Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Through the Golden Gates

How did I wind up planning a day trip to a woodsy conference center whose heyday was in the mid-19th-century, for the sole purpose of walking through their legendary Golden Gates with other likeminded weirdos? If you know me at all, you’re probably saying “Uh-huh. Sounds like something she’d do.” 

I pin the blame on Isabella Alden (aka “Pansy”), one of Victorian America’s most popular and revered Christian authors. Pansy’s work, unlike that of most of her peers, stands the test of time (notwithstanding the more-than-occasional Temperance plot points). Her warm, earnest, witty novels are richly detailed and beautifully written, crafted to awaken settled, snoozing Christians. Pansy doesn’t flinch at killing off main characters, beloved or not, and exposing the fetid underside of her world. Anything to sound the alarm for the smug churchgoing set. She’s become, hands down, my favorite author of any era. 
My first encounter with Pansy was also my first encounter with Chautauqua (the Victorian-Edwardian Sunday School rallying center and present-day hangout for bougie suburbanites who love NPR). Once I met four maidens who encountered their Savior during one momentous summer in Pansy’s Four Girls at Chautauqua, I was smitten. I needed more. NEEDED. I stalked Ebay for Pansy’s books, buying e-versions when print copies weren’t available. I hounded the patient author of the Isabella Alden tribute blog (it’s perfectly marvelous!). I devoured Pansy’s The Hall in the Grove, Steven’s Mitchell’s Journey, Four Mothers at Chautauqua, and Eighty-Seven—more of her lovingly penned homages to the nation-spanning, artsy-booksy phenomena known as Chautauqua. 
What started as a lark became an obsession. Since I live only a few hours down the freeway from the place itself, I took a day trip last summer. (The account of that visit can be found here on the Isabella Alden blog pages.) There I discovered that the Chautauqua Literary & Science Circle (CLSC), the reading club Pansy lauded and lionized in several of her books, still lived. In fact, it’s America’s longest running book club!   
Well, the friendly archivist informed me that CLSC members could choose any 12 books from their historic booklist, originated in 1878 by Chautauqua founders. This list formed the correspondence school curriculum that provided a well-rounded, college-level education, aimed at mostly unlettered but self-motivated store clerks, housewives, and uppity chambermaids. Oh, bliss! I selected 12 Victorian-era texts and plunged in (see my list here). Any reader who completes their list in the allotted year is encouraged to join their “classmates” at Chautauqua for a traditional parade through the grounds, clad in white and bearing banners from former classes (I’ve got my eye on the Class of 1887 banner; that’s the Pansy Class, named for my favorite author herself!). The parade winds up at the Hall of Philosophy (aka The Hall in the Grove) via those legendary Golden Gates.  I’ll be walking in Pansy’s footsteps! 
To adhere to the all-white graduation dress code and in homage to my Victorian book choices, I contemplated wearing my genuine 19th century petticoat (so handy when I was a Shakespeare-in-the-Park costume mistress). What could be more appropriate? But that kind of whimsy could quickly turn my semi-serious pursuit into a cosplay moment. And really, my inspiration has been less reenactment and more cultural immersion. 
As my year’s reading progressed, I was floored by the rigor of the original 4-year CLSC courses. Members were TESTED on what they’d read, including languages (primarily German, French, and Latin!!), hard sciences, higher mathematics, history, astronomy, literature, and the arts. Today’s relaxed requirements, apparently simplified for a weak-brained contemporary audience, are to read 12 books. Period. Are we smarter or dumber these days? Pop quiz: Can you do long division in your head? Name the Roman emperors in order? Know any planet’s distance from the Sun? Me, neither. But Victorian CLSC grads were expected to. 
Readers can always tell when an author is in love with her subject. For Pansy, every dawn-struck hillside and shoreline sunset, every chiming bell and steamship whistle, each fern-wreathed tree stump and Auditorium bench, every Doric column in the “Hall in the Grove” is a talisman. Here’s a good example of the love she lavishes on her favorite place: “It is impossible to describe to you the delight that was in the boy’s tones as the gleaming pillars of the Hall of Philosophy rose up before him; something in the purity and strength, and quaintness, seemed to have gotten possession of him. Whether it was a shadowy link between him and some ancient scholar or worshipper I cannot say, but certain it is that Robert Fenton, boy though he was, treading the Chautauquan avenues for the first time, felt his young heart thrill with a hope and a determination, neither of which he understood, every time he saw those gleaming pillars.” (The Hall in the Grove)
And through Pansy, I’ve come to love it, too. Only I realize I love a Chautauqua that exists only in her books—a place where Christ’s was the moving Spirit, where truth was sanctified by its relationship to the Fountain of Wisdom, where learning was a means to an end, and that end was to become better equipped to serve the One who created and loves His complex, beautiful, needy world. 
“The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” Isaiah 50:4

Monday, July 9, 2018

Wrapt in dense obscurity

Didn’t you assume all Victorian Bible-believing Christians were anti-Darwin? I sure did, until I read the modest “First Lessons in Geology” by Alpheus Spring Packard Jr (with a name like that, Dad had the nerve to name his kid the same?). Packard (who prudently uses A.S. Packard Jr as his penname) was the professor of zoology and geology at Rhode Island’s Brown University and this limp, well-thumbed 1882 Chautauqua text was designed to accompany their Scientific Diagrams Series No 1 (Geology). Since I don’t have said diagrams, I must be content with imagining the soggy prehistoric shores as described by Packard in vivid detail. 
I picture this chap in jodhpurs and a pith helmet, pickax at the ready, tramping through swampy fields and clambering over rocky mountainsides. He occasionally shares highlights of his personal adventures of climbing volcanoes, wading through ferny forests, and spelunking for fossils in the eastern US. These insights are either to reassure the young reader that he’s legit or to interject a note of personality in a teeming morass of scientific prose. 
As far as I can tell, Packard just assumes that anyone with even a modest amount of brains can tell from the evidence that the earth is zillions of years old—Professor Packard would find the current conservative adherence to a 6-thousand-year-old Earth model to be hooey on a Jurassic scale.  One interesting feature is the emphasis on America—chapter headers call out “American During the Silurian Period” and he lovingly details American-grown prehistoric flora and fauna, like wooly mammoth herds frolicking along while antediluvian urchins gaped in wonder. 
This quasi-Darwinian tribute text surprisingly and routinely combines creation and evolution, without making a clear distinction or even much of a fuss. His prose is restrained by Victorian standards, but there are the era’s signature flourishes, word pictures that unfurl like delicate Triassic ferns: “It is so simple an agent as running water rather than volcanic upheavals, which has, late in the world’s history, changed the face of nature, and adorned the earth with carved work, combining grandeur and sublimity with a delicacy and beauty of finish which elevates and informs the soul of man with the loftiest and finest feelings.” (pg 20). Another favorite of mine: “…there swam schools of smaller, slighter ganoid fishes, whose silvery chased and fretted plates of enamel gleamed in the bright clear waters lit up by the torrid rays of a Devonian sun.” (pg 81) 
Packard presents his scenarios with a fait accompli flair and his conclusion tidies up all the loose ends and perhaps tries to assuage the fears of the Sunday School crowd: “Such, then, is the story of creation. And when we contemplate the creative or evolutional force which is immanent in nature, who can logically deny that here we are dealing with the evidences of the existence of an all-pervading and all-wise Intelligence outside of the material world, the Origin and Creator of all things?” (pg 127) 
I wonder…is it significant that he concludes his work with a question mark?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Genesis 1: 1,2

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Germanicus

How did I manage to miss a pretty key chapter of Roman conquest history? Maybe Boomer teachers were too caught up in current events like Vietnam to inform us that Caesar’s troops spent a quite a bit of time putting down the wild tribes of Germany (aka my ancestors!). The 1888 history text I rocketed through this week (An Outline History of Rome by Dr. John H. Vincent and James R. Joy) offers the first solid explanation I’ve heard about why one of the more famous Augustine descendants was called “Germanicus” (tip: there’s a hint, right there, in his name!). Vincent and Joy offer endgame spoilers like: “But the Germans who dwelt in the unknown forest region beyond the (Rhine) river were a constant menace to the peace of the empire.” (pg 183-184). That’s what we’d call a foreshadowing in the literary world because these are the fellows who brought Rome’s empire to a messy halt a few centuries later. (And BTW, there’s a *very* active subculture out there of men in basements who build battlefields over abandoned ping-pong tables, and populate them with tiny action figures of Gauls, Celts, and Roman soldiers. I discovered this when looking for a juicy image with which to grace this post. Scary.)

Aside from the typically scathingly elegant 19th century condemnation for those Romans who devolved from upright, stable, stern family men to licentious, libertine slackers, Vincent and Joy gallop through Roman history with gusto. And, when the action starts getting hot and heavy, these normally chatty chaps present it in surprisingly telegraphic prose. In fact, in some battle sequences, the authors lose their Victorian dignity and sound more like boys yelling out the really cool parts to each other. Passages fluctuate between meandering prosily through ancestry accounts and breezing along, assuming readers are well familiar with famous Latin phrases like “Vini, Vidi, Vici” and “crossing the Rubicon.” Well, let’s say those phrases USED to be famous (see my Victorian-esque rant against the dumbing down of American education here).

Hilariously awful portrait sketches are sprinkled about, some laughable bad. I doubt any reader who encounters their hook-nosed Cleopatra (a vile, wicked woman in their estimation, whose treachery, cowardice, and conniving helped bring down a tottering empire) would ever think “Wow, Anthony, she was soooo worth it!”

The battle for Roman rulership rages briskly over the centuries as we plow along. Christians are persecuted, Jews are scattered, epic walls are erected (so THAT’S who Hadrian is!), temples are demolished.  It’s a bit like the toga-clad version of 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles—power-mad men and their conquests, big and small. After a while, the Caesars’ names all blur together…Octavius, Vespasian, Honorius, Caligula. The pagi (pagans) and the haiden (heathens) win out in the end as the barbarians trample the culture under their Visigothic feet. When the Mongol hordes of Attila the Hun (aka “The Scourge of God”—how’d you like that for a nickname?) showed up in the middle of the 5th century, “panic preceded their advance, and desolation followed in their wake.” (pg 231) Aetius, a Roman general, defeated him in France, thus, according to Vincent and Joy, saving Western Europe from barbarism and claiming he “preserved for modern times the civilization of the Greeks and Romans.” (pg 231). Which turns out to be a very good thing for readers like us!

I flat-out love Dr. Vincent’s assumptive claims about why God allowed the Roman empire to crush all comers.. “Little did the men who made Rome the power and the terror it was dream that its aggressions and control were but preparations for the coming of One mightier than any or all of the rulers over the vast empire. Forerunners of the King of kings were all these crowned and sceptered chieftains. They built their ships that Paul and his associates might sail the Eastern seas. They stretched out broad and smooth and well-defended highways that God’s word of gospel grace might the more swiftly run. Thus man’s work furthers God’s plan. They unify government and spread abroad a common speech, that Hebrew truth, informed by a new and living Spirit, may sweep from east to west, from north to south, and give news of one salvation to all men every-where.” (pg 4) “Rome has her lessons for the true Church of Jesus Christ, lessons of warning, emphatic and earnest, against worldly ambition, greed of gold, and earthly influence.” (pg 5)

You know how I’ve mentioned finding little surprises tucked into these vintage texts? Well, this one did not disappoint. A little rectangle of paper was tucked into the chapter discussing the learned Marcus Aurelius, author of “Meditations” (which our authors reluctantly admit is “among the noblest and purest of heathen writings” pg 213). The rectangle is V-cut in the middle, creating a sort of match-up icebreaker quiz of the inked quote: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.” It’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and how it wound up with Marcus is a mystery, but, as always, such little treasures remind me of the Victorian emphasis on the importance of memorizing key quotes, dates, names, and facts.

It’s safe to say I’ve learned more about the Roman empire in a week, reading this book, than in the many months spent learning ancient history as a kid. Why? Well, maybe it’s my Pansy-fed motivation? After reading Isabella (“Pansy”) Alden’s The Hall in the Grove, I got a wee bit obsessed with Chautauqua and especially with Pansy’s depictions of the power of education on the underserved, illiterate “lower classes” of her day and how much belief she and her peers had in the power of the written word to uplift the masses. I wanted to read firsthand what ignited the passion in her ‘Paul Adams” character that took him from the saloon to sobriety to scholar. And as I close the covers of this little brown book, I begin to see how Rome’s valor and vanity could fan to flame a latent genius in even such as he.  

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord. The One enthroned in Heaven laughs.” Psalm 2: 1-2, 4