Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Books Reviewed in 2008

Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans
Kate O'Brien, Without My Cloak
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics
David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper
Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall
Kate O'Brien, The Ante-Room
Justine Picardie, Daphne
Terry Burnham & Jay Phelan, Mean Genes
Henry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom
Ruth Adam, I'm Not Complaining
Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
William F. Loomis, Life As It Is
Nadine Gordimer, The Lying Days
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought
Bill McKibben, Deep Economy
Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Beatrix Lehmann, Rumour of Heaven
Kate O'Brien, Mary Lavelle
Kate O'Brien, The Land of Spices
Daphne Du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
E. Arnot Robertson, Ordinary Families
Naomi Mitchison, Travel Light
Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation
Dorothy Canfield, The Brimming Cup

Reading Journal: "Bridge of Sighs"

Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs. Vintage Books 2007. Paperback edition 2008. $14.95 ($16.95 Canada). 642 pp.

Coming in right under the wire, one of the best novels I've read in 2008: Richard Russo's big, big-hearted, and engrossing novel of art, love, and the American dream. Set on familiar ground in the snow-covered terrain of Upstate New York, in the fictional north-of-Albany town of Thomaston, Bridge of Sighs begins as Louis Charles Lynch, known as "Lucy," sets out to tell the story of his ordinary life as a son, friend, husband, and successful neighborhood grocer. It doesn't sound like terribly compelling material, but it is. Russo's novel explores and illuminates the complexities of class and race, art and life, love and hate, security and risk, in a story that's both heartbreaking and life-affirming.

Lou is sixty years old, looking back and trying to find "the pattern in the carpet," the common threads that make sense of his life. He has a sense that, to quote Heraclitus, character is destiny, that the path we take in life is determined by who we are, that our character limits the choices we are willing to make. And our character is shaped to such a large extent by our families, our parents in particular. Can we ever escape those influences and create for ourselves a life that is entirely our own? Or is happiness to be found not in escape, but in an embrace of those influences and the possibilities they offer us? Characters in the novel sense the presence of parallel lives—lives lived in dreams, in art, in fantasy, in selective memory—and often struggle to balance their love for the life they've really lived with their regret over the roads not taken.*

Bridge of Sighs is, coincidentally, the novel I started to read when I gave up on Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Russo's sensitive portrait of a businessman in a small middle American city provides such a stark contrast with Lewis's broad satire. Lucy Lynch is a kind of Babbitt: an optimistic, civic-minded businessman who is trying to make sense of his life. But instead of emphasizing the limitations and falseness of his protagonist's life, Russo finds its richness and truth. Instead of mocking the smallness of a life, Russo finds the beauty and the depth in that smallness. Russo's novel, while clear-eyed about America's troubled past and persisting divisions, is ultimately hopeful that small strides can be made toward realizing the American dream.

There were aspects of the novel that reminded me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: the theme of childhood friendship, the theme of art, the central image of a bridge. An important character who appears late in the novel also reminded me of Anne Patchett's Run. Like Atwood and Patchett, Russo is a skillful and perceptive writer, with great sympathy, humor, and humanity. The world he creates—the world of Thomaston, New York—is both comfortable and conflicted, both nurturing and poisoning. It feels real. It feels a lot like home.

*Compare my poem "To the Daughter I Never Had," especially the last three lines.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This Old House, Part II

We returned from Solbakken to find that Charlie had removed the old upstairs bathtub and toilet. We are temporarily a one-bathroom family again, as we were for our year in England. In the photograph above, you can see the hole for the toilet drain in the foreground, and then the space where the tub used to be. The bathroom was evidently once a closet, or perhaps even part of the upstairs hall that was framed in to make a bathroom. On the far wall, behind the framing for the tub, you can see the old blue-gray wallpaper and the oak baseboard that runs throughout the house. On the left-hand wall, you can see insulation. Here, the lath had rotted away because of water leaking from the shower. It's a good thing we're having this work done!

Charlie tells me that the date stamp on the tub was October 1929. The bathroom was originally constructed as the country crashed into the Great Depression. It's being deconstructed and remodeled in the midst of another economic crisis of historic proportions.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Solbakken 2008

The North Shore of Lake Superior. December 27, 2008. After the freezing drizzle.

