Thursday, July 30, 2015

Biography and Memoir

Let me say first that I found Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia by Caroline Moorehead informative and well worth the time spent reading. It offers a detailed account of Origo's long and interesting life.

It struck me, however, as suffering from a problem that biographies of writers sometimes do. Where the material is clearly taken from the subject's own writings, there is the risk that the reader will be comparing them to the book at hand. If the subject was a good writer, the biographer had better be also. So where the biography tracked Origo's memoirs War in Val d'Orcia and Images and Shadows: Parts of a Life, I kept hearing Origo's words behind Moorehead's, generally not to Moorehead's advantage. In a few cases, Moorehead provides slightly inaccurate context, for example quoting Santayana in a way that removes the reference to his revision of The Life of Reason.  I don't know what the biographer of a writer should do, unless generally steer as far as possible from the subject's own words, and include them, in quotation marks and with clear context, where most useful.

Yet there are matters that don't (or once didn't) find their way into memoirs. U.S. Grant's memoirs are wonderfully written and clear throughout on the campaigns he served in and directed. However, he does not mention the drinking that made his peacetime superiors demand that he resign his commission, and that alarmed his subordinates during lulls in the campaigns. Richard Henry Dana could tell you anything about the operation of a brig, or the duties of a "hide-drogher" on shore in California; he omitted, it seems, to discuss the happy concubinage in which he lived for part of his shore time. I suppose that one could complain that St. Augustine's Confessions, explicit enough on his sins, don't tell how he ran his diocese or that Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua tells nothing about university management.

Moorehead supplies what Origo's discretion omitted: Origo's affairs, her mother's, her stepfather's, those of a fair portion of the Anglo-American colony in Tuscany. She says what Origo does not quite say, that her mother was a hypochondriac, and bad company for other reasons as well. She discusses at greater length, if not very clearly, Antonio Origo's relations with the Fascist regime. And some of what Moorehead provides simply did not fit into Origo's memoirs as falling outside the main topics or post-dating the periods covered. If she does not write as well as Origo, she writes clearly for the most part.

Moorehead does have some difficulties with time.
By 1911, it was getting on for half a century since Florence had been, briefly, the capital of Italy, and most of the city's best-known foreign residents,  Swinburne, Dickens, Trollope, the Brownings, Mark Twain, Henry James and the Goncourt brothers, had long since departed, gone home to write memoirs of their Florentine lives, leaving behind much gossip about their visits.
By 1911, everyone on that list but Henry James had departed not simply from Florence but from this life, most of them not very recently. I cannot tell from her account when Bernhard Berenson took up with Mary Costelloe; it is not important to the biography, and I wouldn't care but for the puzzle. In the sentence
That summer the rains arrived early in August, and toads emerged in the garden to sit in the water
I can date "that summer" somewhere between 1927 and 1932, but no more precisely.

Still, I am glad to have read it. It is unlikely that I will look into it again as soon or as often as I will into Origo's memoirs.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

So Many Days

According to the calendar of events in the back of The Northwest Current, today is

The weather so far, muggy with light rain, is not favorable for digging in the ground, even for mock excavation, or playing golf. Some of the activities of the Polish Day must be inside, for they include a "mini Chopin recital".

Thursday, July 16, 2015

For Everyday Use

A Langenscheidt's Pocket Dictionary: Latin-English, English-Latin, sat beside my computer for several weeks, I'm not sure why. Last weekend, I noticed that the descriptions on the back cover conclude with "The ideal compact reference for everyday use."

Who, other than teacher, scholar, or student, makes use of a Latin-English dictionary every day? I did look into it several times a week, mostly because my computer takes a while to boot up and be ready for use. So I know, until I forget, that "ethologus" means "an imitator of manners" and "pernonides" is "son of a ham". Yet it has moved, and I have managed to start the computer without missing it.

