Archive for ‘politics’


“But Lorca’s corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away…”

How did art become irrelevant? Michael J. Lewis’s answer to that question in Commentary magazine made the rounds of social media last week. It’s an exhaustive overview, and a political one, edged with fine anger, a reminder that the arts used to be merely elitist, not ruthlessly hermetic.

So I was startled to open the latest issue of the literary magazine The Dark Horse and find “Poetry as Enchantment,” an essay by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia that makes many of the same points Lewis makes, but solely about poetry, and with a far more subdued tone. Defending poetry as a universal human art with roots in music, charms, and incantations, Gioia recalls that not long ago, it was ubiquitous and widely enjoyed. I remember that too: my grandfather was a machinist with a grade-school education, but he could rattle off snippets of verse that I now know were the work of Longfellow, Joyce Kilmer, and the (utterly forgotten) Sam Walter Foss.

What happened? Gioia argues that poetry was too well taught. The New Critics imposed reason, objectivity, and coherence on it. “Learning” poetry was reduced to dissection and analysis, then demonstrating your fluency in each new school of critical theory:

For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation foster. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?

No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project.

Gioia literally marketed Kool-Aid as an executive at General Foods—who can ever forget his award-winning “fear in a handful of dust” campaign?—so when he became NEA chairman in 2003, he wanted measurable results:

We decided to start with a program that could be executed quickly on a large scale without a huge investment. What we conceived was a national poetry recitation contest for high school students that would begin at class level, and then move on to school, local, state, and national competitions. We successfully tested the idea in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but when the agency tried to expand it, the arts education officials in the 50 states initially refused to adopt it.

The state arts education experts had four major objections to the program. First, they believed that students hated poetry. (Am I wrong to suspect that this assumption suggests that the experts themselves disliked poetry?) Second, they maintained that memorization was repressive and stifled creativity. Some of them added that memorization victimized minority students since standard English was not spoken in their homes. Third, they unanimously felt that competition had no place in the arts. There should be no winners or losers. In arts education, everyone should win. Finally, there was a general feeling among the educators that poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art.

Just how wrong were those “state arts education experts”? Gioia found that kids raised with hip-hop took to poetry when it became about hearing and reciting rather than reading and analyzing; they loved competing; “problem kids” turned out to be great at it; and immigrant kids have turned out to be around half of all winners each year.

Gioia is too gracious to gloat. About his detractors, he says only this: “The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity.” I wonder why they doubted him: His longtime championing of old-fashioned formalism? His corporate background? His presumed political affiliation? It’s a dreary state of affairs when ignorance is the most charitable explanation.

Someone recently quipped on Facebook that it’s actually a great time to be a poet, because when an art has zero social cachet, the people who do it out of sheer love don’t have to wonder if others are into it for the wrong reasons. That may not be forever true: Gioia’s Poetry Out Loud program has already engaged 2.5 million high-school kids, and books like the Disney Channel poetry anthology are bracing their younger siblings. What if channeling rap fandom into national recitation contests actually entices the corpse of poetry to sprout and bloom some year? Relevance would uproot academia; it wouldn’t be kind; it would set poets slogging through swamps of conflict and commerce, not noticing how many more people had finally learned that they’re meant to talk about what Gioia calls “mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase,” their inheritance as human beings.

“Yeah, proof is the bottom line for everyone…”

In 1994, Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a mass-market book in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain twentieth-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a lively but little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” by holding up the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as “a highly significant core defeat” the academy hadn’t even known it had suffered:

It shows how little the academic medievalists have made an impact on popular culture and its view of the medieval world. Costner’s Robin Hood signifies social failure for the Ivy League, Oxbridge, and the Medieval Academy of America. But I expect the august personalities in those exalted precincts never gave a moment’s thought to this connection.

I recalled Cantor’s smart, spirited (and, in retrospect, debatable) rant when I read last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Paul Dicken, a philosopher of science who’s keen to write for popular audiences despite the sneering of colleagues and peers:

Yet as I struggle on with my apparently misguided endeavors, I sometimes think that maybe the search committee had a point. It is difficult pitching academic material in a way that is suitable for a popular audience. I don’t pretend to be an unparalleled communicator of ideas, nor do I kid myself about my ability to produce pithy and engaging prose. After many years of writing for peer review, I have developed a nasty habit of overusing the passive voice — not to mention the usual reliance upon jargon, excessive footnotes, and the death by a thousand qualifications that undermines any attempt to state a clear, precise thesis. It is definitely a learning process. But no matter how dull the final product, I was at least confident that I could express my ideas clearly. That’s what we’re trained for, right?

I’ve known plenty of scholars who write lucid books and blogs; I doubt the academy nurtured the requisite skills.

When I decided to start writing in earnest, I drove wildly around England and Wales collecting material for travel stories. The Washington Post published two of them, but only after an editor nudged me with notes like this one from 1999:

I don’t think this lede works; it’s too slow and diffuse for our reader—imagine a bagel-eating Sunday morning householder, an occasional traveler seeking a weekly fix of travel infotainment—but surrounded by a pile of other sections tugging at his time, and household things about to start tugging too…this is different from someone who settles in for a long night with a New Yorker and a hot toddy.

