Thursday, July 2, 2020

What makes us one people?

Gordon S. Wood is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Revolutionary era in American history. The Five Books site regularly asks scholars to recommend the best books in their areas of expertise. Today Wood is interviewed about "The Best Fourth of July Books." I haven't read any of them but was particularly interested in some of his comments. Excerpts:
.... In the decade or so following the Declaration of Independence, the former colonies became much more egalitarian. The declaration made the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for ordinary people the goal of the new nation. The United States became a much more democratic, much more middle-class society. In that sense, the Revolution was much more radical than earlier analyses acknowledged. ....

Abraham Lincoln made the declaration into the principal document in American history. In his Gettysburg address, he invoked the declaration’s appeal to equality. “All men are created equal” was, for Lincoln, the central point of the document. He used those words to mobilize the North to continue fighting for the Union, despite the heavy casualties. Since then, the declaration’s appeal to equality has been a powerful touchstone. ....

...[T]here was slavery all over the world in 1776. Slavery had existed for thousands and thousands of years without substantial criticism. People in the eighteenth century, all over the world, took slavery and indentured labor for granted. The American Revolution, and its assertion that all men are created equal, created the first anti-slavery movement in the history of the world. The first meeting of anti-slavery advocates was held in Philadelphia in 1775. That’s not coincidental. The Revolution sparked an American anti-slavery movement. ....

It took another 80 years to finally end slavery, with the Civil War. But in 1776, at lot of people thought that slavery would die a natural death. Indications of that in Virginia, for example, led many to the illusion that slavery would be wiped off of the United States map. We know they were wrong, therefore we indict them for not knowing the future; I think that’s the wrong way to write about history. ....

The Declaration of Independence, which is what we celebrate on the Fourth of July, is America’s saving grace because it is what holds us together. We’re a nation of many different people. We have no common ethnicity. We have no common religion. We have no common race. So, we need to keep honoring the one thing we have in common.

President Abraham Lincoln recognized, in an 1858 speech, that belief in the self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is what makes us, as the first sentence of the declaration says, “one people.” We’ve got to celebrate that oneness, otherwise we’ll cease to be one nation altogether.

P.D. James

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this appreciation of P.D. James, one of my favorite crime novelists. If you've read her, you will enjoy it too. If you haven't you may be tempted to give her a try.
... For her, the key to her books was always the setting. The single body on the drawing-room floor was more horrifying than a dozen bullet-riddled bodies on noir’s mean streets, because it was shockingly out of place. The contrast between respectability and planned brutality intensified the magnitude of such an appalling act. ....

To read a James novel is to acquire an intimate knowledge of flats, kitchens, offices, gardens, villages, castles, clinics, schools, hospitals, houses great and small—and the lives that are lived there. She was particularly fond of isolated places and closed communities....

And even if the setting wasn’t isolated, it was the closed community, the hothouse atmosphere of people too close to one another, that fascinated her....
From Death of an Expert Witness:
The window was slightly open at the bottom. He pushed it open, wincing at the rasp of the wood, and put out his head. The rich, loamy smell of the fen autumn night washed over his face, strong, yet fresh. The rain had stopped and the sky was a tumult of gray clouds through which the moon, now almost full, reeled like a pale, demented ghost. His mind stretched out over the deserted fields and the desolate dikes to the wide, moon-bleached sands of the Wash and the creeping fringes of the North Sea. He could fancy that he smelled its medicinal tang in the rain-washed air. Somewhere out there in the darkness, surrounded by all the paraphernalia of violent death, was a body.
Her detective:
James’ most important character was, of course, Adam Dalgliesh, one of the most iconic figures in crime fiction. The only child of an elderly couple, the son of a vicar, he lost a wife and baby son early on, and since then has led a very private life. He is also a respected poet, a fact that mystifies many onlookers who can’t quite square one man being both a poet and a policeman. Dalgliesh also worries about it himself sometimes: “People tell me things. It had begun when he was a young detective-sergeant and then it had surprised and intrigued him, feeding his poetry, bringing the half-shameful realization that for a detective it would be a useful gift. The pity was there. He had known from childhood the heartbreak of life and that, too, had fed the poetry. He thought, I have taken peoples’ confidences and used them to fasten gyves round their wrists” (The Murder Room).