We've just returned from our second annual post-Christmas ski vacation at Solbakken Resort, just outside of Lutsen, Minnesota, on the north shore of Lake Superior. The skiing this year wasn't wonderful. The weekend featured two days of freezing drizzle and melting temperatures, followed by a hard freeze. The result was very fast conditions on the newly-groomed cross country trails. Here is a pictorial account of our Sunday morning ski around the Massey Loop in the hills above Lake Superior.

Before setting out.

The beginning of the ascent. Lake Superior is in the background.

Clara, before the first of at least a dozen falls.

Smooth skiing on freshly groomed tracks.

The descent.
This is what the landscape looks like when you have completely lost control and are about to execute a falling stop.

This is what you see when you have crash landed at the bottom of the hill and are flat on your back wondering if anything is broken.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Favorites of 2008

2008 was the Year of the Herniation. I spent the end of January and most of February in a prone position, recovering slowly from a herniated disk in my neck. This was followed by the slow but steady development of an inguinal hernia that culminated in surgery in late July. All of this bed rest meant that I had plenty of time to read. I read 40 books in 2008. My favorites were Naomi Mitchison's Travel Light and Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices.

The great but neglected Irish novelist Kate O'Brien was my great literary discovery of 2008. In her novels she skillfully and sensitively explores the tension between the demands of a strong traditional religious faith and the ordinary lapses and compromises of a life in the world, the tension between the coldness of renunciation and the heat of passion. Her books are about the struggle to love with the heart as well as the spirit, and to live a life that's rooted as well as flowering.

My great musical discovery of 2008 was Kate Rusby. I'll let her speak for herself. In this clip, after singing "Sir Eglamore," she introduces the next song in her lovely Yorkshire accent.

As usual, Clara and I saw few films in the theater in 2008. Two, to be exact. Martin McDonough's In Bruges and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. Both were excellent. Also excellent was our DVD discovery of 2008, the brilliant Canadian series Slings and Arrows. And my favorite restaurant experience of 2008? The fabulous eight-course tasting menu and accompanying wine flight at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. Beginning at 6:00 p.m. with sautéed langoustine with sweet corn flan and shellfish broth and Haton champagne and ending at around 9:00 p.m. with curried carrot cake with cardamon yogurt sherbet and carrot reduction and spätlese riesling. That may have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now on to 2009. Let the austerity begin.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"How to Greet the Spring"

M.F.K. Fisher begins her chapter on cooking with canned fish with a Japanese haiku:
Young leaves everywhere;
The mountain cuckoo singing;
My first Bonito!
Before World War II, many of the cannery workers and fishermen on the west coast were Japanese. With the outbreak of the war, the Japanese were herded into interment camps, both in the United States and in Canada. But for Cannery Row in Monterey, California, the war brought a final boom, as the the demand for canned fish rose. By the end of the war, the bay had been overfished, and the canneries fell into decline—even as they were being memorialized in John Steinbeck's 1945 novel Cannery Row.

Fisher laments the early wartime situation. "Now," she says, "...with all the waters of the earth troubled and suspect, fish as a food has become a rarity. Even the gulls are starving, and the fishermen are fighting or in prison camps..." (Six decades later, of course, the oceans are even more exhausted: overfished, overheated, and choked with plastic.) She recommends going out with a fishing pole, if possible, and catching your own fish; or, if that's not possible, resorting to canned fish.

Her first recipe in the chapter is for Salmon Pancake. Fisher says the recipe is Spanish, but it's essentially a recipe for salmon croquettes, a traditional Southern specialty that was evidently William Faulkner's favorite food. Here's M.F.K. Fisher's recipe, slightly modified:

1 can of salmon, well-drained
1 egg
plain white bread crumbs
chopped parsley to taste
chopped onion to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Beat the ingredients together, adding enough bread crumbs to help bind the pancake. Heat a mixture of oil and butter, about a tablespoon of each, in a skillet. With the salmon mixture, form a pancake about half an inch thick and cook in oil/butter until well browned on both sides. The salmon mixture could also be divided to create smaller croquettes.

I cut my pancake in half and shared it with Clara, serving it with parsleyed new potatoes, a dill pickle spear, a lemon wedge, a little cranberry sauce on the side, and a little dill mayonnaise on top. A delicious Sunday lunch with a little sherry.

