Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Divine republic

In Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, Michael I. Meyerson describes the successful quest for a sweet spot for faith without coercion.

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.    

Perhaps the most surprising thing regarding the ongoing controversy about the relationship between governmental and religious institutions in the United States is the fact it is ongoing. From the age of Paine to the Age of Aquarius, rising tides of religious skepticism have been apparent to champion and critic alike. Conversely, periodic Great Awakenings in the last 275 years have made faith ascendant. Each in its moment seemed to have unstoppable momentum. Yet here we are in the 21st century with arguments as heated as they've ever been. Inevitably, partisans invoke the Founding Fathers to bolster their respective claims. As University of Baltimore School of Law professor Michael I. Meyerson shows in this impressively researched book, each side of the sacred vs. secular camp can find ammunition to support its respective point of view. But he regards such partisan exercises as misleading at best and dangerous at worst. That's not because the Founders lacked a clear vision, he says, but rather because that vision was cast in terms of a union in which church and state -- but not God and state, or religion and state -- would be separate.

One of the mistakes contemporary Americans make is their assumption that the Founders' views were static. Actually, Meyerson's narrative, which stretches from the late colonial era to the presidency of James Madison, shows they lived in a world in which the state of faith was highly fluid.  It varied between colonies, across time, and among the Founders themselves, who in the face of political exigencies sometimes took positions that were philosophically inconsistent. In fact, the very term "religious freedom" was subject to multiple meanings. For the Puritans, freedom meant liberation from having to tolerate the self-evident corruptions of the crypto-papist Church of England. For others, it could mean simply the right to worship without expulsion. Or a that mandatory taxes would be siphoned toward a church of a believer's choosing. It did not necessarily mean a right to vote or hold office. Even the word "Christian" could be ambiguous (Catholic membership in this category was widely regarded as suspect.) Some colonies, like those of New England, were marked by a high degree of (Congregationalist) homogeneity. Others, particularly the middle colonies, were highly diverse. Though many colonists were aware of the religious terrain beyond their borders, they nevertheless remained worlds of their own, even decades after the Revolution.

It is nevertheless the case that the political imperatives of the Revolution forced the colonists to reckon with their diversity and make allowances for it, which they did with varying degrees of grace. The hero of this book is George Washington, whom Meyerson sees as singularly far-sighted in his ecumenical vision, which he viewed as a practical necessity in his view as commander-in-chief of the the Continental Army, a crucible in the formation of a national identity. But Meyerson views Washington as more than simply pragmatic -- not simply tolerant but accepting of just about all religious persuasions (with the partial exception of the Quakers, whose pacifism he regarded as suspect during the war). And as president he was able to speak and act with remarkable skill and tact in his dealings with the American people, repeatedly invoking terms like "Our Creator" while sidestepping terminology with a sectarian cast.

The Constitution is widely viewed as a conservative document designed to cool the passions of the revolutionary era. But in Endowed by Our Creator, it is depicted an instrument of ongoing religious liberalization. The mere creation of a federal frame, even one that respected states' rights, implicitly offered a contrast, if not an example, for states struggling to disestablish tax-supported churches. But again, severing formal links did not mean the suppression of religiosity, even among government leaders. There was a spectrum of opinion between the relatively orthodox John Adams and the consistently anti-establishment James Madison. But the former would sign a treaty with Tripoli in 1797 that famously stated "the United States of America is not in any sense founded on Christian religion," while the latter once described Christianity as the "best and purest religion." In contrast to his close partner Thomas Jefferson's famous invocation of a "wall of separation" between church and state, Madison offered less forbidding metaphor of a line. Such shadings notwithstanding, Meyerson's overall point in this book is that these people were striving for a sweet spot -- and that they found it.

As such, his book is meant as a rebuke to the aggressive evangelical and expansive secular humanist alike. Of the two, however, he seems more concerned about the former. Meyerson challenges the judgment of a series of current and former Supreme Court justices, but repeatedly singles out Antonin Scalia for what he regards as disingenuous, if not intellectually slipshod, assertions about the government's right to confer privileges on religious institutions. The fact that there may be two sides to an argument doesn't mean that the truth falls squarely in the middle, and it would appear that Meyerson is more concerned about the overweening claims of faith-based government advocates.

