Friday, December 25, 2009

Wet Christmas, Part II

Merry Christmas!

Weather note: The Christmas storm of 2009 has mostly fizzled.  Last night, when the predictions were for an inch of snow an hour, we took Pippi out for a Christmas Eve walk in the rain.  More rain today has made it a slushy Christmas.   

Thursday, December 24, 2009

White Christmas, Part I

Our house on the morning of Christmas Eve 2009

On Halloween 1991, I was in St. Peter, Minnesota, for a classics lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College, where I was a visiting assistant professor of classics.  The heavy snow had begun to fall as I came out of the lecture.  I spent that night in St. Peter, and in the morning I took advantage of a lull in the blizzard to shovel my car out of the driveway where I had parked it.  It would have been wiser to stay in St. Peter, but classes at Gustavus had been cancelled, and I was eager to get home to Northfield, where Clara was alone with two-month old Will.  So, as the snow began to fall more heavily again, I started out.  Fortunately, I found myself behind a snowplow between St. Peter and Montgomery, and after two or three hours managed to make it home safely. When the snow finally stopped falling, there was more than 28 inches of snow on the ground.  

This morning, we woke to nearly 8 inches of fresh snow—the official amount for Northfield was 7.50 inches—and another 8-12 inches is on its way tonight.  The second wave of snow started a few minutes ago, right on schedule.  This is predicted to be the heaviest snowfall in Minnesota since that Halloween Blizzard of 1991.  Our usual Christmas plans—my brother-in-law's family down here from Roseville for Christmas Eve, and our family in Roseville on Christmas afternoon—have been scrapped.  For the first time that we can remember, it'll be just the four of us at Christmas.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Books Reviewed in 2009

Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage
Storm Jameson, The Georgian Novel and Mr. Robinson
Elina Hirvonen, When I Forgot
Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show
Mrs. Humphry Ward, Robert Elsmere
Rhoda Broughton, Belinda
Edmund Burke, Conciliation with America
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Jon Meacham, American Lion
Jane & Mary Findlater, Crossriggs
John Williams, Stoner
Louis De Bernières, A Partisan's Daughter
Victoria Clayton, Out of Love
John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot
Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine
Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels
Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room
David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin
Stefan Zweig, The Post-Office Girl
V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom
Olivia Manning, School for Love
Sylvia Townsend Warner, The True Heart
Helen Humphreys, Coventry
Edith Henrietta Fowler, The Young Pretenders
Susan Glaspell, Fugitive's Return
Nella Larsen, Passing
Barry Unsworth, Land of Marvels
Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reading Journal: "Red Pottage"

Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage. Virago Modern Classics 1985.  Originally published in 1899. 

Early in Red Pottage, Lord Newhaven confronts his unfaithful wife.  During their conversation, which takes place in her bedroom, Lord Newhaven picks up a book—"an Imitation of Christ, bound in that peculiar shade of lilac which at that moment prevailed."  It's a small, but telling detail, since Cholmondeley's novel is about what is real and what is imitation, what is true Christian behavior and what is pious cant, what is genuine and what is merely fashionable.  

In a few pages, we are introduced to Sybell Loftus, a superficial woman who, Cholmondeley tells us archly, "had not the horrid perception of difference between the real and the imitation which spoils the lives of many."  At Sybell's party, the conversation turns to Hester Gresley, a young woman who has written a popular novel set in the slums of east London.  One of the pseudo-intellectuals at the party condemns the novel, saying, "it is a misfortune to the cause of suffering humanity—to our cause—when the books which pretend to set forth certain phases of its existence are written by persons entirely ignorant of the life they describe."

"To me they seem real," says Miss Gresley's friend, Rachel West.  

Rachel has lived for many years in the slums of east London, working as a seamstress, before receiving an unexpected inheritance.  An unexpected inheritance, an affair, a suicide pact—Cholmondeley's novel is full of elements of late Victorian sensation novels , but it's also a biting satire of society, a romance, and a novel of ideas.  Cholmondeley is interested in the truth of art, the power of sympathy, and the plight of unmarried women. 

