“And they burn so bright, while you can only wonder why….”

[This is the third of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here, and the second can be found here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third story about medieval France “shows that national chaos does not fail to bring forth a leader.” That’s the chirpy editorial comment just below the byline in the August 1935 issue of Redbook, and it makes me wonder if the magazine’s staffers actually read the story. By this point, they’re no longer touting Fitzgerald’s contributions on the covers, so readers would have had to stumble upon “The Kingdom in the Dark” while flipping through an issue already packed with other, lighter fiction. I wonder how many of them even remembered where the story of Count Philippe of Villefranche left off eleven months earlier.

To my surprise, Fitzgerald’s name still carries cachet for Redbook readers. Elsewhere in the issue, his name pops up in the introduction to a complete novel, We’ll Never Be Any Younger:

WHAT F. SCOTT FITZGERALD DID FOR THE “LOST GENERATION”—FOR “FLAPPERS” AND “SAD YOUNG MEN”—IN “THIS SIDE OF PARADISE” AND “THE GREAT GATSBY,” ELMER DAVIS IS DOING NOW FOR THOSE WHO ARE LIVING UNDER THE SIGN OF ALPHABET AGENCIES AND GREAT PROMISES.

That’s a kind endorsement of Fitzgerald’s influence, but it’s also a backhanded compliment that casts Fitzgerald as a has-been, a generational spokesman now receding into mere precedent. It makes sense, I suppose, that his medieval stories would dramatize rebuilding a world from scratch, and the unavoidable failures that follow.

As with Fitzgerald’s previous medieval stories, “The Kingdom in the Dark” doesn’t have a complicated plot. Count Philippe continues to consolidate power on his hereditary lands by building a fort overlooking the Loire, where he can collect tolls and taxes from merchants as they ford the river. There’s a charming, boyish innocence to Fitzgerald’s pride in writing about this fort, which is clearly the product of his own historical research:

Philippe had no education in military architecture, and probably any engineer-centurion of Caesar’s army would have laughed it to scorn, yet he had planned with a great deal of shrewdness:

To the north the hill fell straight to the river; westward it was protected by a sheer cliff fifty feet high. The vulnerable points were east and south. It was with the eastward side, a slope of shifting sandy soil that would bear no solid construction, that he was unsatisfied . . .

Later, Philippe explains the fort to the local abbot:

“Father couldn’t defend his house, God rest his soul! But I have an idea that the Northmen will have some job trying to crack this crib in a hurry. Look—this thing is only the first palisade—then there’s a second palisade, then the rampart and trench. On two of the other sides I’ve got the river and the cliff.”

Then Fitzgerald gives us an arid little lecture on ninth-century forts:

In an hour they were in sight of the house or fort. Land was easy to get in those unsettled days, but the ability to dominate and cultivate it was another matter. The prohibition of forts and castles had only just been withdrawn by the king, in the face of repeated invasions of Northmen; and though this law had not been observed literally for a half century, the art of fortification had fallen into desuetude.

Finally, Philippe shows off his fort to a girl:

“Like it?” Philippe asked the girl, with ill-concealed pride.

“I think it’s fine,” she said, and took a side glance at him, with pity for his pride in his homely effort.

“It’s not so good,” he said, with the modesty of possession. “Still, we’ve got three buildings up there—there’s the log fort and the houses for my men-at-arms and servants made of mud and rock. They’re part of the defenses.”

“It’s nice.”

She looked at him as a little boy playing soldiers, and for a moment they regarded each other. Then, reluctantly, he turned his eyes from the lovely head.

Fortunately, “The Kingdom in the Dark” isn’t entirely about forts. Philippe is intrigued by the girl, Griselda, who’s on the run from the new king, Louis the Stammerer, apparently because he made her lover in his court disappear. Fitzgerald’s description of her isn’t terrible, but it’s little better than the sort of prose that earns aspiring fantasy novelists a thorough critique from their peers:

The girl rode well. Her rather small curly head perched on a long body that carried it proudly. She was pale, and her lips were very red. There was a lovely necklace of faint freckles above an amber-colored surtout belted at the waist. Her eyes were small and hazel, with lashes of a delicate pink tan.

Nothing in this description of Griselda tells us anything useful about her. Can this really be the same novelist who could imply so much about Gatsby and his acquaintances through subtle descriptions of posture and clothing?

Fitzgerald revels in costuming, but little else, in an interminable passage about the king’s entourage:

To a man of our time, associating the Middle Ages with plate mail, the column would have seemed singularly dissimilar to any mental picture he might have formed of chivalry—and it was not chivalry in the sense that the word implied five hundred years later.

At the head of the procession rode a squad of scouts, carrying short spears, and short flat swords slung at their belts. Some wore cap-like padded helmets, turbans almost; others wore headgear of the same shape but of leather. There was no attempt at uniformity—under short tunics of blue, red, green or brown, there were usually perceptible a rough mail: rings sewed on leather, or crude coats of rings entire. Universally they wore leather moccasins, short or long, held in place by crisscross strips of hide.

After this casual advance party followed the King and his attendants—Louis in a long white tunic of fine linen shouldered with a cape of purple. Round his head was a light golden circlet; around his middle a golden chain of flexible links from which swung a flat jeweled sword . . .

King Louis was flanked by a gray-haired knight and an ecclesiastic. Following them came a quartet of esquires, then about sixty horsemen, dressed with as little uniformity as the advance guard . . . Then came the supply wagons, drawn by huge horses instead of oxen, and driven by men who served also as cooks and sutlers. A group of horsemen, well armed and knightly of bearing, brought up the rear.

Are you still awake? Anyone who’s written historical fiction or popular nonfiction knows what’s going on here. Fitzgerald has done his homework, and by God, he’s going to exhaust every last scrap of his notes. It’s painful to behold, all the more so because he opens this pageant with a paragraph that distances the reader from the world of the story. We’re glancing backward through time at a museum display of mannequins in costumes, not characters we ought to care about.

Briefly, Fitzgerald catches sight of a morally intriguing premise: Philippe conceals Griselda from a cruel, absurd king, even though he ought to be loyal to him, and even though Griselda has stolen one of the king’s horses. Philippe swears falsely that he knows nothing about her—when he does, Fitzgerald tells us that “invisible girths tightened on Philippe’s diaphragm”—and this false oath would have potentially interesting implications in a more thoughtful story. Instead, the king’s men burn down Philippe’s precious fort, Philippe executes the conspirators, and the gloomy count spends just two sentences wondering if he’s being punished: “I took a false oath this morning, and maybe Almighty Providence doesn’t believe me anymore. But someday, by God, I’ll build a fort of stone that all the kings of Christendom can’t burn up or knock down!” Is this a moment of heroic defiance, or hypocritical futility? Beats me. There’s no sense of Providence in this story, no appeal to truth, no sense that anything matters in “The Kingdom in the Dark” but brute force.

“But Philippe was wasting his passion,” Fitzgerald writes. “Three days later Louis the Stammerer, King of the West Franks, obligingly died.” That’s the final line of the story, a conclusion that snuffs out whatever embers of tension and conflict that Fitzgerald has spent nine pages struggling to kindle.

“The Kingdom in the Dark” is an unsatisfying mess, but I’d be a lazy reader if I didn’t dig for something more. The jarring, meaningless ending doesn’t have to be a sign that Fitzgerald, like Philippe, was “wasting his passion.” Maybe the closing of the story is a statement in itself, Fitzgerald’s implication that history doesn’t unfold in a coherent narrative.

For some writers, the Middle Ages are an admirably pure foil to the miserable complexity of the modern world—or they’re a era of ignorance that reflects our own superior wisdom, or a supposed source of cultural origins, or a period that highlights timeless aspects of human nature, or a setting whose violence bestows “authenticity,” or a distant carnival of irreproducible human strangeness. Novels, movies, and TV shows cover all this ground, but Fitzgerald’s Middle Ages may be one of the bleakest fictionalizations of the Middle Ages I’ve come across. In his vision of ninth-century France, he can’t imagine spontaneous human organization or the persistence of culture. After Viking raiders blast the landscape to rubble, the locals are reduced to helpless savages. Only a nobleman can motivate them and impose order.

