Saturday, 30 April 2011

Modesty Manifesto

On David Brooks: My country was of Them, sweet land of flim and flem.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

How Long Will English be Global?

As I attempt to make my proposals for internationalizing the study of English Literature as practical as possible, the future of Global English as the predominant “lingua franca” is a key variable. And as a former Catholic altar boy, I know that Latin looked eternal, but in fact is fast fading away. As the Chinese economy looks fair to soon rule the economic roost, will Mandarin force its way to the top?

Nicholas Ostler’s latest book, “The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel” (Allen Lane, 2010)is as close as we can come right now to a plausible answer(s). (He doubts that Global English will retain its hegemony: his long, complicated–but fascinating—book is his reading of the linguistic tea leaves.) It’s a complicated puzzle, and I have one preliminary suggestion to make the new IE Ph.D. globally helpful.

I got the idea from noting that a Notre Dame English professor has just grabbed 15 minutes global fame for translating the first winner in the new Mann Booker award for Arabic Lit. Each IE Ph.D. candidate, I propose, shall chose a global minority language for his service to expanding IE as one of his five prelim exams. And I would parse the category“language” broadly. An ABD might offer as his “minority language” radio interviewing, writing or producing TV documentaries, or shooting photoessays.

European cultural TV and radio is so much better than ours because there artists are involved in interpreting Culture. My USOE contacts in writing “Tradition and Innovation in the Craft of English“(1966) with Welsh poet and BBC/Wales TV producer John Ormond and Scots poet and Borders TV producer Maurice Lindsay energized my looking forward in teaching.

Ideally, this “minority language” candidate would spend her ABD years abroad teaching ESL in the minority culture whose language she wants to master. I have yet to find a primer more useful for preparing for those years abroad than Ostler’s book. As a revisionist American Lit specialist I would make one other principle: reject the past-oriented view that we must counter the snooty Scottish early 19th century slur “Who (implying “in his right mind”) reads an American book etc….?” IE is to be a future oriented, bread and butter, humanism which seeks to share our culture with other diverse human societies learning how to cope creatively with the complexities with the rest of the twenty-first century.

Our job is to create a clerisy that wants to metabolize for his diverse students the discreet futures facing us. Learning how to speak and write in a “minority tongue” is the dues we pay to join the human race. As you find reading Ostler that while there may have been as many as 6,000 “tongues” we’ve only been at the language learning game some 5,000 years or more, depending on how orderly our ancestors have been. And over the millennia there have been many “lingua francas” (the term originally meant ”the Latin variants”) that those Venetian traders used to bargain along the Silk Road.

And each “global language” added some useful element to the linguistic armory we now possess—with Sumerian the savvy to keep records in clay, with the Phoenicians an alphabet with vowels, und so weiter. Expanding empires (Arabic as well as Portuguese), an expanding theology (Latin and Hebrew), a flourishing commerce (English as well as Mandarin). Who woulda thunk that the current Globish started out 12 centuries ago as a wild mix of other languages and dialects thereof in a tiny island off the coast of Europe?

When I studied Mandarin for six weeks in Shanghai in 1982, I also tutored some locals in English as a fraternal gesture. Whenever I meet a Chinese person I try my only Chinese joke on them. I tell them I studied harder than I ever studied anything but only learned three words! Amazed, they always answer skeptically, “Which three words?” WO PU DONG! (I not understand!) Their reaction is inevitably a side-splitting laugh! And I never even tried to crack their writing system—Thus their 50,000 characters beats our 26 letters.

So Chinese supremacy may not include their language! These details and many, many more will explain how a language gains supremacy to begin with—with no guarantee of supremacy forever. But this book is your initiation to the minority language you will master to make Humanism stronger in some centuries that are destined to be complex. Choose your language well and add it to your disgracefully narrow Monolingual American English. It declares to the world you want to join the human race as an Exceptionally Narrow American eager to do much better.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Academic Nuttiness: Here And There

Early resignation from academe (in 1982) saved me from the diverse nuttinesses associated with deconstructionism and its associated hip strategies. Semiotics was just creeping in on padded Francophile feet via film courses when I parked my mortarboard for good. Whew. Close.

Most of the time I haven’t the vaguest ideas what the polyslobbic neologists are driving at. Every once in a while, a patently useful insight will emerge out of these verbal fogs. But no one ever makes as much sense of the murk as the British academic critic and novelist David Lodge, whose send-ups of Rummidge University (rhymes with rubbish) are among the comic joys of our intellectually dark decade.

Now, suddenly, there are two other contenders: one British—Possession, by A.S. Byatt (Random House, $22.95)—and one American—The Crown of Columbus, by Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich (Harper Collins, $21.95). Juxtaposed, the novels highlight the differences between the two national systems without losing track of the paradox that the corruption of the best (the clerisy we subsidize to make sense of our heritage) is indeed worst.

Byatt’s is the more intellectual, centering on the creation of two literary figures, a Robert Browning dramatic monologuist wannabe named Randolph Henry Ash, and his hidden lover, Christabel LaMotte. We not only get the “mystery” (shall I call it an academic thriller?) of academic failure Roland Mitchell and his unintended feminist colleague and ultimate lover Maud Bailey, but we also get swatches of the “creative work” by the two.

Christabel appeals to the new feminist cadre because of her closet lesbianism. It complicates their plate to discover the depth of her passion for Ash. All of this bravura intellectualism is unreeled against the subject of a dementedly acquisitive Ashite from New Mexico name Mortimer Cropper, with a Croesus of a checkbook.

There’s even a climactic grave-robbing episode blipped by a most Gothically opportune windstorm. As the romance closes, Roland mulls where he’ll carry his academic viruses—Amsterdam, Barcelona or Hong Kong. The sun will never set on the academic sins of British expats. At least Mortimer has come a Cropper. Brit wit outmaneuvers Amways. If you read only one academic novel this year, make it this one. It will possess you with its intelligence and verve.

The Crown of Columbus, by that most famous of Native American literary couples, is good enough but not nearly as plausible as Possession. Vivian Twostar, who runs a Native American studies program at Dartmouth, is up for tenure as the Columbus Quincentennial approaches. Implausibly, across a crowded carrel, she falls helplessly in love with a WASPish poet who aspires to write the most important epic on the Columbus history.

Harassed by a broad-minded alumni magazine editor who wants her opinions of the QuinCen, Twostar comes across a two-centuries-long series of indigent alumni letters from the Cobb family demanding that the phlegmatic librarians return letters which are a key to a great treasure.

Henry Cobb, rusticated for suspected securities fraud to the Caribbean island where Columbus is supposed to have hidden his treasure, gives Twostar and lover a free ride to the tropics.