A good editor knows how to improve and refine our writing without shearing off all of the frills and frippery we vainly adore. Thanks to that guy and a couple others like him, I sloughed off three-and-a-half years of bad grad-school style and (eventually, arguably) learned how to write. Paul Dicken, stick to your plan: keeping readers engrossed in weighty matters without overusing the passive voice or condemning them to “death by a thousand qualifications” doesn’t require “an unparalleled communicator of ideas.” Just know your audience, then decide what you’re doing is, among other things, art.

* * *

We’re overdue for great shifts in our obsolete cultural coalitions; the creaking we hear as they seize up and fail is also the venting of truths. In another Chronicle of Higher Education piece last week, philosopher and science historian Lee McIntyre decries the recent “attack on truth” that he believes has us ambling into “an age of willful ignorance”:

It is sad that the modern attack on truth started in the academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.

That disrespect, however, has metastasized into outrageous claims about the natural sciences.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the “science wars” were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known “Sokal affair” in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.

But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.

“Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?,” Bruno Latour, one of the founders of the field that contextualizes science, famously asked. “Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?”

“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”

Having noticed, as Norman Cantor did, how rare it is for new discoveries about the Middle Ages to prosper off-campus unless they’re being exploited for linkbait, I was startled by this whole line of thought. I’ll have to read McIntyre’s book to see if it’s true that postmodernist humanities scholars influenced “hard-right conservatives” or “climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists.” I doubt it, although I suspect that the latter have at least heckled the former to live up to the credos implied by their critical approaches, but what a remarkable admission: that a fair amount of recent work in the humanities is baloney that was never meant to be consumed, sold, or even sniffed by outsiders.

Humanities theorists have insisted for years that when we set our work loose, it’s no longer our own. They’ll find in the end that intentions still matter: there’s more pleasure and solace in writing and art when you believe what you’re doing is true.

“Na na na na na na, make my mind up for me…”

[I originally posted this on September 16, 2010. Some of the details are out of date, but the sentiment is appropriate for today.]

When I was 20 years old and no paragon of intellectual maturity, I drew a weekly comic strip for my university paper. The strip had its smarter moments, but more often it served as a vehicle for what I deluded myself into believing was provocation. I advocated seal clubbing, and I called for all campus disputes, however minor, to be settled with firearms. I graduated no longer convinced that most cartoonists are brave tellers of truth, because honestly, nobody cared. My biggest critic was a jerk who called me at home to tell me I’d misstated the number of people in the Rolling Stones. He called me “buddy,” in the snidest possible way.

One strip did cause a problem. A single panel depicted a haloed, self-satisfied Jesus handing Mary a souvenir. It read: “My Son Went to Hell and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” When I asked a Christian friend if he thought the comic was appropriate for Easter week, he shot me a look of deep parental disappointment. He also let it pass.

The editor-in-chief of the newspaper did not. Because his letters page had recently hosted a contentious debate about religion, he told me he planned to end the discussion of religion in the newspaper for a while. Therefore, any depiction of Jesus on the comics page was out. “But I don’t want you to be Bil Keane,” he assured me. “I want you to be edgy!”—a weirdly confident lie from a young man holding his first position of authority. We spoke by phone for an hour. When we were done, he confessed that he didn’t understand my comic anyway.

Citing time constraints, I declined to draw a replacement. That week, the newspaper ran 20 square inches of blank space. A year later, I left cartooning behind. The editor-in-chief joined the New York Times. I didn’t really know him, but Google tells me he’s still climbing the career ladder at the paper while teaching journalism nearby.

These days, I have zero interest in provoking or offending, and I find most attempts to tweak the religious to be lazy at best. Even so, my cartoonist years seemed all the more idyllic when I read this morning, with horror and nausea, that Molly Norris of the Seattle Weekly has ceased to exist:

The talented cartoonist who launched the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” on Facebook, and then regretted and withdrew her proposal, has nevertheless had to go into hiding — moving, changing her name, washing out her identity — at the suggestion of the FBI. It’s just like the witness protection program. The government, however, will not be picking up the tab. She will.

Norris viewed the situation with characteristic humor: “When FBI agents, on a recent visit, instructed her to always keep watch for anyone following her, she responded, ‘Well, at least it’ll keep me from being so self-involved!’”

Some quick background: when someone on the “Revolution Muslim” Web site threatened to kill the South Park guys for a segment that included a depiction of Muhammad, Comedy Central caved, and Norris responded by drawing a cartoon. Someone other than Norris started an “‘Everybody Draw Muhammad’ Day” Facebook page based on her drawing, and she became the obvious target.

How permanent is Norris’s identity wipe? The Seattle Weekly explains:

She likens the situation to cancer—it might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it.

