Category Archives: Non-fiction

‘The Conservative Mind,’ by Russell Kirk

The assault on institutional religion, on old-fashioned economic methods, on family authority, and on small political communities has set the individual free from nearly everything, truly; but that freedom is a terrifying thing, the freedom of a baby deserted by his parents to do as he pleases.

I have done it. I have successfully read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind all the way through. I rate this accomplishment just a bit behind getting my master’s degree.

The essence of conservatism is aristocracy – at least that’s what this book seems to be saying. Which is not optically optimal, in my mind. And I may be misreading Kirk’s intentions – he may simply be accurately transcribing the arguments of the historical conservatives he’s surveying, from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot.

Most English and American conservatives, up until recently, have defended some kind of aristocracy. Not because they believe aristocrats to be superior by blood, but for prudential reasons. Your alternatives in governance, they argue, are either some kind of autocracy – where a monarch or a dictator rules by personal caprice – or pure democracy, where the public, which knows only what it wants, uses its votes to allocate all the wealth to itself. You can’t get any kind of real justice from either alternative.

The aristocracy, they have argued, is some kind of class of men (or people) who’ve been schooled in the ancient truths and the lessons of history. They preserve the institutions that guarantee rights and freedom, which dictators and the masses alike would take away.

Since the 20th Century, though, the cause of aristocracy has mostly been lost, and we’ve been trying to find a way to raise an aristocracy out of the general public through education. Kirk saw hope for the future at the time of writing, feeling that conservatives were producing good art and analysis and positively influencing culture.

It seems to me, however, that prospects look less sunny since the 1980s when the book was last updated. We now have an educational system expressly committed to erasing the Anglo-American tradition. And our immigration policies are focused on bringing in large numbers of people who are either indifferent or actively hostile to that tradition.

Kirk’s original title for the book was The Conservative Rout. He meant it to be a story of a long retreat, but with hope in the end. For the conservative reader in the early 21st Century, I fear the outlook is less encouraging.

And that was before the epidemic…

Blogging through ‘The Conservative Mind’: Evangelicalism

Continuing my fairly random commentary on Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind:

Good will is not enough to safeguard freedom and justice: this delusion leads to the triumph of every demagogue and tyrant, and no amount of transplanted Idealism can compensate for the loss of religious sanctions. Men’s passions are held in check only by the punishments of divine wrath and the tender affections of piety.

This passage from Kirk’s chapter on Orestes Brownson is part of one of many discussions where the place of Christianity – or at least religion in general – is considered. Although most of the notable conservatives in the book are heterodox in some sense, and some are even agnostics or atheists, the importance of religion as such looms large. One exception is Roman Catholicism – several of the great conservatives are Catholics, or at least high Anglicans.

Catholics come off pretty well in this book – which annoys me a bit, of course. Still, I can’t deny that the Reformation was a liberalizing force (heck, I’m proud of it. See my post last night). Luther didn’t abolish the hierarchy of the church (check out the organizations of most Lutheran churches worldwide), but he affirmed the principle that there’s a direct line between the believer and Christ, absent the mediation of the priest. In the context of history, this was a step toward individualism and what Kirk calls “atomization” – mankind conceived as a mass of unconnected individuals, all free-floating clients of the state, undistinguished by family, status, or personal qualities.

It’s interesting for an evangelical to observe that evangelicals are newbies to the conservative movement. Again, this is something I already knew – evangelicals were Abolitionists and the Prohibitionists, trying to re-shape the world through legislation, to change mankind through enlightened government force.

But there were dangers in that approach, as we can see now. The reformer who wants to save the world from slavery and Demon Rum, goes on to try to save it from guns and cigarettes and fossil fuels and transphobia.

And yet I don’t believe in a purely libertarian approach either. I think the government has a role to play in legislating morality – all laws, after all, legislate morality to one extent or another.

I’m thinking it over.

