All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Joseph Conrad’s Outpost of Fear

Sixty-five years ago, Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine compiled an anthology, Short Story Masterpieces, three dozen examples of great short fiction in English from the previous sixty or so years.  Authors included ranged from Stephen Crane and Henry James to Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty.  Among them was Joseph Conrad’s tale from 1897, “An Outpost of Progress.”

In their Introduction, Warren and Erskine noted that Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) was too long to put in this collection.  Since it was shorter and dealt with similar themes and the same locale, “An Outpost of Progress” took its place.  In the decades following Short Story Masterpieces, “Heart of Darkness,” a hundred pages of a sailor named Marlow sitting with friends and telling an Important Story, became a bane of high school English students.

Even in Conrad’s day, critics doubted anyone would sit still for Marlow droning on for hours, criticism Conrad rejected.  He used the same narrative device in his novel Lord Jim, written around the same time as “Heart of Darkness,” and more than one reader new to Conrad has breathed a sigh of relief at the end of Chapter 35, when Marlow finally shuts up.  With some dismay, the unwary reader realizes that ten more chapters loom ahead.

Still, there is sardonic suspense when Chapter 36 begins more than two years later with a man receiving a thick packet from Marlow.  Imagine his apprehension as he opens it, finding in it a sheaf of papers resuming Marlow’s story.  The man puts it down and stares out the window, and the scene is one of Conrad’s most evocative sketches of a rainy day in London:  “His rooms were in the highest flat of a lofty building, and his glance could travel afar beyond the clear panes of glass” and “the slopes of the roofs glistened, the dark broken ridges succeeding each other without end like sombre, uncrested waves.”

It is that cityscape of wet slate grey, what in The Secret Agent (1907) Conrad described as “a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off,” that Conrad’s characters leave behind for the tropics.  Lord Jim puts us in Borneo, and both “Heart of Darkness” and “An Outpost of Progress” take us deep into the Congo.  While Morton Dauwen Zabel may be right that in “An Outpost of Progress” Conrad “resorts to too heavily underlined an irony,” it is a good way to ease into Conrad’s world, preparing one for the challenging and rewarding masterpieces that are “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim, helping one appreciate why, on his many travels across “desert, marsh, and mountain,” Wilfred Thesiger took along volumes of Conrad.

Originally, Conrad called this story “A Victim of Progress,” but really the story has numerous victims, not least being the African natives who are bartered into slavery for a pile of elephant tusks.  That bartering occurs through the conniving of another native, an employee of the two Europeans who run the story’s outpost.  Those two hapless functionaries replaced another European, now dead and buried but once in charge of that remote colonial outpost, a couple of reed and thatch structures and a wooden dock three hundred miles from the nearest trading post.  They all live under the shadow of the tall cross atop that earlier man’s grave, and the native employee, eager literally to sell his fellow man down the river, provides what can pass for institutional continuity.

Kayerts and Carlier are the Europeans out of their depth.  Kayerts had grown portly serving seventeen years in the Administration of Telegraphs; Carlier was lean and long-legged, once a non-commissioned officer of “cavalry in an army guaranteed from harm by several European powers.”  Men of minor roles now in middle age, they are an unlikely pair in an unlikely setting.

When a director of the Great Trading Company that has hired them as colonial agents drops them off at the outpost, he waits until his river boat is steaming back down stream to mutter his misgivings.  He refers to those men as “imbeciles” and predicts they will manage to accomplish not even the simple, civilizing tasks he has assigned them, such as planting a vegetable garden and building a fence.  Conrad as storyteller summed them up with eloquent bluntness.

“They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals,” observed Conrad, “whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds.”  Both men were used to following routines, either in an office or in a barracks.  “Few men realize,” added Conrad, “that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.”  Nothing in the backgrounds of Kayerts and Carlier trained them for being alone in a jungle.

For entertainment they have a few early nineteenth-century novels left by their deceased predecessor; significantly, one of them is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  Unlike Hawk-eye, Kayerts and Carlier are daunted by isolation on a wild frontier.  Understandably, they become frightened.

Just as frightened is Gobila, chief of a local tribe that trades at the outpost.  Gobila hopes that these wicked white men will go away, yet even were they to leave, says Conrad, “fear remains.”  He elaborated:  “Fear always remains,” since “a man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life, he cannot destroy fear.”

Conrad made the same point in Chapter 16 of Lord Jim.  There, Marlow says, “While there’s life there is hope, truly; but there is fear, too.”  A few paragraphs later we encounter lines that form part of the epigraph to John Stape’s The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad (2007):  “It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun.”

In the last chapter of The Last of the Mohicans, Hawk-eye says to a Lenape chief, “The gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path.”  That path in “An Outpost of Progress” is in the end covered by wavering mist, fog and fear coming together, obscuring the abuse befalling the outpost’s cross.

Manfred Honeck and Bruckner’s Ninth

“You are in for a treat,” John Berky told me when he heard that Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would be in the basilica church of Saint Vincent Archabbey to perform Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor.  Berky is Executive Secretary of the Bruckner Society of America and edits the society’s web site and on-line newsletter.  He heard Honeck conduct Bruckner’s Ninth in New York when Honeck filled in at the New York Philharmonic for an ailing Christoph Eschenbach.

Honeck shares much in common with Bruckner.  As was Bruckner, Honeck is Austrian, and both men’s lives center around their Catholic faith.  Bruckner (1824-1896) began his musical career as an organist at Saint Florian’s abbey church in Linz, in upper Austria, and his symphonies grew from his gift as an organist for filling vast vaulted spaces with rich layers of sound.  More so than other composers, Bruckner imbued his symphonies with a three-dimensional quality, soaring and yet solid, earning comparison to Gothic cathedrals.

Bruckner dedicated his Ninth Symphony “To the beloved God,” and so acoustics were not Honeck’s only reason for wanting to use Saint Vincent’s 120 year-old basilica as a venue.  At sixty-one, Honeck is at top form, and his long association with Saint Vincent includes receiving in May, 2010, an honorary doctorate from Saint Vincent College, and in April, 2017, conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in Saint Vincent’s basilica with a magnificent interpretation of Bruckner’s Eighth.  Honeck appreciates that Bruckner’s music expresses a deep Catholic spirituality, and so a sacred setting for its performance is more than fitting.

For nine years Bruckner worked on his Ninth Symphony, characteristically revising it, striving to get it exactly right.  Work on other projects, such as a choral setting for Psalm 150, interrupted the writing and re-writing of the Ninth Symphony.  Bruckner completed the first three movements of his Ninth.  Weakened by diabetes and congestive heart failure, he had a sense that he would never live to finish the fourth and final movement, and so he left instructions stating that, in place of the incomplete fourth movement, conductors could use his Te Deum.  Bruckner’s Te Deum was first performed in the United States in 1892 in Cincinnati, and in 1904 in that same city his Ninth had its American debut.

