A Lost Library

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Mt. Chocorua, Sanford Robinson Gifford via Wikimedia Commons

American Philosophy: A Love Story had an utterly irresistible and all too hard-to-live-up-to premise.  It was this: John Kaag was a struggling philosophy postdoc when by pure chance he wandered onto the rural estate of a long dead Harvard don and into his nearly untouched library of rare books.  William Ernest Hocking, who died in 1966, would have known William James and Robert Frost, and studied under Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl.  The library he built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contained a vast trove of American philosophical and religious work as well as first editions of monuments going back to Kant, Hobbes, and Spinoza.  This is the stuff of dreams.  Although Kaag faced no rude awakening, and was instead invited to stay, camp, catalogue, and find a home for the collection, I’m afraid the rest of the book is somewhat paled in comparison.

Kaag chose to join the story of the library with two others.  One is Kaag’s own emotional rebuilding after divorcing his first wife.  It’s not for nothing that he was most drawn to the theme in American philosophy of what makes life worth living.   It makes me feel awfully hard hearted but this is the aspect of the book that works least well, for me anyhow.  I’m sure it’s a matter of perspective.  And now it occurs to me that it’s also no coincidence that Kaag names the sections of his book Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a choice I was happy to just pass over, as it’s my least favorite epic.  (It’s enough of a stretch to imagine leaving Limbo when Homer, Socrates, the Saladin, et al. are hanging out there; I don’t remember if Dante mentions a library.)  Passages of a desperate, confessional bent seemed too abrupt and contrast weirdly with the gently enthusiastic tone of the history of philosophy, the other major theme.

Kaag laments somewhat the Americans’ secondary status viz the European greats; I don’t know if there’s really any helping it.  The philosophy is interesting enough, I suppose, and emphasizes a sort of proto existentialist angle: What becomes of human meaning and freedom after Darwin and physics?  The thread seems to drop, but I got the idea that some of the contacts between Hocking and his students and later French existentialists, testified to in Hocking’s letters, formed a part of Kaag’s actual research.   I don’t remember anything similar in the small part of William James’ Psychology that I read for school.  I found the biography more memorable.  Hocking was a member of the carpenters’ union in San Francisco during the rebuilding, working with redwood lumber so fresh “the sap would jump out if we hit them with a hammer”.  He would later enlist his philosopher friends as masons for his own library.

 

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Literature comes to the Carolinas

John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina is the earliest book I could find on the Carolinas, where I have old family ties.  In December of 1700, Lawson set out from Charleston on an expedition to the interior.  In two months he travelled to the middle of modern day North Carolina and returned northeast to Pamlico Sound, where he started the town of Bath.  I’m not finished with the book, and at any rate I’m scarcely able to comment on its real significance.  Fortunately, Lawson’s style of narration is extremely eccentric and diverting.  It is interesting to consider that Lawson lamented that most of the English traveling to the Americas were “of the meaner sort” and held himself a gentleman and a scholar.  I’m not saying otherwise, but what companions he must have had!

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Lawson encounter’d many Tygers, the dismall’st and most hideous Noise of their frightful Ditties causing great Surprizal

Lawson’s party meets with an accident on the way:

one of our Company being top-heavy, and there being nothing but a small Pole for a Bridge, over a Creek, fell into the Water up to the Chin; my self laughing at the Accident, and not taking good Heed to my Steps, came to the same Misfortune: All our Bedding was wet.  The Wind being at N. W. it froze very hard, which prepar’d such a Night’s Lodging for me, that I never desire to have the like again; the wet Bedding and freezing Air had so qualify’d our Bodies,  that in the Morning when we awak’d, we were nigh frozen to Death, until we had recruited ourselves before a large Fire of the Indians.

I will say this as I get up in the morning: “Recruit yourself!”  On his way from Charleston, Lawson travelled among the scattered plantations of refugee protestant French, and the odd Scot living on marshy islands tending livestock.  He was evidently preceded by other European traders, and he travelled with Indian guides from village to village, where he was generally well received.  Still, it was usual to encounter abandoned fields and (perhaps temporarily) deserted camps where one could make oneself at home.