In my own speech, I choose reticence, but I take a very liberal position otherwise: As far as I’m concerned, if you’re breaking no other laws, then you can say whatever you want, draw whatever you want, and deface or defile anything that’s your own property, be it a flag, a holy symbol, an effigy, you name it. However, in return, I reserve the right to judge you, denounce you, lobby against you, tell others how wrong you are, and speak vociferously in reply. Speech invites consequences, and I’m open to arguments about responsible, voluntary limits. That said, I’ll always put threats and violence on the far side of that line, and I’ll never suggest that in a free society, an artist or writer was asking to be forced to erase herself from existence.

So yes, despite being a pretty inoffensive writer, I took the news about Molly Norris personally, just as I did in 2008 when I read that Sherry Jones’s publisher was firebombed. I’ve written a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion. While nothing about my take on the early Middle Ages is all that wild, what’s to stop some hateful, publicity-seeking pastor from hagriding me, or some Islamic fanatic from registering his disapproval via DaggerGram? If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?

In a few days, Banned Books Week will roll back around. Writers and teachers and academics and librarians will wear “I read banned books!” buttons, trumpet the cause on blogs and Facebook, and assert their superiority to the withered River City shrews who object to the dandelion-sniffing scenes in Naked Came I. Like many religious practices, it’s a liturgy everyone recites but few really live. On the day a woman begins erasing herself—for how long, no one knows—for drawing pictures and writing words, the National Cartoonists Society is spotlighting Li’l Abner, while the day’s offerings on the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists website take inconsequential stands against Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Fidel Castro, and that dingus pastor in Florida.

And my former editor? He’s tweeting about a fabulous new café. We should totally go. We’ll call our book club and talk about the new Franzen novel. Big news: Oprah likes it! What’s it called again?

“I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…”

Twelve hundred years ago tomorrow—January 28, 814—the Franks lamented the death of a tall, paunchy, mustachioed king whom they already knew was one of the most important people in European history: Karl or Charles the Great, Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne. His biographers cataloged the omens that presaged his death, and poets insisted that all the world wept for him. But they mourned too late; the old man they interred in the cathedral had long been lost to legend and myth.

The Charlemagne most of us know is a literary creation: a chivalric ancestor, an Arthur-like figure encircled by heroes, an enigma whose name legitimizes fundamentalist prophecies, spurious movie quotes, heavy-metal concept albums, and (mirabile dictu) overpriced shower gel. Across centuries, Karl’s propagandists can rightly claim victory—but as someone suspicious of power, I’m interested in a different judgment of the man, one that shows how some people felt about him when he wasn’t yet cold in his tomb.

In 824, on the island of Reichenau, a book-obsessed monk named Wettin fell ill. He crawled into bed and suffered terrifying visions: First, he saw an evil, robed spirit looming over his bed with torture devices; then he went on a vivid tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven led by his own guardian angel.

From his deathbed, Wettin recounted his revelations to a monk named Haito. Two years later, one of Wettin’s former students, Walafrid Strabo, rewrote the account as a long poem, “The Vision of Wettin.” Walafrid later tutored Charlemagne’s grandson and served as abbot of Reichenau. His flair for poetry and his love of gardening have earned him a tag on this blog and a poem in the gargoyle book, but when you’re assessing Charlemagne, one scene from his “Vision of Wettin” really stands out.

Here it is, hastily translated (by me) from Latin into metrical, alliterative lines:

 Casting his eyes over the landscape,
 He beheld the late king of the high-born Romans
 And all of Italy unable to move,
 Rent by a beast that ravaged his genitals;
 Left free of ruin was the rest of his body.
“Explain this!” cried Wettin, witless with horror.
“Many things fell to this man in his life:
 Attempting to nourish a new age of laws,
 Goading the teachings of God to prosper,
 Nobly protecting his pious subjects,
 Eventually reaching that rare summit
Where upholding virtue invites sweet praise,
But here he is held under horrid conditions,
Enduring great pain and punishment. Why?”

“This torment engulfs him,” his guide replied,
“Because he disfigured with filthy pleasures
His noble deeds, and doubted not
That his sins would be subsumed by his goodness,
Ending his life in the usual sordidness.
Even so, he will toil to attain splendor
And delight in the honor his Lord has prepared.”
               (MGH Poetae II 318–319, ll. 446–465)

Make what you will of the prospects for Charlemagne’s soul; after his death, people grew comfortable recording in writing what they’d likely been saying for years. Heirs and hangers-on had reasons for praising or damning the actual man—but before long, medieval people were more interested in letting the real Karl rot while recasting “Charlemagne” to suit their own needs. In the year ahead, we’ll rediscover how true that still is.

Tomorrow’s anniversary kicks off the “Karlsjahr,” a flurry of Karolocentric commemorations, exhibitions, symposia, and other events coinciding with the septennial Catholic pilgrimage to Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen. The city will host three major exhibitions of artifacts and art; an artist will install 500 Charlemagne statues in a public square; and a new Aachen Bank card will show off the famous reliquary bust. The town of Ingelheim will host an exhibition, and the abbey church in the Swiss village of Müstair will serve up a display about Carolingian architecture, a “collage-opera” about Charlemagne’s imperial coronation, and a comedy performance, “Karl and the White Elephant”—and these are only the events I’ve discovered so far.

