A Old-Time Mugging

August 8, 2011

Just for fun, I attach a selection from the novel Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia (1834) by William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870). Edgar Allen Poe considered Simms to be our best novelist, but his pro-South, pro-slavery views ensured him obscurity in the 20th century. Simms wrote a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin entitled The Sword and the Distaff.

Another reason Simms is no longer in favor is probably the ultra-refined verbosity and contrived elegance of his narrations and dialogues, which violate contemporary aesthetic norms. But this is really a matter of taste, of what you are reading for. 19th-century readers delighted in detailed description of people and scenes, in dramatic and romantic situations that took one away from ordinary life, in conversations and descriptions teeming with wit and color. These are the qualities that drew them to the writings of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper.

I enjoyed the following scene from Chapter 3 of Guy Rivers. If only all robberies and ambushes were conducted like this.The scene finds the protagonist, Ralph Colleton, traveling alone in a wild area of Georgia, when he is accosted by a stranger:

The traveller himself looked forward at his own query, and soon discovered the occasion of his steed’s alarm. No occasion for alarm, either, judging by appearances; no panther, no wolf, certainly—a man only—looking innocent enough, were it not for the suspicious fact that he seemed to have put himself in waiting, and stood directly in the midst of the path that the horseman was pursuing.

Our traveller, as we have seen, was not wholly unprepared, as well to expect as to encounter hostilities. In addition to his pistols, which were well charged, and conveniently at hand, we may now add that he carried another weapon, for close quarters, concealed in his bosom. The appearance of the stranger was not, however, so decided a manifestation of hostility, as to justify his acting with any haste by the premature use of his defences. Besides, no man of sense, and such we take our traveller to be, will force a quarrel where he can make his way peacefully, like a Christian and a gentleman. Our young traveller very quietly observed as he approached the stranger—

“You scare my horse, sir. Will it please you to give us the road?”

“Give you the road?—Oh! yes! when you have paid the toll, young master!”

The manner of the man was full of insolence, and the blood, in a moment, rushed to the cheeks of the youth. He divined, by instinct, that there was some trouble in preparation for him, and his teeth were silently clenched together, and his soul nerved itself for anticipated conflict. He gazed calmly, however, though sternly, at the stranger, who appeared nothing daunted by the expression in the eyes of the traveller. His air was that of quiet indifference, bordering on contempt, as if he knew his duties, or his man, and was resolved upon the course he was appointed to pursue. When men meet thus, if they are persons of even ordinary intelligence, the instincts are quick to conceive and act, and the youth was now more assured than ever, that the contest awaited him which should try his strength. This called up all his resources, and we may infer that he possessed them in large degree, from his quiet forbearance and deliberation, even when he became fully sensible of the insolence of the person with whom he felt about to grapple.

As yet, however, judging from other appearances, there was no violence meditated by the stranger. He was simply insolent, and he was in the way. He carried no weapons—none which met the sight, at least, and there was nothing in his personal appearance calculated to occasion apprehension. His frame was small, his limbs slight, and they did not afford promise of much activity. His face wad not ill favored, though a quick, restless black eye, keen and searching, had in it a lurking malignity, like that of a snake, which impressed the spectator with suspicion at the first casual glance. His nose, long and sharp, was almost totally fleshless; the skin being drawn so tightly over the bones, as to provoke the fear that any violent effort would cause them to force their way through the frail integument. An untrimmed beard, run wild; and a pair of whiskers so huge, as to refuse all accordance with the thin diminutive cheeks which wore them; thin lips, and a sharp chin; — completed the outline of a very unprepossessing face, which a broad high forehead did not tend very much to improve or dignify.

Though the air of the stranger was insolent, and his manner rude, our young traveller was unwilling to decide unfavorably. At all events, his policy and mood equally inclined him to avoid any proceeding which should precipitate or compel violence.

“There are many good people in the world”—so he thought — “who are better than they promise; many good Christians, whose aspects would enable them to pass, in any crowd, as very tolerable and becoming ruffians. This fellow may be one of the unfortunate order of virtuous people, cursed with an unbecoming visage. We will see before we shoot.”

Thus thought our traveller, quickly, as became his situation. He determined accordingly, while foregoing none of his precautions, to see farther into the designs of the stranger, before he resorted to any desperate issues. He replied, accordingly, to the requisition of the speaker; the manner, rather than the matter of which, had proved offensive.

“Toll! You ask toll of me? By what right, sir, and for whom do you require it?”

“Look you, young fellow, I am better able to ask questions myself, than to answer those of other people. In respect to this matter of answering, my education has been wofully neglected.”

The reply betrayed some intelligence as well as insolence. Our traveller could not withhold the retort.

 “Ay, indeed! and in some other respects too, not less important, if I am to judge from your look and bearing. But you mistake your man, let me tell you. I am not the person whom you can play your pranks upon with safety, and unless you will be pleased to speak a little more respectfully, our parley will have a shorter life, and a rougher ending, than you fancy.”

 “It would scarcely be polite to contradict so promising a young gentleman as yourself,” was the response;  “but I am disposed to believe our intimacy likely to lengthen, rather than diminish. I hate to part over-soon with company that talks so well; particularly in these woods, where, unless such a chance come about as the present, the lungs of the heartiest youth in the land would not be often apt to find the echo they seek, though they cried for it at the uttermost pitch of the pipe.”

The look and the language of the speaker were alike significant, and the sinister meaning of the last sentence did not escape the notice of him to whom it was addressed. His reply was calm, however, and his mind grew more at ease, more collected, with his growing consciousness of annoyance and danger. He answered the stranger in a vein not unlike his own.

 “You are pleased to be eloquent, worthy sir—and, on any other occasion, I might not be unwilling to bestow my ear upon you; but as I have yet to find my way out of this labyrinth, for the use of which your facetiousness would have me pay a tax, I must forego that satisfaction, and leave the enjoyment for some better day.”

 “You are well bred, I see, young sir,” was the reply,  “and this forms an additional reason why I should not desire so soon to break our acquaintance. If you have mistaken your road, what do you on this?—why are you in this part of the country, which is many miles removed from any public thoroughfare?”

 “By what right do you ask the question?” was the hurried and unhesitating response.  “You are impertinent!”

 “Softly, softly, young sir. Be not rash, and let me recommend that you be more choice in the adoption of your epithets. Impertinent is an ugly word between gentlemen of our habit. Touching my right to ask this or that question of young men who lose the way, that’s neither here nor there, and is important in no way. But, I take it, I should have some right in this matter, seeing, young sir, that you are upon the turnpike and I am the gate-keeper who must take the toll.”

A sarcastic smile passed over the lips of the man as he uttered the sentence, which was as suddenly succeeded, however, by an expression of gravity, partaking of an air of the profoundest business. The traveller surveyed him for a moment before he replied, as if to ascertain in what point of view properly to understand his conduct.

 “Turnpike! this is something new. I never heard of a turnpike and a gate for toll, in a part of the world in which men, honest ones at least, are not yet commonly to be found. You think rather too lightly, my good sir, of my claim to that most vulgar commodity called common sense, if you suppose me likely to swallow this silly story.”

 “Oh, doubtless—you are a very sagacious young man, I make no question,” said the other, with a sneer—“but you’ll have to pay the turnpike for all that.”

 “You speak confidently on this point; but, if I am to pay this turnpike, at least, I may be permitted to know who is its proprietor.”

 “To be sure you may. I am always well pleased to satisfy the doubts and curiosity of young travellers who go abroad for information. I take you to be one of this class.”

 “Confine yourself, if you please, to the matter in hand—I grow weary of this chat,” said the youth with a haughty inclination, that seemed to have its effect even upon him with whom he spoke.

 “Your question is quickly answered. You have heard of the Pony Club—have you not?”

 “I must confess my utter ignorance of such an institution. I have never heard even the name before.”

 “You have not—then really it is high time to begin the work of enlightenment. You must know, then, that the Pony Club is the proprietor of everything and everybody, throughout the nation, and in and about this section. It is the king, without let or limitation of powers, for sixty miles around. Scarce a man in Georgia but pays in some sort to its support—and judge and jury alike contribute to its treasuries. Few dispute its authority, as you will have reason to discover, without suffering condign and certain punishment; and, unlike the tributaries and agents of other powers, its servitors, like myself, invested with jurisdiction over certain parts and interests, sleep not in the performance of our duties; but, day and night, obey its dictates, and perform the various, always laborious, and sometimes dangerous functions which it imposes upon us. It finds us in men, in money, in horses. It assesses the Cherokees, and they yield a tithe, and sometimes a greater proportion of their ponies, in obedience to its requisitions. Hence, indeed, the name of the club. It relieves young travellers, like yourself, of their small change—their sixpences; and when they happen to have a good patent lever, such a one as a smart young gentleman like yourself is very apt to carry about him, it is not scrupulous, but helps them of that too, merely by way of pas-time.”

And the ruffian chuckled in a half-covert manner at his own pun.

 “Truly, a well-conceived sort of sovereignty, and doubtless sufficiently well served, if I may infer from the representative before me. You must do a large business in this way, most worthy sir.”

 “Why, that we do, and your remark reminds me that I have quite as little time to lose as yourself. You now understand, young sir, the toll you have to pay, and the proprietor who claims it.”

 “Perfectly—perfectly. You will not suppose me dull again, most candid keeper of the Pony Turnpike. But have you made up your mind, in earnest, to relieve me of such trifling encumbrances as those you have just mentioned?”

 “I should be strangely neglectful of the duties of my station, not to speak of the discourtesy of such a neglect to yourself, were I to do otherwise; always supposing you burdened with such encumbrances. I put it to yourself, whether such would not be the effect of my omission.”

 “It most certainly would, most frank and candid of all the outlaws. Your punctiliousness on this point of honor entitles you, in my mind, to an elevation above and beyond all others of your profession. I admire the grace of your manner, in the commission of acts which the more tame and temperate of our kind are apt to look upon as irregular and unlovely. You, I see, have the true notion of the thing.”

The ruffian looked with some doubt upon the youth—inquiringly, as if to account in some way for the singular coolness, not to say contemptuous scornfulness, of his replies and manner. There was something, too, of a searching malignity in his glance, that seemed to recognise in his survey features which brought into activity a personal emotion in his own bosom, not at variance, indeed, with the craft he was pursuing, but fully above and utterly beyond it. Dismissing, however, the expression, he continued in the manner and tone so tacitly adopted between the parties.

 “I am heartily glad, most travelled young gentleman, that your opinion so completely coincides with my own, since it assures me I shall not be compelled, as is sometimes the case in the performance of my duties, to offer any rudeness to one seemingly so well taught as yourself. Knowing the relationship between us so fully, you can have no reasonable objection to conform quietly to all my requisitions, and yield the tollkeeper his dues.”


Time to Reform

January 31, 2011

I’ve been working my way through Shakespeare’s English Histories, which provide a dramatic sense of the political turbulence of the times they depict.

One of the main themes of Henry IV Part 1 is the transformation of the young Prince Hal, the future Henry V, from a frivolous playboy to a chivalrous warrior and serious successor to the throne. The long scenes in which he cavorts and banters with John Falstaff, the delightfully comic, overweight scoundrel, set the stage for this transformation. In a conversation with his father, King Henry IV, the King bewails Hal’s misspent youth and expresses the fear that he might join the rebels, led by Henry Percy (Hotspur), who aim to depose him. The Prince replies:

Do not think so. You shall not find it so;
And God forgive them that so much have swayed
Your majesty’s good thoughts away from me.
I will redeem all this on Percy’s head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favors in a bloody mask,
Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honor and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honor sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled; for the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
This, in the name of God, I promise here,
The which, if He be pleased I shall perform,
I do beseech your majesty may salve
The long-grown wounds of my intemperance;
If not, the end of life cancels all bonds,
And I will die a hundred thousand deaths
Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.

To which the king responds:

A hundred thousand rebels die in this.
Thou shalt have charge and sovereign trust herein.

Go, Prince Henry! Do you think he will live up to his vow?