James always said that she gave Dalgliesh the qualities she most admired in either men or women—“compassion without sentimentality, generosity, courage, intelligence, and independence” (A Certain Justice)—but some of those qualities can cut both ways. His detachment is both his strength and his weakness: “How long could you stay detached, he wondered, before you lost your own soul” (A Mind to Murder, 1963). His independence and lack of sentimentality make him prone to personal antipathies and occasional sudden anger, and his “cold sarcasm could be more devastating than another officer’s bawled obscenities” (Devices and Desires). ....
Something else:
And one other aspect of her life suffused nearly all of her books. She was a devout Anglican, often asked to read lessons from the pulpit, and her novels are full of churches, abbeys, cathedrals, rectories, and churchyards, some as a source of peace, others as the setting for spectacular murders. The novels are also full of those who believe, disbelieve, revere, damn, or pointedly ignore God. ....

James herself, while devout, had her own problems with the Church of England: “I sometimes find it difficult today to recognize the church into which I was baptized. Much of its former dignity, scholarly tolerance, beauty and order have been not so much lost as wantonly thrown away” (Time to Be in Earnest). And in Death in Holy Orders, a distinguished character agrees: “The Church of England will be defunct in twenty years if the present decline continues. Or it’ll be an eccentric sect concerned with maintaining old superstitions and ancient churches. People might want the illusion of spirituality…but they’ve stopped believing in heaven and they’re not afraid of hell.” ....

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

"An objective presence in the life of a believer"

...[Y]ou don’t just need worship that is “contemporary” or “traditional,” you need the rigor of biblical, historic Christian worship. You need to gather with God’s people, to hear the Word of God proclaimed, to sing and pray its truths yourself, and to receive the Sacrament. Jesus has promised to be present in those things, and that the Spirit will be at work through them, too. The actual work of the Holy Spirit is not authenticated by your experience of it. The Spirit is a gift, and a mysterious one at that, working miracles and creating faith in the lives of believers.

.... There’s nothing wrong with experiencing emotions in worship, but please make sure they are subject to your mind and your will, and ultimately, to what God has spoken in His Word. If you are in a place in which there is pressure of any kind to stop thinking and get swept away by or overcome with God’s supposed presence, you should probably get out. You have stepped into something that is more pagan than Christian, even with all the Jesus talk.

The presence of the Holy Spirit isn’t something that can be phonied up by a creative worship experience, it is an objective presence in the life of a believer. ....

Ordinary soldiers

The Gettysburg battle took place from July 1st to 3rd, 1863. From "A Conversation with Professor Allen Guelzo":
.... One lesson that I dwell on a good deal is rooted in the experience of the second day’s fighting. On July 2nd, 1863, Robert E. Lee launched a gigantic flanking attack on the Army of the Potomac. It was a hammer blow that came within inches of success—a success that would have shattered the Army of the Potomac and compelled its abandonment of Gettysburg. It failed because, in large measure, numerous ordinary soldiers and the officers took matters in their own hands and saved the day. I think of individuals like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment. They are probably the most famous of those who fought on the Union side at Gettysburg. But Chamberlain was one who on his own hook and by his own decisions facing the possibility of being overwhelmed by Confederate attack, ordered a counterattack with bayonets. What did he know about bayonets? He was a rhetoric professor from Bowdoin College who had no experience of military life. Yet he acted on the only impulses he knew, which turned out to be just exactly the right impulses. And the great thing is that Chamberlain, although he is probably the most celebrated that way because of The Killer Angels, was by no means alone.

Also on Little Round Top where Chamberlain and his regiment fought was Strong Vincent, the commander of the brigade to which Chamberlain belonged. There was Paddy O’Rorke and his 140th New York coming to the rescue at just the right moment. It cost O’Rorke his life, but his regiment threw back a Confederate attack that would have overwhelmed the other spur of Little Round Top. I go on from point to point to point, to the First Minnesota taking on an entire Confederate brigade in the center of the battlefield, to Samuel Sprigg Carroll and his three regiments sprinting across Cemetery Hill at just the right moment to repel a Confederate attack that could have overcome the federal position at its other flank. And this kept happening all through the late afternoon and early evening of July 2. Ordinary soldiers, line officers, on their own, without direction from the generals, somehow looking at situations, sizing them up, making the right decision and doing it on their own accord.

I think those are some of the most remarkable stories to emerge out of the Gettysburg battle. It displayed not only the courage of those individuals, but it displayed something about the American temperament itself. The ordinary American rises to the demand of situations, looks around, sums things up, makes the decision, lives with the consequences, and somehow miraculously does it right time and time and time again. That, to me, is one really great lesson to bring out of Gettysburg. (more)

Monday, June 29, 2020


As a young man studying for orders in the Episcopal Church, I remember Steve Smith, a seminary professor of mine, once saying, "Tell me what you believe about the Resurrection, and I'll tell you who you are!" ....

In the end, belief in the Resurrection is not simply about believing that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Jesus' bodily resurrection is, of course, central, but the implications of the Resurrection only begin with the empty tomb. Paul writes,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Rom. 8:19–24)
For Paul, the Resurrection is not just about Jesus rising bodily, but about the restoration of a fallen and corrupt world, and in particular about God's victory over the sin that has confused and corrupted it. ....

In the end, the Resurrection leads us not just to justice, but to love. It is one thing to be well-intentioned. And there is no doubt that there are many in our world, including our political world, who mean well. But to be well-intentioned apart from knowing the good as God has given it, specifically, can never lead to the flourishing of ourselves or others, and can often lead to harm. Love is willing the best for another, and we can only do that as we apprehend the best—the world as God has created it and as, in Christ, he will one day restore it.

Indeed, what we believe about the Resurrection shows who we are.  

Friday, June 26, 2020


Michael Dirda reviews Ruritania: A Cultural History, a book about a book and its genre. The book is The Prisoner of Zenda.
Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” is set in a small imaginary country called Ruritania, just a train ride from Dresden, where the capital is Strelsau, the people speak German, society remains semi-feudal and affairs of honor are settled with swords. First published in 1894, this romantic swashbuckler turns on the striking resemblance between a likable, slightly feckless young Englishman named Rudolf Rassendyll and the utterly boorish heir to Ruritania’s throne. When the latter is secretly kidnapped and imprisoned in Zenda Castle, Rudolf is persuaded to temporarily take the place of his Ruritanian look-a-like. Only a small handful of people know the truth about the switch, and these don’t include the Princess Flavia, who, to her surprise, begins to feel attracted to a man she had hitherto found markedly repugnant.

Hope’s novel deservedly became a bestseller, partly because it goes like a shot and partly because it has, well, everything: political intrigue, derring-do, sparkling prose, dastardly villains and a great love story. More broadly, the book established a vogue—in plays, operettas and films, as well as popular fiction—for romantic adventure at the courts of colorful make-believe kingdoms. .... (more, perhaps behind a subscription wall)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020


Last night in Madison, "Protesters tear down statues, punch senator." One of the statues was of Col. Hans Christian Heg. "Heg was a Norwegian immigrant and journalist who died of his wounds at the Battle of Chickamauga fighting to preserve the United States and end slavery."

Jonah Goldberg today, on Heg:
Col. Hans Christian Heg
Hans Christian Heg was an immigrant from Norway. He was a fierce opponent of slavery and an early member of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party. He was a leader of the Wide Awakes, an anti-slavery militia dedicated to chasing down slave catchers (groups we’ve been told constantly were the progenitors of policing in America). When the Civil War started, Heg signed up to fight. He organized Wisconsin’s all-Scandinavian Fighting Fifteenth. “The officers of the regiment will be men who speak the Scandinavian languages. Thus an opportunity to enter the service is afforded those Scandinavians who do not yet speak English.”

Heg was revered by his troops for his willingness to lead the charge in many engagements rather than hang back like so many officers. He died at the battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee, along with half of the men he went into battle with.

And last night, a bunch of idiots in Wisconsin tore down his statue and decapitated it. ....

And now in D.C., a plan to destroy a statue of Lincoln:
.... Outraged Americans rioting over racial injustice are now promising to topple a monument to the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation — and, not only that, but a monument funded by formerly enslaved people to honor Lincoln specifically for having issued the Emancipation Proclamation. ....

Gathering at the statue yesterday evening, a mob vowed to rip the statue down on Thursday night at 7 p.m., helpfully announcing to law enforcement precisely when to show up and prevent them from carrying out this reprehensible act of vandalism.

And it’s not just the mob on this one. The District of Columbia’s non-voting congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has joined their ranks, announcing that she plans to introduce legislation to formally have the memorial removed from Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill, referring to it as “problematic.”

In a statement, Holmes Norton insisted that, while the recently freed men and women who paid for the statue were understandably “grateful for any recognition of their freedom,” the statue itself needs to go because it depicts Lincoln standing over a kneeling African man. It didn’t, she said, “take into account the views of African Americans.

That’s a patently false reading of the statue’s history, which, as she herself acknowledges, was actually underwritten by freed African Americans. Holmes Norton claims that Frederick Douglass “expressed his displeasure” with the statue, but this seems to be a rather aggressive misreading of Douglass, who, in a lengthy oration dedicating the memorial, had this to offer, among other glowing lines about it and the man it honors:
we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of after-coming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


I'm reading the first chapter of John Bolton's The Room Where it Happened. I've followed him for years and if it comes down to a question of whether he, or the President, is more likely to have an uncomfortable relationship with truth, Bolton is the one far less likely to have been inventive. I agree completely with Bolton's description of his political principles, which are my own:
While foreign-policy labels are unhelpful except to the intellectually lazy, if pressed, I liked to say my policy was "pro-American." I followed Adam Smith on economics, Edmund Burke on society, The Federalist Papers on government, and a merger of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles on national security. My first political campaigning was in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater was actually a libertarian but his book Conscience of a Conservative, important in my formation, was ghostwritten by a conservative.

Sunday, June 21, 2020


Watched the History Channel's "Grant" again last night. It's available streaming. I highly recommend it. It is historically reliable and very interesting.

This is from Frederick Douglass's eulogy for Grant:
...Ulysses S. Grant, the most illustrious warrior and statesman of modern times, the captain whose invincible sword saved the republic from dismemberment, made liberty the law of the land; a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior. His heart was as tender as the heart of a woman, unsuspecting as childhood itself, calm and brave as the blue overhanging sky. He was accessible to all men. The black soldier was welcome in his tent, and the freedman in his house. To those who forbade them he said, 'Where I am, they can come.' He was among the first of our generals to see that slavery must perish that the Union might live, and to protect colored soldiers from insult by a military order. To him more than to any other man the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his Party; hence his place at its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms. ....
His statue has been toppled by the "woke" and today in Kansas a statue of John Brown was found to have been vandalized.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A vision held aloft

From "Why T.S. Eliot still matters" by Douglas Murray:
I remember the exact words with which I was first introduced to “The Waste Land” while still at school. “This isn’t a poem you read. It is a poem you will live with.” Everything in the years since has proved those words true. And not just with that work, but with all of T.S. Eliot—the Four Quartets above all. It seems to be the same for many people. He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.

His contemporaries, by contrast, all seem to have grown smaller. W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still. But most of the other figures who dominated English poetry in the last century look diminished in the rear-view mirror. Which makes it even more striking that Eliot seems to grow. To consider why that should be is to consider something not just about our time, or his, but something about the nature of time, and the purpose of culture.

It is often thought that great artists in some way reflect or sum-up their age. And it is true that from “Prufrock” (1915) onwards Eliot seemed to speak to the particular, fractured nature of modern life. But many of Eliot’s contemporaries, including Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, managed that too. There must be reasons why Eliot continues to be read and they are not. One is that through the course of his poetic career Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them. Indeed a way out of all time.

He didn’t write like other poets. And it wasn’t just that he wrote less frequently. Where others poured the stuff out, Eliot seemed to keep everything down, erupting only when it could not be suppressed any longer. Where did “The Hollow Men” or “Choruses from the Rock” come from but that deep fundament? ....

While other artists showed how culture could be either shown off, strewn about or destroyed utterly, Eliot demonstrated how it could be reclaimed. He showed how the remnants could become seedlings and sprout again, in another time or place. While repeatedly proving that he had a great artist’s ability to innovate, he also performed that second function of the great artist and demonstrated how culture can be transmitted. He didn’t just show the fire; he showed his readers how things could be saved from it. ....

It seems to me that the final answer lies in the direction of the journey Eliot accomplished from the earliest poems to the conclusion of the Four Quartets, by then, with phrases that resonate as forcefully as the opening of St. John’s gospel. What is clear now is the extent to which Eliot not only stared into the abyss or stood over it, but how he managed to cross through it: through the howling fire that threatened to galvanise him, as it does everyone. Even after the conversion to the Anglican church it is not as though Eliot’s path was carefree or smooth. .... He remains nearly unique among artists in the last century for having managed not just to walk through that century but, with occasional slips, extraordinary poise and a great deal of bravery, emerged at the other side of the fire-walk with a vision held aloft. (more)

God of Grace and God of Glory

Paul Manz.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Moral cruelty

From an essay about Judith Shklar, writing in the last century:
.... Shklar argued that we need to be afraid not only of physical cruelty committed by officials and police, but of the “moral cruelty” committed by those who claim to hate oppression. .... Shklar warned that liberalism can degenerate into a cult of victimhood that permits our sadistic desires to be passed off as unimpeachable virtue. As the United States is confronted with (often violent) protests against police violence and an increasingly strident and intolerant political culture of racial “wokeness,” Shklar’s argument that liberalism is endangered by both physical and moral cruelty is of urgent relevance. We have much to fear. ....

Shklar argued that liberals should see cruelty as the greatest of evils. But cruelty does not appear only in the form of physical violence, and is not committed only by the state. Shklar suggested that liberalism may be destroyed from within by liberals’ well-intentioned efforts to eradicate cruelty. ....

Everywhere around us, people are acting cruelly in the name of eradicating physical harm and arbitrary power. Anyone working in a university, cultural institution, or large corporation today has spent recent weeks reading emails, attending meetings, and participating in conversations that are theaters of moral cruelty. White people in such contexts are asked—or required—to admit that they are culpable, that they lack ethical and epistemic authority, that they must listen to and heed the demands of victims of racism. They humiliate themselves, literally kneeling in propitiation.

Shklar found such acts of self-debasement no less cruel and terrifying than the violence that they are supposedly meant to resist. Healthy minded people, she urged, do not want to suffer in this way—nor do they want to attain power and self-respect at the cost of presenting themselves as a “model of moral victimhood.” .... (more)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Flag Day

As has become my custom, on Flag Day I post this:

Several years ago I was part of an exchange with secondary teachers from Japan. The Japanese teachers spent some time with us in Madison and in our schools and we did the same in Japan. As preparation for the experience, all of us spent some time together in Washington, D.C., learning about each other, getting acquainted, and trying to bridge some of the cultural differences. In one of the sessions a Japanese teacher asked why Americans seemed to place so much emphasis on our flag. Many Japanese are, for understandable historical reasons, very skeptical of anything smacking of nationalism. I explained that in our case we have no national figure—no queen or emperor—who symbolizes the nation. Nor does the flag stand for blood or soil. It stands for our ideals—"the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It stands for what we believe in and aspire to be as a country. We honor the flag because it represents the Constitutional system that protects our freedoms and our rights.

In my files I came across a pamphlet, undated, published by the Marine Corps, titled How to Respect and Display Our Flag. A stamp on it indicates that it was distributed by the "Marine Corps Recruiting Sub-Station" in Janesville, Wisconsin. Since the flags in the illustrations have forty-eight stars, it must be from the late 1950s. The rules it specifies seem almost quaint after the events of the last half century. The flag has been burned and trampled by Americans. It is flown night and day in good weather or foul—even by those who intend to honor it. A colleague used to put one on the floor of his classroom, inviting students to decide whether to walk on it. How one treats the symbol became partisan, expressing a political rather than a patriotic allegiance.

Here is the section from that pamphlet titled "How to Display the Flag":

Saturday, June 13, 2020

"...Count our spoons"

A miscellany of Samuel Johnson quotations from my new acquisition:
  • DEPEND upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.
  • THERE is nothing more likely to betray a man into absurdity than condescension; when he seems to suppose his understanding too powerful for his company.
  • WHY Sir, if the fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying; and I see not what honour he can propose to himself from having the character of a liar. But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.
  • SIR, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles without having good practice?
  • SIR, we know our will is free, and there's an end on't.
  • IT matters not how a man dies but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time. A man knows it must be so and submits. It will do him no good to whine.

