Bradley Birzer

How Did Kevin J. Anderson Build Your World?

Kevin J. Anderson in 2017. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Have you ever wanted to live in a Rush lyric? Explode a sun? Attack nothingness itself? Download your consciousness into another body? Creep into the mind of Fox Mulder? Solve a mystery with a slowly decaying zombie? Meet Benjamin Franklin? Study the alchemical properties of a steampunk fortune teller? Save Superman from greedy commie thugs? Build a light sabre? Or, ride a sandworm across the desert?

If you possessed the mind and soul of Kevin J. Anderson, you could experience all of these. Thankfully, we do not have to invade Anderson’s mind or soul or any of his personal property to enjoy his outrageous and seemingly unstoppable imagination. After all, he has made a decent career out of sharing his joys and his wonderings. As the author of 140 novels, Anderson has reached the best-selling lists (often at the top) 56 times, and the Congress of the United Mexican States (Mexico) recently honored him with its highest award for creative genius. Other countries and peoples—the Czech Republic, even more recently than Mexico—have also celebrated the author. Like the traditional prophet, only his home country has failed to award him as openly, at least outside of science-fiction circles. Well, except in sales.

I must admit my personal connection to Anderson. I’ve never been shy about my loves. And, among favorite authors, I have long crushed on J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King. Yes, I very much realize I’m not alone in my admiration of these authors. They did not become massive sellers by hating on the public.

More personally, tried my hand at fiction as a high school student and, later, as a graduate student. Writing fiction did not come naturally to me, but through the exercise of creative writing, I came to admire my heroes all the more for their achievements and their perseverance. Coming into adulthood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was also quite curious about the current crop of writers. I started following closely the careers of Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge, J. Michael Straczynski, and Kevin J. Anderson. Especially the latter two. I was not just interested in what they were writing, but how they were approaching the publishing industry itself, especially when they branched into innovative formats such as script writing and comics.

Much, much later in my life, when I arrived in Colorado in the summer of 2014, taking over the Visiting Conservative Scholar position at CU-Boulder from the mighty (and unreproducible) Steve Hayward, I immediately reached out to the state’s two residents I most admired, Simmons and Anderson. Certainly, I wanted to meet my heroes, but I also wanted them to speak for the CU Conservative Thought and Policy program. I had absolutely no idea what the politics of either author was, and, frankly, I didn’t care. I wasn’t inviting either for their political savvy. My later guest, Stephen Moore, could provide that, and wonderfully so. I was asking Simmons and Anderson for their imaginative power. Simmons never responded to me, sadly, but Anderson answered my request within minutes of my invitation.

I quickly found out that he and his wife, the well-known author Rebecca Moesta, were and are as gracious, generous, and charitable with their time and ideas as they are creative. Anderson delivered a brilliant and heartfelt speech on the meaning of perseverance and success. Not surprisingly, the CU audience and donors responded with proper and immense appreciation.

Whether Anderson would put it quite this way or not, I’m not sure, but I can state that his rather inspiring speech that night possessed equal parts ancient Stoicism and Epicureanism, a demand for excellence as a good and true thing in and of itself. Why would anyone, Anderson asked, do anything without doing it fully, completely, and to the absolute best of one’s ability? To do otherwise, would in so many ways, be akin to offering the world a lie or, at the very best, a half truth.

In this as in many other things, Anderson demonstrated how real creativity is something ante, anti, and apolitical, thus demonstrating Russell Kirk’s belief in the 1950s that real conservatism is the negation of ideology, the essence of activism, and the negation of ego. Whatever Anderson’s politics, he knows what must be conserved from our past and what must be reformed, sometimes radically so, for our future. In all things, whether speaking or writing, Anderson is nothing if not deeply humane.

Since speaking at CU, Anderson has earned his MFA in creative writing, despite having already outsold every creative professor in the United States combined. I like to think that his visit to CU inspired him to earn this degree, but I’m not going to ask. As with his politics, I like some things about my heroes to remain a mystery!

Anderson’s (b. 1962) route to publishing success proved rather direct, though not without innumerable rejections and struggles. Beginning at age eight in small-town Wisconsin, he knew he wanted to tell stories, and he never stopped. He purchased a typewriter at age ten and taught himself to type. After college and a job in the PR-department of a vast government agency, he published his first novel, Resurrection, Inc., a novel inspired by his love of Rush’s 1984 album, Grace Under Pressure. The novel not only garnered nominations for awards, but it also, much more importantly, earned the respect of the notorious perfectionist, lyricist, and drummer of Rush, Neil Peart. The two became close friends as well as co-authors and world builders.

Since writing Resurrection, Inc., Anderson has written novels, short stories, graphic novels, comic books, screenplays, encyclopedias, and almost everything else in the publishing industry. In asking about his success, he’s quite frank. First, he argues, never, under any circumstances, turn down an opportunity to publish a book, article, or any contribution. Second, always meet your deadline. Anderson credits these two rules with much of what he’s so brilliantly accomplished.

As though endowed with supernatural energy, Anderson’s success does not end here, however. Aware of changes in the publishing and print industry due to the Internet, Anderson and Moesta founded WordFire Press long before mainstream publishers understood the massive changes in the industry. Smartly, they have cultivated a number of budding as well as established authors, purchased the exclusive rights to the literary estate of notables such as Allen Drury, and allied with much more established presses which have benefited greatly from Anderson and Moesta’s entrepreneurial tenacity.

Following their success as publishers, Anderson and Moesta have also taught an entirely new generation of writers and publishers through a series of seminars founded in 2010—Superstars Writing Seminars—featuring best-selling authors, agents, graphic and web designers, and established publishers. Never ones to seek conformity, the pair use these seminars to teach budding writers the basics of the industry and the profession, but they do so by leavening the talent within those attending, not stamping their own personalities upon them. The power couple even raise scholarship money for those unable to pay their way.

It would be hard to describe Kevin J. Anderson as anything other than a nexus. Everyone who knows him thinks he is as brilliant and kind. When asked about his role in the publishing industry, science-fiction author, Nathan Dodge, responds with what most who know Anderson would say about him:

“I consider Kevin a genuine friend, as, I’m sure, do hundreds of other authors whom he has started on their way. The amazing thing about Kevin is that as great a writer and motivator as he is, he’s also a really nice guy. I try to get together with him for lunch (or dinner) each summer . . . I always look forward to that get-together with great anticipation.”

For those who have yet to experience the pleasure of Anderson’s fiction, it might seem a bit daunting and overwhelming to begin. Over the last several months, Anderson has just published three volumes of his short stories, simply called Selected Stories (science fiction; fantasy; and horror and dark fantasy; with a fourth volume soon to be released). These are each delights. Anderson has not only curated his own stories, but he also annotated each one with autobiographical details as well as the story’s connection to larger universes he’s created. There’s not a dud among them and they offer a great jumping-off point for anyone who wants to know Anderson’s fiction.

For those willing to take the plunge, there’s Andersons’s vast and bountiful Saga of the Seven Suns and the even more intriguing and immersive follow-up, Saga of the Shadows. Taking place over ten novels, several short stories and novellas, and even a graphic novel, nothing in current science fiction even compares except for the fantasy worlds of Brandon Sanderson. In terms of world building, however, no one has rivaled Anderson since Tolkien began his mythology in the 1910s. High praise, to be sure, but high praise well earned and well deserved.

I have no hesitation in suggesting you pick up one of Anderson’s stories in 2019. You might just find 2020 arriving faster than you’d thought possible.

A huge thanks to Nathan Dodge and Raymond Bolton for their kind responses and help with this piece.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 

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The Brilliant and Profoundly Catholic Daredevil

Courtesy of Netflix

On November 28, Netflix canceled Daredevil—not only one of the two best shows on its streaming service, but the single best thing currently on the screen, big or small. Netflix announced its decision only two weeks after Daredevil’s show runner had outlined the fourth season of the series.

“We are tremendously proud of the show’s last and final season and although it’s painful for the fans, we feel it best to close this chapter on a high note,” Netflix explained. “We’re thankful to our partners at Marvel, showrunner Erik Oleson, the show’s writers, stellar crew and incredible cast including Charlie Cox as Daredevil himself, and we’re grateful to the fans who have supported the show over the years. While the series on Netflix has ended, the three existing seasons will remain on the service for years to come, while the Daredevil character will live on in future projects for Marvel.”

With those words, the single most positive portrayal of the Catholic Church in our present culture came to a sudden end. Even if Marvel decides to go with another outlet, it will most likely do so with a whole new cast and crew. If nothing else, it’s a timely reminder that excellence is always fleeting in this fallen world.

♦♦♦

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”

“Perhaps it would be easier if you’d tell me what you’ve done.”

“I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”

Moments later, Matthew Murdock, masked in ninja attire, beats the stuffing out of an entire gang of sex slavers, freeing a number of captive women. Those are the opening few minutes of Netflix’s season one, episode one of Daredevil. It’s intense, brutal, and just.

A child left blind by an act of charity and parentless after a mob hit on his father, Matthew Murdock grows up in a Catholic orphanage in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. Eventually earning a law degree at Columbia University, he eschews corporate America and employs his legal skills to aid the poor through his small-time firm, Nelson and Murdock. Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, his best friend and law partner, aspires to make something of himself (meaning get rich), but Murdock’s charisma and friendship brings out his best.

True to superhero convention, Murdock did not merely lose his sight. He unwittingly traded his normal eyesight for finely honed perceptions in his four remaining senses as well as superior resistance to pain and heightened acrobatic agility. When asked if he “sees,” he replies, and I’m paraphrasing, “somewhat but as though the world is on fire.” When the viewer gets a brief glimpse of what Murdock “sees,” we immediately recognize a medieval vision of the angelic, the sainted, and the holy. Halos appear everywhere.