Blogging ‘The Conservative Mind’

OK, folks. I’m back on course. I hope you’re all safe, sheltering in place, avoiding hugs, and keeping well.

As I explained a few inches down the page, I’m reading Russell Kirk’s interesting but interminable The Conservative Mind, and blogging as I go. Parts of the book were kind of a shock to me, though a salutary one.

One thing you learn in reading this book this that it’s not a canard to say that conservatives are against Democracy. To the contrary, early conservatives (like Edmund Burke, particular hero of this book), considered Democracy a positive threat to a decent social order. The American Founders generally shared that view. When we say “We are not a democracy, we’re a republic,” it’s true – or was.

Kirk lays that principle down, early in the book, in a list of conservative principles. Here are his words:

[Conservatives hold a ] Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservative often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

This idea in itself was not a surprise to me – I talk about the same thing in my work with Lutheran Free Church history. But I’ve approached it from the other side. I’ve often told listeners and readers that the Norwegian Lutheran pietists who founded my church body were liberals in their time. That the primary difference between liberals and conservatives in those days was their different ideas about the place of the common people in society. Conservatives wanted hierarchy and ancient privileges preserved. Liberals wanted the common people to participate ever more fully in all public life. Hence universal education, leading to broader voting rights.

To the early conservatives, this was all disastrous. The breakdown of the social classes must inevitably lead to the debasement of moral life. There would be no more great, highly educated men to emulate – everything would be debased to a common level of undistinguished mediocrity.

I don’t think we’re meant to take all the early conservatives’ ideas seriously – they mostly distrusted the abolition of slavery, for instance (wanting it to be delayed and happen naturally). For my own part, I can’t help being proud of the achievements of (limited) democracy in America – Abraham Lincoln, as I’ve often said, was a walking reproach to the class-conscious old conservatives.

On the other hand, the horrors those old conservatives predicted seem to be coming upon us at last.

Possibly the American experiment was a fragile flower, one that bloomed briefly in a specialized environment in a blessed time and place, never to be seen again.

But I hope not.

‘Return to the Future,’ by Sigrid Undset

Pre-Christian pagans – Greeks and Romans and Nordic peoples, or redskins and Asiatic tribes – have usually conceived of the Golden Age as having been some time in the past. The present was hard, and the future was dark and full of menace. When the Christian Church began to speak and taught that God’s kingdom would come, it was in reality challenging people’s innermost convictions.

Inconstant and fickle as I am, I shall now contradict what I told you yesterday about blogging my way through The Conservative Mind. A small writing job came up which required me to bone up on Sigrid Undset, and I decided I needed to read an Undset book I’ve owned for a while but had not yet read – her 1942 war memoir, Return to the Future.

The original manuscript for Viking Legacy included a short passage from Undset, about the ancient piles of stones in Norway which have been cleared from the fields over the centuries. She declares them Norway’s “proudest monuments of antiquity” (my translation). Sadly, that passage (which I adored) was omitted from the final version. I didn’t realize, until I picked up Return to the Future, that it was the opening paragraph of that work.

In April 1940, as the Germans advanced northward in Norway, author Sigrid Undset left her home in Lillehammer in haste. She and her youngest son, Hans, fled with other refugees up to the coast at Molde, where they turned eastward toward the Swedish border, traveling at times on foot or on skis. It was only after their arrival in Sweden that they learned that her oldest son, Anders, an officer in the Norwegian army, had been killed in action. After a short stayover in Sweden, she and Hans took a Russian plane for a connection to the Trans-Siberian railroad.

The trip on the Trans-Siberian forms a large section of the book, and does not present an appealing picture. Even traveling first class, they found the accommodations (built under the Czars and badly maintained) filthy, the food terrible, the compartments stifling (you could not open the windows because of the soot, which got in anyway), and there was no running water. What she saw of the country revealed nothing but poverty, filth, and dull, lifeless faces. In spite of vaunted universal literacy, almost nobody read anything. The Catholic Undset saw in Russia everything she already suspected about Communism.

