Archive for January, 2017


“Spin me down the long ages, let them sing the song…”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages—but when hikers in Maryland descend from the woods through a gap in the mountains, a chivalrous vision awaits them: a castle-like pile of looming stone that seems like the dream of some long-buried age—which, in a weird way, it is.

That’s the War Correspondents’ Memorial Arch, built in 1896 by George Alfred Townsend on the grounds of what used to be his mountain estate, now a quiet and haunting state park.

Townsend was once a familiar name in newspaper-reading homes. Although he spent most of the Civil War in New York, Philadelphia, and Europe, he rose from modest beginnings to find renown as a journalist and commentator, first by landing a scoop of an interview with General Philip Sheridan and later by covering Lincoln’s assassination. He published widely under the pen name “Gath,” got rich, and built Gapland, his home here on a Civil War battlefield, where he spent decades cranking out novels and poems in a futile bid for literary immortality.

And then in 1896, with sponsors like Thomas Edison, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Joseph Pulitzer, who perhaps didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, he built his remarkable arch.

Looming 50 feet tall, with plaques and inscriptions along its sides, the memorial is a busy confection of sculptures, symbols, and nebulous notions. One local Civil War interpreter argues that many of the writers and artists memorialized on it are undeserving or impossible to identify, a charge the park’s historian denies but doesn’t fully refute, even as she calls the monument “inexplicable to most.” The asymmetry, the allegorical faces of “Speed” and “Heed,” the horse heads, historical quotes ranging from Thucydides to to Froissart to Sir Henry Stanley, a sampling of Townsend’s own verse—there’s much to mull over, but for me the big question is: Why did Townsend build a medieval monument in the first place? Sure, medievalism was thick in the nineteenth-century air, but what the heck inspired him to romanticize journalists with such a showy ode to the Middle Ages?

Fortunately, Townsend left behind a 48-line poem about the memorial—collected in his overstuffed tome Poems of Men and Eventslest posterity be baffled. Here’s a taste of “War Correspondents’ Memorial (at Gapland, Md., 1896)”:

Born so rigid, stony and frigid,
    Moor and Roman it must be,
Long erected, a gate dissected
    From some castle’s feudality;
Or set in the passes, where saying masses,
    Pilgrims, crusaders, kneeling them,
Gazed and trembled, with undissembled
    Joy, in the sight of Jerusalem.
Vale of Catoctin, like jewels locked in
    An azure casket, flash thy lights!
Like the Escorial, our Memorial
    Guards them all from the mountain heights.

Yawning fortalice, thine the portal is
    Freedom opened with her pen….

You get the picture. That’s the medieval section of the poem, where Townsend asks us to believe that the monument is easily mistaken for a Romanesque ruin in medieval Jerusalem or a fragment of the Spanish royal palace—although his private letters apparently reveal that he based the overall shape of the memorial on an arch at at a train station and the facade of the fire house in nearby Hagerstown.

Even so, Townsend’s attraction to medieval forms isn’t arbitrary or aimless. If you spend a few frigid winter days, as I did, paging through Poems of Men and Events and his short-story collection Tales of the Chesapeake, you encounter more than a journalist with lofty aspirations, a hack struggling to be Longfellow, Twain, and Washington Irving all at once. What you find, among so much else, are the dreams of a part-time medievalist, a man eager to matter in the romantic, enchanted sweep of the world.

To read too much Townsend in one sitting is to contend with some dreadful poetry and prose: odes to politicians, the treacly story of a lame Congressional page, the tale of a Jewish loner on the island of Chincoteague that’s so vaguely written I can’t tell if it’s intentionally antisemitic. And then there are the rhymes: “Sugarloaf” and “antistrophe”; “standards plant ’em” and “azure bantam” (in a poem about the Delaware Blue Hens!); and thirteen impressively strenuous attempts to rhyme the name Magruder, among them “brooder,” “alluder,” “interluder,” “concluder,” and “obtruder.” And if, perchance, you need a 40-line poem that uses the Senate rules of cloture as a metaphor for a flirtatious rendezvous, then Townsend is the bard of your wonkiest dreams.