Throughout the first three seasons of the series, a number of broken people come and go. Karen Page, an aspiring journalist with all the baggage of a broken home, seems at first like a damsel in distress, but she reveals a developed sense of perseverance and intelligence beyond almost any other character in television. Foggy, though bumbling, always knows how to break the tension and bring all things back to perspective. Father Lantom, Matt’s confessor, stands by Matt no matter the cost. A man’s man, Lantom is a refreshingly honest priest—so rarely seen in Hollywood or on the news—who loves to drink and play pool. He’s known Matt since his childhood, raising him as a son in his orphanage. He knows exactly what Murdock does at night in the back alleys of Hell’s Kitchen and recognizes him for what he is—a saint and defender of the poor.

Other allies emerge when necessary. A nurse, Claire Temple (okay, that one’s a bit on the nose), patches up Matt when necessary, as does a nun, Sister Maggie (Magdalene—again, some obvious Catholic symbolism). An old flame, the Asian-Greek Elektra Natchios, complicates Murdock’s life with her support, sexual temptation, and heroic distraction. Murdock, for his part, would do anything to bring her to salvation, but such a commitment will exact a huge toll.

Even Daredevil’s main villain, Wilson Fisk (Kingpin), fascinates the viewer. Plagued by extreme emotions and control issues, Kingpin wants to dominate everything and everyone around him. His deeply intelligent and passionate evil is believable and thus utterly horrifying. He has become—at least in Hell’s Kitchen—a small god, able to see the moves on the chessboard six, seven, and eight turns ahead, outwitting almost everyone around him. And those he can’t outwit he murders.

Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby first created Daredevil at the beginning of the golden age of Marvel Comics in 1964. Until the late 1970s, though, he remained a second- or third-rate character, usually supporting others, especially Spider-Man. Then Frank Miller took over the art and then the writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s (and, briefly, in the early 1990s). Miller is constitutionally incapable of producing anything but absolute excellence, and his runs on the character raised Daredevil to the top tier of all Marvel and, indeed, all comic book characters. One might readily combine the holy vengeance of Dirty Harry with the social justice of Dorothy Day when looking at Miller’s Daredevil. His only competitor in the world of comics is DC’s Batman.

Sadly, two major movies starring an effete and cheesy Ben Affleck (Daredevil) and a beautiful Jennifer Garner (Elektra) attempted to put Miller’s characterizations on the big screen. They failed and, in their failure, they put the cinematic future of Daredevil in doubt.

With both the massive success of the Marvel universe in cinema and the rise of Netflix, however, Disney (Marvel’s parent company) allowed for the creation of the Marvel TV universe—all centered around New York and several ground-based characters (as opposed to the heroes who fight cosmic battles such as Thor and Captain America). These include Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, the Iron Fist, and the Punisher. All of them cross repeatedly into the shows of the others, with the mini-series The Defenders explaining their connections to one another. One need not watch them all, however, to enjoy Daredevil. The first two seasons are stories in and of themselves, and season three takes place a few months after the collapse of a massive complex during the series finale of The Defenders.

When the third and final season begins, Murdock wakes up to find himself in the care of the priest and the nuns who had raised him. He, however, has lost his faith. He does not so much fail to believe in God as become convinced that God is a god who manipulates us as puppets for His entertainment. Murdock, who knows his Bible and catechism well, sees only the God who allowed the torture of Job. His loss of faith affects all around him—his neighborhood, his friends, his priest, his nuns, his parish, and even his enemies.

Throughout the third season—only recently released—Murdock’s loss of faith demands the sacrifice of a number of his closest allies, all of whom believe in him, to bring him back to redemption. There’s even a “murder in the cathedral” moment as one of Daredevil’s closet and most trusted allies dies in the name of Murdock’s faith. Throughout the show, people confess, they pray, they talk theology, and they attend Mass. None of it—praise the Good Lord—is forced. The writers, directors, and actors have made it as believable, as complex, and as appealing as life itself.

At this point, let me throw the gauntlet down. Not only is season three of Daredevil the best of the show’s three seasons, it is the best thing to appear on any screen since season one of Stranger Things, and, before that, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.

There are a number of things that make this series and story so compelling. First, every person involved brings her or his absolute best to the show. There’s nothing cheesy about any of this. It’s deadly serious, and the result is a serious work of art. Second, Daredevil as a show never dumbs itself down. It writes for those who care deeply about this world and the next. Third, it allows the art to linger. When a conversation needs 10 minutes, the show gives the characters 10 minutes. There are few of the one-liners or cute quips that so many shows and movies have devolved into, appealing to the tapioca-brain dead mass of those demanding to be entertained.

There are also few sharp camera cuts. Indeed, the 11-minute fight scene during Matthew Murdock’s escape from a prison in episode four of season three is the single finest of its type that this writer has ever witnessed, rivaled only by the failed bank robbery in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Fans will gush over this and directors will study its 11 minutes for years to come.

Even Murdock’s fighting style is fascinating. He has combined the Irish boxing techniques of his father with a variety of Asian and Asiatic martial arts. When he fights, he fights close. Murdock, it turns out, can only be punched and bruised and cut for so long. Whatever his supernatural powers, invulnerability is not among them.

The Catholicism of Daredevil’s three seasons is not velvet piety of EWTN. Rather, it is gritty, complex, and heroic. There’s nothing that Father Lantom or the nuns do that makes the viewer cringe in embarrassment. This is the genuine Catholicism of the Jesuits entering North America, not the voluptuousness of early 19th-century Vatican Romanitas. Given all that is happening in the Catholic Church at the moment—the corruption, the scandals, the lies, the manipulations, the accusations among much of the clergy and hierarchy—Daredevil demonstrates what a real Catholic does in the face of adversity. He fights, he struggles, and he fights some more. When he questions his faith and goes through “the dark night of the soul,” his friends intervene and pick him back up.

I would love to rage at Netflix for canceling this spectacular series. Yet as my wonderfully Catholic grandmother would tell me, let’s just be glad it ever existed at all. Amen.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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Batman at His Gritty and Virtuous Best

Batman:The Animated Series (Warner Bros./You Tube/Screen Grab)

Editor’s Note: Today is #GivingTuesday, and we at TAC rely on the generosity of our readers. If you’d like to support our efforts to advance a more peaceful, humble, “Main Street” conservatism, please consider joining us by making a year-end gift here. Thank you!

Batman: The Complete Animated Series (Deluxe Limited Edition, Blu-ray, Warner Brothers, 2018) by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, 109 episodes; 2 feature-length movies; documentaries; and commentaries

Though all of us have watched Christopher Nolan revolutionize Bruce Wayne and Batman, leavening the character to near-cinematic perfection in the Dark Knight trilogy, previous generations were not so fortunate.

Indeed, prior to 1992, no Batman portrayed onscreen, small or silver, had done the character justice. In the 1960s, Adam West’s Batman was painfully campy, though sensationally if briefly faddish. Hanna Barbera’s Saturday morning Batman proved one-dimensionally unattractive, yet another piece to move on a flat tableau of bland storytelling. Even Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns of the late 1980s and early 1990s were carnival-esque and surrealistically exaggerated, revolving around a deco world more Joseph Stalinist than Calvin Coolidge.

Conceived by Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Mitch Brian, Batman: The Animated Series (B:TAS) brought something radically and profoundly new to the character. Unlike previous incarnations, this Batman was moody, brooding, violent, conflicted, driven, and heroic from his opening moments. He did not carry shark spray, dance with go-go girls, crack one-liners, dress down Robin in moral tones, drive the Batmobile through the express window at the local fast food joint, or hire artists formerly known as Prince to write theme music.

Instead, he applied his many finely honed and inherited skills to saving his metropolis from near-certain doom. Though B:TAS drew much of its character inspiration from Frank Miller’s then-recently published graphic novel masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, it drew even more upon the Batman as re-conceived in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Denny O’Neil, Len Wein, and Neal Adams. Their Batman—remembered as the Bronze Age Batman—was first and foremost a detective in the noir and gothic traditions, searching alleys, apartments, and graveyards. As with many of the best storytellers of the last half century, Timm also found much to love in the pulps of the first half of the 20th century, especially in Doc Savage and The Shadow.

B:TAS also took inspiration from the extravagant animation of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the pre-World War II era. Additionally, the new team behind B:TAS innovated in terms of animation standards by drawing tenebrous and complex backgrounds on black paper using colored pencils, thus adding a gloomy but perfectly hued moody quality to the deco gothic of Gotham and surroundings. Self-taught, Timm’s characters are triangular in shape and fluid in motion. Along with Radomski’s backdrops, B:TAS’s animation—coming just before CGI became widespread and affordable—reveals just how much good and beauty can be accomplished by the human hand, free of pre-programmed algorithms and standardized color palettes. The team called this new design “dark deco.”

B:TAS also added theater cards at the beginning of every episode, giving each 22-minute story a classic and classy atmosphere all its own. “Going with the overall retro-forties feel we were giving the show,” Radomski remembered, “we wanted to treat the episodes as mini-movies. The title cards allowed us to create great drama in a very subtle fashion.” Each card provides a Hitchcockian feel.

Equally important to these fine touches, B:TAS takes place in a timeless world where all the decades of the 20th century seem to have run together not in chaos but in continuity. The cars and attire appear to reflect the 1940s, while much of the technology—such as computing, chemistry, and genetics—comes out of the 1990s. Massive gray blimps patrol Gotham by day and night, and automobile tires still sport white walls. Somehow the temporal jags and displacements all work together in harmony, presenting an imagined universe as coherent as any other in fiction.

When it came to voice actors as well as music and soundtrack, B:TAS spared no costs. While most of the music was written and performed by the now-sadly deceased classical composer Shirley Walker, well-known stage and movie actors such as Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Efrem Zimbalist, Robert Hastings, Brock Peters, Adrienne Barbeau, David Warner, Melissa Gilbert, Michael Ansara, and Roddy McDowell served as the characters. To this day, many argue that Conroy’s Batman and Hamill’s The Joker are the definitive versions of each. Though entrusted with this world when still quite young, Timm, Radomski, and Brian sought quality and artistry above everything else, and their attention pays off in every line of dialogue and every scene of the series.