In its broadest outlines, Meyerson's argument seems broadly consonant with that of Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2007). But this is a more temporally focused and rigorously documented study, and as such is more useful for scholarly purposes. At the same time, it's written in clear, vigorous prose. It should be, and, with the aid of divine providence, is likely to be, durable.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Jim is vacationing in northern New Hampshire. His Kindle reading, long delayed, is Suzanne Collins 2008 bestseller The Hunger Games. This is a book that has already been much read, sometimes more than once, by multiple members of his household. His interest will be in the Roman analogies in the novel, which are obvious from even the most basic plot details. They were also evident in the movie, which was a shared family experience. Should the book be compelling enough, the two sequels will follow. (This from a man who only made it through two Harry Potters, estimable as they were.)

Next up: Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (The movie, as well. Benjamin Walker was so great in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that it's a good bet he'll enhance anything where he appears.)

The summer seems to arrive in layers: Memorial Day, last day of classes, graduation, final meetings, summer solstice. Now, finally, by just about any definition, it seems to be here. Best to all in savoring its fruits.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rock formations

Rock of Ages and the problem of great mediocrity

In the fall of 1978, a big event happened in my life: the progressive rock band Styx released its eighth album, Pieces of Eight. I'd become a Styx fan the year before when I went to my first rock concert and became a devotee. Pieces of Eight was about the first time I'd experienced a new release by the band I had been following, and I regarded buying and hearing the album as a ritual of initiation.

The really great days that fall where ones where I'd come home from school to an empty house and so could blast the album as loud as I pleased. I particularly loved one track, "Blue Collar Man." Singer/songwriter/guitarist Tommy Shaw depicted an unemployed worker declaring his determination to overcome adversity:

I'll take the long nights, impossible odds
Keeping my eye to the keyhole
If it takes all that to be just who I am
Well I'm gonna be a blue collar man

It was the closest I've come to perfect sublimity. Class consciousness, thick rhythm guitar, hot guitar solo: what more could anyone want?

Little did I know that Lester Bangs, a rock critic I later much admired, would write of Pieces of Eight in Rolling Stone that "What's really interesting is not that such narcissistic slop should get recorded, but what must be going on in the minds of the people who support it in such amazing numbers." (The album went triple platinum.) I was not yet paying attention to people like Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, who would open large windows into what rock music could really be. Nor had I acquired the three academic degrees which would furnish the means by which I absorbed truly towering works of art that would enrich my life and provide me with a living.

But here's the thing: no work of art, no aesthetic experience, has ever provided me with more satisfaction than "Blue Collar Man" did. That magic is inevitably gone; I watched a latter-day configuration of Styx perform the song on YouTube this morning and my reaction was closer to Lester Bangs than my 15 year-old self (though I do think the late Bangs's condescension toward Styx finally outstrips that of Tommy Shaw toward the blue collar workers he sentimentalized). But I was impressed by how well he was still singing thirty years later, and could not help but still feel a frisson of pleasure in hearing that old riff.
I was reminded of Styx, Pieces of Eight, and "Blue Collar Man" when I went to see Rock of Ages, Broadway-musical turned film at my local multiplex this weekend. I went less for the music -- critically benighted heavy metal of the eighties -- than its strong cast of veterans, which included Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, and Tom Cruise. They were all fun to watch, particularly Cruise, who performed a fascinating near parody of himself that suggested a keen intelligence behind his portrayal of a lurching rock god named Stacee Jaxx. I was also impressed by the performances of newcomers Julianne Hough, Malin Akerman, and Drew Boley.

What also struck me -- what the musical taught me -- is how many great melodies animated the otherwise macho-encrusted songs of bands like Foreigner, Journey, and Poison. (Doesn't hurt to have Mary K. Blige reinterpret Pat Benetar's "Shadows of the Night" and Journey's "Anyway You Want It," or to have clever medleys that splice together Foreigner's "Jukebox Hero" with Joan Jett's always refreshingly unpretentious "I Love Rock & Roll.") By any rational standard, the story is hopelessly hackneyed -- boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl, against a backdrop of prudish harridans trying to prevent any fun. On the other hand, having Brand and Baldwin declare their love for each other amid a hilarious deconstruction of REO Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling" was worth the price of admission alone.