In 2015, Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra issued their recording of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, and this summer they released a compact disc of Bruckner’s Ninth, recorded at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall.  For that recording of the Ninth, Honeck used the Leopold Nowak edition of Bruckner’s three completed movements, and for the performance at Saint Vincent, Honeck included Bruckner’s Te Deum.

One of Christianity’s oldest hymns of praise to God, the Te Deum has long been traced to the late fourth century and attributed to Saint Ambrose.  In the sixth century it became integral to the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict.  By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholic composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Verdi were setting that ancient chant to more modern music, and so Bruckner was in good company.

With explosive, ecstatic energy, Bruckner’s Te Deum thunders with operatic intensity.  To sing it, Honeck called upon the brilliant voices of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.  In 2016 they joined Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony in the Saint Vincent basilica for a performance of Bach’s Saint John Passion.

For the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new CD of Bruckner’s Ninth, Honeck wrote extensive liner notes.  In them he explained his interpretation of this symphony, a work he first performed as a violinist under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.  Honeck’s understanding of Bruckner’s Ninth brings forth the march, possibly a funeral march, recurring and processing through the First Movement, as well as the Scherzo’s variously raucous and ethereal dance.  As Honeck put it, when considered “in the context of faith, it is clear now that Bruckner has entered the supernatural.”  Most intriguing is Honeck’s intuition that permeating the Adagio, or Third Movement, are echoes of a prayer that has been part of the Catholic Mass since the end of the seventh century, the Agnus Dei.  “I center my interest,” Honeck wrote, “on the connection of words to musical interpretation, rather than the direct match of words to music.”

That is to say, while listening to the Adagio, one is not moved to intone the Latin text of the prayer, Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,” but one senses the main petition of that prayer, miserere nobis, “have mercy on us.”  Then, in the Adagio’s shimmering final notes, seemingly floating one into the silence of Heaven (Revelation 8:1), one’s soul sighs, dona nobis pacem, “grant us peace.”

Bruckner was a master of the adagio, and his Ninth’s adagio repays repeated listening and meditation.  Werner Wolff, in his Anton Bruckner:  Rustic Genius (1942), wrote, “At the end of the Adagio, the flickering violins and the dark-tinged tubas convey the picture of the deeply absorbed composer writing the last pages with a trembling hand.”  As a boy Wolff (1883-1961) met Bruckner in Berlin, Wolff’s father having been a founder of the symphony orchestra there.  As Bruckner so often managed to do, he impressed (to use a neutral word) the Wolff children as a bumpkin, memorable for his baggy suit and his drawling southern dialect.

Wolff wrote that as a young law student he heard a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth, and it changed his life.  Wolff recorded in his diary, “The rhythm of the clarinets at the end of the First Movement over the inexorable organ point on D will never cease haunting me.”  After law school, Wolff became a musical conductor, his first concert being Bruckner’s Eighth.

As Honeck wrote in the liner notes for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new CD, “It is in the Ninth that Bruckner invites us into the presence of God to experience the beauty of his world, while also facing the darker and more violent abysses.”  Significantly, appropriately, he and the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform Bruckner’s Ninth (with Te Deum) again on 1 November, the Feast of All Souls, in Vienna’s Musikverein.  On a warm September evening, with a sustained standing ovation, around a thousand people in Saint Vincent’s basilica affirmed the profundity of the Ninth and of Honeck’s masterful reading of it.  They knew that had just experienced a rare treat indeed.

The McKinley Boys

“If I were giving a young man advice,” said Wilbur Wright, “as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”  That advice certainly applied to his older contemporary, a fellow Ohioan and the twenty-fifth President of the United States, William McKinley.  It is worth recalling that more than a century ago McKinley filled young people with enthusiasm.

To take one example, during the presidential race of 1896, at a time when the voting age was twenty-one, College Republican clubs existed and were gung-ho for McKinley.  At Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, membership in the College Republicans overlapped with that of another club, the Belles Lettres Society.  In June, 1897, the general membership of Belles Lettres voted to elect the new President an honorary member.  They duly wrote McKinley informing him of their decision.

To their surprise, they received a reply, a letter they published in their weekly student newspaper, The Dickinsonian.  On official stationary and dated 18 June, 1897, a typed message above the President’s signature said, “It gives me pleasure to acknowledge the receipt of your kind letter notifying me of my election to an honorary membership of the general Belles Lettres Society of Dickinson College.  I fully appreciate the compliment conveyed by the action taken by your Society.”

When his secretary showed McKinley the letter from his admirers at Dickinson, McKinley knew a thing or two about small colleges in small towns in Pennsylvania, and he knew about student literary societies.  Before taking ill and having to withdraw, McKinley had for a term attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.  He had graduated from a high school in eastern Ohio, where he founded the Everett Literary and Debating Society, named in honor of Edward Everett, then a prominent politician and public speaker.  Today Everett is best remembered for having delivered a voluminous oration at Gettysburg right before Abraham Lincoln made a few remarks.  To furnish the new club’s meeting room, young McKinley raised money for a fine carpet and shelves of books of history and literature.

Like Wilbur Wright after him, McKinley grew up in a devout Methodist family that valued reading.  McKinley’s family also took up a controversial cause of the 1850s, abolition of slavery.  It was an ideal that made McKinley decide not to return to college but to enlist in the Army.  In his late teens and early twenties he saw combat in the American Civil War, rising to the rank of major.  Throughout his life it was his preferred title; with characteristic self-deprecation, he would say, “I earned that, but I’m not so sure about the rest.”

Back home from the war, McKinley studied law and entered Republican politics in Ohio.  A feature of all his political campaigns was unexpected support from Catholic voters, most of them Democrats.  It was support he reciprocated.  As governor of Ohio he risked a lot of votes by refusing demands from a group of evangelical Protestants to fire two state prison guards simply because they were Catholics.  At his second inauguration as President, McKinley broke with precedent and had James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore give the benediction.

Slowly William McKinley, shrewd and brave, has been getting the appreciation he deserves.  For nearly half a century the standard biography of McKinley was Margaret Leech’s In the Days of McKinley.  In December, 1959, excerpts were in American Heritage magazine, and in 1960 it won a Pulitzer Prize.  In 1986 the Easton Press reprinted it in a handsome gilt-edged, leather-bound edition.

More recent years have seen popular biographies of McKinley, by Kevin Phillips (2003) and Robert W. Merry (2017), and a study of McKinley’s first presidential campaign, by Karl Rove (2015).  They necessarily drew upon Leech’s work, as well as upon scholarly books and articles by Lewis L. Gould on McKinley and the Spanish-American War.

That brief war defined McKinley’s presidency, and victory over Spain was a great factor in McKinley’s re-election.  He had been reluctant to send young men to war, open instead to having Pope Leo XIII serve as mediator in the dispute with Spain.  For his prudence, McKinley earned the derision of Theodore Roosevelt, who is said to have blurted out that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”  After the war Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, and in 1900 McKinley was big enough to overlook previous criticism and accept Roosevelt as his running mate.

On 5 September, 1901, some six months after his second inauguration, McKinley was in Buffalo, New York, to speak at the Pan-American Exposition.  The next day, while receiving visitors at the event, he was shot twice in the abdomen at close range by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who was a follower of a notorious socialist, Emma Goldman.

As soon as those two pistol shots rang out, men around McKinley tackled Czolgosz.  McKinley, bleeding and staggering backwards, had the presence of mind and excellence of character to say, “Don’t let them hurt him.”  It is a scene that ought to be better known.

A week later, McKinley died, and Roosevelt became President.  McKinley’s assassination marked the third time in thirty-six years that Republican Presidents had been shot and killed by leftists.  National shock and mourning followed, and seemingly overnight commemorative items appeared, including sheet music for a hymn whose title was among McKinley’s last words, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Within a couple of months of McKinley’s funeral, Edward Stratemeyer published a biography of the late President.  Meant for a particular demographic, it was called American Boys’ Life of William McKinley.  To his narrative Stratemeyer appended McKinley’s final address, containing the noble exhortation, “Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war.”

From the 1890s until his death in 1930, Stratemeyer was a prolific publisher.  Based in Newark, New Jersey, he employed a stable of writers and editors to produce several series of edifying novels for young people, primarily for boys.  Stratemeyer’s mission was to use wholesome adventure stories to pass on the sterling qualities found in men like William McKinley.  For boys, the most enduring of Stratemeyer’s fictional creations, chronicled by various authors under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon, were Joe and Frank, the Hardy Boys.

Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die

With reluctance a monk opens this new book, a sleek, slim paperback having the appearance of appealing to the sepia-toned spirituality of people who see monks and nuns as living Hummels.  “In this desolate world,” writes Nicolas Diat, a French journalist, “I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death.”  Fortunately, despite eye-rolling sentences that might come from French 101 (“The streets are calm and wise.”), Diat’s study, A Time to Die:  Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, starkly considers the reality of death in eight modern French monasteries.

This English translation of Un temps pour mourir appears the same summer that saw a French court of law determine that medical doctors in Reims could remove food and water from Vincent Lambert, a forty-two year-old married quadriplegic.  In the utilitarian logic of socialism, he served no useful function to the state and was using valuable resources.  It took doctors nine days to kill Vincent Lambert, who was informed of the court’s decision and wept.  One would call such sanitized barbarity medieval, were it not an insult to the Middle Ages.

With French monks, the situation is reversed.  Monks are open to passing away into the next life, while doctors want to try their best to prolong this life.  “Shouldn’t a ninety year-old brother,” asked one Benedictine abbot, “who suffers from terrible pneumonia return to God?”  He added, “I can hardly oppose a medical decision,” but for him the problem is “the moment we call emergency services or the ambulance, we lose control over the patient.”

Along with control over the patient and benignly letting a sick old man slip away, abbots must count the cost of medical care.  “How should I react,” asked that same Benedictine abbot, “when a ninety year-old monk asks for a hearing aid?”  He explained, to some ears echoing Judas, “this investment of three thousand euros could help twenty people in an African village.”  The cloister and the world seem not too far apart when Malthusian bookkeeping determines whether a ninety-something monk gets his hearing back or whether a forty-something quadriplegic gets a death sentence.

Augustinian, Benedictine, Carthusian, Cistercian:  Diat recounts stories of deaths in these monasteries, deaths of monks old and young, deaths long and lingering, deaths sudden or by the monk’s own hand.  Stories of those deaths necessarily include the effect on those left behind.  Monks seek God in community, they do not seek community in itself; otherwise, they would simply join an Elks club or hang out nightly in a sports bar.  Still, especially in small monastic communities such as Diat visited, one death can have reverberations wide and deep.

In a larger monastic community the ripples soon diminish.  Sometimes lay people attending a monastic funeral observe that the monks rarely cry.  Oftentimes in a large monastery it is because the deceased was essentially a stranger.  It would be like going to the funeral of an elderly long-term neighbor; for a man with whom one occasionally exchanged greetings, only dangerous emotional fragility would make one weep.

Mention of emotional instability recalls Diat’s most significant chapter, “The Shadow of the Black Mountain.”  In his Holy Rule, Saint Benedict refers to a monastery’s “variety of characters,” and he tells the monks to bear with one another’s mental and physical limitations.  An American monk, exasperated with millennials, jokes about wanting to make a recruiting poster saying, “Are you:  Autistic?  Bipolar?  Recovering from substance abuse?  Sexually repressed?  If you answered Yes to any or all of the above, you may have what it takes to discern a monastic vocation!  Special consideration will be given to men between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four who balance zero life experience with overwhelming self-confidence.”

That monk’s drollery aside, Diat asks an astute question:  “Where is God in the life of monks suffering from a psychological illness?”  For example, self-absorption usually goes hand in hand with insanity, and sometimes there is a monk with an immature need for attention, often taking the form of hypochondria.  Of course, with a man craving attention at every turn, one must engage in tough love and ignore him, starving his bratty beast.

However, the bleak shadows Diat reports are more ominous.  Here Diat means mental illness along a broad spectrum, including Alzheimer’s disease and crippling depression.  As troubling as it can be to see a monk over time become ever more fogged, more disturbing is the monk for whom all he used to believe has gone blank.  He seems to have lost sight of the Carthusian pattern Diat describes:  “A beginning full of enthusiasm, a middle of difficult and contrasted experiences, then a peace that announces eternity.”  For him, God seems long absent and prayer seems like talking into starless space.

A barren life, one some men can muddle through, but for others, the ringing emptiness and soul-draining drudgery of going through the motions becomes too much.  Diat sketches the case of one such monk, who left painful notes tersely saying he could no longer go on.  His abbot especially remains haunted by that trauma.

A contemporary atheist might declare that such an end comes when gullible fools are duped by a fairy tale.  A secular materialist would tell Diat and his monks that death is simply the end, merely bringing molecular decomposition.  For an unbeliever, any talk of life after death is metaphorical, a literary motif about collective memory pathetically misunderstood by the simple and literal-minded.

What makes believers skeptical of such skepticism is what they have seen of others, like Diat’s monks, at the end.  Skeptics must account for perfectly lucid people who see with clarity that they are about to step through something—a portal, a gate, a door—into William Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.”  Skeptics must further account for the amazing serenity with which those people accept the imminent prospect of that new step.