For 1,200 years, Europeans have crafted a Karl for all seasons. Later medieval kings grafted him to their family trees, Crusaders invoked him, the French made him an icon of education, and Napoleon and Hitler believed they were continuing his work. His latest incarnation is also explicitly political: When the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the European Community, the six signatory nations covered almost the exact same territory as his empire. The EU’s headquarters in Brussels, the dull Charlemagne Building, enshrines him as the patron saint of European unity—and someday, perhaps, of murky bureaucracy. Statues rise, stained glass dazzles, and the source of the legend is lost.

In Becoming Charlemagne, I likened Karl’s tiny capital to the king himself: “almost civilized and unexpectedly alive: ambitious, forceful, clearly Christian, slightly cruel.” He once slaughtered helpless Saxon captives, an atrocity that shocked his contemporaries, and it wasn’t always propitious to be his relative. His failings, both personal and political, were as great as his ambitions.

But take a second look: There’s a remarkable, complex person beneath centuries of rhetoric and legend. It’s the rare leader indeed who can smile at endless flattery, enjoying obsequious poems praising him as a second David, yet still demonstrate, through his actions, that he knows he isn’t the apotheosis of his civilization—that the future needs books, buildings, and institutions that endure.

At this, Karl failed—but 1,200 years later, individuals, nations, and vast institutions still clamor for a piece of him. This summer, through music, theater, religion, and art, his heirs will convene in the shadows he cast. The Christian emperor, the lustful king, the cold-hearted brother, the egomaniac, the mourning father, the blood-spattered warlord, the pragmatic diplomat, the debatable saint, the barely literate patron of learning—there are myriad Charlemagnes to remember, and nearly as many we choose to forget. The story goes on, and the “Karlsjahr” in Europe is about more than the past, so look closely: Amid all the tourists, new Charlemagnes rise.

“…and I’ll climb the hill in my own way…”

“If art teaches anything (to the artist, in the first place), it is the privateness of the human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man, knowingly or unwittingly, a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness—thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous ‘I.’ Lots of things can be shared: a bed, a piece of bread, convictions, a mistress, but not a poem by, say, Rainer Maria Rilke. A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tete-a-tete, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.

“It is for this reason that art in general, literature especially, and poetry in particular, is not exactly favored by the champions of the common good, masters of the masses, heralds of historical necessity. For there, where art has stepped, where a poem has been read, they discover, in place of the anticipated consent and unanimity, indifference and polyphony; in place of the resolve to act, inattention and fastidiousness. In other words, into the little zeros with which the champions of the common good and the rulers of the masses tend to operate, art introduces a ‘period, period, comma, and a minus,’ transforming each zero into a tiny human, albeit not always pretty, face.”

—Joseph Brodsky, Nobel lecture, December 8, 1987

“Sitting in the valley, as I watch the sun go down…”

As Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious was the ninth century’s Julian Lennon. He may have done interesting work, but who remembers? Historians do, of course, but the emperor who supposedly never cracked a smile doesn’t rule the layman’s imagination the way his father always has.

Even so, the reign of Louis was a great one for poetry. Walafrid Strabo—the abbot, scholar, and gardener who often pops up on this blog—wrote a short poem that strikes me as appropriate for the end of a week that began with Election Day hubbub:


DE OSSE DAMMULAE,

PER QUOD ARBUSCULA CREVIT AD
IMPERATOREM HLUDOWICUM

Arboris et altrix quondam vagina medullae,
Tibia germen habet—nempe bonum omen erit.
Quod cortex humore caret, quod durior ipso est
Robore miramur: talis in osse vigor.
Nil, Caesar, tibi, magne, vacat: venabere dammas,
Ossibus ex quarum silva orietur, ave.

Latin poets, whether ancient or medieval, used long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables, so their work is tricky to translate into English—but I like to acknowledge the nature of the original by rendering it into some sort of recognizable form. Walahfrid was a Germanic kid from Alemannia who jokingly called himself a “barbarian,” so let’s assume that Anglo-Saxon metrical, alliterative half-lines, like the verses of Beowulf but with more liberal use of anacrusis, resemble something the poet himself might have heard:
 

ON THE BONES OF A LITTLE DEER,
THROUGH WHICH GREW A SMALL TREE
FOR THE EMPEROR LOUIS

Now a marrow-sheath nurses a tree:
From shin-bone to sapling—surely well omened.
That its bark is dry and bound tougher
Than hard wood, we marvel: such might in the bone.
Great emperor, nothing is ever beyond you:
You merely have to go hunting for deer
And from their relics, forests grow. Hail!

Does my translation capture the sense of the original? One major scholar of Carolingian poetry isn’t even certain what Walafrid’s tone was:

Does the black humour of the hyperbole applied to this faintly ludicrous subject reflect back on Walahfrid himself, in an elegant mockery of the excesses of his own panegyrical style? Or does genuine virtuosity combine here with ambiguous flattery in a measure intended to create a residual doubt as to the sincerity of the compliment? Walahfrid, deliberately, never reveals whether the humour of his epigram is merely self-reflexive or really risqué. Irony, in the hands of an imperial panegyrist, is a two-edged weapon.

