Sunday, July 13, 2014


Noted a couple of days ago in Little Wilson and Big God, by Anthony Burgess, the first volume of his autobiography:

There is something desperately wrong with our remembering mechanisms. The trivial, especially if it is in verse, sticks. Great thoughts and great expression of great thoughts vanish. I have repertory of about a thousand popular songs and only one line of Goethe. From one of the 'Little Tales' in Punch, I remember this: "He said I love you, and she said I love you too. Then they went in to tea and he made jokes about the jam sandwiches.' What the hell is wrong with us? The greatness of James Joyce lies partly in his recognition of the importance of the trivial, but it is not his responsibility to explain the importance. Flaubert's Felicite dies seeing a parrot flutter over her head. I shall die on the memory of the HP Sauce bottle from which I first learned French:  'Setty sauce, de premier choyks. . .'
(I think that I have the advantage of Burgess in the matter of Goethe: I can remember three or three and a half lines, probably somewhat mangled.)

I suspect that the sticking power of the trivial verse comes in part from the age at which it is encountered. The lyrics of John Lennon or John Denver are remembered because encountered in childhood or adolescence, ages of energy and hope.  And I think that the same process works for much better verse. The Athenians captured at Syracuse could recite Euripides at great length; Eugenia Ginsburg, on the train to Siberia, could recite Pushkin for half an hour by the watch; I'm sure that they learned the verse young.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Sesquicentennial

One hundred and fifty years ago today and this weekend, Federal and Confederate troops skirmished on the outskirts of Washington, DC, three miles or so from where I sit. The Washington Post and other local news sources have items about the anniversary.

Federal forces under General David Hunter had been forced by lack of supplies to retreat from the Shenandoah Valley; their lack of ammunition meant that they had to retreat toward the Ohio River, rather than directly toward Harper's Ferry. This opened the valley to Confederate forces under Jubal Early, who crossed the Potomac, and moved on Washington. General Lew Wallace got together a scratch force of mostly raw troops, and fought a delaying action on the Monocacy River near Frederick. They Union force lost, but the Confederates were delayed a day, which gave Federal reinforcements, principally the 6th corps of the Army of the Potomac, to arrive from the James River.

July 12th and 13th saw skirmishing in front of Washington, mostly in the area around Fort Stevens, near present-day Piney Branch Road and Georgia Avenue, NW., though some Confederate cavalry made a reconnaissance in the direction of what is now the American University neighborhood. Fort DeRussy, in Rock Creek Park near Military Road, contributed fire support. Ultimately, Early decided that it was not worth trying to force his way into the city, and retreated.

Vestiges of the works and the battle remain. You can see the old earthworks at Fort Stevens from Piney Branch Road; you can see what is left of Fort DeRussy by walking a hundred yards or so in from the intersection of Military Road and Oregon Avenue, NW. Battleground National Cemetery, on Georgia Avenue, NW, between Van Buren St. and Whittier Place has graves of Federal soldiers; it occupies about a third of a city block. In the churchyard of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, about three miles north, there is a grave marker for some Confederate soldiers.

It certainly would have embarrassed the United States government to have the capital raided. Whether that would have had an effect on the war is less clear; there had been a year of successes by July 1864. Early's raid led to Philip Sheridan taking command of Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley, where he defeated Early's forces at Fisher's Creek and Winchester, giving the US command of most of the valley.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

And One Grows Old

Mme. de Sevigne writes to the Comte du Bussy-Rabutin, August 6, 1675:
You also know about my life: five or six friends whose company pleases me, a thousand little duties, and that's something. But what upsets me is that the days go by in doing nothing, and one grows old, and one dies, and our poor life is made up of these days.
I can't say that many of my days pass in doing nothing; but enough seem to pass in accomplishing nothing, and given Mme. de Sevigne's thousand duties, perhaps that's what she meant.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Programming as Performance

Twenty-five years ago, in a systems administration class, I met a couple of women who seemed rather old, though reckoning says that they were younger than I am now.Both had started programming when it was an unusual occupation. At least one had learned the trade in Manhattan, which then probably had more programmers than Seattle and Palo Alto put together.

She told me that when she was a new programmer, the company's machine room had a picture window onto the sidewalk. Passersby would stop to look, for computers were few then, and not well understood. The programmer would hand off her card deck to the operator, who would read in the job, set it, and run it. This gave the spectators more to watch, for in those days tapes held much of the data and the work space, disk drives being new, few, and expensive: one could watch the drives go back and forth, tapes being taken down and hung, and so on. But if the program ABENDed (came to an abnormal end), all the tapes would stop at once, and the failure would be obvious to the public. It was, she said, a strong incentive to write one's program correctly.

