Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Trouble with (Studying) History

Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind and The Well-Trained Mind (among other books), is working on a four-volume history of the world, a process which she regularly chronicles on her blog, The History of the (Whole) World.

In her most recent post, she speculates on why we might find history to be boring and/or irrelevant, why the way Americans typically teach history is ineffective, and how instead we ought to approach the study of history.

Read her insightful and succinct thoughts here.

Happy Birthday . . .

. . . to you :-)

On this day in literature . . .

~ 1613 ~ The Globe Theatre catches fire and burns to the ground during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII

~ 1854 ~ Charlotte Bronte overcomes her father's objections and marries his curate, Arthur Bell Nichols

~ 1861 ~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning dies at home in Florence

Monday, June 26, 2006

Book Thoughts: Mistress Bradstreet

It is difficult to reconstruct the past. In fact, really, it is impossible. There is little physical evidence remaining. Ever her house is gone, like most of the dwellings of the early settlers, burned, torn down, crumbled to ash. On their bones, our houses crowd together, huge, windowed, balconied. Cars roar by on the old paths, now paved. I live less than twenty miles from where Anne used to live, but often she feels as far away as the moon.

There is a Jewish tradition of "midrash," which is when the rabbis attempted "to fill in the gaps" of some of the more mystifying biblical stories, such as those of Job or Jonah and the whale, and in many ways that is what these pages have become. By retelling some of the history, the details, and the facts of her time, I have attempted to resurrect Anne and her home in early America. But I have also tried to piece together something more - what it felt like to be one of the first Europeans in America and what Anne, a gently bread, highly educated woman, might have thought, done, and experienced as she struggled through the ordeal of emigration and settling a new country.

~ Charlotte Gordon, preface to Mistress Bradstreet

I don't devour biographies by any stretch of the imagination. I own only a few. It took me a year after buying this book to get around to reading it. But from the beginning, Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet held my attention. As Gordon states in her preface, she took some liberties in the telling of Bradstreet's life. But the very fact that she openly stated her approach (that of the "midrash") at the beginning, tempered my reaction to her style. And her extensive bibliography in the back of the book made me trust her even more. Gordon blends together the known (and not so numerous) facts of Bradstreet's life with her research on colonial life and produces a work that feels more like a story than biographies usually seem to be. It's an approach that perhaps feels less "factual," but one that also happily lacks a cold hardness.

Only occasionally did I feel as though Gordon might be reaching in her rendering of Bradstreet's emotions. In commenting on one of Bradstreet's poems on the death of a grandson, Gordon writes that Bradstreet's "very angry lines" reveal "her ambivalence about God," though she attempts to "dampen her rage." And while I understand and agree that a poem might have a subtext, I found this interpretation of the poem to be a stretch. But while Gordon speculates throughout the book on what Bradstreet might have been thinking and feeling, I found most of her imaginative rendering of Bradstreet's life to be firmly grounded in Bradstreet's works.

I provided Perry Miller's excellent comments on the Puritans (previous post below) as a means of prefacing my thoughts on this biography of Anne Bradstreet. Miller's introduction captures the paradox of pursuing this life wholeheartedly while realizing that "this life" is not all there is. And as I read Gordon's biography of Bradstreet, I felt that a full comprehension of (or, perhaps, sympathy for) this perspective on life was the missing ingredient. Gordon often seems to waver between admiration and condemnation of the Puritans. I felt in reading her work that for all her lauding of Anne Bradstreet, Gordon ultimately finds Bradstreet's belief system to be baffling. She never says so directly. But there is subtext.

At the same time, I loved this book. Gordon more than accomplishes her goal of bringing Bradstreet to life. She also clearly describes the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the role of men such as Thomas Dudley (Bradstreet's father) and John Winthrop. I've studied and taught Anne Bradstreet in the past, but after reading this book I have a much fuller sense of her as a person and a poet.
I highly recommend this book if you enjoy early American literature and/or colonial life.

Perry Miller on the Puritans

The strength of Puritanism was its realism. . . . the Puritan mind was one of the toughest the world has ever had to deal with. It is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan; no matter what misfortune befell him, no matter how often or how tragically his fellowmen failed him, he would have been prepared for the worst, and would have expected no better. At the same time, there was nothing of the fatalist about him; as so often happens in the history of thought, the believers in a supreme determining power were the most energetic of soldiers and crusaders. The charge of Cromwell’s Ironsides was, on that particular score, proof positive of the superiority of the Puritan over the Anglican, and the Indians of New England learned to their very great sorrow how vehement could be the onset of troops who fought for a predestined victory. There was nothing lukewarm, half-hearted, or flabby about the Puritan; whatever he did, he did with zest and gusto. In that sense we might say that though his life was full of anguish of spirit, he nevertheless enjoyed it hugely. Existence for him was completely dramatic, every minute . . . charged with meaning. And when we come to an end of this roll call of characteristics, the one which yet remains the most difficult to evoke was his peculiar balance of zeal and enthusiasm with control and wariness. In his inner life he was overwhelmingly preoccupied with achieving a union with the divine; in his external life he was predominantly concerned with self-restraint. . . . No wonder the Puritan has been something of a puzzlement and a trial to the Gentiles. He was a visionary who never forgot that two plus two equals four; he was a soldier of Jehovah who never came out on the losing side of a bargain. He was a radical and a revolutionary, but not an anarchist; when he got into power he ruled with an iron hand, and also according to a fundamental law. He was a practical idealist with a strong dash of cynicism; he came to New England to found the perfect society and the kingdom of the elect—and never expected it to be perfect, but only the best that fallible men could make. His creed was the revealed word of God and his life was the rule of moderation; his beliefs were handed down from on high and his conduct was regulated by expediency. He was a doctrinaire and an opportunist. Truth for him had been written down once and for all in a definitive, immutable, complete volume, and the covers closed to any further additions; thereupon he devoted all the energies he could spare from more immediate tasks to scholarship and interpretation. He lived in the world according to the principles that must govern this world, with and ever-present sense that they were only for the time being and that his true home was elsewhere. “There is,” said John Cotton, “another combination of virtues strangely mixed in every lively holy Christian. And that is Diligence in worldly businesses, and yet deadness to the world: such a mystery as none can read, but they that know it.” The Puritan ideal was the man who could take all opportunities, lose no occasions, “and bestir himself for profit,” and at the same time “be a man dead-hearted to the world.” He might wrest New England from the Indians, trade in the seven seas, and speculate in lands; “yet his heart is not set upon these things, he can tell what to do with his estate when he hath got it.”
~ Perry Miller, from the introduction to The Puritans

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Summertime Murder

"Murder is murder. You stop believing that and we might as well not be fighting the war."

A good murder in an quiet English village ranks rather high on my comfort list. (Granted, it's probably not quite so enjoyable for the poor murdered person.) Last summer I watched lots of episodes of "Midsomer Murders," and now I've discovered "Foyle's War." I have a feeling that these mysteries (and a strong cup of Tazo Earl Grey tea) will give me some delightful afternoons this summer.

Foyle's War is the rare mystery series that does more than plop a good detective into the middle of a decorative and bygone era. Created by writer Anthony Horowitz, Foyle's War makes profoundly resonant use of British society in 1940, a terrifying time in which the threat of an Axis assault on England disrupted ordinary life in often horrible ways, from the resettlement of city children (into the care of rural strangers) to a spike in xenophobia to a loss of personal freedoms. Against this heady backdrop is the near-solitary figure of Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), a London investigator who would rather be fighting Hitler abroad but is stuck solving domestic homicides--generally sparked by wartime fervor--with the help of a plucky driver and a steadfast assistant. Kitchen's magnificently measured performance and Horowitz's masterful grasp of the moral and dramatic issues of his battle-scarred milieu make Foyle's War a must.

~ review

Monday, June 19, 2006

A Costly Luxury

"The first choice Anne had to make before she picked up her pen was what meter to use, since this was a crucial part of declaring her intentions as a Puritan and a poet. Once she had decided, she could not waver. This was partly for practical reasons. Each page was precious to Anne. Although her wealthy father did have a larger supply of paper and vellum than most people and she herself had a small bound book to write in, once she had used up this writing material, it was expensive to get more, and it could take months to arrive from England. Mistakes were a costly luxury, therefore, and drafts were an impossibility. Anne would have to think out the lines first and memorize them before hazarding them onto paper."

~ from "Upon My Son," chapter 10 of Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet, Charlotte Gordon

Anne Bradstreet's first poem:

Upon a Fit of Sickness,
Anno. 1632. Aetatis Suae, 19

Twice ten years old not fully told
since nature gave me breath,
My race is run, my thread spun,
lo, here is fatal death.
All men must die, and so must I;
this cannot be revoked.
For Adam's sake this word God spake
when he so high provoked.
Yet live I shall, this life's but small,
in place of highest bliss,
Where I shall have all I can crave,
no life is like to this.
For what's this but care and strife
since first we came from womb?
Our strength doth waste, our time doth haste,
and then we go to th' tomb.
O bubble blast, how long can'st last?
that always art a breaking,
No sooner blown, but dead and gone,
ev'n as a word that's speaking.
O whilst I live this grace me give,
I doing good may be,
Then death's arrest I shall count best,
because it's Thy decree;
Bestow much cost there's nothing lost,
to make salvation sure,
O great's the gain, though got with pain,
comes by profession pure.
The race is run, the field is won,
the victory's mine I see;
Forever known, thou envious foe,
the foil belongs to thee.


"During this first winter [1630-31], even Dudley [Anne Bradstreet’s father and deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony] began to lose some of his optimism. He was ready to leave Charlestown and find a new place to live. Not that he ever would have considered giving up or returning to England, but life in Massachusetts was proving to be far more arduous than he had anticipated. Later he would complain that he had chosen to expose his family to the dangers of America because the advance party had sent 'too large commendations of the country and the commodities thereof.'

"For Anne it was something of a mixed blessing to witness her father’s discouragement. On the one hand it might at last be possible for him to empathize with her unhappiness. On the other hand, without his sense of certainty, life in America must have felt even more desperate. Despite her summertime vow, she may have secretly desired to follow the coward’s path back to England, since much of her early writing is saturated with her nostalgia for the Old World.

"Anne was not alone in longing for England. More than two hundred members of their original group fled home that winter. Although they faced financial ruin upon return, and, for some, religious persecution, anything must have appeared better than staying on in America, which seemed like a death warrant. As one desperate son wrote his father, 'I think that in the end if I live it must be by my leaving, for we do not know how long this plantation will stand.'"

~ from "New World, New Manners," chapter 9 of Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet, Charlotte Gordon

Friday, June 16, 2006

Movie Thoughts: The New World

I never saw this movie in theaters when it came out last year. I'm not sure why. I found the trailers interesting. I like early American history. Maybe I was somewhat skeptical that this might simply be another Disneyesque remake of history, though without the singing forest animals.

But then I read Will Gray's excellent and compelling review of this movie on his blog Explorations. So I added it to the top of my Netflix queque. It came in the mail two days ago, and I watched it this afternoon.

Will was right. It was beautiful. Much of the movie is quiet and thoughtful, and I loved the minimalization/understatement of key events (such as when the first indication of a baby's birth is a shot of his hand), which I think simply makes the emotion of the scene that more affective. I loved this movie. I would watch it again. And I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Meet the new U.S. Poet Laureate

Today the Library of Congress announced that Donald Hall has been appointed as the 14th poet laureate of the United States. He has been writing poetry for 60 years (he's 77) and has published 15 books of poems. He will officially begin his duties in the fall.

Set to Verse: Donald Hall is New Poet Laureate
(Washington Post article from today's Style section)

Librarian of Congress Appoints Donald Hall Poet Laureate
(News from the Library of Congress)

"Christmas party at the South Danbury Church"

December twenty-first
we gather at the white Church festooned
red and green, the tree flashing
green-red lights beside the altar.
After the children of Sunday School
recite Scripture, sing songs,
and scrape out solos,
they retire to dress for the finale,
to perform the pageant
again: Mary and Joseph kneeling
cradleside, Three Kings,
shepherds and shepherdesses. Their garments
are bathrobes with mothholes,
cut down from the Church's ancestors.
Standing short and long,
they stare in all directions for mothers,
sisters and brothers,
giggling and waving in recognition,
and at the South Danbury
Church, a moment before Santa
arrives with her ho-hos
and bags of popcorn, in the half-dark
of whole silence, God
enters the world as a newborn again.

~ Donald Hall, from The New Criterion (Jan. 1995)

Monday, June 12, 2006

On Reading the Bible

I've recently come across two essays on Scripture reading that have been encouraging, rebuking, affirming, and illuminating. The first speaks to a viewpoint I first truly encountered in a Bible as Literature course, a perspective that continues to revolutionize my reading of Scripture and is, I believe, essential to a proper understanding of the Bible. The second addresses an issue that often silently weighs on many well-meaning Christians and is a burden we are not meant to bear.

We often read the Bible for what it’s not and seldom read it for what it is. Here’s what it is not: It is not a book you use to prove a point. Neither is it a book written to solve your personal problems. Here’s what it is: It is the true story of what God has really done in history. It is a true account of how God works and what God wants done on earth.

from Reading the Bible Like a Grown-Up Child by Calvin Seerveld

Whose idea was it to define the sum total of my relationship with God as my devotional consistency? Your quiet time is not your relationship with God. Your relationship with God—or, as I prefer to say, God’s relationship with you—is your whole life: your job, your family, your sleep, your play, your relationships, your driving, your everything. The real irony here is that we’ve become accustomed to pigeonholing our entire relationship with God into a brief devotional exercise that is not even commanded in the Bible.

from Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt by Greg Johnson

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Currently reading . . .

. . . anything I want now that school's out!

Three books I'm currently in the middle of (soon to be joined by others, no doubt, owing to my sometimes bad/sometimes good habit of reading several books at once):

Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet
by Charlotte Gordon

My Father's World: Meditations on Christianity & Culture
by Philip Ryken

Call the Sabbath a Delight by Walter Chantry

Friday, June 09, 2006

On this day in literature . . .

~ 1870 ~ Charles Dickens, 58, dies at his home in Gadshill, and is buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey. Two days later, Queen Victoria writes in her diary, "He is a very great loss. He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes."

I must admit that I have read only one book by Charles Dickens. In a class on the British novel, I read Hard Times, and, at the risk of sounding corny, I had a very hard time indeed getting through that book. I also had a professor for another class (History of England) who declared Charles Dickens to be a first-rate propagandist, which certainly didn't do much to improve my inclination to pick up another Dickens novel. So I have not read another Dickens novel since that time, even though I have at least three on my shelves, a fact that leaves me feeling somewhat guilty and sheepish. I have, though, seen several movie adaptations of Dickens novels which I have loved: David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, Nicholas Nickleby. And Bleak House is currently in my Netflix queue.

So I'm not entirely sure why I'm somewhat frozen when I stare at the rows of those hefty novels in a bookstore. I'm always drawn to pull one off the shelf, gaze at its cover, and contemplate the possibility of actually reading it this time.

But then I sigh, and put it back.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Favorite Hymn

This afternoon as I was finalizing grades (And I'm now done! All I have left to do is show up at graduation, smile politely, and eat a piece of cake!), I was listening to songs I have on my computer, and I came across one I hadn't listened to in a while, but one that certainly ranks as a top favorite. I first heard this song in college and have loved it ever since. The text is from the 14th century by John Tauler and has been arranged by John Rutter (it appears on Te Deum).
I love the building of images in this hymn.

As the bridegroom to his chosen,
As the king unto his realm,
As the keeper to the castle,
As the pilot to the helm,
As the captain to his soldiers,
As the shepherd to his lambs,
So, Lord, art thou to me.

As the fountain in the garden,
As the candle in the dark,
As the treasure in the coffer,
As the manna in the ark,
As the firelight in the winter,
As the sunlight in the spring,
So, Lord, art thou to me.

As the music at the banquet,
As the stamp unto the seal,
As refreshment to the fainting,
As the winecup at the meal,
As the singing on the feast day,
As the amen to the prayer,
So, Lord, art thou to me.

As the ruby in the setting,
As the honey in the comb,
As the light within the lantern,
As the father in the home,
As the eagle in the mountains,
As the sparrow in the nest,
So, Lord, art thou to me.

As the sunshine in the heavens,
As the image in the glass,
As the fruit unto the fig tree,
As the dew unto the grass,
As the rainbow on the hilltop,
As the river in the plain,
So, Lord, art thou to me.

"Seemingly Random Points about Reading"

Tim Challies (of fame) has an excellent post today called Reflections on Reading. Whether you pick up a book only once in a while or you plow through several at one time all the time, you'll enjoy his observations on his personal style and habits of reading.

Here are some of my favorite lines from his post:

The more I read, the easier it is to read.

I read all the time, or most of it anyways. I do not watch all that much TV, but even when I do, I usually have my nose in a book.

I do not advocate reading while driving or while operating heavy machinery.

One of my peculiarities, but one I have found helpful, is reading two or even three books at a time.

Lately I find myself doing a lot of reading while holding a baby. I can hold a baby and a book, or a pen and a book, but not a baby, pen and book all at the same time.

I forget a great deal of what I read. Anyone who tells you otherwise may not be telling the truth.

When looking for a good book to read, find a person whose judgment you trust and read what that person is reading.

On this day in literature . . .

~ 1867 ~ Mark Twain embarks on a journey through Europe to the Holy Land that will inspire his 1869 work The Innocents Abroad.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
- Mark Twain

"He’s not the first American writer to travel to Europe and the Middle East and report back, but he’s the first one who travels abroad and travels as though America were the center of the universe."

- "Mark Twain" (Ken Burns Documentary)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~ Robert Frost, 1920

Friday, June 02, 2006

Another reason I love Panera . . .

Free dessert.

Today I didn't have to go into school since exams have begun and I give mine on Monday. So I met two other teachers for lunch at Panera at 12:30pm. It was 4:45pm when we finally left. But about three hours into our very relaxed outing, the manager wandered over and chatted briefly with us. Then he came back bearing free dessert -- chocolate cake, carrot cake, and two muffin tops. What a great benefit for monopolizing a table for over four hours! :-)