Yet even Philippe falters: The destruction of his precious fort makes him despair, and he considers joining the Norsemen as a mercenary. Only his new squeeze, Griselda, brings out the best in him, insisting that he has a responsibility to his subjects and reminding him that one can hate the king as a person but still be loyal to him. It’s the second time a woman has tempered Philippe with reason and softened his heart. In “The Kingdom in the Dark,” he gets noticeably nicer, showing a genial rapport with his majordomo and the local abbot that was absent from earlier stories.

Even so, this is a tale in which the hero who rebuilds civilization will defy his king, swear false oaths, and ignore laws that aren’t of his own devising. In his notes, Fitzgerald wrote that the character of Philippe, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, was meant to represent the “modern man,” but three stories in, the comparison isn’t flattering. Modern stories set in the Middle Ages inevitably comment on the present. Is Fitzgerald rationalizing corruption if it’s for a good cause during desperate times? Is his medieval world a warning, or a template he thinks we’ll someday require? I can’t tell; I don’t think Fitzgerald knew either.

“It’s not really you I see, when I look real close…”

[This is the second of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here and the third one is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

It’s a shame that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second “Philippe” story begins with an editor’s lie: “The brilliant thought quality and style of the creator of ‘The Great Gatsby’ are very much in evidence in this majestic story of 879 A.D.” Two lies, really: By design, there’s nothing “majestic” about “The Count of Darkness.” Fitzgerald wallows in sketching out civilization at its lowest ebb, but it turns out that his version of the Middle Ages give him more than he’s prepared to confront.

When last we checked in with Philippe in the October 1934 issue of Redbook, Fitzgerald had dropped Ernest Hemingway into ninth-century France, dressing him up as a noble exile-hostage returning from Spain to France to reclaim both land and leadership. It’s now June 1935, and while the story picks up only a day or so after Philippe has rallied a scruffy band of locals, routed a band of Northmen, and invented feudalism in the process, Redbook editors are presuming a great deal about their readers’ ability after eight months to recall any of that.

“The Count of Darkness” opens with the nicest bit of writing in this series so far:

It was a cold dawn. Over the low hills it was iridescent, opalescent, then flowing into morning. The master of the domain, who had eventually fallen off to sleep against a wagon-wheel, woke quickly—under the impression that he was attacked. The prospect of the Tourainian countryside was so lovely that he could not again compose himself to rest—this fact, adjoined to the fact of his so recent conquest of the farmers’ allegiance. Not yet could he count on their adherence to him in principle. And he was no one for taking chances.

That’s far from an elegant paragraph. Fitzgerald tells more than he shows: “iridescent, opalescent” gives us only adjectives, not images; “under the impression that he was attacked” conveys no real sense of alarm; and the pedantic clarity of “this fact, adjoined to the fact” is at odds with Philippe’s groggy restlessness. Still, I can hear faint traces of Fitzgerald in those sentences, laboriously rallying the ghost of his former gifts in a failed effort to set a suitable mood.

But then Philippe chats up a 17-year-old Aquitainian girl, and things get weird:

“What do you want, little chicken?” he asked.
“I wanted to see you. I could only see you a little from the tent, and—”
“Don’t grovel in the dirt, for God’s sake! Get up from your knees!”
“I’m not a man.” She stood and faced him. “How do I know about your habits for gals?”
“There are no habits—I make the habits.”
His eyes had become covetous as he looked at her. “How would you like to become one of my habits?”
“Oh, sire, I would be so glad to be yours—”
“What’s your name, little baggage?”
“Letgarde.”
“Who gave it to you? That Norman?”
“It was my christened name.”
“Come here and see what you taste like.”
After a while he released her with:
“I’ve met worse kids. How you going [sic] earn your keep? Can you get together some stew from the rations in the wagon—if we get up a couple boys to do the heavy stuff?”
“I’ll try it, darl—”
“Call me ‘Sire’! . . . And remember: There’s no bedroom talk floating around this precinct!”
“All right, darl—I mean sire.”
“Well, run along.”

I think we’re supposed to hear the voices of a 1930s gangster and his moll—but are “chicken” and “baggage” 1930s slang, or are they Fitzgerald’s way of sounding “medieval”? In the first story, Philippe was stern and humorless. Is he still being a grim, flinty strongman, or is he flirting here? In The Great Gatsby, several telling moments arise when the narrator elides a potentially revealing or uncomfortable event, so again I saw the old Fitzgerald in the “[a]fter a while he released her” line, which invites us to fill in the blanks—but it’s clunky and obvious and fosters no sympathy for Philippe.

But maybe that’s the point. Philippe’s second act that morning is to find women who can cook and clean for the men in his nascent army. He later addresses what he considers a “minor problem”: “announcing to the half-dozen girls who had been rounded up that for the moment each would be permitted her parents’ hut for the night, but that in the future there would be no marriage permitted in the country save with his permission. He would expect them to choose their mates among his own men.” Later, when Philippe spots a Syrian caravan attempting to ford his river, he proposes robbing the merchants before downgrading his plan to merely extorting the heck out of them. Fitzgerald has a lurid preoccupation with how nasty and brutish people get when civilization shatters. He wants to shock and enlighten the magazine-reading public of 1935, like an Ivy League freshman who comes home at Thanksgiving and has grown so much wiser than everyone else.

Even so, “The Count of Darkness” isn’t just a retread of the previous story; Fitzgerald wants to dramatize setbacks in the campaign to renew the world. Philippe focuses so coldly on surveying land for a hill fort that he neglects the niceties that hold civilization together:

Catching the beast and saddling him, he pulled Letgarde up with him after he had mounted. The force of his pull almost wrenched her arm from its socket.

Smarting with sudden rage at the indignity, she waited in fright as, guiding the animal with his legs only, he next swung her about from a position facing him, to one that would later be called postilion. Furious and uncomfortable, she rode off behind him toward a destination of which she knew nothing. Perforce she clung to his body.

“Don’t let go, baby, and nothing can happen to you.”

Tasked with watching from a hilltop and signaling if she sees marauders, Letgarde bails:

He had scarcely gone galloping toward the other hill when Letgarde, quivering with indignation, set off on a dead run back to the wagons. She had never, from the most ruthless marauder, received such treatment—and she did not understand it. She came from a civilized province of old Roman Gaul. The Norse chief who had adopted her was little more than a sugar-daddy—he treated her always as a sort of queen.

But this man!

When Letgarde vanishes, rumored to have run off with a wandering singer, her memory haunts Philippe. He thinks he glimpses her, ghost-like and hateful, through the trees, and he can’t shake off a peasant’s story about “some nutsy girl down-stream that lives on a little island and thinks she’s Venus or something.” But in the midst of his obsessive fishing—a nighttime spear-hunt for eels that made me jot “Hemingway leaves Spain to fish in medieval France!” in my notes—he and his men behold a baleful sight:

Philippe’s voice was almost blasphemous on the dark tide, the lovely surface mirroring a round full moon, till—

“Oh my God in heaven!” he cried.

And then:

“Don’t you see?”

On the breast of the water rode the body of a girl; she was attired in only a shift, and for a moment she gave an appearance almost lifelike. Philippe pulled her into the glossy surface, illumined her by candles on the dark bank.

Philippe’s reaction is one of the only genuine surprises in this story. When a henchman reveals that Letgarde had been waiting desperately in this spot for the rain-swollen river to subside so she could cross, Philippe snaps:

Straight as straight, Philippe threw his ax at the man’s head. It hit, cleaved, biting deep, and Philippe went over with his sword and dispatched him. Then he turned to the others:

“Nobody told me this!”

Fitzgerald is on the verge of something noteworthy here: He’s taken the basic Astolat/Shalott motif, drenched as it is in medieval notions of love perfumed with Victorian romanticism, and made it unexpectedly useful in what could be a passable pulp yarn for early 20th-century men—and then he wrecks it. Letgarde’s avoidable death, Philippe’s fondness for her, his apparent liberty to murder his subjects in anger—Fitzgerald doesn’t let any of this resonate:

“When I got tough on you, you decided to go off with that gang—and you tried to find another ford? And you got stuck? And you got killed—so you wouldn’t have to come back to me!”

He picked up her body and rocked it to and fro.

