“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“I can’t be left to my imagination…”

Sometimes, during the busiest weeks, we need to find time to slow down. I did—and in two blog posts about current approaches to art I noticed, and cheered for, implicit heresies.

* * *

First, via Cynthia Haven, comes video of California poet laureate Dana Gioia at the first annual Sierra Poetry Festival in April 2017. I’ve long been a fan of Gioia, but the first seven or eight minutes of his casual talk sum up every simple, contrarian impulse I enjoy in 21st-century poetry, which is as much of a niche pursuit as any can be. Gioia addresses a fellowship he describes as having “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media,” adding that poets aspire to exchange money, power, and social status for beauty, truth, and goodness. If your first impulse is to laugh at that, please think again: Almost nobody makes money with poetry, and doing something you love for its own rewards is actually a lot more normal than hoping your beloved hobby will turn a profit, earn you “likes,” or make you “YouTube Famous.”

The statement that struck me the strongest was this: “We don’t lead global lives.” Heresy! For all we learn from other perspectives and wider views, we can’t escape our own terroir, though many try. At a time when we’re supposed to aspire to be “global citizens,” whatever that is, Gioia preaches diversity of place, of values, of expression. I’m glad he does; those offer something true for all of us.

* * *

And then there’s this from the website Artsy: “Why the Rise of Workout Classes in Museums Should Worry Art Lovers.” Do we really need an “explainer” on this? I understand that some museums have grave financial problems, and I attended several museum conferences a few years ago where older administrators were openly terrified by their inability to attract a younger audience with the attention span of a capsized stinkbug. Turning art spaces into noisy, oniony locker rooms is not the answer. Museums have tried these stunts for a while; symphonies have also tried to cash in with gimmicks like crowd-pleasing concerts of orchestral versions of video-game tunes. In the long run, do these things attract more patrons than they repel? No one has said.

In my 21 years in D.C., I learned to laugh at Capitol Hill workaholics who pretended that a few hours of weekly yoga balanced out their frantic attempts to get noticed after working until dawn on those brilliantly persuasive bar graphs in a sorghum-subsidies report for the assistant to Senator Bedfellow. Learning to be alone to exhume your own thoughts is (to use the language of the stressed) a lifestyle choice—no piped-in soundtrack to every meal, no CNN or Fox News blaring overhead as you try to read a book or reconnect with a friend, no checking your phone every six minutes for nonsense.

I like music. I like video games. Yoga is good for you. I value my smartphone. But I’m zealous about there being one secular place left in our culture that isn’t about bodies rather than minds, or doing rather than thinking, or noise rather than silence, or therapeutic self-improvement rather than grappling with the difficult thinking of older, wiser minds. I suppose that’s my heresy. I support it with my wallet, but for now I’ll continue to live in the woods.

“Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind…”

I’m glad I went to college when I did; I get the sense that campuses have become less hospitable to eccentrics who seldom publish but thrive in the classroom. Perhaps the glut of job-seekers is to blame, or the dependence on adjuncts, or management priorities right out of the home office of Walmart. But I once knew a professor who hoped we would see that education could be bigger than all of that, and I was saddened to learn that he has, as Thomas Malory wrote of King Arthur, chaunged his lyf.

The right kind of student loved his classes. He urged us to rip our massive anthologies in half to make the world’s great literature that much more portable. He had us draw maps of mythical places, and he bombarded us with comic strips, song lyrics, modern poems, anything to convince us that knowing this stuff—and he did call it “this stuff”—let us form profound connections with our fellow humans, living and dead. When we read the Aeneid, he pumped us up by blasting Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from a boombox and banging his head in psychedelic bliss—but then the frivolity ended as he passed around a tiny vellum manuscript in Greek and quietly asked us to consider both its fragility and its durability.

The last of the fanatic generalists, he taught ancient and medieval lit, the Bible, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, and the Arthurian legend, but he had a special fondness for the Beats. He also loved Samuel Johnson, and I’m sure that when he went to London every few years, he roamed the alleys and streets with an 18th-century mental map. I don’t know if students see his like anymore: an outspoken liberal who defended the worth of the Western canon. He did so devoutly but without chauvinism: he also studied Japanese and joined his wife in an Indonesian gamelan ensemble.

In 1992 I was mulling over two improbable careers: cartoonist and medievalist. When I popped by his office to talk about graduate school, my prospects hung in the air for ages.

