Archive for August, 2015


“I remember, only for an hour…”

When you live near a cathedral and wander its grounds on a whim, you see human behavior that’s more grotesque than anything frozen in stone. Sometimes a bus roars in, disgorges children, and barely has time to cool its engine while a guide exhorts his young charges to find Darth Vader on one of the towers. Why? What? Wait—with startling speed, they’re back on the bus, deprived of what they might have discovered if adults had let their minds and bodies roam.

But that’s the tourist experience, and those of us in supposedly sophisticated cities fall back on it too. Some Washingtonians imagine the world in ways that must be comforting in its knowability: stick pins in maps, count up the stamps in your passport, pretend that travel teaches universal lessons rather than fine, unsettling ones. As an adult, I’ve traveled in 38 U.S. states and 17 countries, including some that few Americans ever get to see—and come home without guilt to the same little place.

I’ve lived in my D.C. neighborhood for 21 years, but I’ve rarely written about it, except obliquely. This is the Washington few people love and that many who settle here don’t really see: not political Washington, not black Washington, with its dogged roots, but a charming district lined with trees, dormant on workdays and dreamfully peaceful by night. I’ve never felt totally right for the place. By shrugging off politics, working from home, and accepting crepuscular ways, have I failed to keep up with the people around me and missed what the neighborhood’s really about?

If so, I’ve still witnessed worthwhile things: Every morning, the shopkeepers, the groundskeepers, the panhandlers, and the limping retirees follow their intertwined routes, the veins of a great, blind behemoth. Eyes open, arteries clog: commuters flee, landscapers scatter, clusters of mothers deposit their children at school. Over here, parking is hopeless; over there, you’ll find no line at the post office—unless, for some reason, it rains. The friendly librarian lopes down the block; a uniformed Secret Service agent parks illegally and loiters at the gyro shop; a smiling North African woman shuts down the pharmacy at night and opens the grocery store ten hours later. Look: I can show you where trees fell during hurricanes, where someone got shot when the Star Wars prequels debuted, and where for the cost of a cup of coffee you can kick back in a grape arbor planted by a big-game hunter. I can point out a stone that farted prophetically when we stepped on it after a storm. Like a ghost, I know what all these places used to be; I try to remember a much weirder writer who strolled the same streets as a child.

But my block isn’t haunted, at least not with gloom; all sorts of miracles thrive in our midst. Four houses away, a sneaky raccoon family feasts through the night. You might startle a fox if you go for a walk in the fog before dawn, not far from where the cicadas will be deafening when they someday re-emerge. Tourists grin as their kids tromp through curbside flower-beds; I stop for a moment to mention the rats. Then I hike to the secret spot on the cathedral grounds where it’s pleasant and breezy even on sweltering days.

What use to you is all of this? It’s no more enthralling than a life spent studying a single Italian painter, memorizing Esperanto poems, or breeding heritage chickens—or clicking through a batch of travel photos, for that matter—but it’s the answer I now have for “you still live there?”, which was rarely an actual question. It’s time to move on, but this morning I wondered: what else would I see if I stayed? Yet I’ve already learned what I’m happy to know: if you stake out a strange little place where the world can whirl through and around you, it’s better than going where everyone else stands next to the things that hold still, just to pose.

“And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom…”

“It was a pleasant group of roof and bower, of spire and tree to look upon from the city, towards sunset, when every window-pane flung back the lustre of a conflagration; and magnificently did it strike upon the eye of the liegeman as they sat at their doors, at that hour, gazing upon the glorious river and its tranquil banks.”

That’s St. Mary’s, the first capital of Maryland, reimagined more than a century after its demise by John Pendleton Kennedy: popular Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore, friend of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and a novelist who never quite found his audience.

Three years ago, I checked out Kennedy’s little-read 1832 novel Swallow Barn, which offers a leisurely visit to an antebellum Virginia plantation sodden with pseudo-chivalry. I was curious to see if his 1838 historical novel, Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe’s, has medieval echoes of its own. It does, faintly—but it also sets the mood for a two-hour drive out of Washington to the wild, quiet end of the St. Mary’s Peninsula. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony there along the St. Mary’s River between the Potomac and the Chesapeake, and while the original settlement is long gone, you can still explore the lovely Historic St. Mary’s City, a sprawling living-history site that demands more than a day—especially when you’re propelled by a novel that almost no one else living has read.

It’s 1681, and times are tense: Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Proprietary Governor of the colony of Maryland, stands accused of favoring his fellow Catholics. Protestants insist that atrocities committed by the Piscataway Indians are actually the work of Catholics in disguise, and they’re lobbying the crown to hand over the colony to the Church of England. Drama! Politics! Violence! But Kennedy squanders it all to chase less genteel ghosts: The first third of Rob of the Bowl follows an exploratory mission to the haunted cottage of a murderous fisherman, a hovel of the damned that the locals call the Wizard’s Chapel.