Here a recent scene from an American monastery may supplement Diat’s worthy little volume.  A nurse’s aide was wheeling a lay brother in his nineties to his infirmary room.  The old brother was often silent, a man of very few words, and he suddenly said, “Well, I’m goin’.”

“Yep,” said the aide, “you’re going to your room.”

“No,” he corrected her, “I’m goin’.”

He then slumped over and died.

Philip Marlowe and Nero Wolfe

 

Sixty years after the death of Raymond Chandler, and eighty years after the publication of his first novel, we mark the first anniversary of a brilliant achievement, The Annotated Big Sleep.  In 1939, Chandler (1888-1959) published The Big Sleep, introducing a fictional Los Angeles private investigator, Philip Marlowe, and in 2018, Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto produced an edition with Chandler’s text on the left-hand pages and their explanatory notes on the right-hand pages.  Also illustrating this volume are maps, photographs, and excerpts from other stories by Chandler.

Unlike a biblical commentary, where obvious passages can get lengthy deciphering and obscure lines get passed over, The Annotated Big Sleep tackles it all.  It is amusing that some readers, apparently, will need to have defined for them slang such as “swell’ and “jalopy,” or standard words such as “bookplate” and “davenport.”  Most captivating is information about firearms and newspapers, about bygone fashions and obsolete automobiles, as well as the vanished landscape of 1930’s Los Angeles.

Moreover, our annotators identify in The Big Sleep allusions to Arthurian legend.  In The Big Sleep and subsequent novels, Marlowe casts himself as a latter-day knight errant, with his own code of chivalrous integrity, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress, even if the distress is of the damsel’s own making.  In The High Window (1942), a medical doctor admiringly calls Marlowe “the shop-soiled Galahad.”  Marlowe is unmarried, and in The Big Sleep, set in 1938, he is thirty-three.  With Marlowe, Chandler tapped into an archetype in Western literature, the solitary young hero, embodying virtue and virility.

Early in the novel Marlowe meets his new client, General Guy Sternwood.  Marlowe arrives in a blue suit, and as narrator, he says, “I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober.”  A note explains that phrase as an Army expression meaning “ready for inspection.”  Much of Sternwood’s military career would have been in the late 1800s, when American soldiers wore blue uniforms.

The general is around eighty, and declining health has him soaking up the tropical heat and humidity inside a greenhouse on his vast estate.  Surrounding him is a veritable jungle of orchids, and our annotators provide a note about early twentieth-century orchid collecting and orchids as “symbols of wealth and decadence.”  What Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto seem to miss is Chandler’s Baroque critique of one of his great contemporaries in crime fiction.

In 1934, Rex Stout published Fer-de-Lance, the first of seventy-four tales featuring a fictional private detective, Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe is a native of Montenegro, in his fifties, and a wealthy eccentric:  an arrogant misogynist gourmet, he lives in a nineteenth-century brownstone townhouse in New York City; on its roof are greenhouses for his 10,000 orchids.  Wolfe almost never leaves his house on business, his investigating being done by a trusty young assistant, Archie Goodwin.  Goodwin reports his findings to Wolfe, who then mulls them over and thus identifies the guilty party.

Sternwood hiring Marlowe parallels Wolfe sending Goodwin out to gather evidence and question witnesses or suspects.  Nevertheless, Sternwood is the inverse of Wolfe:  Whereas Wolfe weighs in at 300 pounds, Sternwood is thin and frail as a mummy.  A retired Army officer, Sternwood could take on his blackmailer himself, if only age and health permitted; Wolfe, once a spy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, chooses to stay home and eat and read and tend his orchids.

Wolfe, Goodwin, and Marlowe are in a long tradition of bachelor detectives, and nosy neighbors and literary critics spend valuable time speculating about any bachelor’s sexuality.  Probably for that reason, Stout made a point of depicting Goodwin as a ladies’ man.  Dutifully The Annotated Big Sleep addresses recurring musings and guesses about Marlowe’s sexuality, maybe unrequited bisexuality, while touching lightly on the general’s mention of his own “gaudy life,” one he indulged in before marrying at age fifty-four.

In a line that could merely be an opening gambit in an awkward interview, but one that reads all too much like part of a secret password, Sternwood asks Marlowe, “Do you like orchids?”  When Marlowe answers, “Not particularly,” Sternwood obliquely agrees and condemns his myriad expensive flowers.  “They are nasty things,” Sternwood replies, adding, “Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Prostitutes do not feature in The Big Sleep, unless one counts a homicidal rent boy, but in Fer-de-Lance, Wolfe refers to them.  In Chapter 17, Goodwin, impetuous in his arrested adolescence, decides against going to a movie, and Wolfe declares, “Then try a harlot’s den.”  In the entire Wolfe series, it appears to be the only hint at Wolfe possibly having an illicit sexual outlet, while the simmering sensuality of the tropics always looms above him on his rooftop.

People of Victorian or Edwardian sensibilities would have regarded orchids not only as exotic, but often as obscene.  One variety in particular, Cypripedium, sometimes called slipper orchids, can raise eyebrows, their lurid pink and purple “slipper” resembling, shall we say, “the flesh of men.”  Cypripedia occur in Stout’s novels Black Orchids (1942) and Murder by the Book (1951), and an even more noticeably male anatomical subspecies, Paphiopedilum, occurs in Some Buried Caesar (1939).

Of course, sometimes an orchid is just an orchid, and Stout’s stories are rattling fun, the resourceful Goodwin sauntering forth into the big wicked city, while Wolfe presides over the mayhem like a wise, if irascible, hermit.  Chandler, though, was no fan, writing to a friend in April, 1949, not “to lump me in . . . with the smooth and shallow operators like [Ngaio] Marsh and [Rex] Stout and [Agatha] Christie.”  In June, 1957, he wrote to another correspondent that “I count myself far above” Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout.  In The Big Sleep, with any tropical plant possible for Sternwood’s greenhouse, Chandler is all but saying, “Here is how you launch a mystery story, a knight’s quest, from a bower of orchids.”

Chandler’s writings show his detailed fascination with the fragility of polite society, the thin veneer of respectability covering tawdriness and corruption.  His novels are notorious for convoluted plots and complex characters, and in 1995, his works joined the prestigious Library of America, acknowledging his place in the pantheon of American literature.  Like a guidebook to a national monument, further affirming that reputation is The Annotated Big Sleep.

Newman and Benedictines

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) challenged the Utilitarian trend of his day, insisting that there was more to human life than what facts and logic could determine.  As Russell Kirk summed up Newman in The Conservative Mind (1986), “This sensitive and subtle man lived in an age . . . in which Caesar claimed the things that are God’s; and so Newman spent his life in arguments and struggles abhorrent to his contemplative nature.”

Around the same time another quiet Englishman, Charles Darwin, was mulling over evidence from the natural world for change over time, Newman was considering how elements in the spiritual realm change over time.  Newman wrote at length about the development of Christian doctrine, how through the centuries Christian teaching grows organically.  As James Hitchcock said of Newman in his History of the Catholic Church (2012), “Part of his achievement was to reconcile historical consciousness with faith.”  By historical consciousness Hitchcock meant “the awareness that everything changes over time.”

While Newman composed sublime lyric poems, notably “Praise to the holiest in the height,” his prose works often carried ponderous titles such as An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent and Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and he proposed esoteric vocabulary, like “the Illative Sense,” a head-scratcher for the uninitiated, who would be forgiven for thinking it has something to do with ileitis.  In short, students of philosophy gravitate towards Newman’s writings, although for an historian, Newman ranks with Aristotle as one of the greatest bores ever to put pen to paper.  Nevertheless, long after any of us are dust, people will still be reading Aristotle and Newman.

Two of Newman’s shorter works that continue to invite reflection are essays on Benedictine monastic life.  Those essays, “The Mission of the Benedictine Order” and “The Benedictine Centuries,” first appeared in The Atlantis in December, 1858, and January, 1859, respectively, and they remain in print in various formats.  For Newman, the Benedictines stood as symbolic of the first thousand years of the Church.  Readers of Newman’s two essays on the Benedictines will find no hint that as Newman wrote, the Benedictines were re-establishing themselves in England, France, and Germany, and that they were founding monasteries in Australia and the United States.

According to Newman’s perspective on monastic history, monks by definition seek out seclusion, silence, and solitude.  Whether in the fourth century in the Egyptian desert or in the eleventh century in forested valleys of Western Europe, Newman believed the natural habitat for monks was in isolated locations, near which sometimes grew up cities.  “The lonely Benedictine,” declared Newman in “The Benedictine Centuries,” “rose from his knees, and found himself a city.”

Newman’s model of monastic remoteness from what today we call the rat race comes most clearly into focus in his appreciation of the monks of Beaulieu Abbey.  (Pronounced Bewley.)  Founded in 1203 by King John in rural Hampshire, Beaulieu was a Cistercian monastery honoring the Virgin Mary, and it lasted until 1538, when an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII dissolved it.

To Newman’s way of thinking, those Cistercians of Beaulieu, following the Rule of Saint Benedict, “were not dreamy sentimentalists, to fall in love with melancholy winds and purling rills, and waterfalls and nodding groves; but their poetry was the poetry of hard work and hard fare, unselfish hearts and charitable hands.”

Another dimension to what for Newman was monasticism’s poetical character was educational or literary work.  Although Newman acknowledged an extensive catalogue of Benedictine authors, from Bede in the eighth century to Jean Mabillon in the seventeenth, Newman admired that “there was nothing of original research, nothing of brilliant or imposing result,” because therefore “there would be nothing to dissipate, elate, or absorb the mind” and thereby “to violate the simplicity and tranquility proper to the monastic state.”  With such comments it is unclear whether Newman saw that he was confirming a Protestant and Enlightenment prejudice that Catholicism is inherently anti-intellectual, rewarding rote memorization of answers in catechisms and lines from Aquinas.

Just as in these essays Newman never gave any indication that in his day Benedictine monasticism was undergoing a revival, he overlooked an important feature of Benedictine monastic life.  Newman’s love of places like Beaulieu, tucked away in the woods, made him ignore places like Westminster Abbey, looming large in a major city.

Newman knew about Benedictine monasteries established in cities, but like Bartleby the scrivener, he preferred not to.  In today’s terminology, they did not fit his narrative.  In Discourse VI of The Idea of a University (1853), Newman observed that “the study of history is said to enlarge and enlighten the mind,” and he noted that studying history gives the mind “a power of judging of passing events, and of all events, and a conscious superiority over them, which before it did not possess.”

In the end, Newman’s essays on Benedictines reveal more about Newman than they do about monks.  “When he wrote about monks,” explained Owen Chadwick, “he wrote about them with an idealised happiness which was not always very historical, but which spoke volumes about his idea of life.”  Newman’s “conscious superiority” over events, what James Hitchcock called Newman’s “historical consciousness,” had a flaw that kept Newman from appreciating how Benedictines have changed over time.

It was an odd bug in Newman’s mental system, since he could see contemporary changes in philosophical currents, not least being Utilitarianism.  As much as, say, Pope Gregory VII’s eleventh century, the nineteenth century was a Benedictine century, with new congregations (associations) of Benedictine monasteries, such as Solesmes, Beuron, and American Cassinese.  What is more, during the first twenty-two years of Newman’s life, the Pope, Pius VII, was a Benedictine monk who had been imprisoned by Napoleon but emerged with his inner peace intact and with renewed respect, even reverence, from around the world.

Newman weighed bucolic monasticism against industrial metropolises and found the latter wanting.  In his vision of what made several centuries Benedictine, there was room for only one style of monastic life, and it imagined monks as farmers and themselves as rather bovine.  It is a sad fact that each congregation of monasteries, sometimes each monastery, preens itself as the gold standard of monasticism.  In Newman’s mind, that standard existed around the time that Arthurian legends were new, but, as any honest Benedictine will say, Newman’s monastic standard was as real as Camelot.

Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture

In December, 1948, at Pennsylvania’s Saint Vincent College, Erwin Panofsky delivered the second annual Wimmer Lecture.  Founded in the first half of the nineteenth century, the college was run by Benedictine monks, and the lecture series honored the memory of the founder abbot of Saint Vincent, Boniface Wimmer.

As he addressed students and monks and others, Panofsky’s topic, combining the architectural and philosophical fields, was “Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.”  As Norman F. Cantor put it in Inventing the Middle Ages (1991), Panofsky had the Midas touch that turned straw into gold.  Cantor cited as an example what was to him “an obscure American Catholic college” asking Panofsky to lecture on Gothic architecture, and the resulting book going through ten printings in a decade.

Erwin Panofsky was born in 1892 in Hanover, Germany, and died in 1968 in Princeton, New Jersey.  He was the same age as J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), but while Tolkien was mired in the trenches of the First World War, Panofsky had earned his doctorate from Freiburg.  In 1915 Panofsky published his first book; the following year, he was married.  While Tolkien was teaching at Oxford and writing The Hobbit, Panofsky, an assimilated Jew, had to disrupt his own academic career and flee National Socialist Germany for the United States.

That evening in December of 1948 the more perceptive members of his audience knew that Panofsky’s Wimmer Lecture on Gothic architecture and Scholasticism filled a niche in the field of medieval studies.  Like many great ideas, it is a wonder no one thought of it before.  And yet, what Panofsky revealed in that lecture was how a cathedral such as Notre Dame or Chartres was like a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas or Blessed John Duns Scotus.

