice: "chaos or community." Which are we choosing? ... more ...LASCAUX: Nobody picks up a charcoal stick for the first time and draws like that. This is the result of a long process of art skill-acquisition. Perhaps spread over generations. If we have a half dozen of these cave scenes, they imply hundreds, or thousands, of designs in bark, pottery, tattooing, that have been long lost. ... more ...EUROPE VACATION 2003: In America a leather jacket should look like it's been worn by the kind of person who needs to wear a leather jacket -- a test pilot or a motorcycle rider or a lumberjack. In Paris, men's black leather jackets are sleek fashion statements. ... more ...GOODFRIEND: The woman asked my mother something that implied she was Jewish. "I'm not Jewish," my mother answered. "We're all Jewish; all the Goodfriends are," was the reply. ... more ...MILL for the GRIST: I have no patience with people who try to use logic to convert me to their faith, any more than I have with those who use logic to try to convert another out of his. ... more ...POLITICAL LABELS: A pair of labels invented to describe the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly in 1789 may have been useful for a time in describing the rudimentary politics of the early French Republic. Their application to anything else is a farce. ... more ...'RED DAWN': Long before 9/11 I sat in a tavern with our staff columnist (highly liberal, of course) and some other people and "Red Dawn" played on the TV over the bar. He refused to even look at it, and spent the rest of the night looking the other way. ... more ...TSUNAMI: Sometimes it takes a village. Sometimes, when the village is in trouble, it takes an aircraft carrier battle group. ... more ...CHERNOW's HAMILTON: I like Alexander Hamilton, and so does Ron Chernow, whose cinder-block-sized biography of the financial genius was a non-fiction best-seller this summer. The trouble is, I don't like Chernow's book. ... more ...ABSOLUTE MORAL AUTHORITY: Almost from the moment the British evacuated Dunkirk the Allies began attacking French infrastructure and factories to cripple the German war effort. Stray bombs killed French families and even ones that hit their targets killed French workers. ... more ...CITY LIVING: They are lords of the street. They treat every property on it like it's their own. They will lounge for hours on any stoop or porch that appeals to them. People trying to walk down the sidewalk have to step around them. ... more ...THOROUGHLY MODERN MARGARET: Margaret and John Eaton left town after the Cabinet purge, prompting Henry Clay to quip, echoing Shakespeare, "Age cannot wither nor time stale her infinite virginity." ... more ...MERCENARIES: Julia Ward Howe's eye might have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, but if she had looked out on the street she would have seen the less-than-glorious coming of more than half a million immigrants to the U.S., almost 200,000 of them from Ireland. ... more ...PRAISE for PARTISANS: "Partisanship" may be in bad odor today. But if the parties are rooted in something real, and are not merely ad hoc coalitions of "whatever the other side is against," it can be the heartbeat of a democracy. ... more ...FOUNDERS DEFENDED: I'm grateful to Mark Kurlansky for busting loose and saying what a lot of people think, but are too intimidated to say. That doesn't mean he's not grossly wrong about every sentence he writes in a Fourth of July fireworks assault on the Founders. ... more ...BILLY YANK: I compiled roughly 2,600 names of young men in Chester County, Pennsylvania, who volunteered or were drafted into the Northern armies in the Civil War. "William" was the second-most common name, and fully 107 of them bore the given name William H. or William H.H. ... more ...CHARLES MINER: When the First Amendment was written, newspapers were the voices of politics, and the press was shockingly partisan by modern standards. It made no pretense to being fair and unbiased.... more ...INDEX -AUTHOR


DEMOCRACYTo understand the founders of American democracy, and the system of government they devised, it is not enough to stand in the present and look back at 1787. You have to stand where the founders stood, and then look back, from there, at the past they knew.In trying to create a constitutional government, they had few models. One was the British constitutional monarchy, before it was corrupted (as they saw it) by George III. Everywhere else in their world, with a few exceptions that seemed not to suit the American model (Switzerland, Holland) absolute monarchs ruled from their palaces by God's decree, answerable to no one.But the founders had a rich resource of government models in the histories of the Roman republic and the Greek city states of antiquity. These were not obscure subjects: the founders were steeped in classical learning through their shared education. They had all grown up in the same method of schooling that had predominated in the Western world since the Middle Ages, a long litany of Greek and Roman authors, read in their original languages.They thought through problems, both personal and political, in classical terms. The classical authors provided the founders with their symbolic language when they wrote to one another. There are hundreds of instances of classical analogies in the generation of the American Revolution, from the designs on the national seal to the name of the national Capitol. One of my favorites is Cincinnatus. He was a Roman hero who, during a crisis, reluctantly accepted the dictatorship for six months, defeated Rome's enemies in six weeks, then resigned and went back to his plow.Now regarded as almost surely mythical, Cincinnatus was a real hero to the founders. And when George Washington resigned from public life in 1783 after the great victory and returned to Mount Vernon rather than mounting the throne of the new nation, he was the marvel of the world, and he was behaving quite deliberately on the classical model. His peers recognized it. Washington became head of an association of Revolutionary War veterans -- the equivalent of today's American Legion or VFW -- called the Society of the Cincinnati.