You won’t believe how they finally come upon the treasure. Or the A-Team kind of TV adventure that leads up to the “discovery.” Well, hell: If Columbus lusted for the Orient and only came up with the spicy Indians, why not an Indian professor stumbling on the publication that will confirm her tenure?

The neatest ironies derive from the fact that one of Dartmouth’s earliest self-assumed responsibilities was to civilize the local Indians. Dorris / Erdrich make a good deal out of that. Vaccinate your body and soul against the impending tsunami of Columbus-watching with this intelligent gloss on the contradictions in American academic life.

It’s striking how different the U.K. and U.S. academics are. The flaming bisexual lesbian from Tallahassee is as inconceivable in a Brit Lit redoubt as the very tight, focused Women’s Studies lady would be in the Am Lit acres. The petty jobs British academics put up with as they wait patiently for a tiny sliver of an opportunity (maybe) to open up are sinecures Americans could never last at. (They’d say “Fuck it,” and enter Law School!)

A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf, $23) is a stunningly rich “academic” novel in two very different senses. They used to cavil that letting creative writers into academe would divorce them from reality, engendering a generation of hermetically-sealed seminar writers. Man—not in Smiley’s case.

Reared in L.A. and St. Louis and educated at Vassar and the original Writer’s Workshop venue—the University of Iowa—Smiley is as rooted in the particulars of Iowa as the quilt that graces her book’s jacket. Yet her ingenious variations on the themes of King Lear are breathtaking in their brilliance.

Larry Cook, by hook and (we sadly if slowly discern) by crook, has amassed by 1979 a mortgage-free thousand acres of prime Iowa corn land. He’s riding on top of his tiny Zebulon County world. Inexplicably, he decides to give the acres to his three daughters.

The youngest, a lawyer in Des Moines, flinches at this unlawfully spontaneous act and unleashes the mindless anger of the father. The son of his closest neighbor (and principal competitor) returns from seven years of Vietnam-fleeing expatriation in Vancouver, full of new-fangled ideas about organic farming. The eldest daughter’s husband, a plodder, dreams of using the millions of dollars in equity to finance a 5,000-unit hog farm.

The old man has second thoughts (if you can believe him still capable of thinking as his mind unravels). The lawyer daughter takes the other two siblings to court to retrieve their dad’s title, as Smiley ingeniously and tragically plots the disintegration of this one big “happy” family.

The book is so steeped in the particulars of the Heartland farm economic boom-and-bust that you marvel at how Smiley keeps the psychological and sociological in such precarious balance. Alas, there’s a dark secret at the rotten core of this family, and the pathos of its revelation is heartbreaking.

So don’t talk to me about English professors necessarily alienated from their surroundings. Smiley demonstrates that with diligence and grace, even academics can illuminate our universal truths from particular instances deeply understood.

I’m sure that this kind of marvelously resonating fiction is just what Paul Engle dreamt of when he founded the Writer’s Workshop more than 50 years ago. And such benign viruses spread: Smiley teaches at Iowa State, the aggy sibling up the highway at Ames.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 11, 1991

Sunday, 24 April 2011

A Mensch for the Ages

Walt Whitman has meant a great deal to me, personally and professionally, over the past fifty years. So the Inquirer editorial (April 4, 1992) about the paradox of Whitman’s Godforsaken Camden deserves a rejoinder. For its ignorance reflects the very lack of contact with our heritage that the editorial presumes to cluck about. For a start, the aimless speculation about why Whitman would choose such a déclassé place to reside betrays the editorial writer’s ignorance about two easily verifiable facts.

First, Camden was more bucolic, less of a mess than Philly in the late nineteenth century, partly because the Delaware River (before the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges were built in the late 1920’s and 30’s) buffered Camden from the worst excesses of rampant Philadelphia industrialism. If you look at N.C. Packard’s pen and ink drawing of the Mickle Street house in the 1880’s (it’s on view at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library as part of a splendid centennial tribute), the positive boskiness of the milieu is overpowering. Two grand maples screen the house (which has only one adjoining companion on the street) and a horse trough inscribed with the letters W.W. remind you that the automobile had not yet had its brutal way with Camden.

It is also instructive to remember that the industrial tycoons whose operations messed up Philly daily in ugly effluents of one kind or another had started taking the suburban option to spend the night in the woods of the Main Line. Main Line, remember refers to the railroad right of way between Philly and Pittsburgh. It is asking too much for editorial writers on a newspaper that let Bartle and Steele spend two years working up their bromides over the changed rules of American industrialism to demand that before a centennial commentary the editorial writer do a little research to avoid the more egregious of anachronisms.

The second appalling defect of the inky editorial is its blithe ignorance of the obvious reason Walt moved to Camden. He had a stroke, and sought the succor of his brother George. Perhaps by the bicentennial of Walt’s death, inky editorial writers will not make blunders that would get a cub reporter sacked. Still, the paradox remains of Godforsakenness of our Camden, not Whitman’s.

The short answer is that Camden (and much of the rest of America, even the superficially richest parts) is in a Godforsaken condition because the American people have forsaken their greatest poet for over a century themselves. I used to tell my American Literature students that a country which does not read (and metabolize) its greatest writers slowly, but nonetheless inexorably, loses its mind.

Most Americans are emotionally and intellectually infantile because they are blissfully ignorant of what their greatest thinkers and artists have made of this country’s experiences. I also used to tell them that Americans have diminished their souls by choosing the Lesser Walt (Disney) instead of the Greater Walt (Whitman).

In 1973, the centennial of the year Whitman had his stroke and came to Camden, my girl and I were driving back from the Shore where we had just celebrated her birthday, on the 30th of May. It was May 31, and I told her she must be close in spirit to Walt, having been born the day before him. She asked me what the mausoleum (allegedly cribbed from some William Blake drawings) looked like. I had to shamefacedly admit I had never looked at it, or even for it.

Right then and there we turned off the ramp to the Walt Whitman Bridge and sought out his final resting place. You’d be amused, if not depressed, to learn how few Camden natives could guide us to Harleigh Cemetery. (To most Delaware Valleyans, Whitman is a good box of candy—or a fast way to the Shore. No way was he a poet who shaped their lives and characters.) Penn poet Dan Hoffman has written an excellent poem about such shocking ignorance, “On Crossing Walt Whitman Bridge.” But then most Americans, including I suspect Inquirer editors, don’t read Walt’s poetic heirs either. (It shows in their editorials!)

What she and I found that centennial birthday was depressing indeed. The noble structure was in a state of terminal decline. The grouting was shredding away due to total neglect. It was a disgusting mess. Completely neglected like the works he left us.