Speaking of dissolution, when I was reading the Wikipedia biography of the Louvin Brothers – an act I must admit I had never heard of –  after reading at Vanishing American that the surviving brother, Charlie Louvin, had passed away – I noted that the older brother, Ira, had considerable problems with alcohol. This set me to thinking of Hank Williams and other great entertainers who destroyed themselves with drinking and drugs. I said to my wife, “We may disapprove of their lifestyles, but we have to forgive them, because whatever pleasures they may have enjoyed from their wealth and fame were paid for by sacrificing their bodies.” Or as George Harrison said, “[The fans] gave their money and their screams. But we gave our nervous systems, which is a more difficult thing to give.”

Look at the Louvin Brothers giving their nervous systems on “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby.” Well, they do seem to be having a fine time.

I imagine few readers of this blog are expecting regular posts these days, but for those who are kind enough to check in regularly, I’d like to announce my intent to publish the weekly essays on Mondays (i.e., at the end of the weekend), rather than Fridays, which was the plan once upon a time. That is more or less when they’ve been coming out anyway.

What is Your Hobby-Horse?

October 3, 2010

At this site we talk a lot about what’s wrong with our society and how we might be able to reverse its decline. But how can we change an entire society when it is so hard to change our own behavior as individuals, and almost impossible to influence even the people closest to us to any obvious effect?

This was my thought after talking with a family member last night about other people in our family, and their peculiar and sometimes dysfunctional habits and ways. After thinking about that topic for some time, I stopped short as I realized that many of the eccentricities and limitations that we were discussing in other people are also present in myself, although in each individual the trait takes a different form. Nature and nurture naturally engender similarities between parent and child, sibling and sibling – even if the way these characteristics are realized can contrast quite dramatically between individuals.

Laurence Sterne’s satirical masterpiece Tristram Shandy (1759-1769?) draws a lot of its humor from the idea that even the most learned, sophisticated individuals are largely driven by irrational and contradictory impulses and habits which, by the time a person is middle-aged, are so firmly established that they are almost impossible to change. The novel’s eponymous narrator spends much of his time narrating the events of his life that took place between his conception and his christening, in order to demonstrate that he is the most unfortunate man who ever lived:

On the fifth day of November, 1718, which to the aera fixed on, was as near nine kalendar months as any husband could in reason have expected,–was I Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours.–I wish I had been born in the Moon, or in any of the planets, (except Jupiter or Saturn, because I never could bear cold weather) for it could not well have fared worse with me in any of them (though I will not answer for Venus) than it has in this vile, dirty planet of ours,–which, o’ my conscience, with reverence be it spoken, I take to be made up of the shreds and clippings of the rest;–not but the planet is well enough, provided a man could be born in it to a great title or to a great estate; or could any how contrive to be called up to public charges, and employments of dignity or power;–but that is not my case;–and therefore every man will speak of the fair as his own market has gone in it;–for which cause I affirm it over again to be one of the vilest worlds that ever was made;–for I can truly say, that from the first hour I drew my breath in it, to this, that I can now scarce draw it at all, for an asthma I got in scating against the wind in Flanders;–I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune; and though I will not wrong her by saying, She has ever made me feel the weight of any great or signal evil;–yet with all the good temper in the world I affirm it of her, that in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small Hero sustained. (I.V.)

Sterne calls a man’s ruling, irrational obsession his “hobby horse,” and his book is populated by characters quite unable to see the absurdity of their own hobby horses.

Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,–have they not had their Hobby-Horses;–their running horses,–their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,–their maggots and their butterflies?–and so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,–pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?…. (I.VII)

–De gustibus non est disputandum;–that is, there is no disputing against Hobby-Horses; and for my part, I seldom do; nor could I with any sort of grace, had I been an enemy to them at the bottom; for happening, at certain intervals and changes of the moon, to be both fidler and painter, according as the fly stings:–Be it known to you, that I keep a couple of pads myself, upon which, in their turns, (nor do I care who knows it) I frequently ride out and take the air;–though sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journies than what a wise man would think altogether right.–But the truth is,–I am not a wise man;–and besides am a mortal of so little consequence in the world, it is not much matter what I do: so I seldom fret or fume at all about it: Nor does it much disturb my rest, when I see such great Lords and tall Personages as hereafter follow;–such, for instance, as my Lord A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, and so on, all of a row, mounted upon their several horses,– some with large stirrups, getting on in a more grave and sober pace;– others on the contrary, tucked up to their very chins, with whips across their mouths, scouring and scampering it away like so many little party- coloured devils astride a mortgage,–and as if some of them were resolved to break their necks.–So much the better–say I to myself;–for in case the worst should happen, the world will make a shift to do excellently well without them; and for the rest,–why–God speed them–e’en let them ride on without opposition from me; for were their lordships unhorsed this very night–’tis ten to one but that many of them would be worse mounted by one half before tomorrow morning.

Not one of these instances therefore can be said to break in upon my rest.- -But there is an instance, which I own puts me off my guard, and that is, when I see one born for great actions, and what is still more for his honour, whose nature ever inclines him to good ones;–when I behold such a one, my Lord, like yourself, whose principles and conduct are as generous and noble as his blood, and whom, for that reason, a corrupt world cannot spare one moment;–when I see such a one, my Lord, mounted, though it is but for a minute beyond the time which my love to my country has prescribed to him, and my zeal for his glory wishes,–then, my Lord, I cease to be a philosopher, and in the first transport of an honest impatience, I wish the Hobby-Horse, with all his fraternity, at the Devil. (I.VIII)

The narrator’s father, for instance, to save money, compels his wife to give birth to her son at their country estate rather than in London. In the countryside there is a reasonably competent midwife, but the father wants a male doctor to attend. His reasoning is that if the midwife makes a mess of her work, women all over the country will demand to be allowed to “lie in” in London, and this will lead to a population glut in the metropolis that could ruin the country.

He was very sensible that all political writers upon the subject had unanimously agreed and lamented, from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign down to his own time, that the current of men and money towards the metropolis, upon one frivolous errand or another,–set in so strong,–as to become dangerous to our civil rights,–though, by the bye,–a current was not the image he took most delight in,–a distemper was here his favourite metaphor, and he would run it down into a perfect allegory, by maintaining it was identically the same in the body national as in the body natural, where the blood and spirits were driven up into the head faster than they could find their ways down;–a stoppage of circulation must ensue, which was death in both cases.