Most tellingly, though, B:TAS refused to compromise when it came to storytelling and heroic virtue. B:TAS’s Batman is a wonderfully intense and serious Batman, dedicating himself fully and somewhat obsessively to bettering the world of American urban grit, crime, and terror. Significantly, he is first and foremost a vigilante, though one with a strong moral and ethical set of self-imposed rules and limitations. He never kills, though he does terrorize when necessary. “Batman does not work directly with the police. He’s not a member of the force or a deputized agent,” the series’ bible insists. Rather he’s “on a one-man fight against crime.”

While a billionaire, as in the traditional telling of the Batman story, Wayne is more concerned with technique and the art of deception than he is with endless gadgets. He has honed his abilities—in fighting and in perception—to the height of human capability. Gotham as a whole never knows exactly what to make of Batman, unsure of his intentions and his methods, viewing him as neither a patron saint nor a guardian angel.

Equally critical, the villains in B:TAS represent evil, not mere wrongdoing. “Our stories will be hard-edged crime dramas with villains who play for keeps,” says the series’ bible, which describes the bad guys as “wild, dark, and sinister.” Yet, importantly, the writers never made the bad guys absurdly evil. Instead, the best of the B:TAS writers, such as Paul Dini, recognized the necessity of endowing motivation as well as depth to each. “I think the villains are really consumed with personal pain and that pain sort of stimulates a sense of the theatrical and wicked in them,” he told an interviewer.

Though the B:TAS team ultimately made three standalone movies to accompany the series, the recently released deluxe set strangely only includes two of them: The Mask of the Phantasm and Subzero. Missing is the very well done Mystery of the Batwoman (2003), as well as Return of the Joker (2000), which is more tied to the offshoot series Batman Beyond. While both movies are excellent, The Mask of the Phantasm is the better of the two. Many fans believe it to be the best Batman story ever brought to the screen.

Within the B:TAS universe, The Mask of the Phantasm explains the origins of Wayne’s desire to become the Batman, including his first flawed runs as a black-suited ninja. Even more impressively, Wayne finds himself in love for the first time in his life. The feeling of happiness, not surprisingly, confuses him, and he finds himself torn between what he perceives to be his duty to his parents and what he might commit to with his newfound love interest, Andrea Beaumont. “I didn’t count on being happy,” he laments over the grave of his parents. Andrea, however, is more complicated than he or the audience first realize. Truly, the mask is a phantasm and the phantasm is a mask. Amidst Wayne’s struggles run mobsters, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, questions of societal progress and regress, and, of course, the chaos of the Joker. Wayne ultimately succumbs to becoming the Batman, though not without regrets. “Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce,” his mentor and guardian Alfred Pennyworth cautions him. “I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in, and I thank heaven for that.”

When Warner Brothers first previewed The Mask of the Phantasm in 1993, though slated to be a direct-to-video release, the company was so impressed that it released a quickly edited film in movie theaters across the U.S. on Christmas Day. However hastily distributed, The Mask of the Phantasm earned as much as it cost in its theatrical release. It has since appeared in DVD and Blu-ray formats, and has probably earned the company a very tidy sum. After all, the movie has become a cult classic and not just to superhero fans. One hip Austin company and gallery, Mondo, has even sponsored high-end art inspired by the movie. Some of its artwork is simply stunning. To celebrate the release of the new deluxe edition Blu-ray set, Warner Brothers again released a remastered version (the one found in this set) to theaters for a one-day-only viewing on November 12.

As to the new deluxe Blu-ray set, the audio and visual quality of the remastered shows is simply stunning. In no way would one believe that the first episodes originally appeared in September 1992. All of the cell debris and dust (typical for any pre-CGI animated show) has been cleaned, and the visual quality is crisp, with the new sound equally so.

Warner Brothers released close to 70,000 of these deluxe sets, so they’re not as precious and rare as the title would suggest. They also come with some lenticular cards, a heavy cardboard storage packet for the disks, and a few tiny Funko action figures.

Aside from the missing movie Mystery of the Batwoman, the outer packaging is a sorry box thing made of a thin cardboard material with a slight coating of wax. Mine arrived ripped and crumpled. It’s so poorly constructed that I decided to keep the whole thing, as any replacement would be just as nastily constructed. One other complaint. The deluxe package comes with the downloads, too. But be warned, the only downloads are the episodes themselves, absent of all special features, commentaries, documentaries, etc. Frankly, this is a form of fraud. But who is going to complain enough for Warner Brothers to make good? Oh well. I’m willing to put up with a few missing things, some ratty packaging, and some false advertising when it comes to Batman.

“I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman.” Well, even a 51-year old man can dream.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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Socialists and Fascists Have Always Been Kissing Cousins

Wikimedia Commons/public domain

In 1939, the same year the Germans and the Russians mutually consented to rape Poland, T.S. Eliot rather famously (or, I suppose for some, infamously) declared: “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God), you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” Eliot, of course, could not have been more correct. In 1936, you had three choices: National Socialism, international socialism, or dignity.

In 2018, we find ourselves in similar circumstances, even if they aren’t quite as clear cut as they were in 1936.

Of all the disturbing developments in culture and ideas over the last several years—including violence against legitimate authority, violence against the average citizen, and violence against the very ideas that undergird the West—few have been more disturbing than the reemergence of communism and socialism.  

Why is this happening now, as much of Western civilization lingers in its twilight state? Most likely, it has to do with three critical things. First, we scholars have failed to convince the public of just how wicked all forms of communism were and remain. Most historians have focused their research and teaching on how “liberated” every form of eccentricity has become and how—in terms of race and gender—victims remain victims. Almost all historians ignore the most salient fact of the 20th century: that governments murdered more than 200 million innocents, the largest massacre in the history of the world. Terror reigned in the killing fields, the Holocaust camps, and the gulags.

Second, an entire generation has grown up never knowing such things as the Soviet gulags or even the Berlin Wall. Indeed, it’s been more than a full generation since communism existentially threatened sustained violence on a global scale. With America currently at the height of her power (militarily and economically, not spiritually or ethically), we are the bad guys of the world, if for no other reason than we stand—for the most part—above and alone.

Third, the five nations that remain officially communist—Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea and mainland China—seem to be relentlessly backward, mad, or capitalist. No one thinks about the first three countries anymore. North Korea looks like a loony bin. China seems more bent on profit and power more than anything it might profess officially.

Equally disturbing is that most younger defenders of communism buy into the oldest propaganda line of the Left—that real communism has never been tried and fascism is the polar opposite of communism. That the Nazis were actually “National Socialists,” these apologists argue, was merely a cynical ploy on the part of Hitler to gain the support of the working and middle classes of Germany. The term “socialism” meant nothing to Hitler. He was really a supporter of controlled corporate capitalism, not of the beautiful and compelling idea of socialism. Many of these young communism supporters go so far as to argue that those who label the Nazis “National Socialists” are either ignorant or willfully smearing a good word. While these new supporters have yet to proclaim those who call Nazis socialists as racists, they are coming close. A quick look at the social media response to a British conservative’s recent claim that National Socialism was—surprise!—socialist should be proof enough that communism is hardly dead and gone.

The young communists are more than convinced of their intellectual as well as their moral superiority. With dread certainty, they bully anyone who believes differently than they do. In other words, the Left is back and in full force, up to the same deceptions and tricks as it was in the 1920s and after.

That the National Socialists embraced socialism is factually accurate. Though they did not nationalize to the extent the Leninists wanted, they did nationalize very vital industry in Germany, even if by outright intimidation rather than through the law. In his personal diaries, Joseph Goebbels wrote in late 1925: “It would be better for us to end our existence under Bolshevism than to endure slavery under capitalism.” Only a few months later, he continued, “I think it is terrible that we and the Communists are bashing in each other’s heads.” Whatever the state of the rivalry between the two camps, Goebbels claimed, the two forces should ally and conquer. He even reached out to a communist in a personal letter: “We are not really enemies,” he offered.

Hitler admired Stalin, and the two willingly carved up Poland in 1939. One SS division named itself after Florian Geyer, a Marxist hero promoted by Frederick Engels in The Peasant War in Germany. Hitler actively recruited communists into the National Socialist movement, believing they were far more malleable than Christians.

The Italian fascists had even closer ties to the Marxists, with Mussolini having begun his career as a Marxist publicist and writer. A few Italian fascists even held positions in the Comintern. The only serious divide between the Italian fascists (or those who would become fascists) and Italian communists in the 1910s was their support, or not, of Italy’s participation in World War I.

In the West, one of the first to recognize these vital connections was none other than Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian turned Englishman. Nationalism is nothing “but a twin brother of socialism,” he proclaimed in a 1945 speech in Dublin.

In his profound work Reflections on a Ravaged Century, Robert Conquest labeled all forms of totalitarian socialism a type of “mindslaughter.” Fascism and communism share much in common, he argued. First, the two ideologies came from identical origins in 19th-century thought. Second, both celebrated the peasant revolts of the 1500s as foreshadowing 20th-century uprisings. Third, both claimed to speak in the name of “the people” and “the masses.” Fourth, both embraced a variety of social sciences and pseudosciences from the 19th century, though the Marxists did it with more finesse. Fifth, both claimed to be progressing humanity toward some end goal. And, finally, both accepted moral nihilism.

In his fascinating work The Faces of Janus, A. James Gregor convincingly argues that the rival claim for power in 1922 in Italy inaugurated a propaganda war between these two factions that lasted—at least rhetorically—to this day. “The enmities bred by the dispute,” Gregory writes, “ultimately reached such intensity that Marxists of whatever variety and nationality refused to acknowledge the heretical Marxist origins of the first Fascism.” From this point forward, Marxists began to write of fascists as “reactionary,” as “right-wing,” and as part of the last stages of capitalism. The debates among Marxists over fascism raged between 1922 and 1935 until the Communist International finally declared fascism to be the result of the economic downturn of the previous decade, “the sharp accentuation of the general crisis of capitalism.” As such, the communists officially defined fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist elements of finance capitalism.”

Since 1935, of course, fascism has become such a catch-all term for anything evil that it’s now a hollow thing, full of fury but devoid of substance. In addition to Gregor and Conquest, scholars and writers such as Sheldon Richman and Robert Higgs have done their very best (and their best is extraordinary) to define fascism properly. In general, though, their appeals to intellect and understanding have failed, falling only as pearls among the passionate swine.

Just as T.S. Eliot saw in Hitler and Stalin two sides of the same coin, so too did his close friend and ally, Christopher Dawson. In one of Dawson’s finest pieces, written in the immediate aftermath of the World War II, “The Left-Right Fallacy” (published in The Catholic Mind), Dawson rightly noted that there is no left and no right; there is only man and anti-man. That is, the divide is not horizontal but vertical. “The tactics of totalitarianism,” he wrote, “are to weld every difference of opinion and tradition and every conflict of economic interests into an absolute ideological opposition which disintegrates society into hostile factions bent on destroying one another.” The so-called and false divisions between a left and right, then, are “a perfect god-send to the forces of destruction.” Such a sophomoric notion of left and right becomes a blunt weapon, used to beat any and all opposition, while in actuality separating the human person from the human person, clothing each not in glory but in wretched rags of chaos and deceit. The results, Dawson realized, could only be confusion, disintegration, degradation, violence, inhumanity, hatred, and suspicion, disgracing even “a tribe of cannibals.”

This brings us back to Eliot in the 1930s. Not only did he see Stalin and Hitler as intellectual allies, not enemies, he recognized how reliant communism and fascism were on traditional religion—at least in their very heretical perversions. From T.S. Eliot’s “The Rock”:

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before:

though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.

Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before

That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,

And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.

The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do

But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards

In an age which advances progressively backwards?

Sadly, the age that advances progressively backwards has not halted. Indeed, over the last several years, it has advanced backwards rather quickly, suddenly, and, fearfully, without end.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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God Bless You, Frank Miller

Comics writer/artist Frank Miller during an appearance at Midtown Comics Downtown September 17, 2016, the third annual Batman Day.Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Frank Miller raged.

He stood naked at the edge of the skyscraper. The streets lay far below him. A frozen explosion of steel and glass burst in flight to the sky over the motionless traffic. The traffic seemed immovable, the steel and glass flowing. The steel and glass had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion.  The steel and glass glowed, wet with sunrays.

(with apologies to Miss Rand and the writers of the Christian Gospels)

There is no doubting that the attack on the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001 fundamentally shaped one of the greatest and most innovative artists of the last half century, Frank Miller.

Though his name might not be instantly recognizable to many readers of The American Conservative, his shadow hangs over much of popular culture, enigma though he might be.  Films, novels, and television shows—directly and indirectly—reveal daily his vast imprint on American culture.  While many book sellers and critics do not consider graphic novels serious literature, his 1986 work, The Dark Knight Returns, has sold over three million copies, making it a continuous best seller since its initial publication. Even Miller himself despises the term “graphic novel,” believing it sound too much like something risqué. Still, there’s no denying its success and importance.  Miller believes that writers, artists, and readers should embrace the “graphic novel” for what it is: a comic book, plain and simple.

Frank Miller is to comics and film what Neil Peart is to rock and what Camille Paglia is to academia. He is nothing less than himself.  Always and everywhere, he is purely Frank Miller. It seems, he could be nothing other than Frank Miller. If he changes, he can only become even more Frank Miller. On September 11, 2001, however, Frank Miller became more fully Frank Miller.

Those of us not on the political and cultural Left should celebrate him as a radical and unreconstructed individualist, the kind that only North America seems capable of producing in the post-modern world, a man never afraid to voice his views, whether commensurate with the bullying and mindless nightmares of the mob or not.

The Emerging Talent

Born in 1957 to Irish-American Roman Catholics, Miller grew up in Vermont, one of seven children.  From about age five, he fell head over heels in love with comics, and his parents encouraged and nurtured this passion. At times, he found his early adult careers on the edge of derailment. Finishing high school because of the advice of his parents, Miller tried his hand at janitorial work, at transporting goods in trucking, and at driving buses.  Every boss he had prior to entering the field of comics fired him.

In the late 1970s, as he lost job after job, he began to study with the then-best artist in the comic world, Neal Adams. After working at Gold Key comics and on lesser-known titles at DC, Miller moved to Marvel and soon took over the then nearly-defunct character, Daredevil. Much to the surprise of all at Marvel and in the comic world, Miller wrote what is now considered the definitive Daredevil, an anguished and blind Matt Murdock who regularly seeks the sacrament of Confession, confiding in his parish priest, as he wonders just how far he can fight in the name of vigilante justice.  With Miller as writer, Daredevil went from being relatively obscure to being one of Marvel’s finest, most nuanced, and popular comics. After working on his independent cyberpunk comic and hero for DC, Ronin, Miller then moved to Batman. Miller not only revived the then-failing character but, along with Alan Moore and his The Watchman, but revitalized the entire comic industry, then on the edge of bankruptcy.

An avowed gnostic, a Leftist, and a seemingly particular person, Alan Moore soon left the industry in boredom and disgust, but Miller stuck with it. A monumentally determined perfectionist, Miller kept his politics much closer to his chest than had Moore, though his quietly expressed views almost always embraced a kind of Goldwater libertarianism.  Trying to improve his writing, Miller also read and studied like mad. Not surprisingly, he has read everything from Dashiell Hammett to Robert Heinlein to Christopher Lasch, and he has studied Japanese and European comic styles. Restless and curious to the nth-degree, he became an amateur anthropologist as he traveled throughout Asia and the Near east, observing everything from cultural norms to speech patterns to the shades of light hitting the landscape.

His reading and traveling, combined with his love of cinema, seeing everything from Hitchcock to Dirty Harry, Miller honed his own art—in drawing and writing—to write modern myth, centering around the hero and anti-hero, around good and evil, and around beauty and chaos.

If understood properly, Miller persuasively argued, heroes bring us back to first principles of “right and wrong.”

“I love heroes, I believe in heroism. I also adore fantasy, and so I’m drawn back to these superheroes,” Miller explained in October 2016. “Their mythology is open to infinite expansion, and the basic myth is irresistible. They got so much right in that first Superman movie, down to the tagline “you’ll believe a man can fly. That’s our job.”

His explicit goal has always been “to do heroic adventures without compromise.”  Too much of modern culture, he complains in the vein of Russell Kirk and C. Wright Mills, has become nothing but conformist drivel, with movies, television shows, and comic books serving the public at large as heavy “sedatives.” Instead, we need the Batmans and Dirty Harry’s to bring the “wrath of God” down upon the murderers, rapists, and tyrants of the world. The world desperately needs morality, order, and myth.

With his trademark fedora, open jacket, t-shirt, and scruffy white beard, Miller might look almost as unpleasant as Alan Moore really is. But, watch an interview with Miller and you’ll find he’s about the nicest guy in the world.

Unforgivable

On the tenth anniversary of 911, Miller did something unforgivable to the politically correct mafia as well as to the state of Iran (which condemned him, he proudly reminds us).  He published a graphic novel, Holy Terror, in which the bad guys are Islamic fundamentalists.  The first release of the then-fledgling company, Legendary Comics, a subsidiary of Legendary Pictures, Holy Terror horrified most of the media, formal and social.  In the press release that launched the book, though, Miller’s editor, Bob Schreck wrote: “It has been my extreme pleasure and honor to have worked so closely with Frank for over 20 years now.”  The new graphic novel, Holy Terror “finds Frank at the top of his game. A fast paced, biting commentary on our uncertain and volatile times, told with some of the most gut-wrenching, iconic images he’s ever produced.”

Schreck, though, stood affront a tidal wave of epic proportions. Wired called it “one of the most appalling, offensive, and vindictive comics of all time,” a product of “9/11 decadence” a “horror” of America’s “carefully nurtured grievance.” ThinkProgress claimed that Miller was “viciously Islamophobic” and took pleasure in the “sexualization of torture.” Others called it a “mean and ugly book,” “sickening,” a book about “rage-aholics with a limited vocabulary,” “fodder for the Anti-Islam set,” a “revenge fantasy” of a person who has removed himself “from reality,” and a “sloppy, arrogant work by an arrogant bastard.” Even Miller’s hero and mentor, Neal Adams, claimed—without details of how and where—that Miller had allowed his work to consume him, claiming Miller had become “white trash.”

In the year following the book’s publication, Miller unapologetically defended Holy Terror, explaining, rather rationally, “I lived through time when 3,000 of my neighbors were incinerated for no apparent reason. I lived through the chalky, smoky weeks that followed and through the warplanes flying overhead and realized that, much like my character, The Fixer, I found a mission.” Drawing inspiration from the anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese Empire war comics of the 1940s, Miller saw his own work as the equivalent in the war against terror.  No doubt, he openly admitted, “I come in with my own very pro-Western-they-attacked-my-city-point of view.” In no way, he continued, did he mean “to be fair or balanced.” Interesting to be sure, Miller had earlier in his career complained that too much in comics was propaganda, not art. “My one attempt at” propaganda, he conceded in the early 1980s, “was a dismal failure.” Asked why, he responded, “It was too preachy.” A quarter of a century later, though, he was ready to try his hand at it.

When asked earlier this year by the London Guardian if he would still defend his views as vented through 2011’s Holy Terror, Miller admitted that the work was, at times,  “bloodthirsty beyond belief.” Still, he noted, he would never go “back and start erasing books.” The Guardian took this as an apology, and many in the comic industry and media have since forgiven him.

What was so patently obvious to anyone who knew Frank Miller’s work, however, was that Holy Terror was no more and no less anti-fundamentalist than his other works.  His masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), attacked Protestant fundamentalism, and his noir series, Sin City (1991-), showed the heinous results of Roman Catholic fundamentalism.  His recreation of the Battle of Thermopylae, 300, portrayed the Persians as slavish fundamentalists worshipping a god-king. Though Iran condemned Miller for 300, most critics gave him a pass (and often high praise) for his anti-Evangelical and anti-Catholic fundamentalism.  For a billion reasons, though, they found his anti-Islamic fundamentalism unacceptable. Hypocrites all.

God bless you, Frank Miller

As soon as Miller became secure and success in the field of comics by the mid 1980s, he not only nurtured anyone who asked for his help, but he also launched a major and public campaign urging comic companies to pay their writers and artists better upfront as well as in royalties earned.  Not only did Miller help resurrect the dying industry in the 1980s, but, since, his example and efforts have led to a flourishing of talents in and around comics and movies.