But by what we American Literature specialists call a “Remarkable Providence,” the National Council of Teachers of English was holding its annual convention in Philly that Thanksgiving. I wrote the Executive Committee and asked them if I could ply the aisles of the Convention Center with sandwich boards imploring the English teachers of America to kick in with slogans like “A Buck for the Bard’s Bones” or “Save Walt’s Vault.”  They replied that if I abandoned the sleazy rhetoric, I could indeed go abegging for our bard. The teachers pitched in to a total of $838.

Buckminster Fuller, after giving the Commencement address at Beaver College the next spring, somehow through a serendipitous foul up in marching orders ending up leading the procession out of the lawn tent with me in arm instead of the President of the College. I had been whiling away the longueurs of the ceremonies by addressing Emilygrams (postcards I had had printed displaying the only known visage of Walt’s peer) to the poets of the region inviting them to the rededication of the mausoleum on his birthday in 1974.

I flashed an Emily at him, asking him if he recognized the person. “Sweet Emily,” he exclaimed fondly. Apprised of their purpose, he sent me a check the next day for $100. “Buckminster’s Bucks for the Bard’s Bones,” I replied in a thank you note. (Heh, I’m not going to let even the NCTE Executive Committee trash a perfectly pert slogan of mine, eh. Especially not them, come to think of it.)

I shall never forget the birthday party we had at the rededication. Local poets read their newly minted homages to their spiritual mentor. Local amateurs of Walt read their favorite passages from “Leaves of Grass.” Bill Frabizio, chairman of Beaver’s music department, and a mean man on the flugelhorn, composed a jazz suite for the occasion, “Perhaps Far Luckier,” alluding to the passage in LOG that speculates about death’s being far luckier than our Calvinistic forebears imagined—after all, the physical side at least of all of us mortals ends up as leaves of grass—for eternity. A nice assignment. National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” carried it. I had bought nine (for the Muses) bottles of champagne—Great Western, not some fancy old French stuffs and pink—for his sexual preference.

Alas, it did its bubbly work too well but not wisely. For when we pour a ritual libation on a lilac bush we planted to honor his great elegy to Abraham Lincoln, it killed the bush. I hear the ceremony continues on his birthday each May 31st. I have been traveling so widely since I wrote a letter of early retirement to the Dean in 1982—on Walt’s Birthday, natch—that I’m never here on May 31. I have never regretted the move which Walt gave me the courage to make.

The first thing I did upon retiring was to go to Shanghai to study Mandarin. When I dropped in on the editors of “Chinese Literature” in Beijing, they wanted to talk about Whitman when they learned I was from Philly. “Had I ever been to the tomb?” they asked me eagerly. “What was it like?” The pathetic truth about Disneyfied America is that the world’s writers love Walt deeply, but he is an outcast in his own land.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda loved to tell about how he was, at age fifteen, rummaging through a used book store in Santiago when he came across a book with a strange title, “Leaves of Grass,” deciding on the spot to become a poet—concocting that name to signify his new status as homo poeticus. And the great American architect Louis Sullivan had a similar Saul on the road to Damascus epiphany over Walt in a bookstore in Chicago. He vowed his life was never the same again. Reading Walt has led to miracles enough to stagger sextillion of infidels, or 250 million Americans, if only they would try him.

How many more centuries will pass before the average American takes the laureate of the Common Man to his heart? (Not while he’s in a U.S. Postal booth decided which Elvis Presley stamp to choose.) Until he does, we will continue to generate other Camdens like East St. Louis, Newark, N.J., Oakland, California—and North Philly. For the wastelands of Camden begin in deadened Disneyfied hearts. Ghost towns, dust bowls, and rotting center cities are outward signs of an inner American gracelessness.

Urban renewal is just Band Aids—which appeal to the Poverty Industry Burrowcrats for the pelf involved in its Sisyphean routines for themselves. Urbane renewal is what we must hunger for, and that seachange begins in hearts leavened by the great fraternal spirit Walt so lovingly expressed. It’s worse than nothing to do a fatuous Uriah Heap number once every hundred years. American will commence to heal each others hurts when they begin to appreciate lines like “The hinge of the hand puts to scorn all machinery” or “Mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels.”

Such a spiritual awakening will not be easy. Last month, on a trip to Mexico with fifty or so over-fifties on a Grand Circle Tour, when our tour guide announced from the front of the bus that Mike Tyson had just been found guilty, they cheered with joy. These retired upper middle class professionals. Imagine. Cheered with joy. That’s the heartlessness that makes a muddle of our neglected heritage of Jefferson, Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR. They cheered with joy at Tyson’s conviction. I discreetly enquired over the course of our three week tour what they thought of Whitman. Whitman? Who? Is that certified crazy or what? The median Joe and Jill American has for decades abandoned our best and brightest traditions for an orgy of complacent consumerism. It shows.

And, of course, it’s not enough just to read Walt. You must let him shape your lives and values. When the questions of naming the Walt Whitman Bridge came up, the Roman Catholic bishop of Camden went ballistic about naming a public structure after a notorious homosexual. (It was a matter of indifference to me since after all the bridge was replacing the Camden ferry.) But that pre-Vatican II spirit of narrowness accounts not a little for Walt’s low repute in the DelVal. We are after all nominally a very Catholic river valley.

This condition is in any case not cast in concrete—the best tribute I’ve read in the wake of this Centennial has been that of Catholic peace activist Colman McCarthy in the Washington Post. We need a new brand of McCarthyism that translates Walt’s visionary idealism about a potentially great democracy into practical programs for fighting against violence as a solution for human and national problems, for protecting the Earth Walt taught us how to love, and for loving one another.

Walt was what Emerson called a “divine literatus,” a secular priest if you will. We’d better start believing and acting upon not only the original Gospel but Walt’s as well. If we don’t, the whole country will become a Camden of the spirit. That would make Walt infinitely sad. As it does me.

But as we say in Barnum’s America, we pays our money, and we makes our choices—the inferior Walt Disney or the superior Walt Whitman. The former, merely a glib entertainer, a court jester for the common man. The latter, our sadly forsaken Walt, is a mensch for the ages.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Class Problem

The sadness of the two party robbery. The scuttling of honest egalitarianism.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Gross' Parodies

At 75, it was too soon to lose John Gross, one of the great AngloAmerican literary critics of our era. Happily his latest book will keep us laughing for another generation. His Introduction opens with a useful definition: ”A parody is an imitation which exaggerates the characteristics of a work or style for comic effect.” (p.xi.)
Take his spoof of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”:

You’re the top!
You’re Miss Pinkham’s tonic.
You’re the top!
You’re a high colonic.
You’re the burning heat of a bridal suite in use.
You’re the breasts of Venus,
You’re King Kong’s penis,
You’re self abuse.
You’re an arch in the Rome collection.
You’re the starch
In a groom’s erection.
I’m a eunuch who
Has just been through an op.
But if, Baby, I’m the bottom
You’re the top.
Anon. (p.138.)