At the heart of the novel is the theme of friendship between women.  In a particularly heartfelt passage, Cholmondeley writes: "Here and there among its numberless counterfeits a friendship rises up between two women which sustains the life of both, which is still young when life is waning, which man's love and motherhood cannot displace nor death annihilate; a friendship which is not the solitary affection of an empty heart nor the deepest affection of a full one, but which nevertheless lightens the burdens of this world and lays its pure hand on the next."  Red Pottage is dedicated to Cholmondeley's sister Victoria.   It is interesting to see how sustaining the bond of sisterhood was to the New Women of the 1890s as they tested their independence, and began to claim their rights as individuals and their voices as writers.*  

In Red Pottage, Hester dedicates her second novel, which she describes as being like a child to her, to Rachel.  There is almost a kind of spiritual and intellectual marriage between the two women that sustains them through all of the sensations and setbacks of the novel's ingenious plot.  

One other of Cholmondeley's novels is currently in print, her 1893 novel Diana Tempest, published by Valancourt Press.  Red Pottage was a massive bestseller in both England and America in 1899.  Like many of the novels I review on this blog, I believe it should still be more widely read.  

*The Cholmondeley sisters were also intimate friends with the novelist sisters Jane and Mary Findlater.  

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Best and Worst Years of the Decade

The Best

For me, 2000 was a banner year. On the first day of school in the new year, I started substitute teaching in the Northfield Public Schools. I still remember fondly my first day of subbing in Mrs. Kohl's fifth grade class at Bridgewater Elementary School. I find it unbelievable that those little children are now juniors in college! Then, in the late winter of 2000, director Ruth Weiner, choreographer Devin Cary, and the Carleton Players began rehearsals for Euripides' Iphigeneia at Aulis, using the new translation I had made for the production. The production ran May 10-13, 2000. For me it was an unforgettable experience, and one of the highlights of the entire decade. 2000 also saw the publication of the anthology 33 Minnesota Poets (Nodin Press), which included a selection of my poetry and introduced me to fellow Minnesota poets like Joyce Sutphen and Scott King. Finally, the summer of 2000 brought our first family trip to England, where we spent a month living in Kenilworth, with a week-long holiday-within-a-holiday in the Lake District. I returned home to Minnesota to a new job writing scripts for The Writer's Almanac.

One of the choral dances from Iphigeneia at Aulis (2000)

2003 provided a welcome respite after two difficult years (see below). The highlight of the year was our family trip to France, where we stayed with Clara's brother at their sabbatical home in Baillargues, outside Montpellier. During our ten days in southern France, we visited Arles, Nimes, Orange, Aigues Mortes, Les Baux de Provence, and several spectacular ruined hilltop chateaux. We also enjoyed the markets, the seafood, and the wine. The downside: as we were taking off from Minneapolis to fly to France, the first bombs of the Iraq War were falling on Baghdad. And it was a bittersweet year personally: the last summer we spent with Clara's father before his death from cancer in 2004. Before we learned of the diagnosis, we spent a beautiful week with my father- and mother-in-law in Stowe, Vermont, followed by a summer with the whole family up north.

The Hardys and the Shaws at the Pont du Gard, March 2003

In 2005, my poetry chapbook, The Collecting Jar, was published. I spent the first half of the year teaching for Planet Homeschool, a homeschool cooperative in the Twin Cities, and the fall semester teaching Latin at the University of St. Thomas, my first college teaching position since 1992. The Planet Homeschool experience, begun in the fall of 2004, introduced me to Peytie, who has become one of my favorite people in the world. Like 2003, it was also a bittersweet year: my father died in December, after a long illness.

When 2006 started, I was teaching for the first time at Carleton College, and had a wonderful beginning Latin class. At the same time, I was meeting Peytie once a week at a Caribou Coffee in Apple Valley for Latin tutoring, and meeting with a small homeschool writing class once a month. It was a rich and rewarding year of teaching. Then, in August, our family left for a year in England. In the fall of 2006, from our home in Kenilworth, we made excursions to the Peak District and the Cotswolds, and in October we traveled to Salzburg, Austria, for several days of music and sightseeing.