(Washington agonized later when an equally classical sense of civic duty led him to return to head the Constitutional Convention and later to accept the presidency.)The idea that this country was founded on "Judeo-Christian principles" by "Bible-believing men" is a convenient fiction for the Pat Robertsons of the nation, but if you take that as your starting point, the real history of the founding will be utterly incomprehensible. A Bible-based vision would have hailed Washington as Moses, leading his people out of bondage. But there was none of that in 1783. No doubt the founders assumed that the institutions they were creating would be used by people who were more or less Christians (some, especially Madison and Jefferson, thought about this a good deal), but the models they studied before they built this system of government were not in the Bible (which, after all, never claims to be a manual of political theory), but in Tacitus and Xenophon.Not the truth of the classical world, but the version of it that was understood by the Enlightenment, the version enshrined in that canon of (surviving) classical writing that the founders learned in their schoolboy days: the Greek and Roman historians, most of them "nostalgic aristocrats disgruntled by monarchial and democratic encroachments" on the power of their class [Richard]. Writers like Thucydides, an aristocrat exiled by a popular government, who wrote a horrific description of the irrational, unstable, violent government of Athens under the popular demagogue Cleon, who cost that state dearly during the Peloponnesian War (and, incidentally, led the party that exiled Thucydides).The founders had these models in mind when they framed America's government. They also had in mind a theory of government inherited from the same antiquity. Plato, in the 4th century B.C.E., laid out three simple forms of government: monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by a few) and democracy (rule by the many), explained what was wrong with each, showed how each deteriorated over time, and suggested that the best form of government would be one that balanced these three orders of society. It came to be called the "mixed government" theory, and Aristotle enshrined it as the centerpiece of his Politics.Other classical writers (Polybius, etc.) concurred that only mixed government could prevent cycles of violence, slides into tyranny or mob rule, decay of liberty and public virtue. After its fall, the old Roman republic was mourned (probably falsely) as the perfect example of mixed government, and the nostalgic fondness for it in Plutarch, Livy, and many other late Roman authors confirmed many of the Founders in their sense that this was the best path for America.The Federalists built the notion of mixed government into the U.S. Constitution. In many details, they strove for a balance between the one president, the few senators and the Representatives of the many.Not everyone who participated in the founding was convinced about mixed government, however. Those who thought the new country could bear a pure democracy based their hope on America's agrarian nature, though this hope, too, was rooted in the ethics of the Roman republic. To Jefferson and Madison, the secret of the ancient republics' successes was not their mixed form of government, but their pastoral values. "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens," Jefferson wrote. "They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its interest and liberty by the most lasting bonds." His famous conclusion was that "our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America."The modern American government is a hybrid of mixed government with representative democracy, brought about mainly by the rise, in the last decade of the 18th century, of political parties which cut across class lines, whose division replaced that which was intended among the branches of government. To those who had grown up believing in mixed governments, this was alarming.Washington devoted most of his Farewell Address to an attack on this development. John Adams wrote in 1806: "I once thought our Constitution was quasi or mixed government, but they (Republicans) have now made it, to all intents and purposes, in virtue, in spirit, and in effect, a democracy. We are left without resources but in our prayers and tears, and have nothing that we can do or say, but the Lord have mercy on us."It would get worse, for the mixed government purists. The selection of the Electoral College gradually shifted to the popular vote (by 1828 only South Carolina and Delaware still chose their electors through the state legislatures). This and the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators, in 1913, were the greatest blows to the mixed government created in 1787. Yet aspects of it remain, in the appointments-for-life of Supreme Court justices, for instance, and in the Electoral College.