Combatting the Jerry Falwell and Tipper Gore busybodies of the 1980s, Miller also attacked censorship at every political level, convincingly arguing that with few exceptions, censors never know what they are doing, while their motives are less than pure. They seek power over society as well as governmental and corporate control over family. Time and again, Miller stressed, it is the sole prerogative of the mother and father to censor material for the family, not the job of the state to do so.

Sometimes, Miller takes his mischievousness to untoward levels of poor taste, such as when he plasters the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” stamp on a sexy, female robot tart in his stories of Lance Blastoff.  Generally, though, the humor is more “junior high level” than it is clever satire. Still, there’s a definite humor to it, even when he shocks, simply to shock.

While it’s tempting to love Miller for the enemies he has made—here in the United States and in Iran—it’s far better to praise him for his virtues and his innumerable creations.  Through Daredevil, he taught us wisdom; through Batman, he taught us morality; through 300, he taught us fortitude; through Sin City, he taught us struggle; and through Martha Washington, he taught us patriotism.  When talking about his own work and its expressions of heroism, he wisely noted that “doing the right thing routinely causes one great difficulties and one has to sacrifice a lot.” This is not just true for his heroes, but for Miller himself.

God bless you, Frank.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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Ray Bradbury Was the Coolest Non-Conformist on the Planet

Ray Bradbury at the Miami Book Fair International, 1990. MDArchives/Flickr   

An American original, Ray Bradbury will almost certainly enjoy a high reputation for centuries to come. The future will remember him for hundreds of short stories and at least four profound novels of gothic Americana: Fahrenheit 451; The Martian Chronicles; Something Wicked this Way Comes; and Dandelion Wine. Almost completely ignored by critics and, even by devoted fans, are Bradbury’s last several novels, many of them noir mysteries, often with a supernatural twist as well as author’s trademark humor and irony. All excellent, these include From the Dust Returned; Farewell Summer; Death is a Lonely Business; A Graveyard for Lunatics; and Let’s All Kill Constance. Yet, it is almost always the short story we think of when we think of Bradbury. Almost every one of his novels comes from his compiling short stories and tying them together through some narrative device. And, of course, most American students are introduced to Bradbury’s work through one or more of his short stories appearing in an anthology.

Two themes (among many) lurk behind almost every corner in his fictional soul: dystopian conformity and autumnal imagination. This piece will only deal with the first of these two themes, leaving autumn for another piece.

Dystopia is to be found whereever and whenever too much power has accumulated, destroying the honed order of our ancestors in favor of some matrix to promote individual or generational ego. Yet, Bradbury also believes in its opposite, utopia. Utopia graces our lives, however, only in the imagination, especially when we remember childhood, energy, magic, and love. And, it’s not enough merely to remember, we must contextualize and give order to our varied experiences of wonder. Bradbury’s utopia, then, is an ecstasy of imagination at its highest. “Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain,” Bradbury wrote in 1973. “But on the way, in your work, why not carry these two inflated pig bladders labeled Zest and Gusto.”

Of all of his works, Fahrenheit 451 remains the most famously dystopic. Yet, when an interviewer asked him in 1996 if he had tried to present “a bleak view of the future” in the vein of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four and to “write a cautionary story,” Bradbury not atypically balked. “That’s fatal. You must never do that. A lot of lousy novels come from people who want to do good. The do-gooder novel. The ecological novel. And if you tell me you’re doing a novel or a film about how a woodsman spares a tree, I’m not going to go see it.” Much as Willa Cather had once tried to explain her art as art not as politics, Bradbury too rejected the idea that a good author writes with an intended purpose. Instead, he has an idea, something precious and magical, and he follows it, plays with it, nurtures it, and pursue its essence. In the end, good art will reveal a truth, but not always the truth an author originally desired to convey.

Cover art for ‘Fahrenheit 451’ which is 65-years-old this year.

Still, even Bradbury could not fully disguise or dismiss his own political and cultural view of the world. When asked what the truth was that emerged from Fahrenheit 451, he admitted he wrote it in response to “Hitler and Stalin and China, where they burned God knows how many books, killed God knows how many teachers.” Add to this, he feared, the disaster of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, and free thought and free expression would collapse in America. Siding with Alexis de Tocqueville, Bradbury feared that true oppression in the United States would be a soft despotism, with the culture being run by progressive busy bodies, moralizing and oppressing with a myriad of rules and acceptable attitudes. Fahrenheit 451, thus, anticipated political correctness almost three full decades before it became a deadly and nascent issue in the late 1980s. As Bradbury explained decades after the Fahrenheit 451’s publication, he hoped to prevent the future more than to predict it. The medium of science fiction allows so many possibilities. “Whether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department will be old hat by this time next week, I dare not predict,” he admitted in 1953. “When the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.”

When pushed on the issue, Bradbury admitted that he was a civil and economic libertarian of some sort. He despised talking about or even thinking about politics, but he also hated that the political sphere was consuming all other spheres of life, it ruling over everyday lives and limiting everyday decisions. Though he might forgive and even encourage government funding for the sciences, he wanted a government that promoted (or left alone) the average person, believing that representatives and bureaucrats too easily abused their powers. Tellingly, as a young man, his favorite books were written by Ayn Rand, Albert Jay Nock, and Irving Babbitt.

In his Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, Bradbury had imagined another dystopian future in which all imaginative works had been destroyed, much as they would be in Fahrenheit 451.

Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air!  So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 2006; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose— oh, what a wailing!— and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More!  And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; they filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists’ Ball! The Beanstalk died in a bramble of red tape! Sleeping Beauty awoke at the kiss of a scientist and expired at the fatal puncture of his syringe. And they made Alice drink something from a bottle which reduced her to a size where she could no longer cry ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ and they gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow to smash it and every Red King and Oyster away!”

Bradbury’s talents also interested the governmental agency set up to destroy the U.S. Constitution in the name of protecting it, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Demonstrating a level of buffoonery perhaps unprecedented in its history, the FBI opened an ongoing investigation of Bradbury, fearing his literature as subversive and, bizarrely, possibly communist. An informant told the FBI that Bradbury “was probably sympathetic with certain pro-Communist elements.” The evidence? At a meeting of screen writers, some members asked openly whether or not to ostracize members of the Communist Party as well as those who embraced the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from their discussion. In a not atypical fit of passion, Bradbury stood and shouted at his fellow members, claiming them to be a lot of “Cowards and McCarthyites.”

Further, the FBI informant claimed, Communists had embraced “the field of science fiction” as it was a “lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies.”

Bradbury, in particular, now declassified FBI documents claimed, wrote stories “slanted against the United States and its capitalistic form of Government.”  One must wonder who these communist science fiction writers were, ready to pollute the minds of thousands of smart nerds: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Walter Miller?  

It becomes rather clear in the FBI’s own investigation of Bradbury that “communist” did not mean Marxist or Leninist or Stalinist or Maoist. Rather, it meant anyone who did not support 1950’s conformist culture of corporate and crony capitalism, Washington’s soft despotism, and what Eisenhower would call the “Military Industrial Complex.”  

For the FBI, “communist” also meant those who actually believed in the Bill of Rights, especially the Fifth Amendment. By this standard, Bradbury was indeed a “communist.”  Perhaps a serious one. But, then again, so would Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and millions upon millions of other Americans. Imagine a world in which average citizens might carry a pocket constitution with them?  Communists, all! In the Martian Chronicles, he had the audacity to criticize the robber barons of American history.

We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose. And Egypt is a small part of Earth. But here [Mars], this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We’ll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountain King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont Sea, and there’ll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won’t ever be right, when there are the proper names for these places.

As a piece of art, The Martian Chronicles offers a culturally conservative view of imperialism, hubris, and exploitation. The Martians, for Bradbury, serve as an allegory for the classical world of democratic Athens and republican Rome as well as of the noble and natural republicanism of North American Indians. Through a series of vignettes, all set on Mars, Bradbury examines some of the most important existential issues of the human condition.

If anything, Bradbury only grew more and more libertarian as he aged. He despised the censorship of soft despotism, and he found the “politically correct” movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s—then, only in its infancy—repulsive to the extreme. On the 40th anniversary of Fahrenheit 451, Chronicles asked the famous author what he thought of the movement.

Someone said to me recently, aren’t you afraid? No, I said, I never react in fear; I react in anger. As with graffiti, you must counterattack within the moment, not a day, a month, or a year later. All the politically correct terrorists must be driven back into the stands. There is no place for them in the open field of democratic ballplaying.

Amen, Mr. Bradbury. Amen.

His response should be the response of all right-thinking people.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 

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What if Custer Were A Lone Survivor?

Author Brad Birzer and wife, Professor Dedra Birzer, in Kansas in 1998. (Birzer)

Sometime in the late fall of 1998, my pregnant (our first child) wife and I drove from Kansas City to Hutchinson, Kansas. En route, we stopped at Council Grove, an old, homey eastern Kansas town in the Flint Hills, once a part of the Sante Fe Trail. Somewhat famously, there’s an oak tree in town known as “the Custer Elm.”  Whether it’s still there or not, I have no idea, but the sign that accompanied the elm read: “General Custer and his famous 7th Cavalry camped under this tree in 1867 shortly before his tragic massacre by Sitting Bull.”  My wife and I laughed and laughed. Being bizarre history nerds, we thought that was hilarious. First, neither of us thought much of Custer as a human being. Second, Custer did not meet his doom until 1876. If nine years equates with “shortly” we wondered if the author of the sign had an Elvish life span. And, third, Crazy Horse, not Sitting Bull, killed Custer. Sitting Bull wasn’t even at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was—befitting his position as medicine man—on home guard duty, protecting the Sioux villages during the battle. Please don’t get me wrong. Neither my wife nor I are cynical, nor do we fail to appreciate how much Kansans love their history. Being a native Kansan, I know very well how much Kansans appreciate their history. It’s hard to drive more than five miles without hitting a spot of some historical significance, marked and described for any and all travelers and wanderers across the Wheat State.