“Poor little lost doggy—if you could have taken it a little better, you’d maybe be queen of these parts.”

Inert, her body slid from him; almost as inert, he retreated to a birch tree.

“She followed that damn’ tramp,” he thought, “just because I used her rough on the horse when I was in a hurry.”

By explaining everything, Fitzgerald leaves readers with nothing to do, no connections to make, no implications to ponder. When Philippe, “choked with emotion” and “lost in sorrowful contemplation,” meets an orphan outside his fort and adopts her as his own daughter, he tells his majordomo that the girl will be “sacred here forever”—and we’ve crossed the river into a weird new realm of hokey sentimentality.

“The Count of Darkness” does a poor job of making worthy points: Leadership is a burden, but its responsibilities include pragmatism and mercy, and warriors alone can’t bring civilization to fruition. Even amid chaos be mindful, Fitzgerald says, of the possibilities of love and affection, not just utilitarian arrangements, and remember that expediency is not necessarily wisdom. To that end, the story includes brief appearances by a wandering minstrel whom Philippe contemptuously calls a “hobo” and a “singing tramp.” At first I thought the singer was Fitzgerald’s way of suggesting how frivolous the arts must seem when people are starving, but maybe Fitzgerald felt similarly marginal as a writer in his own society by 1935, warbling lyrics in a world that has no use for them.

So far, Fitzgerald’s medieval stories have told me less about his perspective on the 1930s and more about his own fears. I thought he was using the Middle Ages only as a metaphor for the fragility of civilization, allowing him to trot out an example of the sort of rough man he believed could save or rebuild it, but his veer into sentimentality makes me think he found more in the past than his plan for the “Philippe” tales could accommodate. Most writers and artists who dabble in medievalism make their own highly selective version of the Middle Ages, the version they went looking for in the first place, but Fitzgerald wades into the ninth century and can’t make sense of things. That doesn’t necessarily make “The Count of Darkness” an interesting failure, but it does make it an honest one, underneath the kitsch.

“I wait outside the pilgrim’s door with insufficient schemes…”

[This is the first of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The second post can be found here, and the third one is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

Two weeks ago, a footnote jumped out at me like a desperate spark from a dwindling fire. A scholar had ignored what was, to me, a marvel, rushing past it with such haste that he obviously couldn’t dream that I’d want to know more. For eleven years I’ve used this blog to root out medievalism in weird corners of American life—but it had never occurred to me that F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all people, was, for a while, obsessed with writing  fiction set in medieval Europe.

But then maybe I’m the only person who didn’t know that in the waning years of his too-short life, Fitzgerald published four medieval-themed short stories in the women’s magazine Redbook in the hope of turning them into his great comeback work: Philippe, Count of Darkness, a novel set in ninth-century France.

The Philippe stories take effort to locate and patience to read. Fitzgerald’s daughter, I’ve learned, thought they were awful, and only one has been reprinted. I tracked down the necessary back issues of Redbook, half-expecting to find that these stories were the El Dorado of forgotten American medievalism, legends that inspired only folly—but after a few clicks on Ebay it was in my hands: the first story, “In the Darkest Hour,” from the October 1934 issue, where evocative illustrations by Saul Tepper make you long for more from the facing-page ads for soup, sink cleaner, and booze.

What can I tell you about “In the Darkest Hour”? It’s so unlike anything I’ve read by Fitzgerald that if I hadn’t seen his byline on the cover of its crumbling original source, I wouldn’t believe he had written it.

The plot is simple. Spoiler alert: It’s A.D. 872 in the Loire valley, and Philippe, having been whisked away to Andalusia as a child and raised as the stepson of the Muslim vizier, returns to Villefranche as an adult to reclaim his ancestral lands and fulfill his duties as the rightful count. When he finds his homeland ravaged by Vikings and his ignorant subjects scrounging through rubble, he rallies a small band of dubious locals, instructs them in rudimentary horsemanship, and sets them up on mules and donkeys,

as grotesque a caricature of chivalry as could be imagined. Nevertheless, mounted they all were, after a fashion; and Philippe’s idea was a prefiguration of an age already beginning, when mounted men were to take over the shaping of feudal Europe.

Philippe’s pathetic remnant defeats a small band of predatory Norsemen, inspired in part by their count’s promise: He’ll protect his people and keep the peace, in exchange for their good service. Thus by one man, sayeth Fitzgerald, is feudalism invented:

There are epochs when certain things sing in the air, and certain strong courageous men hear them intuitively long before the rest. This was an epoch of disturbance and change; all over Europe men were thinking exactly like Philippe, taking directions from the arrows of history that seemed to float dimly overhead. Each of those men thought himself to be alone, but really each was an instrument of response to a great human need. Each knew that the spirit of man was at low tide; each one felt in himself the necessity of seizing power by force and cunning.

This might be wieldy stuff in the hands of a writer like “Conan” creator Robert E. Howard, who knew that readers clamored for vivid, thrilling tales. They wanted to smell a dank battlefield, feel the rough grip of a spear, sink deep into realms ruled purely by muscle and brawn. The best pulp writers were enwound in their worldviews and knew without doubt what they wanted to say. Fitzgerald isn’t at home here; you can see it in his failing prose. In “certain things sing in the air,” “certain things” should be something more specific, something more evocative of the medieval mind, ideally something that sings. Arrows, though deadly, are too small and fragile to represent the larger forces of history when used so concretely, and saying they only “seemed” to float overhead (rather than speed, whistle, rush, or fly) makes for a week, feeble image. “An instrument of response” evokes nothing specific; a civilizational “low tide” is a cliché. And then after the climactic battle, which ought to leave us feeling like Western civilization is at stake, Fitzgerald observes, lazily: “It was a busy day.”

You’ll search in vain for one sentence in “In the Darkest Hour” that’s worthy of the author of The Great Gatsby. You will, however, find hoard-loads of dialect. People in this story speaks like hard-boiled 1930s gangsters at a poker game in the Old West. Philippe greets the first person he sees with “Howdy! God save you!” and asks “hey, where’s this place at?” When a monk is reluctant to join the fight, Philippe thinks “he’s yellow!” and tells the monk he plans “to protect the jakes.” One local declares: “High time somebody did somethin’ around here. Everything’s rottin’ away.”

I suppose Fitzgerald wants the anachronistic dialect to draw meaningful connections between 1934 and 872, but it’s neither consistent nor emphatic enough to conjure the wisp of a metaphor. In addition to Philippe the Franco-Andalusian expat, we also meet Irish monks, French peasants, and Norsemen, all of whom distrust each other based on differences in appearance and speech. Fitzgerald is hyper-aware of the fact that medieval Europe wasn’t culturally homogeneous, but in a story that otherwise says everything and implies nothing—”[i]t was a desolate countryside, the more so, as there was evidence here and there that it had been once been highly cultivated”—he doesn’t give us a hint as to what he thinks this clash of cultures ought to mean in 1934.

Fitzgerald’s fascination with the Middle Ages surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t. Raised in a Catholic family, he spent his truncated college years at Princeton, where he read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and volumes of early Celtic history on a campus of recently built Gothic halls. By the time he published “In the Darkest Hour” in 1934, American museums were increasing their medieval collections, the cranky medieval-obsessed church architect Ralph Adams Cram had recently been on the cover of Time magazine, and the New York Times was reporting that 370,000 children nationwide were enrolled in youth clubs that preached the virtues of knighthood and chivalry. We think of Fitzgerald as a chronicler of his times, but I think he wanted to understand the foolishness of his era in a much grander scheme, more so than most of us realized.

In The Medievalist Impulse in American Literature: Twain, Adams, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, Kim Moreland argues that Jay Gatsby is a modern adherent of medieval courtly love. Gatsby navigates a set of rules in the service of adultery and practices a religion of love, “a commitment to the dream, the ideal, the essential, rather than the material, the accidental, the existential…a desire for mystical transcendence.” According to Moreland, Fitzgerald’s own fleur-de-lys fancies eventually withered:

In his novels Fitzgerald explores the cost of a modern allegiance to the courtly model. Yet the validity of the model itself is not seriously called into question. Only in Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel, The Last Tycoon, does he suggest that the male protagonist perhaps errs in desiring a courtly relationship, that his desire for a courtly lady rather than a modern women might be misbegotten.

