Sunday, March 30, 2008


In 1995, I was at home with a three year old and a one year old. Our lives were still full of sleepless nights, bottles, diapers, and Raffi videos. Potty training came slowly, and so did sleeping through the night, and it seemed that we would spend the rest of our lives yawning and changing diapers. We were still living in our small bungalow down the street from our current house; Clint, who lives there now, tells us that he still occasionally finds a piece of Lego in the house. I was learning to make bread in 1995, but I still didn't have much time for writing. I didn't start to get published for another two years.

In April, 168 people—including 19 children in day care—died in the Oklahoma City bombings. There was an ongoing war in Bosnia. The Atlanta Braves beat Cleveland in the World Series. But the impact of these horrific events was muted and blurred by sleep deprivation and a sense of the challenging but reassuring rhythm of ordinary life. There was comfort in dailiness, in the steady accumulation of ordinary life that Carol Shields wrote about so beautifully in The Stone Diaries, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. It was also the year that Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Prize for her extraordinary first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Behind the scenes of history, ordinary life went on with all of its quirks and challenges and rewards.

Toy Story
was the top-grossing film of the year, but 1995 was also the year in which Jane Austen became a hot property at the box office with the release of Clueless and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. On the small screen, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice aired on BBC One and, in America, the WB network was launched, although it would be another two years before the network aired anything worth watching (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But 1995 was an especially remarkable year for music. As I surveyed the CD cabinet for my favorite albums of the 1990s, four of them came out in 1995:

1. Son Volt, Trace. This is my favorite album of the 1990s. Every time I listen to it, it sounds fresh, with the perfect alt-country balance of hard-rocking guitars and the down-home sounds of fiddle, banjo, lap steel and dobro. Jay Farrar's great voice lies in the perfect range for me to sing along, and I love the fact that the album was recorded right here in Northfield. Favorite song: "Tear-Stained Eye."

2. Dar Williams, The Honesty Room. Dar's debut may be my second favorite album of the 1990s. I love her songwriting and I love her voice and I love the fact that my sixteen-year old songwriting son includes her among his influences. Just the other day, I heard him playing "The Babysitter's Here" on the guitar. My favorite song is the first song on the album, "When I Was A Boy." She regrets the loss of her childhood freedom to run around shirtless and act like a boy, climbing trees and rolling around in the dirt. She envies men, who never had to give up that freedom. In the final verse, a man on a date tells her: "When I was a girl, my mom and I, we always talked/I picked flowers everywhere that I walked./And I could cry all the time, now even when I'm alone I seldom do/And I have lost some kindness,/But I was a girl too. And you were just like me, and I was just like you." How could she describe so perfectly how I felt? Those, in my opinion, are the best song lyrics of the 1990s.

3. Alison Krauss, Now That I've Found You: A Collection. Although it's not my favorite of her albums (that honor goes to 1992's Every Time You Say Goodbye), it is the album that introduced me to Alison Krauss and her extraordinarily lovely voice. Her first album came out when she was sixteen (1987), and she brought out this first "greatest hits" album when she was just twenty-four. Every song is a gem.

4. Jonatha Brooke & The Story, Plumb. What's not to like about Jonatha Brooke? She's a red-head, she was an English major at Amherst, she has a great voice, and she's a great and articulate songwriter. I can't understand why she's not better known. She's had some bad breaks in her career. She was dumped by her previous label (Elektra) before sitting down to make Plumb, but she seemed to find therapy in putting together what I think is her best album. Favorite song: "Full-Fledged Strangers."

Jonatha Brooke

Another album from 1995 that doesn't quite make my favorites list is Poi Dog Pondering's Pomegranate. An uneven album full of energy and eccentricity. Other than Alison Krauss and Union Station, Poi Dog is the only band on this list (or at all) I've heard live since college. They were the featured act at Carleton's Spring Concert in about 1996. But that long concert drought will end on April 19, when Clara and I will be taking the boys over to Gustavus Adolphus College to hear Ben Folds. When did Ben Folds Five release their debut album (including great songs like "Underground," "Philosophy," and "Alice Childress")? 1995.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Minnesota History Center

Clara and I spent the early afternoon today in St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center museum. Foolishly, I forgot to bring my camera to capture the perfect picture postcard images of the State Capitol and the Cathedral, both of which are seen to great advantage from the history center grounds. There is still a small exhibit in the museum marking the centennial (2005) of the capitol building, but what engaged our attention for most of our time in the museum was the wonderful Open House exhibit. The exhibit (which was curated by the husband of a college friend of mine) reconstructs in marvelous detail the history of a single house in St. Paul from its building in 1888 to the present day, telling the stories of the many families and individuals who lived in the house over the years. The house was built by a German immigrant who became a successful pharmacist in St. Paul, and over the years it was subdivided to create apartments for working-class families. That one house was a remarkable melting pot; over the years it housed Italian immigrant families, African-Americans, Native Americans, and, recently, Hmong immigrants. It was fascinating.

Emma Goldman

We also spent some time in an exhibit on loan from the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. (according to Clara, a must-see museum on a trip to the nation's capital). The exhibit was on the history of terrorism in America. Included among the terrorists was Emma Goldman. Goldman's autobiography, Living My Life, is one of the two best autobiographies I've ever read (the other is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth).* I once had the ambition of writing a play about Emma Goldman's prison term in the state penitentiary in Missouri. Her prison term overlapped that of Socialist leader Kate Richards O'Hare. Here's the pitch:

The Missouri State Penitentiary, 1918. Emma Goldman and Socialist leader Kate Richards O’Hare are both serving time for violating the Espionage Act. Goldman was pulled out of the offices of her anarchist newspaper, Mother Earth, in New York, and charged with inciting resistance to the draft. O’Hare was leading an antiwar rally in South Dakota. She told the women in the audience that they were no more than brood sows, raising their sons for slaughter.

Kate Richards O’Hare is a serious, matronly woman, with an air, some people think, of self-importance. She believes in political action, and in the power of her own influence. On one occasion, she appeals to the warden for better sanitary conditions in the ward. Syphilis is rampant among the imprisoned prostitutes, and all the women are compelled to bathe in the same tub of water. She also reads poetry with a young Italian immigrant, a teenage anarchist named Ella Antolini, and encourages her to write her memoirs. But for the most part she stands aloof and studies her fellow inmates; after she is released, she will write an important book about prison reform. When the opportunity arises, she takes charge. She complains about the lack of light and air in the ward, and when the guards drag her from her cell, she smashes the painted-over workroom window with her book of poetry.

Goldman finds O’Hare somewhat cold, her political ideology dangerously misguided. O’Hare abhors violence, believes in political structure and incremental change, and can’t understand the anarchists’ apparent belief that something beautiful can blossom out of violence. Socialists and anarchists have little in common. Socialists would simply set up a different state, a new bureaucracy to replace the old. Anarchists would sweep everything away. But in prison, the two women become friends. Ideology doesn’t matter in the face of their common suffering.

The women in the cell block share whatever food was sent to them in private packages from the outside. At night, they tie bits of bread to the end of long pieces of string and lower them down, through the gaps in the barred walkways outside their cells, to the cells below. Bread passes from cell to cell.

The play opens with bread being lowered through the darkness to the stage.

That's as far as I got with my great historical drama, which was to be called Dangerous Women. I did spend a lot of time researching the character of Ella Antolini, who was arrested for transporting dynamite for her anarchist boyfriend. You want to help me write this thing, Brendon?