Arriving in Vladivostok, they take a steamer to Japan, and it’s a whole different world. Though like the rest of the world she is appalled by reports of Japanese atrocities in China, she can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the clothing and the architecture, the delicate politeness of the people (though they insist on ignoring her in favor of Hans, because he’s the male), and the cleanliness everywhere. Her description of the Japanese leg of her trip gives her the opportunity to meditate at length on the nature of politics and power, and how the West has – to some extent – brought the war on itself through treating non-westerners as if they were as materialistic as we are.

Her voyage ended in the United States, and she crossed our country by train, finally settling in Brooklyn. But the book ends before her arrival. One assumes it was brought out fairly quickly, as part of her campaign to promote the cause of the Norwegian government in exile.

Return to the Future was interesting, both for the first-hand account of Norway under attack, and for Undset’s thoughts about international politics, morality and war. She spends a lot of time on the historical sins of the Germans (she baldly declares Martin Luther a “psychopath,” but I forgive her). The sense of the title, as I understand it, is that the Nazi invasion had plunged Norway back into the dark past, and that in coming to America she was returning to the “future” to which she was accustomed. The implication is that America had an obligation to bring that future back for the victims of the war. I would rate the translation by Henriette C. K. Naeseth as adequate, though I flatter myself that I could have done better.

Kirk on Scott (not Star Trek)

Sir Walter Scott.

The public library has always been a boon to the impecunious reader. The utility that permits me to download e-books from my library is a particular blessing (not least in these days when Pestilence stalks the land). My library’s system is a little cumbersome, but less cumbersome than driving to the physical building, so I’ve got no gripe coming.

My main problem with my library’s e-book collection is selection. Mostly I read mysteries for light reading, and when I pull up “mystery” on the library site I always get the very same list of books. I don’t know if they’re arranged by popularity or date of acquisition, or some other criterion. But I have to page through screens and screens of listings before I find one that a) interests me, and b) isn’t being read by somebody else.

Last week I tried a new approach. Instead of looking for mysteries, I thought, why don’t I try one of those “important” books I’ve always heard I should read, but have never gotten around to? I’ll bet nobody’s waiting in line for those.

So, on a whim, I searched for Russell Kirk. Several books were available, and I selected The Conservative Mind.

Brilliant. Masterfully written. Illuminating.

And long. Dear, sweet jasmine tea, it’s a long book. I started it last week, and I’m not half way through yet. I complained a while back about the length of Walter Scott’s The Pirate, but that was an Amazon review compared to this.

The nice part is that my book-buying expenses have plummeted for the duration.

So… of what shall I blog until I finish this thing?

I think I shall discuss the reading as I go.

The first thing that struck me as potential blogging material was Mr. Kirk’s assessment of Sir Walter Scott, mentioned above.

In the Waverly novels, Scott makes the conservatism of Burke a living and a tender thing—in Edie Ochiltree, showing how the benefits and dignity of hierarchical society extend even to the beggar; in Balfour of Burley, illustrating the destructive spirit of reforming fanaticism; in Montrose among the clans, “the unbought grace of life”; in Monkbarns or the Baron of Bradwardine, the hamely goodness of the old-fashioned laird…. Delighting in variety like all the Romantics, repelled by the coarsening pleasure-and-pain principle of conduct, Scott clearly saw in Utilitarianism a system which would efface nationality, individuality, and all the beauty of the past. Utilitarianism was the surly apology for a hideous and rapacious industrialism.

(More after jump)

Shippey on the Staffordshire Hoard

Photo credit: theguardian.com

We usually specialize in Vikings on this blog, but we are not above tolerating Anglo-Saxons, especially when there’s a Tolkien connection.