But Townsend clearly longs for magic, too. I enjoy seeing places I’ve lived and known well—D.C., Maryland, and Delaware—judged worthy of legend and verse: A boy in Newark, Delaware, accidentally swallows a timepiece as Mason and Dixon survey the area, and he grows up to be an expert watch-fixer. Some hicks in the mountains have an eerie encounter with John Brown. And in one of Townsend’s silliest and most genuinely charming stories, an old man with a blow-hole shambles into a publishing office and claims to have wandered the seas as the King of the Fish. The world of Townsend’s imagination is supernatural and spiritually alive: The poem “Harpers Ferry Sunset” turns the historic town into a setting for Christian martyrdom and timeless enchantment:

Nothing here has since abided
    But the spell of Nature’s spasm,
He the scenery divided
    And his spectre fills the chasm.
Armorers and all their din,
    Feudal times, he gathered in;
Him suspended, where he went,
    He suspended government!
As a whirlpool leaves a tragic
    Rift aghast where it sucked down,
In the camera of magic
    Swims thy maelstrom face, John Brown!

Townsend wants to find myth and magic in nineteenth-century headlines, and sometimes he succeeds. Even with its giggle-inducing reference to “spent balls of scandal,” his prophetic sonnet about President James Garfield is competent enough, and his ode to Rutherford B. Hayes has a metaphysical allure that demanded I re-read it to see if it was better than it seemed. Posterity is ever on Townsend’s mind: a nice 1871 poem imagines the half-built Washington Monument forever incomplete, disdained by a future race as evidence that we were “some brood ingrate with thrift, / And souls unfinished.” The poem made me wish Townsend had paused to hone his best ideas rather than scribble as if being paid by the whim.

Medieval spirits bumble through Townsend’s poetry: Civil War armies are Charlemagne’s troops, the Smithsonian building is a medieval abbey, Jefferson is a second Averroes. Townsend obviously shared his contemporaries’ wistful, romanticized sense of the Middle Ages, so I’m tempted to say that his faux, fragmentary castle stands for martial bravery and chivalrous virtue. But then Townsend does something not so nineteenth-century. In his 1896 speech dedicating the memorial, he explains its purpose: “Its lesson to the neighbors around it is the profitableness of knowledge and of letters and imagination to any people, however they may undervalue these things.” Townsend takes a symbol of war and makes it instead about the peaceful business of writing, reporting, and art.

Or does he? The monument’s main inscription shows a hodgepodge of intentions: “To the Army Correspondents and Artists 1861–1865 Whose Toils Cheered the Camps, Thrilled the Fireside, Educated Provinces of Rustics into a Bright Nation of Readers, and Gave Incentive to Narrate Distant Wars and Explore Dark Lands.” According to one of Townsend’s friends, the Pan-like statue is actually Mercury (or is it Pheidippides?), the faces of the gods represent Electricity and Poetry, and the arches symbolize Description, Depiction, and Photography—but contemporary press reports cited in a 2014 about Townsend don’t offer consistent interpretations of the memorial. Like much of Townsend’s writing, this arch is packed with literary and historical references coherent to no one but “Gath.” Even that pen name, an adaptation of his initials, is an Old Testament reference that speaks to nothing beyond the knowledge of the Bible he inherited from his preacher father. I don’t know what the Middle Ages meant to Townsend; I do know he got lost in history trying to find his place in it.

“Imagine how happy he’d be to know that someone was reading his work,” my girlfriend suggested when she saw me flipping through Townsend’s books. That’s all most writers want: for their stories and poems to exist in the minds of readers who help them outlast their creator. Today, Townsend is remembered only for this architectural folly he built late in life, when he was penniless, reclusive, and desperate for a legacy. “Three score years of pushing quill as the exponent of my hand have become second nature,” he wrote in an unfinished 1913 memoir, “and I hardly understand why I am not still wanted.” Surrounded by stonework ruins, an empty mausoleum, and the indifferent mountains and woods, his arch is now as evocative as a medieval elegy: Fortune is fickle, life is uncertain, and death is assured. That isn’t the romance that Townsend envisioned, but it stands as the story he actually wrote. Hikers at Gathland ponder it briefly, then look to the trees and move on.