Showing posts from October, 2008


created by Will and Peter Hardy

Beechen Cliff Revisted

In January 2007, our family visited Bath, England, where Jane Austen lived for several years in the first decade of the eighteenth century, and which provided an important setting for her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. One of the things we did on that visit was to climb the steep steps up to Beechen Cliff, where Catherine Morland walks with Henry Tilney and his sister in chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey. I blogged about that walk on my Sabbatical Blog. In a post that went up yesterday, Ms. Place used one of my photographs from that visit on her Jane Austen's World blog to illustrate her rich and informative essay, "Beechen Cliff, the Arts, and Natural Surroundings."

Thanks to Ms. Place for her consideration in asking for permission to use the photograph.

The Book of Judges

Then the Lord raised up judges...
—Judges 2:16

Most years, I confess, I go into the voting booth entirely unprepared to decide between candidates for seats on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Under the Minnesota state constitution, justices are chosen by voters, unless a vacancy occurs between general elections, in which case a provisional appointment is made by the governor. This year, Minnesota voters will be asked to fill two seats on the Supreme Court, and again the names on the ballot will be unfamiliar to most people.

The first race pits incumbent Paul Anderson against challenger Tim Tingelstad. Tingelstad's campaign website reveals him to be an extreme fundamentalist Christian who argues against the separation of church and state, claiming that "the Church must return to its vital role of supporting and influencing the state." This, for example, is what Tingelstad says about Christianity and the public schools:
The Word of God was originally the cornerstone …

Reading Journal: "A Conspiracy of Paper"

David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper. Random House 2000. There is one used copy of this book available at Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield.

"We're storytellers, not scholars," author Kathy Lynn Emerson writes in her book How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries. But David Liss is both: a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature and a skillful storyteller. He was, he says in an historical note at the end of his first novel, a doctoral student at Columbia University, researching "the ways in which eighteenth-century Britons imagined themselves through their money." His research led him to write A Conspiracy of Paper, a mystery novel set in the coffeehouses of London's Exchange Alley, which formed the first stock market in the English-speaking world.

The year is 1719, and the powerful South Sea Company, rival of the equally powerful Bank of England, is poised to assume the lion's share of the national debt in return for stock in the company.…

A Souvenir of the Ancient World

Last night's Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert began with Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess, featuring one of the most beautiful and haunting horn solos ever written, and ended with a small chamber music work, Beethoven's "Ghost" trio, op. 70, no. 1, for violin, cello, and piano. The ghostly theme was sustained in the middle of the concert with a new commissioned piece by Minnesota-born jazz composer Maria Schneider based on poems by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, including a setting of his poem "The Dead in Frock Coats." The soprano was Dawn Upshaw.

Maria Schneider recently won a Grammy award for best jazz instrumental composition. Her music was interesting and accessible, and I found one of her Drummond de Andrade settings, "Souvenir of the Ancient World," especially lovely.

According to poet and translator Mark Strand, Drummond's poems "are, for the most part, bittersweet evocations of a small-town childhood or, m…

The Rough Draft Tumblr

I've added a Tumblr feed to the right sidebar. The Rough Draft Tumblr will be a collection of snippets from other blogs, quotations, updates, brief observations and asides, and other odds and ends that don't add up to a complete blog post. Watch the feed for updates, or check out the complete Rough Draft Tumblr.

Reading Journal: "Millenium Hall"

Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall. Originally published in 1762. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, 1986.

In 1762, Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia, Rousseau published The Social Contract, and Sarah Scott published her unusual novel Millenium Hall, about a utopian community of women. The novel, like many eighteenth-century English novels, serves a didactic purpose: to illustrate the rewards of feminine virtue, and to envision a society in which the precepts of Christianity—as understood by genteel English ladies—are diligently carried into practice.

The novel begins when a carriage carrying two gentlemen breaks down on the road, and the gentlemen are received at Millenium Hall—where the older gentleman's cousin, Mrs. Maynard, happens to be a resident. A description of Millenium Hall, including details of its many charitable projects in the surrounding area, forms a frame for the stories Mrs. Maynard tells about the women who inhabit the hall. The younger gentleman, who …

The South Sea Bubble

The South Sea Bubble (share prices in the South Sea Company, 1719-1721).

The stock market just finished its worst week in history, starting the week at 10,325 and ending at 8,451. In the course of the week, General Motors shares dropped 21%, falling to their lowest level since 1950. In the midst of mounting panic on Wall Street, here on "Main Street" I was on the lookout for some historical perspective. As this New York Times graphic shows, the current downturn is comparable to the bear market in 1974, and is beginning to look distressingly like the sustained downturn of 1929-1932. But the depressing history of market crashes really begins in 1720, with the infamous "South Sea Bubble."

In 1711, England's debts were mounting as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession (known in America as "Queen Anne's War," the second of the "French and Indian Wars"). The war was being fought to prevent a French claimant from assuming the vacant …

A Walk in the Woods

Big Woods State Park, Nerstrand, Minnesota. Saturday, October 11, 2008.

click on last photo to see detail of wasp's nest

The Wealth of Nations

I thought that this time of global financial crisis would be a good time to read Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and learn for myself about the Invisible Hand of the market. It's a book that, like the Bible, is often cited and little read, and like the Bible, I suspect that it's often misread and misapplied.