Tom Shippey, successor to and biographer of J.R.R. Tolkien, has a review in the London Review and Books of a new book on the Staffordshire Hoard, a rather amazing 2009 find:

What one can say is, first, that the hoard is unique from the period. Previous discoveries have been grave burials, or single finds, not collections buried with (presumably) the intention of later recovery. Second, the general nature of the hoard is clear. It is strongly weapon-related, but without weapons. There are no coins, no brooches, no items of women’s jewellery, not even a single knife or sword blade. Some 80 per cent of the objects are fittings from weapons, mostly sword-hilt parts. An Anglo-Saxon sword typically had a wooden hilt fitted over the iron tang on the blade, but to this were added an upper and a lower guard, each secured by two hilt plates and a hilt collar, fixed by bosses, with a pommel on top. All these appear in the hoard in large numbers.

Read it all here. Thanks to Dale Nelson for sending me the link.

What Environmentalism Can Teach Us About Loving the Body

I didn’t notice Nancy Pearcey’s latest book when it was released in 2018, but I heard an interview today in which she described one of the explanations she makes that has caught the attention of many readers. Her book is Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, and it offers biblical reasons for accepting, even loving, the body God has given you.

She says we can take something from environmentalism.

The Nature Conservatory’s states, “Our mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.”

What if we applied that logic to our own bodies? We are not spirits or souls trapped in a temporal, worthless vessel. We are unique body and soul beings, and our physical form is a major part of our lives. Our physical health is a big part of a thriving life. What if we treated it as a kind of natural good, something to love partly for its own sake, not something to fight against?

There are some who say we can and should remake ourselves into whatever image we imagine ourselves to be, but that’s not how we treat nature. We want to preserve the natural world around us. How about we preserve the natural form closest to us?

This is what I took from the interview. You’ll find more good reasoning in Pearcey’s Love Thy Body.

‘The Lost Cause,’ by James P. Muehlberger

On December 7, 1869, two men attacked the Daviess County Savings and Loan in Gallatin, Missouri. One of them murdered the cashier and grabbed a metal box (which turned out to be full of worthless documents). They fled riding double, as one of their horses had run off. On the way out of town they stole a farmer’s horse to make a successful getaway.

The lost horse was quickly identified. It was a blooded Kentucky thoroughbred, well known as belonging to one Jesse Woodson James. This was Jesse’s first identified post-Civil War crime, and a Kansas City newspaperman named John Newman Edwards took interest. He began writing laudatory articles, sparking what would become an American legend.

The Gallatin raid has traditionally been viewed as a botched bank robbery. But lawyer James P. Muehlberger, author of The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James, has uncovered the original documents of the lawsuit that followed the event, in which a lawyer named Henry McDougal sued Jesse on behalf of the farmer who lost his horse. The evidence he uncovered strongly suggests that this was not a bank robbery at all, but a failed assassination attempt. The outlaws were after another Gallatin man, Major Samuel P. Cox, who had come into possession of a pair of pistols owned by the guerrilla leader Bloody Bill Anderson, killed in the war. Anderson’s brother Jim had written Cox a threatening letter demanding the pistols back. Evidence indicates that the murderers went to Gallatin to kill Cox, but instead shot bank employee John Sheets, who resembled Cox. The other robber, long thought to be Frank James, was probably Jim Anderson.

Muehlberger goes on to give a kind of legal history of the James gang, from McDougal’s original lawsuit up through the murder trials that followed Frank James’ final surrender in 1882, in which he was acquitted and set free.

Muehlberger’s purpose is partly to tell the story and share the fresh information he’s uncovered, and partly to plead his own case – that the James gang was not a romantic band of Southern heroes, oppressed by corrupt carpetbaggers, but a low-life group of thugs, contemptuous of others’ lives and property, who benefited from a positive public relations campaign. Rather than robbing the rich to give to the poor, Jesse’s take tended to go toward paying off his race track gambling debts. Muehlberger also wishes to debunk the whole idea of the “lost cause,” the claim that the Southern cause in the Civil War was not about slavery but about constitutional rights.

I tend to agree with him on that point, though I think it’s overstated. I disagree with those who say that secession had nothing to do with slavery, but I also disagree with those who say it was only about slavery. I think there’s a middle ground there.

I do agree about the James gang, though.

The Lost Cause is a book of considerable interest to anyone curious about that period of American history. The writing isn’t top-notch but it’s not bad. Recommended.

Getting Away with Murdering a State Official

Michael Francke made a new for himself as a clear-headed director of New Mexico’s Department of Corrections. The governor of Oregon appeared to have wanted his clear thinking for his state’s department of correction when he offered him the position in 1987, but as the excellent podcast Murder in Oregon reports, nothing was it appeared in the Beaver State.

The day before Francke was scheduled to present evidence of corruption within his department and his recommendations for resolving it, he was murdered in the parking lot of his government office. Exactly what happened on January 17, 1989, remains a mystery. What’s known is that he was stabbed in the chest and bled out on the steps of an unused office doorway.

A guard says he saw two men standing by Francke’s car, and when the left each other, one of them ran across the parking lot, the other walked back toward the office in no particular rush. The guard did not stick by that testimony in trial, but why he changed his mind is only one of a thousand odd details about the Francke’s murder and the sorry investigation that followed it.

Listen the podcast trailer here or through your podcast app, and you’ll hear a bit of their great storytelling. A columnist who has written about this story for years is one of the show’s producers, so we get full accounts of the events in 1989 in light of evidence hidden from the public or ignored by authorities at the time.

Every episode is engaging, unlike some true crime; the most recent one, number nine, exposed the horrific, manipulative nature of one of the suspected officials. Considering they convicted an innocent man, put him away for almost 30 years, and avoided prosecution themselves, I’d say they got away with it, even if it catching up to the living next year.

‘Strange Tales of Scotland,’ by Jack Strange

Broichan may have been put out by this blatant display of Christian power in his own back yard, so he predicted that a storm would batter the saint on his return to his west. The prediction was proved correct, but as Columba lived on a Hebridean island he was used to foul weather and returned home safely. Anyway it was a pretty safe bet to predict stormy weather in western Scotland; it would have been more impressive had Broichan said there would be a lasting spell of fair weather.

There are ancient ties between Scotland and Norway, which are next-door neighbors in maritime terms. That may explain why I’ve always had an interest in old Albion. Or not. In any case, Jack Strange’s book Strange Tales of Scotland caught my eye. I remember reading books of legend and folklore with great interest in my younger years.

Broadly speaking (though other kinds of tales pop up) the stories in this book deal with monsters like the Loch Ness monster (which is not the only one of its kind), supernatural beings like various kinds of elves or fairies, and ghosts. Ghosts are often associated with the histories of ancient castles, so you get the stories of the castles too.

I didn’t enjoy Strange Tales of Scotland as much as I hoped to. That may be partly the author’s part – I thought the book could have been organized better; it’s kind of a hodgepodge, jumping around the map at random. But more than that, all the stories seemed sadly familiar to me – folk tales tend to be repetitive. You have an infinite loop of abused and cast-off mistresses, innocent women convicted of witchcraft and guilty witches who escaped punishment, murdered babies, and bloodthirsty local Bluebeards. It all kind of depressed me after a while.

However, if you’re not familiar with the field, and appreciate the glamour of Scotland, you might enjoy this book more than I did. One could do worse.

Oh yes, he mentions the Fairy Flag of the McLeods (reputed to be Harald Hardrada’s banner). I appreciated that.

‘The Rescue Artist,’ by Edward Dolnick

“The big-picture thefts are all motivated by bragging and stupidity. The crooks just move the things around until some sap gets landed with them, like the last guy with a chain letter. The paintings will always have great intrinsic value, so the saps will always dream on.”

In the early morning of February 12, 1994, while an excited Norway prepared for the opening of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, two burglars climbed a ladder to the second floor of the Munch Museum in Oslo, broke a window, crawled in and took Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of most iconic paintings in the world, out into the night (falling off the ladder twice in the process). The window was not alarmed, and though the thieves were caught on a security camera, the sole guard on duty was engrossed in paperwork and didn’t notice.

It was a moment of national embarrassment. The Norwegian police searched for clues, but there was little they could do except wait for a ransom demand. Weeks passed and none came.

All this caught the attention of Charlie Hill, star detective on Scotland Yard’s art theft squad. Unfortunately the case was not in their jurisdiction. But Charlie Hill was not a man to be put off by technicalities like that. Half American, half English, a former seminarian and sniper in Vietnam, he’d been a loose cannon in the police service until he found his niche – doing undercover work for the art squad. A natural actor and thrill-seeker, he lived for challenges like this.

So he found a pretext, and the Norwegians requested help, and he plunged in, traveling to Oslo to pose as an American representative of the Getty Museum of Modern Art. What followed was, apparently, more Keystone Kops than Thomas Crown Affair. The great danger in retrieving stolen art, we learn, is not from sophisticated criminal masterminds, but from stupid thugs who are easily spooked and might break something. Abetted, sometimes, by equally stupid policemen.

That’s what The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is about. I have to admit I enjoyed it less than I hoped. It’s true crime, after all, and that’s always less entertaining than the fictional variety. And I’m afraid that (although there are hints that he might be some kind of Christian) I got kind of tired of Charlie Hill. Hyperactive and mercurial, a man who favors instinct over logic, he’s not my kind of detective.

But it’s an educational book for anyone interested in the (apparently) booming industry of art theft. And it has an ironic coda.

Moderately recommended for those inclined. Cautions for language.

Cherokees in the Civil War

The Trail of Tears is a horrible stain on our country, but the story of the events and decisions that led to it is not straightforward. World has republished the introduction to Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation by John Sedgwick, a history of what the Cherokee did before, during, and after the war, distinguishing themselves above all other Native American tribes.

At first, virtually all the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy, identifying with the Southern plantation owners, and proud of the black slaves they themselves had bought to pick their cotton. And, complicit with the state of Georgia, the Union had been responsible for the land theft that had cost them their ancestral territory and packed them west in the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears three decades before.

But why did the Cherokee not stay united against a common enemy? How could they have divided against themselves? To answer this, we need go back three decades to the terrible winter of 1838 and the issue that would never go away. Removal—the cruel shorthand for the Trail of Tears—was to the Cherokee Nation what slavery was to America, an issue so profound as to be bottomless and unending.

The Personal History of Mr. Sunshine

We recently finished a 24-episode historical drama created for South Korean television in 2018 and distributed this year through Netflix. Set at the end of the Joseon kingdom, while Korea tried to move into the 20th century as subjects of a king, Mr. Sunshine is essentially a fiercely patriotic story. It begins with loyalists attempting to defend their peninsula from colonialists, despite obviously being outgunned. It ends with rebels raging against the rising tide of Japanese occupation.

We first see Choi Yoo-jin (Lee Byung-hun) as the son of slaves, who runs to avoid being killed and makes it to New York City. He grows up to become U.S. Marine Captain Eugene Choi, deployed to the American embassy in Joseon. He’s an American soldier with Korean skin; most people don’t know what to make of him. But he’s glad to be back in Joseon so he can find the people who murdered his parents and take his revenge.

On a risky American assignment, he encounters the beautiful Lady Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) doing something distinctly unladylike. He won’t know about her family until long after his interest in her has grown. But two other men are interested in her too: a Korean samurai, who is thought to have sold his soul to Japan, and the son of the second richest family in the country, who happens to be Lady Go’s fiancé. The three men are drawn together by their proximity and held by various mutual interests.

It’s a beautifully filmed drama told reservedly and works as a personal story of love and duty as well as a historical tribute to Korean independence. Americans will find many things to love about it.

If you know a bit of the history of Korea, you’ll be able to guess the story doesn’t have that happy of an ending; if you don’t know the history, you’ll be able to guess the tenor of the end by the prominent place of “Greensleeves” or by the first English words Lady Go learns: gun, glory, sad ending.