Charlemagne’s poets praised him to a ludicrous extent, and I’ve often wondered how seriously he and his heirs took the verses that served as politically useful flattery. It’s all too likely that they loved what they heard.

The subjects of Frankish kings weren’t free to write what they felt, but by studying them, we can ensure the promise of the liber in the liberal arts they bequeathed us. Behold the benefits of the thousand-year perspective: being unsurprised when leaders, by nature, believe their own hype, and being less inclined, sometimes, to fall for it yourself.

“Where the scent of wild roses turns the milk to cream…”

What hath the Renaissance faire to do with psychedelic rock? The vogue for “world music”? The frilly shirts of Jimi Hendrix? The rise of craft breweries? The House Un-American Activities Committee? Before reading Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, I hadn’t thought to ask—but Rachel Lee Rubin’s book is a useful reminder that pseudo-medieval pursuits are sometimes more about the present than they are about the past.

Rubin starts with the basics: how the first faire grew out of a children’s commedia dell’arte troupe organized at a California youth center by teacher Phyllis Patterson. In May 1963, Patterson and others organized the first “Renaissance Pleasure Faire and May Market” as a fundraiser for left-wing Pacifica Radio, drawing more than 3,000 revelers to a North Hollywood ranch. Associated with hippies and drugs by local detractors, the event quickly outgrew Pacifica. It spawned its first imitators in Minnesota and Texas in the early 1970s; more than 200 Ren fests of varying sizes now thrive across the United States.

So how did a countercultural crafts-and-music romp evolve into a nationwide subculture overseen, in some cases, by a large entertainment corporation? Well Met doesn’t chart the growth and commercialization of the Ren faire. Instead, Rubin has two goals: to explain “the ways in which various forms of cultural expression ‘tried out’ first at the faire became recognizable staples of American social and cultural life,” and to restore the Renaissance faire to a central place in the history of the counterculture. Once I got past my initial disappointment that the book wasn’t a history, I was won over by Rubin’s argument for the importance of the Renaissance faire to the culture of the 1960s and 1970s—and its long-overlooked ubiquity.

Her evidence is legion: how the Los Angeles Free Press began as the Ren faire newspaper; how Americans, who now consume beer from nearly 2,500 craft breweries, first sampled ale at the faire; how fashion choices and even the typefaces on psychedelic album art recall early faire fliers; how the faire anticipated renewed markets for handmade crafts and set precedents for large outdoor rock concerts; how occasional faire-goer Michael Jackson mimicked the moves and style of faire mime Robert Shields; how the Flying Karamazov Brothers, the Firesign Theater, and Penn and Teller all got their start at Ren faires; and how the faire coincided with a Middle Eastern cabaret boom in California that helped build an audience for international music. Rubin even suggests that the Ren faire helped revive interest in the klezmer. Who knew?

Although Well Met is packed with wonderful “aha!” moments, the book does wander. Sometimes, disorganization drives Rubin to interesting places, as when she asks black faire-goers and plus-sized women about their experiences, or when she randomly chats up knights and wenches about the faire as a gay-friendly environment, a refuge for misfits, and an escapist haven where costumes deliberately obscure real-world class signals. At the same time, there’s way too much detail about the history of a couple of psychedelic bands, and a chapter about Ren fests in fiction feels like a conference paper brought in to serve as padding. It’s particularly jarring when patches of academic jargon turn up in such an accessible and pleasantly written book, as when Rubin muses on “the ways in which the faire has enabled (perhaps paradoxical) strategies of resistance to the very forces of corporatism and cultural centrism that have inexorably resituated it in the American expressive landscape.” Surely there’s a less turgid way to say that.

Well Met also frustrated me with the tantalizing questions it doesn’t ask. Rubin mentions conservative critics of those first California Ren faires, but she provides almost no information about or firsthand commentary from them. Why not? Did neighbors’ complaints about traffic, drugs, and crime have no validity? Picking though pseudonymous rants on message boards and blogs, Rubin devotes one chapter, shorter than the others, to “Hating the Faire.” She catalogs all the usual gripes about Ren faires, pointing out that accusations of nerdish celibacy exist alongside the contrary complaint that faires are over-sexualized. But are there no valid criticisms of Ren-faire culture beyond the ones Rubin handily swats down? Are the only disillusioned folk the wistful souls who wish the faire were as spontaneous and uncommercial as it was in the ’60s? Are there credible witnesses to the dark side of faire life? What does it mean that so many faire-goers told Rubin they’re “working class,” and can we trust their self-reporting? Rubin sometimes seems so charmed by Ren-faire subculture that it delights the cold spirit of scholarly inquiry right out of her.

Of course, I’m in danger of faulting Rubin for the book she didn’t write, when she’s clear about the purpose for the one she did. Perceptive and engaging, Well Met proves something the rest of us shouldn’t have missed: that the Ren faire isn’t an isolated cultural strand but a subculture that’s more interwoven with the rest of American life than even many faire-goers appreciate.