Reading Journal: "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution"

Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007. Now available in paperback at River City Books.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States found itself in the midst of a financial crisis. In order to pay its army during the war, Congress had issued bonds. Cash-strapped soldiers—most of them farmers—quickly sold the bonds to speculators in exchange for cash. In an effort to pay interest on the bonds, states levied taxes which fell most heavily on the poor farmers who had sold the bonds in the first place. Taxes had to be paid primarily in hard money, which was in increasingly short supply as their massive trade imbalance with Europe drained gold and silver from the states. The farmers, who risked losing everything to the tax collector, demanded that the states print paper money. The holders of government bonds (investors like Abigail Adams) insisted on interest payments in hard money, fearing that paper money would flood the market and depreciate. The state governments were caught between a rock and a hard place: between the pressure to provide debt relief to farmers and the pressure to provide regular interest payments to influential bondholders.

Capital was fleeing the states. Influential men like James Madison were unable to raise capital to invest in real estate. European investors routinely refused credit to Americans. Meanwhile, thousands of ordinary Americans were losing their farms to the tax collector. As the post-war recession deepened, some farmers resorted to active revolt—the most famous case being Shays's Rebellion in western Massachusetts. Elsewhere, farmers banded together to close the courts where debtors were tried. And there was a pamphlet war between the proponents of tax relief and the opponents of paper money.

Something had to be done. The state governments were under too much pressure to pass debt relief legislation, and too responsive to that pressure. What the United States needed, men like Madison reasoned, was a strong central government that was less responsive to the immediate demands of the people, and that was governed by a charter that expressly prohibited debt relief. To achieve this end, Madison and other like-minded men met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to draft a Constitution.

Woody Holton's Unruly Americans, a 2007 National Book Award Finalist, tells this story well and in great detail, showing how the tug of war between debtor and creditor, between the populism and the moneyed interest shaped the United States Constitution. The book could be seen as an historical commentary on a few key words in Article I, Section 10: "No State shall...coin Money;...make any Thing but gold and silver Coins a Tender in payment of Debts;...pass any...Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts..." No state-issued paper money, no state-legislated debt relief.

Holton also tells the story of how the Framers of the Constitution managed to win ratification for a document with such a strong anti-democratic bias, one that denied farmers the relief they had sought for so long. In short, the realization that the Constitution would have to pass muster with the people tempered the Framers' elitist tendencies. The farmers as well as the Framers had a hand in shaping the Constitution.

The book is a fascinating look at how a massive credit crisis and prolonged recession led to the making of the United States Constitution. In its successful effort to put money into the hands of the holders of government securities and restore American credit, the Constitution was the ultimate bailout.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

This Old House, Part I

A special weekend post that will stun the entire blogosphere...

Our upstairs bathroom is directly above the front entryway of our house. A couple of months ago, we noticed that, due to loosening of the tiles in the upstairs shower, water was seeping down the wall in the front stairwell and staining the ceiling above the front entryway. We called our favorite contractor, Charlie Legare, who beautifully remodeled our downstairs bathroom about five years ago. Today, Charlie came and tore out the ceiling above the front hall, and discovered numerous ugly problems.

In this first photograph, you can see the extensive water damage from water seeping through the cracks in the tile and running down the wall and into the space between the upstairs floor and downstairs ceiling. The darker areas are, in fact, still wet and spongy. The bathtub/shower is directly above them. During the demolition, Charlie found wadded newspapers and old towels that previous owners had crammed into the space under the shower to soak up the dripping water. A real mess.

Here you can see more of the space above the front entry and under the upstairs bathroom floor. The large black pipe runs from the toilet to the soil stack. Originally, the upstairs bathroom was probably just a closet that was converted later to a bathroom. When the conversion was done, the plumbers notched the load-bearing joists to run through the drain from the toilet. In the photograph above, the first joist on the right is entirely severed; the second joist from the right is cracked; the third joist from the right is sagging. Charlie said he would have to go home and sleep on it, and hope a solution to the joist problem comes to him in a dream.

"How to Cook a Wolf"

For yesterday's dinner, I made one of my favorite recipes from the New Recipes from Moosewood cookbook, Creamy Fish Chowder, served with Squash Rolls. All of the ingredients for the chowder came from Just Food Coop, including the fish (inexpensive tilapia). A perfect meal for a winter evening with a big snowstorm on the way and a new load of firewood stacked in the garage. After dinner, filled with good chowder, I read M.F.K. Fisher's tips for making an good and economical soup.

