“They say there was a secret chord

that David played to please the Lord”–Leonard Cohen

If there was indeed such a chord, Geraldine Brooks has gone a long way toward discovering. The breadth and depth of Brooks’ literary explorations is stunning. I have written reviews of three other of her books and am working my way through a fourth. She’s carried me from ante-bellum horse racing to the Civil War and now to Deep BCE biblical history.


David has for a long time been one of my favorite historical characters because he is such a hodge-podge of contradictions. A pious and holy man, a musician, a warrior, a hypocrite, a savage betrayer of all that is sacred, a revered ancestor of one of the most revered prophets in the history of religion. He sent to death the husband of one of his rape victims. He danced naked into Jerusalem like a shameless heathen. He is one of the mightiest of generals. And yet, he composed some of the most beautiful poetry in the history of language. Doubtless if we had access to the actual music of those hymns, the melodies would have been just as wondrous.

It is said that God often chooses the weakest among us to do his greatest work. Thus Moses needed Aaron. Martin Luther King was a plagiarizer and a womanizer. LBJ, racist and political brute brought about our greatest USA civil rights actions. Not that these are quite of David’s stature or breadth of talent. But you get the point.

In many ways, Brooks has written a biography of a towering historical figure. It is told through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, who according to legend was the only one who dared tell David the truth, who labeled him to his face a murderer in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, among other things. Still he couldn’t keep his master on the straight and narrow. Yet brooks has composed also a portrait of a profoundly ugly human being, one capable of brutalizing and betraying family and friends for the sake of his own power. She has also dropped us into a historical period cram full of unimaginable misogyny and viciousness. The Old Testament is replete with cruelty, but in Brooks biblical world, even Nazi cruelty would have a hard time competing.

Nevertheless, in Brooks’ hands with we have the spectacle of sacred and profane existing not only side by side, but integrated into a whole human capable of a full range of every possible human greatness and depravity.

Look out for your soul. As Nathan is warning, someone is coming to get it.


I have high regard for Shelby Foote as a historian, particularly for his commentary on the Ken Burns film about the Civil War. His powers as a novelist, however, seem to be of considerably less magnitude. September September is a tale of a kidnapping plot coincident with the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. A Keystone Kops gang–if three can be considered a gang–plan to snatch a Negro grade-schooler whose family has some money and hold him for ransom. The brains of the outfit–if these fools could be said to have brains–is a small time crook who fancies he can plot everything so minutely that virtually nothing can go wrong.

I don’t think I’m being much of a spoiler to say that very much goes wrong. His partners in crime are a woman and a man, each more the tool of their own fleshly appetites than the other. From the beginning, it is obvious this whole plot is doomed.

That isn’t the puzzle. What is puzzling is why Foote chooses to stage the drama before the backdrop of Arkansas governor Faubus’s attempts to block a federal court order to integrate the schools. It seems that somehow the crooks think that the political drama will enhance their ability to demand and collect ransom. Or something.

Shelby Foote

At any rate, whatever the plot flaws, the novel’s biggest problem is that it drags on and on and on. It takes a potentially suspenseful situation and turns it into a ho-humm. In fact, I think I just invented a new genre. The ho-hummer. I can at least thank Shelby for that new word.

Aside from that, I return to my heading on this page–FORGET SEPTEMBER



This is the title on the cover of an issue of the University of California Alumni magazine, which came to me unsolicited recently. I have no idea why or how it found my way into my snailmailbox, but I’m glad it did. Laura Smith’s article “Into the Ishi Wilderness,” is a clever and entirely appropriate title for this discussion.

Ishi, a name which, when anglicized, means “man” in the Yani language, walked out of the wilderness near Mount Lassen in northeastern California in 1911. His people were thought to be extinct, so his appearance was a surprise. He had grown tired and lonely of scraping a survival out of the dry hillsides near the Feather River above the small town of Oroville, California (now the site of an enormous reservoir), so he decided to more or less surrender to the people who had decimated not only his family, but his entire people. Gold rush invaders and white settlers had overwhelmed his small tribe as well as others in the area and left him quite alone and isolate.

At first, no one could figure out what to do with or about him, how to communicate with him, or just what was the most appropriate approach to this calm, mild-mannered “savage.” Enter Alfred Kroeber, the young, ambitious founder of the UC anthropology department. For him, Ishi was like manna. Given the mores of the time, it was both natural and forgivable for him to treat Ishi as a zoo-like curiosity. He was paraded in western dress, invited to put his customs and wilderness skills and preliterate self on exhibit and generally become an adjunct to the world of his white custodians. He succumbed in 1916 to tuberculosis, doubtless of exposure to one of the scourges that wiped out so many Native Americans.

Fast forward to the present. We are in the midst of a massive reevaluation of the branding of public edifices and institutions. As more details of the depredations of heretofore revered icons of the past–everything from buildings to books–are being renamed and unnamed. Alfred Kroeber is one of them. He flirted with eugenics (as did John Muir) among other ideas. Worst of all, say his critics, he exploited Ishi and other Native Americans and their artifacts for personal gain. The objects he collected and put on exhibit are sacred relics whose removal and encasing was a violation of all that was holy, as if the Sistine Chapel was profaned and defaced.

So, suddenly, more than a century after his death, Ishi has stepped into another white man’s quarrel which he did nothing to initiate or participate in. Kroeber Hall, the venerable Anthropology building to which Alfred gave his name has been quietly stripped of its letters. There is as yet no new name. The artifacts Kroeber so painstakingly collected and catalogued with what many consider to be malicious intent, are being returned to appropriate peoples, as near as that can be determined. Finally there is the question of the future of what Smith calls “repatriation politics.” Are we carrying on practices right now which, despite our best efforts will some day be deemed somehow immoral? While some feel that removing Kroeber’s name was an attempt to erase history,” Smith says, “the opposite appear[s] to be true. History ha[s] been unearthed, discussed contended with.” And so it goes from idea to idea, civilization to civilization, building to building as we stumble across the past on our way to the future.