*Goldman's friend and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman wrote a memoir, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912), which has long been languishing near the bottom of my "to be read" list. Berkman was sent to prison for attempting to assassinate Andrew Carnegie's business associate Henry Clay Frick.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Perhaps it's because I'm closing in on my mid-forties and feeling nostalgic for my lost youth, but lately I've been having the urge to start rereading favorite books from the first forty-three years of my life. Last year in England, I reread half of Jane Austen's novels (Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) before watching the disappointing new adaptations on ITV. For many years, the only novel I had read more than once was Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I've read three times. Rereading Jane Austen was a marvelous experience: the novels, which I read for the first time in my late twenties or early thirties, were completely fresh and new a decade later. But rereading Tolkien, before the first film came out, was a disappointing experience. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was the greatest reading experience of my teen years, had lost much of its magic when I reread it in my late thirties.

Besides the remaining three Jane Austen novels, what books are on my rereading list? Here are a dozen that come to me as I swivel around and look at my bookcases:

1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
2. George Eliot, Middlemarch
3. E.M. Forster, Howard's End
4. Andrey Biely, St. Petersburg
5. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
6. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
7. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
8. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
9. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
10. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
11. Flann O'Brien, At Swim Two Birds
12. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors

What novels are on your rereading list?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Readers Wanted

Clara's sabbatical project while we were in England last year was to write a draft of a book about Athens in the year 415 BCE. She wanted to write a book that would be accessible and interesting to a general audience, not a specialized book for other classicists. The project has lain dormant since we returned to America last August and Clara returned to teaching and chairing the classics department. Now she's looking for volunteers who are willing to read and comment on at least the introduction and first chapter of the book. She's looking for non-classicists, readers who can comment on the book's accessibility to its intended audience.

415 was an eventful year in Athens. The period covered by Clara's book (which doesn't correspond exactly to a modern calendrical year) includes the first production of Euripides' tragedy The Trojan Women and Aristophanes' comedy The Birds. At the heart of the story is a famous unsolved mystery known as the "mutilation of the herms," and the launching of an ill-fated imperialist adventure in Sicily. It's a fascinating study of a democratic society in crisis. If you aren't a classicist, but have an interest in the subject, please consider volunteering to be a reader.

Potential readers can send contact information to If you want a hard copy, send a mailing address; if you want a MSWord or PDF file emailed to you, send an email address.

Which Candidate is the Woman?

In our discussions about the current Democratic showdown between Clinton and Obama, Clara has often remarked that Hilary Clinton can't afford to appear to be "soft," because soft rhetoric or soft positions on issues will be dismissed as somehow tainted by her femininity. She has to be hawkish on foreign policy. She has to have metaphorical balls.

Back when I was starting out as a "stay-at-home father," about fifteen years ago, I read a book called Composing a Life that had a great impact on my thinking. The book is by Mary Catherine Bateson (the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson), and it explores how women successfully deal with the complexity of lives that don't often follow the straightforward career track of men. She talks about improvisatory power of women in creating lives for themselves that often take them to unexpected places, and involve them in many changes and ambiguities. Here is a passage that has stayed with me for all these years:

Women's lives are valuable models because of the very pressures that make them seem more difficult. Women have not been permitted to focus on single goals but have tended to live with ambiguity and multiplicity. It's not easy. But the rejection of ambiguity may be a rejection of the complexity of the real world in favor of some dangerously simple competitive model. When a nation goes to war, it no longer has to seek a balance between guns and butter but must give a clear priority to guns; this is why war often comes as such a simplifying relief. Any analytical tool that seems to provide a comparable simplification of the multitude of choices in the real world is embraced—the bottom line, the GNP. Any technique for smoothing diverse values into a single scale, such as the conversion of human lives or clean air into dollars, models this simplification. Women, torn between their own creative energies and concern for each member of their families, are reminded daily that role stereotypes and balance sheets are equally inadequate tools for seeking long-term well-being. These lessons in the arithmetic of caring are available for men as well (184-5).

Those improvisatory skills, and the ability to deal successfully with complexity and ambiguity, would be great skills for a President to have. Unfortunately, voters like things kept simple. Barack Obama's speech on race acknowledged the complexity of the issue, but many commentators insisted on evading what Senator Obama actually said and taking refuge in simplifications. On the issue of gender, too, most people seem to prefer things simple and stereotyped.

The feminist movement has often been primarily about moving women into positions of power and influence in the competitive world of men—to create female CEOs and commanders-in-chief. But as a "stay-at-home father" and homemaker, I've been more interested in the ways in which traditionally "female" values such as caring and cooperation can become available for men. I don't want to accept that the world always has to be structured according to male values of competition and domination. Another book that greatly influenced my thinking back in the early and mid-1990s was Rosemary Radford Ruether's Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. She writes:

The "liberation of women" cannot be seen simply as the incorporation of women into alienated male styles of life, although with far fewer benefits, for this simply adds women to the patterns of alienated life created by and for men.... Rather, what is necessary is a double transformation of both women and men in their relation to each other and to "nature." Women certainly need to gain some of the individuality that has been traditionally purchased by men at their expense. But this individuation should not be based on exploitative domination..., but needs to remain in sustaining relation to primary communities of life. The ways of being a person for others and being a person for oneself need to come together as reciprocal, rather than being split between female and male styles of life (265).

Instead of joining men in attempting to dominate the earth and each other, women and men need to learn to tread more softly on the earth together. Men and women need to learn to express themselves without oppressing others. Unfortunately, women like Senator Clinton still seem trapped by stereotypes. To avoid one stereotype, she has to fall into another. She can't openly embrace her own complexity as a woman, or risk addressing the complex issue of gender as Obama has addressed the complex issue of race.

It is a step forward that a male candidate like Obama can, with apparent genuineness, embrace the values of complexity, caring, community, and cooperation. Ironically, he seems to offer a vision of an America that is more profoundly shaped by these traditionally "feminine" values. But we don't complain that Obama is being a woman. Unfortunately, Clinton has to be hyper-competitive, hawkish, and often simplistic: in other words, she has to be more of a man than Obama is.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Little Preaching to the Choir

In an apparent effort to distract attention from the fact that she went all James Frey over her 1996 trip to Bosnia, Hilary Clinton has belatedly decided to criticize Barack Obama for comments made by his long-time pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Senator Clinton says that if Rev. Wright had been her pastor, she would have broken her ties with him and with Trinity United Church of Christ. She would have found another church to attend.

I suspect that there are many of us who, since 2000, have wanted to become citizens of another country because we haven't approved of the words or actions of our current President. But I also suspect that most of us realize that George W. Bush does not represent the opinions of every citizen of this country. I suspect that many of us, as I do, love our neighbors, our local communities, and America itself. We protest that President Bush does not speak for us, but we don't pack up and move to Canada.

I suspect that Senator Obama is in the same position in his church. The community is important to him. It has been a source of inspiration and support. To criticize him for remaining a part of that faith community when he disagrees with statements made in a sermon is also to misunderstand the nature of the United Church of Christ. Here is how the U.C.C. describes itself:

The UCC has roots in the "covenantal" tradition—meaning there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. Christ alone is Head of the church. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith.

What this means in practice is that a U.C.C. congregation is a diverse set of people who think for themselves, who are certainly not required to agree with everything spoken from the pulpit, but who nonetheless listen hard for the authentic voice of the Gospel and who commit themselves to acting upon a vision of peace and social justice inspired by Christ's fundamental message of love. Rev. Wright's controversial sermons spoke words of hate, and Senator Obama has rightly repudiated that message of hatred.