My bedside reading lately has been Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf (1942), a book of recipes and reflections on how to cook and live well during wartime rationing. "Now, of all times in our history," she writes, "we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to live gracefully if we live at all." The book, written in her characteristically tart and opinionated style, is full of practical tips (for example, how to save bacon grease and use it in place of rationed butter in spice cake) and recipes. Each chapter has a title that, on its own, reads like a little poem: "How to Greet the Spring," "How to Rise Up Like New Bread," "How to Pray for Peace," etc.

In the chapter "How to Boil Water," which I read last night, Fisher insists that tea must be made with fresh, "lively" water that has just reached a boil: "The quaint old fiction of the kettle simmering all day on the hearth, waiting to be turned into a delicious cup of tea, is actively disturbing to anyone who cares very much whether his tea will be made from lively water instead of a liquid that in spite of its apparent resemblance to Webster's definition is flat, exhausted, tasteless—in other words, with the hell cooked out of it."

The New York Times review of How to Cook a Wolf in 1942 concludes: "[Fisher] emphasizes that a mirror on the kitchen shelf is a great inspiration to the cook, who can draw reassurance from it or in sudden emergencies use it for hasty hair pokings that make all the difference to feminine self-confidence. But judging from her picture, Mrs. Fisher is one cook who has grounds to be very confident indeed without a kitchen mirror."

The ingredients I bought for my chowder cost me a total of $15 at Just Food Co-op. I bought two loose stalks of celery, less than a pound of fish, 32 fluid ounces of vegetable broth on special for $2.89. I had a bag of potatoes and onions at home.

$15.00 worth of supplies in 1942 would have cost about $1.20. But there would have also have been ration coupons to deal with, and red and blue tokens, and shortages of important staples like butter. (Click here for a good web exhibit on wartime rationing from the Ames Historical Society in Iowa.) In 1942, M.F.K. Fisher would have made the vegetable broth at home, boiling down leftover vegetables and saving the broth in a bottle in the icebox, adding more vegetable water from day to day. Many of the vegetables for the chowder may have come from a Victory Garden. Marjoram for seasoning may have been difficult to find. "Marjoram if possible," says her recipe for Green Garden Soup in How to Cook a Wolf. But fish was one item never rationed during World War II.

According to a 2007 article in Britain's The Daily Mail, "Britons were never healthier than when [they] lived on wartime rations." Consumption of fat and sugar was greatly reduced; diets included more vegetables; portions were smaller. Shortages of white flour meant that bread contained healthier whole wheat flour and other healthy whole grains like oats. Less red meat was consumed, cutting the risk of heart disease.

"As a result of the balanced diet provided by rationing," The Daily Mail reports, "children's health improved and on average they were taller and heavier than before the war. The incidence of anaemia and tooth decay dropped—while the average age at which people died from natural causes increased, despite the stresses and strains of war." A wartime diet in Britain allowed men 3,000 daily calories. Today the recommended daily allowance is 2,500 calories, but most diets contain 3,100 daily calories or more.

On the subject of tea, about which Fisher has strong opinions ("It is safe to say that when the water is ready. Then, at that moment and no other, pour it into the teapot..."), the The Daily Mail reports: "During the war they even drank their tea more healthily. Research has shown that three cups of tea a day can cut the risk of heart attack by 11 per cent and stave off some forms of cancer. But you get greater benefit from its healthgiving properties if you let leaves steep for five minutes in a pot rather than giving a tea bag a quick dunk in a mug."

Below is a graphic from The Daily Mail laying out the nutritional basics of a wartime diet in Britain.

Could you survive on wartime rations? In later posts, I'll try out some of M.F.K. Fisher's wartime recipes. First up: recipes for tinned fish.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Virago Secret Santa

Today is international Virago Secret Santa Day. Yesterday evening, members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group living in New Zealand and Australia started opening their packages. Today, the Christmas cheer spreads west across the globe. Last month, I sent a package off to Oxfordshire, and this morning I opened a package from my Secret Santa in Columbus, Ohio. The cornucopia of books includes two hardcovers of novels by Dorothy Canfield (The Bent Twig and Her Son's Wife), a Virago Modern Classic (Mary Lavin's The House on Clewe Street), and a beautiful Persephone Book from London (Edith Henrietta Fowler's The Young Pretenders). I am overwhelmed by my Secret Santa's generosity. Christmas has begun the best way possible—with books.