Panofsky simply said by way of preface that it was but “another diffident attempt at correlating Gothic architecture and Scholasticism,” and one that “is bound to be looked upon with suspicion by both historians of art and historians of philosophy.”  The hard to please Norman Cantor said that this “fragile jewel . . . is a beautiful piece of speculative interpretation.”

Characteristically, Panofsky drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of Western art and philosophy and saw parallels.  He saw that the medieval Schoolmen knew that reason could not prove religious doctrine, but reason could make it manifest by shedding clear light upon it.  Panofsky understood that the Scholastic mind “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of function through form,” and equally it “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of thought through language.”

Function and thought, form and language:  Panofsky summed up what he called a Scholastic mental habit given to manifestatio, clarification.  “A man imbued with the Scholastic habit [of mind],” he said, “would look upon the mode of architectural presentation, just as he looked upon the mode of literary presentation, from the point of view of manifestatio.”  All the elements of a Gothic cathedral or a Scholastic argument were carefully articulated and clearly went together to form a reasoned whole.

As did Catholic theologians, Catholic architects of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries sought clarity of function through form.  Just as the intellect functioned to study and contemplate God, so a church functioned to worship God through the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  The Catholic faith teaches that Christ, while being fully divine, was also “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,” to use the words of the Athanasian Creed.

What follows from the Christian creed is the importance in Catholic culture not only of the intellect, but also of tangible material, whether bread and wine or stone and glass.  Panofsky’s insight was that through proportion and distinction of parts, a Gothic cathedral was as solid and precise in its service of Catholic doctrine as was the treatise of a Scholastic theologian.

Like his Catholic contemporary, Tolkien, Panofsky was captivated by the Christian civilization that emerged from the Roman Empire.  In his Histories, Tacitus had written that in Judaea under Tiberius, all was quiet (sub Tiberio quies), and yet any astute observer today can see that there developed, like a minor theme in music that recurs until it reaches crescendo, the literature and liturgy of the Catholic Church.

For Tolkien and Panofsky, medieval culture was vivid and complex.  Craftsmen created formulae for stained glass never again equaled, and scholars in then new universities debated questions of universal reality.  It was a world appreciating intricate patterns and rich colors, whether in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, or jewelry.  Alongside those achievements of art and intellect roared the violence of war and the cruelty of nasty people.  In short, it was an era like our own, because human nature never changes.

While Tolkien used his love of the Early Middle Ages to create his own Middle Earth, Panofsky studied the art and architecture of the High Middle Ages and related it to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the poetry of Dante Alighieri.  Their various writings show that these twentieth-century students of medieval culture, one from Germany, the other from England by way of South Africa, felt an affinity for what has survived within Western civilization because they came of age when so much of that civilization was cracking apart under hammers and sickles.

As the tide of the twentieth century recedes, the books left on what William Shakespeare called in Sonnet 60 “the pebbled shore” are worth our while.  Within that span of a hundred years more books were published than ever before, yet few will survive time’s erosion of public memory.  Works once declared instant classics are forgotten.  Nevertheless, as Joseph Pearce noted twenty years ago, much to the chagrin of the intelligentsia there stands Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, still around after almost seventy years.  Also among the books surviving from the last century is Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

People long to enter into a realm that takes them beyond this world.  For that reason they will continue to follow Bilbo and Frodo deep into Middle Earth, a journey like that of pacing contemplatively through a labyrinth in the floor of a medieval cathedral, or following the logic of a Scholastic argument.  As their guides through these mazes of prose and stone, they will return again and again to Tolkien and Panofsky.

 

(A much longer version of this essay appeared in the August, 2015, issue of American Theological Inquiry.)

Man and Beast and Marlin Perkins

“But now,” declared Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “we have to prove the connection between the man and the beast.”  Holmes referred, of course, to connecting a hound and a man, but his statement also sums up a general human fascination with finding mythical beings.  In particular, humans have a yearning to find long-lost humans, or what they hope are humans, and so they go on quests for creatures such as Bigfoot or Yeti.

In Book 16 of the City of God, Saint Augustine drew upon Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and more recent anecdotes to relate reports of various human curiosities.  Augustine noted pygmies and hermaphrodites and also what used to be called Siamese twins.  Augustine’s point was that however unusual, they are human and therefore possess souls.

All the anomalies considered by Augustine lived in distant provinces or in lands outside the Roman Empire.  With calm detachment, humans always accept the bizarre as being beyond the horizon.  Meanwhile, they soon lose patience with the oddball living next door.

In 1959, having climbed to the top of Mount Everest six years earlier, New Zealand’s national hero, Sir Edmund Hillary, decided to return to the Himalayas and look for the legendary Yeti, also called the Abominable Snowman.  As he assembled his expeditionary crew, Hillary needed a zoologist who could brave the trek into the mountains.  Then he remembered an American zookeeper who had built up his zoo by traveling to sub-Saharan Africa for animals.

And so Hillary sought out Marlin Perkins, director of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.  Perkins had expanded the zoo, gaining national attention and appearing on the cover of the 7 July, 1947, issue of Time magazine.  From 1950 to 1957 he was on Chicago television hosting Zoo Parade.  Before making his mark in Chicago, Perkins had served as director of the zoo in Buffalo, New York, where he added a reptile house.

Born in 1905 in Carthage, Missouri, to a local judge and his wife, Perkins loved the outdoors.  Whether as a boy at Missouri’s Wentworth Military Academy or later, Perkins collected reptiles, especially snakes.  He dropped out of the University of Missouri, saying he saw no sense in getting a degree in a subject one loved only to take a job in an office somewhere.  With some biology and Latin under his belt, he went to work at the St. Louis Zoo, trimming hedges and sweeping sidewalks.

Thin and dapper, whether in a dark suit and tie or khakis and a pith helmet, Perkins had prematurely white hair cut short and parted on the right, as well as a pencil mustache like that of a 1930s film star such as Don Ameche or Clark Gable.  From 1963 to 1985, he became known across the country and then around the world through an award-winning half-hour television show, Wild Kingdom, sponsored by a Midwestern insurance company, Mutual of Omaha.  Each week Perkins narrated footage of him in exotic locations documenting equally exotic animals.

Perkins had an easily imitable voice often described as “reedy,” and comedians such as Johnny Carson delighted in perpetuating a myth that Perkins avoided danger, sending his able assistant, Jim Fowler, into harm’s way instead.  “While Jim castrates the wildebeest,” a Perkins imitator would say, “I’ll watch from the jeep.”