“I would have the inquiry made by men who are not moved by the vulgar love of marvel,” Lord Baltimore declares, putting his faith in a ragtag band—a Dutch musketeer captain, an English innkeeper, a Flemish woodsman, and a taciturn Native American—who set off on an adventure right out of a 1980s Dungeons & Dragons module. An Episcopalian who admired his Catholic forebears, Kennedy was opposed to slavery, helped repeal an anti-Jewish law, and supported Irish Catholic immigrants; the Wizard’s Chapel story is his explicit memorial to Marylanders’ historic enthusiasm for coexistence and cooperation.

But with that out of the way, most of Rob of the Bowl is indulgent romance. Captain Cocklescraft—a crass pirate fostered by Captain Morgan himself—challenges Albert Verheyden, the chivalrous, lute-playing secretary of Lord Baltimore, for the affections of Blanche, the daughter of the local customs official. On page after page, the wilds of St. Mary’s ring with the revels of traders, wenches, cavaliers, and rogues, including the title character, Rob Swales, a mysterious amputee who slides across sandy beaches in a large bowl strapped to the remnants of his legs. In 17th-century Maryland, it’s still the Middle Ages: the locals celebrate their patron saints’ holidays, hold a tournament, clutch relics, and reminisce about visiting Old World shrines. Unfortunately, the weird characters aren’t very rich, the likeable characters don’t feel seriously imperiled, and fateful tensions between Catholics and Protestants await a sequel Kennedy never wrote. Rob of the Bowl is a stroll through a living-history museum, one that’s full of welcoming souls who want to edify and amuse you, but the plot they abide in is frozen in time.

Working hard to immerse 19th-century readers in the late 17th century, Kennedy opens each chapter with snippets of verse from the 17th and 18th centuries, and he forces his characters to use period language (including my favorite Elizabethan exclamation: “ads heartlikens!”). At one point, a Dutch doctor at Lord Baltimore’s court speaks in a meticulously rendered accent—”Vell, vell, dere is noding lost by peing acquanted at once wid de people of de house”—on and off for sixteen tedious pages, only to be superseded by his even less comprehensible assistant: “Goot beoplish! dish is de drice renowned and ingomprbl Doctor.” I laughed; hopefully Kennedy meant me to.

If parts of Rob of the Bowl now come off as sillier than the responsible, civic-minded Kennedy deserves, it’s partly the fault of our age; Kennedy has written an unapologetically earnest book packed with sincere observations. Here’s his narrator explaining one character’s quick turn toward penitence:

When age and satiety have destroyed the sense of worldly pleasure, the soul finds a nourishment in the consolations of religion, to which it flies with but slight persuasion; and however volatile and self-dependent youth may deride it, the aged are faithful witnesses to the truth, that in the Christian faith there is a spell to restore the green to the withered vegetation of the heart, even as the latter rain renovates the pastures of autumn.

And here’s Albert, smitten by Maryland:

With my own free will I should never leave this sunny land. These woods are richer to my eye than pent-up cities; these spreading oaks and stately poplars, than our groined and shafted cathedrals and our cloistered aisles: yes, and I more love to think of the free range of this woodland life, these forest-fed deer, and flight of flocking wild fowl, than all the busy assembling of careful men which throng the great marts of trade.

Rob of the Bowl didn’t sell well, but the novel is a heartfelt tribute to old-timey Maryland, and its jumble of romantic tropes includes a concession to life’s transience:

They are gone! Like shadows have these men of might sunk on the earth. They, their game, their wigwams, their monuments, their primeval forests,—yea, even their graves, have flitted away in this spectral flight. Saxon and Norman, bluff Briton and heavy Suabian inherit the land. And in its turn, well-a-day! our pragmatical little city hath departed. Not all its infant glory, nor its manhood’s bustle, its walls, gardens and bowers,—its warm housekeeping, its gossiping burgers, its politics and its factions,—not even its prolific dames and gamesome urchins could keep it in the upper air until this our day. Alas, for the vaulting pride of the village, the vain glory of the city, and the metropolitan boast! St. Mary’s hath sunk to the level of Tyre and Sidon, Balbec and Palmyra! She hath become trackless, tokenless.

I have wandered over the blank field where she sank down to rest. It was a book whose characters I could scarce decipher.

Reading John Pendleton Kennedy today is more poignant than I’d expected. Oh, the book isn’t good, but its author’s peculiar giddiness humanizes every page: his face in shadow, beaming in the lamplight as he dreams up a bygone world and then conjures a cabinet of Toby Mug characters to inhabit it. He dearly wants to make 17th-century Maryland real, to raise old St. Mary’s from its grave, to remind us that those who came before us drank, fought, laughed, prayed, and loved. I came away believing only that the obscure author himself did all of those things—but when even whole cities can crumble and rot, that’s a relic well-found after 200 years.


(Partially rebuilt chimney bases of the Leonard Calvert House, Historic St. Mary’s)