“If that’s really what you want to do, then of course I’ll write you a letter,” he said at last, “but I would be just as pleased to know that I helped to create a very literate cartoonist rather than another academic scrounging around wondering where the next pittance of grant money is going to come from.”

I was stunned to hear a professor suggest that campus life was anything other than a bower of bliss. I don’t know if he accurately perceived my eccentricities or was giving voice to his own disenchantment, but he was right to make me suspicious of the whole business. Decades later, I still make up my career as I go along. With no clear path to follow, life has been harder, and maybe I worry more, but I’ve also traveled more, written more, known more kinds of people, and stumbled more often onto unforeseen luck. More wide-eyed students should hear what I heard; it takes years to sink in.

That same year, I answered his call for a research assistant, an offer he rebuked. “It’s mindless work,” he grumbled, instead sending me home for the summer with an Arthurian tote bag: Malory in Middle English, Layamon’s Brut, and hundreds of pages of secondary sources ranging from credible archaeological studies to wackadoodle theories about the “real” King Arthur. Lacking any guidance or goal, I worked out my own mental outline of medieval Britain. I later built a ten-year teaching job on that.

When he organized a major conference on medievalism, he told me to check it out. The invitation itself was a compliment, but I was too callow to realize that such an event on my own campus was something I ought to attend. A few years later, he sent me the published proceedings, which started me thinking. I wander, I stall, but I do tend to get where I’m going. Did he know?

He could be frustrating. The forms I needed signed and the letters I needed written couldn’t compare to the brilliant conversations with Cavafy and Boswell that seemed always alive in his mind. More than once, he got into deep trouble with fussy little bureaucrats. I like to think he angered them by taking seriously the proposition that a university was a place to explore, to experiment, to gain perspective that makes you free in ways that the world can’t suppress.

We didn’t know each other well, but we shared stories about growing up in tight neighborhoods with large extended families. I hadn’t seen him in 24 years, but now and then a package would surprise me: boxes of books, a cache of poems, letters that rang with good cheer even in the face of failing health.

Good teachers leave you gifts long before you understand their value. Shortly before I graduated, he read my paper on an ephemeral modern author and congratulated me on work that was well-written and cohesive. Then he looked me in the eye and said, by way of farewell: “Study something lasting.” And so I have.


(Polaroid Land Camera photo of a grotesque near the University of Delaware campus)

“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.

“I must admit, just when I think I’m king…”

Last month, when suicide bombers attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the world was aghast that ISIS specifically targeted girls and young women. Unfortunately, no one who understands the pseudo-medieval image ISIS has built around itself was all that surprised. In “Muscular Medievalism,” a prescient article in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Amy S. Kaufman makes important points about the misogyny of ISIS and their obsession with a fantasy version of the medieval past:

[A] key component of muscular medievalism is its need for the suffering and exploitation of women in order to validate its vision of masculinity. In the autumn of 2014, the new caliphate declared that the enslavement and rape of women and girls is central to its ideology. ISIS’s glossy, almost corporate, monthly English language magazine, Dabiq, included an article called “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which explicitly argued, “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar—the infidels—are taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law.”

After giving several harrowing examples of ISIS’s brutality, Kaufman draws a bitter conclusion:

And yet, despite the explosion of reporting on the fate of ISIS’s conquered territories, the world’s reaction to this horrific violence against women and girls—apart from the usual Twitter outrage—is largely complacent. The enslavement, ritual rape, and murder of thousands of children and grown women—on a scale that would demand immediate action of the persecuted group were anything other than women—is lamented, but ultimately dismissed as part of the “medieval” nature of life under the Islamic State, thanks, in part, to our misguided fantasies about the past.

What does Kaufman mean by that, and why does she implicate all of us, including Westerners? Throughout her article, she draws a provocative connection between the way ISIS asserts its “authenticity” and what we as readers and viewers in the West seek in our entertainment. I hope she won’t mind if I quote her at length:

Take, for instance, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which holds such a revered place in contemporary American popular culture that it’s treated to weekly recaps in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. The author of the epic fantasy series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, claims to be delivering an unapologetically “real” version of the Middle Ages in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin says he was inspired to pen his particularly brutal portrayal of medieval times because other writers “…were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.” And if Martin’s novels are any indication, getting it right means saturating the faux-medieval world with rampant misogyny and rape . . . However, Martin explains away the sexual violence in his novels with his vision of history: “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex,” he clarified to one interview. “It’s medieval.”