The last time I gave a sermon at the First U.C.C. in Northfield, a highly respected member of the congregation came up to me and said, bluntly, "You were wrong." You have to expect that in the United Church of Christ. It's full of people who are listening carefully, weighing the words from the pulpit in their own hearts and minds. Senator Obama did the right thing. He took the opportunity to answer his pastor's words of hate with more powerful words of understanding and reconciliation. He didn't, as Senator Clinton would have him do, abandon his community because it was flawed. Instead, he spoke about his dreams—our dreams—of making things better.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Size Matters: Federalist 11 and Extinct North American Megafauna

One of the advantages of a stronger Union under the Constitution, according to Alexander Hamilton, was that it would allow America to take Europe down a peg. Europe, he wrote impatiently, had grown accustomed "to plume herself as Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit." He continued:

Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her [Europe's] inhabitants a physical superiority; and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed a while in our atmosphere. Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother moderation.... Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!

Earlier in 1787, Thomas Jefferson had finally published his Notes on the State of Virginia, which he had written in 1781-2. In one long section of the work (Query VI), he addresses the contention of the French naturalist Buffon that American mammals were smaller than their European counterparts. Jefferson writes: "The opinion advanced by the Count de Buffon, is 1. That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter. 2. That those peculiar to the new, are on a smaller scale. 3. That those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America..." This is what Hamilton was talking about, and this European presumption irritated Jefferson as much as it did Hamilton. America's national honor was at stake. To the French, who insisted that even the human race degenerated on American soil, Jefferson responded patriotically: "In war we have produced a Washington, whose memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries, whose name will triumph over time, and will in future ages assume its just station among the most celebrated worthies of the world, when that wretched philosophy shall be forgotten which would have arranged him among the degeneracies of nature."

Fossilized bones identified by Thomas Jefferson as belonging to a giant land sloth, which he named megalonyx (Greek for "giant claw").

Jefferson was convinced that North America had produced large mammals, or megafauna, that rivaled anything in Europe. In the early 1780s, when he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, he had seen the bones of great mammoths. In the mid-1790s, Jefferson was sent a set of bones which he identified as the bones of a giant ground sloth, later given the name Megalonyx jeffersonii in his honor. Clearly, the fossil record indicated that enormous mammals once roamed the North American continent. Except that Jefferson didn't exactly believe in the fossil record. He thought the mammals must still be out there, perhaps only pushed further west as settlement advanced. He didn't believe in extinctions: "Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken." When he sent out Lewis and Clark to explore the newly acquired territories of the Louisiana Purchase, he told them to keep their eyes open for his giant sloth.

But North American megafauna, like Jefferson's giant ground sloth, had gone extinct. One theory is that climate change caused the extinctions, but another theory has been gaining traction that attributes the extinctions, beginning about 13,000 years ago, to hunting by the spear-throwing Clovis people. According to the theory, the North American megafauna had evolved in the absence of human predators, and were unprepared for the Clovis people and their spears. The megafauna that can still be found in North America, like bison, are most likely the descendants Eurasian immigrants who entered the continent over some ice age land bridge. Because they had evolved in the presence of human predators, these newcomers were better equipped to survive.

Hamilton believed that the United States would prosper in proportion to its size. The small individual states were more vulnerable to predation by outside powers than a larger Union of all the states would be. But natural history told a different story. The megafauna were hunted to extinction, while the smaller mammals survived.

For more on the extinction of the North American megafauna, see Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (New York, St. Martin's Press, 2007), chapter 5 ("The Lost Menagerie") and Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York, W.W. Norton, 1997), 44-50; or, in more depth, Paul S. Martin, Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Snow

Ames Mill and the Cannon River

Our house in its temporary winter camouflage

There are more photographs of today's snow in Northfield at LocallyGrown and Penelopedia.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Opening the Cannon River Country

I first came on to the beautiful plateau where now Northfield is, in the summer of 1854, and as I stood and looked to the west over the “Big Woods” and to the east over the broad prairie, and saw the clear, rapid river flowing between, it was a splendid view, and though I have seen many beautiful places, both in my own and foreign lands, I have never seen anything that thrilled me as that did, and I said to myself, “Surely where this beautiful river leaves the timber and takes to the prairie, some day there will be a busy town built up”—cities were not so common then as now—“and the surrounding country will be covered with happy homes, and I will seek no further.” And so in the month of August, 1854, myself and wife made our claim and built our log cabin…
—J.D. Hoskins, Old Settlers Reunion, Northfield, Minnesota, February 1898

A year after Robert and William Watson arrived in Minnesota, on July 30 1851, representatives of the federal government opened treaty negotiations with tribes of the Dakota nation. The purpose of the treaty was to claim title for the federal government to thirty million acres of land in southeastern Minnesota. The meetings took place on a prominent hill known as Pilot Knob, across the Mississipppi River from Fort Snelling. One of the white representatives, Alexis Bailly, had an arbor built to shelter the negotiators. Hundreds of Dakota, members of the Wahpekute and Mdewakanton tribes, camped nearby, perhaps among the oak openings on the slope where they often held ceremonies.

The Dakota called Pilot Knob O-He-Ya-Wa-He, “the place much visited.” It was a gathering place where for centuries the Dakota had come together for medicine dances and to bury their dead. Burial scaffolds, such as Robert Watson observed on his journey up the Mississippi in 1850, were frequently erected on the top of the hill. For this reason, the French who explored the area in the eighteenth century called the hill Les Buttes des Morts, the Knoll of the Dead.

The Treaty of Mendota was signed on August 5, 1851, after one week of negotiations. The Wahpekute and Mdewakanton gave up their land south and west of the Mississippi River and were forced to relocate to a reservation on the high prairie west of the Minnesota River, near St. Peter.

Wabasha, chief of the Mdewakanton, complained hat his people had lived for generations in the woodlands of southeastern Minnesota, and were not accustomed to life as farmers on the western prairies: “You have named a place for our home, but it is a prairie country. I am a man accustomed to woods. I do not like the prairies.” Out on the open prairie, the Dakota soon began to starve. In 1862, some of the Dakota on the reservation rose up against the white settlers in what is known as the Dakota Conflict. One of the Dakota soldiers in the conflict was Red Legs, a Wahpekute chief who had been present at the negotiations over the Treaty of Mendota. After the the conflict was crushed, the surviving members of the Wahpekute tribe were dispersed further west. Chief Wabasha and Chief Red Legs were driven into exile on the Santee Reservation in Nebraska.

The removal of the Dakota claim to the land opened up the land along the Cannon River to white settlement. Rice County was established and the first county boundaries were first defined in 1853. The boundaries were redrawn again in 1854 and 1855, until they were finally found satisfactory. By the fall of 1854, township lines had been located and the townships subdivided into sections for ease of settlement. Faribault was platted first, then Northfield. In the spring of 1855, a government land office was established at Red Wing. “And then,” recalled one early settler, “came the rush of home seekers.”

Most of these settlers came to Minnesota because of the availability of land and the remarkable fertility of the soil, which was ideally suited for growing wheat. In the 1850’s, the price of wheat rose rapidly—from 93¢ a bushel in 1850 to $2.50 a bushel in 1855—providing an incentive for farmers to settle the prairie lands of the west. It was wheat which drew John Muir’s father, newly arrived from Scotland, to central Wisconsin. Muir later recalled: “On our wavering westward way a grain dealer in Buffalo told father that most of the wheat he handled came from Wisconsin; and this influential information finally settled my father’s choice.”

