Friday, August 31, 2007

Reading Journal: The Light in the Piazza

Elizabeth Spencer, The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Includes the novella The Light in the Piazza.

Adam Guettel's Tony Award-winning musical, The Light in the Piazza, is based on a novella by the Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1960. Two years later, it became a successful MGM film. The novella is a relatively simple story about a mother and daughter from Winston-Salem on vacation together in Florence. In the novella, we learn early on that the daughter, Clara, was in an accident years earlier, and has "the mental age of a child of ten." Outwardly, Clara is a beautiful young woman, and she attracts the attention of an amorous young Italian man named Fabrizio. But it isn't just her outward beauty that captivates Fabrizio and his family—it's Clara's childlike innocence and purity. Because she has the mind of a child, she is soon speaking fluently in Italian, and she develops a childlike devotion to the Virgin Mary that pleases Fabrizio's Catholic family. But the real focus of the story is Clara's mother, Margaret, who struggles with the realization that her daughter is capable of feeling and inspiring true love. She struggles to let her daughter go and live her own life. It's a lovely little story, beautifully written, and one can see in it the potential for a Broadway musical. In the end, though, Adam Guettel's music captivates me more and stays in my head longer than Elizabeth Spencer's story.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Light in the Piazza

Yesterday, I drove up to St. Paul to visit my favorite former student and dear friend, Peytie, who is about to start her first year of college. While I was in England, it was my friends that I missed more than anything else, and I especially missed Peytie. She is so smart, so talented, so full of positive energy, so full of amazing potential. There is no young person in the world—other than my brilliant and beautiful sons, nieces and nephews—who fills me with more hope and happiness. Yesterday she sang for me "The Light in the Piazza," from Adam Guettel's recent musical of the same name, and I was completely swept away. She also gave me the original Broadway cast recording of the musical, which is amazing. Guettel's music is somehow both catchy and complex. Although it owes a lot to the twentieth-century American musical tradition (I seemed to hear Barber and Copeland as well as Sondheim and Rodgers caught in the melodic eddies), it's completely fresh.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Reading Journal: Lincoln's Cooper Union Address

On the afternoon of February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stepped into Matthew Brady's New York studio and had this portrait taken. That evening, Lincoln took the stage of the Cooper Union and delivered a speech that propelled him to the front of the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. The Cooper Union Address was the speech that brought the obscure, awkward-looking, former one-term Congressman from Illinois to national prominence. Great speeches still have the power to do that for a politician: to give him or her a national following. His keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention did that for Barack Obama—the once-obscure one-term Senator from Illinois. Obama's speech began by telling his personal story, introducing himself as the son of immigrants who found opportunity in America, and then continued to riff on the American dream. Its key words are "faith" (six times) and "belief" (four times)—it's an inspirational speech about the religion of American opportunity.

Lincoln's speech was a very different animal. It begins with a very specific purpose: to refute Stephen Douglas's claims that the Founders intended the Constitution to restrict the Federal government from limiting the spread of slavery to the Federal territories. In a clear, but lawyerly and repetitive style, Lincoln demolishes this claim. He then addresses the South, to refute its argument that the Republican Party was stirring up sectional strife over the slavery issue. Finally, he exhorts the Republican Party not to back down from its insistence that slavery should be excluded from the territories. The final exhortation, like Obama's speech, invokes faith: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

It is perhaps disappointing to those who think of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator to discover that, as a candidate, he was not calling for the abolition of slavery, but merely its limitation. He states his position quite clearly at the end of the speech: "Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation..." He accepts slavery as a fact of American life, but wants to confine it to the South. It was the belief of some of the Founders, like Jefferson, that if not allowed to spread, slavery would eventually die of natural causes. Fearing this, the slave owners and their Democratic political tools in the antebellum years were demanding that slavery be recognized as a national (rather than merely sectional) institution. Lincoln denied this, but he was not yet willing to call for the complete abolition of slavery. In 1860, the time wasn't yet ripe. Even many members of his own party were opposed to outright abolition.

As a result of the Cooper Union speech, Lincoln moved to the head of the pack of Republican candidates, a pack that included much more illustrious names, like William Henry Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri. Seward was long considered the favorite, but at the convention in Chicago, Lincoln pulled out the nomination.