Well Met also answers, mirabile visu, a question that’s long nagged me: Why the heck aren’t they called “medieval faires”? According to Rubin, co-founder Phyllis Patterson did pitch the first faire to Pacifica Radio as a medieval-style open-air festival, but “[a] lawyer on KPFK’s board reportedly objected on the grounds that human rights in medieval Europe were so few, so Patterson swiftly suggested calling it a ‘Renaissance Faire.'” I appreciate Rubin digging this nugget out of a book of historic photos; even if Well Met doesn’t answer all of my questions, it does answer several I hadn’t known to ask—a rare feat for a cultural-studies book from an academic press, and well worth a hearty huzzah.

“Let us close our eyes; outside, their lives go on much faster…”

In modern cities, crowds and commerce and cars drown out the ring of mere bells—but this Sunday, if you hear a faint pealing from an Episcopal church, know that it marks the feast-day for three medievalists. Two of them, English-born church architect Richard Upjohn and painter and stained-glass artisan John LaFarge, deserve to be remembered, but pause a bit longer to consider the third and most eccentric, architect Ralph Adams Cram, who clamored to rebuild the medieval world in a greener, more placid America.

Born in New Hampshire in 1863, Cram was the son of a Unitarian minister, but seeing the cathedrals of Europe at 23 drew the young man to Catholicism—almost. Enamored of medieval ritual at a time when becoming Roman Catholic would have been gauche, Cram instead embraced Anglo-Catholicism, a form of High Church Anglicanism, as did many Episcopalian intellectuals in the urban Northeast who adored Catholic aesthetics more than they loved the theology.

Cram looked at every skyline and imagined it dwarfed by spires. He was the architect who changed the style of St. John the Divine in New York City from Romanesque to Gothic; he worked for a time on Washington National Cathedral; he designed “collegiate Gothic” halls and other buildings with medievalist touches at Princeton, Wheaton, Richmond, Sweet Briar, and USC; and his firm built scores of churches that stand as neo-Gothic monuments from Pittsburgh to St. Paul. (In 1901, Cram literally wrote the book on church building.)

For Cram, medievalism was more than an aesthetic conceit. After World War I, he saw ruined societies doomed to one of two fates: a slide into a new Dark Age, or a return to ugly, worn-out modernism. Doubling down on his historical predilections, Cram offered, instead, a third way.

“It is in no sense a programme,” he insisted in 1919, with doubtful modesty,

it is still less an effort at establishing an ideal. Let us call it “a way out,” for it is no more than this; not “the” way, nor yet a way to anything approaching a perfect State, still less a perfect condition of life, but rather a possible issue out of a present impasse for some of those who, as I have said, peremptorily reject both of the intolerable alternatives now offered them.

Cram’s proposal? Americans should live, like medieval people, in walled towns.

Much of Walled Towns, Cram’s truly peculiar 1919 book, is a vision of Beaulieu, an imaginary burg situated “about forty miles from one of the largest cities of New England” in a spot that meets Cram’s criteria: arable land, a river, and “some elements of natural beauty.” We can drive to this happy outpost, but the gate house is our last chance to hail the outside world by telephone and telegraph. We’re required to garage our car—but we may, if we wish, pass through the gate on a rented horse. The walls of Beaulieu defend the reveries of an architectural fanatic: a gate that resembles Warwick Castle, a church like St. Cuthbert’s in Wells, a college that blends New College, Oxford with St. John’s, Cambridge, and a town hall inspired by the Hôtel de Ville.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears notes that “[s]ince Cram’s death in 1942, historians have dismissed him as an elitist crank, a reactionary in art and politics,” which oversimplifies his life and work. What makes Cram so interesting today is how awkwardly his equal hatred of democracy, socialism, communism, and anarchism meets the political assumptions of the early 21st century.

Cram’s Walled Towns forbid usury, stock markets, production of goods for profit, and all forms of advertising. Walled Towns forbid steam power, but not water mills or, surprisingly, hydroelectricity. A Walled Town is self-sufficient:

That one town or district should be given over to to the weaving of cotton or the spinning of wool; that shoes should chiefly be produced in Lynn, furniture in Grand Rapids, glass in Pittsburgh, beer in Milwaukee, hams in Chicago; that from all over a vast district the raw material of manufacture should be transported for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, to various howling wildernesses of highly specialized factories, only to be shipped back again after fabrication to be used or consumed by many of the original producers, was and is one of the preposterous absurdities of an industrial system supported on some of the most appalling sophistry that ever issued out of the Adullamite caves of political economy.

In the Walled Towns all this is changed . . . As each town has its own special products, maintained always at the highest standard, the market never fails.

In a Walled Town, only landholders may vote, and daily life is ruled by guilds—not, Cram stresses, the folk sentimentalized by a wistful William Morris, but a true restoration of the medieval guild system, which Cram calls “the precise antithesis of collectivism, socialism and trades-unionism of whatever form.”