To at least some extent, the relative low regard of this music is a function of the people who embraced it: young, white, non-impoverished men (and a few women) have never been much admired by the literati, musical or otherwise. The fact that much of this literati is itself comprised of older, white non-impoverished men is not incidental. I don't particularly want to invert a hierarchy here or valorize a subculture with some obvious limitations. But a sense of fairness, to myself and others, compels me to pay tribute to these would-be Caesars. Rock on, boys. As is so often the case, if you listen hard enough you can hear the love in other hearts.

Friday, June 15, 2012

'Home' Front

In Home, Toni Morrison goes back to the farm -- and the Korean War

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.   

Is there a better modern American historian than Toni Morrison? In novel after novel, in a career now in its fifth decade, she has emerged as the premier chronicler of our national experience. John Updike showed comparable temporal imagination; E.L. Doctorow has built a body of work of similar breadth and depth. But it's Morrison's canon -- jagged, allusive, clarified through the searing lens of race -- that seems the most consistently vivid. In its kaleidoscopic array of characters, her fiction is reminiscent of William Faulkner, but her world seems bigger, even as it shares a locus in the American South.

Though it seems unorthodox to say so, given the towering status of the Civil War-era Beloved (1987), I found Morrison's last novel, A Mercy (2008), which explored a seventeenth century world in which slavery had yet to assume a recognizably modern shape, to be her most satisfying in it scope and the generosity of its vision. Her new novel, Home, zooms forward to the early 1950s. In the popular imagination, this is a moment whose representation veers between Eisenhower-era affluence and Cold War anxiety, both of which are discernible at the periphery of Morrison's vision. She blends them even as she captures the lingering shadow of the past in a setting that includes cotton fields and refrigerators, eugenics and situation-comedies, fellow travelers and Klansmen, all jostling in the present tense.

Home, which is a novel pumped up into novel dimensions to justify a $24 list price, is a chronicle of the (ironically) named Money family, black Texans forced by racial terror to flee to Georgia and begin unhappy new lives. The core of the family are siblings Frank and Ycidra ("Cee") whose devotion to each other sustains them amid the indifference and/or hostility of their blended, extended family. Frank leaves home to join the army, where he serves in the Korean War, an experience that leaves him with what we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome. Cee marries a lout and moves to Atlanta, where she falls under the sway of an evil doctor (there's a creepiness of this part of the story, with its echoes of the Tuskegee experiments, that's worthy of a Gothic novel). When Frank gets word that his sister is in danger, he manages to pull himself together and make a journey from Portland to Atlanta to save her. The question is whether he can, and whether they have the heart to go back home.

Home is a book studded with brutality in which the most awful violence and degradation are as endemic in a small town or on a city street as they are in a war zone. But it's also one where the irrational kindness of strangers seems plausible and hopeful, where the bonds of community can partially repair wounds and sustain lives. As usual in Morrison's fiction, the novel is broken into chapters with multiple narrators. And as usual, too, Morrison places special emphasis on the resilience of working-class African-American women, though she's tart enough, and balanced enough, to make sure none of them are saints (some a good deal less than that). Just when you think she might be lapsing into sentiment, Frank's character makes a discomfiting disclosure that scrambles any easy notions of victimization and oppression.

Home is unlikely to rank at the top of Morrison's corpus; it's too slight, and too similar in structure and themes to her earlier work. But it showcases a writer at the height of her powers in evoking a moment and its historical counter-currents. And it ranks among her most readable stories. It is also, like so many of her novels, a book certain to reward re-reading: you can go Home again. And you should.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Brilliant Executions

In Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel continues brewing a powerful historical concoction

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Toting around a book -- even one anonymously encased in a Kindle, as is increasingly the case with me -- is a natural conversation-starter. And in the last couple years, I've had a number of conversations about Hilary Mantel, first when I was carrying around her 2010 masterpiece Wolf Hall, and lately its successor (the second installment of a planned trilogy). Most of the time, my answer to the query of what I'm reading the evokes the mild curiosity of people more interested in hearing about a book than actually tackling it themselves. In the case of Wolf Hall, however, some friends had beat me to it, and raved. Yet there was another reaction that surfaced a number of times, one for which I had some sympathy: impatience. Yes, it's good, some said. But a bit slow.