By far the best nonfiction book I read in 2006 was Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It's often described as a group biography of the men who ran for the 1860 Republican nomination—bitter rivals whom Lincoln, surprisingly, invited to become members of his cabinet. His closest rival, Seward, became Secretary of State, and in that position served Lincoln well. The growing warmth of the relationship between Lincoln and Seward makes a wonderful and touching story. Likewise, former rival Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, became a close adviser and friend. The most fraught relationship was with Salmon Chase, the treasury secretary and later Chief Justice, who never entirely warmed to Lincoln or set aside his rivalry. Chase thought he could be the power behind the throne—the Karl Rove or Dick Cheney figure–and discovered to his dismay that Lincoln had a mind and a will and a moral strength of his own.

Team of Rivals
is a wonderful book. Not only do you get a sense of Lincoln's greatness, you also get a sense of the real love and loyalty that he inspired. When gruff, competent Edwin Stanton breaks down at Lincoln's death, I found tears springing to my eyes. Remarkable, for a book of nonfiction.

Lincoln's Cooper Union Address can be found in the Library of America volume Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Nothing pompous or profound to regale you with today. Last night we were treated to a classic late night thunderstorm that flashed and crashed and kept me awake most of the night. I'm exhausted. I'll go to bed as soon as I can get Will to stop playing the theme from Titanic on the accordion in the next room.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Native Weeds: White Snakeroot

I've spent the morning clearing weeds out of the back yard, which was almost entirely neglected during our year in England. One of the common weeds I've been pulling out is white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), a shade-loving weed that also seems to be quite common in the undergrowth of the oak savanna restorations in the Arboretum, where this photograph was taken. White snakeroot is notorious in American history as the plant that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. The plant contains a strong toxin known as tremetol, which causes muscular debility, trembling, vomiting, and, in many cases, death. When the plant is eaten by dairy cows, the poison passes into their milk, which causes "milk sickness" in those who drink it. It was this milk sickness that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother. She died on October 6, 1818, when Abe was about nine and a half years old.

A medical correspondent, reporting about the prevalence of the sickness in northern Kentucky in 1822, wrote that it was probably caused by "some poisonous vegetable" that tainted the milk of cows who ate it. It wasn't for several decades that white snakeroot was firmly established as the cause of the sickness. White snakeroot continues to be a problem for livestock grazing on its stems and leaves. In 2004, for example, three horses in the New Ulm, Minnesota, area were reported to have died of snakeroot poisoning.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Compass Plant

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) in Carleton's Cowling Arboretum. Notice that the basal leaves are all oriented in the same direction.

The first settlers on the prairies in the 1830s found among the unusual plants growing there a tall, broad-leafed plant known as rosin weed, from its gum-like sap, or compass plant. One settler, writing in 1833, described the plant like this: "It is one of the most extraordinary plants in nature. The name compass plant proceeds from the fact of its leaves, which are very large, rising from the root to the height of from one to two feet, presenting their edges almost invariably to the north and south—and consequently their broadsides to the east and west. This circumstance renders this plant almost an unerring guide to the traveller in cloudy days, who may be caught in those large plains... Such is the uniformity of surface in those extensive prairies, that the most skillful woodsman would be unable to steer his course on a cloudy day, but for the aid of this plant. And the fact of its being found (so far as I have heard) only in those places, where the polarity of its leaves, so to speak, renders it eminently useful to man, seems to present it as one of the strongest proofs of special providence that has been presented to my mind."

In 1839, the Secretary of War (under President Martin Van Buren) was Joel R. Poinsett. Poinsett was not just a politician and military man, he was also a naturalist and founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and Useful Arts (which later became the Smithsonian Institution). Earlier in his career, as United States Minister to Mexico, he discovered a plant that now famously bears his name, the poinsettia. As Secretary of War, Poinsett instructed officers in the army to be on the lookout for other possible contributions to the field of natural history. One of the officers who heeded his call was a solider and former West Point mathematics professor named Benjamin Alvord.

While he was stationed near the Arkansas border, fighting the Seminoles and Cherokees, Alvord collected specimens of the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), and in 1840 delivered the first scientific paper describing the plant. At first, Alvord thought that the plant might have absorbed iron from the soil into its resinous sap and become magnetic, but he later realized that the leaves of the compass plant were photosensitive, and aligned themselves to receive an even exposure to the sun's rays. What looked like "special providence" to the early settlers, lost in the prairies, was in fact an instance of biological adaptation.

Compass plants are common to the tallgrass prairie, and around Northfield can be found in McKnight Prairie and, as in the photograph above, in the Hillside Prairie in the Lower Arboretum.