(Gossip has it Cole was the reviser. But his close pal Irving Berlin was a contender.)

The prose entries far outspace the poetry, but the poems should motivate you to get the volume, sooner the better.

To add to the gay wit of Cole, we have the famous cranky sexuality of librarian Philip Larkin.

A Response to Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’:
(“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. . .)

Not everybody’s
Childhood sucked.
There are some kiddies
Not up-fucked.
They moan and shout,
Won’t take advice.
But—hang about—
Most turn out nice—
If not better
Than us, no worse.
Sad non-begetter,
That bean’t the verse. Carol Rumens. (p.250.)

More than a continent away, our picky Amherst gal sent her idiosyncratic letters to the world. Can you imagine her loose on a California beach?

From “Emily Dickinson in Southern California”

I called one day –on Eden’s strand
But did not find her-Home-
Surfboarders triumphed in—in Waves
Archangels of the Foam-

I walked a pace—I tripped across
Browned couples—in cahoots—
No more than tides need shells to fill
Did they need—bathing suits—

From low boughs—that the Sun kist—hung
A Fruit to taste—at will—
October rustled but—Mankind
Seemed elsewhere gone—to Fall-- X.J.Kennedy (p.80.)

(Ah, so that’s what my grad school pal’s been up to all these years of verses! Nice “work” ,if you can’t get it.)

And of course we must nod to the “Howler” Allen Ginsberg, even if it’s a sneer from “mainline” poet Louis Simpson. (pp.180-81.)

(inspired or provoked by HOWL)
I saw the best minds of my generation
Destroyed --Marvin
Who spat out poems: Potrziebe
Who coagulated a new bop literature In fifteen
Novels; Alvin

Who in his yet unwritten autobiography
Gave Brooklyn an original “lex loci”.
They came from all over, from the pool room,
New Mexico, but mostly
They came from colleges, ejected
For drawing obscene diagrams of the Future,
They came here to L.A.,
Flexing their members, growing hair,
Planning immense unlimited poems,
More novels, more poems, more autobiographies.
It’s love I’m talking about, you dirty bastards!
Love in the bushes, love in the freight car!
I saw the fornicating and being fornicated,
Saying to Hell with you!

What was it Walt said? Go West!
But the important thing is the return ticket.
The road to publicity runs by Monterey.
I saw the best minds of my generation
Reading their poems to Vassar girls,
Having their publicity handled by professionals.
When can I go into an editorial office
And have my stuff published because I’m weitd?
I could go on writing like this forever. . .
(Not if Louis Simpson has his way!pp.180-181.)
But now that you think of Walt, listen to what 19th Century travel writer Bayard Taylor (who never made the cut to serious writer) said about Whitman:

Everywhere, everywhere, following me;
Taking me by the buttonhole,pulling off my boots, hustling me
With the elbows.
Sitting down with me to clams and the chowder kettle;
Plunging naked at my side into the sleek, irascible surges;
Soothing me with the strain that I neither permit nor prohibit;
Flocking this way and that,reverent,eager,orotund,
Denser than sycamore leaves when the north winds are
Scouting Paumonok.
What can I do to restrain them?Nothing, verily nothing.
Everywhere, everywhere, crying aloud for me;
Crying, I hear;and I satisfy them out of my nature;
And he that comes at the end of the feast shall find
Something over.
Whatever they want I give; though it be something else,
They shall have it.
Drunkard,leper, Tammanyite, small pox and cholera patient,
Shoddy and codfish millionaire,
And the beautiful young men, and the beautiful young
women.all the same,
Crowding, hundreds of thousands, cosmical multitudes,
Buss me and hang on my hips and lean up to my shoulders,
Everywhere listening to my yawp and glad whenever they
hear it;
Everywhere saying ,say it, Walt, we believe:
Everywhere, everywhere.

(Now, everywhere traveler, see how hard it is to mock freshly. Everywhere. Heh, Bayard, you tried your hardest, Camerado! Strike three!)

I want to close this harangue, with a salute to my four year old son Danny, to whom I’ve lately been playing Morpheus with A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh”. In German, where I sometimes lose control of the plot line!

Christopher Robin is drawing his pension;
He lives in a villa in Spain,
He suffers from chronic bronchitis and tension,
And never goes out in the rain.

He never wears willies; he has to eat jellies,
He peers through a pair of bifocals:
He talks quite a lot to a bear that he’s got
Who is known as El Pu to the locals.

Christopher Robin goes coughety coughety
Coughety coughety cough;
All sorts and conditions of Spanish physicians
Have seen and written him off.
But drowsily still in his house in Seville
He dreams of the Forest, and Anne;
Who waits in the buttercups—deep in the buttercups—
Down by the stream—for her man

(To A.A.Milne with love from Paul Griffin. Pp.125-126.)

Goodbye, John Jacob Gross (1935-2011), son of a doctor from Eastern Europe who served the same poor neighborhood in London as Harold Pinter, who dug his criticism.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Galleries of Milwaukee

Pitstopping in Milwaukee on my way to my granddaughter’s first birthday, I lucked out. Although the 100-minute Greyhound trip from Chicago was 15 minutes late, I was able to arrive at the Milwaukee Art Museum by hopping on a local bus ($1) a half hour before its 5 pm. closing.

Lo and behold, the press lady informs me I’ve arrived on Gallery Day, a first-time-ever for the city’s museums, galleries and the Easttowne merchants to hold a Friday evening walkaround starting at 5:30, when the youngish MAM director Russell Bowman gave a slide lecture on the biggest international expo they’ve ever fielded—a triptych of Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and Sigmar Polke. Buffet welcomes at the nine participating institutions lasted until 9 pm.

The lecture was solid art history, although it made me nervous when he felt constrained to assure the lively summery crowd three times that he wasn’t going to lecture them. Why the hell would people take their TGIF time at a museum if they weren’t ready and willing to be lectured at? It also gave me the creeps to hear the same protesting-too-much lecturer skid off the road of Standard English with a “between you and I” type bit of suburbanese solecism. Is it being snooty to expect museum directors to speak SE when “not lecturing?”

No matter, I love this museum, beginning with its architecture by Eero Saarinen. Along with the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, sited ever so nobly high on a bluff over the Tennessee River, MAM, which lords it over Lake Michigan in a levitating way, would be a winner even if its contents were marginal, which they aren’t.