Zack Walker

Pennsylvania had three lynchings in the years when that was common practice in America. Maryland had one. In Coatesville, Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1911, a black man named Zack Walker was burned alive for killing a white steel mill cop. They dragged him from the hospital, still chained to his bedstead, and burned him to death in front of thousands of witnesses in a field south of the city. No one was convicted of the crime. When he staggered from the pyre, a mass of flames, with rakes they shoved him back in. I have seen the picture of what was left of him. It would not fill a grocery bag. Around it are the bare feet and legs of young boys. I found the photos in the back of a cabinet drawer of the West Chester newspaper when I became an editor there.A year after the lynching, John Jay Chapman, poet, dramatist and social critic, came to Coatesville, hired a hall there and held a memorial service. Only two people came. But the speech was published in Harper's Weekly (Sept. 21, 1912) and Chapman's book of essays, "Memories and Milestones," (1915) and has become a classic. Here is part of what he said: We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history — not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent for our share in it. We do not start any agitation with regard to that particular crime. I understand that an attempt to prosecute the chief criminals has been made, and has entirely failed; because the whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt. The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it. I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government! As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal — a cold thing, an awful thing. I said to myself, "I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there." What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people. For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker. Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of the ampitheater in the degenerate days of Roman luxury could do it. But here an audience chosen by chance in America has stood spellbound through an improvised auto-da-fé, irregular, illegal, having no religious significance, not sanctioned by custom, having no immediate provocation, the audience standing by merely in cold dislike. I saw during one moment something beyond all argument in the depth of its significance. No theories about the race problem, no statistics, legislation, or mere educational endeavor, can quite meet the lack which that day revealed in the American people. For what we saw was death. The people stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them. .... Let me say something more about the whole matter. The subject we are dealing with is not local. The act, to be sure, took place at Coatesville and everyone looked to Coatesville to follow it up. Some months ago I asked a friend who lives not far from here something about this case, and about the expected prosecutions, and he replied to me: "It wasn’t in my county," and that made me wonder whose county it was in. And it seemed to be in my county. I live on the Hudson River; but I knew that this great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of today. It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years — the wickedness of the slave trade. All of us are tinctured by it. No special place, no special persons, are to blame. .... There is no country in Europe where the Coatesville tragedy or anything remotely like it could have been enacted, probably no country in the world. On the day of the calamity, those people in the automobiles came by the hundred and watched the torture, and passers-by came in a great multitude and watched it — and did nothing. On the next morning the newspapers spread the news and spread the paralysis until the whole country seemed to be helplessly watching this awful murder, as awful as anything ever done on this earth; and the whole of our people seemed to be looking on helplessly, not able to respond, not knowing what to do next. That spectacle has been in my mind. The trouble has come down to us out of the past. The only reason slavery is wrong is that it is cruel and makes men cruel and leaves them cruel. Someone may say that you and I cannot repent because we did not do the act. But we are involved in it. We are still looking on. Do you not see that this whole event is merely the last parable, the most vivid, the most terrible illustration that ever was given by man or imagined by a Jewish prophet, of the relation between good and evil in this world, and of the relation of men to one another? This whole matter has been an historic episode; but it is a part, not only of our national history, but of the personal history of each one of us."

Civil War: Christiana

The "Christiana Riot" is one of the better-known stories from the days of the Underground Railroad and runaway slave resistance, in part because of the subsequent trial and in part because William Parker published his story in the "Atlantic Monthly" in 1866.The tale is set on a farm outside the town of Christiana, Pennsylvania, near the Lancaster-Chester county boundary and not far from the Mason-Dixon Line. There was a lawlessness in the region that predated slavery disputes: it was a haven for horse thieves and chicken thieves. The landscape of steep wooded hills and scrubby ravines made ideal hideouts and perfect terrain for stealthy movement. The intersection of three states and five counties within a few miles made this a legal shadowland, ideal for outlaws. Taverns, like the Line House between Pennsylvania and Delaware, were deliberately built to straddle boundaries; if the sheriff from one county walked into the tavern, all the criminal element simply shuffled down to the far end of the bar -- out of his jurisdiction. The 1980s movie "At Close Range" was based on a modern story from this