There was little danger, he would say, of losing our liberties by French politicks or French invasions;–nor was he so much in pain of a consumption from the mass of corrupted matter and ulcerated humours in our constitution, which he hoped was not so bad as it was imagined;–but he verily feared, that in some violent push, we should go off, all at once, in a state-apoplexy;–and then he would say, The Lord have mercy upon us all.

My father was never able to give the history of this distemper,–without the remedy along with it.

‘Was I an absolute prince,’ he would say, pulling up his breeches with both his hands, as he rose from his arm-chair, ‘I would appoint able judges, at every avenue of my metropolis, who should take cognizance of every fool’s business who came there;–and if, upon a fair and candid hearing, it appeared not of weight sufficient to leave his own home, and come up, bag and baggage, with his wife and children, farmer’s sons, &c. &c. at his backside, they should be all sent back, from constable to constable, like vagrants as they were, to the place of their legal settlements. By this means I shall take care, that my metropolis totter’d not thro’ its own weight;–that the head be no longer too big for the body;–that the extremes, now wasted and pinn’d in, be restored to their due share of nourishment, and regain with it their natural strength and beauty:–I would effectually provide, That the meadows and corn fields of my dominions, should laugh and sing;–that good chear and hospitality flourish once more;–and that such weight and influence be put thereby into the hands of the Squirality of my kingdom, as should counterpoise what I perceive my Nobility are now taking from them. (I.XVIII)

The father, out of dedication to his passionately-held, hobby-horsical political belief, sets off a chain of events that are disastrous to his unborn son. He reminds me of certain intellectuals, who make a wreck of their private lives while theorizing about how to properly govern the world. I think it is a good thing to be able to step back from worrying about such matters and laugh once in awhile – at the world and at ourselves. I agree with Sterne that there’s almost nothing we can do to separate people from their hobby-horses. If we are to fix our society, it will have to happen by implementing higher-level changes in custom and belief, while allowing people, at the private level, to be the same exasperatingly irrational beings that they have always been.

Dystopian Fiction: The Kicker of St. John’s Wood

August 9, 2010

A work of art is, at once, the creation of an individual or individuals, and the collective product of a particular culture or civilization. It seems to me a clear mark of the decline of American (and Western) civilization that very few universally acknowledged masterpieces of art and literature have appeared in the past several decades. I suspect that works at the level of the creations of a Beethoven or Dostoevsky are not forthcoming at present. What is missing is not the individual talent, but a solid cultural framework – a commonly held body of traditions and experiences, with a common orientation towards truth and beauty. In a society lacking this, art ends up decadent, or escapist, or satirical, or simply incompetent.

This is not to say that artists of today have nothing worthwhile to do. Probably the need for artists and writers is greater than ever today, to help us understand the truths that a rational, quantitative approach cannot apprehend, and to comfort and encourage us by evoking the beautiful and true in a world in which these qualities are hard to find. But we should expect that works engaging honestly with the ugly realities of our society will bear the marks of doing so, and may not be able to lift their audience to the heights that have been reached in other eras.

Consider, for example, dystopian fiction, a genre exemplified, in the 20th century, by great works like Brave New World; 1984; and The Camp of the Saints. The particular evils associated with modernity seem to naturally suggest to writers scenarios which take those evils to their ultimate logical conclusion. The artistic results are unlikely to be beautiful, but by showing the ugly and evil results of seemingly benign ideologies of social equality, they can nevertheless be of great value.

Gary Wolf, the creator of the site AWOL Civilization, specializes in dystopian fiction. In his description of the site, he writes: “This website can be summarized in one phrase: ‘Updating Orwell for the era of political correctness.’ ” Mr. Wolf’s writing ranges from sophisticated cultural commentary to satiric lists of the headlines he imagines appearing in the future, when political correctness has been carried to levels we can hardly imagine even today. I particularly enjoyed Michelle Knows Best, his ‘70s TV sitcom-style chronicle of the ghastly events unfolding in America from week to week, from the perspective of the Obama White House. The laughter provided made it a little easier to bear the ongoing tragedy. But Mr. Wolf’s preferred genre – at least for now – is dystopian fiction. He aims, with much humor and spoofing but a deadly seriousness of spirit, to portray the future of America and the West if today’s trends are allowed to continue. Naturally, he hopes that doing so will help prevent the worst from occurring.

I was a little sorry to learn – just when I’d finally gotten around to linking Mr. Wolf’s site on this blog – that he is putting it on hiatus for the foreseeable future. But his reason is unimpeachable: he wishes to devote himself exclusively to writing a new novel. I recently read his latest, entitled The Kicker of St. John’s Wood (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2009).

Kicker is a light first-person narrative in the style of a mystery or spy thriller, short enough to be read in a day. If the cover were truer to the contents it would show a dark-skinned beauty clad in the brutal armor of a professional football player, holding a ball and looking out with frightened eyes as a pile of giant men move in to flatten her. It does convey the central theme, though: the introduction of women to professional football, engineered by a coalition of American leftists and United Nations bureaucrats as an adjunct to their plot to overthrow democracy in the United States. The year is 2020, and the story is narrated by one Jayesh Blackstone, the English-born son of an American father and an Indian mother. Jayesh, a thoughtful, literary-minded chap, found his way to the unlikely profession of American football through his unique talent for kicking. When his team makes it to the Super Bowl, he finds himself forced to kick with a female holder, thus becoming an unwilling player in an international theatre of political correctness. As events unfold, he uncovers a larger and much more sinister plot, which sends him traveling around the world James Bond-style to save a friend who has fallen into the clutches of the villains. These events force Jayesh to figure out who he is and what he stands for.

In Kicker, all major institutions of Western society have been taken over completely by the forces of modern liberalism in their various embodiments – to quote Wolf’s site again: “political correctness, multiculturalism, the victim industry, declining standards, affirmative action, feminism, post-modernism, scientific hoaxes on a global scale, and the rest of the intellectual decadence that is reducing the greatest civilization of all time to a state of mental cacophony.” Racial and gender equality, white American guilt, anti-Christian sentiment, are all tools used cynically by leaders and institutions for no other purpose than to amass power. 1984 indeed.