In need of new matière, Fitzgerald looked again to the Middle Ages and wrote—what? “In the Darkest Hour” isn’t sufficiently lurid to join the ranks of the best (or even the middling) historical pulp fiction of its era. You’d never know that the author of this flat, prolix story had written sentence after eloquent sentence in Gatsby, a novel that reveres the reader’s powers of inference. Did something other than escapism make a keen observer of his own times look back a thousand years for fresh new things to say?

An editorial note at the end of the story offers a clue: “F. Scott Fitzgerald has written another vivid drama of the dark ages which even more significantly illuminates recent events in Europe and which will appear in an early issue.” Almost nobody delves into medievalism because they wish they had lived in the real Middle Ages; like many before him and many since, Fitzgerald grabs at a medieval metaphor to help him make sense of the here and now. But is the devastated and chaotic Loire valley of “In the Darkest Hour” the Europe of rising fascism and Nazism? A nation wrecked by the Great Depression? An America greatly changed by immigration? There’s little in the story itself that encourages a reader to see anything here but stilted actors in medieval dress.

But then there’s this, a remarkable jotting from Fitzgerald’s notes: “Just as Stendahl’s portrait of a Byronic man made Le Rouge et Noir so couldn’t my portrait of Ernest as Philippe make the real modern man.” Yes, “Ernest,” that Ernest: Philippe, the Spanish-raised French nobleman, is Ernest Hemingway transported to early medieval Europe, where he’ll crack a few skulls and rebuild civilization.

Cheerless after his first modest victory, Philippe holds vigil while weaker men sleep: “Let the others get tired,” he sneers. “I keep the watch.” The closing line of “In the Darkest Hour” sets up Philippe as an indispensable savior: “Embodying in himself alone the future of his race, he walked to and fro in the starry darkness.”

The future of his race. The human race? Christian Europe? Or just the medieval French? As a stand-in for what or for whom? Does it matter that Philippe has blue-blooded authority but is a stranger in his own land? What so ails the world in 1934 that Ernest Hemingway in medieval kit is the only man who can save it?

My questions may be futile. One scholar has called the publication of the Philippe stories by Redbook “an act of charity toward an author in decline.” I don’t doubt he’s right, but in future blog posts I’ll slog through the three later Philippe stories—not to sully the memory of Fitzgerald, whose best work places him safely beyond embarrassment, but to figure out what the heck inspired his obsessive rooting through the rubble of medieval Europe. I want to know what he was looking for, and why he failed so badly to find it.

“And we’re strangers here, on our way to some other place…”

After Becoming Charlemagne came out in late 2006, I spent nearly two years talking about the early Middle Ages wherever anyone asked me to do so—at libraries, bookstores, museums, senior-citizen programs, even a tea salon in a suburb of New Orleans. I had several templates for speeches, all of them customizable for different venues and occasions, including one really fun presentation about the founding and early decades of Baghdad. But when the branch of the University of Maryland where I was teaching asked me to give the plenary address at a conference for writing instructors, I got a little more nervous than usual.

I’ve never been a writing instructor—I don’t have the necessary patience—so I wondered: What did a part-time medievalist have to say to teachers who do some of the English department’s hardest and least glamorous work?

As is so often the case, once I reframed the question to be less about myself, I found there was plenty to say after all.

Here’s a transcript of the speech, edited to remove introductory banter, a couple of brief tangents, and legions of unflattering “ums” and “ahs.” I wish it hadn’t taken so long to post this somewhere, but hey, if something is worth saying, maybe it’s still worth saying eleven years later.

* * *

“The old wine of ancient learning”:
The medieval classroom and its lessons for modern writing instructors

Plenary address, Fourth Annual UMUC July Writing Conference, Adelphi, Maryland
Friday, July 27, 2007, 9:30 a.m.

Thank you for the invitation to come speak to you all this morning. It’s always an honor to be asked to give a talk, but it’s even more of an honor to be asked to speak with colleagues about writing, and putting some of what we do here at UMUC in its historical context. I’m really humbled by, and grateful for, the invitation.

Now, because I teach medieval literature and write about medieval history and culture, I wanted to do a little digging to find something appropriate and relevant to talk about. As Matt pointed out, I recently wrote a book, two little books, about Charlemagne, the king and emperor who was a patron of education and who, like many of our UMUC students, came to scholarship fairly late in life, but with tremendous passion. Charlemagne and the great teachers of the early Middle Ages revived and perpetuated ancient and time-tested educational methods, which helped keep learning alive for the past 1,200 years, so I thought I’d spent a little time this morning discussing the pedagogical traditions we inherited from them—what Charlemagne’s chief advisor, a man named Alcuin, referred to as “the old wine of ancient learning.” It’s a tradition that all of us in this room are working in to some extent or another, even if we’re not necessarily aware that we’re doing so.

So why look to the early Middle Ages? It’s an era commonly dismissed as the “Dark Ages,” and perhaps understandably so. Europe was a collection of competing kingdoms and tribes, very few people were literate, monasteries were the sole repositories of surviving knowledge, and the first universities were more than 300 years away. In fact, the brightest, most perspicacious people in Europe during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries couldn’t have imagined a day when there would be a sufficient number of literate, well educated people to populate such an institution.

But when you look at the manuscripts, the classroom texts, and the teaching methods of the early Middle Ages, you find habits and practices that I think would warm the hearts of pretty much everybody in this room. You find, for example, an obsessive attention to what today we would refer to as “literacy” and “critical thinking skills.” We find a true love of learning—even more admirably, a love of language, the nuts and bolts of language: how language works, how you put words together, how you put sentences together, how you communicate with other educated people. And you find that underlying all of this is an incredible sense of purpose, a real sense of mission. Thanks to the efforts of the monks of this era, within a generation or two, literacy was spreading, old books were being copied and preserved at unprecedented rates, and new books were being written for educational use.

So there are really a few things to discuss here this morning: What was this educational curriculum and where did it come from? And also, what made it so successful in such an uncertain and illiterate era?

The answers to those questions contain real lessons for those of us who teach writing, composition, and literature, and in the end I think they leave us with further interesting questions to ponder as well.

* * *

Now as to that first question: Where did this educational curriculum come from? Medieval people didn’t concoct it out of nothing. Medieval learning was derived from ancient Roman educational methods, so let me talk for a moment about what came before.

At the height of the Roman empire, when Rome was prosperous and powerful and stretched from Scotland to the Middle East, young boys began their education with somebody called a litterator, a tutor or a teacher who taught them the basics—who, as the name implies, “lettered” them, and gave them fundamental reading and writing skills. At the age of 12, they attended classes with the grammaticus, a grammarian, where, since they were ancient Romans, they studied Greek and Latin. They read literature, especially poetry, and emphasized grammar and syntax. On the side, they also studied history, mythology, and basic arithmetic. Around the age of 14 or 15, they moved on to the full study of rhetoric. They read prose writers, they practiced composition, and they attempted elaborate written and spoken exercises. They also studied law, philosophy, and science, but usually philosophy and science got short shrift in favor of law. The children of the wealthy were going to need that legal training if they were going to get a good job with the civil service. Some things really don’t change.

The Romans didn’t have a single name for this curriculum. Cicero had referred to it as the “liberal arts” and “liberal disciplines”—artes liberales and liberales disciplina—but he never really spelled out exactly what he meant by them or exactly how many liberal arts were in this curriculum, at least at first. The Latin adjective liberales here indicated an education worthy of a man who was liber, or “free,” but it also connoted courteousness, generosity, honor—in short, the behavior of a cultivated man, anachronistically someone we might think of as a “proper gentleman.”

This term “liberal arts” continues to pop up even after the heyday of Rome and well into Late Antiquity, even as there were fewer of these “proper Roman gentlemen” roaming the Forum. For a while there’s some disagreement in Late Antiquity about how many liberal arts there even are. Some say nine, but most agreed that there were seven, in two groupings: a primary grouping of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic; and a secondary grouping of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. (A few ancient writers tried to squeeze medicine and architecture in there to form nine, but those never really stuck.)

Fast-forward a few centuries, and this was the basic educational philosophy, this curriculum of seven liberal arts, inherited by early medieval people.

They knew from reading the centuries-old works of Saint Augustine—Charlemagne’s favorite writer—that this curriculum was essential. Saint Augustine had said in his youth that the liberal arts “are learnt partly for the conduct of life, [and] partly for the understanding and contemplation of the Universe.” And by the year 800—the high point of the reign of the king and emperor Charlemagne—this curriculum was thriving.

Of course, the world was a very different place by this point. The Roman Empire was a memory; the social institutions of Europe had devolved and were rather unsophisticated, by the standards of a few centuries earlier; and Christianity, not Roman paganism, was the predominant belief system.

Yet this same basic liberal arts curriculum endured, and even gained new life, in the hands of these early medieval monks. The grouping of four secondary subjects—arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—had already been known for centuries as the quadrivium. But the grouping of the three primary subjects got its name around this time. Sometime around the year 800, the curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic became known as the trivium. This is literally, in Latin, the place where three roads come together; it’s also where we get our modern word “trivia.” Most people think that “trivium” is an old Roman term, but in the context of education, it’s not—it’s a medieval term.

So that’s where the curriculum came from, and how medieval monks found themselves in possession of it.

But what did these early medieval monks do with the trivium once they devoted themselves to it? And why and how where they so successful?

* * *

Well, they put their own early medieval twist on the old Roman subjects of the trivium.

At the core of it, of course, was grammar, with “grammar” very broadly defined. We think of it as a narrowly defined subject today, but to them it wasn’t. It was the study of literature, both secular and religious, but it was also “grammar” as we define it now: letters, words, parts of speech, even handwriting—orthography—and vocabulary. They began their study of grammar by memorizing the psalms. The psalter, the Book of Psalms, was their primer. They combined a tremendous amount of memorization with an emphasis on the underlying technical aspects of language. They used all these Late Antique writers and early medieval authors—Donatus, Priscian, and St. Isidore—and they had many newly compiled dictionaries and glossaries to help them understand exactly what it was they were reading.

When they were ready, when they had sufficiently studied grammar, they, like their ancient Roman counterparts, moved on to rhetoric and studied, among other books, the works of Cicero, or new books closely based on Cicero’s writings. (We would consider these books heavily plagiarized from Cicero, but they didn’t have those sorts of intellectual-property issues; they were able to get away with imitation in ways we wouldn’t allow today.) They learned practical skills when they studied rhetoric, and I find the list of these things rather interesting. They learned how to write a letter of condolence; how to describe a king (in a flattering way, of course); how to compose—and I love this one, we should all assign this at some point—a debate between winter and spring, the old classical debate genre, which they took up in the Middle Ages as well. They also wrote letters announcing the election of a bishop or the death of a member of their local community. And they learned how to do this with metaphors, rhymed prose, parallelism, and a host of other rhetorical skills drawn from ancient writing and ancient examples.

The rhetoric manuals from this time are really remarkable. I dug into one in preparation for coming to give this talk today. Medieval authors read Cicero and imitated him very closely, and in these early rhetoric manuals, rhetoric has a grammar all its own, with five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; and three types of questions: demonstrative, deliberative, and judicial; and four types of disputes and debates—and so on and so forth, with all sorts of classifications and sub-classifications, with clearly defined rhetorical strategies outlined and described and meticulously classified along the way. I can tell you that the precision and thoroughness of medieval thinkers is dazzling when you first encounter it. It doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of medieval people as backwards.

Once a student sufficiently mastered rhetoric, he moved on to dialectic, which as far as medieval people were concerned was essentially logic: how to use language accurately by focusing on precise definitions and logical arguments. Here they did syllogistic exercises, often in question-and-response format. In the classroom and in the textbooks of the time, there are these great medieval dialogues between a thinker and whoever the king or prince happened to be, so conversational yet so precise, clear examples of the Socratic method in action.

Keep in mind that medieval students had the added difficulty of having to do all of this in Latin, which they were studying on top of speaking their own vernacular languages. At every step, they were encouraged to read the best and most difficult Latin texts available; they were encouraged to confront and engage with writings produced by the finest minds, such as Cicero and Virgil and Saint Augustine—and, of course, King David. Ultimately they did so that they could understand and interpret the most important text in their world, which of course was the Bible—but a great deal of rigorous work involving pagan and secular authors was required to get them to that point.

One dialogue in a rhetoric textbook quotes Charlemagne himself as saying this:

I confess…that to me these requirements appear at first glance to be very pleasant and just and moderate. But as I look at them and come to understand them, I see that they postulate constant exercise and daily practice, and that they cannot be perfectly fulfilled except by unremitting thought and close study.

I’d love to give that to every one of our students as they get ready to study writing and literature.

Charlemagne was right: the trivium was not to be breezed through. In fact, developing the ability to read, write, analyze, argue, and understand was a lifetime project. It began, in youth, with memorizing the psalms; it required years of composition practice and a tremendous amount of memorization and imitation; and it ended—if it ever ended—with being able to write original poetry in Latin, which many educated people were never able to do, and which even the best-educated people often got wrong.

But this was “lifelong learning” in the truest sense of the term. No matter what an educated person went on to study, whether he dabbled in music, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, you name it, he never stopped studying grammar; he never stopped being obsessed with language; and he never stopped improving his own rhetorical skills.

The poets of the ninth century were very certain about this. A witty Goth named Theodulf who was bishop of the city of Orleans wrote a poem in which Grammar is an allegorical figure. She stands at the root of a tree that represents all knowledge.

Theodulf writes:

The entire tree seems to proceed from her, because no art can be brought forth without her. Her left hand holds a whip, and her right hand a sword: the first is to drive the lazy, the second is to weed out vices. And since wisdom is in the first place everywhere, a diadem [a crown] adorns her head.

So Grammar was the queen and the root of all knowledge. (Of course, Theodulf can’t get away without a dig at some of his lazier students. He’s a bit of a wiseguy by ninth-century standards.)

The standards he discusses in this little excerpt from his poem about the seven liberal arts are supported in many of the other classroom texts, poems, and other accounts we have from the early Middle Ages.

Amazingly, we have one manuscript, in the library at St. Gall in what’s now Switzerland, that’s the personal notebook of a well-educated abbot from around the year 850, and it demonstrates how medieval people truly made a lifelong commitment to studying language. The abbot’s name was Walahfrid Strabo—Walahfrid the Squinter. If any of you are gardeners, you may have seen references to Walahfrid. He wrote a famous book about gardening, and he tended a famous garden at Reichenau, and if you visit the National Cathedral and go into to the Bishop’s Garden here in D.C., there’s a little “garden room,” as they call it, devoted to the era of Charlemagne, with little signs with snippets from Walahfrid Strabo. (I like seeing these little snippets of the Middle Ages popping up unexpectedly.)

When he wasn’t writing, Walahfrid was the personal tutor of the Emperor Charles the Bald. And he apparently kept this notebook, this little vademecum, that he took with him wherever he went. It’s amazing we even have this.

It’s 394 pages long. It includes mathematical tables, medical texts, excerpts from chronicles and calendars, even a very clever little drawing of a labyrinth. Walahfrid was clearly, from his notebook, a man with a keen mind and a very broad range of interests.

But 169 of these 394 pages, around 40 percent of the book, are devoted to grammatical texts: examples of usage, excerpts from great writers, and guides to poetic meter, all things he could use later while refining his own writing. Many of them are excerpts from writers from Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages, writers on grammar and rhetoric.

Can you imagine if 40 percent our students’ personal reference libraries years after they graduated still consisted of grammar and composition manuals and notes from your classes that they still used to improve and refine and perfect their writing? That may sound horrifying at first—you may thing, “gee, I didn’t send them out into the world sufficiently prepared”—but this wasn’t a sign of the weakness of their system; it was a sign of its strength. Prestige and reputation were bound up in your writing abilities. You didn’t want to look silly or ignorant when writing for other educated people.

So if you were a medieval person, no matter what you studied, you were always returning to the roots of your education in grammar. You were always, essentially, to use a phrase that’s been bandied about in the past few years, “writing across the curriculum.” You saw yourself as never really having completed English 101—and that was a good thing.

* * *

Fortunately—for them and for us—this emphasis on the Liberal Arts in general, and the trivium in particular, was a remarkable success. After the year 800, books were produced and copied at an unprecedented rate. Around 1,800 manuscripts or fragments survive from Western Europe before the year 800—but from the ninth century alone, we have more than 7,000 manuscripts or fragments. Quite a few of them were ancient books that we wouldn’t have today if medieval monks hadn’t copied them. For example, we wouldn’t have Cicero’s Philippics, in which the great orator rants about Mark Antony, if monks hadn’t seen fit to copy it in the early Middle Ages. No ancient copy of the book survives—the oldest is a ninth or tenth-century copy.

These were people who cared so deeply about the treasures of the past that in their zeal to preserve books and make them more legible, they developed a new form of handwriting. Today, scholars call it “Carolingian minuscule,” but you know it as the so-called “Roman” font on your word processors. It’s not “Roman” at all—that’s a mistake by typesetters of early modern books. It’s a medieval Northern European handwriting—and 1,200 years later, those lowercase letters are still used in nearly all printed books today.

So, not only did they keep the liberal arts curriculum alive, they kept alive a culture of literacy, a culture of the book—a culture that bore additional fruit 300 years later, during the twelfth century, when those traditional seven liberal arts were enhanced by Aristotelian logic and combined with law, medicine, and theology, as monastery and cathedral schools evolved into the first universities. The university was the medieval institution that set European history, and Western intellectual history, on its way. All of us here today are a part of this centuries-old tradition, and in fact we’re continuing it, 800 years after some teachers came together to form guilds in places like Paris and Bologna.

* * *

At the same time, you may be interested to know that there’s a modern movement to bring back the trivium in secondary schools. I recently discovered this after assuming that I’d be speaking this morning only about the hypothetical lessons and uses of the trivium. As it turns out, the Trivium Based Educational Movement is extremely popular among Christian educators and especially Christian homeschoolers.

But even though Christian monks and teachers used this curriculum successfully for centuries, there’s nothing necessarily or inherently Christian about the trivium, with its emphasis on grammar, rhetoric, and logic. In fact, if you search around the Web, you can find dozens of charter schools around the country—public schools with no religious agenda—that are basing their curriculum around the methodology of the trivium.

This is even true locally. If you go to the Web site of the Washington Latin Academy, a new public charter school down the road here in D.C., you’ll see them say this:

Every subject has its grammar, and its developmentally appropriate pedagogy begins with it. In the Lower School…direct instruction, drill, memorization of facts and recitation are essential strategies for teaching and learning. In the Upper School…students are led beyond the grammar to the logic and rhetoric of each subject.

Then the website adds that in these later stages, they employ the Socratic method—just like the teachers and the classroom texts of the early Middle Ages, just like many of you, in your classrooms, in 2007.

* * *

So what can we as writing and literature teachers, or even instructors in other disciplines, learn from the medieval monks who mastered the trivium? What can we learn from their incredible long-term success?

First of all, I think we can derive satisfaction from their very existence. We can take heart in their ability to keep grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic at the core of the curriculum. But their example also reminds us that just by being teachers of writing and composition and literature you—all of you—are working in a venerable and vital field, one that really does prepare students for everything else they will ever do.

And I think we ought to remember that what we teach, and how we teach, and what we discuss here at this conference in the next two days, could very possibly have an impact for centuries.

But I think we can also learn from acknowledging why they did what they did, and attempt to motivate ourselves accordingly.

If you would have asked one of Charlemagne’s monks to justify literacy education and to explain its purpose and importance—or even if you asked Charlemagne himself—he would have been bemused by the question. For these early medieval monks, there was only one answer to the question, and it was extremely obvious to them: the ultimate purpose of an education was to unlock and understand the layers of meaning in the Bible, and thus to save souls. Kings, abbots, and teachers believed that they would have to answer to God Himself if they didn’t educate their subjects and their students to the best of their ability.

This was why the most forward-looking medieval kings and emperors like Charlemagne supported more widespread literacy; why he issued edicts calling for more schools and better education; why he scolded his monks when they sent him incompetent letters; why he tried (unsuccessfully) to learn how to write himself; and why he summoned Europe’s most brilliant teachers to his court.

You see their motives spelled out most memorably, in my opinion, in a charming letter written by Alcuin, who was, as I’ve mentioned, Charlemagne’s chief advisor and one of the best educated men in Europe at the time.

Around 796, Alcuin sends a new graduate of his school back to England, and he sends with him a very tender and revealing letter of reference. It reads in part:

I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander around unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

We can all relate to this very human nervousness about sending a student out into the wider world, but in Alcuin’s case the motive behind it was quite different, and quite un-modern. For early medieval people, the final goal of literacy was a religious one.

* * *

By contrast, if all of us in this room were to explain why we think literacy is important, we’d hear quite a few different answers.

We’d hear that a literate citizenry is vital to a functioning republic; that literacy offers better job prospects; that literacy leads to personal enlightenment, which is its own reward; and perhaps other reasons as well.

Now, I happen to think that all of these very un-medieval answers would be good answers—but if we were to start this discussion, we’d be here for hours, because the responses would be highly personal; all of us would list these motives in different proportions. Some of us would have other motivations still; and hopefully no more than a few of you would have to dig deep to remember why you still do this at all. (We all have those days.)

And even if we all miraculously agreed on the “why” of things, I’m sure we would never agree on the “how”—our methods, our theories, and our classroom techniques.

So even if we don’t have the same reasons for teaching as our predecessors, even if our reasons are far more diverse, I believe we can still admire, maybe even emulate, their consistency and their confidence.

They knew exactly why they did what they did.

And they all worked together toward the advancement of this great continent-wide, communal educational project.

And they weren’t shy about holding their students and themselves to high standards.

And they didn’t let their students wander aimlessly—they made sure they were well versed in the traditions they were joining. They encouraged them to read brilliant and challenging books, and they encouraged a culture that instilled pride in being educated rather than in being ignorant—a culture that made kings and emperors want to be literate, too, and made them want to be great patrons of education.

And they weren’t afraid to acknowledge that their work as educators could not be compartmentalized—that reading and writing and rhetoric were not temporary diversions that were quickly or easily learned, but that they took a lifetime, and that this knowledge, these skills were vital to the survival and progress of their culture.

* * *

That’s why I think a conference like this one can be extremely productive. During the next two days, all of us can move a little bit closer to having, once again, that same shared consistency of purpose and confidence as a profession, while enjoying more of the same shared techniques and methods as well.

We’re sure to disagree about many things, but I hope this conference renews and invigorates us as we get ready to spend days and weeks and months and years convincing students to make rigorous, thoughtful, critical reading and writing as central to their lives as the trivium was to educated people twelve centuries ago.

We can do that by keeping in mind what those medieval monks did with “the old wine of ancient learning”—these distant monks, who, in the words of medieval historian Rosamond McKitterick, “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.”

“Quand tu vois ton bateau partir…”

I’ve known the writing of Cynthia Haven for ages; she’s a literary blogger at Stanford, an expert on dissident Eastern European poets, and now the biographer of French literary critic and philosopher René Girard. Cynthia has been kind to me over the years, boosting my poetic follies and helping me track down scholarly sources behind the scenes, so I’m already inclined to support her work—but after reading an excerpt of her new book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, I’m struck by how accessibly she writes about philosophical abstractions, and how sensitive she is to the tendency of human institutions to muffle or restrict truly free inquiry:

“I’ve said this for years: in the global sense, the best analogy for what René Girard represents in anthropology and sociology is Schliemann,” said the French theorist’s Stanford colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison. “Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature—it was beyond their imagination.” Girard’s writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.

Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth, and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard’s loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: “Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline’s point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He’s still not forgiven.”

I have appreciated Harrison’s analogy, though some of Girard’s other friends will no doubt rush to his defense, given Schliemann’s scandalous character—but Girard scandalized people, too: many academics grind their teeth at some of Girard’s more ex cathedra pronouncements (though surely a few other modern French thinkers were just as apodictic). He never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic, even though he is one of America’s very few immortels of the Académie Française.

I was once daunted by the numerous checkpoints that stand between academic disciplines in the humanities, and amused by how much talk of dismantling them is mere air. Girard just clambered over them:

For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth, it is the archive of self-knowledge. Girard’s public life began in literary theory and criticism, with the study of authors whose protagonists embraced self-renunciation and self-transcendence. Eventually, his scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. Girard’s thinking, including his textual analysis, offers a sweeping reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny.

Cynthia goes on to say that Girard “overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence.” You can click through to her blog post to find out what they are, but if you’re fond of scholars who gleefully veer not just into neighboring lanes but across entire freeways of thought, René Girard may be for you—and if so, Cynthia’s new book awaits you.

“The Deadheads got their Jerry, and mom’s got her Barry…”

I’m rarely in sync with the squeaking styrofoam cogs of the news cycle, but sometimes a story turns my head, and I can write about it even after several weeks because it fits a pattern I halfway wish I hadn’t noticed.

Transport us, O muse of blogging, to England, where at the end of last month, the Manchester Art Gallery removed a painting that apparently troubled almost nobody but museum staff:

It is a painting that shows pubescent, naked nymphs tempting a handsome young man to his doom, but is it an erotic Victorian fantasy too far, and one which, in the current climate, is unsuitable and offensive to modern audiences?

Manchester Art Gallery has asked the question after removing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, one of the most recognisable of the pre-Raphaelite paintings, from its walls. Postcards of the painting will be removed from sale in the shop.

The painting was taken down on Friday and replaced with a notice explaining that a temporary space had been left “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.” Members of the public have stuck Post-it notes around the notice giving their reaction.

[. . . ]

[Curator of contemporary art] Gannaway said the removal was not about censorship.

[ . . . ]

Waterhouse is one of the best-known pre-Raphaelites, whose Lady of Shalott is one of Tate Britain’s bestselling postcards, but some of his paintings leave people uncomfortable . . .

We can’t have art making generically identified “people” uncomfortable, now can we?

This story ripened and rotted fast. After seven days of ridicule, the museum put the painting back on the wall and continued to claim that the removal itself was itself an artistic act to accompany a new exhibition. No one explained why that stunt necessitated the disappearance of postcard replicas from the gift shop.

Four days later, I read that concerns about discomfort prompted a major change to the high-school English curriculum in Duluth:

A Minnesota school district is removing To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from its required reading list because they contain racial slurs.

[ . . . ]

The decision was praised by the local chapter of the NAACP.

Call me crazy, but a town that’s more than 90 percent white is doing all students a disservice by not demonstrating to them that mature, thoughtful readers of any age can discuss fictional depictions of racism without succumbing to emotional breakdowns.

I wish I hadn’t noted so many similar stories in the past year:

Ten minutes of searching will net you many more such examples, without even considering professors getting fired for asinine comments, the toppling of statues—which, yes, are also works of art—by latter-day iconoclasts, or the policing of jokes between friends of different races in the music world.

It’s an old story, this business of people telling other people what they can read, see, say, make, or know, but one thing has changed since my teenage years. The perpetrators used to be finger-wagging church ladies. They called on TV networks, libraries, schools, stores, and museums to restrict or ban books, music, and art. They received an inordinate amount of deference and press attention while trying to stoke moral panic about comic books, rock music, role-playing games, newspaper cartoons, radio hosts, shows about liberal priests, Satanic corporate logos, or whatever other ungodly cultural mooncalf shambled past their porch. Artists, writers, and other creative souls replied, sensibly, that people who didn’t want to read or see certain things could and should change the channel or skip the museum and let fellow citizens make their own choices.

Back then, threats to wall off artists and writers from the public came from the outside. Now, however, the poles in the art world have flipped. Curators, professors, artists, teachers, readers, and students—the people we once entrusted to protect free expression or expected to defend open access to books, art, and ideas—are starting to do it themselves.

This would be an obvious post with an obvious point, except that our cultural narrative hasn’t caught up to real trends. Mrs. Prudeshrew from Spittoon Falls praying in vain to exorcise Judy Blume from the library stacks is no longer a major threat to literature and art. Scolds, censors, control freaks, and prudes are now policing words and works from within, adopting the traditionally conservative position, anathema to them until recently, that certain books and art are virtuous while others are not, requiring the most enlightened and most orthodox to draw clear lines in the putative interests of everyone else. They’re toying with newfound privileges as censores librorum, empowering themselves to determine which creative works are sufficiently inoffensive to public faith and morals to deserve a nihil obstat.

This is why humans crave power. This is how most of us use it when we get it. None of this ever really changes. The assertions of moral superiority, this impulse to nail down sinners and damn the impure, all show that church ladies can come from anywhere, even with no church in sight. I’ll be watching to see if this timidity and moral preening get worse in literary and artistic circles. I want the doors of secular institutions to stay open to unorthodox, offensive, and literally irreverent ideas, without the precondition of a single profession of faith, while I still have the ghost of a choice.

(Avert your eyes! Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, from Wikimedia Commons.)

“Take a weather-vane rooster, throw rocks at his head…”

Last winter was so mild in Maryland that I was able to hike the state’s entire stretch of the Appalachian Trail, sometimes in short sleeves. We’re paying for it this year, with weeks of below-freezing temperatures that have us swapping stories about burst pipes and heart-stopping heating bills. It’s a season for diminished expectations: I’m all too proud of having found increasingly efficient ways to strew rock salt along a 750-foot driveway in the woods.

After last night’s latest icy slap, I took a second look at a translation I made on a whim in 2014. “The Debate Between Spring and Winter” is a derivative bit of Vergilian pastoralism attributed to Alcuin, the eighth-century abbot of Tours and one of Charlemagne’s most influential advisers. At a gathering of shepherds on a sunny spring day, the personifications of cheerful Spring and misanthropic Winter snipe at each other—until two shepherds, young Daphnis and old Palaemon, decide they’ve had enough:

Desine plura, Hiems; rerum tu prodigus atrox.
Et veniet cuculus, pastorum dulcis amicus!
Collibus in nostris erumpant germina laeta,
Pascua sit pecori, requies et dulcis in arvis,
Et virides rami praestent umbracula fessis,
Uberibus plenis veniuntque ad mulctra capellae
Et volucres varia Phoebum sub voce salutent!
Quapropter citius cuculus nunc ecce venito!
Tu iam dulcis amor, cunctis gratissimus hospes:
Omnia te expectant — pelagus tellusque polusque —
Salve, dulce decus, cuculus, per saecula salve!
(MGH Poetae I, 272, 45–55)

Here’s that fragment rendered into alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-style half-lines that Alcuin might recognize, though he’d disavow the diction:

Zip it, Winter,    you wasteful shit,
And hey, cuckoo!    Come be the shepherd’s
Ol’ number-one pal.    Let’s popcorn the hillsides
With giddy seeds    and grazing sheep!
Let’s find us some fields     that are fit for siestas!
Let the bone-weary dream    under drooping green leaves,
While queued at the pail,    the pap-swollen goats
Just beg us to milk them.    Let beaks all warble
Their mashed-up salvēs    to sunny Phoebus!
Faster, cuckoo,    flap thy ass hither!
Luv, you’re the greatest,    the guest of ’em all,
And everyone’s waiting,    Earth, Sea, and Sky,
So welcome, sweet cuckoo-grace!    Welcome forever!

I’ve tinkered with this to reflect less disrespect for Anglo-Saxon scansion, but alas, the tone abides. It’s no translation for the ages, but the restlessness is sincere.

I’ve yet to spot the cuckoos that summer in Maryland, but I look after their feathered brethren year-round, providing a heated bath for chickadees and titmice and mealworms for bluebirds that boing through the yard. They chatter impatiently, ungraciously, when I refill their feeders. I should be insulted—but lately, I know how they feel.

“Joyful as the silver planets run…”

I don’t know how 2017 dwindled into twilight so quickly—but when I look back, I’m pleased by the blog-year I had. Here are the highlights, a savory literary chowder that combines a hearty base of medievalism and a dollop of poetry with a rare pinch of the personal.

While hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in Maryland, I stumbled over medievalism first at the home of a forgotten poet, then in the Gothic chapel of a widow with a penchant for ghost stories, and finally in the philosophy of the father of the Appalachian Trail itself.