Three Harry Bertoias grace one of the galleries overlooking the lake. What a surge! And in a nearby room there are no fewer than seven Milton Averys—“The Card Players” (1945) and “Red Rock Falls” (1947) being especially delectable. And six Stuart Davises are particularly instructive because the five cubist larks are followed by what he started out doing—an Ashcan realist canvas rightly entitled “Settlement Scene” (1912), as dreary a contrast to his eye-popping abstracts as you could devise—if you were trying to make a pedagogical point, which I take it MAM was.

And kicking Kenosha, for Kandinsky’s sake, there are 11 Gabriele Munters, thanks to one wealthy Milwaukee lady names Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley, who shared my passion for Wassily’s sidekick. (I’m convinced, in spite of the smallness of her oeuvre, that she’s a more interesting artist than her lover, and I’m always exhilarated when I see examples of her work.) “The Green House / Murnau” (1911), which I fell in love with at her first and only American retrospective at Princeton a few years back, retains its pull on my retinas.

And I can’t recommend highly enough the Flagg Collection Masterpieces of Haitian Art. The level is extraordinarily high both in the paintings and in the metal sculptures. My only gripe is the nonexistent positioning of the callow American viewer into the stream of Haitian history. If I had not gone through a Black Studies phase in the 1960s, they’d just be a lot of pretty exotic pitchers. Great art deserves great explicating.

Elated by such an abundance of solid art and encouraged by a brochure with a readable map, I vowed to push on to the Haggerty Museum of Marquette University. I have a morbid fascination with Jebbie U’s anyway, and the promise of a Berlin artist of the Weimar period proved irresistible.

So I trudged back up the bluff to Wisconsin Street (I was prepooped by a hard-slog morning hovering Chicago museums) and took the bus up Wisconsin to 12th. Bingo! “Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s: A city of Decadence, Revolt and Chaos: Watercolors and Drawings of Bruno Volgt” is a superb intro to an unknown associate of Otto Dix and George Grosz.

He, like them, was sacked for decadence, but unlike them he did not flee to America, was wounded badly on the Eastern front and after the war went East again, choosing to live in the DDR, where he became a museum curator until his retirement. Strange that you discover a neglected Communist artist at a Jesuit U. Those guys do earn their way.

But the top treat at the Haggerty is a really enjoyable display of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original drawings for The Hobbit (hadn’t you noticed that the cult fantasy created by the Oxford professor of Anglo Saxon is 50 years young this year?). I may be the only American who has never succumbed to the lure of Tolkien, but I’m also about to make up for my lassitude.

His drawings (from the Bodleian / Oxford) are simply scrumptious. They are Art Nouveau, but they also have Deco vibes. Maybe such worldly isolates like Tolkien learn to live and create out of time. Whatever, they alone would make a trip to Milwaukee famous (through September 30).

Let’s just say hat the mix in Milwaukee is marvelous, and I haven’t even touted the old buildings like the 1890 Pfister hotel or the 1986 Holme bridge over the Milwaukee River, a soaring geometrical feat of dazzle do. Both the Sentinel (a.m.) and the Journal (p.m.) have literate and handy Friday weekend get-out-and-go supplements.

I’ve been a Milwaukee fan ever since I got my first liberty there in 1944 from Great Lakes boot camp as a swabbie who needs a new pair of glasses. It’s gotten much, much better to look at over these years, as the innovative Gallery Crawl indicates. Try Milwaukee soon, as a side trip from the Windy City, or on its own (the hotels are cheaper in the medium M than in the Big C, for a start, and it’s also an Amtrak stop.)

And the Brewers play there, as every third male seemed to remind me with a hat or an actual baseball shirt! Good pitstop, Milwaukee is.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 23, 1987

Monday, 18 April 2011

Sunday, 17 April 2011

A Writer of Menace

Terry Gross’s especially illuminating interview with Peter Matthiessen on a recent Fresh Air sent me on a beeline to the Torresdale Free Library branch for that author’s recent collection of short stories.
It’s an odd gathering, inasmuch as the first works in the collection date from his beginnings as a writer in the 1950s. (He was one of the founders of the Paris Review.)
To my taste the early ones were no great loss, uncollected. But as ballast to get the later ones into circulation—oh me oh my. Especially “Travelin’ Man,” about a black convict trying to elude a captor on a Carolina tidal marsh; “The Wolves of Aguila,” in which a man perishes on the desert border between Arizona and Mexico; and, best of all, “On the River Styx.”
The first two are harrowing in the vividness with which they portray natural habitats as “enemies” of man. “November on the Carolina coast is cold at night, a dark clear cold that kills the late mosquitoes,” is the way “Travelin’ Man” begins. “Toward dusk, a black man slithered from a drainage ditch. He moved swiftly on his belly, writhing out across a greasy bog and vanishing into the sawgrass by the river.”
The convict is indeed traveling light. If he doesn’t become a part of nature, he’s had it.
His peril increases when a white poacher realizes he is on his turf. They circle and trail each other like the other animals in the food chain of the salt marsh. The particularities of that nature which spell the difference between life and death for the black man are read by him with a brilliance that puts the concept of verbal literacy into doubt. And he finally gets his man, by virtue of his superior survival skills—but ironically loses because of his superior humanity.
It is a test of Matthiessen’s skill as a nature writer that in “Wolves” the arid desert is just as vividly embodied as an ambience of disaster.
But “Styx” is the masterpiece of the collection. A liberal D.C. couple want to do some esoteric fishing in the Everglades. That backwater is a subculture for which their very sophistication cripples them. Their Sambo black guide steals their tape machine, and their ambiguous reactions put them at the most untender mercies of the Crackerocracy that still rules this roost by its own primordial standards.
“On the pale flats,” it begins, “the lone trace of man was a leaning stake marking some lost channel that a storm or shift of current had filled in.” It’s an emblem of their moral helplessness in a marginal world for which all their civilizing skills has unprepared them to survive.
The remarkable thing about this writer is the undercurrent of menace and terror he creates in the most disparate milieux. Alas, blind spot that it is in my literary experience, this is my first acquaintance with an author I’m amazed to learn was born the same year I was—1927.
I’ve got some catching up to do. And thanks to Terry Gross for making the “minor” side of this writer irresistible.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Mabaso on Goldfish

Noting that Alaina Mabaso (reviewer of Battle: Los Angeles) studied theater at my old alma matrix, Beaver College, I dipped idly into her blog. But when I saw her theme was raising goldfish, I reached for the “block that blog” button.