region, though the setting was shifted to Tennessee.The path of Eastern Shore Maryland runaways naturally led up through this area, and the borderlands offered a haven to both runaways and kidnappers. Despite the intermittent danger from kidnappers, many free blacks settled in the area, lured in part by a population of sympathetic whites, including Quakers and plenty of farmers willing to hire runaways because they worked hard and worked cheap.Parker had lived there since he ran off from slavery in Maryland in 1839. He claimed to have set up a protective league among local blacks in the early 1840s, and to have instigated riots to free fugitives from as early as 1841.Later events can be corroborated. One incident, probably from 1850, involved slave-catchers taking a woman named Elizabeth. They stopped at a tavern, which gave Parker and his gang time to catch up to them and set a trap. One of Parker's men, mounted on a conspicuous white horse, rode behind the wagon with the captured slave. This signaled the others, in hiding on Gap Hill, which wagon to attack. They did, the woman escaped, and Parker claimed the slave-catchers were so badly beaten that up to three of them later died.Parker also arranged the barn-burning of a tavernkeeper who had said he would welcome slave-catchers, and he and his confederates attacked blacks they believed to be informers. One was badly beaten, in "an appeal to the Lynch Code," and the other had his house burned down around him, although he escaped to a neighbor's, rather than being shot to death as he ran out, as Parker had planned.Four slaves of Marylander Edward Gorsuch had escaped late in 1849, and they took refuge in the Christiana area. An informer told Gorsuch where they were in August 1851, and the Methodist deacon, known as a kind master, decided to retrieve his property. He went to Philadelphia for the proper papers, along with his son, cousin, nephew, and two neighbors. Joined by U.S. Marshal Henry Kline and two officers, they took the train to Christiana.Also on the train was a black Philadelphian, Samuel Williams, who knew that this was a posse. His purpose was twofold: to inform the refugees that they were being sought, and to let the posse see him and know that their plans were exposed. The implicit threat of violence intimidated Kline's two men, who returned to Philadelphia, leaving Gorsuch and his party of five and a reluctant Kline.Kline dragged his feet and the party lost a day, which gave Williams' warning time to circulate in the community. But it also seems that the slaves mistook the delay, and thought Gorsuch had given up. So when the posse arrived at Parker's house at dawn on Sept. 11, it took them by surprise.Kline and Gorsuch went into the house and told the slaves they wouldn't be punished if they returned with him peacefully. But the blacks on the second floor responded by hurling things at the men in the yard, injuring some of them. Kline then announced his official position and threatened to come upstairs. Gorsuch started up the stairs, but the blacks threw an axe and a pronged fish spear at him, so he retreated out of range. Kline read the warrant and both men then left the house into the yard. A shot was fired, but each side claimed the other had fired it.A couple of hours passed. Parker said he engaged in a scriptural debate with Gorsuch. There were seven whites against seven blacks, two of the latter women. The stone house was an excellent fort. Kline probably was simply seeing things in a practical way when he said there was no way to take the fugitives with the force on hand, and he advised leaving. But Gorsuch seemed to think time was on his side. If Parker's account is accurate, Gorsuch was right, as some of the band in the house, including Parker's brother and sister-in-law, wanted to give up.But the delay proved deadly. Some white neighbors, aroused by one of Parker's confederates, arrived at the same time as a large number of local blacks, well armed. The mix of motives of the white neighbors -- Quakers Elijah Lewis and Joseph Scarlett and miller Castner Hanway -- is hard to determine. One theory, plausible to me in the light of Quaker ways, is that they were mainly there to intimidate by their presence, as Williams had attempted to do on the train.But the effect on the blacks in the Parker house was to galvanize them into resistance. Kline requested aid from Hanway, who warned him he had better leave quickly or blood would be shed. Kline seemed to find this a good idea, but Gorsuch moved toward the house. The blacks attacked, and Gorsuch was killed, possibly "finished off by the women," as Parker later boasted. Gorsuch's son ran to his aid, but was badly wounded himself. The cousin and nephew, during the retreat, suffered buckshot wounds.The blacks most obviously involved in the fight -- Parker, the men in his house, the other Gorsuch fugitives, and two who were wounded -- set off for Canada that night. Parker was hidden for a time in upstate New York by Frederick Douglass. Parker's wife and sister-in-law were left behind to be arrested, only to be released when the prosecution decided it would damage its case to try women.Because of the violence, blacks were rounded up in the area and as many as six were remanded to slavery, including Parker's mother-in-law. Parker also left behind a large packet of letters from fugitives and resisters that would have incriminated many in the area had it come into the hands of the law, but a local Quaker found it first and burned it.Twenty-seven blacks and three whites were arrested and charged with treason. Lewis pretended he had acted only until he found out it was not an illegal kidnapping. Hanway pretended to be just observing. The trial for treason, rather than some more appropriate charge, was an attempt to placate Southern anger, for a slaveholder had been murdered in the course of a legal action while the North, figuratively, looked on.