In the photograph above, you can see the lovely cover of the The House on Clewe Street (1945), with the characteristic Virago Modern Classics green. In the old days (the 1980s), Virago chose wonderful artworks for the covers of its books, and I find the painting on this cover especially appealing. The painting is William Orpen's The Mirror, painted in 1900, when the artist was a student at the Slade School in London. At the Slade, Orpen made a careful study of the Old Masters, and incorporated their influence (and some more recent influences) into his student work. Below are Orpen's The Mirror (now in the Tate, London), along with two paintings that directly influenced it.

William Orpen, The Mirror (1900)

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (1871)

A close-up of the mirror in Orpen's painting reveals not only the artist at his easel, but also a chandelier much like the one in Van Eyck's painting. In Orpen's canvas, the model is Emily Scobel, a model employed by the Slade School, to whom Orpen was engaged. Interesting that Orpen should paint his fiancée into a canvas that makes reference to a famous wedding portrait and a famous portrait of a mother. Emily is in the position occupied both by Whistler's mother and by the pregnant woman in Van Eyck's painting; the folds of Emily's gray dress echo the folds of the green dress in the Van Eyck.

While he was engaged to Emily Scobel, Orpen met and fell in love with another woman, Grace Knewstub, whom he married. Orpen went on to become famous for his paintings of the Wester Front during World War I, which now hang in the Imperial War Museum, but he continued to paint portraits of "pretty girls." Emily Scobel, for example, can be seen in a different light in Orpen's The English Nude (1900), a canvas that the artist never sold and kept inhis private collection during his lifetime.

For more on Orpen, see "Painters I Should Have Known About: William Orpen" (part 4 of 4, with links to earlier parts).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

James Madison, Classicist

The conclusion of my two-part series on James Madison's Federalist 18 is now posted on EcBlogue. WordPress, however, is being irritating, so you may receive a Page Not Found error.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Project 1929

1929 was, as we are now acutely aware, the year of the great stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. It was also a banner year for literature. 1929 saw the publication of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's One, and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, and many other books both famous and forgotten. Over on LibraryThing, I've accepted an invitation to join a group called "Project 1929." Members of the group will devote some of their reading time in 2009 to books published 80 years ago. Many thanks to Paola for the invitation, and to Carolyn for the brilliant idea. A spreadsheet listing books published on 1929 can be found here.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. To mark the occasion of his 80th birthday, I'll be starting "Project 1929" next month with two books published in 1929 by women closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance: Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun and Nella Larsen's Passing. Both books are about light-skinned African-American women who "pass" as white.

Other books I hope to read as part of Project 1929 include:

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica
Rebecca West, Harriet Hume
Ellen Glasgow, They Stooped to Folly
Sylvia Townsend Warner, The True Heart
E.B. White and James Thurber, Is Sex Necessary?
Patrick Hamilton, Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky (Book I)
Stefan Zweig, Buchmendel
Junichiro Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles

Any other suggestions? Favorite books published in 1929? Leave me a comment!

Happy 233rd Birthday, Jane Austen!

Monday, December 15, 2008


There are fires burning in both wood stoves this evening as the temperature falls from a daytime high of -1°F to a low somewhere in the double digits below zero overnight. Today was the coldest December day in Minnesota since 1996. The graph above, from the Carleton College weather station, shows the fifty-degree drop in temperature from a high of about 40°F at noon yesterday, to around -10°F at noon today.

See also Griff's post on LocallyGrown, with a photograph of the sun dogs visible in Northfield this morning. Something I missed by huddling inside in my pajamas.

The Federalist Spin-off

In Federalist 18, James Madison shows off his classicist chops with a dissertation on the ancient Greek confederacies known as the Amphictyonic League and the Achaean League. Because of the classical subject, I've decided to spin off my post on Federalist 18 to EcBlogue: A Classics Blog. The post will be a two-parter. Part one, which discusses Madison's sources for his discussion of the ancient confederacies, awaits your perusal.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Eating Local: Federalist 17