For Martin—and his legions of fans—the abundance of sexual violence and the disturbing conflation of sex and rape in the books and on the show are, in fact, markers of medieval authenticity. Indeed, rape-as authenticity is a key component of the show: “It’s not our world,” argued executive producer D.B. Weiss in defense of the rape scenes on HBO’s show, “but it is a real world, and it’s a violent world, a more brutal world . . . It’s a world where these horrible things are definitely pervasive elements of their lives and cultures. We felt that shying away from these things would be doing a disservice to the reality and groundedness of George’s vision.” To be clear: violence against women isn’t just a byproduct of historical authenticity in the show and in the novels. It is, according to their creators, what makes these medieval-inspired works of entertainment authentic. The violence against and degradation of women in the world of Westeros is as important to the “medieval” setting as the armor, the castles, the weapons, and the charmingly fetishized details about food. But using violence against women as a shortcut to bolster authenticity is hardly limited to Martin’s creative endeavors: the casual rape of women and girls, often as a kind of “background noise” behind the “real” plot, pervades almost every work of medievalism that is proclaimed “gritty” or “authentic,” the often-anonymous victims themselves rendered disposable tropes in the service of historicity, from the Channel’s show Vikings to popular games like The Witcher and Dragon Age.

When someone questions the decency of our fondest shows and books, it’s tempting, and awfully easy, to recite a familiar refrain: “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.” But to answer too quickly is to evade self-examination. Even though I think there’s too much moralistic finger-wagging at artists and writers these days, there are ethical dimensions to reading and watching television, especially where the Middle Ages are concerned. Goodness knows I’ve heard plenty of parents complain about the overwhelming influence of the “Disney princess” franchises on their impressionable daughters. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, harmless in themselves, possessed antebellum Southern planters with such absurd visions of chivalric grandeur that Mark Twain blamed him, not facetiously, for the Civil War. Centuries earlier, the Spanish conquistadors who hacked and slashed their way through the Americas were obsessed with chilvaric romance, seeing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan not for what it was, but as a magical city out of the sprawling tale Amadis of Gaul—and seeing themselves as the latest wave of crusading heroes, called to convert, conquer, and rule.

Even though Kaufman isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?

“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Young man in a quiet place, got a hawk on his arm…”

Ten years ago today, I cobbled together “Quid Plura?” without any clear notion of what it should be. More than 600 posts and 1,600 comments later, this site has become a sort of vade nobiscum about medievalism, formal poetry, and other bookish pursuits. Even as blogging has gone the way of ham radio or dial-up BBSes, I love that my online hermitage is placidly old-fashioned: the site crashes a few times a month, and my only concession to changing times has been to add a search box to the sidebar on the right. (That was year nine’s big tweak.) Traffic has always been modest, but over the years this thing has allowed me to meet so many new friends, quirky writers, and kindred spirits that you’ll rarely hear me gripe about hosting costs, technical headaches, or the eclipse of the medium by pithy and hollow alternatives.

Loved ones frequently accuse me of being shy about self-promotion, so let me do ten years of catching up.

If you’re new to this blog, here’s what it’s about: I write about American medievalism, our efforts to continue, revive, or imitate the European Middle Ages and use that era for our own purposes, both malevolent and benign. At the core of “Quid Plura?” are more than 160 blog posts on this rather niche preoccupation. Why are there unicorns in a 1959 brassiere advertisement? What’s so “gothic” about American Gothic? What’s with the grotesques on a Delaware pharmacy? Are there really traces of the medieval on the Appalachian Trail? What hath Harriet Tubman to do with Joan of Arc? What’s with that castle in Baton Rouge? Or that Gothic synagogue in Georgia? Framing the world around us with the right questions can bring long-neglected details into focus, sometimes literally; that’s why I tried to photograph American medievalism with a clunky antique Polaroid.

And yes, I’ve used this blog for far more eccentric projects. It took me four years, but I read and reviewed all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. Three years of formal poems about the National Cathedral gargoyles resulted in a book they now sell at their gift shop, although following up the gargoyles with a yearlong medieval-inspired poem about moving from the city to the country tested the patience of longtime readers. Blogs have become uncool, but this is what they’ll always do best: give us places to show off our willfully unmarketable writing and uncommercial creative projects. It sure beats handing over our personal lives to vast social-media corporations with nothing but strife in return.