I believe her. The PC revolution made it possible for millions to encounter program failures, and the web has greatly increased the number of programs and the number of users. But nobody has to hand off the code to an operator in full view of a sidewalk full of New Yorkers.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Historical Fiction

I think that the rules for historical fiction reduce to a generalization of one of Mark Twain's nineteen rules for romantic fiction, as given in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses":
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.
I would omit the reference to the woodsman and the forest, and settle for the crass stupidities not being played. But even this sometimes is too much to ask.

As to particulars, one must limit "historical fiction" to the historical novel, perhaps as practiced since Sir Walter Scott. The Greek and Roman epics are full of anachronisms: Homer has no idea of the tactics of chariot warfare (not that anyone else does); Homer's warriors wear armor of different eras; Virgil has bronze-prowed ships and makes his Trojans recline at table like Romans. Shakespeare has bells tolling the hour in republican Rome; he uses the name of a tough and durable partisan warrior for his wastrel Falstaff; and nobody cares.

But in the novel, details count. I should say that rules are something like the following:
  1. You have limited freedom with well-known historical events. You can write up Borodino as a draw, but not Marengo. You should not represent General Desaix as the victor of Hohenlinden, or place General Grant at Gettysburg.
  2. The diction should be internally consistent. Probably it is better not to archaize too much. Definitely it is best to avoid obviously recent usages: Matthew Brady had better not take "selfies".
  3. The characters' thoughts should be more or less appropriate to their era. They should not in the 1860s use the terms of 1970s psychology.
  4. Technology and its products should not be in advance of the age.
Beyond that, I think that the rules are those of general fiction. Your characters must be plausible. They must say and do what the reader can imagine them saying and doing in life. To refer again to Twain,
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Blitz Reading

On the first Friday of June, an errand took us to Bethesda, where we meant also to see a movie. We had some time between errand and movie, which we used to look into the Barnes and Noble at Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues. There we bought several books, among them The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson, the last of his "Liberation Trilogy" on the US Army's campaigns in the North Africa and Europe during World War II. It was only later that I noticed how tidy it was to have bought the book on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

I finished the book in four or five days. It helped, of course, that I know how the story comes out, knew even the broad outlines of Huertgen Forest, the Colmar Pocket, etc. But Atkinson writes plainly and clearly, for one thing. For another, the story remains absorbing for those of us who grew up when most of the fathers around had been under arms during World War II.

I am no historian. Yet Atkinson's judgments in the trilogy have mostly matched what I read elsewhere, in Moorhead, Weigley, Keegan, Howard, and others. I believe that he has his facts down, and that his judgments are generally sound.

He writes well, a few annoying tics set aside. He has the weakness for the occasional foreign word in italics: gefreiter, frere, resistant. His thumbnail characterizations of his generals (and a few noted field or company officers and NCOs, for example Audie Murphy) recall Ernie Pyle at best, Time Magazine at worst. Allied forces figure only to the extent that they affect American actions--the action on Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches in 1944 gets very little more attention than the British operations on Walcheren Island in 1809; that is  a reasonable choice, given that he is writing about the US Army, but occasionally it is distracting.

I am glad to have read it. I'm not sure what happened to my copy of An Army at Dawn, the first volume of the trilogy, but probably I gave it to my brother. I gave away the second volume of the trilogy, The Day of Battle, about the Italian campaign, in part because I found it too tempting to re-read. I may give away The Guns at Last Light on the same grounds.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Probably It Is the Humidity

We spent most of Saturday through Tuesday in New Orleans. I have long become accustomed to the summers around Washington, DC, and thought myself pretty tough because of that. But now and then I go south in the summer, and discover I'm not. In Atlanta, years ago, I thought it was the heat. In New Orleans, I'm fairly sure that it was the humidity: the reported temperatures were even with those in Washington, yet I was more uncomfortable than I would have been here.

I did enjoy the visit. I got to poke around a few bookstores. I picked up a copy of Jacques Barzun's A Word or Two Before You Go at Crescent City Books (which does not want Google Glasses or firearms on premises). I admired the density of books at Arcadia Books, though wondering whether someday a patron or employee will be buried in an avalanche, and  deciding that I didn't have suitcase room for some Pleiade volumes. I decided against a signed cop[y of The Poison Pen at Faulkner House Books. And I saw a bit of the city otherwise.

On Carondelet Street, I noticed an odd juxtaposition:

My guess is that Jesuit High School, now several miles farther from downtown, started here. But the right conspiracy buff could find much to work with.

It was my impression that the statue of Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square is similar to but also slightly inferior to the statue in Lafayette Square in Washington; however, Wikipedia says that they are castings from the same mold. It may be that I'm used to seeing the statue from its right side, and in New Orleans I approached it from the left.. The base of the New Orleans statue has "The Union, It Must, and Will be Preserved" on two sides, which an acquaintance attributed to the Federal occupiers during the Civil War. The statue in Washington says "Our Federal Union: It Must Be Preserved", both versions of a toast Jackson gave at the Jefferson Day dinner of 1830.