‘The Innocents Abroad,’ by Mark Twain

Syrian travel has its interesting features, like travel in any other part of the world, and yet to break your leg or have the cholera adds a welcome variety to it.

The organizers of the “Great Pleasure Excursion,” which sailed from New York on the steamer Quaker City in 1867, must have come to regret their decision. I mean their decision to include in their party the journalist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who was traveling on assignment for a San Francisco newspaper. This was (I believe) one of the earliest international pleasure cruises in history – made possible by the capacity of a steam ship to travel on a more predictable schedule than a sailing ship. The notes Twain kept on that voyage would emerge as The Innocents Abroad, his most popular book during in his lifetime.

Although described as a pleasure excursion, the main purpose of the voyage was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then under Ottoman rule. Along the way, however, they would take in parts of North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and Constantinople (still called by that name). On the way home they would see the sights of Egypt. It was quite a journey, and physically demanding by the standards of travel in our own day.

Mark Twain, only then becoming a celebrity, was prepared to subject everything he beheld to a typically American scrutiny. It seemed to him that in a lot of cases, when his fellow travelers exclaimed over the beauty or wonder of some piece of art or scenic vista, they were only parroting the responses their guide books had provided them. When Twain found something a disappointment or a humbug he said so – and seems to have delighted in shocking his fellow travelers. Which is not to say he lacked appreciation. When something impresses him, he says it. At some points he grows almost reverent.

Twain divides his fellow travelers into two parties – the “sinners” and the “pilgrims.” That doesn’t mean they broke up into cliques. He has a group of friends he keeps company with, and some of them are pilgrims. He confesses to admiring them in some respects. But when they appear hypocritical to him (as when they lengthen their overland journeys on a couple of days in order avoid traveling on the Sabbath, in spite of inconvenience to fellow travelers and cruelty to their horses), he seems to take satisfaction in pointing it out. The man is clearly keeping score. (He is also frustrated – rightly – by members of the party who insist of chipping pieces off monuments as souvenirs.)

The Catholic Church comes in for a great deal of criticism – he is appalled by the display of wealth in cathedrals, contrasted with the miserable poverty he saw in European streets. However, when he observes real virtue displayed by churchmen, such as the Dominican monks who cared for the sick during a cholera epidemic, or the desert monks who gave his party hospitality in the Palestinian desert, he does it justice. It seems to me (and this is my take on him in general, though I’m not an expert) that he was a man who wrestled with God. He could not be an atheist (in part because he’d have no God to be angry at), but he considered himself too smart to be taken in by any revealed religion. A very American attitude, that, and one that would grow influential.

The humor of The Innocents Abroad arises partly from Twain’s characteristic style – flowery Victorian prose constantly stumbling into premeditated bathos – and his Missourian “show me” attitude. He is not much impressed, for instance, with the artistic works of the Old Masters, but grants that he may have simply been overwhelmed by the numbers of them in places like Rome and Florence. He loves to describe the filth of European cities and is positively scandalized by the tiny size of the Holy Land.

Almost any subject is interesting when described by an interesting man. An expedition like this one, full of material fascinating in itself, can hardly fail to engage the reader when a man like Mark Twain chronicles it. And that’s what we get with The Innocents Abroad.

I read The Innocents Abroad in the linked Kindle edition, which is not a particularly good one. Although it’s described as illustrated, the illustrations in this version are not the ones that properly go with the book. They are images of 19th Century paintings with no particular connection to the text, and even those only show up in the first section. Also there are no proper paragraph breaks.

“As Individuals, We Can Never Be Happy”

To label [novelist Marilynne] Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and [Peter Augustine] Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

J. L. Wall writes about the big ideas behind Robinson’s stories and essays and how she and Lawler both believe we have lost the language to communicate our deepest longings. We can still ask the right questions, but our attempts at answers fall short.

Also on this subject: “So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them.” From a review of The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso.