The Greatest Generation, or Thomas W. Higginson lands on Omaha Beach

I appreciate the attention readers here give to what I present, and so I’m going to warn you: this is a longer piece covering some historical topics that have not been as popular here as others. I plan to be back soon with a shorter post and  I promise a love poem set to music. Thanks for your attention and spreading the word about the Parlando Project. I value that!

Today is the anniversary of the WWII allies’ D-Day invasion of Northern Europe, and as each anniversary gets later the tributes to the sacrifices and courage of those who waded onto the beach amid the gun and cannon fire grow more glowing.

As one of America’s diverted poets once said, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” And I say this knowing that this will likely be one of the least-read posts here. The audience for a blog about encounters with poetry and music is not a martial audience by and large. Even a poem like Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  recently presented here—a poem that is about war, though not really about battle or courage or warrior feats—will end up being one of the least noticed, read, liked, and listened to.

I speculatively assign that response—and the lessor response other stark war poems have received—to a number of things: that old battles are yesterday’s newspapers—or as we might say these days, just newspapers; that one of the things we might look for in the arts is a respite from, or at least a beautiful decoration for violent and horrific events. I’m casting no shade on you who have paid with your attention to what we do here for that—or your other judgements on the work we present. After all, I make those judgments myself all the time for my own reasons.

So now, having sincerely bowed to both those who were in the water on June 6th 1944 and you, dear reader and listener, I will diverge.

There is no Greatest Generation,* never was. Too much is assigned to generations, and if widely shared experiences and common events current to lifetimes has some glue to hold an aggregate together, extending “generations” to inner character and intrinsic resources of their membership, virtues and vices conferred merely from birth years is simplistic nonsense that should never be relied on.

I suspect wiser users of the term would correct me and say they do not mean that when they use the term, they mean the great things the WWII generation endured and did. Yes, I join them, there is value in noting that.

But one thing that literature teaches us, by doing its basic trick of letting us experience someone else’s life, is that the good and bad in human character and the challenges brought to bear on us are not unique to time and place. Are the challenges of WWII greater than the challenges of those of the trench soldiers of WWI that this project has featured? Are the privations of the Great Depression, followed by another World War and the following challenges of nuclear peace after great destruction worse than the challenges of 19th century American slavery followed by a Civil War followed by the continuing existence of a continent-wide republic after such trauma?

An Internet discussion mentioning these things often leads to claims and counter-claims of greatest evil: slavery, colonialism (which should include our “internal” American colonialism inflicted on our indigenous population), The Holocaust, Stalinism’s mismanagement, gulags and secret police, Pol Pot, and other evils whose incidental lack of notoriety should give them no cover. I’m sure there are appreciable differences in them, things philosophers could construct evaluative frameworks on. Don’t bother to comment or look for a poll feature to vote on the Greatest Evil or any generation associated with it. This will not be my point.

My point is: you, particularly the younger of those that read this, are the only generation that matters. If I need a silly name for you, a souvenir hat to show that you belong to this, then I’ll swallow my pendant’s pride and call you “The Greatest Generation.”

Do I want my own son, or you, to advance into shore batteries over an open beach or to try to hold Little Round Top without ammunition left? Do I wish it to be necessary to risk mobs, the bullies of privilege, or jail to secure basic freedoms? No, of course not. Nor can I be sure you will figure out what level of forgiveness and generosity vs. justice and retribution will succeed in the peace that all wars fail into. I would rather you figure out how to secure the things warriors were putting their lives in bond for without the war.

So why do I include these poems about war here? Here’s one reason, a personal one: I too often hear that arts and poetry in particular are a trivial activity, the first thing to be dispensed with when “reality” comes to call. And the arts in general, it’s said, aren’t they about vanity? Well, some of those warriors wrote, made and listened to songs. There were readers in foxholes. Call it pleasure, hope or need, some will hold onto poetry and music in any extremis.

And even the arts skeptics give us this: they pull those things out, music and poetry, for the funerals and anniversaries. Can we also realize that some of us hold to these things in life as well?

And here’s the more general reason: reading and listening to literature may remind you that those who pushed forward and those who opposed every good and bad thing are not historical figures, they have no powers or weaknesses because of the year they were born, no more than you do. They lived and died in their Imagist instant, just as you do, weighing duty, possibility, weakness, strength, love, hate, pretense, modesty, anger, resolve, justice and mercy. Seeing, doing, maybe not knowing. Literature shows us that all these things existed in each generation, gives us the evidence of what they feel like, how they exist, side-by-side.

