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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Had things worked or happened differently, I would be celebrating the eleventh birthday of my daughter, Cecilia Rose Birzer, today. I can visualize exactly what it might be like. A cake, eleven candles, hats, cheers, goofiness, photos, and, of course, ice cream. I imagine that she would love chocolate cake–maybe a brownie cake—and strawberry ice cream. Her many, many siblings cheer here, celebrating the innumerable smiles she has brought the family. As I see her at the table now, I see instantly that her deep blue eyes are mischievous to be sure, but hilarious and joyous as well. Her eyes are gateways to her soul, equally mischievous, hilarious, and joyous. She’s tall and thin, a Birzer. She also has an over abundance of dark brown curls, that match her darker skin just perfectly. She loves archery, and we just bought her first serious bow and arrow. No matter how wonderful the cake, the ice cream, and the company, she’s eager to shoot at a real target.
She’s at that perfect age, still a little girl with little girl wants and happinesses, but on the verge of discovering the larger mysteries of the teenage and adult world. She cares what her friends think of her, but not to the exclusion of what her family thinks of her. She loves to dance to the family’s favorite music, and she knows every Rush, Marillion, and Big Big Train lyric by heart. She’s just discovering the joys of Glass Hammer. As an eleven-year old, she loves princesses, too, and her favorite is Merida, especially given the Scot’s talents and hair and confidence. She has just read The Fellowship of the Ring, and she’s anguished over the fate of Boromir. Aragorn, though—there’s something about him that seems right to her.
If any of this is actually happening, it’s not happening here. At least not in this time and not on this earth. Here and now? Only in my dreams, my hopes, and my broken aspirations.
Eleven years ago today, my daughter, Cecilia Rose Birzer, strangled on her own umbilical cord. That which had nourished her for nine months killed her just two days past her due date.
On August 6, 2007, she came to term. Very early on August 8, my wife felt a terrible jolt in her belly and then nothing. Surely this, we hoped, was Cecilia telling us she was ready. We threw Dedra’s hospital bag into the car as we had done four times before, and we drove the 1.5 miles to the hospital. We knew something was wrong minutes after we checked in, though we weren’t sure what was happening. Nurses, doctors, and technicians were coming in and out of the room. The medical personnel were whispering, looking confused, and offering each other dark looks. Finally, after what seemed an hour or more, our beloved doctor told us that our child—a girl, it turned out—was dead and that my wife would have to deliver a dead child.
We had waited to know the sex of the baby, but we had picked out names for either possibility. We had chosen Cecilia Rose for a girl, naming her after my great aunt Cecelia as well as St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and Rose because of St. Rose of Lima being the preferred saint for the women in my family and because Sam Gamgee’s wife was named Rosie.
I had never met my Aunt Cecelia as she had died at age 21, way back in 1927. But, she had always been a presence in my family, the oldest sister of my maternal grandfather. She had contracted tetanus, and the entire town of Pfeifer, Kansas, had raised the $200 and sent someone to Kansas City to retrieve the medicine. The medicine returned safely to Pfeifer and was administered to my great aunt, but it was too late, and she died an hour or two later. Her grave rests rather beautifully, just to the west of Holy Cross Church in Pfeifer valley, and a ceramic picture of her sits on her tombstone. Her face as well as her story have intrigued me as far back as I can remember. Like my Cecilia Rose, she too had brown curly hair and, I suspect, blue eyes. She’s truly beautiful, and her death convinced her boyfriend to become a priest.
The day of Cecilia Rose’s death was nothing but an emotional roller coaster. A favorite priest, Father Brian Stanley, immediately drove to Hillsdale to be with us, and my closest friends in town spent the day, huddled around Dedra. We cried, we laughed, and we cried some more–every emotion was just at the surface. I’m more than certain the nurses thought we were insane. Who were these Catholics who could say a “Hail Mary” one moment, cry the next, and laugh uproariously a few minutes later? Of course, the nurses also saw just how incredibly tight and meaningful the Catholic community at Hillsdale is. And, not just the Catholics—one of the most faithful with us that day was a very tall Lutheran.
Late that night, Dedra revealed her true self. She is—spiritually and intellectually—the strongest person I know. She gave birth with the strength of a Norse goddess. Or maybe it was just the grace of Mary working through her. Whatever it was, she was brilliant. Any man who believes males superior to females has never seen a woman give birth. And, most certainly, has never seen his wife give birth to a dead child. Cecilia Rose was long gone by the time she emerged in the world, but we held her and held her and held her for as long as we could. With the birth of our other six children, I have seen in each of them that unique spark of grace, given to them alone. Cecilia Rose was a beautiful baby, but that spark, of course, was absent, having already departed to be with her Heavenly Father.