In fact, Perkins was no stranger to risk.  As a young man he went into Louisiana swamps to catch snakes.  In middle age he suffered a near-fatal rattlesnake bite, and later, a broken nose and broken ribs from being knocked aside by an elephant.  A crack shot, the only time Perkins used a gun was to shoot a tranquilizer into an animal so he and his team could tag and study it.  Long before those encounters, in April, 1923, he set the tone for his life of intrepid daring when he and an older brother decided to return home to Missouri from a year working odd jobs in California by buying a 1912 Harley-Davidson motorcycle with sidecar and driving it across the Rockies.

When Hillary recruited Perkins, it was summer, and they were walking briskly down a street in Chicago.  Hillary’s plan intrigued Perkins, but Perkins wondered if his age, 55 by the time they set out, would be an obstacle.  Hillary, age 40, tall and square-jawed and personifying “rugged,” observed that Perkins was having no trouble keeping pace with him.

After the expedition, Perkins wrote up his findings for the 1962 Year Book of The World Book Encyclopedia, and in his memoirs, My Wild Kingdom (1982), he included a chapter about searching for Yeti.  World Book’s publishers had underwritten Hillary’s expedition, and the 1962 Year Book included a five-part report compiled by members of the team.  Perkins’ section of the report described their work in autumn, 1960, in Nepal, where Sherpas, their local guides, showed them hairy scalps and large paw prints in the snow, both phenomena attributed to Yeti.

What Perkins found was that the tracks were fox prints enlarged by melting from the sun, and the bristly hairs on alleged scalps were part of the hide of the Tibetan blue bear.  “And the Abominable Snowman?” Perkins asked in conclusion.  “We now are convinced he is a myth,” but as such “he probably will live on among the Sherpas as the legendary figure he has been for centuries.”

Thirty-seven years after Perkins’ adventure, at the eastern end of the Himalayan range, another American explorer heard local accounts of Yeti.  Recalling his time in Putao, in what once was Burma, Alan Rabinowitz wrote in Beyond the Last Village, “One old man told of a hunter who had been attacked by a yeti . . . that ‘rushed down the hillside with fangs bared and hands raised to attack him’.”  It is a scary story, but vague enough to be describing a missing-link Wild Man or simply a bear rearing up and having none of some human blundering into its territory.

In the early fifth century, Augustine wrote about the innate human curiosity for strange creatures in strange lands, and four centuries earlier, Pliny the Elder provided a similar catalogue in his Natural History.  A comparably keen student of human and other nature, Marlin Perkins mused in My Wild Kingdom, “I can fully understand the thinking of those who believe there is still a yeti up there waiting to be discovered.”

Bilbo’s Spoons and American Pickers

In the last chapter of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien described Bilbo Baggins returning home to the Shire after an absence of more than a year, only to find he had arrived in time to see his possessions being sold at auction because he had been presumed dead.  Bilbo buys back most of his property, but one exception is his set of silver spoons.  Nevertheless, he soon settles back into his familiar routine of churchwarden pipes and two breakfasts.  All the same, he would have liked to have had back those old silver spoons.

In a spiritual context, Bilbo would be told to detach himself from his worldly goods, and in a secular setting, he would be cautioned against hoarding.  While some people pride themselves on an annual purge of all the stuff they think they no longer need, others are aware that the future is uncertain.  More often than not, someone will jettison something that has not been used for months or years, and not too long afterwards is when it will be needed.  True, some can go to extremes, such as the man who is said to have had a shoe box labelled, “Pieces of string too short to use.”

Useless bits of string can safely be thrown away without harming human dignity, what Psalm 8 teaches about man being made a little lower than the angels.  Yet, man was also made to live above the level of a beast of burden.  Beginning around the eighteenth century the West has had a reverence for utility, so that family, friends, neighbors, and even the state consider themselves competent to decide and decree what another person needs.  In a stark utilitarian society, humans would be told they need nothing more than 2000 calories per day, a futon in a boxy apartment building, and the satisfaction of toiling productively for the collective.  Workhorse, here is your stall and your feedbag.

When telling a collector of silver spoons, for example, that he really doesn’t need them and should let go of them, what gets forgotten, paradoxically, is the role of memory.  Bilbo and other hobbits had a keen sense of the past and of the importance of things for connecting the generations.  After all, Tolkien noted Bilbo lending his suit of chain mail to a museum, and it seems too often overlooked that hobbits sustained a museum.

Hobbits can remind humans that it is a seemingly impractical collection of spoons that really makes a house a home.  Those spoons might be reminders of vacations taken, or they may call to mind deceased family members who had enjoyed them in ages past.  Those spoons are all about life itself.

Humans who champion this sentimental and commemorative importance of old stuff are Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, hosts of a popular television show, American Pickers.  Since 2010 their show has chronicled their travels searching for what they call “rusty gold,” well-aged and often everyday items found off the beaten path.  For them, looking for antiquated oddities to buy and resell is about more than making a living.  It is about parents, grandparents, and children.

In a book related to their television series, American Pickers Guide to Picking, Wolfe and Fritz conclude by noting how their television show has opened up new worlds to parents and children.  Parents write to Wolfe and Fritz saying that their children have been exploring the grandparents’ attics and sheds for mundane artifacts.  The children learn that, “the real thrill of picking is in the discovery of new ideas and in the connections they make with the people in their family and communities.”

In a companion book, Kid Pickers, Wolfe, as a husband and father, encourages children to find out about family and regional heritage.  He advises them to scrounge around not only at home, but also at yard sales and thrift stores.  From there, they should visit local historical societies and cemeteries to locate long lost relatives.  “Picking,” he concludes, “is all about connecting to the person you are and the people in your life.”

In his own book, How to Pick Vintage Motorcycles, Fritz observed how one generation influences the next.  He explained how his parents instilled in him a strong work ethic, so that his desire for “things like motorcycles, guns, and fishing poles” meant that he had to work and save, leading him to shovel snow in the winter and mow lawns in the summer.  Before long he developed a sixth sense for finding old oil cans and other apparent junk.

In their crisscrossing of the country, Wolfe and Fritz keep an eye out for all manner of usually knocked-about rarities, from metal Lionel train sets to enameled Exide battery signs, from Excelsior motorcycles to silver spoons made by a colonial craftsman.  Along the way they meet an equal number of eccentric characters, such as Ronald Heist, a reclusive salvager in western Pennsylvania who is known as Mole Man.  His nickname derives from his sprawling underground structure, dug out by hand himself, where he keeps a vast collection of tin signs and light fixtures, coffee cans and bathroom plungers.  As the Pickers put it, “very weird, but in a totally cool way.”

And so the two adventurous American Pickers have met someone like Bilbo Baggins in a hole in the ground, “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,” but a painted warren of rooms and tunnels.  Wolfe and Fritz grew up together near Davenport, Iowa, but they acknowledge in their Guide to Picking that “Pennsylvania is better suited to our particular needs.”  There they find treasure troves in small towns and on family farms, most of the towns and many of the barns being easily a century older than their Midwestern or Western counterparts.

