Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sermon: In the Dark

This morning, I was the guest speaker at the First United Church of Christ, Northfield, Minnesota. For those of you who are interested in reading my sermon, a text can be found here, where it can either be read on the screen or downloaded as a .pdf file (84k).

Friday, September 28, 2007

Banned Books Week 2007

Where's the topless sunbather? (A detail from Where's Waldo?)

Tomorrow is the start of Banned Books Week 2007. Clicking on the link will take you to the American Library Association's Banned Books Week website, which includes a list of the most challenged books of the decade 1990-2000, and lists of the most challenged books for each of the past six years. The lists include old-timers like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, as well as novels by Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, and J.K. Rowling. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes notoriously free use of the n-word, and has often been accused of being racist. Toni Morrison (whose novels The Bluest Eye and Beloved have been banned) acknowledges that the novel is problematic, but she says, "the rewards of my efforts to come to terms have been abundant." But how much easier it is to ban a book that troubles us than to engage with the challenges it presents!

The most challenged book of 2006 was Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell's And Tango Makes Three, about same-sex penguins parenting a baby penguin in the Central Park Zoo. The most surprising member of the Banned Books club is Martin Handford's Where's Waldo? Another book whose presence on the list surprised me was A Wrinkle in Time, which was banned for allegedly undermining religious beliefs. The irony is that Madeleine L'Engle, like C.S. Lewis, was a devout Christian who used fantasy allegorically to explore issues of faith. There are far too many literal-minded so-called Christians in this country who have nothing better to do than to search picture books for cartoon breasts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Reading Journal: The Pillowman

This morning, I sat in Goodbye Blue Monday with my small cappuccino and raspberry croissant and became completely absorbed in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's Olivier Award-winning play, The Pillowman. Of course, I prefer seeing plays on the stage to reading them as texts, but this play seemed to jump off the page and stage itself in my head. It was brilliant, disturbing, and utterly captivating. Scene: a police interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian state. Katurian, a writer, is under interrogation because two children have been found murdered in the same bizarre and brutal manners as children in Katurian's stories. McDonagh develops this disturbing premise into a chilling, gruesome, and darkly comic exploration of the human need for stories, with echoes of Kafka, Stoppard, Mamet, and the Brothers Grimm. The play contains strong language, and even stronger images—which, somehow, are brought to life on the stage. The play challenges the audience to make sense out of its strange complexities, and then seems deliberately to baffle any attempt to discover its meaning. It may be, as one character says, "a puzzle that has no solution." But an utterly fascinating puzzle nonetheless. I'm tempted to make an effort to see the Frank Theater's production of The Pillowman, which is currently running at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (until October 14). The original London production featured Jim Broadbent and David Tennant, and it later premiered in New York with Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup. Two dream casts for a spellbinding nightmare of a play.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Reading Journal: "The Yiddish Policemen's Union"

Clara and I were invited to join a book group, and this was the first selection. I wouldn't have read it otherwise, so I'm extremely grateful to Jeff and Mary for inviting us to join the group. This is a terrific novel. But because Jeff is reading this blog right now, I will refrain from saying all the things I might say about the novel, lest he steal my ideas and dazzle everyone with them at the book group. I will say that Michael Chabon's novel is a stunning, audacious feat of the imagination. Imagine that there is no state of Israel, and that during World War II America provided temporary asylum to thousands of European Jews in Sitka, Alaska. Now imagine a Yiddish-speaking, slivovitz-swilling noz (police detective) named Meyer Landsman investigating a homicide among the down-and-out chess players and Hasidic mafia of Jewish Sitka on the eve of its reversion to American control. Still with me? You'll be with Michael Chabon every step of the way as soon as you open this novel. Chabon is a breathtakingly inventive writer. His descriptions are pure gold, his writing is peppered with similes that make you gasp with admiration at their unexpected aptness. Every detail of his Yiddish Sitka is beautifully imagined, down to the smallest detail. Even a WASP like me begins to feel nostalgia for this lost world that never was.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Grand Day Out

I drove up to St. Paul today to have lunch with Peytie and hear about her first three weeks at college. We had lunch at Shish, a Mediterranean café at 1668 Grand Avenue, near the Macalester College campus. Peytie had an enormous chicken gyros, and I had the "maza mix"—a plate of hummus, baba ganoush, a pair of felafels, tzatziki, olives and feta, and a generous basket of pita bread. The two of us ate for about $17. If you're in the Macalester neighborhood, I recommend Shish for an affordable, fast, and delicious meal. The place is very relaxed and informal—the decor is basic; you place your order at the counter and take a number back to your table—and full of a good mix of college students and folks from the neighborhood, including quite a few small children. We lingered over our meal for two hours while Peytie told me all about her classes and her life at college, then she gave me a quick tour of the campus before rushing off to an audition for the college gospel choir. Being there on Grand Avenue brought back happy memories of the fall of 2005, when I spent an hour or two each week tutoring Peytie in Latin at her house in the neighborhood near Lexington and Grand, then drove down Grand to the University of St. Thomas to teach Latin to a classroom full of Catholic seminarians.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Betray Us?

Because there are so many more knowledgeable and insightful political bloggers out there, I have resolved to steer away from political issues in this blog. Today, however, I was struck by the vote in the Senate to condemn MoveOn.Org for its full-page New York Times ad criticizing Gen. David Petraeus ("General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"). The Senate passed the resolution "to express the sense of the Senate that General David H. Petraeus, Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq, deserves the full support of the Senate and strongly condemn personal attacks on the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all members of the United States Armed Forces."