When he was looking for a place to settle near Cottage Grove in 1850, Robert Watson sought “the ideal place, with prairie, timber, living water, shelter and accessibility.” The settlers who entered the Cannon River country a few years later found almost exactly this situation: upland prairie east to the river, dense woods west of the river, oak savannas for shelter on the slopes, and the river itself to provide “living water.” The pioneer farmers who settled along the Cannon River had access to prairie in which to raise their crops and woods from which to harvest timber for fuel and building materials. Their cattle grazed among the oak openings, their plows broke the prairie for wheat. In 1850, 1,600 acres of land in Minnesota were under cultivation; in 1854, 15,000; in 1860, 433,276. By 1860, Minnesota led the nation in the production of wheat, producing an average of 23.05 bushels per acre.

Pioneer David Humphrey, writing to a friend back east in 1855, gives this remarkable account of the settlement of the prairie around Prairie Creek, east of Northfield: “Prairie Creek, about six miles from here, is the 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. All the settlers are New Englanders. The country about there is splendid, the soil almost fabulously rich, and the whole beauties must be seen to be appreciated.”

One of the earliest settlers along the Cannon River, in what is now Northfield, was Thomas H. Olin, who arrived on May 31, 1855. There were a few families already settled in the area, notably Jonathan and Ann Alexander, who had settled on one of the low bluffs overlooking the river, near an oak opening. The Olin family had originally come to America from Wales in 1678, settling in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Like many others, the Olins eventually followed the westward expansion of the new nation. In the 1840s, Thomas Olin and his wife Sarah were farming near Waukesha, Wisconsin, where their son Alvah was born on August 1, 1843. When southeastern Minnesota was opened for settlement in the early 1850s, the family again moved west.

The journey from Wisconsin took four weeks by ox team. The Olins crossed the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien and traveled up through Rochester and Cannon Falls, only to find that their claim along Prairie Creek had been jumped. The Olins moved on and took a claim along the east side of the Cannon River, in the oak savanna north of where the Alexanders had staked their claim the year before. The men constructed a log platform and pitched a tent over it until they could cut enough wood, in the forest across the river, to build a house.

A few months earlier, John Wesley North had arrived along the Cannon River. Settler J.D. Hoskins recalled: “Mr. North came in January, 1855, and immediately commenced cutting timber for his dam and mills, which he built the following summer.” The Cannon River, “improved” by the construction of a dam, would provide waterpower and enable the local wheat to be milled into flour, which could then be transported by railroad to the markets of the world. North himself later recalled: “I did not at first contemplate starting a town, much less a city; I only thought of a mill.” But once he’d made plans for establishing a mill, he began to buy up land from the earlier settlers. He hired a surveyor to divide the land into town lots to create the city of Northfield.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Federalist 10

The dollar is in freefall against the euro and other major international currencies. Foreclosures are becoming increasingly commonplace. The United States is trillions of dollars in debt to the Chinese. Major investment banking firms are collapsing. Credit is drying up. We seem to be facing a major financial crisis; the worst, some are saying, since World War II.

In 1787, the Revolutionary War had left state governments heavily in debt. The popular solution was to print more paper money, but because there was little hard currency to back the paper, the paper became essentially worthless. Ordinary citizens were also heavily in debt, unable to pay their creditors or pay the taxes that the states levied to finance their own debts. Some farmers had gone beyond defaulting on their obligations, and were resorting to armed rebellions, such as Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts. There was widespread agitation for debt relief, or the outright cancellation of debts—a solution attempted in Rhode Island.

In the midst of this massive financial crisis, James Madison wanted to borrow some money to invest in land, hoping that the return on his investment would give him financial independence (he was thirty-six and still living with his parents). Madison approached Jefferson, in Paris, about securing loans from French lenders, but no one wanted to take the risk in such an unstable financial climate, where there was no protection for creditors. A frustrated Madison realized that the United States would never attract capital until this situation was successfully resolved.

In Federalist 10, Madison addresses the problem of factionalism in political life. His greatest concern is that, unless factionalism is defused, the majority faction will trample on the rights of the minority. Specifically, the majority of debtors will trample on the rights of the minority of creditors. Madison distrusts democracy, because popular rule will always be rule by the debt-ridden, who will be tempted to legislate their way out from under their obligations.

Complaints are every where heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party. but by the superior force of an interested an over-bearing majority.

Madison argues explicitly that “faction” arises from “different degrees and kinds of property.” He says: “[T]he most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination.”

In a small-scale, direct democracy, there was constant danger of popular tyranny—of the majority ganging up on the minority, of the mass of debtors ganging up on the minority of creditors. Madison’s solution was to enlarge the scale of government, and to make it representative rather than direct. This would have the effect of diluting special interests, because legislators would be answerable to larger constituencies, and would be focused on national rather than purely local concerns. In a large republic, separate factions, or interests groups, would balance each other out; no tyrannical majority would emerge that couldn’t be checked by a combination of other interests. Madison concludes:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in part of the Confederacy, but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national Councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal distribution of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular part of it...

It’s the principle of dilution or, as Madison confessed privately, of divide et impera—divide and conquer. Madison, who with Jefferson helped to create the two-party system, recognized that factions would always exist (“the causes of faction cannot be removed”); the solution he offered was to create a system for regulating those factions. Instead of one voice—the voice of the majority—outshouting the rest, he conceived of the American political system as an ongoing conversation in which many voices are heard. But in the end, it was clear that the intention was to protect property and credit, and to create a system that secured power to the wealthy minority.

Case in point: the Fed and JPMorgan act quickly to bail out Bear Stearns, while President Bush threatens to veto a bill that would protect ordinary Americans from home foreclosures. (For related commentary, see, for example, David Abromowitz, "Selective Bailouts: Help for Wall Street, Not Your Street.")

La Rivière aux Canots

The Upper Mississippi was first explored in 1680 by the French priest Father Louis Hennepin. Father Hennepin started his explorations from the Jesuit mission on Mackinac Island, near the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Setting out in birchbark canoes, Hennepin’s party of French and Ojibwe skirted the top of Lake Michigan and arrived at Green Bay, where they entered the Fox River. They followed the Fox River to Wisconsin River, which brought them a last to the river the Indians called “Meche-e-sebe,” the Great River.

Eight years later, in September 1688, the Frenchman Louis Armand, Baron Lahontan (1666-1715), set out along the same route to explore the Great River. He reached the Mississippi on October 23. On November 3, according to his account, he entered a tributary of the Mississippi, a river almost without a current whose mouth was filled with reeds. He claims to have spent sixty days travelling up the river, covering nearly five hundred miles. Along the way, he claims to have encountered several Indian tribes who have never been heard of since. He called the mysterious river la Riviere Longue, the Long River.

Most people have dismissed Lahontan’s account of exploring the Long River as fiction, but in the nineteenth century the French scientist and explorer Joseph Nicollet suggested that Lahontan’s river was, in fact, the Cannon River.