But her first visual arrested my bloggishness. Holey moley. I was wiped out by her fastidious attention to the creative powers of that “lower” species. Genesis redivivus!

I quickly signed on to her blog. Try it. You’ll love its quirky sanity.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Rivera Revisited

Hayden Herrera, the standard biographer of Frida Kahlo, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s painter wife, recently beguiled a sellout San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Herbst audience with tales of how lovers Diego and Frida recharged each other’s muses with their reciprocal attentions. But long before Frida turned him on sexually and esthetically, Rivera had gotten up to speed in Paris by absorbing the energies of the Cubist movement, that sophisticated European reaction to the geometric planes and volumes of so-called “primitive” African sculpture.
Middle-class Diego had another reason to be charged up by folk art because he wanted to improvise his muse to influence Mexican peons in the revolutionary proletarian Mexico that began in 1910. His mature work in fact is rightly explained as a cubist realism in which the grim struggles and happy hours of the Mexican underclasses are celebrated (he hoped) prophetically.

So the show now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a kind of warm-up operation for the socialist romanticism of his best work. (There is a related show on Cubist prints and books at the Legion of Honor.) Cubism was in effect a kind of five finger exercise for what Rivera would ultimately become—the conscience of his country in the throes of social transformation.

San Francisco is the best American city in which to celebrate Rivera’s achievement. Here in 1934 he was commissioned to do a workers’ mural for the San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut Street). What a lift for student artists exhibiting for the first time, to have the Diego mural blessing them benevolently from on high.

There are two other S.F. venues so adorned: City College, and, wonder of wonders, the Club Room of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, a commission that would seem to fly in the face of ideological impasses. While Nelson Rockefeller Jr. was lamely (and ultimately unsuccessfully) trying to cool down the hot capitalist tempers of the managers of the RCA Building deep in the heart of that tax shelter belt a.k.a. Rockefeller Center, Timothy Pfleuger was insisting that “his” artist be left free—to paint Lenin, Marx, and other commie unworthies onto his allegorical canvases. Imagine, broadminded old New York removing the controversial panels, while cosmo San Fran coolly keeps its Rivera in the most right wing eyrie in town.

Nineteen thirty-four was a big year for San Francisco public art beyond the Rivera incident. This is the golden anniversary of the Coit Tower murals; they were closed off for years and years from public view because of vandalism. Imagine the public trashing its own backyard.

Free Saturday guided tours of these savory murals are now offered, courtesy of the Guide Service of the Friends of the Free Library. If you can afford $12.95 for a major good read, fall by the Museum of Modern Art’s Book Store on Van Ness and McAllister for a copiously illustrated Frida by New York critic Hayden Herrera. The Riveras loved San Francisco and San Francisco repaid the favoritism.

(Patrick Hazard is a freelance journalist and a recent contributor to the San Francisco Business Journal. Diego Rivera: The Cubist Years will be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art through November 11, 1984.)

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Wright Stuff (and some other stuff)

1990 has been an epiphanous year for me architecturally, full of good looking and good booking. It began in January in euphoric frustration at the Phoenix Art Museum, where the Taliesin Foundation was finally getting off its Olympian duff with a show of Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings. (For your favorite Frank, you can buy the Abrams catalog by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer for $65 at the AIA Book Store, 17th and Sansom.)
I say “euphoric” because nothing Wright did, no matter how wrong and self-Wrighteous he might be, is uninteresting. A frustrating aspect of this flawed genius was the large number of the drawings that were pipe dreams; “project” was stamped all over the place.

This reminded me of Lewis Mumford’s improvised U Penn obituary the day Wright died—he never grew up, never learned how to give and take with others. Maybe you should take Borders Bookstore’s Chip Sheffield’s advice: Buy a golden oldie—Edgar Kauffman’s Valentine to my favorite place in America, Falling Water.

My biggest epiphany of the year was in Paris at the Museum of Decorative Arts at the 70th birthday festschrift show for the Brazilian folk architect, Jose Caldas Zanine. Maybe his humble happy beginnings in Recife kept him from having his ego deformed like Wright.

He began as a model maker for the Oscar Niemeyer crew designing the new capital city of Brasilia. Gradually, he weaned himself from their Bauhaus concrete obsession, committing himself to furniture in wood and finally to architecture of a surpassing power. When he led me through the show, he sneered at his first pre-wood work. “I had to regress back to the mother wood,” he smiled cherubically.

Zanine, "Feeling and Doing" (MAD, 16 Rue Rivoli, Paris, 300 French Francs, or Free Library of Philadelphia) is easily the best architecture book of the year if your criterion is a sustainable architecture. Quite apart from the intrinsic glory of his creations, what made me finally bend a knee is his prototypes for workers’ houses, made out of debris of sawmills and mining operations. Z is the Mother Teresa of architecture.

Another major surge of architectural pleasure was greeting me in D.C. in February when the AIA awarded its Gold Medal to E. Fay Jones of Fayetteville, Arkansas. E. Fay who? I asked myself.

You can begin to relieve your ignorance in Edward Norman’s The House of God: Church Architecture, Styles and History (Thames and Hudson, $60), where Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is described sweetly as “no more than a covered lattice of wood and steel, the interstices filled with glass,” a nondenominational chapel for meditation and pilgrimage.

Norman deals with all the periods in our churchly history but comes to an edifying climax in the modern with the new chestnuts of Ronchamps, La Sagrada Familia, and Breuer’s Collegeville Abbey receiving their due. The text is literate and illuminating: I never noticed that the style was big for houses, theaters and dance halls but little in the ecclesiastical department. (Maybe Norman will wonder in an inevitable second edition why Father Coughlin went Deco in his Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan.)

Jean Favier’s The World of Chartres (Abrams, $60) gave me some fine rushes of recollection. The first time I visited Chartres in December 1967, Andre Malraux’s spotlights gave a predawn reading of the portal sculptures an unforgettable access. Later, inside, the radiators induced a kind of shimmering effect on the stained glass. On my last visit there, I was astonished to learn in a Rev BiCen visual essay in the crypt that Jacobins plotted to tear down the noble pile because its dominating the landscape of the village was a bad example. A canny architect dissuaded them at the last minute by pointing out that there would be no place to put the rubble. A sure-fire goodie, this one.

If you’re really in a generous mood this Christmas, send me Marika Hausen et al., eds., Eliel Saarinen, 1896-1923 (MIT Press, $125), a scholarly tome out of the stupendous Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki. I grew up in Detroit, and my first awareness of architecture as something more than getting out of the rain was ES’s complex at Cranbrook. Like your first girlfriend, your first architect is something special.