GUY DAVENPORT1927-2005My favorite modern American writer, Guy Davenport, has died.Don't feel bad if you've never heard of him. It was an inside joke that Davenport fans were so few we could be conveniently identified with two-digit jersey numbers, like a hockey team. For instance, David Eisenman, who was re-issuing a beautiful new version of an old Davenport work, was no. 19.In 1982, I was a junior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Dickinson was, at the time a famously "preppie" place. It was expensive (though ridiculously cheap by modern standards), and most of my fellow students went home for the holidays to wealthy families in leafy burbs of Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. We studied economics and political science, in classes of professors who had held government positions in the Carter Administration. The place was socially, if not politically, conservative, and the general notion of letting loose and acting wild was a beer-sodden frat party.I'm not knocking it; it was what it was; and I'm delighted that this school saw fit to hire a "poet in residence." His name was Kerry Shawn Keys, and he lived in a cabin in the woods with a very beautiful girl. He had long black hair and piercing gray eyes and he walked with a wooden staff. I met him first in the school laundromat. If you just glanced at him, you'd mistake him for a hippie poet poseur, and I think he knew that about himself and enjoyed it. Because he really had poetry in his veins. His own work was excellent, authentic, even if the frank zen earthiness of it shocked some of the Izod-clad student body. And he had an ear for the good stuff.I took his seminar that spring. He introduced us to Gary Snyder, Ted Hughes -- tough, modern verse. We brought in our own works and read them aloud. They were as bad as you can imagine, but he found what was good in them.At one point he quoted a line ... "balanced on the fine edge, now of the wind's sword, now of the wave's blade" ... from Guy Davenport's translation of Archilochos. He said I definitely should read Archilochos. By which me meant I should read Davenport, because I didn't read Greek at the time and as far as I know neither did Keys. So I tracked down "Seven Greeks" at the school library and took it home to my attic apartment and fell in love with it.Seven poets from impossibly ancient times who survive only in tatters, rags of verse from moth-eaten mummy-wrap and words quoted by other authors. Yet under Davenport's deft touch, the mere chaff of words became poetry itself. Sappho and Archilochos read as though they could have been contemporaries of Hughes and Snyder. I've bought "Seven Greeks" six times in my life. I'm forever lending it to people I know won't return it (and I don't intend them to).It took me years to discover that this Guy Davenport person had done more than translations. I don't remember now whether I discovered that by reading a review or by accident while browsing bookstores. But I do remember that "Eclogues" was the first original work of his that I picked up. Since then I've bought everything I can find, and it's not easy to find.Davenport was one of the last living disciples of Ezra Pound. He was a brilliant and learned man, but with a warm, salt-of-the-earth, Southern sensibility. Think Pound without the prickly aestheticism and the Ivy League snobbery, without the fascism. Like his fellow Southern scholar Hugh Kenner, who also died recently (and whose works Davenport illustrated), Davenport imbued Pounds "ideogramatic" idea of poetry and put it to work in prose.Pound, based on a brilliant misreading of the structure of Chinese writing, thought he saw in Chinese characters an overlaying of real things that became an insight when you saw several things through one another.Davenport, for my money, does it better than Pound. In criticism, social commentary, and historical fiction, Davenport had the knack of plunging an arm into the stream of time and pulling up luminous pebbles, then arranging them brilliantly. In one essay, "The Geography of the Imagination," Davenport relates the Dogon trickster legends of West Africa to Brer Rabbit, to an essay on furniture by Poe, to Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West" (seen in terms of World War I and the first three stories in Joyce's "The Dubliners"), to the Persephone myth (and its realization in a bit of O. Henry sentiment). It ends with a close analysis of classical imagery in Grant Wood's painting, "American Gothic." Along the way, Davenport introduces, in cameo appearances, John Philip Sousa, Heraclitus, Amerigo Vespucci, the sack of Eleusis by the Visigoths, the idea of Germany, Thomas Jefferson's dinners, the discovery of binary stars, and the industrial revolution. The essay itself is not quite 12 pages long.One of my favorite Davenport works is "The Wooden Dove of Archytas." In it, he tells two stories at once, alternately, without further elaboration. In ancient Greece, a philosopher-schoolmaster puts his class to work and devises a steam-powered artificial bird that is meant to really fly in the presence of the skeptical parents. And in the modern American South, the descendants of slaves and the descendants of local Indian tribes arrange a mourning service for a beloved pet dove.One of my favorite pleasures is reading "The Wooden Dove of Archytas" aloud -- my wife and son enjoy this enough to indulge me once in a while: it's a challenging dance to shift the accents, Greek, Cherokee, Southern black, and Davenport's ear is spot-on. The real mark of good writing is that it's better when read aloud.I understand ancient Greece far better through Davenport's fictions than I do through stilted translations of ancient poems and tragedies. It reminds me of what someone said about Thomas U. Walter, the great Greek revival architect: He doesn't just imitate the Greeks; he thinks the way they thought.This is modernism, but it's modernism with the dirt under its fingernails. It's made of real things, not abstractions, and it's made in love, of the word, of the story, of the characters, of the reader.Bruce Bawer on Davenport: Modernism was Davenport's turf, Pound his hero. But since, in his view, the twentieth century's genius was that it began "to connect what had seemed to be abrupt discontinuities of culture into whole fabrics," he did not stay put in his own period but ventured far afield, seeking out and discerning ties across cultures, disciplines, and centuries (Don Quixote's influence on Lolita; Conrad's Chance as "a translation, into another style, of Dombey and Son"), and writing stories ("Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta") in which personages from far-flung epochs and places bumped up against one another. For Davenport, civilization was one unbroken text: If Apollinaire "could see the modern," he observed, it was "because he loved all that had lasted from before. You see Cézanne by loving Poussin and you see Poussin by loving Pompeii and you see Pompeii by loving Cnossos." Just as the North Carolina poet Lenard Moore had learned to see "tobacco country ... through the eyes of the medieval Japanese poet Basho," so was the young Davenport, an aspiring painter, helped to see his native South Carolina countryside by Constable's English landscapes ("Culture," as Davenport wrote in these pages last year, "continues"). Naturally, Davenport's disciples defy and transcend political categories and every other pigeon-hole. Like the writer himself. Davenport wrote that Lévi-Strauss was too original of mind "to be the exponent of a master or a school," and Bawer correctly observes that "he might have been referring to himself." Long a contributor to National Review, he mocked academic groupthink —- and thwacked the New York Review of Books for having "done more to discourage good writing in the United States than the Litkontrol branch of the Politburo has in the Soviet Union." But he also railed against conservative orthodoxies, reviling religious fundamentalism and decrying capitalism's obliteration of American communities. Indeed, even as Davenport rejoiced in modernism and echoed his idol Pound's determination to "make it new," he (who never learned to drive) despised modern technology, comparing the twentieth century —- the "most miserable of ages since the Barbarians poured into Rome" —- unfavorably to Whitman's time: "His age walked with a sprier step than ours; it bounced in buckboard and carriage; a man on a horse has his blood shaken and his muscles pulled. A man in an automobile is as active as a sloth. ... Dullness, constant numbing dullness, was the last thing Whitman would have thought of America, but that is what has happened." If Susan Sontag called for an erotics of art, for Davenport —- whose forthrightly homoerotic fiction celebrated active minds in active bodies —- art, ideas, and frank physicality were parts of a single whole (as a character in the title story of The Cardiff Team [1996] puts it, "Finding out about what's in books and the world and feeling great in my pants were cooperative").In Davenport's view, modern Americans, possessed by the twin demons of anti-intellectualism and car lust, had sold both mind and body in return for a mess of pottage—and forfeited their souls in the process. And he saw this Faustian transaction mirrored in the fate of an apple and a pear tree near his Lexington house that "had grown around each other in a double spiral" of breathtaking beauty, only to fall one day to a developer's chain saw, its cruel scream "the language of devils at their business."Having watched my neighbors cut down a century-old pine tree, the better to park their six cars on their lawn (they only have five people in the family), I could only wish for the skill of Davenport to invoke down the proper curse on their heads.I became a devotee of Davenport's writing -- fiction and non-fiction alike -- long before I knew much about the man himself. And when he died earlier this year, Davenport still was someone I knew mostly by the biographical details he revealed in his writings.Now, an unsigned remembrance in the New Criterion tells me I liked him even better than I thought I did, without knowing it. A less academic personality is difficult to imagine. Indeed, although Guy was a gentle, accommodating soul, someone whose unextinguishable curiosity generally left him amused rather than indignant at the spectacle of human foibles, he made an exception for the arid, the pedantic, the politically correct, in short, for the academic —- the one term, so far as we can recall, that was for him invariably a term of diminishment, a term of contempt. And so forth. That's not the main point of the piece, which is a delightful romp through Davenport's greatest hits in writing essays and reviews.