That said, you never can predict what will brighten the Internet’s disembodied eyeballs. Tens of thousands of readers have stumbled upon my 2007 take on Indiana Jones and the best thing Charlemagne never said and my 2013 defense of the much-maligned textbook from Dead Poets Society. New readers find those posts every day.

Yet I wish posts on other subjects had gotten more attention: the science-fiction writer forgotten by her alma mater, the Charlemagne scholar who got her Ph.D at 66, the architect who told us to move back into medieval walled towns, the ambiguous angels at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the obscure Langston Hughes and T.S. Eliot poems I “rediscovered.” On a slow day at the office, I invite you to go nuts with the search bar or browse the subject tags on the sidebar to the right. If you’ve made it this far, you’re sure to find more here to like.

Above all, though, I hope you’ll read my reviews of small-press poetry books and do their authors a favor by buying the ones that strike your fancy:

  • E.C. Hansen’s The Epic of Clair, about a resourceful teen who survives the end of the world by becoming a messenger for witches in St. Paul, Minnesota.
  • Thaliad, a brilliant short epic by Marly Youmans about children who rebuild civilization in upstate New York after a fiery apocalypse.
  • Science And, Diane Furtney’s difficult but deeply moving book of science-inspired verse.
  • New Crops from Old Fields, a collection of work by eight medievalist poets.
  • Mid Evil, Maryann Corbett’s prayer for inspiration, confidence, purpose, and grace.
  • Need-Fire, Becky Gould Gibson’s poems about the lives of two important women in seventh-century Yorkshire.
  • To the House of the Sun, Tim Miller’s massive, challenging, disturbing, and deeply humane epic poem about vengeance and grace during the Civil War.

According to my site statistics, mirabile dictu, I still have regular readers. I know only a few of you, but I’m grateful to all of you—the lurkers, the critics, the poets, the scholars, the ghosts. If I have my way, even though our possible futures are unthinkably distant, I’ll still be here in another ten years, writing about medievalism and poetry in my rare spare moments and chasing whatever unforeseeable whims send me hacking through the brambles of my own imagination. Words aren’t precious; I don’t understand why all writers don’t have blogs for catching the sheer overflow of ideas, but I thank you for visiting mine. I may never post on a regular schedule, but I’ll offer you this: whatever turns up here you’ll never find anywhere else.

“No risk, I’ll whisk them up in no moonlight…”

When Harriet Tubman let an author of sentimental children’s books write her first real biography in 1869, she knew she’d be cast in some curious roles. Abolitionists had already dubbed her “Moses,” and John Brown, who sometimes referred to her with masculine pronouns, had loved to address her as “General.”

Even so, when I read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, I hadn’t expected to see Sarah Hopkins Bradford liken her subject to one of the most complex figures of the Middle Ages, a saint, a warlord, a visionary, and a child—but there she is, on the very first page:

It is proposed in this little book to give a plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of these women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called “Moses,” for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.

By 1869, well-read Americans had tried to make sense of the Maid of Orleans. Mark Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc that same year; two years before, abolitionist and women’s-suffrage crusader Sarah Grimké translated a French biography of Joan into English. Somebody, somewhere, may have dimly recalled Female Patriotism, or the Death of Joan of Arc, a 1798 play by Irish-born newspaperman John Daly Burk. If these works have anything in common, it’s a sense of Joan of Arc as enviably childlike. Perhaps from there it was an easy leap to the paternalism that even open-minded white Americans felt about their black countrymen.

But I think there’s more to the Tubman-Joan connection than that. In an engaging 2003 bio, Kate Clifford Larson provides a well-researched life of Tubman that offers glimpses of a Joan-like figure for anyone hoping to find them. Tubman was a nurse, a spy, and a scout during the Civil War, but she was also a warrior who led a daring and brutal raid on Confederate ships in South Carolina―and like Joan, and indeed like many memorable women and men of the Middle Ages, she was also a religious mystic.

When Tubman was in her teens, an overseer threw a two-pound weight at a fugitive slave; he missed him, but hit Tubman square in the head. This freak accident, the source of lifelong pain, helped turn her into a fearless leader who inspired (and sometimes terrified) the people around her:

Tubman broke out, often unexpectedly, into loud and excited religious praising. If this injury caused her great suffering, it also marked the beginning of a lifetime of potent dreams and visions that, she claimed, foretold the future. Some of her dreams eventually took on an important role in Tubman’s life, influenced not only her own course of action but also the way other people viewed her.