For Alvord's description of the compass plant, see B. Alvord, "On the Compass Plant," The American Naturalist 16 (August 1882), 625-635.

The opening quotation is from an account by Thomas Speed (1768-1842), former U.S. Representative from Kentucky, writing in the Southern Agriculturalist and Register of Rural Affairs (Charleston), May 1833.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Prairie

McKnight Prairie

“There was nothing but land,” Willa Cather writes, describing the prairie in the opening chapter of My √Āntonia; “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” The description—or non-description—is echoed by one of Northfield’s early settlers, who described the prairie landscape as “unfinished.” Nothing relieved the monotony of the rolling grassland. It needed a humanizing touch—houses, barns, cultivated fields, hedges, a windbreak of pines—which the settlers went to work to provide.

Northfield occupies an interesting geographical position. When the first settlers arrived, the land east of the Cannon River was covered with prairie. West of the river, between the firebreaks of the Cannon and the Minnesota River, stood the Big Woods. Northfield occupied the border between the prairie and woods. The slopes and small bluffs above the Cannon River were studded with park-like oak savanna. The situation was perfect: the forest provided timber for fuel and building materials, the savanna provided a shelter for homes and livestock, the prairie provided fields for crops, the river provided water power for mills to grind the wheat into flour. When John North, Northfield’s first real estate developer and entrepreneur, arrived in early 1850s, his first thought was not of founding a town, it was of setting up a mill.

Monarch butterfly and rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), McKnight Prairie

Most of the prairie was gone within a decade or two of settlement in the 1850s, turned under to create fields for wheat and, later, corn and soybeans. The tallgrass prairie was an astonishingly diverse ecosystem, and astonishingly beautiful. Hamlin Garland, looking back on his prairie youth, writes with regret of tearing through the ancient grassland with his father’s eighteen-inch plow: “At last the wide quarter section lay upturned, black to the sun, and the garden that had bloomed and fruited for millions of years, waiting for man, lay torn and ravaged. The tender plants, the sweet flowers, the fragrant fruits, the busy insects, all the swarming lives which had been native here for untold centuries were utterly destroyed.”

Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa), McKnight Prairie

Fortunately, a small remnant of largely undisturbed prairie still exists about five miles east of Northfield. McKnight Prairie, owned by Carleton College, is surrounded by cornfields and a Christmas tree farm, but offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the prairie must have been like in its pristine grandeur. On an afternoon in late August, the hills were just taking on their early autumnal tint of purple and gold—the gold of goldenrod, the purple of blazing star (liatris) and asters. Mixed with this was the white of flowering spurge, the yellow of partridge pea, and the surprising green of prickly pear cactus. The cactus, here at the northern limit of its range, flourishes in the patches of white sand that are reminders that, at the end of the Ordovician (400 million years ago), this land was at the edge of a tropical sea.

Although McKnight Prairie survived the period of settlement and continues to survive intact as virgin prairie, it now faces another severe threat to its existence: climate change. The partridge pea, which is currently blooming in the prairie, is among a number of native plants that are unlikely to be able to adapt quickly enough to keep up with changing climate conditions.

Literary link: William Cullen Bryant, "The Prairies"

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reading Journal: "The Luck of Roaring Camp"

In 1868, nearly two decades had passed since the discovery of gold in California had filled the American West with prospectors, prostitutes, gunslingers and gamblers from across the United States. In those two decades, the experience of the West had begun to inspire the creation of a new American literature spun out of tall tales, plain speech, and the quick wits and sharp eyes of Western newspapermen like Sam Clemens. In 1867, Clemens—writing under the now-famous pseudonym Mark Twain—launched his national literary career with his tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which started life as a tall tale told in a miner’s shack on Jackass Hill, at the worn-out edge of the Mother Lode. A year later, there was enough of a literary scene in San Francisco that Anton Roman could confidently set up a new literary journal, the Overland Monthly, as a Western rival of Boston’s venerable Atlantic Monthly. As editor of the new journal, Roman installed another rising star on the Western literary scene, Francis Bret Harte.

One of Bret Harte’s first contributions to the Overland Monthly was his classic “sketch” (short story), “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” The story is short and simple. In the rough California mining town of Roaring Camp, a dying prostitute named Cherokee Sal gives birth to a child. The child, given the name Thomas Luck, is adopted and raised by the miners, and their rough but tender-hearted affection for “the d----d little cuss” brings about the moral regeneration of Roaring Camp. It’s the story of Christ—word gets out that the men of Roaring Camp “worship an Ingin baby”—transposed to the Wild West, ending in both apocalypse and redemption.