On a serious note, the dreadfully mistaken sign promoted a rather deep discussion about the nature of history, what we can know, what we cannot know, and what we have to accept—in necessary humility—as absent from the record and subject, then, to individual interpretation.

In a far more humorous vein, H.W. Crocker III addresses every one of these questions—though, often, in sideways, non-linear, indirect way—in his most recent novel, Armstrong, the first of his “Custer of the West” series. As I had a chance to mention a week or so ago at The American Conservative (and please indulge me as I obnoxiously quote myself):

A satirical alternative history about Michigan’s own George Armstrong Custer, simply and cleverly entitled Armstrong. In Crocker’s world, Custer survived a butchering by Crazy Horse at the Battle of Little Bighorn and has become a Victorian paladin and celebrity, doing everything over the top and then some more beyond the top. Crocker knows his history, so his anti-history is knock-down, pain in the stomach, hilarious.

I quote this not to be troublesome and arrogant, but to note that my views of a few weeks ago have only strengthened. Since finishing that book, I have given it much thought. Indeed, it keeps hovering over my other thoughts, and it has promoted me to ask a whole series of questions about the nature of history. Yes, the kind of questions that sign in Council Grove first posed almost two decades ago.

Without hyperbole, Crocker’s Armstrong caused so much laughter—as well as thought—that my sides and stomach did actually hurt. The model of the book is rather clearly Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Considering Twain’s standing in 19th century American literature, I do not make this comparison lightly. That book, too, at least until its horrific and brutal ending, has given me laughter fits for much of my adult life. Crocker’s wit is certainly as good as Twain’s, amazingly enough, as both share the talent of poking fun without destroying. More on this later in the review. And, it’s not just Twain that one thinks of with Crocker’s novel. There’s also a more than a bit—often quite explicit—of Yellow Journalism, dime store fiction, Pulp, Batman, and even Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Flannery O’Connor in here as well. Outside of the written word, there’s quite a bit of cinema, too, but mostly of Zelig-like quality. Yet, if there was one movie that most will probably think of when reading Armstrong, it’s Dances with Wolves. Counter that sappy, feel-good-leftism, and New Agey Dances, however, Crocker turns Kevin Costner on his head. This is Dances with Wolves if written by Bill Gaines. If I’ve not expressed it well yet, let me blunt. This novel is over the top. And, mightily and gloriously so. Yet, even within the slap-stick outrageousness, there lurk and hover very meaningful and subtle points and comments. In other words, Crocker has produced a fictional masterpiece.

As noted above, the novel begins in June 25, 1876, the day of the massacre at Little Bighorn in Montana. On that day, it should be remembered, George Armstrong Custer unwittingly led part of the Seventh Cavalry into a trap. Frustrated by his post-Civil War career, Custer was often hotheaded, arrogant, and reckless. Those qualities (or lack thereof) caught up to him and, sadly, the men under his command on that day, as Crazy Horse led a pan-Indian coalition against the American invaders. Regardless of what is P.C. and what is not in 2018, the Indians were clearly the defenders, nobly rejecting the invasion while attempting to protect home and hearth. Their victory, though decisive, proved fleeting, as the waves of emigrants and their livestock would soon overcome the Plains Indians, no matter how noble they might be. It should also be remembered that, whatever his failings, Custer had been a true hero in the American Civil War. On July 3, 1863, in particular, he had led his men against those of Confederate Jeb Stuart, preventing the latter from assaulting the rear of Union lines at Gettysburg. The goal—at least as Robert E. Lee had envisioned it—was for Stuart’s cavalry to hit the center rear of Union lines just as Pickett’s men hit the front of the line. In a several hour cock of the walk, medieval style joust and dual between Union and Confederate cavalries in the East Field, Custer prevented aid from reaching Pickett and Lee. Simply put, Custer had mattered. By 1876, not so much.

Crocker creates a world in which Custer alone—at least among American military—survived that day, having been protected by Rachel, a white captive of the fictional Boyanama (!) band of Sioux. She claimed Custer as her slave, but he claimed her as his ward. As part of his captivity, the Sioux tattooed his arm, drawing a picture of his beloved wife, Libby on his biceps with the motto around it: “Born to Ride.” Escaping his captors, he decides that he must remain incognito, hoping to clear his name after the disaster at Little Bighorn. During the novel, in fact, he takes many names, all of them hilarious. The most frequent name he takes, however, is Armstrong Armstrong (yes, you read that correctly), thus the title of the novel.

Over ten chapters, Custer’s adventures never cease. From Sioux captive to Chorus girl to mock Indian to fake U.S. Marshall, Custer finds himself leading a group of enslaved victims in Bloody Gulch, Montana, a company town controlled brutally from the top down by one ruthless man and scoundrel, Larson. Interestingly enough, this man claims to be empowered by the U.S. government to hold such authority. Custer seemingly accepts this, also claiming to be empowered by the U.S. government. He rationalizes this as acceptable because of his hatred of all things Republican and U.S. Grant-related. Larson is a Republican, and he, Custer, a Democrat. When Rachel proclaims him a “liberator” in the vein of Abraham Lincoln, he quickly corrects her. “No, Rachel, not like Lincoln. He was a Republican. What this country needs is a good Democrat in favor of lower taxes, a return to sound money, free trade, a smaller reformed government that spends more on the army, and honest administration—especially after two terms of that baboon Grant.”

Don’t make too much of the quote, though. This is not a political book. Not in the least. It’s a book of adventure and social commentary. The social commentary, though, is simply drop-dead hilarious. Among Custer’s allies in the book are a former Confederate officer and dandy, a Latin-speaking, Catholic Crow Indian, a number of Chinese acrobats, and seemingly unlimited beautiful women—all of whom seemingly swoon over Custer’s manliness. At one subtle moment, Custer perks up considerably when he learns that having been inducted into the Boyanama Sioux might very well allow him to have multiple wives. Though Crocker takes this no further, it’s pretty clear that Custer hopes this might happen.

In the social commentary that pervades the whole story, much as Mark Twain does in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Crocker plays with radically politically incorrect stereotyping. Yet, the humor to be found—gut holding at times—is not because Crocker’s depictions are shocking (they are), but because they’re hilarious. As a gifted writer and thinker, Crocker’s stereotypes artfully reveal the true essence of humanity, the individual person, and virtue. It’s a stunning accomplishment, frankly.

Finally, it has to be noted that the entire book is written as a long letter to his faithful and devoted wife, Libby, letting her know that he survived Little Bighorn as well as retelling his manly adventures. For some bizarre and funny reason, Custer is convinced that his lusty comments about the legs and shapes and skin tones and hair color of every woman he meets will make Libby appreciate his manliness even more. The joke, though repeated incessantly throughout the book, never gets old.

Armstrong is satire and fiction at its finest. Crocker has given us a treasure and one that, this reviewer hopes, will be but the beginning of a series of Custer’s adventures in the West. Viva, Armstrong Armstrong!  Now, to return to Council Grove, Kansas, and see if Crocker’s new novel has forced the town leaders to change that sign. . . . After all, each only hovers on the edge of reality.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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What Exactly is ‘The West’?

From the book, “Frank Brangwyn and His Work. 1910” Published in 1911. (Public Domain)

Every autumn, I have the great pleasure of teaching what we at Hillsdale College call “Western Heritage.”  It’s the first core course that every entering student must take. With classes ranging from 15 to 20 students each, we read primary sources, ranging from Genesis to Plato, Aristotle to St. John, Cicero to St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin. Though I’ve been teaching this course since the fall of 1999, I have never once found myself bored or tired or uninspired. Quite the opposite, actually. Whatever my faults, this course has made me a better person and a better thinker. And, judging by how my students embrace the material, the same is true for them.

Yet, every fall, as I prepare for the class, one question lingers. It’s a question I’ve never been able to answer to my own satisfaction. What is the West? Ever since the “politically correct” movement began in the 1980s in the United States, its critics have complained of it—from a quiet seething to outright brutality and invasive protests—as racist, sexist, and imperialist. The critics can be as emotionally violent as they are intellectually dull.

In the 1980s, at least, even its critics took a canon of authors and texts seriously, asking only that the canon be more inclusive in terms of race and gender. Frankly, I miss those days. Today, at the vast majority of schools and colleges, the West is something hideous and embarrassing, to the point that the term itself can trigger almost automatic hatred and dismissal.

Let’s leave the critics aside from now, with one important caveat: a recognition that they’re simply wrong.

Even the terminology suggests much good. In much of the ancient Mediterranean, the West was the land of the gods, known as the Blessed Isles, the Blessed Realm, or, of course, Atlantis. Plutarch wrote:

These are called the Islands of the Blest; rain falls there seldom, and in moderate showers, but for the most part they have gentle breezes, bringing along with them soft dews, which render the soil not only rich for ploughing and planting, but so abundantly fruitful that it produces spontaneously an abundance of delicate fruits, sufficient to feed the inhabitants, who may here enjoy all things without trouble or labour.

Even the Egyptians, often regarded as a people almost entirely separate from the other western powers, believed that Isis and Orisis, representing justice and immortality, reigned from their mysterious realm in the West.

The idea of the gods living in the West proved so strong that the early Church had a difficult time explaining how Jesus came out of the East. As a way to convince pagans to convert to Christianity, the Church described Christ as the “perfect offering” from “east to west,” thus arguing that Christ had sovereignty everywhere, preferring neither east nor west.

Whatever successes the Church had in explaining this, the mystery of the West motivated everyone from Columbus to Coronado to J.R.R. Tolkien.

No one, however, prior to the sixteenth century thought of the West as synonymous with Europe. The ancient Latins had employed the term, “Europa,” but it was an idea of freedom, not an actual place. The term Europe did not come into vogue until the very early 16th century as a way to distinguish Christian Europe from the Americas to the West and the Muslims to the south and east. Since roughly 893 AD, most educated Europeans referred to their world simply as “Christendom” or the Christiana res publica.  Alfred the Great, as far as is known, was the first to use the term, and he employed it as those people who resisted the Vikings. Most Christians, however, simply referred to what is now Europe as some variant of middangeard or Middle-earth. Even western Christians did not think of the Orthodox Churches as being “Eastern” until the Crusades.

One of the greatest historians of the last century, Christopher Dawson, thought of the West as a tradition, one that blended, almost seamlessly, the classical world with Christianity. He is worth quoting at length on this:

This tradition is entirely different from the influence of the pagan culture, which continued to exist in a submerged subconscious form; for it affected those elements in Christian society which were most consciously and completely Christian, like monasteries and the episcopal schools. Consequently, it is impossible to study Christian culture without studying classical culture also. St. Augustine takes us back to Cicero and Plato and Plotinus. St. Thomas takes us back to Aristotle. Dante takes us back to Statius and Virgil, and so on, throughout the course of Western Christian culture. And the same is true of Eastern Christendom in its Byzantine form, though this only reaches Russia . . . second hand and infrequently. But the same is true of theology, at least its more advanced study. The whole of the old theological literature of Catholic Christendom, both East and West, is so impregnated by classical influences that we cannot read the Greek and Latin Fathers, or even the Scholastic and 17th-century theologians without some knowledge of classical literature and philosophy.

Critically, for Dawson, literature, philosophy, and theology defined that tradition, ignoring the role of politics and political boundaries or seeing them, at best, as of secondary importance.

If there is such thing as a tradition of the West—say, from Marathon to Waterloo—then, we should probably accept the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) as its origin. Coming at the very end of the Persian Wars, the Spartan war king Leonidas and his 300 men held off nearly 100,000 battle hardened Persians for days. As Herodotus described it, scathingly:

But Xerxes [the Persian god king] was not persuaded any the more. Four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into this presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others now took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few men.

Betrayed by a fellow Greek, Leonidas and his 300 were slaughtered, but their legacy remains, and deeply so. If this was the beginning of the West, the West was born in sacrifice, justice, and resistance. When the Persian tyrant demanded that Leonidas and his men to lay down their arms and surrender, the Spartan king supposed replied: “Molon labe.” That is, come and take them. Liberty, as the ancients understood it, did not mean what it may mean to some today—that every person may do what he or she likes unless it physically harms another person. Rather, freedom meant liberty from the control of a “god-king,” as was common in the East.

Such sacrifices have not been uncommon in the West. Even leaving the death of Jesus Christ aside for the sake of argument—after all, who can compare—we have the examples of Socrates being executed in his defense of Truth; Marc Antony’s men murdering the greatest of Roman Republicans, Marcus T. Cicero; the uncounted numbers of martyrs who died in the arenas; the Jesuits in North America, and so on.

Yet, if Leonidas unleashed what we might call western patriotism in 480—that is, something to fight against—the West must also have something to fight for.

The West did not, of course, invent sacrifice, no matter how well citizens of the West have embraced it for the past two and one-half millennia. It did, however, invent something unique in the world, something to fight for.

Sometime around the year 510 BC, a full thirty years before the death of Leonidas, a number of Greek thinkers in what is now the extreme western coast of Turkey wanted to know what the origin of all things might be. Could it be air, water, land, or sea? And, they wanted to know why all of life seems cyclical: life, middle-age, and death; and spring, summer, fall, and winter. Yet, the world did not end at the end of each cycle, it began anew. This proved universally true.

It must be noted that every civilization—east to west—has a form of ethics, a way to treat those in the in-group. It was uniquely in the West, though, that philosophy—the love of wisdom and the search for universal principles—arose. Ethics tells me how to treat my neighbor, but only philosophy allows me to understand that the person beyond my neighbor is still a fellow human. After all, each person is a universal truth wrapped in a particular manifestation.

Of those primary elements that might be the source of all being, as the first Greek philosophers argued, the one that won out over time was the one Heraclitus named, Logos—meaning inspiration, word, fire, thought, imagination. It is no wonder that the most Greek of the four Christian Gospels, that of St. John the Beloved, declares Jesus Christ as the Logos or that St. Paul believed Jesus the source of all being, reconciling all things through the Cross.

In other words, far from being racist and sexist, western civilization was the first to argue for the universal concept of the dignity of the human person, regardless of his or her accidents of birth. Those, today, who attack western civilization have absolutely no idea that their very freedom comes from those “dead white males” they so hate.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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My Ántonia at 100

Willa Cather ca. 1912 (Public Domain)

When it comes to considering America’s greatest writers, it would be foolish to ignore Willa Cather as a contender. Indeed, it is quite possible that her 1925 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop is the great American novel, rivaling anything that came before or since.

Yet, Cather was consistent. While not at the level of Death Comes, her 1913 O Pioneers and her 1927 The Professor’s House certainly come close. Shadows on the Rock (1931), too. Of all her novels, though, the one that most rivals Death Comes is her 1918 novel, My Ántonia. When the book first appeared, that nastiest and most difficult of critics, H.L. Mencken had nothing but praise for it and its author. She is, he wrote approvingly, “isolated in accomplishment” and “isolated from all current rages and enthusiasms.” Devoid of heroes, plots, love affairs, and any pretense to change the world, My Ántonia sees the world through the eyes of an immigrant, a poor Bohemian who becomes one with the land she works. “But what Miss Cather tries to reveal is the true romance that lies even there—the grim tragedy at the hearth of all that dull, cow-like existence—the fineness that lies deeply buried.” Cather succeeds at making real and critical what is often ignored or hidden. “Miss Cather’s method inclines more to suggestion and indirection. Here a glimpse, there a turn of phrase, and suddenly the thing stands out, suddenly it is as real as real can be—and withal moving, arresting, beautiful with strange and charming beauty,” he continued. And, then, surprisingly, Mencken offered his highest praise: “I commend this book to your attention, and the author no less. There is no other American author of her sex, now in view, whose future promises so much.”

A full century later, Mencken’s review still holds true. In almost every way, Cather writes at a level beyond every other American author. One could not be blamed, if giving any of Cather’s novels only a cursory read, in believing her writing style somewhat juvenile and superficial. Such a reading, though, would be dead wrong. In her many writings on the meaning of art, Cather criticized anything that might be blatant, political, or over the top. True art, she believed, contained the entire author’s view of life, but it did so by layering, not by berating. “Art, it seems to me, should simplify,” she explained. “That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole.” Thus, she argued, the partaker of the art fills in all of the details of what the artist has intentionally trimmed and cut, making the art belong as much to the artist as it does to the recipient. “Any first-rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it.”

In this Stoic effort, Cather understood that nothing should be produced without every aspect of it meeting the highest standards of excellence possible. This applies to that which is seen as well as that which is not. As Steve Job would explain nearly eight decades later, every created thing should be excellent, in every one of its aspects. He cited the example his father offered him. If a carpenter makes a stunning oak chest of drawers but uses press board for its back—presuming that no one will ever see it—the entire piece of furniture is junk. So it was with all of Cather’s novels. Additionally, Cather argued in the same vein as T.S. Eliot—no real art is revolutionary. Rather, it is always at its best when it’s evolutionary. The artist knows when to compromise only when she or he knows the rules and knows what needs to be broken for real artistic progress. At first, every artist “is wedded to old forms, old ideas, and his vision is blurred by the memory of the old delights he would like to recapture.” The artist, though, can only break barriers when he knows exactly what those barriers are. The writer, in particular, can never actually write about the essence of hate or love. Instead, he can only write of the human person as understood or distilled by hate or love. All emotion and ideas can only be understood in relation to character and person. If his own ideology clouds his art, the artist, in good conscience and taste, should forsake art and work “in a laboratory or a bureau.”

Like the Great Plains about which the author so gorgeously writes, little that the eye first observes is true. The grasses one sees on the plains are nearly six times longer than that which grows above ground, hiding—at least traditionally—deer, buffalo, elk, birds of all kinds, snakes, and bobcats. Equally important, far from flat—as many crossing I-70 lament—the plains roll and break, thus giving a false impression of depth and distance. On clear days, one can see for miles and miles, day or night, even when the latter is not illuminated the all-pervasive heat lightning of summer. The Great Plains unveil treasure after treasure to those who explore. The same is true of Cather’s novels.

Though named after a Bohemian immigrant, the novel My Ántonia is really about the radically diverse life—human and otherwise—on the Great Plains, as understood by an emigrant from Virginia, Jim Burden. In the opening scene, Burden and Cather meet on a train, discussing their lost friendships of youth, including their mutual friend, Ántonia Shimerda, from Black Hawk (Red Cloud) Nebraska. Burden is now a lawyer for a large railway concern in the East, but he fondly remembers growing up with his grandparents on their Nebraska homestead. From the moment he arrived there from Virginia, Ántonia, though a few years older, dominates his cultural outlook and development. From the beginning to the end of the novel, she is a sprite, an earth goddess, and a force of nature, something fully human and yet superhuman as well. Everything that Jim thinks and remembers of Ántonia is synonymous with his memories of childhood and the country in which he grew. Ever after life had taken its toll on Ántonia’s physical appearance, Jim could not help but see her inner greatness.

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crabtree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

Married, but without any children, and financially successful, Jim recognizes that Ántonia—with her patch of land, her dedicated husband, and her innumerable children—has embraced and understood life at its most profound level. Jim can only describe Ántonia’s land and family in mythic terms. Her children are fauns and Ántonia, herself, is a “rich mind of life, like the founders of early races.”

Though married, Jim admits,

Do you know, Ántonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister— anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

For years, critics categorized and dismissed Willa Cather as a mere regional writer, a Nebraskan and little more. To a great extent, this was true, as Cather often wrote about the American frontier, though she was equally adept at describing it in the Canadian hinterlands, on the Great American Plains, and in the American Southwest. In all her frontier novels, she focused on three vital themes: the fundamental necessity of personal virtue and sacrifice; the communal effort; and the unforgiving but sacramental elements of nature and, especially, the land itself. My Ántonia explores all three themes. Those who came first, either broke the land or, simply, broke. Those who followed everything to the first ones, but rarely did they exhibit the same spark of life.

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

Those who attempted to make it on their own—what in the 1920s would be called “rugged individualism”—almost always failed and went mad. The subduing of nature took the entire community. Having migrated across the Atlantic, leaving everything once known, the immigrants often fared best. “This family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our country were the first to become prosperous.” Critically, those immigrant farmers brought with them the skills, manners, and attitudes of the old world, usually expertise in food, music, the arts, furniture, etc., setting them a cultured step above the native American emigrants. Typically, though, the native emigrants took the immigrants’ poor use of English as a sign of unintelligence.

While every sentence, paragraph, and chapter in the novel exudes a beauty, truth, and goodness, no one does more so than the tragic figure of Mr. Shimerda, the father of Ántonia and the one who first spoke the title of the novel. A gifted artisan and musician, he left Bohemia only after the insistence of his wife—she a product of a forbidden relationship. Having been a man of much intellect and skill, his Bohemian community had always sought his advice and wisdom. In Nebraska, though, not only was he a nothing, he was incapable of understanding the land or working it. He became less than nothing, a burden to his family. Upon arriving on the Great Plains, he entered a deep depression. Right before Christmas, he killed himself with a shotgun.

In some unfathomable way, Mr. Shimerda became the spirit of the land after his death. Because he had committed suicide, no cemetery would accept his body. The family buried him at what would be a crossroads. Jim, though Protestant, wonders about the fate of his soul. “I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered whether his released spirit would not eventually find its way back to his own country,” he considered. “I thought of how far it was to Chicago, and then to Virginia, to Baltimore— and then the great wintry ocean. No, he would not at once set out upon that long journey. Surely, his exhausted spirit, so tired of cold and crowding and the struggle with the ever-falling snow, was resting now in this quiet house.” Cather’s passage describing Shimerda’s grave is one of the finest in all American literature, well worth quoting at length.

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence— the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.

Few if any novels have so captured the spirit of the American character, in all of its majesty and nobility. Though many critics loved Cather, and her novels sold very well, her conservative politics had soiled her reputation by the end of the 1930s, and she became, in literary circles, a non-person for many decades. Only in the 1960s and 1970s did her reputation again soar. Today, Nebraska has done mighty things to keep the memory and legacy of her greatest artist alive. If you’re crossing I-70 or I-80, do not hesitate to stop at Red Cloud, her hometown, and the setting of all of her Great Plains novels. Celebrate the mind, art, and imagination of the most American of American authors.

En route, if so blessed, you might just feel the spirit of a Bohemia, out of place and yet fully in his right place.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 

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Glass Hammer: Giving Meaning to Time & Space

America’s single most innovative and interesting rock band is also, sadly, one of its least known and appreciated. This needs to end, and the sooner, the better for all concerned.

Amazingly enough, the band Glass Hammer is now celebrating its 26th birthday, and is about to release its 17th studio album. This is an astounding achievement in the world of art and, especially, in the world of rock. To add even more accolades, the band exists because its two founders were and are perfectionists, refusing to compromise on their own vision of what excellence is.

Creating Glass Hammer in 1992, long-time friends, Steve Babb and Fred Schendel—who had played in several 80s metal bands—decided to dive into what they loved most: complicated, intricate, baroque, over-the-top rock. At the time of the band’s creation, the term “progressive rock” was more than out of favor, evoking for most the horrors of bloated songs, the wearing of capes, the stabbing of keyboards with knives, and lyrics about Hobbits. Though, if Babb and Schendel had hoped to avoid the “progressive rock” stereotype, they failed miserably. If anything, their music—what they called “fantasy rock,” bringing the speculative and imaginary worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others to life—was inordinately more nerdy than “progressive rock.”  

Promoting their music on TV in the early 1990s, they readily found a market for their particular brand of fantasy rock. Singing about Hobbits, it seems, was far from unpopular. Indeed, the band has made money on every one of their releases, whether studio, live, or compilation. And, while their fanbase might be fewer in number than, say, the many who appear regularly on pop and rock radio, their fans are dedicated and, not surprisingly given the type of music, quite intellectual and serious.

Rock DJ Chris MacIntosh (a.k.a., “Grandfather Rock”) proclaims the albums of the band to be “sonic masterpieces.” Another longtime devotee, Dennis Cussen, notes that the band’s integrity and artful lyrics have not only inspired him but have also sustained him during difficult times. That the band can inspire while also pursuing excellence, Cussen claims, “is a gift from above.” Babb’s childhood and now, lifetime, friend, Robert Clay Smith, first introduced him to progressive rock in high school. As Smith so accurately writes, “These are sincere and truly gifted musicians and singers whose hearts are in the right place and are providing people with uplifting music which is truly good not only for the ears but also for the heart, soul and spirit.”  It would be hard to disagree with any of these statements, at least from this author’s perspective. And, none of these statements are unique to these three quoted. Glass Hammer fans across the years would all say something similar.

With the release of its first album in 1993, Journey of the Dunadan, Glass Hammer also inadvertently and, at the time, unknowingly contributed significantly to the current revival of progressive rock, now known as “third-wave prog.” In this, they joined Britain’s Marillion, California’s Spock’s Beard, and Sweden’s The Flower Kings as third-wave prog’s founders.

To support the band and their vision, Schendel, Babb, and Babb’s lovely and brainy wife, Julie, founded a state-of-the-art sound studio in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1994. The studio, Sound Resources, records anything that can be recorded, but it specializes in album, music, and audio book recording, engineering, and production. As studio owners, Babb and Schendel can also spot, identify, and cultivate talent. As such, Glass Hammer has existed as much as a project as it has a band over its 26 years. The only real constants have been Babb and Schendel, with the two men recruiting the best of those they meet.

Among the most important recruits over the years has been Susie Warren Bogdanowicz, a very talented and extremely attractive mother of four from Florida. Babb and Schendel recognized her many gifts immediately, bringing her into the Glass Hammer family with the release of their fourth studio album, Chronometree, in 2000. Though the band has had many singers—including, most famously, Jon Davison (now of Yes)—Bogdanowicz not only possesses the most angelic voice in rock, she also, quite frankly, possesses the single finest voice in all of rock in this year of our Lord, 2018. Certainly other rock vocalists—such as Big Big Train’s David Longdon as well as Headspace’s Damian Wilson—offer as much integrity, but none have the range and the power of Bogdanowicz. Prior to joining Glass Hammer, she had been the lead singer of an alternative rock band during the 1990s.

Over their first sixteen studio albums, Glass Hammer has proven itself, time and again, to be expert storytellers and myth makers. They have certainly embraced the works of Lewis and Tolkien, but they have also gone beyond just their heroes. They have become—in word and note—every bit the bards that their heroes were. Their albums have dealt rather profoundly with everything from the Roman empire to the mysteries of death to the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft to the nobility of soldiers of World War I. And, while the vast majority of bands see their creativity and purpose ebb after their first and second albums, Glass Hammer has just gotten better with age. As I look back over my own notes and reviews of the band since 2002, I see a constant. In almost every review of every new album, I write something to the effect: “This is a band at the top of their game, with this release being better than all previous releases.” And, I’ve meant it every time. That kind of excellence and integrity is rare in any place in any time in history.

The latest studio album to appear from the band, Chronomonaut, will be released on October 12, with autographed pre-orders getting underway on September 12 via the band’s website. It shows both the creative as well as mischievous side of the band. It’s a sequel to the 2000 album, Chronometree, the album that brought Bogdanowicz into the Glass Hammer family. That album, the fourth by the band, was as hilarious as it was inventive. The story of that album revolves around “Tom,” a young man obsessed with the lyrics of progressive rock albums. More than a tinge satirical, Babb and Schendel were making fun of themselves, noting that not uncommon perfectionist and OCD streak that runs through all lovers of progressive rock.

Truth be told, we progressive rockers are not just the nerds of the rock world, we’re the snobs of the rock world. Every note, every lyric, every album cover, and every credit has to be analyzed over and over and over some more. While non-proggers could accuse us of many things, inattention to detail is not one of them.

Tom, the protagonist of Chronometree, though, takes this even farther than most of us did in the 70s and 80s. He becomes convinced that the lyrics from Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Kansas, and other progressive rock bands are, in actuality, a secret, coded, perhaps scriptural language from another world.

In a series of social media posts and videos—all very much in the vein of Stranger Things—Tom has returned over the past year. He calls himself “The Elf King” now, and he signs his name Tom Timely. Though the posts from Tom are current, the videos date back to the summer of 1983. A young Tom [ok, a little spookily, this could easily be a young Brad, yours truly] in 1983 ponders the deeper meanings of life, space, and time, but he also complains that his efforts to create the perfect progressive rock band have been foiled by his bandmates caring more about their girlfriends than about the band itself. Because Tom seeks perfection, the actions of his friends and bandmates is nothing short of the Platonic betrayal of the True.

When asked about the meaning of the sequel, Babb responds:

Chronomonaut deals with nostalgia, which I think every modern prog fan can relate to. How many of us, fans and musicians alike, are trying to recapture some lost glory of our youth? In a way I try to musically and lyrically elaborate on a C.S. Lewis quote, the same one in which he coined the phrase “the inconsolable secret” :  “These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers,” Lewis wrote. “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Babb cautions, though, that there’s nothing wrong with romanticizing the past (and, it would be harder to find a greater romantic than Babb); there is always the danger of mistaking our past for perfection and failing to prepare ourselves not just for our future in this world, but in the next as well. Babb, it should be noted, not only cares about the artistic integrity of his music, but he’s admirably unafraid to share his own faith and beliefs through his art.

For Chronomonaut, Glass Hammer is: Fred Schendel (keyboards); Steve Babb (bass); Aaron Raulston (drums); and Susie Bogdanowicz (vocals). Though I have singled out Babb and Bogdanowicz for praise for this piece, I must also note that Schendel is one of the best keyboardists you will ever hear, certainly the superior to even such greats as Rick Wakeman, and Raulston’s drumming is, at once, forceful and nuanced. Certainly, he is one of the top drummers in the world today. Babb, too, is an excellent bassist, the equal to Geddy Lee and the late Chris Squire.

If you’re interested in the worlds of art, myth, and fantasy; if you believe in excellence; and if you desire to reach the Socratic good, true, and beautiful, you have no further to look than Glass Hammer.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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