I heard that again with regard to Bring Up the Bodies, and it delayed my acquisition of the novel, which I had half-resolved to let slide. But my curiosity about Mantel's real-life protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to King Henry VIII, got the better of me. I'm glad I read it, and endorse this novel (as I did Wolf Hall). But this book too is a bit slow, though the narrative picks up steam in as it proceeds.

Mantel is an avowed revisionist. In most of the many times the saga of Henry VIII's reign has been chronicled, Thomas Cromwell is depicted as the hatchet man, a ruthless power player who destroyed the literally sainted Thomas More for More's refusal to acquiesce in the larger religious/political implications of the King's desire to dump his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne Boleyn. In Mantel's telling, however, More, who's relatively incidental to the story, comes off as a pompous prig, while Cromwell's Machiavellian realism has a mordant wit that's tremendously engaging. Cromwell certainly has his personal loyalties, in particular to his mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was also a victim of the King's intransigent marital will. But the core of Cromwell's appeal is his lively intelligence, which he deploys with tireless energy on behalf of a monarch who rewards this upwardly mobile commoner with power and honors that the elicit admiration and envy of peers and superiors in equal measure.

Wolf Hall focused on Cromwell's role in the rise of Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies focuses on Cromwell's role in her fall, which results from the King's frustration over Boleyn's failure to deliver a male heir -- the one child of their union became Elizabeth I -- and his growing infatuation with one of Boleyn's attendants, Jane Seymour (whose family estate is named Wolf Hall, an allusion to where the end of the last book was heading). The narrative action here is compressed into nine months between 1535 and 1536 when Cromwell, knowing that Boleyn and her allies regard him as an enemy, pre-emptively strikes by aligning himself with former adversaries who hate her even more than they hate him.

As with Wolf Hall, Cromwell shows himself to be a ruthless political operator, which is troubling this time for two reasons. First, we're forced to confront that this attractive character commits evil acts. As he explains to one of his hapless victims, told to confess to crimes he probably did not commit, "He [i.e. Cromwell] needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged." Publicly, those charges involve incest and adultery, and results in a series of executions, including the notorious one of the Queen herself. Privately, they are reprisals against those who doomed Cromwell's beloved Wolsey. So Henry gets what he wants even as Cromwell gets what he does.

The other reason Cromwell's machinations are disquieting is pointed out by his friends: the people with whom he's allied will seek to dispose of him at their first convenience. Cromwell knows this, and his fate -- he would be executed five years later -- looms increasingly large over the story, which is slated for resolution in the third volume of what is now projected as a trilogy.

But the real satisfactions of these books is not the plot, but rather the ways Mantel is able to evoke the rhythms and textures of sixteenth century life, while making that life seem recognizable amid its strangeness. Bring Up the Bodies is at heart a series of conversations, some of them internal, in which characters make striking, yet plausibly prescient, remarks. "Our learning both acquired or pretended; the stratagems of state, the lawyer's decrees, the churchmen's curses, and the grave resolutions of judges, sacred and secular: all and each can be defeated by a woman's body, can they not?" Cromwell thinks. "God should have made their bellies transparent, and saved us the hope and fear. But perhaps what grows there has to grow in the dark." Other observations almost seem to wink in their contemporary relevance: "Chivalry's day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneychanger have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys." But sometimes those winks are ironic: "Though the whole of England has taken an oath to uphold her children, no one abroad thinks that, if [Boleyn] fails to give Henry a son, the little Elizabeth can reign."