In the beginning, I found Smith's prose surprisingly simple and lucid. He explains the division of labor, which allows workers to exchange the products of their labor for the products of other workers' labor. The blacksmith takes his keg of nails to the brewer and exchanges it for a keg of beer. In a cash economy, he sells his nails for a certain amount of minted silver, and then exchanges the silver for the keg of beer. The principle is simple. As Smith says, "every man lives thus by exchanging." And the ultimate value of goods in exchange (what Smith calls the "real price") is the human labor that went into producing those goods.


The Beautiful Governess

Illustration from an interesting PBS page on Victorian governesses.

In Sarah Scott's remarkable eighteenth-century novel about a women's utopia, Millenium Hall (1762), we are told the story of Miss Louisa Mancel, who has been given an excellent education and then left destitute by the death of her guardian, who died intestate. Miss Mancel is fifteen years old, and astonishingly beautiful. Because of her now precarious position, one of her friends plans "to establish her in some widow's family, as governess to her children." Her friend explains to her why it must be a widow's family: "she must not expect, while her person continued such as it then was, that a married woman would receive her in any capacity that fixed her in the same house with her husband." Because Miss Mancel is so beautiful, she cannot be placed in a position where she might be a temptation to errant husbands.

This is the second time I've come across the theme of the beautifu…

Reading Journal: "The Ante-Room"

Kate O'Brien. The Ante-Room. Virago Modern Classics. 1989. Originally published in 1934. Thanks to Patricia, who sent me a copy of the novel all the way from New South Wales.

Kate O'Brien's The Ante-Room is her second published novel, but the third of her novels that I have read, and although I found that it fell short of the expectations raised by Mary Lavelle (1936) and the nearly perfect The Land of Spices (1941), it did nothing to dim my appreciation of Kate O'Brien's art. The story, set in rural Ireland in 1880, is simple: while her mother lies dying of cancer, young Agnes Mulqueen struggles with her own love for her sister's husband. Agnes is a devout, conscientious Catholic—she takes seriously both the demands and the consolations of her religion. She is also loyal to her bourgeois family. The rewards and constraints of these loyalties—to church and family—are important recurring themes in O'Brien's novels.

Agnes Mulqueen is a fine and s…

Brief Reviews

Since classes started, I haven't been able to post and book or CD reviews. This doesn't mean I haven't been reading or listening. Last week, I finished reading Louis de Bernières' magnificent 1996 novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The novel is set on the Greek island of Cephallonia. Most of the novel takes place during World War II, when Greece was occupied by German and Italian forces. One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, Carlo Guercio, is an Italian solider who delivers what could be the epigraph for the entire novel: "I know that the Duce has made it clear that the Italian campaign was a resounding victory for Italy. But he was not there. He does not know what happened. He does not know that the ultimate truth of history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who were caught up in it." Among those caught up in it are wonderful old Dr. Iannis and his beautiful daughter Pelagia, who stands at the center of t…

The Vice President

One of the more interesting, and potentially frightening, moments in last night's Vice Presidential debate came when Gov. Palin responded to a question about the power of the Vice Presidency and its limits. She said: "I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the Vice President if that Vice President so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure we are supportive of the President's policies..."

Sen. Biden countered forcefully that Dick Cheney, who has espoused this view of expanded Vice Presidential powers, has been "the most dangerous Vice President" in American history.

The Constitution says very little about the office of the Vice President. He or she receives and announces to the Senate the votes of the electoral college (Article II, section 1, paragraph 3; 12th amendment); he or she has a tie-breaking vote in the Senate (Article I, section 3, paragraph 4); he or she assumes the Presidency should the P…

Out of the Blue

Through the globe-spanning magic of the blogosphere, my Margaret Evans Huntington Club paper, "Out-of-Body Experiences," has reached New Zealand novelist Mary McCallum, who discusses it on her blog O Audacious Book.

McCallum writes: "Rob Hardy's paper echoes [Mister Pip author] Lloyd Jones' belief that novels aren't about escape from life but about learning how to live in this world..." And she concludes: "It's another whole discussion as to why writing that is deeply domestic doesn't figure much on the literature geiger counter, but good on Rob Hardy for letting it figure on his, and encouraging others to do the same."

Another New Zealand novelist, Rachael King (author of The Sound of Butterflies) has also blogged about the scarcity of men who read novels by women—or, in fact, any novels at all. In the comments section, someone posted a link to Esquire's list of "The 75 Books Every Man Should Read" (caution: in an irri…

Early October Prairie

The brown of the tall grass dominates the prairie at this season, but there are patches of asters (heath aster, aster ericoides?) that lie white on the land like a premonition of frost.

After my noon hour walk in the Lower Arboretum, I rode my bike up to campus and locked it up, as I occasionally do, in front of Mudd, the science building that houses the geology department. Outside, under a great old bur oak and some pines, is this marvelous slab of sandstone that preserves ripple marks from the waves of an ancient sea.