Friday, June 12, 2020

"Keep me, O keep me..."

All praise to Thee, my God, this night, for all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath Thine own almighty wings.
Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done,
That with the world, myself, and Thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.
O may my soul on Thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close,
Sleep that may me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake.
When in the night I sleepless lie, my soul with heavenly thoughts supply;
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, no powers of darkness me molest.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise God above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

"There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law"

Lincoln, age 28, in 1844: from the Lyceum Address delivered in Springfield:
.... If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana....

...[B]y instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.— Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation. While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose. Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last. By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world. .... (more)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

"The wicked flee when no one pursues..."

In The New York Times, a wonderful appreciation by Donna Tartt, who did the audio book of True Grit, of Charles Portis, its author, who died this spring. On True Grit:
Comedy is the most ephemeral of the arts. There are very few comic novels that do not wither with time, and even fewer novels — comic or otherwise — that can be given to pretty much anyone, from an old person to a small child. Even more rare is a novel one can reliably turn to for cheer when one is sick or sad. But “True Grit” is this rare novel, and Mattie Ross, its narrator, is one of the greatest of Portis’s innocents: a Presbyterian spinster who in old age relates the story of how, as a child, she struck out in the 1870s to avenge her father’s murder. “People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” It’s a serious book by any measure; Mattie’s rage and grief are thunderous (“What a waste! Tom Chaney would pay for this! I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!”) and yet perhaps the greatest pleasure of the book is Mattie’s speaking voice: rambling, deadpan, didactic, sprinkled with oddball opinions and facts, obstinate in its views and acute in its observations. Of Chaney, the hired man who murdered her father (“He was a short man with cruel features. I will tell more about his face later”), she has this to say: “He had no gun but he carried his rifle slung across his back on a piece of cotton plow line. There is trash for you. He could have taken an old piece of harness and made a nice leather strap for it. That would have been too much trouble.” ....
I love that book and enjoy both of the films.

Donna Tartt on the Singular Voice, and Pungent Humor, of Charles Portis - The New York Times

Monday, June 8, 2020

Reading with inclination

More Samuel Johnson on reading:
I AM always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal, when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He'll get better books afterwards.

FOR general improvement a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to. What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attentions so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.

"Read at his choice..."

In the mail today "'Sir,' Said Dr. Johnson —" Some Sayings, 282 pages of quotations organized by topic. This collection was originally published in London in 1911. The book I just received is a photo reproduction. I'm only a few pages into the first section, "Children and Education," from which:
ACCUSTOM your children constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window and they when relating it say it happened at another, do not let it pass but instantly check them. You do not know where deviation from Truth will end.

BABIES do not want to hear about babies, they like to be told of giants and castles and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds.

WOULD put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading anything he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not he of course gains the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study."

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Wodehouse again

Some authors may want to expose the world’s injustices, or elevate us with their psychological insights. Wodehouse, in his words, preferred to spread “sweetness and light”. Just look at those titles: Nothing Serious, Laughing Gas, Joy in the Morning. With every sparkling joke, every well-meaning and innocent character, every farcical tussle with angry swans and pet Pekingese, every utopian description of a stroll around the grounds of a pal’s stately home or a flutter on the choir boys’ hundred yards handicap at a summer village fete, he wanted to whisk us far away from our worries. Writing about being a humourist in his autobiography Over Seventy, Wodehouse quoted two people in the Talmud who had earnt their place in Heaven: “We are merrymakers. When we see a person who is downhearted, we cheer him up.” ....

“What Wodehouse writes is pure word music,” said Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. “It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.” ....

Whatever was going on in his life, Wodehouse stayed buoyant; and whatever is going on in the reader’s life, he keeps us buoyant, too. “I was clinically depressed for most of 1999,” said Jay McInerney, the author of Bright Lights, Big City in a 2016 interview “and I would turn to Wodehouse, possibly the funniest writer in the English language. It seemed to be more effective at warding off despair than the antidepressants that I was taking.” .... (more)