I was interested to note that Minnesota's Democratic Senator, Amy Klobuchar, voted in support of the resolution, breaking ranks with the majority of her party. As far as I could discover, she has not yet (as of 2:30 p.m.) issued a statement about her vote, but it's interesting to look at her vote in light of some of her previous statements on the war in Iraq. On 9/11, after Petraeus's testimony to Congress, she said that she had the "deepest respect" for the general, but disagreed with the course being followed in Iraq. Elsewhere, she has stated that one of her goals regarding the war in Iraq is to "ensure a civil national debate that makes America proud." She continues: "As we in Congress, as well as citizens across the country, continue to debate the best strategy in Iraq, we must remember that open discussion of diverse and divergent viewpoints is the foundation of our democratic system. Although we may disagree on tactics and strategies, in the end we all want what is best for our troops and best for our nation."

In the wake of the Senate vote, MoveOn has issued a statement saying that the purpose of the resolution was "to send a message that anyone who speaks unpleasant truths about this war will pay." In light of her statement quoted above, I somehow don't think that this is the message that Sen. Klobuchar intended to send. Could it be that Sen. Klobuchar believed the advertisement exceeded the bounds of civility? Was her vote in favor of the resolution a vote for Minnesota nice?

I believe the MoveOn ad was ill-advised, but it's absurd for the United States Senate to censure MoveOn for exercising its Constitutionally-protected right to free speech. The best that can be said for Sen. Klobuchar's vote is that the GOP can't use it against her. But the more principled response was that of Sen. Obama, who refused to dignify the resolution with a vote at all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Research Journal: Mark Twain's Angelfish

One of the lesser known, and most controversial aspects of Mark Twain’s last years was his friendship with little girls, aged eight through sixteen, whom he called his Angelfish. He said that he “collected” young girls—in his words “girls who are pretty and sweet and naïve and innocent—dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears.” Many people who know about the Angelfish are disturbed, justifiably so, by the seventy-something Twain’s habit of surrounding himself with prepubescent girls. By his own admission, Twain wanted grandchildren—something his two surviving daughters had failed to provide him with. In 1907, when he started “collecting” his Angelfish, his wife and his favorite daughter, Susy, were both dead. His middle daughter, Clara, was spending most of her time in Europe, away from her father, and his youngest daughter, Jean, was in a sanatarium for epileptics, in virtual exile from her father’s home because of her poorly-understood disease. He had a desperate longing for the happy days when his own daughters were little and their relationship with him was relatively unproblematic. Most scholars who have looked closely at his relationship with the Angelfish see nothing “improper” beyond a longing to surround himself youth and innocence, and an avoidance of his strained relationship with his own daughters. As Karen Lystra says, “Clemens appears to have tried to fill a deep emotional hole with fictive kin.” Instead of putting in the hard work of repairing his relationships with Clara and Jean, he played endless games of hearts and billiards with little girls to whom he had no obligation other than to be entertaining.

In the summer of 1908, Twain moved into his new home in Redding, Connecticut, which he named “Innocence at Home.” His first guests at the new house were two of the Angelfish, Louise Paine (left) and Dorothy Harvey (right), who arrived on June 20 for a week-long stay that involved chaperoned walks in the woods, billiards lessons, charades, romping with Tammany the cat, and storytelling in the inimitable Mark Twain style. Both girls were thirteen (born in 1895). Louise was the oldest daughter of Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, who also lived in Redding. Dorothy was the daughter of Twain’s publisher, Col. George Harvey, the president of Harper & Brothers and editor of the North American Review.

George Harvey, Dorothy’s father, was an interesting character. He started out as a cub reporter for his hometown newspaper in Vermont. His first magazine article, published in St. Nicholas when he was eighteen (1884), was called “How Science Won the Game”—the first published explanation of how to throw a curveball. He went on to work as an aide to two Vermont governors before making a fortune on Wall Street and rescuing both the North American Review and Harper & Brothers from bankruptcy. In 1908, he was in the midst of an Esperanto craze, and had just been elected the president of the Esperanto-Asocio de Nordo Ameriko. He had also just published a book of his essays on the subject of Women. In one of the essays, he wrote: “...we find little that is interesting, aside from her physical appearance, in the American girl of today between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one... Indeed, if the truth be spoken, she is rather a bore, self-conscious, ignorant, and concerned chiefly with matrimonial aspirations.”

His daughter, Dorothy, married in 1914, and later divorced and remarried in 1929. Louise Paine, meanwhile, attended Teacher’s College in New York, where in 1914 she took the lead role in a production of a play called All of a Sudden Peggy. The New York Times said she “made a clever Peggy,” but was mostly interested in the fact that all of the male parts were played by the young women of the teacher’s college: “The girls form Teachers College fooled even the Columbia men yesterday,” the Times reported, “when they appeared before the footlights in Earl Hall, smoking cork-tipped cigarettes as they strutted about in the latest cut of male attire... The girls made excellent men.” Louise later married and became the associate editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, contributing articles throughout the Thirties and Forties with titles like “I’m Getting a New Figure,” “Have a New Face for Summer,” “Femininity Begins at Home,” and “Is Your Little Girl a Good Wife?” She also published a book titled Why Men Like Us: Your Passport to Charm (1937).