That’s sort of like a poem may be. Those soldiers heading for the beach, like the words alone in a poem could not know fully what they meant. I do not mean by this a romantic claim that art or poetry equals their indominable authorial intent. There’s no measure of their last full measure, something we use art to teach ourselves. And anyway, as a working method our diverted poet settled that issue in his Gettysburg Address too, but chose to do it in his orated poem.

That said, now let me justify the post’s title. I’ve continued to read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s writing this week, particularly his 1899 memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays.  Higginson is mostly known today as a footnote—kind of like the record company guy who passed on signing the Beatles—as the man in publishing who Emily Dickinson reached out to with a handful of poems and who then corresponded with her over a period of years when she was writing her groundbreaking poetry. Why didn’t he know right away what was on offer literature-wise with Dickinson?

I’ll confess I started his memoir in the middle, and I will now go back and read the start. From its “cheerful” title you may not have a good handle on its matter. It’s both breezy and polite and gripping and harrowing, a strange mix. I knew Higginson was (among other things) a slavery Abolitionist, and because of what he calls “The Sisterhood of Reforms” that he was involved in other social movements, including Feminism/Women’s rights. It’s in the middle, where I came in, that I learned about just what kind of Abolitionist he was.

Abolition included Fabian elements that sought to corral this basic evil legally and eventually end it, non-violent radicals and self-described “agitators” who put their lives on the line but would not morally take another’s life, and the “by any means necessary” crowd. The later was were Higginson lived, at least after 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. He was part of (seems to have been a principle in, though he characteristically refrains from claiming leadership) the Boston Vigilance Committee that sought to prevent captured slaves from being returned to their masters as that law required, and he grippingly relates his first hand participation in trying to prevent the last government-assisted attempt in Boston to do that, which includes his plan for a lightning strike by a cadre including himself on the city jail, where the enslaved man was held. The plan counted on an agitated mob in the streets as cover—a crowd who would be motivated to cause a ruckus by his own rable-rousing speech at Faneuil Hall, from where he would dash to the jail to lead the break-in!

Following chapters detail his organizing and gun-running during the “bloody Kansas” guerilla war fought around a plebiscite to decide if the new state would allow slavery, and his joining the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry conspiracy that he says was portrayed to him at first as an armed extension of the Underground Railroad, where a coordinated “jailbreak” of slaves would be accomplished, but which due to lack of funds and organizational ability became what was to be the opening battle in a general slave rebellion which disastrously failed. Particularly in the Brown story, Higginson’s quick-moving/hit the highlights narrative style seems an odd fit with the material. He’s sometimes ambiguous about Brown, and from his vantage point decades after the Civil War and Brown’s execution, he remarks that Brown’s outlook and mental state may have been compromised by Brown’s years in the struggle—but the events say that at the time he was putting himself at risk of felony imprisonment or even a charge of treason with only the surety of his faith in Brown and the necessity of his cause. During much of these activities, Higginson mentions that he was armed, and though he never mentions firing at anyone, presumably he wasn’t carrying pistols for sport.

If your vision when you have read the tale of Higginson in the Dickinson saga is of a rarefied literary critic whose wars were “laid away in books” you’ve understood him too quickly.

When the Civil War breaks out in 1861, the 38-year-old Higginson is raring to serve. He begins working to recruit soldiers almost immediately.* Within a year, he’s tasked with leading the first Afro-American regiment in the U.S. Army, which he takes up gladly.

This explains the oddest part of his rambling, Polonius-like  1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor”  magazine article that is often thought to have inspired Emily Dickinson to write Higginson. Near the end Higginson launches into a discussion of war as a subject for writing and a vocation for writers.

No doubt, war brings out grand and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment.”

This seems like a combination of distain for the difficulties of military command (from a man who had already risked his own life and engaged in concerted acts which led to the death of others) and a bit of a backhanded and Americanized version of “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” line. But at the time this article was published, that was what Higginson was preparing to do. He was heading to South Carolina to take over that regiment of freed slaves.** Read in that knowledge it seems a bit like he’s trying to psych himself up for the task, or that someone has told him those things to convince him to go forward with the commission.

So, the first thing my wife asks when I tell her I’m reading Higginson’s memoir, is one you may be asking too. “Does he mention Emily Dickinson?” In this 1899 memoir, he does not. Due in some part to Higginson himself, the posthumous 1890 original edition of a large chunk of Dickinson poetry was an unexpected, multi-printing success, but this didn’t make Dickinson what she is today: one of the giants of American poetry. The “unexploded bomb” of Emily Dickinson took almost a century to explode slowly. She’s just one author he worked with, and since he knew many of the literary figures of the day, Dickinson wouldn’t be the only notable to mention. He knew Longfellow and Emerson, spent a day with the reclusive Tennyson, all persons of unfathomable fame then.

Suppose a 20th century music figure who knew Bob Dylan, had met all the Beatles, and worked with Stevie Wonder, while also having run with the Weathermen, the Panthers, fought with Che Guevara and was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, was to write a memoir in 1999. How assuredly must there be a paragraph in that imaginary book that started. “Oh, by the way, one time, Joni Mitchell*** wrote me some letters. I wrote back asking if all those open-tunings were really necessary?”

But even without hypothetical metaphors, it does say something about the attention Higginson spent on an unknown woman poet’s poems in 1862. We might say, with hindsight: too little. But with the above context, we may be surprised at the attention he did  pay.

Back to metaphor: instead of taking the usual story of the boneheaded critic and the revolutionary artist, we might ask if someone was training to parachute into occupied France in 1944 to work with partisans,**** why would he care about poetry? Higginson apparently did.

If you’re a buff about 19th Century American history and culture, particularly the Abolitionist circle around Boston, Cheerful Days  is a brisk read and is available in the books section of archive.org. As I mentioned in introducing it, its tone is somewhat incongruous considering the deadly American crisis at its center, but no matter how much Higginson may be trying to shape his story modestly and discretely, it still gives insight to the times. I say that even though if you don’t have a basic understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War if may be confusing to you in places, as Higginson assumes some common knowledge of things his cohort lived through.

 

*Military recruitment at the start of the American Civil War was a much more localized and “free-enterprisey” kind of thing, and his connections with armed slavery resistance and the Kansas war meant he already knew who was ready to take up arms.

**Not yet citizens, not yet even really “freed” as the compromise taken at this point in the war before the Emancipation Proclamation was to treat slaves who crossed the lines as “contraband of war,” a term, however dehumanizing, that prevented them from being returned to their masters.

***I use Joni Michell pointedly here. Like Dickinson, she was considered a niche artist held in limited esteem in the 1990s. and only decades later is she more fully recognized for the level of originality and effectiveness in her work.

****Once more, I’m making a considered point here. Officers of Afro-American troops were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but to be summarily executed by decree of the Confederate government. In his memoir Higginson says he didn’t think they’d really do that.

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The Lamp burns sure

What did Emily Dickinson think about the American Civil War, that great national trauma that occurred during her most productive time as a poet? And what did she think about the great national sin that was the cause of that war, slavery?

Emily Dickinson often writes puzzling poems, compressed like a set of speaker’s reminder notes on an index card. Despite occasional antique words and references to obsolete technology, Dickinson’s poems don’t really seem to dwell in a particular time or have any anchors in a time’s signature events. Instead we are left with the multiple capitalized idealized concepts that in the hands of most poets would doom a poem to vapid incorporeality—but the speed and brio of a Dickinson poem seems like the rush of thoughts, and that and they carry us along. All of this lets us see a remarkable mind thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the conclusions, only the methods by which it tries to reach them.

With many other American poets of her day we can tell what they thought of the Civil War and where they stood on the issues of slavery. Of course, we no longer read most of them, and we continue to read Dickinson. Even though my curiosity about these matters is personal, and in the end it doesn’t significantly change the originality and attraction of Dickinson’s work, I’ve still looked to see what I could find.

Dickinson’s father, Edward, was a politician, a member of the short-lived Whig party, and so there are political stands associated with him. The American Whig party, particularly for northern Whigs, was a “free soil” party. This meant that they did not stand for the abolition of existing slavery but wished to limit any expansion of the practice. Southern slaveholder interests were not content with that as a compromise. In an era when new territories and states were being added to the Union, they feared that they would eventually be too small a minority in a growing United States. In the 19th century before the Civil War, time and again these interests would come into conflict, and it was generally the Whigs who worked out some compromise that put off the Civil War. Edward Dickinson seems to have been an orthodox Whig, he supported those compromises, including voting for one of the last and most fateful of them, the Compromise of 1850 that gave the slave holders a Federal Fugitive Slave Act, giving license for bounty hunters of dubious ethics to haul escaped slaves back to the South (and financial rewards if they over-reached and just grabbed a free black person “by mistake”) and requiring local state authorities to assist in their efforts.

The injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged Afro-Americans and energized abolitionist sentiments. And in the slave states who would secede at the start of the Civil War one of their chief complaints was that the Federal Government wasn’t doing enough to enforce this Fugitive Slave law against individual states that were hampering rather than aiding these “slave catcher” bounty hunters.

The Whig parties balancing act fell off the high wire shortly after that. It essentially split into two parties, the new Republican Party which was more adamant about free soil with no compromises, and eventually became the “party of Lincoln” and slavery’s abolition. The other part was the Constitutional Unionist Party which wanted to continue the Whig-style balancing act. Edward Dickinson seems to have aligned with the Constitutional Unionist faction, which completed the rapidly increasing progression to irrelevance for the Whigs.

On the other hand, both Edward and Emily Dickinson were on friendly terms with those who went the Republican route and even the more radical abolitionist bent. If yesterday’s story of Angeline Palmer might lead you to see a 19th century Massachusetts casting of To Kill a Mockingbird  with Edward as Atticus Finch and the young Emily as Scout, the reality of the Dickinsons is much more ambiguous.

I’ve found various critics and commentators who have sought to answer my questions about what Emily Dickinson thought on these things. Some point to Dickinson poems and have suggested readings of them, but these are most often unconvincing to me. She does have poems mentioning warrior courage, duty and loss, but none of them seem to say anything about the causes or necessity of the pressing war in her time. Even more rare are references to slavery or people of color in the poems.

The Lamp burns sure

Mysterious and burning. Dickinson’s mind by lamplight

 

The poem I use for today’s piece is one of those rare ones. “The Lamp burns sure”  is Dickinson at her most compressed and ambiguous. The poem’s plot is clear enough, an oil lamp whose oil is supplied by slaves or serfs (the poem says both at first, muddying the waters if it’s talking about slavery) runs out of oil because they have stopped filling the reservoir. The lamp’s wick is so busy burning that it doesn’t notice that it’s out of fuel and would in the normal course of events burn itself out shortly. The poem does not proceed to that end however. It leaves us only with the wick’s obliviousness, and then breaking the tie between the oil bringer’s role as being a serf or a slave, leaves us with the final statement that the busily burning wick is also unaware that the oil is out because “the Slave —  is gone.” We don’t get to find out if the lamp is some Hanukkah mystery that will go on burning longer miraculously.

So, what does it mean, if it indeed means one thing? Some read it as a parable of creativity, that we’ll work ourselves past our resources in our passion. A key word there would be “within” indicating some imaginary inner lamp and the slave is just our body and emotional resources.

Some read it as a comment on the base labors that support a civilization that in turn supports arts, science or spiritual pursuits, and in that reading it’s an acknowledgment of the necessity of those labors—take them away, no light! The confusion of serf and slaves is a necessary confusion as it’s talking generally about civilizations.

And then some think, since this is a poem written in 1861 as the Civil War has broken out, and all the slave labor that has supported a large portion of the agricultural economy of the nation is now in question along with that nation itself, that this is not a generalized metaphor. The slave who’s gone, is an American slave, the light is an American light that will burn golden on.

Emily Dickinson's desk

Emily Dickinson’s desk with a whale oil lamp, a little luxury that could extend her writing hours

 

That last one would make it the closest to an Emily Dickinson statement on slavery and the Civil War. As I burn my own midnight oil tonight and I think of Emily Dickinson who wrote at night by the light of an oil lamp, I lean to the first reading. But some other day I might see something else and read it another way. I’d like to be surprised and to find out that Emily Dickinson’s keen and questioning mind could see what only some in her time could see about people of color and slavery, but that might not be the case. But here’s what I do find when I go to the music of that mind: a mind unafraid to be original and like Frederick Douglass in Robert Hayden’s poem, to believe freedom thought to be as needful as a heartbeat. Even if she didn’t free anyone from slavery like Lewis Frazier and his fellow servants in our last post, or agitate and orate like Douglass, I find there’s liberation there that burns sure.

Here’s my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The Lamp burns sure.”  Use the player below to hear it.

 

Angeline Palmer

Here’s a story. You can decide for yourself if it’s a sad or happy one.

It was a spring day in 1840 in a town in rural Massachusetts named Belchertown. For children you might expect that would be a fine day for play, but that’s not what this story is about, though it is about a child, one with a beautiful name: Angeline Palmer.

Angeline was a poor orphan and ten years old. Playtime was not on her mind. About a year back, the town poorhouse in which she’d lived since she was two years old had bonded her out as a servant to a prominent family in Belchertown. The town’s council ran the poorhouse, and Angeline was their ward legally, but such arrangements reduced the cost of running the almshouse.

I can’t be sure what work a nine or ten-year-old servant performed in those days in that place, but of course there were no appliances, and in rural towns there were not even stores stocked with things we might buy to save a household from having to make them. Households then were very labor intensive, so there must have been work for Angeline.

A servant like Angeline might dream of a better life on a spring day. Some would learn trades in household service that would allow them to start their own businesses. Or they might marry and start households of their own, where even if their lot would be the same sort of household work, they’d be servants of their own.

But Angeline wasn’t dreaming of a better life that day. Instead the future looked ominous. The man who owned the house was now staying in Georgia, looking for new business ventures. He had sent his wife all the way to Massachusetts to check on things at his house in Belchertown, and while she was there, a letter arrived. The letter had instructions for raising some money for his new business: ship Angeline Palmer down to Georgia. The letter figured she’d be worth $600 cash sold as a slave there. That’s about $17,000 today.

You see, Angeline Palmer was Afro-American. She was an orphan, poor, a servant—all things that limited her life, but she was free.

Servants in the house heard this letter being discussed, and quickly sent news of it back to the town where Angeline had been born. She had a half-brother there, Lewis Frazier, barely more than a teenager himself, he arranged a delegation to the town’s council, the men who were by law Angeline’s effective parents. The council wouldn’t take action.

Angeline was allowed to return to Amherst to say goodbye before the trip to Georgia and slavery. Her Grandmother was a servant at the home of the town’s postmaster. She asked him what could be done. Alas, the postmaster was the brother-in-law of the wife who’d been sent the letter. Instead of stopping this, he warned the Belchertown people that someone might be trying to stop the shipment of Angeline.

The postmaster worried someone might try to interrupt Angeline’s trip back to Belchertown by the scheduled stagecoach. Figuring they’d try something on the open road, he hired a liveryman to take her back by special wagon over a different route.

The postmaster was right. Angeline’s half-brother and a friend did flag down that stage, and of course Angeline was not on it. Slowly the pair walked back to town, sure that they’d failed.

But the liveryman had a servant too, and he knew the slower roundabout route the liveryman was taking back to Belchertown with Angeline. The town’s butcher loaned the liveryman’s servant a wagon and the now trio of rescuers sped off to Belchertown.

Despite the liveryman’s slow route, Angeline was already there, back in the house where she’d been a servant and from where she’d soon be shipped off to slavery. There was no time to waste, no one left to appeal to. Leaving the other two in the wagon, Lewis Frazier rushed into the house and found Angeline. Those in the house quickly reacted, and locked Angeline and her would-be rescuer in a room.

The other two men who’d raced from Amherst then left the safety of the buggy, ran up the stairs, pushed aside those trying to stop them, opened the door and took Angeline and her half-brother back down the stairs to their borrowed buggy. A crowd was beginning to form. Angeline and the three men didn’t wait to see what they might do, whipping back out of town as fast as their team could pull.

Angeline was secreted out of Amherst to an underground railroad safe house. Lewis Frazier and his two accomplices were arrested and charged. Though they’d stopped the fraudulent theft of a human being who would have been turned into property, who would have been owned along with her offspring, and bought and sold like livestock, the trio was charged with assault and kidnapping. The evil scheme of the man in Georgia was beyond the local court’s jurisdiction, and besides the three men had prevented that crime.

I don’t know how Belchertown looked upon this matter, but some in Amherst seemed to support the rescuers. Amherst’s most prestigious lawyer defended the trio of Afro-American men at the trial. That lawyer’s name was Edward Dickinson. Dickinson had a red-headed daughter, only a year older than Angeline Palmer, and her name was Emily Dickinson, who later would become known as a poet. Despite Dickinson’s efforts, the trio were convicted. They were given a sentence of 3 months, but it would be stayed if they would reveal where Angeline was hiding.

The dutiful trio didn’t take that deal, but the jailer seemed to be another who sympathized with them. While they slept in the jail at night during their sentence, he granted them liberty each day, and it’s said that townsfolk brought them gifts of extra food. The three men gave up some of their liberty for a short time but prevented a life of slavery.

So, what happened to Angeline Palmer? After a decade had passed, she returned to Amherst and married a relative of one of the men who had rescued her. She died, likely in childbirth, a few years after that. That may sound sad, but that was also the ordinary risk of a free woman living a married life in that time. They’d tried to steal her away and make her a slave, but a network of servants and three African-American men who cared for her risked all to prevent it. So, is that a sad story or a happy one?

For today’s audio piece, here’s my reading of Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”  about a man who stole his own freedom. Thanks again to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company.

My chief source for the story of Angeline Palmer is this blog post by Cliff McCarthy of Belchertown. The web site that includes that post has  other stories about Afro-Americans in Emily Dickinson’s time and region.

The player gadget for my reading of “Frederick Douglass”  is below. The text of Hayden’s sonnet for those who wish to read along, is here.

 

Kidnaped

I can’t let February and Black History month go by without another poem, so let’s return to the man who could be said to have established Afro-American poetry in the United States, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Although he lived into the first few years of the 20th century, Dunbar as a poet is fixed in the previous century, and his poetic models are all of that time. He died young, only 33, and who can tell how he would have grappled with the Modernist wave that was starting on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of his death.

While other contemporaries were attending college, racial prejudice and lack of money meant that Dunbar would instead seek to make his way immediately as an author, and that aim shaped his work to meet the needs of the commercial market for poetry then.

He got some bootstrap help from the owner of a bicycle shop in his hometown of Dayton Ohio, a guy named Orville Wright. Orville would later do some preliminary work that eventually led to frequent-flyer miles, but mostly Dunbar had to be good, as the market defined good, and he had to get good fast.

There were no Afro-American models he could look to in this endeavor, but Dunbar could instead use Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the American Fireside Poets associated with him. Longfellow was less than a decade dead when Dunbar started publishing poetry, and Longfellow was no small thing to aspire to—he was one of the best-known and best-selling American authors of his time, regardless of genre.

Dunbar book and pencil note insideDunbar portrait smaller

Pride in Dunbar’s poetry created additional markets. Collections of his poems, as the penciled note in this edition reflects, were sold door-to-door, and portrait photos were produced to demonstrate that American people of color could rise to literary fame.

 

Dunbar’s poem “Kidnapped”  could be the sort of thing the market might be buying, with just an extra touch of wit. It opens with the poet boasting of a carefree heart, but by the next stanza we (and the poet) come upon “Learned Dr. Cupid.” Cupid’s not the usual fat cherub with bow and arrow, but a capitol S “Scientist” with a net. What for? Why, to catch butterflies, which metaphorically and metamorphically the poet and/or his heart can be taken for. And cue tidy ending: this captured heart is “passing sweet.”

Simple.

Wait!

Dunbar could be aiming to produce a tidy innocent love poem that a publication would be glad to pay for and publish—something ready to snip out and share with your valentine—but stop and examine that metaphor. Authoritative Science did what? What’s the term Dunbar uses? “Kidnaped.” He says he’s to take it as “sweet” this happened.

Longfellow wrote impassioned anti-slavery poems, but he didn’t write this poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of two enslaved people did.

As to my music this time, every line resolves up or down to E♭ and I think of it as major key, but that constant return to the key center creates a mood, and the number of minor chords it moves from adds a rub between minor and major. This isn’t conventional western pop-music harmony but give a listen (or two) to it anyway. The player is below.

 

The Quadroon Girl

Remember back a few posts ago when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.

Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.

Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.

Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.

Mpls Longfellow Statue 6!!

This eroded statue of Longfellow stands, missing its hands, in a little visited corner of an otherwise busy Minneapolis park, somehow saying something about how Longfellow is viewed today.

I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.”  I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl”  instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.

I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl”  here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again. The player is below.

The Witnesses

A couple of posts ago as I presented a piece using words by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I mentioned that his prestige has fallen greatly.

How far? His Wikipedia article shares some snark:

Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career…nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”

“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow.”