I also found medievalism at the federal cemetery at Antietam, where a charming little castle may have been meant to send a message to the conquered South.

The teacher in my household helped me see that the end of Huckleberry Finn makes sense when you understand Twain’s hatred of Southern romanticism.

Scholars made obvious points about medievalism and race this year, but they’re missing the subtler stories, like the six-decade history of Harriet Tubman being likened to Joan of Arc.

What do “Game of Thrones” and ISIS have in common? According to one feminist scholar, weirdly similar assumptions about “historical authenticity” and violence. Speaking of which, let’s keep an eye on the intertwining of medievalism and nationalism in Turkey.

I was happy to praise To the House of the Sun, Tim Miller’s vast and prophetic epic poem about the Civil War. The book is a wild, quirky, humane masterpiece inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and it’s perfect for readers of poetry whose tastes run transcendent and strange.

While celebrating ten years of blogging, I published a book of medieval-inspired alliterative verse about moving from the city to the country—and people bought it. (You can too; just send me an email.)

What do we do with the unrepeatable adventures of the past? If we’re smart, we aim our memories toward the future.

Another blogger turned profound loss into a lesson and gift for the rest of us.

I remembered a professor who told me to “study something lasting.” And so I have.

I wrote myself a note of gratitude for moving to a place with a sense of a community, a reminder that in dubious times, we all still need each other.

As always, thanks for visiting in 2017, no matter what brought you here, whether you left a comment, and wherever you wandered to next. I’ll keep writing in 2018; for now, here’s to a season of prosperity and peace.

“…to keep her from the howling winds.”

Last week I attended ninth-grade “gallery night” at our local high school and came away heartened. Asked to create works of art inspired by something they had seen at a nearby museum, sixty kids wrote lucid statements to accompany their exhibits, and they were required to discuss their thinking with adults who put them on the spot. I liked the countercultural lesson: that art isn’t limited to emotional outbursts or mindless spasms of inspiration.

The teacher in my home reinforces the idea in her English classes. She shows the same kids how to scrutinize poems by Whitman and Dunbar so they can map their facets, imitate their forms, and understand that writing and reading are acts of practiced thought. In recent weeks, they’ve also rafted down the river with Huck and Jim, needled the dithering Prufrock, and held vigil in hospital wards with Frederic Henry from A Farewell to Arms. Romanticism, skepticism, generosity, regret, love, loyalty, loss—part of being a kid is growing into oversized gifts, not least among them the realization that your experience, though uniquely your own, has centuries of precedent.

Unfortunately, the worst times in our lives confirm the value of these lessons. I can add nothing but a preface to this unforgettable blog post by scholar and high-school teacher David Salmanson, whose wife died unexpectedly last month:

People keep asking me what they can do for me, and I keep answering that I don’t know yet. People also keep telling me that I seem so composed and that they cannot believe that I can write and think through all of this, but I can. Indeed, I’ve been training my whole life for it, for it’s times like this that the value of a liberal arts education is revealed. Since boyhood, I’ve read and watched Shakespeare and Rostand’s Cyrano and The Bible. I’ve studied history and art and literature. I’ve done science in the labs and in the woods and I’ve stared into the deepest recesses of the universe in the dark of night with astronomers and I’ve stared into the darkest recesses of my own soul with philosophers. So when the unthinkable happened I was ready. I have 10,000 years of human history providing me examples of how to handle myself in the worst times. It’s a handy thing to have on your side.

This, then, is the true purpose of education. We are, again, in one of those moments in history where the liberal arts is under attack for being irrelevant. The calls for job training and “useful” majors is on the rise again.

Majoring in business cannot teach us how to deal with the unthinkable. It may be a path to money, but it will leave you forever poorer.

Friends of the Salmanson family have set up a fund to help with funeral expenses and a memorial scholarship that gives young women the adventure of a month-long hike in the Southwest. If we can’t avert the unthinkable, we can at least respond with condolence and compassion, and we can support opportunities for others to live, listen, and learn. Someday it may help them bear the unthinkable too.

“Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft, und fühlten sich gleich angemacht…”

The fall is a dubious season for gratitude. The farm stands are closing, our garden is nothing but brittle black wires, and the bald forest can no longer conceal its lack of secrets. Wants and needs grow more insistent, and we get too little daylight with which to appease them. Bills accumulate. Grades are due. The skeptic is tempted to wonder if anything follows an age of acrimony and spite, or if this is it this time.

And yet I’m not gloomy, but glad. As much as I take heart in the stark beauty of the woods around our home and the curious creatures that land on our feeders or slink round the porch rails at night, the adventure of moving here has another dimension entirely, one I’ve not written about before: the other people who live here, and how they live together well.

We’ve made our home in a large agricultural reserve less than an hour’s drive from the D.C. border. Most of the reserve was set aside by the county’s liberal government around 1980, but it’s kept viable and thriving by hunters and farmers who tend to lean conservative. This sparsely populated corner of one of the most affluent, liberal, and educated counties in the United States was once a hotbed of Confederate sympathy. Today’s locals rebel against other domestic enemies: the sprawl, traffic, pollution, and pace of the rest of the Washington area. The cause is laudable, and far from lost, and I’m heartened by what transpires on this cultural borderland, where life is neither wholly urban nor fully country. I can take you to a century-old orchard where the apples and pears are so delicious that you’ll swear off grocery-store fruit forever. The proprietors, a family with hard, gnarled roots, will greet you in camouflage pants and NRA hats, happily taking payment from city hipsters and immigrants from nearby burbs. Mutual benefit, you see, is miraculous; it makes everyone nicer.

It also makes the past less potent. When the county was sweating over a 1913 monument to the common Confederate soldier, the local family that still runs a ferry across the Potomac claimed the statue and put it on private land. Most motorists who rely on the ferry (the General Jubal Early) probably aren’t glad that Johnny Reb welcomes them to Maryland, but the next river crossing is 16 miles away, so everyone gets on with their travels, including thoughtful commuters who hand hot coffee to windburned ferry workers on frigid mornings. Nowhere is the untruth of political absolutism more apparent. A community can indeed have a Confederate statue and charging stations for electric cars and a Buddhist temple and “’Drive Your Tractor to School’ Day” when diverse neighbors value common goods: an appreciation for the beauty of parks, forests, and farms; a conception of quality of life that loathes hideous overdevelopment; and mutual pride in one of the state’s best public high schools, an institution that helps the whole hodgepodge hang together.

There’s real need here, but the community tries not to wait for outsiders, least of all politicians, to notice and care. One small but formidable charity (for which I volunteer) runs a food pantry, provides transportation for the ill and the elderly, and helps neighbors pay bills when fate has otherwise frowned on them. Hunters annually donate thousands of pounds of meat; last week, scout troops rounded up more than six thousand pounds of dry goods. One church serves lunch every day to a hundred high-school kids and feeds any hungry souls who wander in. A new charity recognizes the talents of skilled workers among us by providing free home repairs for the elderly. Sometimes the good is wholly spontaneous: Last year, after word spread that a pharmacy clerk, a single African-American mom, had fallen on hard times, this community that still leans rural and white raised $2,000 for her on social media within 48 hours.

I can’t claim this place has no flaws. Liberal regulation can be ruinously stifling; conservative resentment can be petty and crude. Some mornings, the comments on the local Facebook group are cause for despair, and I hear and see plenty to remind me that the Chaucerian pageant of human iniquity tromps through even the pleasantest towns―but almost daily, I witness the alchemy of community. It defies reason, it couldn’t be reconstituted elsewhere, and often I doubt that it’s real. I know its active ingredients: There’s liberal do-gooderism and comfort with proceduralism and bureaucracy that comes from working in nearby Washington, plus a healthy dollop of wealth. There’s a proud, practical conservativism focused on building things, fixing things, and making things grow, plus a skepticism of silly and overwrought rules. There are strong churches, nimble private charities, and a sense of civic responsibility so ingrained that a town commissioner rightly tells newcomers that it’s only a matter of time before the community taps their talents. Left unsaid is the bounty they gain in return; we figure out that for ourselves.

In years to come, we’ll all need to learn to get along with people who aren’t like us, and who aren’t inclined to like us. I’m thankful to live in a place that proves it’s possible. This isn’t the season to contemplate anything less.