Larson offers temporal lobe epilepsy as a scientific explanation for Tubman’s visions, but she stresses the need to understand the influence of African culture and evangelical Protestantism on what, to my mind, are visions that also wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages:

Sounds of music, rushing water, screaming, and loud noises would overcome her without notice. Her dreams, visions, and hallucinations often intruded amid daily work and activities. “We’d be carting manure all day,” Tubman once explained to an interviewer, “and t’other girl and I was gwine home on the sides of the cart, and another boy was driving, when suddenly I heard such music as filled all the air.” Soon she began to experience a profound religious vision, “which she described in language which sounded like the old prophets in its grand flow.” Persistent shaking by her fellow slaves brought her back to reality, though she protested that she hadn’t been asleep at all.

[…]

Such experiences reinforced her notions of an all-powerful being that guided her through her life, protecting her and providing divine instruction. Tubman “used to dream of flying over fields and towns, and rivers and mountains, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.’” She claimed she had inherited this ability from her father, who “could always predict the weather, and that he foretold the Mexican war.”

I dug into the Tubman-Joan comparison and was surprised by how much there was to find―but less surprised that the notion thrived and faded with trends in the culture at large.

Bradford likened Tubman to a white European warrior-saint in 1869. That makes sense: Before the Civil War, Joan of Arc turns up in one of the most important cultural magazines for budding Confederates, the Southern Literary Messenger. She’s the subject of a romantic poem that calls for national defense, and in a bitter, blustery review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she’s the exemplar of everything Harriet Beecher Stowe is not, an “unsexed” knight whose chivalry gives her a rare exemption from having to act like a lady.

By the time Bradford wrote Tubman’s bio, though, chivalry was up for grabs. The Civil War was over. Black Southerners were heading to Congress, and the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to educate former slaves, some of whom helped draft new state constitutions. Abolitionists and African Americans and radical northern Republicans all must have marveled as racial taboos and prejudices looked ready to collapse. Casting Tubman as Joan of Arc didn’t just pay tribute to her complexity; it also acknowledged that she was comparable to white people and fully human, perhaps even superhuman―and it tweaked conquered Confederates as well.

The comparison caught on. An 1896 profile of Tubman in The Woman’s Era, an African-American newspaper, picks it up without apology:

So at the very beginning of this new day let us all meet in the benign presence of this great leader, in days and actions, that caused strong men to quail this almost unknown, almost unsung “Black Joan of Arc” . . . The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.

But that’s the black press; white readers may have felt otherwise.

Suddenly it’s 1897. Reconstruction has failed. Racist white Democrats have prevailed in the South; Civil War veterans are already holding genial North-South reunions; all eyes are on railroads and the West; and a country obsessed with business and finance is starting to haul itself out of a four-year depression. Sarah Hopkins Bradford revises and reissues her Tubman biography as Harriet, the Moses of Her People. Deprived of the dignity of a surname in the new title, Tubman is now quoted in dialect, and her sharp edges have been bravely bent down and taped over. Such is the national spirit of compromise. Tubman is still Joan of Arc, but Bradford, flaunting her own refinement, now calls her “Jeanne D’Arc.” Since the comparison pleases her, she trots it out a second time:

Her color, and the servile condition in which she was born and reared, have doomed her to obscurity, but a more heroic soul did not breathe in the bosom of Judith or of Jeanne D’Arc.

There’s heroism and praise in Bradford’s revision, but she no longer makes the page-one Harriet-Joan connection “advisedly and without exaggeration.” A woman who once “deserves to be handed down to posterity” is now “doomed…to obscurity.” Within a few years, comparisons to a medieval European saint will start to bother white writers, even when Tubman impresses them―as in a 1907 article in the New York Herald that got picked up by newspapers nationwide:

There is not a trace in her countenance of intelligence or courage, but seldom has there been placed in any woman’s hide a soul moved by a higher impulse, a purer benevolence, a more dauntless resolution, a more passionate love of freedom. This poor, ignorant, common looking black woman was fully capable of acting the part of Joan d’Arc.