It's precisely because I -- God help me -- like Cromwell so much that I find myself dreading the final installment of this saga. Bring Up the Bodies ends in triumph for its protagonist, but, as Mantel concludes, "the word 'however' is like an imp coiled beneath your chair." Our greatest triumphs are temporary; our greatest disasters are trivial. So it's probably worth it to slow down and listen to the remarkable voice that emerges from these pages. In the end, time is the only thing we've got.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


To mark the end of the school year, here's a reprise edition of my old running series

The Felix Chronicles, # 35

 In which we survey the annual spring harvest

I make a detour when I arrive at school for a final round of faculty meetings to take a look at the Quad. Surprisingly, there are no obvious traces of yesterday’s ceremonies. Less than 24 hours ago, this space was teeming with parents, grandparents, alums, along with hundreds of students —- some of whom were wearing caps and gowns and about to dissolve into living ghosts. Today, all that remains is a sole folding chair. And since it’s brown, not black like the hundreds that had been set up, I’m not even sure it was here yesterday. The only sign that anything relatively unusual had happened are the distressed stripes of grass running horizontally across the Quad. The maintenance crew will take care of that in pretty short order, and this space will revert to a stretch of silence, punctuated only by the occasional round of elementary school kids singing here on summer afternoons, or administrators walking to and from their cars. Birds and bees will hold dominion for a season.

I’m relieved it’s finally over. It’s been three weeks since the seniors finished classes, a period punctuated by end-of-the-year parties, final exams, the prom, the senior dinner, and other rituals. Graduation is the most tedious. People typically experience a string over a string of a dozen or so years: elementary school and middle school, then high school, college, each a little more bittersweet and dogged by anxiety, followed perhaps by a postgraduate degree. And then that’s it for a generation. But we teachers (especially high school teachers) go through the motions every year. The students, the speeches, the recitation of the school song: they all tend to run together. If anything is likely to be memorable, it’s the weather: hot or rainy, surprisingly cool or surprisingly beautiful. There’s usually a moment of genuine gladness at some point in the morning, as we witness the visible signs of maturity in some of our charges. And there’s often a moment of genuine regret, too, when we face an esteemed colleague’s retirement, the graduation of the final child in a cherished family, or a fond farewell from a clutch of friends who complemented each other so nicely. Any of these people may reappear at some point, in some perhaps transfigured way. But the uncertainty of such scenarios, and the certainty of time’s passage, make such moments bittersweet at best.

It’s always a relief when you get in the car and head home after such rituals, and I’m glad to seize a life, however quotidian, that’s truly my own. For years now, it’s been my habit to come home from graduation and mow the lawn. I think of Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “Veteran in a New Field,” which depicts a recently returned Civil War soldier threshing wheat. Figuratively speaking, my campaign is over, and I’m eager to get back to my farm.

This notion of closure is among the greatest satisfactions of teaching. Other walks of life are comparably cyclical. But I don’t think any afford the kind of clean lines and closed books that a life in schools does. Many working people take extended summer vacations, but few of them are as expansive and sharply chiseled as that afforded by an academic schedule. As we are all veterans of schooling, this experience is a virtual birthright. But only teachers refuse to relinquish it.

The time will come—unexpectedly quickly —when my longings will turn away from completion and repose toward the rebirth that comes with the fall. In my case, the longings typically return long before it's time to actually return to the classroom. But as I make my way from meeting to meeting, from a final faculty softball came to a final trip to the local watering hole before we all disperse, I pause to savor the cadence. The present is past. And history will be born anew.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Re-presented 'Past'

My 2009 book Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History has recently been published in an updated and expanded edition by Wiley-Blackwell. This edition features a new chapter on introductions and conclusion, as well as further information on citing electronic sources like e-books, blogs, and other new realities of the digital age. Some references have also been updated (I replaced a discussion of Avril Levigne with Taylor Swift) as well as more recent examples of student writing to illustrate effective technique.

In addition to Essaying the Past, I'm working on two other related projects both with Wiley-Blackwell as well. The first is a new edition of my 2001 anthology Popular Culture in American History, featuring some of the best scholarship on the subject in the last quarter-century. The other is a new textbook, tentatively titled Stages, Pages and Screens: A Brief History of the Modern Media. Pub dates for these books are estimated between late 2013 and early 2014. Hope you'll get a chance to have a look.