Links to my poem about the Angelfish, "Mark Twain and Dorothy Quick Sit for Photographs, 1907," here and here.


Karen Lystra. Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004. The "dangerous intimacy" refers not to Twain's relationship with the Angelfish, but to his dependence on his manipulative secretary, Isabel Lyon, who according to Lystra embezzled large sums of Twain's money and was primarily responsible for Jean Clemens' prolonged exile from her father's home. Miss Lyon probably took the photograph, above, of Twain with Louise and Dorothy.

John Cooley, ed. Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Dorothy Quick. Enchantment: A Little Girl's Friendship with Mark Twain. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1961. Quick was one of the Angelfish.

I wrote briefly about Twain and the Angelfish in my article “The Male Readers of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” The Lion and the Unicorn 28.1 January 2004.

Monday, September 17, 2007

School Day Blues

For years, my writing desk faced west.
In the morning, I watched the Episcopal Church
lay the shadow of its cross on the parking lot,
double-parked among the all-night permit holders.
As the sun rose it withdrew its blessing
to the middle of the street, crossing the traffic,
a smudge of ash thumbing penitential hoods.
The steeple at noon stood shadowless like the needle
of a gauge, showing the day half-empty.
In those first days of school, I often pushed
my shadow down the sidewalk like an empty stroller,
or spent long hours watching the cross’s shadow
wade against the current of the sun, waiting
to receive my own belated blessing. But now
my desk faces east, and in the morning I watch
other children waiting at the corner for the bus to come
like a clumsy vanishing act, leaving nothing but
a wisp of exhaust and a mother who looks both ways
before she walks her own long shadow across the street.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bishop Hoyler

In 2000, our family moved one block east from the house where we had lived for our first decade in Northfield. That house, a little bungalow built in the early 1920s, was known to long-time Northfield residents as “Mabel Hoyler’s House.” Mabel Hoyler was the last Latin teacher at Northfield High School. She moved to Northfield in 1947, when her father retired after fifty-five years as a Moravian pastor, and lived with him (in what would later become our house) until his death in 1958. After her own retirement from teaching in 1976, she continued to tutor Latin students out of her home until shortly before her death in 1984.

The first Moravian church in western Canada, near Edmonton, where Rev. Clement Hoyler became the first pastor in 1896.

Her father, Clement Hoyler, was born in Wisconsin in 1872. His father Jacob Hoyler was also a Moravian pastor, and shortly after his son’s birth preached the dedicatory sermon at the new Moravian church on the corner of Eighth and Division Streets in Northfield. Clement attended Moravian College in Pennsylvania, was ordained in 1892, and in 1896 became a missionary in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where he would spent the next thirty years. On September 13, 1908, he was consecrated as the first Moravian bishop of Canada.

As a missionary, and then as bishop of Canada, Clement Hoyler was an avid naturalist. He amassed an enormous butterfly collection, and kept detailed records which he reported to Canadian Meteorological Service in Toronto. He recorded rainfall and snowfall, and “detailed descriptions of thunderstorms, auroras, meteors, lunar and solar halos, and other celestial phenomena,” recorded at his home at Bruederfeld, near Edmonton. He also kept phenological records: the dates of the “last snow to whiten the ground,” the arrival of crows, the blooming of the pasqueflowers, the opening of the lakes, the first haying, the “first snow to whiten the ground,” etc. About ten years ago, someone from the Moravian archives in Edmonton sent me a few xeroxed pages from Bishop Hoyler’s records. In 1902, according to those records, the last snow to whiten the ground fell on June 3, the pasqueflowers bloomed on April 26, haying commenced on June 25, and snow whitened the ground again on November 3.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Around My Blogosphere

My LibraryThing friend Louise recently traveled to Washington D.C., for a whirlwind tour of the city's many museums. She's an excellent photographer and has exquisite taste in books and art, and her recent blog entry has me jonesing for a visit to the Smithsonian Institution to see its collection of American Impressionists. Where was I when the Smithsonian's traveling exhibition, American Impressionism, was at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2000? I'm in love with this painting in the Smithsonian's collection, Robert Reid's The Mirror (1910). Reid (1862-1929) was a member of a group of American painters who called themselves "The Ten," who banded together in an attempt to resist the prevailing commercialism of American art at the turn of the century. Perhaps the most famous of The Ten was Childe Hassam (1859-1935), famous for his patriotic scenes, his New England landscapes, and his paintings of Celia Thaxter's garden.

One American artist who declined an invitation to join The Ten was Abbott Henderson Thayer (1849-1921). Thayer is known mostly for his paintings of angelic girls, like the one at left, and the landscape around Mount Monadnock. He was also obsessed with protective coloration in animals, and devoted much of his life to promoting the idea of camouflage to the United States military. Thayer's second wife was Emeline (Emma) Beach, who as a seventeen-year old had been a passenger on the cruise that provided the inspiration for Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad. On that trip in 1867, Twain took a shine to Miss Beach, and kept up a friendly correspondence with her for a few years after their return to the States. In the last years of his life, Mark Twain rented a summer home near the Thayers in Dublin, New Hampshire, and the Thayer's children befriended Twain's epileptic daughter, Jean.

Meanwhile, Jim H.'s Brautigan-themed blog, Trout Fishing in Minnesota, has introduced me to the the quirky poetry of Ed Dorn (1929-1999). I particularly like his poem "Flatland" (the link takes you to an mp3 file of Dorn reading his own work). I like the cautious laughter of the audience at the end, which seems to wonder aloud, "Is this poem profound, simplistic, or stoned?"

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Commonplace Book: The Prairie

"[The effects of glaciation] make much of the landscape look rather rough, unfinished, with an odd, rather helter-skelter arrangement, but, remember, ice many feet thick and weighing billions of tons per square mile is not the best kind of a tool with which to construct artistic-looking scenery on an otherwise fairly level terrain." —Edward W. Schmidt, The Geological Features of the Northfield Area (1938)

"The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings." —Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)

"As to the impression made by a western town on a man fresh from the east,...I can sum up everything in one adjective, 'unfinished.'" —Rev. Paul de Schweinitz, address to the Northfield Improvement Association (1887)

"There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." —Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)

"But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its solemn wastes." —Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

"Prairie Creek, about six miles from here, is a gem of a prairie. To give you a little idea of the rapidity with which the country is filling up—this prairie of Prairie Creek was all unclaimed last Monday morning, and in three days 3,000 acres were taken. One man can have only 160 acres... The country about there is splendid, the soil almost fabulously rich, and the whole beauties must be seen to be appreciated." —David Humphrey (1855)

"As the prairies spread out before us in their living green, dotted with the wild rose and other flowers, was it any wonder that the heart of the traveler from the barren hills of the East or the wilds of Canada should leap for joy within him, and that he should feel that this is indeed a goodly land?" —Hiram Scriver, address to the Old Settlers' Association (1876). Scriver arrived in Northfield in June 1856.

"It seemed the most lonely place in the world." Mrs. Edmund Kimball (1914). Mrs. Kimball settled in Hasson, Minnesota, in 1855.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Oaklawn Cemetery

The grave of Robert Watson (1825-1913) in Oaklawn Cemetery.

Since moving to Northfield from Cottage Grove in 1878, when his daughter Isabella* entered Carleton College, Robert Watson had been planting trees and urging his neighbors to do the same. Watson was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1825, and had come to America as a young boy. He grew up in the woods of northern Ohio, and when he and his brother William arrived as settlers in Minnesota in 1850, they were immediately drawn to the home-like shelter of the oak savanna. Twenty-eight years later, he was distressed to find that east of the river Northfield was still, for the most part, a treeless prairie village.

Oaklawn Cemetery, landscaped by Robert Watson.

In the late 1880s, the Northfield Improvement Association, of which Watson was a member, began a campaign to establish a new cemetery in Northfield. In the 1840s, the influential horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing had been calling for the establishment of suburban cemeteries in which art and nature combined to produce an idealized landscape that appealed to both aesthetic and moral sensibilities. By 1887, Downing's ideas about cemetery reform had reached Northfield. The Northfield News considered the possibilities: "Trees could be grown, walks laid out, and beautiful flowers planted...and the place changed in a short time from an unsightly, sickening spectacle, shunned as far as possible as a dreadful spot, to an attractive, pleasing landscape, where the dead and the living would come nearer together, for nature's smiles can at least mask the horror of the impassable gulf."

Former oak savanna in Oaklawn Cemetery.

Robert Watson was chosen to superintend the creation of a new cemetery, and he was soon off on a grand cemetery tour to gather landscaping ideas. He may have visited Mount Auburn (near Cambridge, Mass.) and Greenwood Cemetery (in Brooklyn), two of the defining landscapes in the nineteenth-century cemetery reform movement. Meanwhile, land east of town was acquired for Northfield's new cemetery—near the corner of Wall Street and Spring Creek Roads, on land belonging to farmer Sylvester Sherpy (and alongside the section line I blogged about earlier). The land, which Sherpy used for pasturage, was originally oak savanna. In the iconography of cemeteries, oaks symbolize immortality, so it's not surprising that Northfield's Oaklawn Cemetery, Dundas's Groveland Cemetery, and Faribault's Oak Grove Cemetery are all located in former oak savanna.

Obelisks marking the graves of the first two presidents of St. Olaf College, Thorbjorn Mohn (foreground) and J.N. Kildahl, in Oaklawn Cemetery.

In his landscaping of Oaklawn Cemetery, Watson kept the bur oaks and added arbor vitae and other evergreens. He may have been inspired by his first sight of Minnesota, on the banks of Lake St. Croix, in 1850; in his memoirs, he wrote: "the shrubbery and the trees on the banks, a few evergreens interspersed, made a more artistic park than could be laid out by the mind of man." Half a century after Watson landscaped the cemetery, Harvey Stork, the first director of Carleton's arboretum, admired his work: "Robert Watson, together with [nurseryman] Charles P. Nichols, planned the planting and chose the variety of specimens for Oaklawn Cemetery, a beautiful burial park, in which the finest monuments are spruces, pines, larches, catalpas, and dozens of other choice species." (Stork sought to establish a similar collection of trees in his arboretum.) Soon after the landscaping was completed in 1892, Oaklawn Cemetery became Northfield's burial place of choice: the first presidents of Carleton and St. Olaf are buried there, as are Northfield luminaries with names like Scriver, Skinner, Goodhue, and Goodsell. Former Minnesota Governor and U.S. Senator Edward Thye, a Northfield native, is buried in the midst of Watson's landscaping.**

*Isabella Watson became a professor of French at Carleton. Watson Hall and the Japanese garden at Carleton stand on land that belonged to Robert Watson.
**Governor, 1943-1946 and Senator, 1947-1958.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Reading Journal: "The Gentleman from Cracow"

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Until we left for England last year, we had a subscription to the Library of America. Every six weeks, a handsome new hardcover book would arrive in the mail. Although each book came on approval, I never returned a book, optimistically thinking that I might someday have a craving for Dreiser’s An American Tragedy or Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Among the volumes I’ve actually read are Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Sinclair Lewis (Arrowsmith and Dodsworth), Theodore Roosevelt (Autobiography), and Henry Adams (The Education and most of Mont St. Michel and Chartres). Now I’m reading Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, in a volume that also includes Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In 2004, the Library of America issued a much-heralded three-volume centenary collection of the complete stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), the seventh American and only Yiddish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1978). Many of Singer’s stories are set in the shtetls (Jewish farming communities) of pre-Holocaust Poland, and have the distinctive flavor of Old World folk tales. “The Gentleman from Cracow,” originally published in English translation in the 1957 collection Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, is a fairytale-like story about the consequences of a wealthy doctor's arrival in a struggling rural community.

The first time I read the story, I had recently finished Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), and I read Singer’s story as a fable about the effects of conspicuous consumption on a traditional society. In Singer’s story, a hell on earth is created when the villagers turn away from the traditions that bring restraint, sustainability, and resilience to their culture. This time, having just finished Ron Powers’ excellent biography of Mark Twain and its discussion of Twain’s late masterpiece, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleysburg,” I read Singer’s story as a Yiddish cousin of Twain’s tale about human corruptibility. It’s a story with many variations: a traveling salesman marches into River City and stirs up the townsfolk with visions of seventy-six trombones, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth shows up offering eternal life...

The sainted Rabbi Ozer spends the night of the gentleman’s apocalyptic ball locked up in his house. When he wakes in the morning, the sky is a fiery red and he hears shouts that sound like the howling of wild beasts. The rabbi asks himself, “Has the world come to an end? Or have I failed to hear the ram’s horn heralding the Messiah? Has He arrived?” At the heart of the story (and its Twain and Meredith Wilson variants) seems to be the problem of distinguishing between Savior and snake oil salesman. In Singer’s story, salvation comes not from the windfall appearance of a wealthy stranger, but from the careful observance of traditions that have sustained a community through time. At the end of the story, the lessons of the gentleman’s visit have been enshrined in memory and in the language of everyday life: “Whenever a shoemaker or tailor asked too high a price for his work he was told, ‘Go to the gentleman from Cracow and he will give you buckets of gold.’” Singer, writing in an old and dying language, seems to be reminding his readers that language, and stories, and even snippets of simple folk wisdom, are a lifeline flung out to us from the past.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Defeat of Jesse James Days

Defeat of Jesse James Days reenactors on horseback in the Grand Parade.

For those of you from out of town, here's the story. On September 7, 1876, Jesse James and his gang—brother Frank, the Younger brothers, and a few others—rode into Northfield with the intention of raiding the First National Bank. An assistant teller at the bank, Joseph Lee Heywood, died defending the safe, and the valiant townsfolk of Northfield took care of the James Gang. Two members of the gang were killed, and most of the rest were chased down a couple of weeks later. Frank and Jesse James escaped, but the Youngers were packed off to Stillwater state prison. In prison, Cole Younger settled down to making decorative wooden boxes, a couple of which are on display in the Northfield Historical Society Museum.

Veterans from the American Legion in the Grand Parade.

Each year, over the second weekend in September, Northfield commemorates the failed raid and the valiant actions of Heywood and the citizens who stood up to Jesse James. On Bridge Square, in the center of town, you can grease up on fried cheese curds and funnel cakes ("they're funnelicious!") before heading over to the rides at the carnival or watching the reenactment of the bank raid. The James Gang rides in with guns blazing, Heywood is shot, and some brave citizen utters the immortal words, "Get your guns, boys! They're robbing the bank." A lot of blanks are fired. A voice-over on the public address system explains everything.

Northfield High School Band.

The weekend ends with a massive Grand Parade down Division Street, with bands and floats and...well, I'm not sure what else, because I've never stayed through the entire parade. This year, Clara and I went down to watch Will's debut in the Northfield High School marching band (he is one of two oboe players). After the parade, people start to clear out. The carnival packs up, and soon things are back to normal. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who's glad when it's over.

Meanwhile, I finished reading Ron Powers' excellent Mark Twain: A Life. It's written in an easy-going, often humorous style that wears its learning lightly, often going for puns that might have made even Mark Twain groan: about Lew Wallace, the Civil War general and one-hit wonder who wrote Ben Hur, Powers says that his "entire literary career could be summed up as 'Ben Hur, done that'..." Powers has a deep appreciation of Twain's work, but doesn't shy away from presenting an honest portrait of a man who could be selfish, mean, insecure, grumpy and vengeful. Twain was all of those things, but he was also brilliant, humane, and howlingly funny. Powers' biography is a great read.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Harborview

The Harborview.

Late yesterday afternoon, while the boys grazed on fried food at the Defeat of Jesse James Days, Clara and I escaped with our friends Chico and Rebecca to Pepin, Wisconsin, to eat at the fabulous Harborview Café. This weekend, Pepin is holding its own annual celebration: Laura Ingalls Wilder Days. Pepin is Wilder's birthplace and the nearby village in Little House in the Big Woods. Pepin is on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, near the southern end of the widening of the river known as Lake Pepin. The lake and its surrounding bluffs provide the perfect setting for an absolutely delicious and memorable meal. Last summer, in the weeks before we left for England, Clara and Rebecca rode their bikes from Northfield to Pepin, a distance of 67 miles—with one killer three-mile long hill near the end. The reward at the end was a swim in Lake Pepin and halibut with black butter caper sauce at the Harborview.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Mystery of Metropolisville

Editor's Note: It's The Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, that time of year when my thoughts turn to...getting out of town. Today's excursion took me as far as Cannon City.

On July 4, 1857, a holiday boating party on Crystal Lake turned tragic when the boat capsized and four people were drowned. The funeral for the drowning victims was presided over by a twenty-year old itinerant Methodist preacher named Edward Eggleston.

Crystal Lake, in Cannon City, Rice County, Minnesota.

Crystal Lake lies on the edge of the tiny village of Cannon City, about eight miles south of Northfield on Country Road 20. The lake has the distinction of being the only lake in Rice County that lies east of the Cannon River. The county's other lakes are west of the river, where the land has a more recent history of glaciation and is thus more poorly drained than the land east of the river. In the 1850s, when Eggleston arrived in Cannon City, the village was in the midst of a land speculation boom, and promoters were making a bid to have the county seat moved to Cannon City from nearby Faribault. The bid failed, and Cannon City became a "bubble town" that burst when inflated expectations for its development failed to bring returns. When the land rush was over, Cannon City shrank into obscurity. Few people know about Cannon City's small contribution to American literature.

Edward Eggleston (1837-1902).

A decade and a half after he presided over the funeral in Cannon City, Edward Eggleston had become famous for his novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), a loosely-plotted contribution to the growing field of western realism. Eggleston worked as a novelist, but he was more suited to be a social historian: his novels were light on plot and heavy on observations of social conditions and reproductions of authentic regional dialect. Late in life, in fact, he became president of the American Historical Association, and produced a social history of the United States. In the preface to his third novel, published in 1873, he acknowledged that history, not the construction of plots, was his forte: "I have wished to make my stories of value as a contribution to the history of civilization in America. If it be urged that this is not the highest function, I reply that it is just now the most necessary function of this kind of literature. Of the value of these stories as works of art, others must judge; but I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that I have at least rendered one substantial though humble service to our literature, if I have portrayed correctly certain forms of American life and manners."

Crystal Lake Trail, passing along the south end of Crystal Lake.

His third novel was The Mystery of Metropolis- ville, at the center of which is a tragic boating accident on "Diamond Lake" in "Metropolisville," which lies near the "Big Gun River" in "Wheat County." The plot is populated with various Western types, such as a seedy land speculator named Mr. Plausaby, his beautiful step-daughter Katy, a college student from back east who falls in love with Katy, Whiskey Jim the stage-coach driver, and a displaced Hoosier poet in a sod cabin. Later in the novel, the setting shifts to the territorial prison in Stillwater, where Eggleston served as a missionary in 1860-61.

My favorite passage from the novel comes in the first chapter, as the eastern student, Albert Charlton, is taking Whiskey Jim's stage from Red Owl (i.e., Red Wing) across the prairie to Metropolisville. Eggleston reflects that each person has a different way of looking at the land, depending on what they want out of it: a home, a livelihood, a quick buck:

But the enthusiastic eyes of young Albert Charlton despised all sordid and "culinary uses" of the earth; to him this limitless vista of waving wild grass, these green meadows and treeless hills dotted everywhere with purple and yellow flowers, was a sight of Nature in her noblest mood. Such rolling hills behind hills! If those rolls could be called hills! After an hour the coach had gradually ascended to the summit of the "divide" between Purple River [i.e., Vermilion River] on the one side and Big Gun River [i.e., Cannon River] on the other, and the rows of willows and cotton-woods that hung over the water's edge—the only trees under the whole sky—marked distinctly the meandering lines of the two streams. Albert Charlton shouted and laughed; he stood up beside Jim, and cried out that it was a paradise.

"Mebbe 'tis," sneered Jim. "Anyway, it's got more'n one devil into it."

Cannon City Town Hall.

About a decade after Eggleston's novel was published, young Hamlin Garland traveled through Minnesota, spending the night in Faribault before heading on to the bustling railroad town of Farmington, where he boarded a train for the Dakotas. In his classic memoir A Son of the Middle Border (1917), Garland writes of his stop in Faribault: "Here I touched storied ground, for near this town Edward Eggleston had laid the scene of his novel The Mystery of Metropolisville, and my imagination responded to the magic which lay in the influence of the man of letters. I wrote to Alice a long and impassioned account of my sensations as I stood beside the Cannonball [sic] River."

In 1873, advance sales of The Mystery of Metropolisville exceeded 10,000 copies—an almost unprecedented number. Sales for his first two novels were robust, and Eggleston could claim to be one of the best selling novelists in America. Today Edward Eggleston and The Mystery of Metropolisville are largely forgotten, but they did earn Rice County, and little Cannon City, a small place in the history of American literary realism.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

On the Section Line

A survey marker in the Lower Arboretum.

Flying over Iowa on the last leg of our journey home from England, I knew I was back in the American Midwest. From the window of the plane, the landscape below looked like graph paper—a regular grid of green fields bounded by light gray roads. This landscape is the legacy of the great land survey that began near the banks of the Ohio River in 1785 and moved steadily westward as new land opened up for settlement. The survey mapped the land into a regular of six-mile-square townships, each divided into 36 one-mile-square sections. Rice County, for example, comprises fourteen separate six-mile-square townships (with a slight deviation, since Bridgewater and Northfield townships together include an extra twelve sections annexed from Dakota County, and are therefore not perfectly square). Each section is numbered. Our house on Fifth Street, for example, is in section 6, Township 111N (numbered relative to a baseline running east-west), Range 19W (numbered relative to a north-south principal meridian).

A detail from a map of the arboretum, showing the section line and raised path to the mill ruins (click to enlarge).

One of my favorite places to go and contemplate the landscape history of the Northfield area is in Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum. About a mile into the Arb along the main path closest to the Cannon River, a narrow path, raised above the level of the surrounding floodplain, leads to the river directly across from the ruins of the Waterford Mill. The ridge of earth along which the path runs is probably the old dike, or retaining wall, from the mill pond. What I find remarkable is that the dike exactly follows the section line separating sections 29 and 30 of Township 112N Range 19W, as you can see in the detail from the arb map at left. I find this line convenient because, if you follow it south from the river, it traverses three of the major ecosystems that were present in Northfield at the time of white settlement in the 1850s: floodplain forest, oak savanna, and prairie.

Looking north along the section line from the south bank of the river at the Waterford Mill ruins.

Beginning here at the river, the line crosses through floodplain forest, dominated by large, fast-growing trees like silver maple, green ash, and cottonwood that take root quickly in the rich silt of the floodplain. At the time of settlement, a major ford crossed the river here, and traces can still be seen of a much later bridge across the river on the site. The Waterford Mill, or Grange Mill, was built in 1873 as competition for Northfield’s Ames Mill; it was abandoned in 1909. The mill ruins are in the center of the photograph above (I was being devoured by mosquitoes when I took this picture).

Looking north along the section line at the oak savanna.

Moving south along the section line, the land slopes upward away from the floodplain and becomes oak savanna. Until a few years ago, a pine plantation stood here, between floodplain and savanna, and a small section of the plantation remains standing a little further northeast along the main path. The pines were planted in the 1920s and 1930s when Professor Harvey Stork used the arboretum to teach forestry classes. (Carleton College's connection to the Minnesota white pine industry is witnessed by Laird Hall, named for timber baron and college benefactor William Laird.)

Looking south along the section line at the prairie restorations.

Near the edge of the oak savanna, alongside the path, a Dakota County survey marker marks the section line (above). To the south of this marker, the oak savanna gives way to prairie. The prairie here is a recent restoration, using native prairie seeds obtained from McKnight Prairie. Follow the section line further and it joins Hall Avenue, east of Northfield.

The best general audience book on the creation of the American grid system is Andro Linklater's Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History (New York: Plume Books, 2003).

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rerun: A Long Post About Hedges

Editor's Note: It's too hot to write a long post, so I'm dipping into the archives. This post originally appeared in my Sabbatical blog last November. In a recent post on the oak savanna, I mentioned buckthorn. Here's the rest of the story...

A new hedgerow in Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

In November 1795, George Washington wrote to his farm manager, William Pearce: “There is nothing which has relation to my farms, not even the Crops of grain, that I am so solicitous about as getting my fields enclosed with live fences, I cannot too often, nor too strongly inculcate this doctrine upon you... [For] at least 15 years have I been urging my managers to substitute live fences in lieu of dead ones, which, if continued upon the extensive scale my farms require, must exhaust all my timber...” Washington’s weekly correspondence with Pearce was filled with instructions on the cultivation of hedges. He told Pearce to gather the berries of white thorn and cedar, to germinate and transplant honey locust, and to set out rows of poplar and willow. He even loaned his manager a practical treatise on Hedges.

A mature hedgerow (with gaps). Camp Farm, Kenilworth

Hedgerows are one of the defining features of the English rural landscape. To the American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, who visited Warwickshire in 1850, they represented “the chief difference between an English rural landscape” and the landscape of the rural United States. When he came upon a spot where a section of hedge had been destroyed, and a temporary rail fence erected, he found that “the whole thing was lowered at once to the harshness and rickety aspect of a farm at home.” For George Washington, and other enlightened American farmers in the late eighteenth century who wanted to enclose their fields with beautiful hedges, the challenge was to find a hedge plant that would flourish in the American environment. The most common English hedge plant, the hawthorn, didn’t fare well in America. Washington experimented with honey locust. Another possibility was “Newcastle thorn” (Crataegus crus-galli), which was native to the East Coast.

Michele Felice Corné, "The Ezekiel Hersey Derby Farm" (1800). The farm before Derby's fateful discovery of a new hedge plant.

In about 1808, a gentleman farmer in Salem, Massachussets, Ezekiel Hersey Derby, happened to notice an unusual and flourishing thorn tree in the garden of Salem’s distinguished physician, Dr. Edward Holyoke. The tree produced plentiful berries, which appeared to germinate quickly and easily—unlike other more temperamental species of thorn commonly used in hedges. Derby asked Dr. Holyoke about the tree and learned that it was Rhamnus catharticus, or buckthorn, a species long cultivated for the purgative qualities of its berries and bark. Syrup of buckthorn, advised Eliza Smith in The Compleat Housewife (Williamsburg 1742), provided “a good purge.” But no one, until Ezekiel Derby saw it growing in Dr. Holyoke’s garden, had thought to try buckthorn in hedges.

Buckthorn, Derby found, created a virtually indestructible hedge. He was so pleased with the results of his experiment that he began to publicize it in the agricultural journals. In 1832, John Lowell, the secretary of the Massachussets Agricultural Society, wrote: “We are indebted wholly, and entirely, to the experiments of Ezekiel Hersey Derby, Esq., for the possession of a plant, the buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), which, from ten years’ trial seems to afford every desirable quality for a healthy, beautiful, and effectual hedge." By the 1840s, farmers in the prairie states, where timber for rail fences was scarce, learned about buckthorn from the agricultural journals and began to send back east for seeds. The editor of The United Agriculturalist in Chicago obligingly acquired a large supply from Connecticut that he made available to his subscribers.

Buckthorn in a Minnesota woods.

To anyone in Minnesota who has walked through the woods in the late fall, this is a familiar sight. The qualities which Derby so admired in buckthorn, its easy propagation and indestructibility, have made it a plague on the native landscapes of Minnesota. The exotic buckthorn easily escaped from cultivation in hedges and invaded the woods and oak savanna, from which it is now nearly impossible to eradicate.

Made in Northfield

One of the best albums of the 1990s was recorded right here in Northfield. In November and December 1994, two-thirds of the defunct alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, frontman Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn, joined Minnesotans Jim and Dave Boquist in Steve McKinstry's Salmagundi Studio, in downtown Northfield, to record Son Volt's classic debut album, Trace.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Decade of Buffy

On March 3, 2007, I was standing in Tewkesbury Abbey, admiring the Norman and Decorated Gothic interior of my favorite English parish church. I was totally oblivious to the fact that, exactly ten years earlier, on March 3, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the fledgling (and now defunct) WB network, ushering in the greatest seven seasons in the the history of television. A few nights ago, Clara and Will and I began watching the entire brilliant series on DVD. Seven seasons of Slayery goodness! Watching Buffy reminds me that our next trip to England will have to include an excursion to Cornwall to visit St. Anthony Head.

Here, for your special delectation, is Joss Whedon's Equality Now speech (note: according to IMDb, Joss has left the Wonder Woman project alluded to in this video):

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Publication Alert: "Jane Austen's Toes"

One of the few poems I wrote while I was in England, "Jane Austen's Toes," appears in the Fall 2007 issue of the Apple Valley Review (no connection to Apple Valley, Minnesota). Click the link to read the poem online.

Update (Tuesday, September 4): The poem receives a sympathetic notice here on AustenBlog.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Oak Savanna

The region was, in one sense, wild,though it offered a picture that was not without some of the strongest and most pleasing features of civilization... Although wooded, it was not, as the American forest is wont to grow, with tall straight trees towering toward the light, but with intervals between the low oaks that were scattered profusely over the view, and with much of that air of negligence that one is apt to see in grounds where art is made to assume the character of nature... In places they [the oaks] stand with a regularity resembling that of an orchard; then, again, they are more scattered and less formal, while wide breadths of the land are occasionally seen in which they stand in copses, with vacant spaces, that bear no small affinity to artificial lawns, being covered with verdure. The grasses are supposed to be owing to the fires lighted periodically by the Indians in order to clear their hunting grounds.
James Fenimore Cooper, The Oak Openings (1848)

When the first white settlers arrived in what would become Northfield in the early 1850s, they found the hills and bluffs above the river covered with oak savanna: irregularly- spaced groupings of oak trees with prairie grasses growing between and beneath them. The trees were bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa): slow-growing, deep-rooted, wide-spreading, and fire-resistant. Their fire resistance was important, because it was periodic fires that kept the savannas clear of woody undergrowth and enabled the prairie grasses to flow in among the trees. John Muir, who grew up among the oak savanna land of Wisconsin, saw what happened when white farmers arrived and put an end to the prairie fires: without fire to purge the savannas, the understory filled up with invasive weeds and shrubs, especially buckthorn, blackberries, and honeysuckle. The "oak openings," as they were often called, were shut down.

Under the right conditions, a bur oak is a wide-spreading tree, like this bur oak in front of Olin Hall, on the Carleton campus. (Because these oaks are so slow-growing and long-lived, it's probable that this same tree was growing on this spot when the first white settlers arrived.) The deep roots help the oak resist drought, the thick bark helps it resist fire, and the aerodynamic shape helps it resist the limb-tearing winds on the prairie. Unfortunately, as the understory filled up with weeds, the oaks of the savanna became crowded and had to compete for sunlight. This affected the shape of the trees.

In the mid-1980s, members of the biology department at Carleton studied the land survey records from the 1850s and identified the areas of the Arboretum that were originally oak savanna. Then they began to clear the brush from the understory with a view to restoring the savanna to its original condition. Here you can see one of the more recent restoration projects, with piles of cleared brush nearby at the left of the photograph. As you can see, crowding and competition for sunlight has made the bur oaks tall and spindly and lopsided—very different from the spreading, nearly symmetrical bur oaks on campus.

A sign posted near one of the oak savanna restorations in the Lower Arboretum. In the background is the scourge of the savanna: buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), the invasive species that filled the understory and is now nearly impossible to eradicate.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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