FORGET THIS SEPTEMBER

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

ISHI REDUX

ISHI–THE SO-CALLED LAST WILD INDIAN

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.

DOUBLE CONFLAGRATION

JOHN BEUEHRENS

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.

UNDER THE MORMON BANNER OF HEAVEN

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.

THE ODYSSEY OF JOYCE’S ULYSSES

SYLVIA BEACH

The book is entitled The Paris Bookseller. The author, Kerri Maher. It’s a rather insipid, if accurate title, I think, for a novel about the literary event of the twentieth century. I’ve had my struggles handling this epic novel. Its obvious excellence often outdistances my understanding. As for its successor, Finnegan’s Wake, I confess bewilderment. A terrible thing for an English major to say, I suppose, but that’s the way it is. On the other hand, I’ve been enthralled with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from the first moment I touched it, so I do have some creds. However, of the effort it took to bring Ulysses to readers, I was close to completely ignorant. I knew it ran into censors and legal challenges and that there was enormous opposition to its publication, but I had no idea. I thank Kerri Maher for this engaging, painful, exciting, and often heart-rending tale.

Though Joyce and Ulysses are seemingly at the heart of the story, the novel is multilayered. It opens with young Sylvia Beach and her first visit as an adult to Paris in post WWI. She hasn’t been there since her family had spent some time there when she was a young girl, but in her heart she never left. She’s smart, well-read, and eager for adventure. She’s also a lesbian. This was a heady mixture for someone from sex-repressed America and who was of a revolutionary frame of mind and ready for adventure and romance.

She soon fell in with the literary crowd that frequented the left bank of the era. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Joyce, and a flock of others became her everyday companions. The atmosphere was bilingual, and she soon became enamored of the notion that she might do well to open a bookstore that catered to the English-speaking crowd that was part of the literary mix. Thus was born Shakespeare and Company, sponsored largely by Adrenne Monnier, who was Sylvia’s lover and the owner of a French bookstore that was already famous among the literati.

All well and good, but what about the Ulysses connection? It happened this way: In the midst of composing his epic, Joyce was having a hard time finding a publisher. He and Sylvia had become close friends as well as colleagues by this time. So, Adrienne and Sylvia cooked up a scheme whereby Sylvia would publish this work by a man they loved who wrote the prose they thought would reshape English literature.

We all know the result of their labors, but if you’re as ignorant as I was, what it took to reach the result is astounding. Thus, the layers I spoke of came into play. Sexism, selfishness, betrayal, misogyny, and greed all became characters in the ugly and thrilling drama that unfolded over many years. The book was finally published in 1922. By that time a pirated edition had emerged, which cut into sales and royalties. In the U.S., the case went all the way to the supreme court despite the fact that the book had appeared in various versions all over the world.

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and discover how Sylvia Beach, the original publisher, editor, and mentor of Joyce and his work fared amid all this sturm und drang. If not for her endurance and sensitivity, the story of Ulysses would likely have ended quite differently. Cream rises to the top? Don’t believe it. Not automatically. It needs a lot of help. Thank goodness, in this case, it got what it needed. Of course, the effect on other writers and readers that succeeded the 1922 group is incalculable. And, despite it all, Sylvia lived a rich and relatively long life. When she died 1n 1962 at the age of seventy five, she was still in Paris, still the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, still unheralded in comparison to all that every reader and writer owes her right down to present day.

JAMES JOYCE