Look at what’s happened: In four decades, comparing Harriet Tubman to Joan of Arc has gone from natural and straightforward to unlikely and ironic. At best, Joan is a “part” she was able to act.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans formed their own secular cult of Joan. French nationalists rallied round the saint in 1870 after the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Americans, looking to Europe for trends, were beguiled by her purity, her simple faith, her romantic communion with nature. In 1915, a statue of Joan got its own park in Manhattan. Determined to out-spectacle D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille released his movie Joan the Woman the following year. Joan was drafted during World War I, serving as a model soldier and the subject of poems and articles in Stars and Stripes. A illustrated biography for children hit the shelves in 1918, and her equestrian statue first looked across D.C. from Meridian Hill Park in 1922.

At last, Joan of Arc was whatever America wanted her to be―except black, except a battle-ready warrior, except an aged ex-conductor on the Underground Railroad. According to Kate Clifford Larson, by the time a well-intentioned radical started researching a new biography of Harriet Tubman in 1938, publishers shooed him away. Random House in particular “balked at her being compared to Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc was quite a few things Harriet Tubman was not, and vice-versa. Tubman wasn’t a child hero, a martyr, or a national symbol. In fact, Larson’s bio shows that she wasn’t like anyone else; she deserves to be remembered in all her complex and baffling humanity. Still, it’s remarkable that for a few promising years, comparing Tubman to a visionary child warrior saint felt right and just. That we’re now surprised by a colorblind metaphor doesn’t speak well of the century since.

“…and the sound of Te Awamutu had a truly sacred ring…”

Out here in the Maryland woods, we’ve turned on the water, torn out the weeds, set out feasts for nesting birds, and resumed watching our footpaths for snakes. While we wait for our seedlings to flourish and thrive, let’s wander through links about poems and writing and art.

Personal statement, prose poem, or something more? Dale Favier proposes “A Quieter Return.”

Chris Townsend makes plain why a “Walden” video game is a uniquely awful idea.

“Another of those fantastical, insane works I wish someone had forced me to read sooner”: Jake Seliger praises Lonesome Dove.

Chris at Hats & Rabbits is searching in vain for sincere works of popular art.

Prof Mondo gets hand-drawn proof that the kids in his poetry workshop are paying attention.

Flavia finds that devilish temptations make her a better writer.

George is reading to clear his shelves.

Do we get wiser with age? Stephen at First Known When Lost considers the question with his fond intermingling of poems and art.

Midori Snyder discovers Romare Bearden’s beguiling “Black Odyssey” colleges.

A psychologist and a museum director discuss art, and Marly Youmans plucks the prettiest parts.

“What are we supposed to do but keep creating, one way or another?” Poet Tim Miller ponders precedent and starts writing rhymes.

Can you name “America’s greatest living light verse poet”? A.M. Juster can (and does).

It is right and just: Maryann Corbett pens a “Prayer Concerning the New, More ‘Accurate’ Translation of Certain Prayers.”

“Let me set the battlements on fire…”

Mark Twain wasn’t joking when he griped that Southerners’ obsession with the chivalric novels of Sir Walter Scott helped cause the Civil War. In Life on the Mississippi, he laments that Scott had “run the people mad, a couple generations ago, with his medieval romances,” inspiring “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world had seen”:

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

I kept Twain in mind last week when I visited Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the single bloodiest day in American history: September 17, 1862, when Union and Confederate armies clashed, taking 23,000 casualties between them. The rangers at Antietam give thorough and informative talks, and I visited some of the famous sites with all due solemnity—but then I stumbled onto medievalism in the cemetery just to the south.

According to architectural historian Catherine Zipf, the job of designing and beautifying Civil War cemeteries fell to Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during and after the war. Every cemetery was to have a superintendent’s lodge, and Meigs standardized the design: each lodge was located near the gate or the edge of the cemetery, shaped like an L with a porch and reception hall, and built in a scaled-down French Second Empire style. Here’s a good example from Glendale National Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia:


(Glendale National Cemetery, Richmond; photo from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website)

After 1865, the Second Empire style was popular for federal architecture, most notably in the then-new State, War, and Navy Building next to the White House. Zipf argues that the style screamed modernity and federal control, especially when the government dropped these lodges into Southern cemeteries, where they contrasted starkly with the Greek-revival porticoes of big plantation houses. The Confederate dead were usually excluded from these cemeteries, and the huge “U.S.” on the second stories of the lodges was not subtle. Meigs let no questions linger about which side had won, and what that meant for the conquered.