The results of this takeover of society tend to take the form of parody rather than realistic projections. Feminism, for instance, is personified in the beliefs of Ashley, a radical feminist writing a Ph.D. dissertation on “the contribution of Christian fundamentalism to sexist attitudes in professional sports.” Despite her beliefs, Ashley “hooks up” with Jayesh just as any football groupie might do, then insists that their physical interaction follow the rules of “alternating reciprocity” in which the partners take turns making sexual moves in order to ensure “equality” – an obvious take-off on such things as sexual conduct codes on college campuses. Ashley’s initial intention was to observe some real-life football players for her research. However, in spy-novel manner, the female antagonist soon finds that her lover has brought out feelings that are incompatible with her formal allegiances.

Ashley’s dissertation contends that:

Christian fundamentalists, spreading out from their original cells in Texas, gradually took over the educational institutions in the American heartland (and seriously threatened to take over the rest). The central pillar of their influence was the entrenched patriarchy, which was fueled by violent sports, such as football and ice hockey; merciless economic exploitation of the weak members of society; war; racism; homophobia; and the relegation of women to the most menial and accursed existence they have ever experienced on the face of the earth. The men indoctrinated in this way become addicted to a steady diet of sports, guns, porn, and cut-throat business practices. If they are not stopped soon, they may very well attempt a violent takeover of the U.S. government, depose President Malpomme [the “bad apple” female U.S. president who is in fact plotting a takeover herself], and institute a regime of martial law. (p. 20)

In real life, feminists do not write like this (if only they did write this clearly!), but the point should be taken. Is the substance of what they are saying much different?

Despite Kicker’s use of feminism as the central adversarial ideology, the story suggests that the real threat is something different, bigger, more difficult to pin down. This threat is personified in the character Joseph Hoompty Azala, a sinister United Nations bureaucrat from India, who alternates cajoling with threats as he attempts to win his perceived co-ethnic, Jayesh, over to his side.

“You know, Jayesh, I think there is one thing we can agree on right now, and that is the subject of your American women. They are corrupting society with their behavior. We have great fears in my country that it will spread. This is very dangerous. In Asia, as in most of the world, the women are busy with their real obligations; that is, taking care of their families. Look what is happening to the Super Bowl. A woman playing in your greatest game? You can’t be too happy about that.”

“No, I’m not,” I said, newly fascinated by the man across the table….

“Tell me,” I said, “if my American women repel you, why are you cooperating so closely with our chief woman, President Malpomme?”

Azala began rubbing his thumb against the handle of his fork. “Because she supports us on almost every issue. One has to be realistic, n’est-ce pas?

“Yes, I suppose.”

“She will be replaced, like all your presidents.” (p. 79)

This scene suggests the true nature of the alliance between Western liberals and the Western-educated Third World bureaucrats found in the United Nations and other international organizations. The latter use the former to gain power and funding in support of their own ends, which ultimately have very little to do with democracy and human rights as we understand them.

As suggested by the unusual ethnic background of its protagonist, Kicker also ventures, gently, into the role played by demographic change in the Western civilizational crisis. Jayesh is of mixed Indian and Western background, but regards himself as not at all Indian. When so labeled, he responds with gentle exasperation:

What good would it do to explain…one more time that my only connection to India, aside from my first name, is that it happens to be my mother’s native land. I never lived there, I don’t speak any of the dialects, I’m not a Hindu, and we never ate curry at my house while I was growing up (my father hated it). (p. 3)

This turns out to be not quite true. Jayesh’s main spiritual influence comes from his Indian grandfather, and he later finds himself drawn to an Indian woman who belongs to a revolutionary movement. Consequently, political events force him to decide just what his identity is. Here, his relationship with his multi-ethnic football teammates, based on a shared goal, shared standards, and absolute mutual trust, suggests the model for a functioning multiethnic American society. Jayesh’s true fellow countrymen, it seems, are not ethnic Indians but rather people like Thelonius Brown, a patriotic black man who loathes being thought of as a victim of racism, and other characters who refuse to be pigeonholed into superficial “ethnic” identities. Conversely, the novel imputes a complex Norwegian, Apache, Scottish, and Russian Jewish origin to one white character. What makes Jayesh align himself with America is that “In America, I can define myself. It’s quite a luxury. Of course some people don’t like that.” (p. 158)

I have no doubt that there are plenty of non-white and mixed-race Americans who, like Jayesh, dislike being categorized as “disadvantaged minorities” and would side with the majority culture if forced to make a choice. At the same time, the effects of 40 years of mass non-Western immigration are beginning to throw into doubt the idea that America can survive as a “proposition nation” consisting, not of a concrete, particular people, but as a collection of all the cultures and ethnic groups of the world, united only by some abstract creed of personal freedom. When the European, Christian element of the population is reduced to minority status, will honorable members of the new majority take over the role of custodians of our traditional culture? If our present culture of race-based power jockeying and creeping race-motivated socialism is any indication, the answer is: certainly not.

In this respect it must be said that Kicker does not fully tackle the implications of phenomena like Hispanic immigration and the growth of Islam in America, although there are a few hints of these issues in the text. Still, Mr. Wolf’s delightful pummeling of political correctness as he reveals its essential tyranny will be appreciated by open-minded moderates and rock-ribbed conservatives alike. The dystopian vision, paradoxically, can help one imagine a better future. I, for one, look forward to the knock on my door by some Paul Revere who has a simple plan of action for taking back our country:

“All right, listen up,” he declared. “Things are happening very quickly, and there’s no time for explanations. Go back to your rooms. Pack one small travel bag each, and keep it light. Hopefully we will return soon for the rest of our belongings. A helicopter is on its way here to pick us up. The war has begun, my friends. Meet me here, just outside, in exactly five minutes. Go!” (p. 205)

The war has begun!