On the Cleveland Way, between Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay, Yorkshire, April 2007

2007 was filled with even more memorable English experiences, including holidays in Yorkshire and the Lake District, a Jane Austen tour, numerous plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company, trips to London and Oxford, walks on the wonderful English footpaths, the world's best ale, and—well, for the full story, see my Sabbatical blog.

2009 has also been a good year, with two terms of teaching Latin 101 at Carleton, and with the massive accomplishment of helping to get the Cannon River STEM School on its feet. And in June, Clara and I celebrated twenty years of marriage. As the year has drawn to a close, we received the exciting news that Will is spending 2010-2011 as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Thailand.

The Worst

2001 was not a good year. In January, the Bush years began, and on a Tuesday morning in September, the whole world changed. Meanwhile, I had started the MA.Ed initial licensure program at St. Kate's, lulled by my excellent subbing experience in Northfield into thinking I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I took one course before abandoning that idea, and spent a stressful six-weeks as a long-term sub teaching Latin at South High School in Minneapolis.

If possible, 2002 was even worse, thanks to my foolish decision to accept a job teaching Latin at a middle school in one of the suburbs of Minneapolis. The entire experience—from the hellish morning commute starting at 5:00 am to the overcrowded classroom full of unmotivated students—was a disaster. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration was edging toward war in Iraq and, on October 25, Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash.

2002 was so bad that it makes 2008—a year in which I spent three months of excruciating pain with a herniated disk in my neck, followed by a hernia operation in July, followed by losing a school board election, followed by an emergency remodeling of our leaking upstairs bathroom that cost twice as much as the initial estimate—look like a fabulous year.

In the final analysis, the good years—2000, 2003-2007, 2009—massively outweigh the bad years. I was 35 in 2000, and now I'm 45. The decade was full of difficult midlife experiences—the deaths of fathers, career challenges, the hazards of homeownership, the aches and pains of a middle-aged skeleto-muscular system—but it also brought the new experiences of international travel and book publication, and introduced me to new places and new friends who have enriched my life.

Friday, December 18, 2009

December Reading: The Eighteenth Century

Earlier this week I finally finished reading the first book of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which ends with two famous chapters on the rise and persecution of the early Christian church under the Roman Empire. Chapter XVI closes with the assertion that internecine strife among Christians themselves claimed many more lives than did persecution at the hands of the pagan Roman emperors:
We shall conclude this chapter by a melancholy truth, which obtrudes itself on the reluctant mind; that even admitting, without hesitation or enquiry, all that history has recorded, or devotion has feigned, on the subject of martyrdoms, it must still be acknowledged, that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissentions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other, than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.
This is a long sentence—nearly seventy words—but carefully balanced. It appears to be based upon the structures and rhythms of Latin. Gibbon has paid extraordinary attention to the construction of his history, not only to the construction of individual sentences, but to the architecture of the whole.

Chapter IV, for instance, begins with the "mildness" of Marcus Aurelius, a philosophical gentleness and indulgence which results directly in the despotism of his pampered son and successor, Commodus. The chapter ends that begins with "the mildness of Marcus" ends with the "approaching misfortunes" of the Roman people. The next chapter begins with the general disorder into which the Empire has been thrown by Commodus, and ends with a partial restoration of order under Septimius Severus. The entire book is a carefully constructed narrative of reversals. Gibbon is interested in how mildness can lead to misfortune, how tolerance can lead to intolerance, how all things seem, over the course of time, to give rise to their opposites.

I am finding Edmund Burke a much less slippery character than Gibbon. Gibbon, as in the case of Marcus Aurelius, finds reason to condemn what he admires, and sometimes to admire what he condemns. Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1788), is clear and direct. The French Revolution is an unmitigated disaster. Burke supports "a manly, moral, regulated liberty," and condemns the descent into mere license that the revolution represents. The revolution is the result of rampant theorizing and innovation, and a dangerous departure from the established principles of an inherited constitution.