Recall these words of the Anti-Federalist George Clinton:
The strongest principle of union resides within our domestic walls. The ties of the parent exceed that of any other. As we depart from home, the next general principle of union is amongst citizens of the same state, where acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, nourish affection, and attachment. Enlarge the circle still further, and, as citizens of different states, though we acknowledge the same national denomination, we lose in the ties of acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, and thus by degrees we lessen in our attachments, till, at length, we no more than acknowledge a sameness of species.
In Federalist 17, Hamilton returns to this argument, and (perhaps surprisingly) embraces it:
It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large, the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter.
This principle of affection, Hamilton argues, will be a natural check on the power of the central government.
It will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities. The proof of this proposition turns upon the greater degree of influence which the State governments if they administer their affairs with uprightness and prudence, will generally possess over the people...
Hamilton adds that state and federal governments exercise their authority in different spheres. The federal government regulates commerce, engages in international diplomacy, and wages war; state governments regulate their own internal affairs. In particular, Hamilton mentions the administration of civil justice and the supervision of agriculture as matters for state control. Hamilton sees no reason for the states or the federal government to encroach upon each other's jurisdictions:
The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction. It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.
Hamilton's concern was that, without a strong central government, the states would succumb to the centrifugal forces of anarchy. He found this scenario much more likely than the alternative; namely, that the federal government would usurp state power and lapse into tyranny.

In the late 1830s, not long after the crisis in which South Carolina unsuccessfully asserted the right of states to nullify federal legislation, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, the first commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, began to collect new and improved varieties of seeds to distribute to farmers. Soon, Ellsworth had spun off an entirely new agricultural bureau from the patent office—the seeds of what would become, in 1862, the United States Department of Agriculture.

While attempts by the states to exercise authority over the the federal government led to the discredited doctrine of nullification, the federal usurpation of state control of agriculture has led to the equally problematic exercise of "preemption." For example, the 2008 Farm Bill originally contained language that would "preempt" state laws regulating foods and agricultural products, such as genetically-modified (GMO) foods. The bill read: "no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has inspected and passed; or determined to be of non-regulated status."

Hamilton offered assurances that agriculture was a state and local matter, exempt from the "troublesome" interference of federal authority, but the Farm Bill would have entirely denied states the power to regulate local agriculture.

Hamilton's America, of course, was largely rural, and food was for the most part produced for a local market. America has changed beyond recognition since 1787, and Hamilton could not have envisioned GMO foods, high fructose corn syrup, or industrial agriculture. But the principle of local control over the food supply is a good one: the federal government should not have the authority to determine what foods we plant in our fields and put into our mouths.

This evening from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., Just Food Co-op in Northfield is celebrating its 4th anniversary with an exclusive event for member-owners. If you live and eat in Northfield, get out and celebrate your Constitutional right to eat locally.

Environmental Commons 2008 Local Food Legislation Tracker. Tracks state legislation to protect and support local food, including legislation to support use of local food in school lunch programs.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Citizen Journalism

Since January 2008, I've been a member of the board of The mission of is to be "an electronic commons that strengthens the fabric of community in the greater Northfield publishing stories and event listings from any and all members of the community and providing access to existing community resources and online content from local citizens and organizations." Anyone in the Northfield area who has a story to share or an event to promote can publish directly to, provided that a few simple guidelines are followed.

Since its inception in the 1990s, has evolved into more of an electronic community bulletin board than an outlet for the reporting of local news. A few years ago, Griff Wigley, one of the founders of, spun off to create his own group blog, LocallyGrown, which—along with its companion radio show and podcast—does feature hard news and commentary about local issues. Earlier this year, LocallyGrown teamed up with reporter Bonnie Obremski to provide local Representative Journalism. But LocallyGrown doesn't solicit content from its readers. LoGroNo isn't true citizen journalism a community blog* that involves local citizens in the collection and dissemination of news and information. It's a civic-minded group blog with a thriving comments section that invites both controversy and connectedness.

What would true participatory citizen journalism in Northfield look like?

One national model for online citizen journalism is provided by The, which has launched local versions in several cities across the United States, including Minneapolis. The Examiner employs "local informed insiders" to write and publish local stories about their particular area of interest and expertise: stories about local arts and entertainment, or sports, or business, or education. Writers are paid a fee per 1,000 page views. The is owned by the same parent company that owns print newspapers like the San Francisco Examiner, Clarity Media Group, an affiliate of the huge entertainment conglomerate AEG. But despite its corporate lineage, The is positioning itself to become "a bastion of citizen journalism" with its network of local "Examiners."