We found great Store of Indian Peas, (a very good Pulse) Beans, Oyl, Thinkapin Nuts, Corn, barbacu’d Peaches, and Peach-Bread; which Peaches being made into a Quiddony, and so made up into Loves like Barley-Cakes, these cut into thin Slices, and dissolv’d in Water, makes a very grateful Acid, and extraordinary beneficial in Fevers, as hath often been try’d, and approv’d on by our English Practitioners.  The Wind being at N. W. with cold Weather, made us make a large Fire in the Indian’s Cabin; being very intent upon our Cookery, we set the Dwelling on Fire, and with much ado, put it out, tho’ with the Loss of Part of the Roof.

And I get mad when I have to wait too long in line at Dunkin Donuts on the Garden State Parkway!

Guantanamo Diary

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This looks a little like the flag but these bars actually cover up a poem by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, author of Guantanamo Diary.  Sometimes the redactions in this work appear to concern details of military interrogation programs and the people who carry them out, but at other times, like this, they are harder to fathom.  I suspect the poem was blacked out because the censor couldn’t be quite sure what it meant.

Slahi is a Mauritanian held at Guantanamo Bay.  He turned himself over to Mauritanian authorities for questioning in 2001 and was illegally rendered, as they say, to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally our base in Cuba.  Slahi took part somehow in the war in Afghanistan against the Communists, when, to speak very loosely, jihadis were still good guys in our book.  Unfortunately for him, the situation had changed by 1999, when he admits to discussing his experiences with people who were later linked to the 9/11 attacks.  In 2010, a federal judge ordered Slahi released on habeas grounds, but he remains imprisoned pending some sort of appeal.  He has never been charged in court, but to the extent that there is a legal case against him, it appears to hang on those discussions of training in Afghanistan, which could be characterized as recruiting.  For different reasons, most people, including Slahi, don’t care to dwell on other admissions resulting from enhanced interrogation or torture.

In 2005, Slahi wrote what would become Guantanamo Diary; it was published, in censored form and after heavy litigation, in 2015.  In that sense it’s an important new book, but the fact that Slahi is still in jail makes it seem horrifyingly long in coming.  They say the book is a bestseller, but if it is, it’s not the kind people talk about much.  It’s not easy to write about; I’m afraid that I’m being over scrupulous about a topic that should occasion a lot more outrage or something.  It’s an interesting bind.  One might have hoped that a book like this wouldn’t exist in a powerful, law abiding society.  And indeed there are all kinds of ways to explain it away: There are arguments that downplay the violations of human rights and emphasize the threats that we face.  I think a lot of those arguments boil down to that of Thrasymachus in the Republic, not to be taken lightly, that justice is the advantage of the stronger.

Yet not only does the book exist, it’s much better than one would expect, even darkly entertaining.  Slahi complains as much of the obtuseness and haplessness of his interrogators as of the barbarities they committed.  It is all of a piece: Investigators, admittedly working under tremendous pressure under hostile circumstances entirely different from an ordinary law enforcement action, refused to face up to the paucity of what they were actually turning up on some of these people.  Slahi was tortured in many ways.  The thing that shocked me the most was when he off handedly remarked that they were moving him around so that they could torture him and claim he hurt himself in transit.  It shocked me because this is exactly what police in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other American cities have been (plausibly) accused of doing.  What goes on in Guantanamo is not really foreign.

Much of the book is devoted to characterizations of Slahi’s guards and interrogators, and his sometimes warm relations with them.  They watched movies together, some taught him English, some would discuss theology.  Slahi asked for extra time to study a movie of Henry V, and complains privately that the Star Wars novels he was given weren’t very well written.  More than anything else, this book shows the reader the irrational expectations that we have for people who are subject to our suspicion.  We persist in treating prisoners in immoral and counterproductive ways because we expect them to be submissive, to be afraid of justice, to be both stupid and cunning.  We expect them not to show partiality for their countrymen and their fellow prisoners, because surely most of them are bad.  All I can say is that there have to be better ways of learning about the things that trouble us.

