17 November 2010

Fellow Washington Biographers -- But Political Nemeses!

A modest man, Washington prays in 1778 at Valley Forge that the unpopularity of biography in the English-speaking world during most of the eighteenth century will continue after his death. He didn't know that he needed to worry about commemorative stamps, too!   

It is well-known that Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the American President, and Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, were political nemeses during the 1910s. These political giants locked horns in a bitter public quarrel about the role of the United States in international affairs after the license-plate-ready "GR8WAR."

From T. Woodrow Wilson's biography George Washington --  p. 1 (L) and an illustration of Washington's favorite Colonial Williamsburg hangout, then called the New Raleigh Tavern (R)

But these two men were not just Versailles-Treaty-wrangling rivals.  It is a little-known but extremely important fact that both men, in their salad days, wrote lengthy biographies of the man first in war, first in peace, and first in the heart of amateur biographers -- George "His High Mightiness" Washington! Following in the great tradition of Mason Locke "Parson Weems" Weems, Wilson's biography, the cleverly-titled George Washington, appeared in 1896, while Lodge's work, uniquely called George Washington, was published in 1889.

Henry Cabot Lodge relates the story of the young Washington, who, when accused of illegally surveying the neighboring estate, told his elder half-brother Lawrence, "I cannot tell a lie. I am participating in the secret initiation rite of the Junior Freemasons of Stafford County." 

Lodge, heir to a vast hotelier fortune, was great pals with Theodore "The Dutch Waashington" Roosevelt, and the two even coauthored the scholarly tome Hero Tales from American History (1895). He was qualified, too, holding the first Ph.D. granted in political science from John Harvard University, studying with fellow American aristocrat Henry "Autobiography" Adams.

Wilson, too, was a qualified biographer, holding a Ph.D. in history and political science from The Johns Hopkins Brothers University in Baltimore, Mary-Land, and working as a professor at several universities, including his undergraduate alma mater, the State University of New Jersey at Princeton.

It must be noted that all three men were FREEMASONS.  It is no coincidence that Wilson called his plans postwar Europe the "New World Order."  It was rumored that, during their public argument over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson and Lodge engaged in a secret fist-fighting match in front of their fellow Congressomasons on the very ground outside of Washington, D.C. on which the George Washington Masonic National Memorial obelisk-lighthouse and gift shop would be built only a few years later!

Was it a coincidence--or fate?!?--that the presidential visages of both Wilson and Washington graced denominations of U.S. Gold Certificates?  (Wilson, strangely enough, demanded of his publisher, Harper & Bros., now HarperCollins, that he only be paid in gold coin put in plain canvas bags with dollar signs on them.) 

Lodge, who only dreamt of appearing on U.S. legal tender. With this futile hope, he commissioned this engraving:

But what of the actual biographies themselves? Were Lodge and Wilson nineteenth-century masters of muscular prose, or mollycoddling stylistic featherweights?  Let's go to the source!

Wilson (a Virginian) begins his book thus:
George Washington was bred a gentleman and a man of honor in the free school of Virginian society.  He came to his first manhood upon the first stir of revolutionary events; caught in their movement, he served a rough apprenticeship in arms at the thick of the French and Indian War; the Revolution found him a leader and veteran in affairs at forty-four; every turn of fortune confirmed him in his executive habit of foresight and mastery; death spared him stalwart and commanding, until, his rising career rounded and complete, no man doubted him the first character of his age.
Virginia gave us this imperial man, and with him a companion race of statesmen and masters in affairs. It was her natural gift, the times and her character being what they were, and Washington's life showed the whole process of breeding by which she conceived so great a generosity in manliness and public spirit.
Compare it to the end of the introductory chapter from Lodge (a Yank):
Behind the popular myths, behind the statuesque figure of the orator and the preacher, behind the general and the president of the historian, there was a strong vigorous man in whose veins ran warm red blood, in whose heart were stormy passions and deep sympathy for humanity, in whose brain were far reaching thoughts, and who was informed throughout his being with a resistless will.
The veil of his silence is not often lifted, and never intentionally, but now and then there is a glimpse behind it; and in stray sentences and in little incidents strenuously gathered together; above all in the right interpretation of the words and the deeds and the true history known to all men, -- we can surely find George Washington, the noblest figure that ever stood in the forefront of a nation's life.
These passages left me with a burning question--will we ever enjoy another semicolon renaissance in our fair nation? Even graduate school in the humanities, that last bastion of overwrought prose, is abandoning its use; like Washington, I fear we shall never see its likes again.   

Yet I digress; both authors celebrate the masculine virility of Washington; Wilson emphasizes his gentlemanly nature and his superior breeding; Lodge, however, finds inspiration in Washington's "stormy passions" and "resistless will." I think I know which one hung out with Teddy "Big Stick" Roosevelt!  

So what do these Progressive politicians contribute to our understanding of Washington?  What do they tell us that Weems, Washington Irving, Ron Chernow, Richard Brookheiser, Joseph Ellis, William Roscoe Thayer, David Ramsay, Charles Cooper King, Eugene "Weems" Parson, Horace Elisha Scudder, William Osborn Stoddard, John Stevens Cabot Abbott, Norman Hapgood, Bushrod "Actual Relative" Washington, Paul Leicester Ford, Jared Sparks, and your mom haven't said? Nothing, really. But making that list was good fun!  

Martha Washington, dedicat'd Ockultist, reading Weems' biography.

Ultimately, as Jill "Blindspot" Lepore recently wrote in the New Yorker, Washington wasn't really that interesting anyway. Beyond his slave-teeth dentures and giant pot farm, Washington was just another un-college-educated Virginia patriarch with a faux-stone mansion facing the Potomac. Perhaps Lodge and Wilson, as both historians and politicians, felt that they must deal with the legacy of Gentleman George before they embarked on careers in the public eye. 

Or perhaps it was part of a Masonic initiation rite, in which all new members had to write a biography of a prominent former member. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a coincidence. But, as George's wife Martha was fond of saying, "In the magickal Universe, there are no Coincidences, and there are no Accidents; nothing happens unless Someone wills it to happen."

05 November 2010

Commonplace Books

An example of a seventeenth-century English commonplace book. Most authors chose only one page orientation for their entries.

We like to think, here at the Cabinet, that the modern-day blog is a form of Commonplace Book (especially that garbage over on Tumblr®). What is a commonplace book, you ask? A product of Europe's early modern Renaissance, the commonplace book was a sort of diary where one recorded favorite or interesting passages or quotes from one's reading. It's also something like a scrapbook, except early modernists didn't cut up their expensive books or spare their newspapers from fish-wrappings to paste favorite excerpts into a commonplace book.

Erasmus, the great humanist and technophile, using a vintage Crapple Macintrash to commonplace.

The practice spread to England in the sixteenth century, then to the British colonies of the New World.  Although it declined in popularity by the nineteenth century, commonplacing gives us a better idea of what the 5% of the population that was literate was reading! Often, however, commonplacers did not give proper attribution to the quotes they recorded. :(

Four out of five Founding Fathers recommend keeping a commonplace book. DO YOU?

The commonplace, they say, demonstrates that seventeenth-century English style of reading was much like the brain-addled web-centric reading of today, jumping from piece to piece instead of reading completely or straight through. Take that, Nicholas "Shallows" Carr!

Some sixteenth-century worthies that you might have heard of wrote instructional manuals on keeping commonplace books, including the Dutchman Desiderius "Erasmus" Roterodamus (1466-1536), and Englishmen Francis "Not the Screaming Pope Guy" Bacon (1561-1626), and John "Rape of the" Locke (1632-1704).  

A Holbein portrait of Erasmus holding his personal commonplace book, mysteriously called Hpakaeloi Ponoi.

Erasmus' handbook was called De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia (Foundations of the Abundant Style), and, although few commonplace neophytes followed his advice to "scribe in lingua mortua, in optimum vitulum cutis,"  it proved enormously influential to English-language commonplacers.  

Francis Bacon, hat connaisseur and commonplacer extraordinaire.

Francis Bacon's commonplace book, The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies (1886), which he decreed not be published until 280 years after his death, is a collection of witty aphorisms and pithy sayings that Bacon used on the Elizabethan lecture circuit and in his Toastmasters classes.  

Some examples of Bacon's cutting observations, gleaned from his wide reading, on the human condition:  
  • "By far the largest portion of hellebore should be given to the covetous."
  • "It is disgraceful for a suitor to solicit his lady's handmaid, but praise is the handmaid of virtue."
  • "Better children weep than old men."  
  • And: "The rowling stone never gathereth mosse."

John "Rape of the" Locke, avid commonplacer

John Locke, the great, wheelchair-bound political philosopher, though often occupied pursuing life, liberty, and property, kept a commonplace. He even had a spin-off commonplace with quotes drawn only from the Bible.  

Here are some select passages from Locke's commonplace: 
  • "They that change their religion without full conviction, which few men take the way to and can never be (without great piety), are not to be trusted, because they have either no God or have been false to him, for religion admits of no dissembling"
  • "One should not dispute with a man who, either through stupidity or shamelessness, denies plain and visible truths."
  •  "Let your will lead whither necessity would drive, and you will always preserve your liberty."  

No stranger to the Cabinet, William Byrd II used the commonplace books as one of many outlets for his unbridled PATRIARCHAL RAGE.

American colonists brought their commonplace book with them, although many became waterlogged with seawater or were eating by starving passengers. The Virginia plantation patriarch William Byrd II (1677-1744), he of the great Westover Plantation and flourishing on the billiard table, kept one of the more famous examples from colonial America.  (Byrd II also kept a secret commonplace book, written in code, that recorded only sexually explicit anecdotes and X-rated bawdy jokes.) Sadly, he did not record the sources for his quotes.

Some of Byrd's more salient recordings include:
  • "Goats milk is accounted better than Asses milk in a consumption, and a wholesome womans milk better than either." (LOL!)
  • "The Virtuosi who Study the nature of their Fellow creatures affirm, that a mule cannot only carry a great deal upon his back, but also a great deal in his head, for not Quantity of strong drink will make him drunk." 
  • "When 2 Beggars marry in France they call it a Match betwixt hunger and thirst, or between Famine and nakedness."  

One of two self-portraits of Jefferson done on his patented Polygraph machine.

Byrd's fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, the poor man's John Locke, also kept a commonplace book.  In fact, he constructed most of the Declaration of Independence in his glass-walled and mysteriously clean room at a Philadelphia boarding house by using excerpts from his commonplace book. And if I could find Jefferson's commonplace book for free online I would quote at length from it, but I can't, because IT WASN'T PUBLISHED UNTIL 1928.  Damn you, public domain date of January 1, 1923!  

Perhaps you're beginning to think that only rich white dudes kept commonplace books. If you are, you're mostly right. No one else could read! Or had books! Or could make quill pens! But just because the commonplace book was the playground of the rich and famous doesn't mean they aren't cool. They're early modern mix tapes, except without the music, or the '80s nostalgia.  

Until next time, the Cabinet is closed.  
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