SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Sundry on Wednesday

Cooperstown arts news:
Ashley Norwood Cooper's solo show is still up.
New York City friends, please go...

The Likes of Us
at First Street Gallery
through 23 February 2019
526 West 26th Street, Suite 209
New York, NY 10001
Tel: 646-336-8053

What a rugged two weeks it has been! The weather was a little too focused on snow and ice. The sweet, tiny Puffcat died. The long author questionnaire was sent in. The novel manuscript was turned in at three in the morning. Many other things were accomplished that chewed up time. And now I must deal with my neglected house, for I have been giving most of my home attention to words and cat.

* * *

Tomorrow, out pops the Valentine edition of The Rollipoke, which you (naturally) won't want to miss. Advance peek at the next book, available only to Rollipokers... Click on the link to Be Mine: that is, to be a Rollipoker. 

Nobody loves you? Nobody sends you a Valentine? Weep not! Have a Rollipoke Valentine!

* * *

If you're at all interested in a sharp-edged critique of the state of the humanities (particularly English studies) on our campuses, I think this article by Gilbert T. Sewall is a must read--hat tip to the Prufrock newsletter. Thank God that I dropped out of academia after getting tenure because that preserved the freedom of my mind for my books. I might have been weak-willed. Who knows? Leaving the academic world protected me from rampant ideologies, which are the ruination of art.

After reading it, I was thinking about teaching Huckleberry Finn, talking with my students about that crucial, deep-down beautiful scene where Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." With no understanding of our Christian heritage and how it has been the underpinning of Western history, how can a reader even understand the huge thing that Huck is willing to give up out of love for his friend, a slave? Can a reader even feel the depths of sacrifice in that love? How can a reader see and understand that Huck is turning away from a false morality and a false vision of God and toward a true one, even though he does not know it? How can a reader have the slightest understanding of how huge the scene is, a turning point in our literary history, walking us into an American literature where the growth of the individual soul and the rule of the individual mind is central? 

Also, I was remembering what sheer fun it was to teach Chaucer in a survey course, and how much laughter and joy there was in the classroom as students had a brief lesson in pronunciation and then read aloud. To feel the words in the mouth, to have a sense of another time, another world--yet so strangely close to our own!--how precious that was. And now an English major might not encounter Chaucer at all.

There are a million things to say in response to that article, but one that has bothered me for a long time is the way that we are depriving our young writers of the best that has been thought and written. As makers, we want to stand on giants, not on little hobbits. We want enduring stone, not fragile papier-mâché novelty. We want vellum, not foolscap. To discard, to encourage young writers to assume that Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare and the King James Bible (all those writers and translators, so dead! so white! so long ago!) are of no literary account and have nothing to say to us today is to harm young writers in the West. It is to plant their feet on sand. Yes, we want to know the writing of our own times. Sure, we want to read new voices of all sorts. We want to praise and support worthy voices of our era. But we also want to pay the obeisance owed to the glories of the past. To move forward, we dive through the past. It saddens me that such things need to be said.

* * *

Snow is falling (I know, I know--it's the Cooperstown usual for February.) But these are lovely whirls of snowflakes as big as feathers, crisscrossing on wayward currents. And the bird feeders are busy with juncos and chickadees and pine siskins. Best of all, I finally have a squirrel-defeating feeder, so I am watching a morbidly obese squirrel (no doubt fattened on our seeds) climb up and then slide down. I've always disliked the word chuckle except when it describes something other than a laugh, but maybe this is the right place for one. Keep cosy...

* * *

Happy St. Valentine's Day, y'all!

Rock doves by photographer Juha Soininen of Finland at


  1. Looks like you accidentally omitted the link to the Sewall article--but it's easily located via Google.

    At my big-state-school alma mater, the English major used to come with several requirements, including a British lit course, an American lit course, a Shakespeare course, and a senior seminar, among others. One could bicker with the specific requirements, but the existence of any requirements made clear that there was core knowledge to be gleaned. Now, though, English majors have to meet almost no course requirements, and students essentially design their own majors. I can think of no better way to suggest to students that the major is useless and the university doesn't care what, if anything, they learn. At this point, I'm not sure students who came to that conclusion would be wrong.