I remember my glee in Tampere in 1985 when I asked the manager of a Saarinen bank if he had a brochure on it. “No, but if you come back in an hour I’ll call Helsinki to get permission to show you The Room.” The Room was the board’s meeting chamber, a fabulous exercise in Jugendstil totality: table, chairs, chandelier, fireplace, everything in tune with the other parts. This is a book to plan trips to Finland with.

If you have a friend, relative or lover whose architectural ignorance is putting you off, put him / her up to Jim Kemp’s American Vernacular: Regional Influences in Architecture and Design (AIA Press, paper, $24.95). It walks away from the seminal John A. Kouwenhoven concept of “vernacular” (clipper ships, axe handles, bridges) in favor of “regional architectural styles and house-types.”

Once you understand that cheeky pre-emption, you’re ready for a clear, comprehensive and often eloquent explication of the Queen of the Arts at home, where architecture hits us in our bodies, minds and wallets. Kemp’s book shows how indigenous elements like siting, climate, materials, color and shapes work across a portfolio of regional styles: New England, Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Southwest, the Midwest, the West and the National Styles. The color photos are uniformly superb. I would say this is a Best Buy of the season.

And I know it’s churlish of me to be a Scrooge, but I must assign a Worst Buy, which goes to Albrecht Bangert and Karl Michael Armer’s 80s Style: Designs of the Decade (Abbeville, $29.95). Last February, I took a detour to Amsterdam to see if I was being fair to Memphis (the furniture, not the city, which I love). Ugh. I used to just hate it; seeing a museum full of it, I now despise it.

And I think I understand why: Bad ideas drive out good furnishings. The editors called upon Ettore Sottsass, the Pope of Packaged Piffle, to bless their recycling of Abbeville’s design annuals: “Certainly, were we to review the multifarious trends that influenced styles and beliefs in the 1980s—punk, high-tech, low-tech, post-modernism, minimalism, deconstructivism, and their various historical variants…they all seem to share (a) high degree of irrationality, almost of bizarreness, and the fact that even in their contradictions they were willfully extreme.”

Well, in all their deviously hysterical deviancies, I think they stink. If funky artists want to sell such high-IQ trash to an uncultivated class of nouveaux riches herdsters, OK. But let them leave our industrial production system to the FROG designers whose inductive iron and ironing board (page 210) is the kind of rational marvel missing in this chrestomathy of the mawkish. Merry Christmas, Sottsass!

Wendy Peterson at the AIA Bookstore gave a big boost to Edward R. Ford’s The Details of Modern Architecture (M.I.T., $55) for the skill with which he shows, with original drawings, how the construction of well-known buildings actually works.

“New York” architect-writer Carter Wiseman has done a solid job on the career of I.M. Pei (Abrams, $49.50), from Denver’s Mile-High Center in the 1950s to his greatest (to my, at first skeptical, eye) entrance to the Louvre.

Fulvio Irace’s Emerging Skylines: The New American Skyscrapers (Whitney, $50) does a page or two gloss on the biggies, including Helmut Jahn’s Liberty Place, which he describes as the “Trojan Horse of a radical new direction in urban policy on the part of the city government.”

If you end up too short of cash for the Big Books, don’t lose heart: AIA has a neat “The Houses of Fairmount Park” 1991 calendar fro $9.95, with a slightly out of date (if apt) 1889 epigraph from Lafcadio Hearn: “Is it possible you have never seen Fairmount Park? Believe me then that it is the most beautiful place of the whole civilized world.” Hear that, Tom Muldoon?

Or there’s the Frank Lloyd Wright Address Book for $16.50. Look at the work of the great architects. Read about their achievements. Love them. Don’t’ abandon them to the marketplace.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 12, 1990

Monday, 11 April 2011

Dumb Dog Plutocracy

Egalitarian democracy is all but dead in America. The dream of rising middle class affluence has been destroyed by deindustrializing international firms who ignore their workers in their disgusting greed to breed instant billionaires. The Supreme Court by lying that a corporation is a person has turned our Congress into a farce of legislators eager to become instant millionaire lobbyists.

Even our “liberal”,“idealistic” president sucks up to the bank boodlers who will cough up enough loot to run in 2012. That does it: our carefully crafted triune federal government has been destroyed by ranting hypocrites, in it only for their “fair” share of the boodle. Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders look like silly fools as they try to actually govern intelligently and honestly.

What can be done? The Mega Mediators like Rupert Murdoch have spread their false rhetoric globally.

Is it too late to jail the pious frauds who have corrupted our commonwealth?

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Media Messengers

What a nadir our media would be without Ralph and Amy.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

How unZinn.

Alas, we must sit at the feet of the Pharaoh's great, great grandchildren to relearn the facts of democratic life we're fast abandoning. How sad. How unZinn.

Friday, 8 April 2011


Dwight Garner has been touted as the best new lit critter the Times has touted since Michiko. I concur.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Perils of Privatizing

On 26 March 2011, Al Jazeera/English broadcast an interview between Sir David Frost and the venerable British documentary maker Ken Loach about his latest film, “Route Irish”. It’s about two Liverpudlians ex-soldiers who return to Iraq as mercenaries.

”Route Irish” is the “safe” highway in Bagdad between the Airport and the International Zone. The increasing incidents involving such mercenaries in mostly unprosecuted crimes made me curious about another “presumably” Dick Cheney trick of expanding uncontrolled presidential power.

Sure enough Googling immediately revealed that after the Gulf War the Pentagon,then headed by Cheney, awarded a Halliburton subsidiary almost $9 million to study how Private Military Contractors (PMC’s) could support soldiers in combat zones. That company has now won at least $2.5 billion to construct and run military bases, some in secret locations, as part of what the Pentagon calls the Army’s Logistic Civil Augmentation Program.It used to be that mercenaries were a dirty military secret, but Financial recently dubbed the new mercenaries as the “creeping privatization of war.”

During the first Gulf War about two percent of U.S. Military personnel were private workers. By 2003 it had reached 10 percent. Now the Pentagon employs more than 700,000 private contractors, and at least $33 billion of the $416 billion of military spending in 2004 was unaminously approved by the Senate. In Iraq such companies supply more trainers and security forces than all remaining menbers of “the coalition of the willing” except the United States. About 15,000 civilian security guards were then stationed in Iraq, some 6,000 of them armed.

One “advantage” of such deployments is that it keeps the casualty count down. Peter Singer reports in “Corporate Warriors” that in 2004 at least 30 PC’s were killed and about 180 wounded, even though “non-military” casualties are not reported by the Pentagon. Even so the practice poses risks: Caci International and the Titan Corporation have been implicated in charges of torture, humiliation and rape charged to the U.S. Military in Iraq.