Everyone in a Walled Town shares the same religious convictions; if you’re an Episcopalian knocking at a Catholic gate, seek your coreligionists down the road. Here, knowledge of Latin and a grounding in reading, writing, music, and math are universal, but education, which isn’t apportioned equally, focuses on character. The local college is run by faculty and alumni, not by corrupt or neglectful trustees. Walled Towns have no museums, because old and beautiful objects, such as medieval altarpieces, have been restored to their original uses. Walled Towns have fine art theaters, but no movie houses or sensationalistic shows—because in a Walled Town, “all life is couched in terms of true drama and living beauty.”

Given Cram’s fervent pursuit of applied medievalism, he seems to have overlooked “walled towns” that had recently failed. By World War I, American Arts and Crafts communities had waned; New Clairvaux, a commune of Massachusetts farmers and craftsmen founded in 1902 according to medievalist principles, had flopped; Rose Valley, a Pennsylvania arts-and-crafts project based on the utopianism of William Morris, was suburbanized; and the Americans most likely to retreat into anti-modern self-sufficiency were communists and anarchists, like the founders of my failed hometown commune, Fellowship Farm. Did Cram really believe that a Walled Town could be “at the same time individualist, coöperative and aristocratic”?

Cram does leave himself an out, claiming that his proposal need not be taken literally:

“The phrase ‘Walled Towns’ is symbolical only; it does not imply the great ramparts of masonry with machicolated towers, moats, drawbridges and great city gates such as once guarded the beautiful cities of the Middle Ages. It might, of course; there is no reason why a city should not protect itself from the world without, if its fancy led in this pictorial direction…

For Cram, “pictorial direction” is all. Here’s what he sees in 1919: “ragged and grimy children,” “a surly labourer” who “scowled coarsely, and swore, with his cigar between his teeth”; “men in dirty shirt-sleeves”; “children and goats [that] crawled starvedly around or huddled in the hot shadow”; “the mob of scurrying, pushing men and women, a mob that swelled and scattered constantly in fretful confusion”; “dirt, meanness, ugliness everywhere—in the unhappy people no less than in their surroundings.”

By contrast, Cram’s medieval “way out” abounds with “a great lady on a gaily caparisoned palfrey, with an officious squire in attendance, or perhaps a knight in silver armour, crested wonderfully, his emblazoned shield hanging at his saddle-bow.” There is “the pleasant clamour of voices, the muffled chanting of cloistered nuns in some veiled chapel, the shrill cry of street vendors and children, and the multitudinous bells sounding for worship.” Cram may decry utopians from Plato to H.G. Wells, but his Walled Town is itself the trite utopia of an architectural sketch: happy, faceless people strolling through pristine shopping malls or public squares, doing only what their designer envisions, never misusing, abusing, or defacing their earnest surroundings, freed by architects alone from the ugliness of human nature.

A century after Cram built his mental Beaulieu, no one lives in neo-medieval towns, but Cram still left his mark. Countless Americans first encounter medieval forms in the churches and cathedrals he designed, and his neo-Gothic spires and arches adorn campuses where, in the 1920s, Americans began studying the Middle Ages with greater zeal.

Notice, though, how American medievalism has changed. These days, few academics, ecclesiasts, and architects want to live in the Middle Ages. They tend to look back with detachment, while medievalist nostalgia thrives in genre fiction, video games, and Renaissance Faires. Meanwhile, Cram’s odd brand of aristocratic idealism lives on, split into bits across the ideological spectrum.

When Ralph Adams Cram, fiery nemesis of the impersonal, the imperial, the commercial, the cacophonous, writes that “the only visible hope of recovery lay in a restoration of the unit of human scale, the passion for perfection, and a certain form of philosophy known as sacramentalism,” he makes himself easy to dismiss, even as he drapes precious new lights on humanity’s evergreen dreams. But if, in a slough of disillusionment, you’ve ever pined for agrarian simplicity, religious or political uniformity, stark self-sufficiency, aesthetic transcendence, or lasting peace, then you’ve been, however fleetingly, a pilgrim to one of Cram’s Walled Towns—although it’s been a church, a Ren Fest, a Tea Party, an Occupy rally, or a perfectionist corner inside your own mind where you visit your will on the world.

So on Sunday, if you laugh at the impulse to build a Walled Town, be more charitable than you imagine he was, and let the bells ring for old Ralph Adams Cram. They’re always ringing somewhere.

“A long time ago, we used to be friends…”

On the day after a national election, it’s bracing to stroll through the blustery streets of Colonial Williamsburg—which, lucky for me, is just footsteps away from a conference I’m attending. I’d hoped to find some trace of American medievalism, and the colonial city did not disappoint: along the green leading to the Governor’s Palace is a house where a Virginia lawyer lit a medieval torch in the mind of a Founding Father.

That’s the home of George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Fresh out of William and Mary, a young Thomas Jefferson spent five years here as Wythe’s law apprentice and stumbled early into one of his innumerable lifelong hobbies: the study of Old English.

Poring over a 15th-century legal tract, Jefferson encountered a modern preface arguing that a student should learn “Saxon” to understand the essence of English law. Already intrigued by languages, the young man was hooked; Stanley R. Hauer points out (in “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language”) that the future third president of the United States collected Old English textbooks, painstakingly copied footnotes in Anglo-Saxon script into a 1778 legal treatise, and made sure that the University of Virginia was the first American institution to offer Anglo-Saxon language courses when it opened in 1825. According to Hauer, Jefferson’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was weak—often he couldn’t distinguish it from Middle English—but if you’ve studied Old English, or even if you’ve read Beowulf in a college class, its presence was partly Jefferson’s doing.

Jefferson’s obsession with Old English resonated far beyond the English department. During his five years in Wythe’s study, he imaginatively plunged into what historians have dubbed the “Saxon myth,” the common belief among Whigs of his era that the best English institutions—parliament, trial by jury, common law—were the unbroken legacy of freedom-loving Germanic tribes who’d crept into Britain as early as the fifth century. (This idea was itself the legacy of 16th- and 17th-century reformers who’d tried to prove that both the Church of England and Parliament were continuations of ancient, primitive democracy.)

In letters and treatises, Jefferson trumpeted his belief that America had directly inherited liberty from the Anglo-Saxons. His strongest statement on the matter was surely his (unsuccessful) push to decorate the Great Seal of the United States with the figures of Horsa and Hengist, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”

I suppose we are the political heirs of the Anglo-Saxons, since Jefferson believed it to be so when he helped establish our republic. He knew, though, that his contemporaries held conflicting views. “It has ever appeared to me,” he wrote to English political reformer John Cartwright in 1824, “that the difference between the Whig and the Tory of England is, that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman.” It’s instructive, two centuries later, to see how our predecessors reached into the past for conflicting myths to answer a perennial question: What sort of people are we to be?

“On the back seat of the car, with Joseph and Emily…”

Fleeing a hot, crowded brownstone, Tom built his life on a dead-end lane: some trees, a brook, and extra land to parcel out to kids. For decades, he made the commute to the city, but most of his relatives followed him home. They were charmed by the place where he chose to raise chickens, plant string beans, and tinker with gadgets in peace.

The Piscataway soil will never be known for producing fine wines, but the tangle of vines on the side of the house was Tom’s own little piece of Provence. On the morning he never grew tired of griping about, he was tending his few feeble grapes. The sun was high, and the only sounds were birds and barking dogs. Perhaps he stopped to wipe his brow; he surely snuck a sip of beer and dreamed about the homemade wine to come. Then a stranger slipped into the garden.

Dapper but fat, the stranger was speckled with dust from the road. He fanned his spiny jowls with his hat, introduced himself without a handshake, and eyed the gawky farmer. Uncreative, as all of them are, he asked about the clump of vines. He expressed delight, this bringer of mighty compliments, for who was nearer to God, who better understood the common good, than a man who coaxed life from the earth?

The vines gave the stranger a sudden idea: He knew a nearby farmer whose cows were a sight to behold. Their output, he said, was impressive—no, not impressive: magical. This farmer had worked miracles with manure, and the kicker was, he always had a little dung to spare. Picture it: these grapes here growing and thriving, while neighbors and family toasted each other’s health with the sweetest wine in town. A diligent public servant, he said, might easily procure a bag of this miracle fertilizer and bestow it upon a neighbor in need. Delivery would be quick, and it wouldn’t cost a penny—as long as that public servant knew he could count on a vote or two come November. Speaking of which, was the lady of the house at home?

The two men exchanged promises. Weeks passed, and then months. Only one man kept his promise. Tom remembered; fifty years later, it still made him angry.

By the time we were children, the suburbs had grown up around us, and Chaucerian frauds were sprouting like mushrooms: Combed-over charlatans who failed to hide their disdain as they loped up our porch steps to beg for support. The part-time mayor who never had time for parades or graduations. The priest who crept through the halls at the old folks’ home, buying cheap votes for his patron by handing out kitchen sponges. The sheriff’s sergeant who stole from the pension fund. Judges who snorted cocaine with their staff. Real-estate developers who hand-fed their pet creatures from town hall to Trenton. We were taught to laugh at them; only as an adult did I learn that “freeloader” was not, in fact, a valid civic office.

But sometimes, on a Tuesday, the grown-ups gathered at the kitchen table and unfolded an arcane sheet filled with drawings of dozens of levers. They studied it, they agreed on a time, and then, dressed as if going to church, they herded us into the Pinto. Sometimes we did go to a church; more often, we drove to a school, or the nearby college campus. Old ladies waited in line, as somber as schoolgirls in black-and-white photos, and old men talked in tones we never heard around the house. No one introduced us to any adults—we were small, badly dressed, and invisible—but we knew to behave while our elders, one by one, stepped behind a curtain. When they emerged, looking mostly unchanged, we all drove home, with no speeches about privileges or duties. The whole of the ritual spoke for itself.

The earth never shook, and our street still went unnoticed, and nobody told me which outcome was worse: the leader who promised a sack full of crap or the leader who failed to provide it. But we learned to detect its distinctive bouquet, that whiff of impending election. My grandfather taught me the grown-up response: get up, and go, and vote—but hold your nose.