Archive for July, 2018


“How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore…”

Only one man in American history can claim to have been both a baking-powder revolutionary and a passionate medievalist, and nobody else is going to note this anniversary, so let me do the unasked-for honors: This week marks the 200th birthday of Eben Norton Horsford, the chemist and engineer who spent his golden years trying to convince a highly skeptical world that he had discovered hard, undeniable, multidisciplinary evidence of a thriving Viking city—in Massachusetts.

If your instinct is to laugh at the idea, please reconsider. As fond as I am of intellectual and architectural follies for their own sake, Horsford’s Viking fixation left us with a useful monument to the weird ways we work out what is or isn’t true, which are often a more subtle folly of their own.

Horsford helped popularize the notion that the Vikings had rambled higgeldy-piggeldy through New England. Evidence would surface much later that the Vikings had hung around Newfoundland, but no one has found proof of their presence farther south, despite its plausibility. Scholars didn’t buy into Horsford’s theories, but he did have his fans, perhaps because he had credentials any popularizer would envy. After Horsford studied civil engineering and taught mathematics, two years in Germany made him one of the first Americans formally trained in chemistry. He then spent sixteen years at Harvard putting his research to practical, profitable use. In the late 1840s or early 1850s, Horsford found that baking powder no longer needed to come in two separate packets of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar, the supply and price of which were erratic. Instead, he proposed replacing cream of tartar with calcium acid phosphate, invented a way to manufacture it, got a patent, figured out to how dry it and sell it safely pre-mixed, and became wildly rich. If you’ve baked anything this week, you can thank a Viking-obsessed Harvard chemist.

And so Eben Horsford—scientist, industrialist, education activist—apparently decided that since he had prospered in mathematics, civil engineering, chemistry, and business, then nothing else human was alien to him. And what were Vikings in America but the next laboratory puzzle to be solved? More than a century after its publication, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, Horsford’s book-length 1890 report to the American Geographical Society, is a remarkable read: Horsford is certain that the new scientific techniques of his era have helped him unearth evidence of Vikings in his own back yard. The implications beguile him:

As we all know, there have been before the world many scores of years, in some instances for as many centuries, certain grand geographical problems, challenging the spirit of research, the love of adventure, or the passion for discovery or conquest. They are such as these: Where was Atlantis? Where was the Ultima Thule? What is there at the North Pole? Was there a Northwest Passage? Where were the Seven Cities? Where were the El Dorado of Raleigh, and the landfall of Leif Erikson, of Columbus, of John Cabot, of Verrazano? And where were Vinland and Norumbega?

“Vinland,” of course, is mentioned in the Viking sagas. “Norumbega” has a later, legendary pedigree as a large and impressive city somewhere south of Nova Scotia, based on maps and travelers’ accounts from 16th-century Europe. Horsford is convinced it was a specifically Viking city, and he’s eager to convince you too—but first he reprints a response from Judge Charles P. Daly, president of the American Geographical Society.

“We have hitherto but inadequately appreciated the Northmen as a race—their adventurous spirit, their capacity, and the degree of civilization to which they had attained in an age when Europe was but emerging from the darkness that had enveloped it for many centuries,” Daly writes, invoking recent scholarship suggesting that the “Aryans” came from Scandinavia, “which would make the Northmen the progenitors of the Greeks, the Romans, and with the exception of one or two races, of all the nations of modern Europe; which, if further researches should establish to be fact, would make them the greatest race in the history of mankind.”

These 19th-century racial notions aren’t surprising, but they’re a good reminder to be wary when authoritative scholars in any age argue primarily from trendy thinking. Horsford isn’t content with his wealth, his impressive accomplishments in chemistry, or his legacy in the kitchens of the world. Driven in part by racial pride, he hopes to use his well-trained mind to disentangle the knotted mysteries of human civilization.

Delving into philology, Horsford is convinced that local place-names—among them Nanset, Naumkeag, Namskaket, and Amosheag—are of “Norse derivation.” He claims that a quirk of Algonquin speech accounts for the name “Norumbega”: The Algonquin, he explains, couldn’t pronounce the “b” sound without putting an “m” in front of it, so the ancient name of Norway, “Norbega,” became “Norumbega.” He bolsters his argument by pointing out that the “mb” quirk is common in African languages, and that plenty of cultures can’t properly pronounce the languages of others. By tinkering plausibly with proto-linguistics, Horsford writes Vikings into the history of Massachusetts. “I may say,” he declares, “there is not a square mile of the basin of the Charles that does not contain incontestable memorials of these people, that will presently be as obvious to others as they now are to me.”

Horsford the philologist is also Horsford the close reader of literary sources. He’s fascinated by an obscure object in the Saga of the Greenlanders: a húsa-snotra that Viking explorer Karlsefni refuses to sell for any price. Even now, nobody knows what a húsa-snotra is. At various times scholars have supposed that it was a carved ship’s ornament, a weather vane, or an astrolabe. Horsford thinks it’s the pans for a set of scales. Whatever it was, a húsa-snotra was said to have been made of North American mǫsurr wood, which Horsford believes is a wet tree with burrs or large warts—just like the trees he sees around the Charles.