How did we get in this bind? In 1969 the U.S.Army had 1.5 million active soldiers. By 1992, this number had been cut in half. But as we intervened in several conflicts a “corporate foreign legion” was formed. They are paid shamefully higher than G.I.’s thereby demoralizing our “real troops” and inducing not a few to not reenlist but return as highly paid mercenaries.

And high technology accelerates this process. Private companies have gear the military doesn’t have but needs. So PC’s maintain the B2 stealth bombers and F-117 stealth fighters as well as operate some of the new weapons systems, viz. the Global Hawk and Predator “unmanne4d” drones! And systems like the Army’s Guardrail surveillance aircraft are designed to be operated and maintained by PC’s.

DynCorp, the largest PMC in Iraq, has contracts worth more than $2 billions to provide “post-conflict police training” all over the world. In recent decades it has dispatched trainers to Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Liberia,East Timor, Afghanistan, and now Iraq. Ike could never have imagined how many secret tentacles our military-industrial complex would devise when he gave his prescient departure warning. As Greg Guma reported in his UPI report (7/7/04).”

PMC#s have become an adjunct foreign policy apparatus that is largely invisible, rarely mentioned by the press, and not currently subject to congressional oversight. The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply, and any background on how they operate is private, proprietary information.”

No wonder we need Wiki-leaks. And Army brass and presidents who redefine torture to slip away from Geneva Conventions have no scruples about abusing Private Manning. Such are the examples of democracy we provide the MSM these cruel days. And I find more coverage in Al Jazeera than even the best of our MSM’s.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Whole Shebang

Christopher Hedges fills me with fear.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Monday, 4 April 2011

Dialect Coach

A real 'enry 'iggins'. Chwat's that you say?

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Arrival City

Here's a must read, however defective Garner finds it. Slum as a breakthrough? Maybe for Bangledeshi. But for third generation US blacks? Slam them slums!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Alaska’s “White Eskimo”

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA: On my first visit to the University of Alaska / Fairbanks, I was doing what you would expect a retired English professor to do: poking around the library looking for a list of books on Alaskan Lit. The reference librarian informed me that no such printed list existed in his high-tech library. I’d have to talk with their computer to build such a list on my own.

Except that I didn’t know the questions! As I was silently bemoaning my abysmally ignorant condition, my eye caught a cluster of naïve drawings about the way Eskimos lived on St. Lawrence Island off the coast of Alaska circa 1927. Wow! Here was a cache of images infinitely more interesting than an exercise in local bibliography, however delicious the titles I might have discovered.

The paintings had been hung in honor of the recently concluded biennial Inuit symposium. But however beguiling they were, the prose texts were written in such supple English that I asked who their writer was. One Otto William Geist (1888-1963). Did they have his obit? They handed me a badly Xeroxed page from the Fairbanks News-Miner. Though it was a tough read, I was hooked. And I worked my way across Alaska reading Charles Keim’s excellent biography, The White Eskimo (1969), on two rainy afternoons in Juneau and Sitka.

What a mensch! Geist epitomizes for me the can-do spirit of the Alaska pioneer. Once, in a Ketchikan department store front, he was displaying beguiling images he had commissioned form a 19-year-old Eskimo girl (along with the artifacts and fossils). Charles Burrell, president of the Alaska College of Mines and Agricultural Science (now UA / F), happened to stop by. Amazed at Geist’s talent as a collector of Eskimo lore, he wrote him a check on the spot to finance another summer of collecting.

It was probably the best snap judgment (and investment) the energetic young college president ever made. Geist went on—without benefit of even an undergraduate degree—to put the University in Fairbanks on the worldwide academic map. Even now, his spirit (“geist” you might pun) hangs like a benign ghost over the museum he founded: a great standing grizzly bear—dubbed Otto in his name—greets visitors to the world-class collection he began.

Archaeologists and paleontologists have attested to his achievements. I merely want to comment on his remarkable prehistory as a self-tutored academic in Germany and across the continental U.S.

Geist was born in a village near Munich to a family of 14 siblings whose father was a school superintendent. In due course, he went to what we would call a Vo-Tech school run by the Benedictines. He was always in dutch with the friars because he preferred rummaging through the local meadows for Roman artifacts to their dull curriculum. His teenage collecting was soon on display at a local museum. (On returning as an adult to his native village, he found that some light-fingered American soldier had lifted that collection during the Occupation. To the victorious belong the despoilers.)

He started his two years compulsory military service in the Prussian Army when he was 18. There he distinguished (or nearly extinguished) himself by his insubordinate behavior—including ringleading a posse which expressed their contempt for a particular martinet by collectively shitting in the loo-tenant’s plumed hat.

It was clear his future lay in some other sector than the military. With the money saved from his short unhappy career as a non-com, he booked passage on the maiden voyage of the George Washington between Bremen and New York. He hated the noise and confusion of New York and went to work as an orderly in a German-language hospital in Chicago run by the Alexian brothers.

Presciently perhaps, the first sentence he learned in a night class in English was “Ice is frozen water.” He didn’t yet have Alaska on the brain, but he so hated Chicago that he walked to St. Louis: It took him two weeks. Still too cooped up. He pushed on to Kansas City where, hitching a ride from a farmer, he was talked into signing on as a farm hand.

Two farms and three years later, he cashed in his expertise in mechanics by becoming a chauffeur for Sterling Morton of the salt fortune. When World War I broke out, he wanted to get in the thick of things, becoming chauffer for Black Jack Pershing during the notorious Pancho Villa raids in New Mexico. Eventually, overseas with an automotive unit, he ended up as chauffeur for the American brass in the Peace Treaty delegation. Clearly, Otto had a gift of gab and a knack for schmoozing with the powers that be.

After Versailles, he returned to Kansas City to start up his own trucking business, which unhappily coincided with the 1923 recession, and he was out of business. But not out of luck. He followed the strike-it-rich call of his brother to Alaska where they didn’t find gold, but Otto used his skills as a mechanic as second engineer on a sternwheeler plying the Yukon.

During one passage he became the protégé of a U.S. biologist doing research in the Arctic. This scientist from Jackson Hole, Wy., taught the eager student how to mount specimens. Otto had found “gold” of a different kind—and a lifelong career at the University after his serendipitous meeting with President Burrell in Ketchikan.

When the University bestowed an honorary doctorate on the indefatigable collector at the 1956 graduation in Fairbanks, the students and the faculty went wild in their standing ovation. Although his presence is still palpable in Fairbanks today, he died in an European hospital of cancer, his two-year round-the-world collecting trip aborted.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large.

Friday, 1 April 2011