Monday, January 29, 2018


I have never cared for the "Desert Island Discs" notion of choosing a dozen records that one would choose to take into exile Yes, I could come up with a list of twelve; but what if one morning I woke up to know that I had heard enough of those twelve discs for now, and it was time to hear some Strauss or Monteverdi or Ellington?

Yet those of us without practically unlimited time and space do go through the same exercise. The parameters are larger, but the principle is the same. One must choose what to keep. If it is the thousandth rather than the thirteenth spot contested, the choice may be easier, or a matter of indifference. Still, it must be made.

Not quite three years ago, we regained the use of some bookshelves that we had stowed in the garage while a contractor renovated our basement. Suddenly we had plenty of space. Gradually it filled, and now we have little. In fact, we may have less than none, if we were to try to fit in the books now lying tacked on tables. It is time to discard some.

I have been considering the books that are more or less mine, purchased by me or given to me, that is, rather than purchased by my wife or given to her. I can say that The Federalist Era will stay, but Albion's Seed and Washington's Crossing, for all that I think well of David Hackett Fisher, will go. The Big Show in Bololand can probably go, but before or after I finish it? If after, when will that be? Other choices are easier, fortunately. Maybe by May we can make room enough to get us through another couple of years.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Blaming Scott

If you have read Life on the Mississippi, or Quid Plura, you know that Mark Twain blamed Sir Walter Scott's novels, or least the southern obsession with them, for bringing on the Civil War:
Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.
I first read that passage probably fifty years ago, and have encountered it a few times since. But this week I was surprised by a passage in Chateaubriand's memoirs. In late April of 1832, the Duchesse de Berry had landed in France to try to stir up a revolution: her attempt may have outdone the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 for incompetence and futility. By mid-May, she was in hiding in the Vendée, and sent a message to a group of legitimists in Paris:
... there arrived from Nantes a merchant captain who told us where the heroine was. The captain is a handsome young man, brave as sailor, original as a Breton. He disapproved of the the business; he found it foolish; but he said, "If Madame will not leave, it's a question of dying, that's all. And then, counselors, see that you hang Walter Scott--he's the real culprit."
(Mémoires d'outre-tombe, Book 35, Chapter 3) The editor notes that the duchesse was a great reader of Scott.

Twain read widely, and on the face of it there is no reason he mightn't have read Chateaubriand. Yet I find it hard to imagine him reading Chateaubriand with any patience. Paine's biography of Twain has no entry for Chateaubriand in the index, though for that matter it has none for Sir Walter Scott. I suppose this is a case of writers--or perhaps a skipper and a pilot--thinking alike.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Ames, Williams, Whitefield, and Others

Sydney E. Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People is worth reading for anyone with an interest in American history and for anyone who has an interest in the history and sociology of religion and has heard of this boisterous place called America.  However, it does take some time to read the book, which a bit more than 1100 pages--it is not a book to to carry through airports, or read without a bookmark. Ahlstrom first published the work in 1972, concluding it with reflections on the 1960s: in 2004, David D. Hall  contributed about 25 pages that bring the history forward into the 21st Century.

The broad outlines of the history will be familiar to most Americans, at least those who haven't entirely forgotten high school history classes: the Puritans, the Great Awakening, Methodism, Mormonism, etc. Few of us, though, will know any of the history to anything like the level of detail that Ahlstrom gives. How and where did the camp meeting tradition come about? How did there arise an Arminian synod of Presbyterianism, and when did it reunite with those that had exscinded it? How did so much of the New England church, originally Congregationalist, defect to Unitarianism or Anglicanism? And there are the details for the German pietistic sects, the varying strains of Lutheranism, the different immigrant waves of the Catholics, and so on.

The book is organized in sixty-four chapters in nine parts. Most chapters are a dozen or fifteen pages long, so there are plenty of stopping points. The bibliography runs to about forty pages, out of which, time allowing, I may someday pick out two or three books to read. The index is here and there a delight for the names that American, and not only Americans, will give to their offspring.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Michelangelo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We went to New York Monday and Tuesday, in part to be able to see the exhibition Michelangelo:Divine Draftsman & Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It did not disappoint.

With 133 drawings, three sculptures, a painting, and a wooden model of a vault by Michelangelo, plus related works by other artists, it is overwhelming. Perhaps the expert eye could make one pass and sift the work: I cannot. Were I in or close to New York, I'd aim to see the exhibition several times: once for a notion of the whole, however confused, subsequently to reinforce my impressions of the high points. There has been some sharp commentary about the amount of work on view. Yet I suspect that the artist and the critic could find something worth seeing on the nth view of the smallest drawing.

One sees that paper was scarcer then. Many pieces of paper have several drawings, some include bits of poetry or other jottings.

The ceiling of one of the rooms has a quarter-scale photographic reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Around the room are stands with Michelangelo's sketches of this or that figure. Also on each stand is a picture of the figure as painted, and a schematic showing where to find it. In that room or another is a page with his sonnet humorously describing the effects of the work on him.

Though the exhibition has been open for two months, it was crowded. Eventually I lost self-consciousness about leaning over or around other visitors, or nudging others with the coat under my arm. In the Sistine Chapel room, what looked to be a third grade class came in, not tall enough to have a good look at the sketches, but able to look up to the ceiling with the rest of us.

The exhibition is open through February 12. If you can't make it to the museum, and if your coffee table and the floor under it are up to the weight, you can get the exhibition catalogue.