In 1927, American high society was swept up in a frantic religious mania. Leading politicians, intellectuals, philanthropists, educators, reporters, and scientists prophesied that the nation would be consumed by fire and brimstone in the form of “unfit” babies unless it offered up a sacrifice. The state of Virginia went before the U.S. Supreme Court, that temple of modernity, with an offering. Legendary progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes looked upon Carrie Buck, a 19-year-old imbecile with an imbecilic mother and imbecilic bastard infant, and embraced his role as Solomon.
In 1817, the United States under President Monroe was locked in an argument with Spain about who should own Florida. While Monroe’s secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, endeavored to cut the Gordian knot in diplomacy with his Spanish counterpart, an unexpected event and, as it turned out, opportunity presented itself: Seminole Indians on the border of the young United States attacked a convoy and massacred a group of Americans. The president responded by requesting that Andrew Jackson, hero of the Creek Wars of 1812-13, drive the Seminoles south of the border. Jackson did so and more, driving the Spanish out of Florida and bringing the territory under American control.
Simple is hard—more difficult than cutting diamonds, more back-breaking than mining coal. Of course, complicated is also hard. Nothing good in art comes easy. But we can be deceived by the simplicity of an artwork’s effect, tempted into believing that it must derive from a simplicity of effort. And to all such temptations, there’s really only one answer: an insistence that simple is hard. Harder than adamant. Tougher than steel.
We have not ended up where we began, with democracy. Our institutions of government, business of lawmaking, and notions about successful popular rule do not resemble all that closely the storied originals from Athens. Of course, the broad outlines of democracy are still here—elections occur; liberty and rights are invoked—but democracy’s substance has changed. Democracy has become an expression, an imposition, even, of the self over other selves. It is not a call to order—it’s an impassioned cry.
It was one of those extraordinary “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” moments, to be reckoned alongside learning that Santa Claus is a myth or becoming conscious of how babies are made. I was in third grade. One of my classmates needed to be excused.
“Mrs. Ruesink, can I use the bathroom, please?”
“I have no idea. I assume you can.”
I believe that the American love for Shakespeare can be summed up in the words of an anonymous cowboy.
The historian Philip Ashton Rollins, in his post-Civil War work about life on the range, visited a ranch where the cowboys who could read would sometimes perform speeches for those who could not. After a rousing rendition of Mark Antony’s “Dogs of War” speech from Julius Caesar, Rollins heard a young cowboy cried out: “Gosh! That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff. He’s the only poet I ever seen what fed on raw meat.”
There’s an occasional column in the newspaper I read daily about bad TV called “We Watch So You Don’t Have To.” I read How to Do Things With Pornography so you don’t have to. What’s most interesting about it is not the book itself, which is a patchwork of largely technical academic philosophy pieces, very few of which are actually about porn. But inside this book is a more interesting one trying to get out, the way Michelangelo’s “Slaves” are seen as spirit struggling to emerge from brute matter, muscular men straining against unfinished blocks of marble.
In 2003, after a long-running poll, the BBC announced that readers considered The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy tale, the greatest British novel of all time—a result wonderful to report, probably accurate about contemporary readers’ taste, and entirely absurd. Anyone who doesn’t love Tolkien isn’t much of a reader. But, then, neither is anyone who thinks The Lord of the Rings the greatest novel ever written.
In an art form so wide-ranging that it includes everything from the works of Jane Austen to the books of Fyodor Dostoyevsky—from David Copperfield to Naked Lunch, Madame Bovary to The Stranger—Tolkien has to rank somewhere.
In the summer of 1893, Mark Twain was 57 and at the pinnacle of his career—or so it seemed. Behind him were the successes of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1885). Pudd’nhead Wilson was being serialized in The Century, one of America’s most prestigious literary magazines at the time, and would be published as a book the next year. Twain was making up to $1,000 (roughly $30,000 in today’s dollars) for a single essay or story and was married to a coal heiress. To top it all off, he owned his own publishing company.
He was also broke and deeply in debt.
For charm, elegance, and sheer ease of reading, few books compare with The Compleat Angler. Only a minority of its millions of readers since the mid-17th century—it has been reprinted more than any book in our language save the Authorized Edition of the Bible—are likely to have been fishing enthusiasts. One reaches for the dialogues of Piscator and Venator not in search of “More Directions how to Fish for, and how to make for the Trout an Artificial Minnow, and Flies,” but because Izaak Walton is a delightful companion whose spirit imbues every page of his book, even those in the posthumous Part II, which was written by his friend Charles Cotton, the bawdy poet and translator of Corneille and Montaigne.