Horsford the philologist and Horsford the literary scholar then cede the floor to Horsford the geographer and archaeologist. Using travelers’ descriptions, local history, and colonial sources, he deduces that the Vikings built a fort at the mouth of Stony Brook, which now separates the towns of Waltham and Weston: “I drove directly there,” he proclaims, “and found it on my first visit.” An area paved with boulders fascinates him, and his scrutiny of alluvial soil deposits leads him to believe that a colonial stone dam is the ancient handiwork of Vikings.

It’s really rather amazing: Everywhere Horsford looks, he sees the remnants of a Viking economy—specifically, a system of canals used to float blocks of coveted mǫsurr wood out to waiting ships. His belief in the existence of a thriving wood-block trade prompts him to theorize that every tributary of the Charles must have evidence of a Viking dam or pond either along it or near its mouth—and when he goes looking, he sees what he was predisposed to see. Centuries of Native American and European habitation notwithstanding, nothing along the Charles doesn’t make Horsford see Vikings: “The canals, ditches, deltas, boom-dams, ponds, fish-ways, forts, dwellings, walls, terraces of theater and amphitheater, scattered throughout the Charles, are the monuments I had in mind.”

And so Eben Horsford, profoundly invested in this imagined heritage and desiring to make it tangible, built the rest of us a tower.

* * *

Horsford donated so much money to Wellesley College that in 1886, they flattered him with the naming of Norumbega Hall, a rather un-medieval wooden building that hardly evokes a spirit of exploration or adventure. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a sonnet for the occasion, one that flatters Horsford’s romanticism while backing away from any promise of authenticity:

Not on Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires
Of the sought City rose, nor yet beside
The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide
Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,
The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew
The beautiful gates must open to our quest,
Somewhere that marvellous City of the West
Would lift its towers and palace domes in view,
And, lo! at last its mystery is made known—
Its only dwellers maidens fair and young,
Its Princess such as England’s Laureate sung;
And safe from capture, save by love alone,
It lends its beauty to the lake’s green shore,
And Norumbega is a myth no more.

It’s a curious poem, full of Wellesley girls re-cast as maidens from medieval romance, but not a single Viking.

The most lasting physical remnant of Horsford’s folly, though, is the Norumbega Tower, which he built in 1889 at the mouth of Stony Brook to mark the supposed site of the Viking city and fort. Architectural follies are usually their own justification, but Horsford gave more specific reasons than most people who build such things. In The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega he explains, at first graciously:

It will invite criticism, and so sift out any errors of interpretation into which, sharing the usual fortune of the pioneer, I may have been led.

And then rather less so:

It will help, by reason of its mere presence, and by virtue of the veneration with which the Tower will in time come to be regarded, to bring acquiescence in the fruit of investigation, and so ally the blind skepticism, amounting practically to inverted ambition, that would deprive Massachusetts of the glory of holding the Landfall of Leif Erikson, and at the same time the seat of Europeans in America.

Committed to the falsifiable nature of science, Horsford nonetheless hopes romanticism will encourage future generations to lean his way.

I get a kick out of discredited scholarly theories, but Horsford’s isn’t luridly presented, at least not in this book. He leaves us few nutty-sounding reveries and no McKinley-era equivalent of all-caps exhortations. A man of his time, he turned his polymath’s mind toward the credible techniques of “scientific history” as pioneered in European universities, and off he went on the trail of his preferred past. He found it, as he knew he would. Human prejudices are as consistent as chemistry, if not as quantifiable.

As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage approached, a vocal minority of Americans, many of them New England autodidacts inspired by a popular 1837 edition of the Vinland sagas, cringed at the prospect of letting an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain get credit for the European discovery of North America. (My favorite manifestation of their protest: a replica of a Viking ship that floated past the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) The racial assumptions of the day helped stoke Horsford’s efforts, but even though few scholars bought into his theories about Vikings on the Charles, contemporaries did consider him rather progressive for his support of women’s education. Horsford’s example just goes to show how ephemeral many social standards will prove, and also how wrong we’re all going to be about something, even the cleverest among us, in the fullness of time.

The man who literally gave us our daily bread longed for a more romantic legacy, one that would link him to his presumed ancestors and affirm their superiority. His 200th birthday is a chance for the rest of us to feel a link to the past, not to some silly racial or tribal forefathers but to anyone whose sincere disorientation humanizes him and humbles us. Let’s all then chase our theories, pore over books, and tromp along riverbeds chasing the boot-prints of phantoms. If your confidence in your own worldview is as unshakeable as Eben Horsford’s, than the Norumbega Tower is a warning: pray that posterity is no less kind to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, Philippe explains the fort to the local abbot:

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

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

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

Finally, Philippe shows off his fort to a girl:

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

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

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

“It’s nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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