“A Deed of Dering-Do”

July 10, 2010

Although I am no longer very young – or perhaps because of this – I am greatly drawn to vintage books for children and young adults. The stories told and the values they embody are often vastly different from those we encounter today. The world of these books is a world where Westerners struggle in love, war, work, and school without the burden of guilt based on race, sex, and the like. One common theme is personal courage and the triumph of brave individuals over adversity.

One such book, A Book of Brave Deeds (Chicago : Auxiliary Educational League, 1947), collects famous stories of heroism, mainly in times of war, for the benefit of its readers. Here, I encountered a story I’d never heard before: Sergeant Custume’s heroic sacrifice defending the Irish town of Athlone from English and Dutch forces during the Williamite War in Ireland (1689-1691). The war was fought between the supporters of Protestant William III (William of Orange) and those of the Catholic James II, over who would be King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. James had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by William, who ruled jointly with James’s daughter Mary.

At the peak of James’s efforts to recover the crown, Irish and French forces (James was supported by Louis XIV) controlled most of the major towns in Ireland outside of the province of Ulster. James affirmed the independence of an Irish Parliament and promised to restore lands to the Catholic Gentry which had been confiscated in the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland. Williamite forces, including English, German, Dutch, Danish, and French troops, gained significant ground with their victory in the Battle of the Boyne (June 1690), but failed to dislodge the French and Irish from Limerick.

William entrusted the Dutch general Godert de Ginkell with the taking of the strategically important town of Athlone on the River Shannon. The bloody siege of Athlone was the occasion of the “brave deed” here related. The east part of the city had already been taken by Ginkell, but the Irish occupying the west part – across the river – bunkered down. Ginkell proceeded to reduce the Irish section of the city to rubble with his guns, but was prevented from entering it by a break in the bridge. To solve this problem, the “wily” general made use of a wheeled drawbridge designed by a German engineer (!) and was able to outmaneuver Irish opposition to set it in place. Athlone was doomed. At this moment the hero appears:

A sergeant in Maxwell’s dragoons, Custume by name, grasped the situation at a glance, and cried aloud, as he stepped out from the huddled ranks of his comrades, in words that Irish history will never cease to preserve —

“Are there ten men here, who will die with me for Ireland?”

Not a second’s pause now—there were not ten, but hundreds upon hundreds; and from amongst the strongest and most active of them the devoted sergeant picked out the number he had stated. All of them were in the full armour of their corps-back-piece and front-piece of wrought steel, thigh pieces that stood out over the knee as well, and great jackboots of horsehide, stout enough to ward off most bullets, and to resist any sabre-slash the arm of man could deliver.

“Fling aside your swords, men; ’tis axes we want!” was the sergeant’s next order.

Immediately he was obeyed, for there were plenty of tools all around, and then, with the simple words, “Follow me, boys – for Ireland!” Custume ran up to the inside of the Irish breastwork, climbed over it with the agility of a cat, and landed on the opposite side face to face with the English, was closely followed by his sacrificial ten, and forthwith all set to work to hew away the gallery, to wrench up and fling into the river the planks just laid down, to destroy the dire machine designed to destroy themselves, their comrades, and their cause!

The eleven are mowed down by artillery, but not before doing considerable damage to the gallery, and they are followed by another nine who manage to destroy it, sending an “exultant scream of triumph” up from the Irish soldiers. Of these, only two are able to return to their side alive. The story does not end in victory, for Athlone was eventually captured “chiefly owing to the absurd conflicts between [French general] Saint Ruth and the Irish commanding officers,” but the English “never made the slightest impression by way of the bridge which the twenty Irish Heroes died in defending.”

The story perhaps does not need any particular comment; but why do we not tell our boys stories like this anymore? The broad reason is the proliferation of a kind of pacifism within our culture: celebration of battle and of the sacrifice of one’s life for one’s country is supposed to be what got us into the carnage of the First World War and beyond. While there may be some truth to this, I am more impressed by the fact that these stories celebrate courage regardless of the affiliation of the courageous person. Thus the English have long admired their enemy Joan of Arc, for instance. Americans once were capable of admiring the bravery of American Indians without regretting that the Indians were ultimately defeated.

The story of Sergeant Custume is taken from Stephen J. Mac Kenna’s Brave Men in Action: Some Thrilling Stories of the British Flag (Sampson Low: London, 1878), and can be found in part on Google Books. The author explains his purpose as follows:

In the mass of Military and Naval history which we have as a nation by this time accumulated, individual efforts, in contra-distinction to the greater operations of Armies and Fleets, are apt to become forgotten – we lose sight of the Soldier or Sailor in the vast labours of the Commander-in-Chief or the Admiral.

“Brave Men In Action” is intended to make the Person more prominent than the Force, and therefore in most of the articles Incidents are brought boldly into the foreground of the picture, while the Action is only outlined so far as is needful to the proper comprehension of the selected deed of daring.

Some stories of this sort are true and others mainly fiction, but they show a true side of man, one upon which civilization depends. I think we need to go back to teaching our children, and ourselves, the “proper comprehension” of brave deeds.

Post-1880 Cliches on Immigration – Still With Us

April 13, 2010

An examination of my copy of Russell Blankenship’s 1937 textbook American Literature reveals that exaggerated veneration of immigrants is not a new phenomenon in America. It was apparently common among liberals in the 1920s and 1930s, and, like today, promoted especially earnestly by those who were themselves immigrants or from recent immigrant stock. Although it is not true that we are a “land of immigrants  – even Americans with significant post-1880s European immigrant ancestry can probably trace their ancestors’ presence here at least a century – mass immigration has taken place throughout enough of our history to have become planted in our consciousness as a normal thing.

For instance, consider this stanza from “Scum o’ the Earth,” by Robert Haven Shauffler (1879-1964), born to American parents in Austria. He clearly felt a moral burden in belonging to the host nation to a diverse mass of European immigrants:

Countrymen, bend and invoke
Mercy for us blasphemers,
For that we spat on these marvelous folk,
Nations of darers and dreamers,
Scions of singers and seers,
Our peers, and more than our peers.
“Rabble and refuse”, we name them
And “scum o’ the earth”, to shame them.
Mercy for us of the few, young years,
Of the culture so callow and crude,
Of the hands so grasping and rude,
The lips so ready for sneers
At the sons of our ancient more-than-peers.
Mercy for us who dare despise
Men in whose loins our Homer lies;
Mothers of men who shall bring to us
The glory of Titian, the grandeur of Huss;
Children in whose frail arms shall rest
Prophets and singers and saints of the West.
Newcomers all from the eastern seas,
Help us incarnate dreams like these.
Forget, and forgive, that we did you wrong.
Help us to father a nation, strong
In the comradeship of an equal birth,
In the wealth of the richest bloods of earth.

The sentiment draws one in. But wait a minute! Because people who came to America for a better life (i.e., to make money) experience poor treatment from some of the natives, the entire nation is guilty and can only purge its guilt through the forgiveness of those same immigrants, and taking them and their stock into the national body?

Wouldn’t this make one want to reconsider inviting the immigrants at all?

Or this passage by Albert Léon Guérard (1880-1959), who arrived from France in his twenties:

We have given up our native speech; the picturesque garb of ancient villages has been discarded; titles and dynastic allegiance have been left, as undesirable, at the gateway of Ellis Island, and our very habits of thought have undergone a radical change. But do you believe that we have dropped like a burden all the immemorial traditions of our home lands? We have not, and it would be a thousand pities if we had. For the primal glory of the American spirit is that it is a blend of all subnationalities under the Stars and Stripes….Let us pool our ancestors, let us all be heirs to all! The greatest privilege is just that blending of traditions! I feel now as if my two grandfathers had bravely fought against each other at Gettysburg; I know it was partly for me that Washington displayed his quiet heroism and his serene wisdom.

It is heartening to read of Guérard’s whole-hearted identification with the entire American tradition, and when he simultaneously asserts that he and other immigrants assuredly do not cast away their native traditions when they become American citizens, he is only speaking a truth that should be, but often is not at all, obvious to Americans. But then he, an educated Frenchman, was eminently capable of assimilating himself to his new country. It should not be assumed that the same is true of our immigrants today. The notion of America as a giant blending of traditions felt good to him, and to many Americans, but if it is nothing but a blending then it is not a nation at all, and indeed the people with the deepest roots there are precisely those whose particular way of life must be sacrificed to the great blending project.

Immigration is inherently a traumatic experience. It requires the immigrant, not, indeed, to obliterate his past and his identity, but to give up forever residence in his native land to live among people who will never fully understand who he is, and to see his children grow up outside of that land and culture. It also requires the people of the land receiving the immigrant to make a myriad of efforts, large and small, to understand him and take care of his needs. The burden of the transition is by no means felt by the immigrant alone.

A normal, healthy country should not take in more than a very small number of immigrants from year to year. Nor, in view of the profound sacrifice which every immigrant must make to properly adjust to his new society, should average people all over the world be encouraged to emigrate. An immigrant should be that rare person who is actually prepared to do better in a foreign society that he could in his own. He should probably come from a society racially and culturally akin to the one he wishes to join. (It should go without saying that he should not expect to find a transplanted colony from his own society in the new country.) A normal, healthy country cultivates its own doctors, gas station owners, gardeners, meat packers, and athletes; it does not rely on immigrants to fill these roles. Foreign languages should be learned for purposes of trade and travel. Foreign visitors, workers, and students should be expected to return home after completing their business in their host country.

These facts should be so obvious as to require no argument or justification. And they are, in every country outside of Europe and America. Are we ever going to get back to common sense on this matter so we can once again experience a little control over our destiny?


January 11, 2010

The shelves of the literature section at my local university’s library are packed with novels that were once loved and talked about but have long since been forgotten. Who now reads (the American) Winston Churchill or William Gilmore Simms? These days, I look to such books to learn more about those aspects of our past that have been suppressed by our progressive ideals. They may have more to tell us than the books which are still in favor.

I learned about Penrod (published in 1914) at Mencius Moldbug’s site – Mencius seems to read an astonishing number of these forgotten books – where he recommended it for a portrait of America before progressivism. Neither the odd-sounding title, which is the name of the 12-year-old boy protagonist, nor the fictional-sounding name of the author, Booth Tarkington, meant anything to me. After a few pages, though, I was hooked. I usually write about books to make some other point, not as a reviewer. But you really should read this book. It’s an American classic. And, blessedly, Penrod, and its first sequel, Penrod and Sam (1916), are in print, published by the Indiana University Press, (1) and available online on Project Gutenberg.

Penrod is a chronicle of the misadventures of Penrod Schofield, a boy growing up in a Midwestern town who, like Tom Sawyer, is constantly getting in trouble as a result of his boyish energy and mischievousness. The novel starts with Penrod being dressed by his mother and sister in a ludicrous homemade costume as the Child Sir Lancelot for a “Pageant” to be performed “for the benefit of the Coloured Infants’ Betterment Society.” Penrod’s humiliation at being forced to recite lines describing himself as “gentle-hearted, meek, and mild,” and his mortification at the discovery that the trunks are made from his father’s old long underwear, lead to a desperate remedy which, as you might imagine, unleashes chaos on the Pageant. Penrod goes on, undeterred, to other schemes, such as a setting up a “drugstore” using discarded medicines and tonics which he and his friend Sam induce another boy to drink; and exhibiting people and animals in a “museum of curiosities.” The “curiosities” include Penrod’s two black friends, the brothers Herman and Verman (one has a missing finger and the other a speech impediment) and the son of one of the town’s aristocratic families who shares the same last name as a famed murderess. For these and other activities Penrod is regularly whipped by his father. He goes through a period of hero-worship of a crude bully, and gets in the way of his sister’s suitors. He is in love with Marjorie, a pretty, haughty girl who usually disdains him, but is won over by her jealousy of another girl and Penrod’s indifference to her at a party (a lesson for students of pick-up techniques?). In the end she is calling him her “bow” (as she spells it).

The book is delightfully and often roaringly funny, with the humor frequently deriving from the incongruity between the even-toned, cultivated musings of the narrator, replete with literary references, and the absurdity or crudeness of the events being described. This type of humor would be hard to achieve today. For instance, Penrod’s practice of hoisting his dog, Duke, in a basket up into a compartment in the stable that serves as his hideout, is described thus:

“Eleva-ter!” shouted Penrod. “Ting-ting!”

Duke, old and intelligently apprehensive, approached slowly, in a semicircular manner, deprecatingly, but with courtesy. He pawed the basket delicately; then, as if that were all his master had expected of him, uttered one bright bark, sat down, and looked up triumphantly. His hypocrisy was shallow: many a horrible quarter of an hour had taught him his duty in this matter.

“El-e-vay-ter!” shouted Penrod sternly. “You want me to come down there to you?”

Duke looked suddenly haggard. He pawed the basket feebly again and, upon another outburst from on high, prostrated himself flat. Again threatened, he gave a superb impersonation of a worm.

“You get in that el-e-VAY-ter!”

Reckless with despair, Duke jumped into the basket, landing in a dishevelled posture, which he did not alter until he had been drawn up and poured out upon the floor of sawdust with the box. There, shuddering, he lay in doughnut shape and presently slumbered.

Penrod apparently became thought of as a “children’s book” to be read in school, but the novel’s very adult commentary on middle-class American life, with reference to social problems like alcoholism and adultery and to issues like commercialism, religion, class, and race, is aimed at a mature audience. Further, the author presents to his readers a somewhat progressive view of child psychology, articulated by Penrod’s ninety-year-old (progressive?) great aunt Sarah, quiet supporter and defender of the “Worst Boy in Town.” According to Sarah, boys are naturally selfish, wild, and generally uncivilized, and parents need to accept this. She asks his mother:

“I suppose Penrod is regarded as the neighbourhood curse?”

“Oh, no,” cried Mrs. Schofield. “He–”

“I dare say the neighbours are right,” continued the old lady placidly. “He’s had to repeat the history of the race and go through all the stages from the primordial to barbarism. You don’t expect boys to be civilized, do you?”

“Well, I–”

“You might as well expect eggs to crow. No; you’ve got to take boys as they are, and learn to know them as they are.”

Aunt Sarah elaborates on Penrod’s parents’ misunderstanding of their son. Penrod’s mother, says Sarah, thinks Penrod is a “novice in a convent,” and his father thinks he is a “decorous, well-trained young business man.” “[W]henever you don’t live up to that standard,” she tells the boy, “you get on his nerves and he thinks you need a whalloping.” But neither the feminine cajoling by mothers nor the masculine punishment by fathers does much good. In Sarah’s view, Penrod will turn out just fine, though the road to adulthood is bound to be bumpy. As a twelfth-birthday gift, she saves Penrod from his next whalloping by giving him his father’s old slingshot and the story of why she confiscated it from him thirty-five years before. Penrod’s father, we see, has forgotten that he himself was once a boy.

This is not to attribute an overly serious message to the book. It is comedy above all, with Penrod’s selfishness, impulsiveness, and lack of “sense” gloriously exaggerated (he seems to me younger than twelve). The society portrayed in Penrod has long since vanished (as Mencius remarks), with many elements very foreign to our experience, from formal dance parties for children, to casual cruelty to animals. Yet in many ways the childhood experience it portrays will feel familiar to most middle-class Americans who grew up until the 1970s or so. With almost all mothers living at home, and with discipline and order sustained cooperatively by parents at home and by teachers, policemen, and other authority figures outside, children could – paradoxically – run wild in their neighborhood, exploring, fighting, and creating elaborate games. Penrod’s world was not without danger – bullies, dogs, illness, falls, and (in Penrod and Sam) loaded guns in drawers at home. But, by and large, Penrod has it well, and we feel sure that he will grow into a respectable pillar of the community like his father. The author celebrates childhood’s barbarism, and criticizes the upper middle class of regional towns for their class snobbishness and their attempts to over-cultivate and over-discipline their children. Yet a reader today should be struck by how good the results of that order were. The town, in a way, is like the boring, narrow-minded town of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street; yet how much life and love one finds there!

Incidentally, over Christmas vacation, I also read Tom Sawyer, which must have been one of Tarkington’s models for Penrod. I won’t say Penrod is the greater work, but it was a lot more fun to read. The main reason we don’t read it now is that Penrod portrays black Americans in ways that are completely unacceptable in America today – something duly noted in the Introductions to both volumes. This is true of Mark Twain, too; but Twain’s severe criticisms of the society and politics of his time, and his apparent higher “anti-racist” purpose in Huckleberry Finn, bring him continued respect today. Tarkington, basing his tales in Indiana, is probably no more prejudiced than Twain, but while Twain attacks slavery and lynching in the South, Tarkington accepts the gentler, informal segregation of North. It is probably this, more than the particulars of his treatment of black characters, that renders him disrespectable today. It is thus very fortunate that Tarkington’s status as an Indiana author has brought him a home in the Library of Indiana Classics series. My copy has the words “Regional” and “Children’s” as keywords on the back cover, but I can’t imagine anyone reading Penrod to their children today!

I have left the issue of race for last because it is, first of all, an injustice to this work to make its portrayal of race the main issue. Penrod is about white middle-class life in the early 20th century. “Coloured” persons were a regular part of life but were confined to a certain subordinate position and were not part of the presumed readership of the novel. Therefore, Penrod portrays black people as they appeared to most white people at the time. In that context, I would argue that Tarkington’s portrayals of the brothers Herman and Verman, though admittedly clownish and certainly dated, are done convincingly, with a sense of fairness and compassion. There is also the matter of the casual comments and generalizations about “coloured people” made by the author from time to time. This is a subject for a separate discussion, but for now I will just say that many of these generalizations, positive as well as negative, still recognizably refer to black Americans today, at least as experienced by most white people. Whether that fact shows merely that the author was “racist” and that white people today continue to be so, or whether it indicates some deeper, enduring differences between the races that are not under the control of whites, I leave to the reader to decide. But to me, an America that has banished Penrod is not an America I care to be a part of. Let’s bring the kid back. He may break a few windows – by accident! – but he won’t burn down the house.


(1) Booth Tarkington, Penrod, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985; and Penrod and Sam, Indiana University Press, 2003.