E. S. Seymour wrote: “The Cannon, or Canoe River (or La Hontan River), empties into the Mississippi about three miles above Mount Reminicha [Barn Bluff], which is situated at the head of Lake Pepin. The land about the mouth is so low, flat, and obstructed with a dense growth of under-wood and intervening marshes, as to render it difficult to determine, precisely, the point of it junction with the Mississippi. This river is said to be fed by a great number of springs, and the upper portion of its course is in a remarkable manner protected from sudden changes to temperature by high, rocky banks, and thick forests that cover them; hence this river is one of the last to freeze, and is the last resort of the wild-fowl in the fall. Its name, Cannon, is thought, by M. Nicollet, to be a corruption of the French name, Riviere aux Canots, or Canoe River, it being the place where they hid their canoes. It is supposed to be the river which Baron La Hontan explored in the seventeenth century, and is sometimes called La Hontan River.”

From Red Wing, the steamboat continued up the Mississippi to St. Paul, already a bustling town on the north side of the river. The main part of the city lay on a broad plateau, ending in bluffs that reached down to the bank of the Mississippi. There were two steamboat landings. In 1849, when E. S. Seymour arrived, he counted one hundred and forty buildings in St. Paul, most of them less than six months old. There were small shanties, boarding houses, blacksmith shops, printing shops, stores and groceries, a state house, warehouses, two churches, and a “billiard and bowling saloon.” Thirty years later, when Mark Twain made the trip to St. Paul, the city was still growing. “It is a very wonderful town indeed,” Twain said, “and is not finished yet.”

The Nominee, with Robert and William Watson on board, landed at St. Paul on April 19, 1850. As soon as they disembarked, the brothers began to explore the area around St. Paul on foot, looking for a place to farm.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sibley Marsh and Prairie

The ice has just started to open on the small pond in Sibley Marsh, and the spring peepers haven't yet begun to sing. Things were quiet in the marsh on a Sunday morning; the loudest sound was the call of a male cardinal going off like a car alarm in the top of a tree. Sibley Marsh is the best place in town to see red-winged blackbirds, but their spring migration hasn't reached us yet this year. I saw robins and juncos and cardinals this morning—all common overwintering birds. I also saw a couple of rabbits. In the late spring, the thickets of wild plum and sumac will provide excellent nesting sites for the red-winged blackbirds. But first, the males will arrive alone, and begin to call to attract their mates.

It wasn't until I passed St. Peter's Lutheran Church, across from Sibley Marsh, that I remembered that today is Palm Sunday. Although I have fond memories of waving palms and singing "All Glory, Laud and Honor" on childhood Palm Sundays, I now find it strange that here in these cold northern climes we mark the liturgical coming of spring with parades of tropical foliage. The Easter season is about death and rebirth. The Easter drama is all around us in the slow death of winter and the rebirth of spring. There are loud hosannas in the songs of birds. I feel more of God's presence in native prairie grass than I do in palm fronds from Guatemala. If I am to find God anywhere, I have to begin looking in the place where I live.

The first essay I ever published, in the May 1997 Cannon River Watershed Watcher, was about a walk to Sibley Marsh and Prairie with Will and Peter. Will would have been five-and-a-half; Peter would have been almost three. The essay is reprinted here.

On Lake Pepin

At La Crosse and Wabasha, the steamboat passed several Indian villages. “We noticed at each village as we passed,” Watson recalled, “the scaffolds made of crotches and poles about twelve feet high, on which they laid the dead who had died during the winter, there to wait until spring thawed out the ground so that they could bury them.”

Lake Pepin, ca. 1830, by Seth Eastman (1808-75).

Above Wabasha, the steamboat passed into Lake Pepin. In mid-March, bald eagles congregate on the river, soaring down from the bluffs and fishing off the melting edge of the ice. In the winter, the local Indians would fish for sturgeon on the lake, casting their spears through holes in the ice. Steamboats arriving before the ice broke up on the lake had to unload their cargo at Reed’s Landing, near the southern entrance to the lake. The cargo was then taken overland by wagon to the top of the lake. By mid-April, when the Nominee made its first trip, the ice was gone, but there was perhaps only the faintest tinge of green on the wooded bluffs. The poet William Cullen Bryant said that “Lake Pepin ought to be visited by every poet and painter in the land.” The landscape was, and still is, magnificent.

“On Lake Pepin,” Epes Sargent wrote in 1855, “you see grandeur putting on all forms of beauty, and wearing, under all aspects, a smile. Even its ravines are so hollowed and smoothed that every rugged feature has been softened down… The curves and undulations of verdure assume every fanciful and delightful form; now sweeping so as to create a regular amphitheatre between two high bluffs; now sinking into basins; now sparsely dotted with trees; now entirely bare of trees, and richly carpeted with grass; now crowned with noble forests; and now rising into a perpendicular and precipitous wall of sandstone.”

At Red Wing, the site of another Indian village, the steamboat passengers would have noticed Barn Bluff, an island of limestone 3100 feet long, 800 feet wide, and rising more than three hundred feet above the river. The French called it Mont La Grange, which means Barn Mountain, because of its barn-like shape. Just above Red Wing, about three miles beyond Barn Bluff, Robert Watson may also have noticed a smaller river emptying into the Mississippi: the Cannon River.

“Soon after leaving Lake Pepin,” E. S. Seymour wrote, “an Indian village, called Red Wing, inhabited by a tribe of Sioux, was seen on the Minnesota shore. It appeared to contain about one dozen bark lodges, and half as many conical lodges, covered with buffalo skins; also, a log or frame house, occupied by a missionary. Indian children were seen running, in frolicsome mood, over the green prairie, and Indian females were paddling their canoes along the shore. This village is near the mouth of Cannon River. The bottom land above, on both sides of the Mississippi, is covered with a dense growth of tall, straight, and pretty timber, such as is seldom seen in this country.”

Saturday, March 15, 2008

By Steamboat Up the Mississippi: Galena, Illinois

At Galena, Robert and William booked a six dollar passage on the steamboat Nominee, a 212-ton sidewheeler that advertised weekly round trips to St. Paul. In April 1850, when Robert and William Watson came aboard, the Nominee was making its first run up the river.

Captain Orrin Smith

The captain of the Nominee was a man named Orrin Smith. Robert Watson describes Captain Smith as “a genial Christian gentleman, very approachable and willing to give information, with a dash of humor… He was asked all sorts of questions by the passengers, many of them foolish; I wonder he did not get tired of answering them.” He was a religious man—he refused to run his steamboat on Sundays—but he was also a shrewd businessman and a skillful captain. In 1852, he made the round trip from Galena to St. Paul, with stops, in a record time of fifty-five hours and forty-nine minutes. Few steamboat captains were willing to go head to head with Captain Smith and the Nominee.

Galena, Illinois, in the 1850s.

E. S. Seymour, who travelled through Galena, Illinois, in 1849, wrote: “Galena has been regarded by some as a rough and ugly-looking town. In our humble opinion, however, there are few cities in the West which present to the eye of the traveler such a commanding appearance, and such interesting and romantic scenery as Galena, when approached by the way of the river.” In the 1830s, Galena had become an important center of lead mining. Galena, in Latin, means “lead ore.” In the peak year of 1845, nearly 85% of the nation’s lead came from Galena. In the late 1830s, the Harris family of Galena began running steamboats up and down the river, south to St. Louis and north to Fort Snelling. Their first steamboat, appropriately enough, was called Smelter.

For a while in the 1850s, Galena was the terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad. Because the powerful steamboat companies wanted to keep out the competition from the railroads, the terminus was eventually moved to Dubuque. Railroad hubs like Chicago prospered, while Galena, and the steamboat trade, quickly declined. But when the Watsons arrived for their trip on the Nominee in 1850, Galena was a thriving city of nearly fourteen thousand, and the busiest port on the Upper Mississippi between Rock Island and St. Paul. The river was crowded with steamboats and barges carrying loads of lead south to St. Louis and New Orleans. Immigrants thronged the wharves, waiting for the steamboats that would take them to the new Minnesota Territory.