“See it, do it” is a motto I’ve been repeating lately.  It means don’t chat about what needs to get done, don’t put it on a list, but do it.  It applies  to household chores but it applies to reading as well.  I won’t stop making lists of books, but I do hope to be more decisive in picking up important books of the moment and in coming away with books to actually work on for all the time I spend standing in the stacks gawping.  I hope to usher in a new year of better blogging, but the motto also applies to this book.  I should probably spend months digging into the background of Guantanamo Diary and seeking out the reviews and official reaction; maybe I will get around to it and even post, but these are my thoughts.

Coming up: Magnitogorsk

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker for the New Ten

I’m a little surprised at how excited I am for the new ten dollar bill.  I guess I like money? A brief stir around this issue about a year ago nearly got me writing about it then, and now I get a second chance.

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The front is great but who are those guys? They’re Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse. Steamboat and telegraph, I think? Thanks Wikimedia!

A look at Twitter confirms that there are a lot of issues on the table with this; some of them I want to deal with briefly and others I am going to stick my neck out on.  It should be the twenty, but I don’t have a lot to say about that.  I’m excited either way.  I also think it’s ridiculous to argue that Hamilton should stay because of his historic significance.  Seven portraits aren’t supposed to constitute an education in American history.  Banknotes used to change all the time.  If you can name every single person who was ever on one, maybe I’ll hear you out on this.

I also think that it’s wrong that there are no people of color on the money and I respect the arguments for Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and, a tangent for the moment, Martin Luther King.  I’m ashamed that there must be other obvious choices I’m not thinking of. 

This, however, is complicated by my feeling that the people on our money should be public servants: elected officials, that is, and people who actually work for the government.  There are people out there who seem to think that the government should scarecely exist and I would hate to give them a shred of satisfaction in this regard.  The Swiss put a famous myrmecologist, or ant scientist, on a thousand franc note, and Jane Austen is to be on a ten pound note in England, though that effort is not without its critics.  I’d love to see Mark Twain on a bill; it’s a great tradition, but it’s not our tradition.  Our tradition is old fashioned looking money with statesmen on it, and it’s a good tradition.

So who can we put on the ten?  My nomination is Sara Josephine Baker. She was born in 1873 to a Quaker family in New York.  She became a doctor and went to the New York Department of Public Health.  Working in infamous slums she saved thousands of babies from blindness and death.  Twice she was involved in catching the pitiable but no less terrifying Typhoid Mary, a cook who by a quirk of the immune system remained healthy while spreading typhoid fever and was ultimately imprisoned for life.  Baker broke down sexist barriers to teach at New York University.  It’s not entirely clear, and I don’t know much about it, but if chosen she might be the first lesbian on our money.  Her autobiography, Fighting for Life, was reissued by New York Review Books not long ago.

What do you think?  Am I being too conservative on this?  Am I crazy to think that it’s worth celebrating people who work for the government?  Maybe we should have a series of blacklisted and harassed artists on the currency.  Amazingly, Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers died last week or so; hers is a voice that takes me way back.  Sara Josephine Baker just strikes me like no other name I’ve seen out there.  Who do you think is the perfect woman for the ten dollar bill?

Fantastic Maps of American History

I think I need to start blogging more regularly about my finds in Boston area used bookstores.  Yesterday afternoon it was Atlas of American History, edited by James Truslow Adams and published by Scribners in 1943.  I paid five bucks for this book, which, following a beautifully simple plan, consists of 147 full page maps.  There are no paragraphs of text aside from the briefest notes where they can be fit into the maps themselves, and (a somewhat strange claim) there are no “nonexact pictorial interpretations”.  It works, though, and some of the maps are incredible.

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I guess I’m always thinking about maps, but this book fits particularly well with some other things I’ve seen lately.  A little while ago the London Review of Books casually upended the world when they published a remark to the effect that the names of Tolkien’s hobbits were derived from American sources, in Appalachia to be specific.  The Boston Public Library is putting on an exhibit of maps of imaginary worlds.  They had Narnia, Middle Earth, and Westeros, but also Redwall; it was nothing revelatory, perhaps, but still cool to see them large and in one place.  Look at some of the place names on the map below.  What’s so fantastical, so outlandish, about fantasy?

