Category Archives: literature

How Aberdeen SD Became “Hub City”

From Clara’s Journal and the Story of Two Pandemics, by Vickie Oddino (Dobson St., 2021), pp. 97-98:

When the Milwaukee [RR] was surveying its line through Brown County in 1880, conventional wisdom held that the line would be routed through Columbia, which was the county seat. Columbia’s town fathers, feeling that they were in a strong negotiating position, refused to provide the Milwaukee with land for a right of way and a depot free of charge. C. H. Prior, then chief surveyor of the Milwaukee, resurveyed the main line to bypass Columbia and then platted a rival town (on a tract of land owned by his wife) some 12 miles from Columbia. This site became the City of Aberdeen, which was designated as a railroad division point, became the junction for several Milwaukee lines, and eventually became the third largest city in the state. Columbia stagnated and lost the county seat to Aberdeen several years later.

One of Aberdeen’s claims to fame is that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, lived there from 1888-1891 with his wife and two sons (the couple would have two more sons while in South Dakota). While there, he opened a gift shop, Baum’s Bazaar, and when it closed after two years, he purchased the weekly newspaper the Dakota Pioneer and changed its name to Saturday Pioneer. Believe it or not, this paper was one of Aberdeen’s seven weekly papers and two dailies at the time.

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Japanese Pessimism after 1905

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 646:

The naturalist movement in literature, a literature of disillusion, developed immediately after the Russo-Japanese War. A typical example of naturalist fiction, Tayama Katai’s story “Ippeisotsu” (One Soldier), based in part on his experiences as a war correspondent in China, was considered to be so antimilitaristic that for years it could be printed only with passages excised. The generation that grew to maturity during the years after the Russo-Japanese War seemed to be alienated. This alienation often began with shock at the wartime casualties and disappointment over the results of the war but later took such forms as socialism in politics. This in turn caused the older generation to express gloom over the loss by the young of their traditions. Yamazaki Masakazu characterized the times as “the morose era.”

Oka Yoshitake wrote of the same period, “Some youths were swallowed up by scepticism and despair in the course of their search for meaning in life. In fact, that tendency had showed signs of emerging even before the Russo-Japanese war, but it became much more apparent following the cessation of hostilities.”

One might suppose that victory in the war and the admiration voiced abroad would have made the Japanese self-confident, if not proud, but critics of the time worried about the “anxious pessimism” that had become fashionable among young men and women. This pessimism, ironically, may have contributed to the extraordinary flourishing of literature during the ten years after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War.

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Meiji and The Mikado

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 136:

Three days after [British envoy Sir Harry] Parkes and [junior interpreter A. B.] Mitford were presented to the emperor, the first clash occurred between the imperial forces advancing on Edo and the Shinsengumi, a band of some 200 men under the command of Kondō Isami (1834–1868). The imperial forces under Itagaki Taisuke were victorious. Perhaps the most memorable thing about the march of the imperial troops to Edo was the song they sang, “Tokoton’yare,” composed by Shinagawa Yajirō (1843–1900) during the battles at Toba and Fushimi. This song spread not only throughout Japan but also to England, where the music and part of the Japanese words were incorporated into the operetta The Mikado, composed in 1885: Miyasama, miyasama, ouma no mae no, pira pira suru no wa nan jai na, tokoton’yare ton’yarena. Arya chōteki seibatsu seyo to no nishiki no mihata ja shiranka, tokoton’yare ton’yare na.

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Tibetan Monastery Schools

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 143:

MONASTERY SCHOOLS ARE often criticized for their old-fashioned ways. Students are instructed by rote memorization and are disciplined with the rod when their eyes invariably droop from the tedium. Kirti, however, was more like an elite boarding school. The school, which had opened in 1994, taught math and science as well as the traditional subjects like Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language. The Dalai Lama, frustrated by the inadequacy of his own education as a young monk, had called for Tibetan monasteries to offer a more modern curriculum. Many Tibetan writers, filmmakers, and academics were monastery-educated. Kirti itself produced notable figures such as the vice president of PEN International’s Tibetan Writers Abroad, Lobsang Chokta Trotsik, and Go Sherab Gyatso, an essayist and blogger.

The young monks engaged in a ritualized form of debating, as integral to their studies as it is among Talmudic scholars. One group of monks would be assigned to defend a thesis, and the others to challenge it—punctuating the question with a sharp clap of the hands. If one took too long to answer a question, the other monks would protest with a round of three claps, indicating disapproval. A successful defense of a thesis would be approved with a vigorous round of stomping on the pavement, the monastic equivalent of a high five. The subject itself might be existential—what is the meaning of the Buddhist dharma or the impermanence of worldly phenomena—but it was carried out with such gusto to make it exercise for the body as well as the mind. The debates took place outdoors in the large courtyard in front of the main assembly hall, where members of the public could watch. Sometimes the debates lasted until eleven P.M. Dongtuk would tumble into bed past midnight, exhausted and exhilarated. He loved it. He was one of the best debaters in his age group, which gained him status not usually afforded to a short, unathletic boy with poor eyesight.