Just as Bilbo, at age fifty setting out on his first-ever adventure, faced peril from trolls and dragons, so too have the Pickers faced danger, some inhospitable property owners having been ready to unleash snarling dogs on them.  It is an attitude going back millennia:  Inside the front door of a house in Pompeii is a mosaic of a dog with a chain and a red collar; even now, it is a resonating image, the caption, Cave Canem, not needing much Latin to translate:  Beware of Dog.  Human nature never changes, and people cherish their stuff and the memories that it holds.

Buster Keaton’s Scenic Realism

In 1925 silent film star Buster Keaton, his wife, and their two sons moved into a new house just off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California.  Dubbed the Italian Villa, it sat on three and a half acres, and for Keaton’s wife, glamorous Natalie Talmadge, it was an ideal setting for lavish Hollywood parties.  For Keaton himself, it was the perfect location for an outdoor model railroad.

Railroads were part and parcel of Keaton’s life.  Born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 to parents who toured the vaudeville circuit, he grew up catching trains from one town to another.  Keaton’s father, Joe, was a hard-drinking Irish-American who drilled the boy in pratfalls that earned him the nickname Buster, but by 1917 the younger Keaton had enough and moved to California, where he appeared in some slapstick comedy films starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Troop trains then became part of Keaton’s experience.  After the United States entered the First World War, Keaton was drafted into the Army, being assigned to the Signal Corps and learning map reading and Morse Code.  In the summer of 1918, he was sent to France, his unit being kept in reserve and never seeing combat.  Along with rain, mud, and monotony, his biggest difficulties were a uniform too big for his sinewy 5’5″ frame and then an ear infection that permanently damaged his hearing.

In 1919, back home from the war, Keaton resumed making movies with Arbuckle.  Before long, Keaton had his own production company, and he developed a persona whereby when he was in public or being filmed, he never smiled, earning him another nickname, the Great Stone Face.

Keaton’s silent films featured him as an earnest if hapless young man stymied by modern technology as he sought the respect of various father figures and above all, sought the affection of a young lady he hoped to marry.  As S. T. Karnick wrote in The Weekly Standard (13 March, 2000), Keaton’s films “support conventional morality against Jazz Age libertinism.”  A recurring theme in his films is Keaton’s character looking for a judge or clergyman in order to marry the girl Keaton has been courting.

Another recurring theme is trains.  Throughout his life, Keaton said that if he had received more formal education, he would not have become an actor and director but a civil engineer.  His silent films show a creative mind attracted to challenges posed by physics, architecture, and machines, especially trains, both model and real.  From One Week (1920) to Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), trains appeared in most of Keaton’s films, and Hard Luck (1921) involved a street car.  Our Hospitality (1923) replicated a Stephenson locomotive from the 1830s, and in The Blacksmith (1922), Keaton used model trains.  Two more examples will suffice.

In The Electric House (1922) Keaton sets up a Standard gauge model train to convey food from the kitchen to the dining room table.  Being a comedy, the arrangement goes not exactly as planned.  With Keaton, the use of model trains became a case of life imitating art:  Whether at the Italian Villa or at a bungalow he owned later in life, Keaton used his model trains to serve food to his guests.

A year after setting up a garden railroad at his Italian Villa, where real trees and flowers and rocks served as scenery, Keaton made one of his most ambitious films.  Based on an actual incident in the American Civil War, The General (released in February, 1927) stars Keaton as a railroad engineer.  Instead of using a model train for various scenes, Keaton used a steam locomotive that was part of a functioning narrow gauge logging railroad near Cottage Grove, Oregon.

One way to look at The General and its realistic setting is Keaton toying with the ultimate outdoor train layout.  Although there is no record of Keaton deliberately crashing his own model trains, in The General he indulged in what seems to be a primordial male instinct:  Boys and their toys, they want to wreck their trains.  The climactic train chase and then wreck in The General has become a classic scene in film history.

Nearly every Keaton silent film included a chase scene, and Keaton did almost all his own stunts.  In The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton (1999), Robert Knopf put his finger on Keaton’s art:  “His preference for long shots, long takes, and vast realistic landscapes grounds his chases in strict classical realism,” and yet “the progressively larger and larger number of people, objects, and animals in the chases exceeds any reasonable expectations” and thus becomes like a dream, but “a dream made solid and palpable through Keaton’s meticulous realism.”

While the country plunged into the Great Depression, Keaton’s 1930s were a time of personal depression.  In 1928 he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, giving them artistic control over his future films; in 1932 his marriage broke up.  Frustrated and humiliated, he took to drink.

By the late 1930s, after a second unfortunate marriage, he was in a stable if stagnant period.  Now sober, he had his other hobbies of fishing and duck hunting, playing bridge and reading murder mysteries, and he worked as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers.  However, those masters of zany verbal comedy had little need for the insights of a man noted for silent physical comedy.  “That used to get my goat,” Keaton later admitted.

In 1940 he married a young MGM dancer, Eleanor Norris.  She was 21, he was 44, but they had clicked right away, staying together until his death in 1966.  In 1955 they moved to Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, where the anti-communist but otherwise apolitical Keaton served two terms as honorary mayor.  The Keatons bought a modest bungalow, what he called his ranch, and there Keaton built another outdoor model railroad.

Roger Carp, writing in the May, 2003, issue of Classic Toy Trains, recounted Keaton’s fascination with model trains.  In particular, Carp wrote about Keaton’s outdoor layout at the house in Woodland Hills.  There Keaton enjoyed an S gauge American Flyer 4-6-0 326 Hudson  steam engine looping around ready-built Plasticville structures.

Less common among model railroaders than HO or O gauge, S gauge uses a scale where 3/16 of an inch, or nearly 5 millimeters, equals one foot.  Carp described Keaton’s model train running from the garage to the barbecue area and back again, while his grandchildren and family friends delighted in seeing the train arriving at the picnic table, flat cars carrying hot dogs and gondolas bearing condiments.  As Keaton recalled in his memoir, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), his acre and a quarter ranch had “a miniature railroad that carries peanuts, soda pop, sandwiches, and popcorn to guests.”

According to a documentary, Buster Keaton:  A Hard Act to Follow (1987), another use he had for his model train was more personal.  For much of his life Keaton had been a three or four pack a day cigarette smoker.  In his late sixties he decided to quit smoking, so he would light a cigarette, put it on his train, send the train on its route, and when it returned to him, he would take a puff on the cigarette, put it back on the train, and send it on another round.

In his last years, Keaton suffered from insomnia.  When not playing with his trains, he was playing bridge with Eleanor or was up all hours playing solitaire.  Eleanor Keaton later said that when he died, he had his Rosary in one pocket and a deck of cards in the other.  A few years after he died, she donated his trains to a local children’s hospital.