  2. Drat! I must have knocked out the link when fooling around with the post. Thanks for telling me--back in now.

    Yes, requirements suggests that some things are essential... And that is--was--appropriate and right.

  3. The university might be turning its back on teaching students what it means to be human.


    On the rare occasions I find myself in vacant or in pensive mood (Dozing is much more likely these days) I ask myself what might I have studied at university had I miraculously overcome my disinclination to go there, garlanded with the necessary qualifications to get me through the doors. The answer is, of course, nothing. I wasn't adult enough to assume the academic attitude. Journalism (which, initially, I gravely misunderstood) seemed the best fit for my limited resources and, 44½ years later, as I stood on the threshold of sere and withered age, I found myself still agreeing with a decision first explored at age 11.

    That was then. Along that wavering trajectory there were occasions when I might have developed sufficiently to have considered the penitential path of the mature student, even though lack of formal education would have held me back. Paradoxically, with regard to What subject?, the answer would have still been: nothing. I was reasonably well informed about what some call literature but I call books, but this accumulation had been modified by a cultural detour forced on me by National Service which had exposed me to a broad view of science. The two strands intermingle so that I am no longer fish, fowl or good red herring. Possibly to the point that were I to re-read Middlemarch again I might well find myself sympathising with Mr Casaubon rather than Dorothea.

    In brief, I am lucky enough to have a foot (OK, a little toe) in both the liberal and the illiberal arts. Enough, anyway, to be mildly outraged by the above extract. Enough also to echo one of C. P. Snow's assertions in The Twin Cultures essay: that whereas society does contain a few scientists who have read - let's say - Middlemarch, it has far fewer liberal artists who appreciate the second law of thermodynamics.

    Much sadder is the belief that the liberal arts are the only repository of beauty. If I had space I would allude to the fundamental elegance of the hysteresis curve but I suspect I have, as Mr Bennett said, "delighted you enough".

  4. What disturbs me now is that what's called the liberal arts on campus is no longer a defender of beauty and achievement in the arts. For that matter, a great deal of the arts scene is shaped around ugliness and the rejection of beauty. And poetry, too--whatever happened to the joy of beautiful sounds, much less form? Etc. It's just depressing that checking on the p.c. boxes means not climbing up a mountain to sit with Dante or Milton.

    You were wise. There is a weird belief that if you are bright, you simply must go to college, that there is no other path. But if you are bright, you might well see exactly why you should not.

    I do think you should reread Middlemarch and see. And then write a post about it.

    My middle child did several years at Bard College--hideously expensive, though an often-wonderful faculty--but found the whole enterprise depressing, and the fellow college students, all very hip New Yorkers, equally so.

    I don't know. I'm just glad that I was a dropout from teaching. Costly financially, rewarding in other ways.

  5. I'm trying to imagine the school uniform at Bard College. Tight-fitting cap with floppy horns, bells attached. Multi-coloured lozenges decorating the leggings, also tight-fitting. Bright red ping-pong ball worn on the nose.

    Also corrections to a bit of verse submitted by a kid who never made it to the end of the first semester at Bard College (Slogan: Going bardic keeps blood flowing. But never forget your tourmiquet.)

    "Look kid, you say 'cold coming' but it lacks detail. Those sand-dunes had gradients. Be smart, like the Europeans. A percentage figure says steepness more precisely. 'Galled' is definitely sick-making. 'Reddened skin' would be better; don't want to offend the spinster ladies. But puh-lease what in tarnation is 'refractory'? It ain't in my dictionary.

    Aha: 'silken girls'. Now you're trucking."

    1. I'm afraid the uniform is irredeemably New York hipster and has a ferociously high price tag. Now you'll have to redo corrections in hipster mode!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.