For a variety of reasons, we were not able to bury her until August 14. For those of you reading this who are Catholic, these dates are pretty important. August 8 is the Feast of St. Dominic, and August 14 is the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Regardless, those days between August 8 and August 14 were wretched. We were in despair and depression. I have never been as angry and confused as I was during those days. Every hour seemed a week, and the week itself, seemed a year. I had nothing but love for my family, but I have never been that angry with God as I was then and, really, for the following year, and, frankly, for the next nine after that. We had Cecilia Rose buried in the 19th-century park-like cemetery directly across the street from our house. For the first three years after her death, I walked to her grave daily. Even to this day, I visit her grave at least once a week when in Hillsdale. In the first year after her death, I was on sabbatical, writing a biography of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Every early afternoon, I would walk over to her grave, lay down across it, and listen to Marillion’s Afraid of Sunlight. Sometime in the hour or so visit, I would just raise my fist to the sky and scream at God. “You gave me one job, God, to be a father to this little girl, and you took it all away.” In my fury, I called Him the greatest murderer in history, a bastard, an abortionist, and other horrible things. I never doubted His existence, but I very much questioned His love for us.
Several things got me through that first year: most especially my wife and my children as well as my friends. There’s nothing like tragedy to reveal the true faces of those you know. Thank God, those I knew were as true in their honor and goodness as I had hoped they would be. A few others things helped me as well. I reread Tolkien, and I read, almost nonstop, Eliot’s collected poetry, but especially “The Hollow Men,” “Ash Wednesday,” and the “Four Quartets.” I also, as noted above, listened to Marillion. As strange as it might seem, my family, my friends, Tolkien, Eliot, and Marillion saved my life that year. I have no doubt about that. And, nothing gave me as much hope as Sam Gamgee in Mordor. “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” As unorthodox as this might be, we included Tolkien’s quote in the funeral Mass.
A year ago, my oldest daughter—the single nicest person I have ever met—and I were hiking in central Colorado. We were remembering Cecilia Rose and her death. Being both kind and wise, my daughter finally said to me, “You know, dad, it’s okay that you’ve been mad at God. But, don’t you think that 10 years is long enough?” For whatever reason—and for a million reasons—my daughter’s words hit me at a profound level, and I’m more at peace over the last year than I’ve been since Cecilia Rose died. I miss my little one like mad, and tears still spring almost immediately to my eyes when I think of her. I don’t think any parent will ever get over the loss of a child, and I don’t think we’re meant to. But, I do know this: my Cecilia Rose is safely with her Heavenly Father, and, her Heavenly Mother, and almost certainly celebrating her birthday in ways beyond our imagination and even our hope. I have no doubt that my maternal grandmother and grandfather look after her, and that maybe even Tolkien and Eliot look in on her from time to time. And, maybe even St. Cecilia herself has taught my Cecilia Rose all about the music of the spheres. Indeed, maybe she sees the White Star. Let me re-write that: I know that Cecilia Rose sees the White Star. She is the White Star.
Happy birthday, Cecilia Rose. Your daddy misses you like crazy, but he does everything he can to make sure that he makes it to Heaven–if for no other reason than to hug you and hug you and hug you.
Ever since choosing history as a profession, I’ve been as fascinated with the actual philosophy of history (if one should exist) as I have been with the actual history of a thing, person, or event itself. After a quarter of a century of wrestling with the role of human agency, I have come to the conclusion that Friedrich Hayek was right all along in his own understanding of the “knowledge problem” and “methodological individualism”—that each person is simply too complex, in and of himself, to be studied at any meaningful level.
Free will renders so much null and void. Amen. That is, as the brilliant philosopher and economist James Otteson has noted repeatedly, if you believe in human liberty, you have to accept that you simply cannot predict with any meaningfulness the events of tomorrow. Yes, there are trends, to be sure, but free will means that almost anything—from the good to the ill—is possible.
