Tag Archives: History

Me and Lizzy

Great Grandma Koboldt and Me

I knew two of my great-grandmothers, and was close to one of them, but I have a picture of myself as an infant in the arms of a third, and of this one I have no memory. She lived halfway across the country, we rarely saw her, and she died when I was still small. In the photograph she is smiling and holding me like a football, or like a platter of fruit which she has just found in a surprising place. She is wearing a striped muumuu and, clearly, a wig. We are in the hallway of her home in Jefferson, Iowa. There’s an American flag to one side and a shelf full of plastic flowers and knick-knacks. Behind us, at the edge of the picture and atop a piece of furniture, there is discernible the antler and ear of a painted deer statue that would later inhabit the atrium of my grandparents’ home in Concord, California. The picture must have been taken in late 1973 or early ’74.

What I know about this great-grandmother I can summarize in one paragraph. Elizabeth Ann Wilson was born in Greene County, Iowa on New Year’s Day 1889. People called her Lizzy. She was the daughter of George Wilson and Hannah Naylor. She married my great-grandfather Charlie and they had one child, a daughter, who would become my paternal grandmother. Lizzy was a schoolteacher. In a box somewhere I have a copy of a Philology textbook from which she taught, with her notes in the margins. According to my grandmother, my great-grandfather once discovered that Lizzy kept a bottle of whiskey hidden in a cupboard. From this single episode my grandmother – a lifelong teetotaler – concluded that her mother was a secret alcoholic. Lizzy began to slide into dementia when she got quite old. The Apollo moon landings she believed to have been staged in Hollywood. Airplanes to her were demons screaming through the sky.

Every Christmas my wife and I agree that we ought to print more of our family photographs rather than store them on the computer, but we never get around to it. The other day my wife confided that, in fact, she had mixed feelings about owning very many printed photographs, even of the children. The trouble, she said, is that in the end they all go tragically astray. At best they are kept in the family for a few generations and then are lost or thrown out. More likely they end up in bins at antiques shops or in the hands of strangers for whom the faces in the pictures suggest nothing more than an era or a puzzle of relationships and circumstances. Our names and biographies effaced, new ones are imagined for us by people whose names and stories we ourselves will never know. Cut off from us, our images live an afterlife of their own. But this thought does not produce in me the same dismay that my wife feels.

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Reading Lytton Strachey


Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey

In one of the more famous take-downs in the history of biography, Lytton Strachey sets out to slay the sainted beast of a golden age in the persons of four representative figures, and he mostly succeeds. It may be hard for us to appreciate the feat at this distance (Eminent Victorians was published in 1918); the memory of that once-imposing Jabberwock – the Victorian era – is well faded. The fading itself, however, owes something to Strachey. The section on Cardinal Manning makes an irreverent history of the Oxford Movement, illustrating the sandpit dangers of odium theologicum and the mutual jealousies of worldly-wise politicians (Manning) and otherworldly mystics (John Henry Newman). In Strachey’s Florence Nightingale we find a woman so dogged in her work, and yet so doggedly hampered by her sex, that she runs a man to death. Thomas Arnold, the education reformer and headmaster of Rugby School, makes Strachey’s briefest subject. The best, however, is reserved for last in “The End of General Gordon.” And here’s why I say that Strachey “mostly” but not entirely succeeds in his take-down, because for all his personal misalignments Strachey’s Gordon Pasha (like Nightingale to a degree) is nonetheless an object of legitimate awe, even when his goals seem to us culpably eccentric. Through the whole volume – and in prose as crystalline as Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, a book with thematic similarities – the message is clear: A culture is no less likely than an individual to fail in suspicion of its own motives or to manufacture divine endorsement of its most selfish desires, though thousands perish in consequence.

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Marginalia, no.309

But in comparison with the debased culture of seventh-century Gaul, traditionalism itself was a progressive force, for it secured the survival of the Classical inheritance of Western culture. The words of Alcuin’s teacher, Aelbert of York – that it would be disgraceful to allow the knowledge which had been discovered by the wise men of old to perish in our generation – show a sense of responsibility to the past which is the mark of genuine humanism rather than of a blind adherence to traditionalism.

~ Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

Impressed by the pace of technological innovation in 1932, H.G. Wells bemoaned the fact that “there is not a single Professor of Foresight in the world” to help humanity prepare itself. We have abundant futurists and would-be prophets now. It’s possible to look to the future while still being responsible to the past, but constant panting after the Next Big Thing is debasing. Offerings and prayers are rightly made to ancestors rather than descendants. Genuine humanism values history not as an index of folly and barbarism but as a repository of memory without which there can be no abiding sense of self.

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Dr Johnson Hates My American Guts

Brunching Johnson by Henry Wallis
“Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig.” Dr Johnson seems to be saying this or thinking it of one person or another pretty much all the time. Re-reading Boswell’s hulking tome last month, I eventually came to understand that, in fact, I am among the vile.

Not that I really am a Whig; no one’s a Whig anymore (and I hope I’m not especially vile either). But for Johnson it seems that “vile Whig” and “American” are largely synonymous.

In his pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny (1775), quoted by Boswell, Johnson says of those bratty Americans that “their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe.”

“When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied,” he continues, “let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces… [T]heir own hemisphere would not contain them. But let our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.” Said with a hearty sneer.

Elsewhere Johnson refers to the fractious colonists as “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” Curbing an impulse of otherwise catholic philanthropy, he professes himself “willing to love all mankind, except an American.”

It’s hard sometimes to tell when Johnson is speaking in earnest and when he’s simply “talking for victory” (that is, taking a side and arguing it so as to win the question), but Boswell considered him sincere on this particular subject.