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Finding Classics in Other Alphabets

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-83:

Arabic dictionaries also used nonalphabetical methods of organizing. The Mukhaṣṣaṣ, or The Categorized, by Ibn Sīda (d. 1066), was divided, as its title states, by subject or topic, beginning with human nature and continuing on to physiology, psychology, women, clothes, food, and weapons. Al-Khalīl Ibn Aḥmad (d. 791), in his Kitāb al-‘ain, The Book of [the Letter] ‘Ain, used sounds to organize his work: he listed entries in an order of his own, where each sound group was followed by subcategories based on how many consonants a word contained. …

These mainly nonalphabetical developments contrasted with the works of Hebrew scholars, who tended toward alphabetical order simultaneously with (and occasionally a little ahead of) their Christian contemporaries. At the end of the eleventh century, Nathan ben Jehiel (c. 1035–c. 1110) produced his Sefer ha’Arukh, The Set Book. Ben Jehiel, who had been born in Rome, spoke Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Persian, and Syriac, and he drew on his knowledge of these languages to produce an alphabetically ordered book of root words occurring in rabbinic literature. It became one of the best-known dictionaries of its type—more than fifty copies survive—as well as being one of the first Hebrew books to be printed, in Rome sometime before 1472.

Many of these works, both in Arabic and Hebrew, and the scholarship that had produced them, became accessible to scholars in Western Europe for the first time as these languages began to be more widely translated into Latin. … That so many of these works returned to the West via Arabic was significant, for earlier Arab scholars had frequently added substantially to the originals, including details of their own work, which was far in advance of much of Western thought at the time.

The Western rediscovery of the classics had two results, one somewhat abstract, one concrete. More generally, the awareness of how many great works had been entirely unknown before the lifetimes of these new readers, and of how many more had been permanently lost, produced a sense that the current generation needed to ensure that this recaptured knowledge, as well as all the works produced under its influence, were preserved for future generations. Further, it created a drive to ensure that the details contained in all these new works could be found easily—in other words, readers wanted not merely to read the books, but to refer to them: they wanted search tools.

These recently translated manuscripts also brought to the West other elements that are crucial for our story. Educated European readers now became increasingly familiar with foreign alphabets. In Italy and France in particular, Hebrew had routinely been transliterated into the roman alphabet when manuscripts were copied; in the rest of Europe, the Greek alphabet had sometimes been used, but less and less as time went on. In Europe, apart from Spain, where Arabic was in common use, Arabic too had been almost always transliterated into the roman alphabet. By contrast, some in the British Isles were familiar with Old English runes, known as futhorc, or with the Irish writing system known as Ogham. Many more would have recognized, and used in conjunction with the roman alphabet, the Old English runic letters such as thorn (Þ, þ) and wynn (Ρ, ρ). For these reasons, “foreign”-looking letters were more familiar and less unnerving in the British Isles, and so Latin and Hebrew letters were both used, as they were from the ninth century in Germany, a regular destination for highly educated monks from Ireland and Britain.

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Evolution of Early Glossaries

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 55-57:

In Europe, Isidore’s innovative use of alphabetical order to organize his work on vocabulary was instead proving influential in a parallel genre: glosses. Glosses had originally appeared in the manuscripts they were glossing, where they explained the meanings of difficult words in Latin or translated foreign words. In both cases, the gloss was written either above the relevant word or beside it, in the margin. Later, sometimes for clarity, sometimes to preserve a valuable manuscript, glosses began to be written out as a separate document, initially continuing to list the words in the order in which they appeared in the primary text, so tying a gloss to a single work, or even, because of the reshaping and reordering that we have seen in copied manuscripts, to one particular copy of a work. Gradually, however, the utility of a gloss that included vocabulary from more than one work became apparent, even if it meant it was no longer practicable to list the words in order of appearance.

And so experiments began with different ordering systems. One possibility was alphabetical order. Another was subject categories, particularly for glosses of technical vocabulary, grouping together words relating to hunting, for example, or words for military fortifications or for parts of the body. Other glosses relied on organizing principles that are far more foreign to us today. The Læcboc, or Medicinale anglicum, The Leech Book, or English Remedies, written in Old English around 950, was arranged, as were many medical texts of the period, with diseases and cures situated along the human body a capite ad calcem, from head to heel. In the Byzantine Empire, texts were generally organized by subject, sometimes geographically, or by name. Only the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedic dictionary dating from the late tenth century, was an alphabetical compilation, magisterially ordering thirty-one thousand historical, biographical, and lexicographical entries into a single alphabetical order. But it was an outlier, both in Byzantium and in Western Europe too at that date.

Glosses, owing their existence to readers’ difficulties with Latin, were more common in countries where the local language had no etymological connection with Latin. Native English, or German, or Flemish readers had greater need of assistance with Latin vocabulary than did French or Italian or Spanish readers, and so it follows that some of the earliest glosses we know of, from the seventh and eighth centuries, were produced by English and Irish speakers. The Leiden Glossary was probably compiled in St. Gallen, but by someone who, judging from the English translations, probably came from what is now Kent, in England. He translated the Latin vocabulary into either Old English or Old High German, and arranged the entries, at least in part, in first-letter alphabetical order. By the eighth century one glossary, which defined nearly five thousand Latin words, ordered just under two thousand of them into fairly consistent first-letter alphabetical order. One extraordinary copy of another glossary, the Liber glossarum, The Book of Glosses, which may have been produced at a convent at Soissons and was based in part on Isidore’s Etymologies, was in almost absolute order, one of the very earliest examples.

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Impressions of Yale, Early 1960s

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 26-28:

The required academic work was dreary. Having to write twee little essays for English courses about John Donne’s imagery made me want to smash things. Or to puke. Raising the level of the world’s drivel barometer is demoralizing. Ruining a youthful love of poetry is worse. “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”

Like my classmates, I wrote essays by the yard. Writing about great villains in novels or who won the Franco-Prussian War was less of a trial than writing about poetry. Also, learning to produce reams of more or less coherent written material about something totally boring and meaningless is good training for would-be lawyers or indeed for anyone who is lucky enough to land a writing job that bills by the column inch.

A few teachers inspired me. Like many ex-prep school students, I had been spoiled at Deerfield by excellent teaching and attentive teachers. At Yale, I quickly recognized that teaching undergraduates wasn’t the point of the institution and that my resentful attitude in the face of great learning and scholarship was childish. Still, I couldn’t help warming to the few professors who tried, however vaguely, to match undergraduate names to faces.

I adored Professor Gordon Haight who taught the Victorian English novel and was the world’s greatest expert on George Elliot. Professor Haight had been one of my father’s teachers, and I had known him as a small child. Academically, Professor Haight was a holdover from Yale’s former tradition of a broad historical approach to the study of literature. This appealed to me. I could never see the point of separating the life and times of John Milton from the poetry of John Milton. At least Milton’s life and times were interesting.

One escape hatch from the required courses in the embalmed world of English literature was accidentally discovering V. by Thomas Pynchon. I added Pynchon to the short list of fiction writers like Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse whose style and attitude speak loudly to me. I must have read V. five times during my first two years at Yale.

Obviously, there were courses that didn’t involve writing reams of drivel or sitting through interminable lectures. Being formally introduced to economics and philosophy was stimulating, regardless of the teaching. And the younger professors didn’t all use the droning, dismal lecture-hall approach. Some showed actual flashes of interest in teaching undergraduates.

I was fortunate to be taught introductory economics by Jan Tumlir, a Czech refugee from Communism. Doing hard labor in the Czech uranium mines after the postwar Communist takeover had wrecked the professor’s health. Without making any specific comments about his experience of Communism, he was a living argument against the collectivist policies believed in, or at least advocated, by so many of the Yale professoriate.

Instead, Professor Tumlir cherished nineteenth-century economic liberalism and ideals like free trade and free markets. He taught us about Ricardo, the great English economist who first stated the law of comparative advantage. Professor Tumlir later became head of economics at GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and predecessor to the current World Trade Organization, but died far too young.

Overall, though, Yale in the early 1960s offered the worst teaching I’ve ever experienced. The benighted, God-stuffed, over-long rambling sermons in the First Church of Deerfield were delivered better and with more conviction. Semi-literate army sergeants proved to be far better teachers, as did even the idlest Oxford dons. And Stanford Business School didn’t give tenure to anyone who received consistently poor student evaluations for teaching.

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1857: Uprising as Class Warfare

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 154-155:

Whatever its causes, the response to the Uprising fractured along distinct class lines. From the morning of 11 May onwards, the most enthusiastic insurgents among the people of Delhi were the workmen of the lower middle class—especially the Muslim weavers and textile merchants—and the same Punjabi Muslim manufacturing and merchant class who had long supported the mujahedin movement. It was these people who immediately swelled the ranks of the initially very small number of sepoys who had arrived in the Mughal capital, creating a panic and allowing many of the poorer Delhiwallahs to set off on an orgy of looting.

In contrast, the Delhi elite, both Hindu and Muslim, remained divided on the merits of joining the Uprising, and were from the start dubious about playing host to large numbers of desperate and violent sepoys from the east of Hindustan. According to one angry eyewitness, the nobleman Abdul Latif: “The teachings of all religions were ignored and violated; even the poor women and children were not spared. The elite and the respected gentry of the city were appalled at the actions [of the insurgents] and were seen pleading with them. Ah! An entire world was destroyed, and as a result of these sins this city was struck down by the evil-eye.” Ghalib was also quite clear that he didn’t like the look of what was happening: “Swarming through the open gates of Delhi, the intoxicated horsemen and rough foot soldiers ravished the city,” he wrote. …

For Ghalib, the Uprising was more about the rise of the rabble of the lower classes than it was about the fall of the British. For him the most terrifying aspect of the revolution was the way his own courtly elite seemed to have lost control to a group of ill-educated ruffians of dubious ancestry: “Noble men and great scholars have fallen from power,” he wrote,

and nameless men with neither name nor pedigree nor jewels nor gold, now have prestige and unlimited riches. One who wandered dust-stained through the streets as if blown by an idle wind, has proclaimed the wind his slave … In its shamelessness the rabble, sword in hand, rallied to one group after another. Throughout the day the rebels looted the city, and at night they slept in silken beds … The city of Delhi was emptied of its rulers and peopled instead by creatures of the Lord who accepted no lord—as if it were a garden without a gardener, and full of fruitless trees … The Emperor was powerless to repulse them; their forces gathered around him, and he fell under their duress, engulfed by them as the moon is engulfed by the eclipse.

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Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.

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Reassessing Ferdinand and Isabella’s Legacy

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2181-2234:

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was called by Prescott ‘the most glorious epoch in the annals’ of Spain. Generations of Spaniards, contrasting their own times with those of the Catholic Kings, would look back upon them as the golden age of Castile. The conquest of Granada, the discovery of America, and the triumphant emergence of Spain on to the European political stage lent unparalleled lustre to the new State created by the Union of the Crowns, and set the seal of success on the political, religious, and economic reforms of the royal couple.

Against the conventional picture of a glorious spring-time under Ferdinand and Isabella, too soon to be turned to winter by the folly of their successors, there must, however, be set some of the less happy features of their reign. They had united two Crowns, but had not even tentatively embarked on the much more arduous task of uniting two peoples. They had destroyed the political power of the great nobility, but left its economic and social influence untouched. They had reorganized the Castilian economy, but at the price of reinforcing the system of latifundios and the predominance of grazing over tillage. They had introduced into Castile certain Aragonese economic institutions, monopolistic in spirit, while failing to bring the Castilian and Aragonese economies any closer together. They had restored order in Castile, but in the process had overthrown the fragile barriers that stood in the way of absolutism. They had reformed the Church, but set up the Inquisition. And they had expelled one of the most dynamic and resourceful sections of the community – the Jews. All this must darken a picture that is often painted excessively bright.

Yet nothing can alter the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella created Spain; that in their reign it acquired both an international existence and – under the impulse given by the creative exuberance of the Castilians and the organizing capacity of the Aragonese – the beginnings of a corporate identity. Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy an institutional form. The Castilians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new State forward; and it was this dynamism which gave the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella its distinguishing character. The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.

The Court was the natural center of Castile’s cultural life; and since Spain still had no fixed capital it was a Court on the move, bringing new ideas and influences from one town to another as it travelled round the country. Since Isabella enjoyed a European reputation for her patronage of learning, she was able to attract to the Court distinguished foreign scholars like the Milanese Pietro Martire, the director of the palace school. Frequented by foreign scholars and by Spaniards who had returned from studying in Italy, the Court thus became an outpost of the new humanism, which was now beginning to establish itself in Spain.

One of the devotees of the new learning was Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522), who returned home from Italy in 1473 – the year in which printing was introduced into Spain. Nebrija, who held the post of historiographer royal, was a grammarian and lexicographer, and an editor of classical texts in the best humanist tradition. But his interests, like those of many humanists, extended also to the vernacular, and he published in 1492 a Castilian grammar – the first grammar to be compiled of a modern European language. ‘What is it for?’ asked Isabella when it was presented to her. ‘Your Majesty,’ replied the Bishop of Avila on Nebrija’s behalf, ‘language is the perfect instrument of empire.’

The Bishop’s reply was prophetic. One of the secrets of Castilian domination of the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth century was to be found in the triumph of its language and culture over that of other parts of the peninsula and empire. The cultural and linguistic success of the Castilians was no doubt facilitated by the decline of Catalan culture in the sixteenth century, as it was also facilitated by the advantageous position of Castilian as the language of Court and bureaucracy. But, in the last analysis, Castile’s cultural predominance derived from the innate vitality of its literature and language at the end of the fifteenth century. The language of the greatest work produced in the Castile of the Catholic Kings, the Celestina of the converso Fernando de Rojas, is at once vigorous, flexible, and authoritative: a language that was indeed ‘the perfect instrument of empire’.

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