“The steamer was crowded,” Robert Watson recalled later. “A great many kinds of people were aboard: lumbermen, hunters, sight-seers, health-seekers, settlers intending to make new homes, and so forth. They were a jolly, jubilant lot for the most part, and oh, so hungry! What a rush there always was to get a seat at the first table when the bell rang! The table was bountifully filled and the food was good and varied… Everything was new and fresh to most of the passengers: the great swollen river; the numerous wooded islands; the grand, high, even-topped bluffs now close upon us and anon receeding far back, the ancient boundaries of the great river. Lots of ducks and other water fowl swarmed on the sloughs and inlets. All was young, fresh, and fair, as just from the Creator’s hand.”

The three day journey up the river was spent enjoying the sights on the river and the food served on board. The steamboat was outfitted with two ten by twenty foot kitchens, one for meats and vegetables and one for pastries. In these two small kitchens, meals were prepared for as many as three hundred passengers. The entire operation of preparing and serving the meals was overseen by a steward, who often earned as much as the captain himself. Supplies—fresh vegetables, eggs, fresh meat—were laid in at the various stops along the way, but chickens were kept in coops on board and slaughtered as they were needed. The food, as Watson remarked, was generally good. George Merrick, a river pilot on the Upper Mississippi in the 1850s, wrote: “Most of the passengers…never in all their lives lived so well as they did on the trip from Galena to St. Paul… Certainly, after reaching their destination in the Territory of Minnesota, the chances were that it would be many long years, in that era of beginnings, before they would again be so well fed and so assiduously cared for…” For many of the passengers who were going on the settle in the Minnesota Territory, there would be many meals of nothing but pancakes in the months ahead.

Many of the passengers on board, like the Watson brothers, were young bachelors, including some veterans of the recent Mexican War who held land warrants entitling them to claim free government land in the new territories. In the new territory, these young men “kept batch” for several years, establishing their farms before settling down to family life. Waterford, north of Northfield, was first settled by two bachelors, Warren and John Atkinson. Their first log cabin in Waterford was known as “Bachelor Hotel,” because of the hospitality it offered to the other bachelor farmers who came to settle in the area.

Robert Watson recalled: “All the bachelors were expected to be ‘at home’ to all their brotherhood. When anyone called and found no one in, they made themselves at home by taking possession, entering by the door if they could; if not, they could usually effect an entrance by the chimney.”

One of the bachelors on board the Nominee was a member of the fraternal organization known as the Odd Fellows. Robert Watson overheard him ask Captain Smith, “Are there any Odd Fellows in the Minnesota Territory?”

“Oh, yes,” Captain Smith answered. “Lots of them, all waiting for the girls to come out so they can be made even.”

Jazzed-Up Friday

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Last night was the third Friday in a row that Clara and I have gone out to a concert or the theater, making up for the six weeks lost to a herniated disk. Last night, we drove up to north suburbia for a dinner to celebrate Clara's brother's birthday, then headed down to the Ordway for a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert. I haven't been in the Ordway for several years, since we started going more regularly to the Minnesota Orchestra. I'd forgotten how wonderful the Ordway is, with a bright spacious lobby and, best of all, spacious and well-designed restrooms. They put the loos at Orchestra Hall and the new Guthrie Theater to shame! The concert featured Kurt Weill's concerto for violin and winds (with Stephen Copes as soloist) and Schumann's Fourth Symphony. On "Jazzed-Up Fridays," concert goers have the option of staying out in the lobby after intermission to hear live jazz, or returning to the concert hall for a piece of chamber music. We opted to return for Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor, the last piece he wrote before heading to the front as an ambulance attendant in World War I. Had we stayed out in the lobby, we would have heard Christine Rosholt, who will be performing tonight at the Northfield Historical Society ball. The people who had been sitting to our right stayed in the lobby for jazz, opening up seats that were taken by the SPCO principal flutist, Julia Bogorad-Kogan, and her husband, brilliant Minnesota Orchestra timpanist Peter Kogan (who was two-timing the Minnesota Orchestra as a guest timpanist with the SPCO last night).

Friday, March 14, 2008

Federalist Friday

I'm postponing my discussion of Federalist 10 this week. Because of its huge importance, I need to re-read it and ponder it some more.

An Old Settler's Story: Part Two

When they arrived in America in 1849, the Muir family moved west, drawn by the prospect of rich farmland on the Wisconsin prairie. The Watsons, who arrived in 1837, journeyed as far west as Cleveland, Ohio, to an area known as the Western Reserve. In the eighteenth century, Connecticut had claimed ownership of the Western Reserve, and most of the early settlers in the Western Reserve were native New Englanders. The towns these settlers created in the Western Reserve looked very much like New England towns, with their neat white houses and tree-lined streets. There was also a large population of Scottish immigrants in northern Ohio who had been drawn there by the promise of abundant farmland.

Northeastern Ohio, in those days, was still covered in thick forests, although the settlers had quickly begun to clear the land for farming. According to one writer, “it took less than a century for the 7,000-year-old forest of northern Ohio to be converted to open land by New England settlers. In 1853, more than 40 percent of the forest was gone, and by 1940 about 93 percent.” The Ohio forest was a “beech-maple forest,” a type of forest that extends from Ohio to Indiana and southern Michigan. As the name suggests, the most common trees found in a beech-maple forest are the American beech and the sugar maple. Beech-maple forest covers the southern range of the Wisconsin glacier, which spread as far as northern Ohio during the last Ice Age, over ten thousand years ago.

The Watson brothers, Robert and William, loved to explore the woods around their Ohio home. They spent their time “botanizing,” learning the names of the plants that grew in the woods. They must have learned how to identify the trees in the northern Ohio forest—the beech, maple, American elm, Ohio buckeye and sycamore, the tuliptree and flowering dogwood. As it was to be for John Muir, nature became their teacher. Muir later wrote: “This sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons… Here without knowing it we were still at school...”

In 1839, when Robert was fourteen, his father died. The elder Watson was survived by his wife and his three sons: Robert, William and John. Several years later, Robert enrolled in the academy in Brooklyn Center, Ohio. His favorite teacher was a young man named Henry Churchill, who taught everything from Latin and Greek to drawing and land surveying. As one of his friends said, “the range of his information made him at once the ideal and the despair of the younger men who knew him.” Henry Churchill was “a born teacher,” who inspired Robert Watson with a love of learning and with a desire to use his knowledge to improve the world around him.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California—an event that John Muir heard and dreamed about in faraway Scotland. In that same year, Robert Watson, now twenty-three years old, began to think about heading west to make a new start at farming on the prairies of the new Minnesota Territory. A year later, in the spring of 1850, Robert and William set out from their home in Parma, Ohio, bound for Galena, Illinois, on the Mississippi River.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

An Old Settler's Story: Part One

Editor's Note: As we count down to May 11, 2008, and the official sesquicentennial of Minnesota's statehood, I want to return to the occasional "Blogger History of Northfield" series that I started here last fall. I'll begin today with the first installment of a multi-part piece about Robert Watson. I wrote briefly about Watson last September 11 in a post about Oaklawn Cemetery.