Yet, the trajectory of academia has gone the other way since, roughly the 1890s, toward determinism.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of having coffee with a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. In fact, the prize had been announced just a few hours earlier on the day of our coffee date. When we began talking about human agency and history, she declared–thoughtfully but firmly—that no such thing as free will could or ever would exist. Instead, every aspect of our nature was predetermined in some way or another by material factors. And, it must be noted, this is a very creative person. Raised on “race, class, and gender,” to be sure, but no academic automaton. She is, to be sure, very much her own person. Yet, even she was negating her own by free will and creativity by declaring such things as mere mechanisms. Given the most important and distinguished thought of the 19th century—especially from Darwin, Marx, and Freud—it is no surprise that the 20th and, thus far, the 21st centuries have been dominated by materialist thought. It explains much about the current and shabby state of civilization—from the loss of liberal education to the triumph of power. One need only give a cursory examination to the media, to the average classroom, or to Facebook to see that the outrage culture has been fueled by the failure to understand individual dignity and creativity. There seem to be no free agents anymore, only those that haven’t quite caught up with “the program.”
For better or worse, my response as a professional historian to this was to turn to thinkers I did trust: to Cicero; to Augustine; to Burke; to Smith; and to Hayek. Each of these greats had noted time and again that no system could exist to explain all. To varying degrees, each believed in an eternal order and ordering, but each recognized that, in the here and now, no system could be known or understood or propagated by any one person, one group of persons, or humanity as a whole. Each person is simply incapable of knowing everything. Thus, as I saw it, this inability to understand history and humanity effectively—that is, to reject quantification (and, consequently, the reduction and dismissal) of the human person, to be an anti-ideologist, and to reject the idea of a system—has been to become a biographer, to study the most fundamental aspect of existence, the individual human person. As such, I have, for the most part, seen race, class, and gender as mere parts of human existence, not as the whole or even determining parts of order and society. As such, each person is unique, born in a certain time and a certain place, but never of his own choosing. Yet, when coming of age, he or she chooses almost every moment of everyday. Some of these choices are limited by things such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, neighborhood norms, education, etc., but none of these things need, necessarily, be determinants. As the grand J.R.R. Tolkien explained in a letter to W.H. Auden, each person is an allegory of a universal principle, robed in the garments of time and place.
While I certainly do not believe that biography is the only form of legitimate history, I am more than a little partial to it. With biography, the biographer gets to “know” the subject, intimately. Never will the biographer be totally objective, unless he or she is a mere antiquarian. Instead, the truly good biographer uses his own soul, experience, and reason to understand the choices of his subject. Thus, the best biography is always one in which the biographer is as apparent as the subject. Thus, when we read Arnn on Churchill, McCulloch on Adams, or Pearce on Tolkien, we are learning as much about Arnn, McCulloch, and Pearce as we are about Churchill, McCulloch, and Adams.
In an extraordinarily thoughtful and well-edited and conceived book, What is Classical Liberal History? (Lexington Books, 2018), editors Michael J. Douma and Phillip W. Magness bring together 13 scholars (including themselves) to answer the most important questions about the historian’s craft. Not surprisingly, Hayek is frequently invoked in the book.
Some of our finest historical thinkers—from Sarah Skwire and Jonathan Bean to David Beito and Han Eicholz—ask vital questions about the role of liberalism, properly understood, in human society. Penetratingly, these authors look at industrialism, feminism, scientism, civil liberties, historicism, progressivism. What is most appealing about this wonderful collection is that each author takes seriously the radical tendencies of modern and post-modern academics, finding the good within the questions asked and raised in mainstream academia, even if believing the answers provided by most academics, as insufficient.
In the perceptive and rather fetching introduction, Douma notes that his goal is to counter the tendencies of conservatism and progressivism in historical thought, each of which improperly consider the past as a way to understand morality, often focusing on colossal entities, such as nations or great men. In other words, by Douma’s definition, classical liberals would not be too thrilled with the biographers mentioned above. Yet, Douma insists, unlike all other historical schools, “classical liberal historiography is based upon the principle of methodological individualism central to the classical liberal tradition.” Further, he notes, classical liberal historiography is the “study of individual action in the past.” As much as I appreciate what Douma is doing—and he is an excellent writer, thinker, and scholar with a great future ahead of him—I remain unconvinced that any of these things are specific to classical liberalism. I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise.
If one takes What is Classical Liberal History as a negative statement on what exists in the world of mainstream thought and academia, this book is brilliant. Indeed, the writings of Skwire, Eicholz, Beito, Magness, and Bean are so good as to be a bit intimidating. These are each scholars at the height of their abilities, and their abilities would make any scholar—of whatever political and cultural persuasion—blush.
If one sees it as a fundamental and comprehensive take on history, though, it will become as ideological as those it complains about. My criticism is minor, but I think it is just. For example, the editors (and, admittedly, this is just the nature of editing) might be perceived as forming a clique. Frequently, the scholars chosen cite only a few common authorities and sources and, then, usually refer to each other. No where in the book do some of our most important historians and thinkers of our day–such as Mark David Hall, Rob McDonald, Richard Gamble, Mark Kalthoff, Paul Rahe, Richard Samuelson, Adam Schwartz, Greg Schneider, Gerald Russello, Patrick Deneen, or Bruce Frohnen—even make an appearance. Others, such as Kevin Gutzman and Otteson, get only the briefest mention. Even Burt Folsom, arguably the best-selling libertarian historian alive today, only merits a single mention. Indeed, only Paul Moreno of the Hillsdale College department of history even gets a mention. Given that this department is, by far, the single largest collection of conservative and libertarian historians anywhere in the world, this seems a huge omission. Similar comments might be made about Ashland, Grove City, University of Dallas, and the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).
As much as I enjoyed reading What is Classical Liberal History? I can only hope it is meant as a beginning, not an end. Further I hope that readers take it as an invitation, not as an exclusion.
If the radical plainness and sameness of current academia and the conformity of collectivist and consumerist culture is to be combatted and the dignity of the human person to be understood, it will do no good merely for the classical liberals and the conservatives to form sides and distinguish themselves from one another. Douma notes in the introduction that “classical liberal history begins with the recognition of the inherent worth of the individual.” I have no doubt that this is a central feature of classical liberal historiography. But Russell Kirk—the father of all post-war conservatism—would have said (and did) exactly the same thing. And, Pope John Paul II noted in his 1996 address on Christian humanism that the beginning of all goodness resides in recognizing the human person as an unrepeatable center of dignity and will. Perhaps one could charitably state that Kirk and John Paul were bound to get at least something correct, but, again, I remain unconvinced that classical liberal historiography is the best way to promote human liberty and dignity. The question of human dignity is as old as philosophy itself, beginning with Heraclitus and Socrates.
From my own perspective, the best history is still biography, and, for what it’s worth, biography seems to me the best Hayekian (and Ciceronian and Augustinian and Burkean and Smithian and Ottesonian) manner in which to approach history, a way to recognize the universal and the particular, a way to understand how free will allows the individual human person to navigate through difficulties and challenges—material and otherwise—in his whirligig of existence. To quote one of my favorite thinkers of the post-modern world, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” If this is classical liberal, so be it. If this is conservative, so be it. If this is progressive, so. . . well, no, even I can’t go there. I have never considered myself a classical liberal, but I have always considered myself libertarian. In the end, though, I hope that what we write as historians is just good history and scholarship, whatever label is given it. “I will choose a path that’s clear. I will choose free will.”
As I read about the political insanity this weekend and the ridiculous blame game for the looming government shutdown—will it be remembered as Trump’s fault or as Schumer’s fault?—I can’t help but think about what no one is talking about: how to solve our $21 trillion national debt. This number breaks down to a little over $170,000 per U.S. taxpayer.
It’s infuriating that the politicos attempt (and, more often than not, succeed) to distract us from this real issue. There’s an Orwellian element to all of this, whether intentional or not. That is, the most important issue is so critical that it is overwhelming in what it demands of our faculties to understand: that Washington, D.C., and our federal government are, at this point, simply insolvent. Whether this has been caused mainly by social issues or military ones, we’re insolvent. As some point, everyone will see the federal government for what it is, and, at that point, the collapse will be not just swift but horrific. Yet, there seems to be no reform coming. At least no serious reform.
Even the most pro-interventionist of the American founders, Alexander Hamilton, could never have imagined or desired the kind of federal government we have now. When he wrote of “energy” in government, he meant it as a means of restraint. To give “energy” to government meant, at least to Hamilton, giving the federal government the means to execute the powers expected of it by its Constitution. Rather brilliantly, he argued that a government charged with a duty but not empowered by the specific rules of that government to accomplish its duty would merely make up its own rules, thus taking government away from restraint and toward leviathan. Though many libertarians think of Hamilton as the touchstone for all future expansive government, they’re wrong. Even Alexander Hamilton desired ways to limit the expansion of government, and whether he wanted a strong executive or not, he envisioned a small, commercial republic as the proper outcome of the American revolution.
Over the previous three pieces in this series, “The Origins of the Rise of the Modern Nation State,” I’ve focused almost exclusively on the classical understanding of government. There is, I must confess, a method to my madness. One need only look at the actual classical words and symbols used by the founders to see how immensely indebted they were to the ancients. The U.S. Senate, for example, is modeled on the Maryland Senate, which is modeled on the Roman Senate. “Senate” comes from the Latin for “old wise men.” If only!
Or, even more blatantly, look at our capitol building. While we might expect our founders to have designed it as something grand and spectacular, such as the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal, or, even, English Parliament, they chose an architectural style from the height of the Roman Republic. Which, of course, is also why a Washington with thousands of armed guards, black SUVs, road blocks, and rooftop surface to air missiles looks so ominous. Nothing is worse when regarding the symbols of authority than the militarization of republican architecture. The fasces of Congress quickly look like the fasces of Mussolini. Even if we don’t recognize it immediately, something in us reminds us of how readily Rome succumbed to the temptations of power as we drive around the D.C. of 2018.
The hold of the classical world on the founding mind, however, is much deeper than architecture or names. To enter college in one of the nine schools available in the American colonies in, say, 1750, one had to prove fluency in Greek and Latin. The grand historian of the period, Forrest McDonald and his wife, Ellen, explained:
Just to enter college during the eighteenth century—which students normally did at the age of fourteen or fifteen—it was necessary, among other things, to be able to read and translate from the original Latin into English (I quote from the requirements at King’s College—now Columbia—which were typical) “the first three of Tully Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid: and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be a ”expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’
To be prepared for a college education, pupils began studying Greek and Latin around the age of six or seven. Indeed, one thing we in the world of schooling for democratic citizenship often forget is that all education in the 18th Century was classical education (even the term, “classical education,” would be redundant to the 18th Century mind). One was supposed to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic at home. Schools taught only Greek, Latin, and classical literature. Even farm children, with only a year or two of schooling in their lives, spent their school days drilling Greek and Latin.
For the truly enterprising student, he would also study Italian, if for no other reason than to read Dante in the original.
This is a world 300 years and 1 million miles apart from ours. It is no wonder, though, that George Washington (one of the few founders not liberally educated, interestingly enough) chose the mythic Republican Cincinnatus and the Republican rebel Cato the Younger as his exemplars or that the founders as a whole wanted a republic. This understanding of the classical world pervaded all of America, even the America that had not received much classical education, if any. Names such as George (Latin for agriculture), Narcissa, and Romulus were not uncommon proper names. Towns and counties took the names Homer, Athens, Remus, etc. Though not every American had read Virgil’s Aeneid, every American knew something about Aeneas, Troy, and Dido. Tellingly, the McDonalds reminded us, when American officers and French officers spoke on the field of battle during the Revolutionary War, they spoke in Latin, the only common language they shared. The index to the Federalist Papers quickly reveals as much, with 56 references to the classical and medieval world of the West and no references to John Locke.
Among the Romans, the American founders most appreciated and idealized the stoic Cato the Elder, the martyr Cicero, the poet Virgil, the historian Livy, and the theorist Tacitus. While the founders knew and studied the Greeks, it was the Roman Republicans that inspired them and the Roman imperials that terrified them.
“The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easier for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror,” historian Trevor Colbourn has written. “They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties.”
When writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that he drew on ancient sources:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.
John Adams, the first American to argue for independence, as early as 1765, said the same as Jefferson in 1774:
These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.
Unlike the French or Russian revolutionaries, attempting to create, in the words of Shakespeare, a “brave new world,” the American patriots turned the world right-side up. They desired a republic rooted in right reason, first principles, and the Natural Law. God had written the republican principles of the American Revolution into nature herself. “We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book,” a leading Anti-Federalist wrote in the aftermath of the war for Independence.
For this reason, the modern American conservative has a duty to know not just the origins of the American republic, but its origins in the Roman republic. After all, if we’re not conserving these things, what is it worth to be a conservative?
When the founders of the United States created her, they wanted a republic, not an empire; a government, not a state; and a commonwealth not a democracy.
Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.
In recent years, probably no matter has split nationalist and populist conservatives from libertarian and anti-statist conservatives more than that of immigration. Yet, very few conservatives are actually taking the time to debate or discuss this issue, so fundamental to understanding the very essence of who we are as an American people. Too many suppositions and assumptions have taken on the air of truth, and, as such, and, if for no other reason, the topic itself demands good discussion and vigorous debate. In particular, the modern American conservative should praise Gerald Russello and The University Bookman for its on-going symposium dealing the whole swirling mess. We need much more of this. It’s too important to leave to emotion or passion alone.
As Christians around the world celebrated the arrival of the Three Kings—the Magi of the Orient—on Epiphany, the president of the United States called for $33 billion to shore up America’s borders with $18 billion for the wall.
Would the Magi have been admitted in 2018? “Excuse me, Balthasar, but I need to see that your papers are in order. Oh, I’m sorry, but your gift of myrrh exceeds our 3.2 ounces of liquid allowed.”
Perhaps, President Trump simply chose his timing poorly, but it would be impossible for the Christian to miss the irony.
As a professor of the western canon, the Great Ideas of the West, and the western tradition, I find it nearly impossible to claim that there is a long tradition of excluding those who “aren’t us.” Even the most cursory examination of the issue reveals that the best of western thinkers have considered political borders a form of selfish insanity and a violation of the dignity of the human person. The free movement of peoples has not only been seen as a natural right throughout much of the western tradition, but it has also been seen as a sacred one.
In the gloriously pagan Odyssey,Odysseus survives, again and again, because the highest commandment of Zeus is to welcome the stranger and protect him with all that one has. To this day, one finds remnants of this tradition throughout the Mediterranean as the stranger is greeted with olive oil, bread, and, depending on the predominant religion of the region, wine. As staple crops of the ancient world, these signified not just acceptance but actual joy at the arrival of the stranger. The god of the hearth stood as patron of the sojourner.
The Athenians, during the tumultuous fifth century before Christ, prided themselves on allowing not just the stranger into their communities, but also their very enemies in. After all, what did the Athenians have to hide? Why not expose the ignorant to truth? Let the oppressed see how a free people live.
During the vast, long expanse of the Middle Ages, the Germanic peoples not only thought of themselves as residents of their own little piece of Middle-earth (Midgard), but they also thought of themselves as citizens of what King Alfred the Great labeled Christendom, the Christiana res publica, as well as believing themselves sojourners en route to the City of God. What Christian could allow—in good conscience—the accidents of birth such as gender or skin tone in this Veil of Tears to trump the possibilities of eternal salvation in the next? Neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female. . . .
Nothing in Christendom better represented the ideals of the free movement of peoples than did the Great Charter of 1215, forced upon King John at Runnymede. Though points 1 and 63 of the Magna Carta demanded freedom of the Church from political interference, points 41 and 42 reveal how fundamental the movement of peoples is to the sanctity of the common law.
- All merchants shall have safe and secure exit from England, and entry to England, with the right to tarry there and to move about as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and right customs, quit from all evil tolls, except (in time of war) such merchants as are of the land at war with us. And if such are found in our land at the beginning of the war, they shall be detained, without injury to their bodies or goods, until information be received by us, or by our chief justiciar, how the merchants of our land found in the land at war with us are treated; and if our men are safe there, the others shall be safe in our land.
- It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.
If we accept the Magna Carta as one of the most important documents in the history of western civilization, we Americans cannot afford to ignore it, its intent, or its specifics. Common law demanded that a people—and the person—move freely, border or not. Even in time of war, the enemy must be treated with dignity.
Equally important, can we American afford to ignore that the pagans, such as Odysseus, as well as the Christians, such as King Alfred, stood alike for the free movement of peoples and the welcoming of the stranger? To this day, the Roman Catholic Church, following the Hebraic Decalogue, teaches: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” To be sure, the immigrant must fulfill his or her duty as a citizen as well.
As an American conservative, I am not suggesting that we should surrender our own free will to the dictates of the past or even to any one religion, but I do think we would be foolish beyond measure to ignore the advice of our ancestors. And, for what it’s worth, the best of our ancestors believed in the free movement of peoples.
When it comes to the specifically American tradition of immigration and the free movements of peoples, the issue becomes more complicated.
Imagine for a moment that the great waves of immigration never came to America. In the colonial period, among those who freely chose to cross the Atlantic, you would have to dismiss the Anglicans to Virginia, the Puritans to New England, the Quakers to Pennsylvania, and the Scotch-Irish. Of the unfree peoples, you would have to take out all of those of African origin. In the 1840s, remove the Germans, the Scandinavians, and the Irish. In the 1880s through the 1910s, remove all Greeks, Poles, Jews, Italians. . . .
Yes, the native American Indian population would be justly celebrating, but, overall, and, from any relatively objective view, there would be no America.
Between 1801 and 1924—with the critical exception of the Chinese and the Japanese—no peoples were barred from entry into the United States. Congress forbade further Chinese immigration in 1882, and a gentleman’s agreement ended Japanese immigration in 1905. Otherwise, until 1921 and 1924, any person of any continent, of any religion, of either gender, of any skin color, or any other accident of birth could enter the United States and take up residency the very day of arrival. Only those with known criminal records or those suffering from tuberculosis were turned away.
Unless you are a full-blooded American Indian (less than one percent of the present United States population), you, American reader, would not be here without some ancestor having immigrated—freely or by force—to the United States. And possibly from what one might crassly dismiss as a “sh-hole country.”
Thus, our ancestors not only expressed their favor of the freedom of movement among peoples in their writings and laws, but when,] push came to shove, they also voted with their feet.
Since the tragedies of September 11, 2001, we Americans have surrendered not just our liberties but our very souls to the false notion and false comfort of governmentally-provided security. Tellingly, we have even closed off what was once the freest and longest border in the history of the world, our border with our extremely kind and polite neighbor to the north, Canada.
Again, I am not suggesting we must be slaves to the past, nor am I suggesting that we should dismiss the legitimate security concerns of a sovereign people. But, as an America people, we came into being because of the free movement of peoples. We rebelled against the designs of the 18th-century British, and we mocked the 19th-century Europeans and their passports and border guards.
Now, we seem to have become them.
If we continue to build walls around our country, really, then, just who are we? Only in the last generation or so have so many American conservatives become convinced of the necessity of the vast array of restrictions on those who wish to become a part of the United States. Perhaps they are right, but, regardless, there is much to discuss.
Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.
One of the best—but, sadly, least known—political scientists of the past century, Don Lutz, recognized exactly how important symbols can be to a free and ordered people. Communities across time share “symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people and link them to some transcendent order,” Lutz argued in the preface to a Liberty Fund collection of American colonial documents. In his argumentation, Lutz followed a number of critical thinkers, ranging from Eric Voegelin to Russell Kirk to Robert Nisbet. Unfortunately, a people, a person, a government, a bureaucracy, or a corporation can readily pervert such symbols, stripping them of their original meaning while allowing them to raise the consciousness of a society in ways directly contrary to what the symbols originally meant. Such is the power of symbols.
One of the most fascinating symbols of a republic in the western tradition, from the Romans through the Germanic Barbarians to the American founders to the American founders of the Republican Party, is the mighty oak. As noted in the previous essay on the history on the rise of the modern nation state, all republics must exist—by their very nature—as reflections of nature herself. They are, at essence, organic, necessarily experiencing birth, middle age, and death. How easily one might transfer this to the oak, thinking of its own stages, from acorn to prevailing gian, to corrupted and hollowed-out shell. Once, a thing of nearly infinite possibilities, but, ultimately, food for termites.
Yet, as a symbol, the oak itself has remained alive and well for a free and ordered people not just over generations, but over millennia. How much healthier for us and those of us who crave ordered liberty to see our representation in a majestic thing of nature rather than in a person, too often transformed into a god or demigod in our fallen humanity.
To see the importance of the oak, we must turn back to the Romans at the end of the Republic, nostalgically clinging to and idealizing what was.
When her father unjustly declared neutrality in the matter of the Trojans, Venus intervened on behalf of her son, Aeneas, bestowing upon him divine weaponry.
But the goddess Venus,
lustrous among the cloudbanks, bearing her gifts,
approached and when she spotted her son alone,
off in a glade’s recess by the frigid stream,
she hailed him, suddenly there fore him: “Look,
just forged to perfection by all my husband’s kill:
the gifts I promised! There’s no need now, my son,
to flinch from fighting swaggering Latin ranks
or challenging savage Turnus to a duel!”
With that, Venus reached to embrace her son
And set the brilliant armor down before him
under a nearby oak.
Aeneas takes delight in the goddess’ gifts and the honor of it all
as he runs his eyes across them piece by piece.
He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,
turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,
the terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire,
the sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,
blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed
by the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,
the spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,
no words can tell its power . . .
There is the story of Italy,
Rome in all her triumphs. There the fire-god forged them,
well aware of the seers and schooled in the times to come.
When the greatest of Roman republicans, Marcus Tullius Cicero, offered the world the first treatise on the natural law, On the Laws, began with the image of an oak, deeply rooted not just in the soil, but in the poetic imagination itself. “I recognize that grove and the oak tree of the people of Arpinum: I have read about them often in the Marius. If that oak tree survives, this is surely it; it’s certainly old enough,” Atticus begins. To which Quintus famously answers, “It survives, Atticus, and it will always survive: its roots are in the imagination. No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree as long as one sown in a poet’s verse.” Indeed, Quintus continues, this very oak might have been planted by the one god. Certainly, the name of the oak will remain, tied to the sacred spot, long after nature has ravaged it.
In his History of Early Rome, Livy informs us that a consecrated oak sheltered the praetorium, a seat of waiting and contemplation for foreign guests and ambassadors from the Senate. Likewise, Suetonius reminds us that Mars, especially, favored the oak as a tree symbolizing the divine authority.
The Mediterraneans, though, held no monopoly over a mythic understanding of the oak, as the Germanic tribes far to the north considered the tree the symbol of their god of justice, Thor. When the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians met to decide the fate of inherited and common law–which laws to pass on, which laws to end, and which laws to reform–they met as a Witan or AllThing under the oaks.
Christians, knowing the oak to be so utterly rooted in the pagan tradition, knew not whether to love or to hate the tree. According to St. Bede, when St. Augustine of Canterbury called a conference of church leaders in 603, he did so at an oak, knowing the Anglo-Saxon fondness for the tree. There, at what became known as Augustine’s oak or Augustine’s Ak, the evangelist called for unity in proclaiming the gospel. Two generations earlier, Bede records, St. Columba had done something similar, building a monastery among the Celts known as Dearmach, “Field of Oaks.” Even at the most famous of medieval monasteries, Lindisfarne, Finan built the church altar there not out of traditional stone, but, rather according to the custom of the peoples in that region, an altar “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds.”
When St. Boniface, a century later, encountered a group of Friesians still worshipping the oak of Thor, he—with nothing short of awesome bravado–attacked the tree with his axe. According to the hagiographic legends surrounding Boniface, the oak exploded into four parts moments before the blade touched its bark. So astounded were the pagans at his daring, that St. Boniface seized the moment to begin proclaiming the gospel. Where the ruined oak stood, according to hagiographic myth, an evergreen grew in its place. As it was getting dark and Boniface continued to preach, his followers placed candles all around and upon the evergreen, thus creating the first Christmas tree.
St. Boniface, it turns out, tried this trick one too many times, the last in 754, when some Thor worshippers decided to stick with Thor, beheading the poor Catholic evangelist.
If Boniface undid the oak as a direct representation of a god, he could not undo its importance to justice, as it remained a symbol of the law and of a free people. When the grand Christian King Alfred the Great met with his men in the late 800s to judge the inheritance of the common laws of the Anglo-Saxon people, they, too, met under an oak. Critically, Alfred and his Witan judged the laws. They did not create them, believing such actions illegal. A ruling body can only judge what it has inherited, not create laws out of nothing. Such a power belongs only to God and through his people only across time.
Perhaps, then, St. Boniface’s actions merely rendered under God what was God’s, and unto the community what was the community’s.
The symbol of the oak remained a powerful one in colonial America, especially as the various communities on the eastern seaboard continued their own observance of the traditional common laws and, especially, in their Declaration of Independence. Though not exclusively oak, oaks made fine Liberty Poles and Liberty Trees in the 1760s through 1780s, and newly-freed American communities regularly planted oaks to celebrate their independence from Britain. Pamphleteers, not surprisingly, used the symbol of the acorn and the oak as representative of America’s independence and hardihood.
When Congress rashly passed the democratic Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854—a law that claimed that the enslavement of an entire people could be decided by mere majority vote—angry republican citizens of Michigan formed a third party, the Republican Party, in Jackson, Michigan, under, not surprisingly, a grove of oaks.
Whatever one in the early twenty-first century might think of Jupiter or Thor, the oak remains a mighty symbol of a free people, a people ready to remember and reclaim what is rightfully theirs by the grace of the Creator and the created order. The oak reminds us of strength in the face of nasty and bitter times, returning us to the nourishment of what makes us strong and free, the duty to govern ourselves in a fashion becoming to God and nature and, equally important, to the dignity of the human person. Unlike oppressive governments who rely on cults of personality, the republic relies on the nature of nature and the nature (good and bad) of the human person.
Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.