My wife's cousin, Elizabeth Kurtz, has recently been hired as the DC Military Community Examiner. Her stories cover all aspects of the military community in Washington, D.C. Recent stories range from an interview with Colonel Dennis M. Layendecker, the music director of the U.S. Air Force Band, to a story about the dedication of the new columbarium (a structure for the inurnment of ashes) in Arlington National Cemetery. She also publishes great photographs of service men and women in action, and a "today in military history" feature. Elizabeth is a recent Harvard graduate, and also studied in the Department of War Studies at King's College, London. She's a lifelong resident of D.C., and currently volunteers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She's also a sympathetic observer and a talented writer. I've known and admired her since she was a little girl, and I recommend that you head over to The Examiner and run up her page view counts.

*Update: See Griff's comments, and my response, here on Locally Grown.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"The slimie kisse" (Bonus Herrick)

Here, with its original seventeenth-century spelling, is Robert Herrick's poem "Kisses Loathsome," in which he expresses his distaste for sloppy kisses:
I abhor the slimie kisse,
(Which to me most loathsome is.)
Those lips please me which are plac't
Close, but not too strictly lac't:
Yeilding I wo'd have them; yet
Not a wimbling Tongue admit:
What sho'd poking-sticks make there,
When the ruffe is set elsewhere?
My late father-in-law was a scholar of seventeenth-century English poetry, but in his copy of The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick (Oxford 1915), there is a question mark beside the last lines of this poem, and the words "poking-sticks" and "ruffe" are underlined. What is Herrick talking about?

A "ruff" is a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century collar, as seen in this detail from Frans Hals' Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull (1611). The elaborate folds in the ruff were made using a special iron called a "poking-stick." In the illustration below, the tool labeled "B" is a poking-stick; the tool labeled "A" is a "goffering iron." The goffering iron is placed on a stove and heated, and the end of the poking-stick is inserted into the hollow tube at the top of the iron. This heats the poking-stick.

Herrick seems to be using the process of ironing a ruff as a metaphor for kissing with too much tongue. But the images of poking-stick, goffering iron, and ruff may suggest a metaphor for something else. Perhaps even "tongue" and "kiss" and "lips" are metaphors. After all, what does Herrick mean by "the ruffe is set elsewhere"? Indeed, there is precedent in Shakespeare (see 2 Henry IV 2.4.131: "tearing a poor whore's ruff in a bawdy-house") for "ruff" as a metaphor for vagina.

Note: "Wimbling," incidentally, means "piercing" or "penetrating;" a "wimble" is a tool for boring holes.

"Thus Times Do Shift"

Robert Herrick was obsessed with the passing of time and the shifting of the seasons. Herrick was a Cavalier poet, a supporter of King Charles I who spent the years of the English Civil War awaiting the restoration of the monarchy and of his own fortunes. In the "Argument," or introductory poem, that opens his collection Hesperides (1648), Herrick wrote: "I sing of Times trans-shifting." An odd word, trans-shift, that only Herrick uses until the invention of the automobile. He uses it once more in a poem "On himselfe"::
Live by thy Muse thou shalt; when others die
Leaving no Fame to long Posterity:
When Monarchies trans-shifted are, and gone;
Here shall endure thy vast Dominion.
The Roman poet Horace was popular in the seventeenth century—Herrick himself was sometimes called "the English Horace"—and Herrick absorbed from Horace two of his most memorable poetic notions: this notion that poetry endures when all other things pass away (aere perennius), and the notion of taking full advantage of the opportunities of the passing day (carpe diem). This second theme is expressed most memorably in Herrick's poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time":
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying,
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
The Victorian English poet Algernon Swinburne called Herrick "the greatest song writer ever born of English race." Or as a recent writer in Harper's expressed it: "Of the seventeenth century English poets, Herrick’s work has the closest inherent relationship to music. It is melodious, and most of his poems (excepting perhaps the more religiously themed ones) have the character of song about them." The poet himself rhymed his own name with "lyric."

For me, the highlight of Kate Rusby's wonderful new Christmas album, Sweet Bells, is her setting of Herrick's poem "Ceremonies for Candlemasse Eve." Rusby has a lovely knack for making the old seem new and the new seem old. The refrain of "Candlemas Eve" is quintessential Herrick:
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.
Herrick's poem is about the shifting of the seasons, as the season of Christmas gives way to Candlemas, on the first of February—the traditional date for the removal of the Christmas decorations. The song is filled with the wistfulness of the season's passing, but also with a sense of timelessness. Rusby's voice is sweet and pure, and steeped in the fresh earthiness of her Yorkshire accent. The quality of the production and musicianship is professional, but Kate Rusby never strikes me as a professional entertainer, as a performer of folk music. Her voice is the voice of the folk, earthy and beautiful, breathing new life into her own traditions. "New things succeed, as former things grow old." But Kate Rusby makes former things new again.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve
Robert Herrick

DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

Sweet Bells
sells for $26.99 on, beginning on December 16, but is available for immediate download from iTunes for a standard $9.99.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

First Ski

Boot Cam.