On September 8, 1825, Robert Watson was born in the city of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland. Dundee lies on the north bank of the Firth of Tay, the estuary where the fresh water of the River Tay mixes with the salt tides of the North Sea. In 1837, when Robert was twelve, he and his father and his ten-year old brother William decided to come to America.

We don’t know anything about Robert’s childhood in Scotland or about his voyage to America, except that the journey was long and hard. John Muir (1838-1918), who grew up to be a famous writer and naturalist, also came to America from Scotland when he was a boy. In The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), Muir writes about the fascination America held for a boy growing up in Scotland. He remembers that one of his school textbooks contained passages by famous American naturalists, including Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) and John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon wrote about the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that sometimes darkened the entire sky overhead. Wilson wrote about the power and agility of the bald eagle. To young John Muir, America was a land of wonders.

“In another of our reading lessons,” Muir remembered, “some of the American forests were described. The most interesting of the trees to us boys was the sugar maple, and soon after we had learned this sweet story we heard everybody talking about the discovery of gold in the same wonder-filled country.

“One night, when [my brother] David and I were at grandfather’s fireside solemnly learning our lessons as usual, my father came in with news, the most wonderful, most glorious, that wild boys ever heard. ‘Bairns,’ he said, ‘you needna learn your lessons the nicht, for we’re gan to America the morn!’ No more grammar, but boundless woods full of mysterious good things; trees full of sugar, growing in ground full of gold; hawks, eagles, pigeons, filling the sky; millions of birds’ nests, and no gamekeepers to stop us in all the wild, happy land. We were utterly, blindly glorious.”

Muir’s grandfather, who would be left behind in Scotland, cautioned his grandsons that there would be plenty of hard work awaiting them in the new country. It wouldn’t all be rollicking adventures in the mysterious woods. There would be chores, plowing and planting, grubbing stumps and roots from the cleared land, and the “cold, painful work” of winter corn husking. And before all of this, there was the long sea voyage from Scotland to America.

In those days, the journey by sailing ship took more than six weeks. The ships were often crowded, damp, and hot. There was often hunger and sickness on board, and the ships were often tossed by violent storms at sea. But between 1820 and 1860, nearly fifty thousand Scottish immigrants made the voyage to America. Nearly eighty percent of those settlers came in the decade between 1851 and 1860, after the rich agricultural land west of the Mississippi River was opened to white settlement.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ginger with Attitude

I haven't bought any new clothes in a while, so last night I ordered this t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan from my new favorite novelty potato chip flavor, Kettle Spicy Thai (available at Just Food Coop in Northfield): Ginger with Attitude. While I was on the internet stimulating the national economy, I saw something that might raises the spirits of the poor, sick Tassava family: a SpongeBob Squarepants Digital Thermometer. What sick child doesn't want the SpongeBob theme song playing in her butt? "Are you ready kids?"

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reading Journal: American Creation

American Creation is the latest book by Joseph J. Ellis, best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers. The subtitle of his new book is Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, and he attempts to show how the signal failures of the Founders—namely, the failure to resolve the issue of slavery or to reach an accommodation with the Native Americans—were bound up with their successes in achieving Independence and establishing a stable government under the Constitution. In six chapters, he covers the year leading up to the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge, the fight to ratify the Constitution, the failed treaty with the Creek nation, the origins of the two-party system in Jeffersonian opposition to the Federalist establishment, and the Louisiana Purchase. The focus is on Great Men—Washington, Madison, Jefferson—and the ways in which they responded to and shaped events, the ways in which their personalities and prejudices (especially in the case of Jefferson) influenced the course of American history. It's old-fashioned history as the story of Great Men, and most of the stories have been told many times before, but Ellis (a professor at Mt. Holyoke) is an engaging storyteller, and does a good job of emphasizing the overarching themes and long-term consequences of the stories he tells. He doesn't gloss over the Founders' flaws, and figures like Jefferson are all the more compelling for being revealed to have blind spots nearly a continent wide. (Ellis has dealt with Jefferson before, in his National Book Award-winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.) For me, the most interesting chapter was the one on Washington's failed attempt to craft a fair and humane Indian policy that would reflect the principles of the Revolution and be a credit to his legacy. The story was less familiar to me, as were some of its main characters: Washington's secretary of war Henry Knox and Creek tribal leader Alexander McGillivray. Washington and Knox attempted to craft a top-down federal policy that would protect Native Americans, but Jefferson understood that there was no stopping the westward advance of white settlement—what became known as "manifest destiny." Although Ellis is writing Great Men history, he doesn't lose sight of the fact that ordinary people in search of land and homes were, for good or ill, powerful forces in shaping American history.

In the past decade, the Founders have been hot, and all of the best-known Founders—Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton—have been the subjects of bestselling biographies. After the massive success of David McCullough's John Adams, other writers have begun to cash in on some of the lesser-known Founders, like John Jay (Walter Stahr, John Jay: Founding Father, 2006), Benjamin Rush (Alyn Brodsky, Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician, 2004), Gouverneur Morris (James J. Krischke, Gouverneur Morris: Author, Statesman, and Man of the World, 2005), Aaron Burr (Nancy Isenberg, Aaron Burr: Fallen Founder, 2007), and now Henry Knox (Mark Puls, Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, 2008). For those of you who want to get in the the action, there are still holes to be filled. Where, for example, is the new biography of James Wilson or Fisher Ames or Elbridge Gerry or my ancestor, Revolutionary financier Robert Morris?

Ellis writes that "the American founding lasted for twenty-eight years, from 1775 to 1803." 1775 was also the year of Jane Austen's birth, and it's interesting that both Austen and the Founders have been in vogue at precisely the same time. This Sunday, while PBS is taking a fund raising break from "The Complete Jane Austen," HBO launches its seven-part series John Adams (based on McCullough's biography), starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. Why does that historical period (Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817) appeal so much to the early twenty-first century Anglo-American imagination? Are the stories and personalities especially compelling? Is it the powdered wigs and hose and Regency gowns? Is it the formality and restraint, which we find so lacking in our own culture? Your thoughts in the comments, please!

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Clara and I joined our friends Jeff and Mary last night for a wonderful concert by the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The house was packed for the featured piece on the program, Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, with Alfred Brendel as soloist. Brendel (b. 1931) is retiring from the concert stage, so last night was probably his last appearance at Orchestral Hall. I heard him in concert about 30 years ago, when I was in high school, and went backstage after the concert to get his autograph. I still have it in an album somewhere. He's best known for his Beethoven, and his performance of the Third last night was memorable. And after several minutes of standing ovation, he sat down again to play, as an encore, a piece which I brilliantly identified to Clara as a Schubert Impromptu (no. 2 in A Flat, Op. 142, D. 935).

After the intermission, many of the people around us had left, sated with Beethoven and Brendel, or perhaps unenthusiastic about the final piece, Shostakovitch's Sixth Symphony. The deserters missed out on a great experience. The symphony begins with a long, meditative slow movement, full of wonderful opportunities for the woodwinds, and ends with two much shorter movements full of verve and playfulness. It was the kind of music—especially the first movement—that I was glad to hear in a concert setting, where I could really focus on the music. Shostakovitch and Beethoven make a good pairing—both so full of suffering and resilient energy—and this afternoon I listened to two of my favorite chamber pieces by the two composers: Shostakovitch's Piano Quintet no. 2 (written shortly after the Sixth Symphony) and Beethoven's String Quartet op. 132—the Heilege Dankgesang, to celebrate feeling well again.