A winning combination of gritty Western local color and late Victorian sentimentality assured the story’s success. A reviewer in 1870 wrote: “As for the story of the ‘Luck of Roaring Camp,’ we question if there is any short story in English at once so significant, so variedly expressive, so beautiful in its management of rude and common forms of life. It is an incomparable story of the redemption of a wild and vicious and coarse settlement, by the purest and loveliest feelings and influences that can touch a human heart.” The story even inspired this 1880 painting by Henry Bacon, which was just the kind of sentimental genre picture that showed up in chromolithographic form on the walls of late Victorian parlors.

It’s perhaps difficult for a jaded reader of today to recapture the effect that “The Luck of Roaring Camp” had on its first readers nearly a century and a half ago. The reviewer of 1870, quoted above, concluded: “Bret Harte has deepened and broadened our literary and moral sympathies; he has broken the sway of the artificial and conventional; he has substituted actualities for idealities—but actualities that manifest the grandeur of self-sacrifice, the beauty of love, the power of childhood, and the ascendancy of nature.” It was that combination of realism and moral vision that readers found new and compelling in 1868.

I did find the bewildered affection of the miner “Kentuck” for the child touching and humorous, and found the story interesting as an early example of the American realism that would flower in the work of Twain, Howells, Garland, and others. I also found it interesting that the story's Christ child is given the name "Luck." Part of the story's realism is that the miners encounter the divine not through religious faith, but through commonplace luck—the luck of prospectors and card players and survivors in the wild West. But at the end of the story, "luck" becomes a kind of grace.

On a second reading of the story, I noticed the names of the characters: French Pete, Cherokee Sal, Cockney Simmons, Kentuck, Boston... Harte's Roaring Camp is a true melting pot, and in the harmony that reigns after the birth of Luck, he seems to offer a vision of an inclusive community—a vision that can't, in the end, be sustained. The vision, while it lasts, even has a place for the lowliest of animals. In the absence of a human wet nurse, baby Luck is nursed on ass’s milk from Jinny, the camp’s donkey. I took this to be a broad, humorous touch reminiscent of Western tall tales. But I did a little research and discovered that ass’s milk was recommended, in the nineteenth century, as “the best substitute for the mother’s milk.” In the 1860s, a Mrs. Dawkins, of London, held the position of Purveyor of Ass’s Milk to the Royal Family, and obtained the much sought-after commodity by milking donkeys from the zoo in Regent’s Park.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


We returned home to find the infrastructure work on Fifth Street nearly completed, and a new sidewalk in front of our house to replace the cracked and buckling sidewalk that was there before. I like sidewalks, and I'm happy to have a new four-foot wide sidewalk in front of my house, even though it brings with it the obligation to keep it clear of ice and snow in the winter. For me, sidewalks are an indispensable part of living in a community. In her classic study of city life and urban design, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs talks at length about the important functions of sidewalks in the life of a community. They provide safety, contact, and assimilation of children. Even more so than playgrounds and parks, they are places where the children of a community meet and play together and move under the eyes of large numbers of adults.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as fond as I am of sidewalks. On the east end of Fifth Street, where there were no sidewalks before the infrastructure work began, some residents were opposed to having sidewalks installed. This opposition is common, especially in suburban neighborhoods, as a report in today's Star Tribune suggests. Sidewalks are regarded as an invasion of privacy, as a blight on the cherished American suburban landscape of broad green lawns and houses tucked secretively behind their multi-car garages.

It's a shame that American communities tend to be designed more for automobiles than for children, more for privacy than for interaction. The secrecy of the sidewalk-less suburban cul-de-sac is preferred to the openness of the sidewalk-lined urban grid. Northfielders have recently expressed concern and alarm over heroin use in the high school. Many of our newer neighborhoods almost seem purpose-built for such furtive and antisocial behavior. It takes a village to raise a child—a village with sidewalks, where children circulate under the eyes of a large number of adults who come to take an interest in their behavior and their well-being. As Jacobs argues, sidewalks not only provide opportunities for "surveillance" of children's behavior, they teach children to feel a sense of responsibility for their wider community.

When we arrived in Northfield after more than a year's absence on Wednesday night, we were met by the words WELCOME HOME in colorful chalk on the new sidewalk in front of our house. Neighbors came out onto the sidewalk to greet us. Before we even stepped into their privacy of our house, we had stepped back into our community.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .