‘Don Juan’ at 200, Jane Austen’s Library, and the Myth of Blubber Town
Ever wonder how friendly you can get with a pirate without committing a crime? If so, luckily for you, the United States Code spells it out in black and white: Not very friendly at all. “Whoever consults, combines, confederates, or corresponds with any pirate or robber upon the seas, knowing him to be guilty of any piracy or robbery . . . Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.” You can also consult it to learn how to stay on the right side of the law when visiting National Parks, as Scott Beauchamp writes in his review of Mike Chase’s new book How To Become A Federal Criminal: “Giving a stationary horse on private land the middle finger, for example? Not a crime. Giving a ‘passing’ horse an ‘unreasonable’ gesture at a National Park, however? You’ve just violated the law, friend. ‘At a minimum, before making any gesture at a passing horse,’ Chase writes, ‘it’s important to ask yourself, “Would a reasonably prudent person do this?” If the answer is no, then making the gesture could be a crime.’”
In other news: What did Jane Austen read? Rebecca Rego Barry writes about a digital reconstruction of the Godmersham Park library: “For a total of ten months spread over fifteen years, Jane Austen visited her brother Edward Austen Knight at his Kent estate. The brimming bookshelves at Godmersham Park were a particular draw for the novelist. During one stay in 1813—which would turn out to be her last—she wrote to her sister, ‘I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey.’ But which books did she survey? Interested parties now have an answer to this question. Chawton House, another of Edward’s manors that now houses a library and research center, and the Burney Centre at McGill University in Montreal have together created a virtual version of Godmersham’s library shelves.”
Ever wonder how friendly can you get with a pirate without committing a crime? The United States Code spells it out for you in black and white. If you know the person is a pirate, not very friendly at all. “Whoever consults, combines, confederates, or corresponds with any pirate or robber upon the seas, knowing him to be guilty of any piracy or robbery . . . Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.” You can also consult it to learn how to stay on the right side of the law when visiting National Parks, as Scott Beauchamp writes in his review of Mike Chase’s new book How To Become A Federal Criminal: “Giving a stationary horse on private land the middle finger, for example? Not a crime. Giving a ‘passing’ horse an ‘unreasonable’ gesture at a National Park, however? You’ve just violated the law, friend. ‘At a minimum, before making any gesture at a passing horse,’ Chase writes, ‘it’s important to ask yourself, “Would a reasonably prudent person do this?” If the answer is no, then making the gesture could be a crime.’”
PSA: Trigger warnings don’t work. “All the evidence suggests they don’t help and might actually hurt.”
American political life may be dysfunctional, but it could be worse. Adam Rowe: “Joanne Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is a timely reminder that American political institutions were once even more dysfunctional, American citizens even more bitterly divided, and American leaders even more clownishly belligerent than they are today. Freeman, a distinguished historian at Yale who has also written a fine study of the political culture of the early Republic, Affairs of Honor (2001), provides here the best account yet written on the intensifying climate of violence that permeated Congress in the decades preceding the Civil War.”
The crime novelist Peter Abrahams also writes stories narrated by a witty dog named Chet. The two kinds of work are obviously very different, John Wilson writes, but share something nonetheless—a mastery of style: “All fiction—including so-called ‘realistic’ fiction, especially the self-consciously ‘dark’ variety—is highly stylized. One form that takes, mastered by James Patterson and his imitators, is to try to make readers forget that they are reading! The Chet & Bernie books, by contrast, while giving us a dog-narrator who seems delightfully ‘real,’ are loaded with wordplay and other reminders that we are playing a game of sorts, which requires the author and his readers together to say ‘let’s pretend.’”
Michael Caines on Lord Byron’s Don Juan at 200: It is “a piece of versified worldliness, free to rove where it wished, contradictory climates and all.”
John Rossi revisits Christopher Hollis’s A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works—one of the first serious studies of the writer: “An overarching theme of Hollis’s estimate of Orwell is that, despite his atheism, he was essentially a moralist, and there was a religious sensibility to him and his writings, the same kind of meaning that Hollis himself was searching for when he became a Catholic. Hollis believed that Orwell’s thought rested on a subconscious Christian foundation. What makes Hollis’s study unusual is that despite his own deep Catholic belief, he is able to look beyond Orwell’s anti-Catholicism and find what he called ‘a naturally Christian soul.’ Some commentators on Orwell have argued that Hollis is responsible for trying to press-gang the author of The Clergyman’s Daughter into the Catholic camp, what Christopher Hitchens called ‘the body snatching of Orwell.’ In a review of Hollis’s book, Kingsley Amis observed that Hollis ‘cannot resist drawing Orwell in his own image.’ Indeed, the book at times reads as a dual biography, as Hollis carries on an argument with Orwell about religious and spiritual matters, explaining away his atheism and translating their differences into agreement. Hollis’s portrait of Orwell as some kind of crypto-Christian has outraged scholars, but it contributed to the posthumous canonization of Orwell as a kind of secular ‘St. George.’ What gave this view some validity was Orwell’s belief that religion might be without value but its collapse left a gap to be filled.
Essay of the Day:
In The Public Domain Review, Matthew H. Birkhold writes about the myth of Blubber Town:
“Perched on a desolate island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard — 1,500 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle — sits the settlement of Smeerenburg. Founded by Dutch whalers in 1619, Smeerenburg — literally ‘Blubber Town’ — was once the busiest polar site for rendering oil from blubber. As new hunting grounds and technologies rendered land-based processing obsolete, the outpost became unnecessary. Faraway Smeerenburg was abandoned by 1663. Despite its brief existence, myths of a bustling Blubber Town lived on. Sailors recounted streets lined with churches, shops, and bakeries. Other tales described the clubs and brothels forlorn whalers could visit. Respected scientists and historians, including William Scoresby and Fridtjof Nansen, repeated the stories, claiming tens of thousands of people dwelled on the icy island. In reality, no more than fifteen ships carrying four hundred men visited the site.”
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