What I find most fascinating, especially at the end of this Darwin bicentennial year, is the central importance that Burke places on inheritance and the conformity of the English constitution with nature. Here is a long, but significant passage:
You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.

This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection, or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free, but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement, grasped as in a kind of mortmain forever. By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of providence are handed down to us, and from us, in the same course and order. Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts, wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, molding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old or middle-aged or young, but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy. In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.
For Burke, change must be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, part of the gradual and natural process of generational change.

It's interesting, in the light of Burke's ideas, to look at this graph showing the correlation between age and support for same-sex unions. Support is significantly higher among 18-29 year olds than among people in older age groups. Radical ideas and innovations are introduced into the system, and through the slow process of mental readjustment and legislative deliberation, change happens within the conservative structures of the constitution. Stability and change are compatible. Unfortunately, this Burkean model of gradual change, which is essentially the model of American democracy, is poorly adapted to deal with urgent crises like global climate change.

Burke is quite enjoyable to read. His Latinate eighteenth-century prose style simmers, unlike Gibbon's, with Irish temper, and occasionally reaches a boil.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Commonplace Book (12/16/09)

Favorite quotations from today's reading.

"...that absorbed and inward look that only comes with whipped cream." Katherine Mansfield, "The Garden-Party"

"The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints." Edmund Burke, On the Revolution in France

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I was surprised to find in my change this morning a new 2009 Lincoln penny, with a redesigned image on the reverse of Lincoln standing in front of the Illinois state capital. The redesign, in honor of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, was authorized by Title III of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which called for four new reverse designs for the penny to represent the four periods of Lincoln's life: his birth and early years in Kentucky, his formative years in Indiana, his early career in Illinois, and his Presidency in Washington, D.C. The obverse of the penny remains the iconic image of Lincoln sculpted by Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Lincoln penny was first issued in 1909, the centennial of Lincoln's birth, and was the first U.S. coin to feature the portrait of a real person. It was also controversial for bearing the initials of the sculptor, V.D.B., which can now be seen below Lincoln's shoulder. The Lincoln penny, at one hundred years old, is the oldest U.S. coin in continuous circulation. (The Washington quarter was first issued in 1932, the Jefferson nickel in 1938, the Roosevelt dime in 1945, and the Kennedy half dollar in 1964.)

According to the U.S. Mint website, "At the conclusion of the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial One Cent Program, the 2010 (and beyond) one-cent coin will feature a reverse design that will be emblematic of President Lincoln's preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country."

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Domestic Novel

On my Wordpress blog there's a long post up about Storm Jameson's essay "The Georgian Novel and Mr. Robinson" and the domestic novel.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Journey of Disbelief

Two years ago, I blogged about the bizarre evangelical Christian effort to purify Interstate 35 and make it a "Highway of Holiness" in supposed fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Last night, as I drove to St. Paul for the choir concert, I noticed an interesting progression of Adopt-a-Highway signs on I-35 north of the exit for Northfield. The first sign indicated that the section of highway had been adopted by the Northfield Unitarian Fellowship. The next sign, several miles further along, indicated that the next section of highway had been adopted by the Minnesota Atheists.

The next sign, rather profoundly, said: "This Section Available."

Macalester College Choir Concert

Last night, as a steady stream of cars was heading into Northfield on Highway 19 for the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, I was heading in the opposite direction, bound for the Macalester College Choir concert in St. Paul. Although less famous than the St. Olaf Choir, the Macalester choir has a distinguished history. For many years, it was conducted by the great Dale Warland, and was later conducted by Kathy Romey, who now conducts the Minnesota Chorale. The current conductor is Dr. Eugene Rogers, who led the three ensembles—the Singing Scotsmen, the women's Hildegard Singers, and the combined Concert Choir—in a varied and exciting program that included pieces by Monteverdi and Bach, as well as modern compositions and arrangements, and a new piece for choir and Persian ney by Macalester composer Jan Gilbert.

For me, the highlight was the Bach cantata, BWV 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich), because it featured a solo by my friend and former student Peytie McCandless. But the centerpiece of the concert was the new work, which featured Dr. Hossein Omoumi on ney (reed flute) and vocals. (Click here for a short video which shows the unique emboucher with which the ney is played.) The piece was a beautiful and fascinating blend of Persian musical traditions and western choral singing, and drew a standing ovation from the audience. There were quite a few Iranians in the audience. After the concert, an enthusiastic young Iranian woman approached Peytie and complimented her on how well the choir had sung in Farsi.

The concert ended, according to Macalester tradition, with the singing of "Loch Lomond."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Reading Journal: "When I Forgot"

Elina Hirvonen, When I Forgot. Translated by Douglas Robinson. Tin House Books 2009. Originally published in Finland in 2005. 180 pp. $12.95.

Elina Hirvonen's first novel is set in the shadow of 9/11 and during the build up to the Iraq War that followed. The broken lives of its characters float downward like debris from the tragedy, carrying with them memories of a lost wholeness. Anna, the narrator, is suffering from survivor's guilt. Her troubled brother Joona was beaten by their father, and has landed in a mental hospital suffering from severe psychosis. Anna feels bound to him, she wants to help him, and she wants to forget him. Anna's lover, a visiting American academic named Ian, is the son of a Vietnam vet who came home shattered from the war. As America prepares to go to war in Iraq and anti-American demonstrations fill the streets of Helsinki, Anna and Ian painfully struggle to piece themselves together. Anna and Ian are like human twin towers, reduced to emotional rubble by the people and events—both personal and political—that collide with them.

The narrative shifts between present and past, and between the stories of Anna and Ian. Both were unpopular and persecuted in school. Both came from troubled families. Ian has become an academic—he originally comes to Finland to lecture on Virginia Woolf—and Anna has become a journalist. As the novel opens, Anna is sitting in a café, and seems to be reading Michael Cunningham's The Hours: "There's the book. There's the world I am allowed to enter. Three women on a single day in different time periods. The writer Virginia Woolf who filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water."

The novel itself feels as if it has rocks in its pockets, pulled down by the pervasive tone of irredeemable despair and by the seriousness of its purpose. Hirvonen's writing lacks the lightness of touch that marks her countrywoman Tove Jansson's stories of loss and disillusionment. Hirvonen gives us the image of Virginia Woolf weighed down with rocks, walking into the river to drown herself. Jansson gives the image of her Anna's old furniture piled up on the ice out in the harbor, waiting for spring to break up the ice and pull it all down:
Far out on the ice lay a dark pile of rubbish waiting for the ice to break up, a monument to Mama and Papa's complete inability ever to get rid of possessions. How remarkable, Anna thought. The ice will go, and everything will sink, just go straight down and disappear. It's bold, it's almost shameless... Later it occurred to her that maybe it wouldn't sink, not all of it, maybe it would float to another shore and someone would find it and wonder where it came from and why. In any event, it was not even the least bit Anna's fault.
The ice holds things up, but even when it's gone, some things will float. In Jansson's world, there is some buoyancy—some of it is Anna's personal self-deception, much of it is the human will to stay afloat. At the end of Hirvonen's novel there is a moment of lightness, as her Anna seems to float above her reflection in the puddles of a spring thaw. For me, that lightness came too late.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Winter Projects

Here's my desk at home, all set up for what I hope will be a productive winter. I'm hoping to complete, or make substantial progress, on two projects. The first is an essay for a collection of essays on writing titled Chapter & Verse. According to the prospectus, "Chapter & Verse provides perspectives on the many avenues to success that academic—and formerly academic—writers find, including writing and working outside the academy." The second project is the translation of primary sources to be included in Clara's book on Athens in 415 BCE. On the right-hand side of my desk, my big Greek lexicon and Oxford Classical Text of Thucydides are laid out so that I can work on translating the Melian Dialogue.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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