And Lewis Mumford sums up his significance with a dagger by declaring that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect.

Furthermore, while there’s no modern bon mot to extract from the Wiki, Longfellow’s didacticism, a huge defect if detected in modern poets, is noted. Even during his lifetime, that rankled the Transcendentalists, always looking for the more inexplicable sublime.

Akin to one our Parlando Project principles, Longfellow took the idea of “other people’s stories” to what are now considered ridiculous lengths. Instead of writing of intense internal experiences as Emily Dickinson did, or expanding the fleshy personal into a democratic universal as Whitman did, Longfellow wrote about many cultures and translated poetry from many languages. The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t exist as such then, but Longfellow could easily be charged with it. His best-known epic poem, Hiawatha,  which has left its imprint all over my own region’s place names, is an earnest and non-hateful mishmash of the mid-19th century’s limited knowledge of indigenous Americans mixed with some contemporary to the time German romanticism. Longfellow would be a cultural criminal if he hadn’t already been reduced to a laughingstock.

OK, so what. All of these charges are true, but here’s what they leave out. To say Longfellow was “an American poet” is like saying Elvis Presley was a rock’n’roll singer. He proved that could be a thing, that an “American poet,” could connect successfully with a wide audience. He imitated Europeans and English romantics. Yes. Who the hell else was there to imitate? He wasn’t as original as Dickinson or Whitman. Yes, and neither is most any other poet you could name, now or then. And Mumford’s dagger? Alas, that can be said of most writers, because literature is a vast swarm of similar literary genetic ideas, but if there wasn’t a Longfellow, someone else would have to establish the idea of a popular American poet. That alternate-history someone else might have been good or bad, but it likely would have lead to some difference, even if the difference would be some other writer to rebel against.

I too wish Longfellow had tempered his didacticism, even if that is a large part of what made it possible for him to succeed. Most Victorian poets suffered from this as well, and it’s part of what the Modernists sought to break free from. To the degree that we are now Post-Modern, we can reassess this. Can poetry stand for something and still be art? If that is difficult to do, should it still be attempted?

Today’s piece is an example of Longfellow seeking to instruct, and the charge of cultural appropriation could be leveled at it too. In 1842, as opposition to slavery started to gather force in the United States, Longfellow wrote a short collection of poems on the “issue”—yes, human slavery, for and against, it was a debate. Longfellow explicitly released this collection for publication and distribution in support of the anti-slavery cause.

The Zong Atrocity

The obscenity of human jetsam. I learned about the Zong case only this year while traveling in Britain.

 

“The Witnesses”  is from that collection. In it I think Longfellow transcends propaganda for this noble cause and demonstrates his effectiveness as a poet. He audaciously takes the notorious Middle Passage of over-sea slave shipment as his subject here. Though those travails were not his personal experience, the obscene losses at sea in the shipment of chained-up human beings is portrayed. I chose to further highlight Longfellow’s concluding phrase to all this. “We are the witnesses!” he writes, as the still shackled skeletons speak in his poem—but of course, un-romantically, their remains cannot speak. The poet, the reader, the performer, the listener, are the real witnesses here.

A short note. Wouldn’t you know it, after spending a good part of this year exploring the early 20th Century Modernists, I now have been using 18th and 19th Century sources more this summer. One of my favorite blogs, My Year in 1918 recently noted how I was tackling those WWI-era writers with my musical pieces for her readers who might want to sample that.

Well, I’ll return to those literary Modernists soon. After all, a principle here is to try to mix things up, to not be predictable or to always rely on my established favorites. But even today, I think I’ve been tipping my hat to another key early 20th Century American Modernist. As I was writing and performing the music for “The Witnesses,”  with its variations on folk-style melodies that twisted between strains and finished with a louder cadence that didn’t resolve the multiplicity, I asked myself “Where’d that come from?” Early this morning it occurred to me: the composer Charles Ives, who was working at almost the same time as those literary figures. If he had access to an electric guitar he could have been Frank Zappa.

Once more I’ll break with my usual practice and apologize that I don’t feel I’ve fully realized this audio piece, mostly because it really should be performed with a number of featured voices and a chorus. While my computer and inexpensive collection of “virtual instruments” lets me reasonably realize a large number of instruments, it cannot represent vocal works very well. Go ahead and listen anyway, and if you can listen on speakers instead of earphones, crank the volume a bit.

 

America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.