John Beuhrens was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations from 1993 to 2001 and is the author of a number of books detailing various aspects of what Americans generally call the Unitarian church. The Unitarians were founded by members of what has become known as the religious/philosophical movement now known as transcendentalism. in Conflagration, Beuhrens focuses on how transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau (to name only two of many), influenced American society in general, but specifically on their role the American debate over slavery.

I am among the group who, as Beuhrens describes us, “. . .first [met] the transcendentalists in high school or college . . .We read some Emerson [essays] . . .Thoreau’s Walden . . . We . . .[came] to see Transcendentalists as centered in rural Concord [Massachusetts], asserting their individualism against the demands of society.” To focus, as Beuhrens does, on the transcendentalists’ lives and deeds instead of only on their writings, is to enrich one’s knowledge of who and what these people were and on their social significance, which carries us far beyond those meager schoolday impressions.

Indeed, many of these individuals were in the forefront of the social justice struggles not only of their day, but as it unfortunately has turned out, of our own time as well. As a group they formed an important part of the abolitionist movement. In that context, Julia Ward Howe, most famous for her “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, became a champion not only for Union victory and freedom of the slaves, but for civil rights in general. Many in the movement became involved with or about John Brown [whose wife, incidentally, was part of a wagon train that brought my forbears west in 1864] . Margaret Fuller, was a leader in the movement for women’s rights. Wendell Phillips was another fiery abolitionist as well as a battler for Native Americans. And the list, as the saying goes, is too long to repeat here, but you get the point. There were many such high-powered transcendentalist individuals, and as a group though they may be of (to paraphrase) “little note or long remembered, ” but they were a great force for good–a force far stronger than that for which they are generally given credit. I might put in a plug here for William Ellery Channing, a principal in the movement, for whom a major street in Berkeley, California, in and near which I have lived for a long time, is named. Didn’t know that.

Beuhrens doesn’t stop at these historical markers, though. He also delves into the personal feelings and relationships among this unique community. To my mind, the title Conflagration refers to two catastrophes. One, from a world view, was of no particular significance– the explosion and sinking of the steamboat, Lexington, in Long Island Sound in 1840. That accident took with it the abolitionist Unitarian minister Charles Follen [See illustration below.], who was so well regarded that his absence was felt long after among his followers and others devoted to his cause. The other was the Civil War itself, which caused more fatalities than all our other wars combined. The effects of that horror, of course, remain active and awful over a century and a half later. During all this, as these individuals worked to further their works, they also lived and loved like the human beings they were. They formed groups within and without what many of them didn’t call an organized religion exactly, though most practiced and argued about one form of Christianity or another.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the attractive design of the layout itself, an element I don’t remember ever including in another post. Each chapter is headed in the manner of a good 19th century novelist, with a bit of commentary about what is to follow. The technique nicely evokes the flavor of the time in which most of the book is set. To wit:

Conviction, in which a German-born scholar flees to America, carrying the torch of his native land’s idealism to Harvard, and comes to hold “incendiary” ideas on the subject of American slavery.

As well, the illustrations [I apologize for the look of this image–My tech skills fail me again. But I thought even a clumsy look was worth the effort to give a feel for the the tone they give to the book– are nicely done patterned after a technique for which I have no name, but, again, pays homage to the time an places in which the transcendentalists lived and loved and preached and wrote.


Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven chronicles the 1984 murders of two families by two brothers who believe a heavenly vision commanded them to kill a woman and her infant daughter. At least it uses the murder as a starting point. The motivation for the throat-cutting was not only a supposed divine revelation but a personal and complicated relationship involving a marriage gone wrong and the defiance of a wife who refused to go along with a fundamentalist “commandment” that she allow her husband a second wife. Both brothers belonged to one of the several LDS church-disowned splinter groups who believe that the church went terribly wrong when it officially banned polygamy in 1890.

In Krakauer’s version of the history, the worst of the polygamists used the god-sanctioned practice to commit rape and incest on a grand scale. One of the chief tenets of the sects was/is absolute obedience to the patriarch, so once the vision of the male in charge came down, the discussion was over. Many women felt comfortable with the idea and followed willingly. A particularly interesting case to me was that of 12-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her bed and forced to live as a sex slave for something like two years. When she was finally recovered and returned to her family, her main concern was for the fate of her captors. Seemingly A classic case of the Stockholm Syndrome wherein victims bond sympathetically with those who hold them prisoners.

Much of what Krakauer describes in the book is historically accurate, and beyond appalling. It’s savage and violent and all centered around so-called visions of specific individuals who use their communications with the Almighty to commit all kinds of outrages. None of what they do is sanctioned by the church, at least after 1890. However, there is plenty of church-sanctioned slaughter to condemn before that time, such as the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857. In that event–series of events, actually–a self-styled militia, many disguised as Indians, murdered about 120 members of a passing wagon train. The president of the church at the time–the famous Brigham Young–condoned both the murders and the cover-up. There are plenty of execrable acts committed under the banner of other religions, so it would be entirely unfair and inaccurate to declare the Mormon church one-and-only violent outlaw religion. Still, the degree of savagery in its history is hard to ignore. The insistence on a certain degree of secrecy in its philosophy and practices contributes to the suspicions many hold against it. That’s not to mention one of the underpinnings of church philosophy which was blatantly racist. In 2019 the practice of discrimination against blacks was officially stopped, but of course many still believe in it.

Jon Krakauer

At any rate, Under the Banner of Heaven, as an account of events surrounding America’s only home-grown religion, makes for disturbing reading.