So then why does the lodge at Antietam look like this?

What an odd, dreamlike blending of castle and house. According to a memo on this lodge by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, the federal government ran 80 national cemeteries by 1880, but Antietam was one of only two originally established and run by a state. Maryland got the jump on things by convening its own cemetery commission, sending the Confederate dead to be buried elsewhere, and hiring versatile D.C.-based architect Paul Pelz to design and build this lodge in 1867. The Park Service helpfully points out its distinctive features: “stone walls, turret tower with battlements, pointed arch windows, and a gable porch with crossbracing vergeboards.” (The latter term was new to me.) The tower gave veterans and visiting mourners a view of the battlefield, but this little castle didn’t earn fealty from locals. According to the Park Service, ne’er-do-wells loitered in the cemetery, incurring the wrath of superintendents who demanded that they stop using the grounds (in the words of an 1881 War Department inspector) “as a lounging place for the floating part of the citizens, canal men, loafers, young fellows and their sweethearts.”

So why is the lodge at Antietam so unlike its counterparts in other federal cemeteries? American medievalism surged in the 1870s. Tourism to Europe had never been higher; at Harvard, Henry Adams became the country’s first professor of medieval history; other campuses would soon start hiring medievalists and building in neo-medieval styles; and New Yorkers were drawing up plans for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I suppose it’s possible that the Maryland cemetery commission chose a versatile architect simply because they wanted a trendy building.

Yet I think something bigger is going on here. Maybe this little castle reflects Maryland’s ambivalence as a slave state that stayed in the Union, neither northern nor southern in its economic mainstays or social sympathies. That’s one way to explain why a cemetery that excludes the Confederate dead would evoke the chivalry that drove wealthy Southerners to war. Maybe some Marylanders hoped to pry medievalism out of Southern hands by claiming the symbolism as a spoil of war, quashing its power by making it fully American. Maybe the house-and-tower design says that domestic tranquility is buttressed by military defense. All those things may be so—but the most likely explanation is that the lodge at Antietam is a reaction to horror, a fearful attempt to push the bloodiest day in American history—in 1867, still a fresh wound—back into a romanticized past, making it romantic, heroic, less awful to face.

If that’s the case, then the builders deceived themselves. The first federal superintendent, Civil War veteran George A. Haverfield, assumed his post here in 1879, but a War Department letter unearthed by the Park Service suggests that an unorthodox but presumably generous gesture brought down swift violence upon the house:

Haverfield, having no family with him, had his laborer and the laborer’s wife live in the lodge, and boarded with him. The husband got jealous of the Superintendent, and rather, reversing the usual order in such cases, the husband was shot dead by the accused wife. It was through this sad occurrence that I learned that Haverfield was not living with his family. Had he been, the tragedy would probably not have happened.

(letter from Captain A.F. Rockwell to Quartermaster General, 20 August 1879, cited in the Historic American Buildings Survey report on the lodge)

A graveyard castle, a love triangle, jealousy, murder—the story has all the makings of a lurid Gothic novel, and the longtime closure of the tower gives the lodge a further tinge of mystery. Twain, of course, would have shaken his head. If the architects of the Antietam lodge thought they could romanticize the battlefield, softening the carnage through the heroic haze of knightly combat, then they misunderstood the limits of medievalism. You can’t plaster over the horrors of war; the blood finds a way to seep out in the end.

“Or will these changing times, motorways, power lines…”

On a cold, sunny day last November, I tromped along the Potomac and decided, on a whim, to hike the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. Over several hikes, sometimes with loved ones but often alone, I covered all of its 40-odd miles, rambling north from the canal towpath by the river along the wooded ridge of South Mountain, and finally—yesterday!—trudging into Pen Mar, Pennsylvania, my own ersatz Compostella. Although I foresaw the hours of chilly silence, the protesting soles, the glimpses of deer tails fleeing like ghosts through the brush, I hadn’t expected to stumble onto a medievalist monument by a forgotten poet or a Gothic chapel emerging from medieval shadows—and I certainly didn’t imagine that the Appalachian Trail itself was built upon a mixed medieval metaphor.

“As Roman civilization received ultimately its cleansing invasion from the hinterland, so American civilization may yet receive its modern counterpart.” So wrote Benton MacKaye in “Outdoor Culture—the Philosophy of Through Trails,” his 1927 address to the New England Trail Conference in Boston (republished in the 1950 collection From Geography to Geotechnics). A Harvard-trained forester with excessive faith in central planning, the eccentric MacKaye dreamed up the Appalachian Trail but left it largely to others to build. He wasn’t always thrilled with the result—he wanted a wilderness retreat, where others were happy to settle for an unbroken path—but over time, he imagined that the A.T. held increasingly profound philosophical significance. What began as a place for public recreation became, in MacKaye’s mind, a long, winding pathway toward social reform.

First, though, MacKaye had to reveal his idea, like an oracle, through metaphors and riddles. Early in his 1927 speech, he deploys the first of two medievalist images:

I once saw Douglas Fairbanks in the photoplay Robin Hood. The hero climbs the proverbial tower; with one arm he catches the beautiful lady as she jumps to elude the bad man’s attentions; with the other he continues climbing, then deftly annihilating Mr. Bad Man, he receives embraces nobly won. It was a glorious show. Intensely I imbibed it from start to finish, transferring my personality totally and thoroughly into Douglas’s rugged body. For fifty cents I had been a hero for twice as many minutes. I left the theatre victorious, vicarious, and with my money’s worth. Into this vivid little Utopia I had made my “get-away” from the humdrum of ordinary prosy life.

Here, then, are the two brands: the Utopia of creative thought, and the Utopia of effortless escape; the pipe dream of a Magellan, and that of a movie-fan; the real and the vicarious; the active and the imbibing. Which in the long run is the most fun?

[. . .]

Which would you rather be—a makebelieve Robin Hood, or a real (though diminutive) Magellan? We can be the first for fifty cents; what are the chances for becoming the second?

Like many before and since, MacKaye recognizes that the Middle Ages offer easy escapism, but he responds to the common claim of his era that men had become “over-civilized” by offering an alternative: personal exploration on a trail through true wilderness.

A second medieval metaphor sends “The Philosophy of Through Trails” spinning off in an ambitious and rather startling direction. MacKaye spent his whole life trying to save wild places from the encroachment of cities, and I love his justification for the Appalachian Trail—one of the oddest uses of medievalism (or, perhaps, Late Antiquity-ism) I’ve ever seen:

And now I come straight to the point of the philosophy of through trails. It is to organize a Barbarian invasion. It is a counter movement to the Metropolitan invasion. Who are these modern Barbarians? Why, we are—the members of the New England Trail Conference. As the Civilizees are working outward from the urban centers we Barbarians must be working downward from the mountain tops. The backbone of our strategy (in the populous eastern United States) lies on the crestline of the Appalachian Range, the hinterland of the modern “Romes” along the Atlantic coast. This crestline should be captured—and no time lost about it.

The Appalachian Range should be placed in public hands and become the site for a Barbarian Utopia.

The metaphor continues: For MacKaye, cabins and trails are “but a line of forts” that require a fighting force of hikers: “we must mobilize our real (if diminutive) Magellans—our pioneers of a new exploration.” I suppose he sees no contradiction in federal bureaucracies claiming and preserving land in defiance of civilization, but such was MacKaye’s mind: a whirlwind of quirky notions all swirling around one transcendent goal: restoring a balance between the natural and the artificial in American life. “It is a quest for harmony,” he wrote,

for what is pleasing and not ‘vile’ in that outward world which is our common mind. This philosophy—or culture—is, to my mind, the raison d’etre of the through trail and its ramifications. It is “the why” of the Appalachian Trail, which—let us hope—may some day form the base for the strategy of a “Barbarian invasion,” and for the development of a Barbarian Utopia.

As a regional planner who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, MacKaye generated reports that must have read like prose poems to his more practical colleagues. He once argued that hikers, as a small subset of the population, were entitled to mountains of their own in the name of protecting minority rights. During World War II, in a telling example of an expert unable to see beyond his specialty, he advocated that the United States organize its national defense strategy around watersheds. But despite his knack for cryptic pronouncements, MacKaye was always clear about his radical vision.

“[W]e must widen the access to the sources of life,” he wrote in 1946 after co-founding the Wilderness Society, insisting that his democratic goal was “not to grab off earldoms for some but to open up kingdoms for all.” There’s that medieval dream again: Utopian, in that it’s found literally nowhere, but always attainable, as long as you see it’s not someplace to be, but is something you are.