A typical scene in our house these days

Meanwhile, Peter and his friends spent the entire afternoon playing Nintendo 64 and listening to very loud music, like Blur, in the back room.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Federalist Friday: Federalist 7 & 8

...the continual effort and alarm attendant upon a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free

The words, from Federalist no. 8, are eerily prescient. Alexander Hamilton was arguing that the states, in a state of disunion, would be compelled, because of their perpetually vulnerable position, to resort to establishing "standing armies," which would gradually erode liberty. Standing armies were a notorious bugbear in 18th-century republican thought because they were seen as instruments of tyranny: established to ensure security from external dangers, they inevitably became instruments of internal coercion. This happened, in large part, because standing armies required a strong executive at their head—a Caesar who could use the army to secure his own position as head of the state. Hamilton says: "It is the nature of war to increase the executive, at the expense of the legislative authority."

The lesson seems not to have been lost on Dick Cheney: if you want to increase executive power, start a war.

Hamilton was arguing that the Constitution, by creating a strong federal union, would lessen these dangers. The United States would be less vulnerable to external threats than would a collection of small independent republics, all of them liable to fight among themselves and ripe for picking by larger European powers. But only a decade after Hamilton wrote those words, the United States was in an undeclared Quasi-War with France, Hamilton himself was dreaming of empire as inspector general of the army, and the Alien and Sedition Acts had placed severe limits on political expression. To feel more more safe, we had become less free.

In Federalist no. 7, Hamilton takes a look at some of the potential causes of what he himself calls "a war between the states," which he believed would be dealt with successfully under the Constitution. The three major issues were the Western lands, commerce, and debt.

1. The Western lands. He believed that the states, left in a state of disunion, would fight over control of the Western territories—as, for example, Connecticut and Pennsylvania had come to blows in the 18th century over control of the Wyoming Valley. Under the Constitution, he argued, the land would become federal land, and the central authority would defuse the potentially explosive rival claims of the states. Unfortunately, even under the Constitution, the issue of control over the Western lands contributed to war between the states, as North and South argued over whether those lands would become slave states or free. The first battles of the Civil War were really fought in the West, in Kansas, because the Constitution had failed to resolve the issue of slavery.

2. Commerce. Hamilton foresaw strife if states like New York, which handled large amounts of international trade, raised revenue with import tariffs and passed the additional cost onto consumers in other states that relied on imported goods. Hamilton argued that federal control of interstate commerce would solve this problem, and a "commerce clause" (sometimes referred to as the "interstate commerce clause") was incorporated into the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, clause 3). This is why, if you make an internet purchase from a company in another state, you don't have to pay that state's sales tax. Unfortunately, it was precisely over the issue of tariffs, not slavery, that the fatal rift between North and South first began to open in the late 1820s, when Southern states (led by South Carolina) provoked a Constitutional crisis over the "tariff of abominations," which was seen as protecting Northern industry at the expense of the South's agricultural economy.

3. Debt Payment. This was a hot issue in 1787 because different states carried differing burdens of public debt as a result of the Revolutionary War. Some states had made progress toward retiring their war debt, others, like renegade Rhode Island, had repudiated it all together. Hamilton was afraid that these inequalities, and tensions between debtor and creditor states, would lead to conflict. One of Hamilton's great successes as the first secretary of the treasury was to have the federal government assume the states' war debts. He used the funding of that debt as the basis for creating a national bank and complete national financial system (which became synonymous with the street in New York where Hamilton lived: Wall Street).

So, as I see it, Hamilton went 1-and-2 in Federalist no. 7: his scheme for assumption of the war debt seemed to work, but commerce and the Western lands remained live issues that provoked Constitutional crises later on.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Take Fifty-Five

On Sunday, I forgot to mark the 55th anniversary of the performance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Oberlin College immortalized in the great album Jazz at Oberlin. The album was recorded live in concert at Oberlin's Finney Chapel on March 2, 1953. Although the Quartet's best-known number, Paul Desmond's "Take Five," doesn't appear on that album, I thought I'd include the following video, which features drummer Joe Morello's stunning solo.

Which Jane Austen Heroine Am I?

My niece just invited me to take the "Which Jane Austen Heroine Are You?" quiz on Facebook. My niece—a lively, gregarious, athletic, and imaginative twenty-year old who loves to read—is Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. I'm Fanny Price, the self-effacing heroine of Mansfield Park.

You are smart and shy, a quiet beauty with brains that intimidate everyone around you. You often feel out of place, homeless and alone. As an intellectual idealist, you long to be heard and understood, but rarely waste your time trying to defend yourself to those who could not possibly understand. Time and experience is making you bolder. Despite your clever genius, you long for simplicity, and the love of your soul mate, who is a socially surprising and unlikely match.

Fanny Price is generally the least popular of Jane Austen's heroines. For most of the novel, she stays off to the side of the main action, a quiet observer who uncomplainingly attends upon her indolent Aunt Bertram and receives the undeserved abuse of her appalling Aunt Norris. She is, many readers complain, a doormat. Even Jane Austen's own mother found Fanny dull. But I have always loved Fanny Price. Because she observes and appraises without interfering with the action, she acts as a kind of surrogate for the reader within the text. The other characters come and go around her almost as if she were invisible, but she becomes our eyes, through which we see the moral colorings of the things going on around us. For me, as a male reader, Fanny is the easiest character to become as I read, because I'm not distracted by falling in love with her, as I am with a more overtly appealing character like Lizzy Bennet. So, it's entirely appropriate that I am Fanny Price.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Funny Thing

Clara and I were in St. Peter, Minnesota, last night for a production of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Gustavus Adolphus College. It was my first evening out since the middle of January. Before the play, we had dinner in the impressive Gustavus student center with classicists from Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf Colleges. At dinner, there was a brief discussion of how self-indulgent blogging is. Case in point...

I taught for a year in the classics department at Gustavus, beginning in September 1991, the month when Will was born. I remember driving over to St. Peter on a Monday morning and arriving to find a message that I should turn right around and head back to the Northfield Hospital. Will is sixteen now, and Gustavus has changed a little since I was there. The big change happened On March 29, 1998—ten years ago this month—when a tornado touched down in St. Peter (good photographs of the damage here) as part of a system of 13 tornadoes that marked the worst outbreak of tornadoes in Minnesota's history.

My former colleague at Gustavus, Pat Freiert, retired a few years ago, and is now a master of the Japanese art of shibori. At the play, I ran into a former student who was in the history class I taught for homeschoolers in the fall of 2004 and is now an elementary education major at Gustavus. I also ran into the poet Joyce Sutphen and had a brief, stumbling conversation with her about our year in England. Joyce is a wonderful poet whose poetry has been featured on The Writers' Almanac and who has read her poetry live on A Prairie Home Companion. Her highly-recommended collection Naming the Stars won the 2005 Minnesota Book Award for poetry. I brought her to Northfield for a poetry reading in 2001, and we've done readings together in Minneapolis and Winona; our poems have appeared together in the anthology 33 Minnesota Poets (Nodin Press 2000) and, most recently, in the 2006 issue of Hamline's literary journal, Water-Stone Review (Joyce's poem is available as a .pdf file by following the link; mine is available here).

The production of A Funny Thing was great—full of color and energy and marvelous performances by the student actors. Gustavus has traditionally had an excellent theater program; alumni include Stephen Epp, David Esbjornson, and Peter Krause. I wouldn't be surprised if there were future stars in last night's performance.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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