Flann O'Brien writes in the "WAAMA, etc." section of The Best of Myles, in proposing the employment of professional book handlers,
The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary.
 The box on the ear was out of fashion in this country by my parents' generation. The only dictionary now falling apart in the house is a Langenscheidt's, but for German and English. Time has as much to do with its state as use, I think.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rereading Dana

The Yankee pride in knowing how to do things, and in doing them well, runs through Two Years Before the Mast. Shortly after the ship's arrival in California, it arrives in Monterey, and
I also connected with our arrival here another circumstance which more nearly concerns myself; viz, my first act of what the sailors will allow to be seamanship--sending down a royal-yard. I had seen it done once or twice at sea, and an old sailor, whose favor I had taken some pains to gain, had taught me carefully everything which was necessary to be done, and in its proper order, and advised me to take the first opportunity when we were in port, and try it. I told the second mate, with whom I had been pretty thick when he was before the mast, that I would do it, and got him to ask the mate to send me up the first time they were struck. Accordingly I was called upon, and went up, repeating the operations over in my mind, taking care to get everything in its order, for the slightest mistake spoils the whole. Fortunately, I got through without any word from the officer, and heard the "well done" of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a "bene" at the foot of a Latin exercise.
Doing things better than others adds to the pride:
There we found the brig which we had assisted in getting off lying at anchor, with a mixed crew of Americans, English, Sandwich Islanders, Spaniards, and Spanish Indians; and, though much smaller than we, yet she had three times the number of men; and she needed them, for her officers were Californians. No vessels in the world go so sparingly manned as American and English; and none do so well. A Yankee brig of that size would have had a crew of four men, and would have worked round and round her. The Italian ship had a crew of thirty men; nearly three times as many as the Alert, which was afterwards on the coast, and was of the same size; yet the Alert would get under weigh and come-to in half the time, and get two anchors, while they were all talking at once--jabbering like a parcel of "Yahoos," and running about decks to find their cat-block.
The others can as easily be Russians, Yankee whalers with a crew mostly of country boys who "hadn't got the hayseed out of their hair",  or much later a midshipman of the United States Navy, who "could not tell ladies the length of a fathom, and said it depended on circumstances."

Dana does concede the Californians superiority in riding
There are probably no better riders in the world. They get upon a horse when only four or five years old, their little legs not long enough to come half way over his sides; and may almost be said to keep on him until they have grown to him.... They can hardly go from one house to another without getting on a horse, there being generally several standing tied to the door-posts of the little cottages.
and in dancing
... we were invited, from every quarter, to give them an American sailor's dance; but after the ridiculous figure some of our countrymen cut, in dancing after the Spaniards, we thought it best to leave it to their imaginations. Our agent, with a tight, black, swallow-tailed coat, just imported from Boston, a high stiff cravat, looking as if he had been pinned and skewered, with only his feet and hands left free, took the floor just after Bandini; and we thought they had had enough of Yankee grace.
But what are riding and dancing to seamanship and boat handling? In general, his references to the Mexican population of California are slightly contemptuous.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. shipped as a common seaman, "before the mast" in August 1834
from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure
He returned in September 1836, having spent nearly a year and a half on the coast of California, between San Diego and San Francisco Bay, and having in Santa Barbara read an account of the graduation of his class at Harvard. In the California of the middle 1830s, the site of the modern San  Francisco was occupied by a mission and the board house of a Yankee trader. Los Angeles was "the Pueblo" (which once gets its almost full title  "Pueblo de los Angeles"), an inconvenient thirty miles from the bad roadstead of San Pedro. Monterey was the capital of the province.

Home, he finished his undergraduate work at Harvard and entered its law school. His legal practice specialized, not surprisingly, in maritime law. He served as United States Attorney for Massachusetts during Lincoln's administration, having been active in the Free Soil movement, and in efforts to protect the free Negroes of Massachusetts from the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act. He did well enough as a lawyer, but would probably have been happier as a scholar and writer.  He returned to California, by then a state, for a brief visit in 1859, and found San Francisco changed out of recognition, San Diego hardly at all.

D.H. Lawrence speaks well of  Two Years Before the Mast in his Studies in the Classic American Literature. Simon Leys translated it into French, and in his The Hall of Uselessness includes a concise account of Dana's life and writings, crediting him with establish the rule that ships under sail have the right of way against those using power.

The copy I have been reading, purchased at the end of the 1960s serves well enough. Somebody should bring out an annotated edition that would carefully explain, with illustrations, the technical terms. I know well enough what a fathom is, and even a studding sail yard,  but have to guess at plenty of other terms. The Library of America publishes Two  Years along with two other books of travel Dana wrote. They might better publish it with The Seaman's Friend, a book of

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Recently while talking to neighbors I noticed a squash racket placed on the transom over their front door. I asked whether birds had been trying to nest there: Yes, and succeeded. I took a few steps east, and  could see the robin's nest nestled among the objects that they had placed there to keep the robins away.

We had a robin or robins trying to nest on our transom for a while this spring. We put up garden tools and scrap metal, we discarded the bits of nest that we found, and eventually we put bird spikes in place. Perhaps the bird spikes worked, perhaps the robins had simply found a better place to go, to the neighbor's house perhaps. I suspect they succeeded across the street because the family was out of town for a weekend. Considering the amount of nesting material that ended up on our porch, I don't think that a ledge so narrow is the best place to build a nest. Yet it is out of the weather and must be hard for predators to reach.

In the back yard, we have a metal arch next to the garage, over which we have trained a couple of rose bushes. Last fall, when the leaves had fallen, I notice a nest near the top of the arch. It struck me as a good spot, for I couldn't imagine a cat pressing through rose branches to get to it. This spring the nest was in use for a while--a robin in it cried out in indignation and flew off when I tried to take a picture of it. It seems to be disused now; a brood would have had time to grow up and fly off. In the meantime, the nest looks like this:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fine Writing

This week, I noticed in Mme. de Stael's De L'Allemagne, in her chapter on Schiller's plays Wallenstein and Mary Stuart,
Nothing is easier than to compose what people call brilliant verses: there are ready-made machines for that...
(She thought, by the way, that the French were given to this, and that Schiller was not.)

Not that long ago, I encountered in Wilfrid Sheed's Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents the tutor,
a third gloomy genius dressed entirely in gray who cured me forever of fine writing with one offhand sentence. "This sort of thing is much easier to do than many people suppose."
In English, I suppose, the model for such advice comes from Samuel Johnson, quoted by Boswell on April 30, 1773:
 I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Thursday, June 11, 2015


On a recent Sunday afternoon I noticed a boy across the street, about four years old, helping to guide the weed whacker that his father operated. I should say that hHe had on eye protection and was well back from the spinning strings. It occurred to me that if I lacked enthusiasm for lawn care in my childhood, it might have been because the tools of the day made less noise and offered fewer dangers. But as far as I can remember, I regarded lawn care as something invented for the oppression of young boys, something that ate up time in weeding or mowing when I could have been doing something else. I don't think that it occurred to me much to relate the mowing to the possibility of playing football, kickball, whiffle ball or tag on that lawn.

For many years, I didn't do much, or any lawn care. Under the trees in Takoma Park, grass grows slowly and sparse. Every three weeks would have kept the lawn more or less decent, and sometimes I managed that. After that, we lived in an apartment and then in a townhouse development, where contractors cared for the lawns. When we first moved here, we used a mowing service until the proprietor ceased to answer phone calls.

This my fourth season of mowing. I expect that I could think up as many alternatives to mowing as I did in my childhood, but I don't much mind it. It is time outside, for one thing. For another, there is the satisfaction of seeing the lawn look better. I suppose that I am turning into the suburbanite who looks censoriously at uncut lawns.

I haven't played kickball in forty-five years, touch football in thirty. Yet I am concerned for the grass and worry a bit when my wife speaks of encroaching on it with new or enlarged flower beds. Grass is good ground cover all year, whether growing or dormant, and the dirt on which it grows won't wash away. Grass does not require mulching, so leaves raked off the grass do not bring mulch along with them. In this climate one need not water grass; it will become yellow in the high summer, but will become green again when the weather cools and the rains come back.