This evening, Clara and I went out for a sunset ski, my first time on skis since before I was felled with a herniated disk in my neck on January 20. We were on the trail a few minutes before sunset. The sky above the prairie was the tenderest baby pink and blue. The prairie grasses, tall above the three or four inches of fresh snow, seemed to hold onto the light and glow palest gold. Above it all floated the cold, waxing moon.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Federalist 16

As we look forward with enormous expectations to the inauguration of President Barack Obama, perhaps the key idea in Federalist 16 is expressed in the words with which Alexander Hamilton leaves the reader: "It would be idle to object to a government, because it could not perform impossibilities." But for the nineteenth century, the most important idea lay in Hamilton's insistence that the government of the United States not be compact between individual states, but that it "carry its agency to the persons of the citizens."

This was a crucial distinction. In his famous "Reply to Hayne" in January 1830, Daniel Webster said: "This leads us to inquire into the origin of this Government, and the source of its power. Whose agent is it? Is it the creature of the State Legislatures, or the creature of the People? If the Government of the United States be the agent of the State Governments, then they can control it...; if it be the agent of the People, then the People alone can control it..."

The idea that the federal government was a government of all the people was important, because Hamilton foresaw, and Webster experienced, the attempts of the States to assert their own power in circumvention of federal legislation. In the Jacksonian era, states rights advocates like John C. Calhoun went so far as to argue that state legislatures should have the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional—or, in the terminology of the day, to "nullify" them. Thus, if South Carolina disliked a tariff passed by Congress, it could declare that the tariff was not binding upon the state of South Carolina.

Hamilton foresaw that such thinking could eventually lead to dissolution of the union and civil war, as some states banded together to force others into compliance with federal law. His solution was two-fold: create a government that appeals directly to the people, and is binding upon them without the intervention of the state governments; and establish the principle of judicial review. The courts, not the state legislatures, should decide on the constitutionality of federal laws. As Hamilton put it in Federalist 16: "The majesty of the national authority must be manifested through the medium of the courts of justice. The government of the union, like that of each state, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals; and to attract to its support, those passions, which have the strongest influence upon the human heart."

Judicial review—a principle generally associated with the 1803 Supreme Court verdict in Marbury v. Madison—was actually on Hamilton's docket as early as 1784, three years before he participated in writing the Federalist Papers, when he argued the case of Rutgers v. Waddington before a court in New York City. In this case, Hamilton successfully argued that New York's Trespass Act (1783), which allowed patriots to recover damages from Tories, violated the Treaty of Paris, which had ended the Revolution and had been ratified by Congress. The overarching question was whether an act of Congress—in this case, a treaty—had precedence over state law.

As Ron Chernow writes in his excellent biography of Hamilton: "At bottom, Rutgers v. Waddington addressed fundamental questions of political power in the new country. Would a treaty ratified by Congress trump state law? Could the judiciary override the legislature? And would America function as a true country or as a loose federation of states? Hamilton left no doubt that states should bow to a central government: 'It must be conceded that the legislature of one state cannot repeal the law of the United States.'"

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Classics Blogging

For those of you who are interested in Greek and Roman classics, jump over to the new classics group blog, EcBlogue, which launches today with my long-winded idea dump about economic thinking in Sophocles' Antigone. Think of it the final paper I would have written if I were one of my students in Greek 304. We're hoping, with a little more practice, to hit upon the right tone for a blog aimed at an audience of students, scholars, and enthusiastic amateurs. If you fall into one of those categories, and would like to contribute to the blog, there's information on how to sign up as an author on the About page. The blog is the brainchild of my wife, Clara Hardy, a Professor of Classics at Carleton College. Link

Monday, December 1, 2008

Publication Alert: Two Small Encyclopedia Entries

SAGE Publications has recently announced the publication of the SAGE Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education, edited by Eugene F. Provenzo, which includes my brief entries on "The New England Primer" and "The Boston Latin School."

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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