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Two Early Americans


Continuing my early American kick, I read The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper.  I’ve also taken out a volume of Washington Irving so I can finish Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which I started listening to on a long trip.

The Last of the Mohicans takes place in upstate New York, so I was surprised to encounter local names I remember from my elementary school days in South Jersey, notably those of the Lenni Lenape and Unami tribes.  The eponymous hero of the novel is one of them, far from his homeland and caught up in the wars of the British, French and Iroquois that I only dimly remember, if at all.

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The woods (my photograph)

As a reminder of those times when the upper Hudson was practically the edge of the Anglo American world, The Last of the Mohicans was interesting.  It’s fascinating to think that when Cooper published this in 1826, the native people and landscapes of the Southwest, now such an integral part of our literature, were a different country.  The appearance of an old chief named Tamanend, said to have negotiated with William Penn and to have later attained to the status of the patron saint Tammany, is another welcome reminder that American history has been going on for a lot longer than I sometimes remember.  Otherwise, Cooper’s plotting is clunky and the 1992 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis seems to me to make some improvements.

Knickerbocker’s History of New York is similarly reorienting, with the added complication that it’s also outrageous satire.  Dietrich Knickerbocker is Irving’s invented Dutch historian, harking back with pompous nostalgia to the days of sleepy patroons, smoking, dozing, growing fat on oysters and donuts, and founding the greatest city on Earth while the Yankees closed in around them.

I’m confident that Irving will merit another post; whether I can put it together is another question.  I’ve begun to read the newly published course on English literature by Jorge Luis Borges and I’m an insignificant sixty pages into Tony Judt’s huge Postwar.  On the other hand, the spring warbler migration should be tapering off, so maybe I’ll spend more time writing.

Democracy in America

My latest big reading project has been Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  I picked it up because I felt obligated to get serious about American history and I wasn’t able to think of a better place to start.  A fabulous library can actually be an embarrassment if you haven’t read the fundamentals.

Tocqueville is not really writing American history at all.  He is as interested in understanding the continual revolutions in France (this was published in 1835 and 1840).  Furthermore, he sees France and America as instances of a growing equality which is irresistable and even providential.  Hence Democracy in America is a work of political and social theory, and many times I wished he would include just one example of the (very plausible) generalities he was expounding.

It should be impossible, but I have the nagging sense that Tocqueville’s thought has such a distinctive bent that it might be possible to sum up this long book.  He seems to see in everything American a kind of golden mediocrity.  American education was not sophisticated, but it was widespread and suited to American life.  American laws were not particularly inspired, the leaders not particularly powerful, but many, many Americans took energetic part in making and remaking them.  Perhaps most importantly, the United States, though not long independent, had a long tradition of local government to counter the dangerous centralizing tendency of democracies.

Of course it’s hard to refrain from comparing Tocqueville’s often awed perceptions of America with our own.  (I wish I knew what to make of the idea that 170 years later, these perceptions should still carry some weight.)  He thought that individualism was a danger to a country in which people are generally alike and no hierarchy exists to connect people step by step to society at large.  If Americans are no longer civically engaged to the degree that so astounded him, then we may have lost a great bulwark of freedom.  This is probably the strongest impression the book left on me.  We also can’t take the ever increasing equality Tocqueville saw for granted.  He saw industrial labor as the one (then exceptional) factor against rising equality; I have no idea what he would have made of the service economy.

Tocqueville seems to have gotten the Civil War almost exactly wrong.  He believed that the North was indifferent to slavery, that race war would inevitably follow any emancipation, and that the question was to what degree the North would aid white southerners in the event of a slave rebellion.  I suppose it isn’t strange that misconceived fears would play a big part in the build up to disaster.

What will I read next?  To me there are few obvious classics of American history per se; I suppose this says more about how the canon is formed than about Americans or history.  Thucydides and Herodotus are the classics, but they are also simply the earliest long narratives we possess in the West, and it’s not even clear to me that the events they describe are as unique or self contained as I sometimes imagine.  What classics of American history am I missing?  Does Common Sense count?  The Federalist is surely too narrowly focused?  Is it necessary to widen our scope a little?  What about novels like The Red Badge of Courage?