In Johnson’s mind, the divine right of kings was necessary to the smooth working of society (even if you did have to cut off their heads occasionally), and social subordination in the style of the British class system no less so. God may be no respecter of persons, but that’s divine prerogative and not a privilege accorded mortals.

Whiggism, on the contrary, suggests that class distinction, being a moral and historical fiction, may be jettisoned (or replaced, say, by an index of wealth or education) – and that the consent of the governed is the validating basis of any government.

As an American of colonial-era ancestry, this is mother’s milk to me. And so I perceive that I am indeed a vile Whig, a half-anarchist in the old Tory’s eyes. But it’s silly, at this distance, to take much offense, especially when you’re on the winning side.

“There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed,” the old sage says, and “subordination tends greatly to human happiness.” Boswell (child of privilege and heir to a semi-feudal estate) nods his purely disinterested agreement. “Were we all upon an equality,” Johnson suggests, “we should have no other enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.”

Cue the sounds of belching pigs and copulating monkeys. It’s a Whig’s world now, or something like it.


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Reading Notes: Adam Gopnik

Once upon a time in a freshman college course our professor asked us to name the three most influential people of the twentieth century. It was a trick question, because two of them died before 1900, but the three he wanted were Darwin, Marx and Freud. In an early chapter of Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik references the same triumvirate but suggests a revision is needed for the twenty-first century. Darwin stays, but Marx and Freud get voted off the island. Then Gopnik adds Lincoln.

Darwin and Lincoln. The ostensible premise of Gopnik’s book – an abbreviated dual biography – is that “literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization.” Darwin he presents as exemplar of the spirit of liberal scientific inquiry, Lincoln of the spirit of liberal (in the broad sense of the term) statecraft. More than what they had to say, it was their particular way of saying it that assured the victory of their causes and laid a foundation for modernity.

It’s a stretch, perhaps. Lincoln, in his oratory, is popularly acclaimed for a certain literary or quasi-literary eloquence, and we can imagine that his political victories might have been harder won without the solemn periods and flourishes. But Darwin, I think, is a different story. Selections from his letters – often witty and acerbic – suggest certain gifts. But the particular kind of eloquence displayed in his more famous work is – at least to my ear – hardly “literary.” On the Origin of Species is precise and considered, but not often read for its poetry.

The fact is that Gopnik never really argues for his own thesis. He only states it, and then seems to forget it. Taken on their own, the biographical chapters on Lincoln and Darwin are enjoyable enough, but the synthesis is weak. Apart from the fact that, in certain spheres, both his subjects exert considerable posthumous influence, what exactly unites them? Is there any one thing that we specially owe to Darwin and Lincoln together? Not really.

Gopnik could possibly have given us a diverting New Yorker article, but he gives us an awkward book instead. There’s too much strain in his comparisons, too much rhetorical blurring of his subjects’ radically divergent lives and concerns in order to present them as twinned souls. In the end, you get the feeling that if Lincoln and Darwin had not, by chance, been born on the same day, the idea of pairing them like this would never have occurred to Gopnik, or to anyone else.

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Reading Notes: Richard Holmes

Consider the following two quotations – the first from Humphry Davy and the second from Thomas Carlyle – and ask yourself how we get from the one to the other:

“Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic [i.e. scientific] mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery.”

“The progress of science is to destroy Wonder…”

To what degree are the aims of science aligned with those of art? When and why did they begin to diverge? These are some of the questions explored in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, an expertly guided tour of the era of “romantic science,” when scientists were still philosophers and philosophers were artists, when discoveries were made (according to the myth) by flashes of insight and obscure inspiration, and when the possibility of scientific horror first began to suggest itself.

We start in 1769 with the young Joseph Banks in Tahiti, there in the capacity of gentleman naturalist assigned to Cook’s expedition to observe the transit of Venus. With his treasury of journals, specimens, and anthropological observations, he returns (just barely) to England and moves from notable disillusionment to notable accomplishment. As vigorous, long-lived president of the Royal Society, Banks becomes the patron spirit of the age, and the rest of the book.

In addition to Banks, Holmes spends a lot of his time with William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus; with his sister Caroline; with Mungo Park in Africa; and with Humphry Davy, who does for the science of chemistry what the Herschels do for astronomy. We’re also given glimpses of George III, Linnaeus, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, a whole host of balloonists, Dr Johnson, Horace Walpole, Gilbert White, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, and – as the new scientific generation comes into its own – Michael Faraday, John Herschel, and the young Charles Darwin.

I’m not a specialist or historian of the period, but I loved every page of this book, and I learned something new on every page. Like a more successful Dr Frankenstein, Holmes has knit together a lost era, but reanimated it so convincingly and compellingly that its questioning spirit, its anxieties, and its sense of wonder become our own again.

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Marginalia, no.160

[Y]our knowledge of the past – apart, occasionally, from a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor – comes entirely from written documents.  You are almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you want to represent. You can’t observe historical events; you can’t question historical actors; you can’t even know most of what has not been written about.  Whatever has been written about therefore takes on an importance which may be spurious.  A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are just the bits that float to the surface.  The historian clings to them, while somewhere below, the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

~ Louis Menand

The present moment has a swaggering step, a Jovian aspect. As the platonic ‘moving image of eternity,’ it’s sure of its own importance. The past, immediate or distant, is only a mass extinction, a forgotten myth, irrecoverable and irrelevant in the blinding splendor of Now. Menand’s summary of the historian’s plight (from his foreword to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station) may just as well describe our relation to our personal or family past. ‘The written word is the choicest of relics’ (Thoreau), but most everything is forgotten. Only a few survivors are pulled from the water: a half-dozen letters from a childhood friend; a great-grandmother’s birth certificate; the scribbled recollections of an uncle; a photograph of a boy on the pier with his brother and grandfather, holding a little trophy of a fish. The ship went down unnoticed in the rippling sea behind him.

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