Literary Funambulism

by G. Murphy Donovan (December 2013)

Let us tenderly and kindly cherish therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” 
                            –  John Adams           

Our niece is about to finish high school. Geography is a major concern as she considers a university. She wants to be as far from home as possible, but close enough to some big city. Like many an American teen, she can’t see herself too far from the fashionistas.    

Scholar with blue nails

The West Coast seems to be a front runner, as far as she can go without getting wet. She’s a good student and a tenacious athlete. Curious too and a voracious reader, my niece will leave a vacuum at our dinner table where she often shared her views about life, growing pains, books, and vicissitudes of public education. 

She had the opportunity to attend a private prep school, but it was she who insisted on an urban public school. Independence at that age is both a risk and an opportunity. She must have known what she was doing from the start; she ran the table as an honor student.

Thinking about her next great adventure, I was putting together a small reading list, a kind of bucket bibliography, the kind I wish that someone had given me at her age. To the best of my recollection, the only literature in my childhood home was the NY Daily Mirror and a racing form.

Presumption is the pride of fools, yet I allowed myself to think that the reading I had discovered, by hit-and-miss over the years, might be of some use to my niece. Affection leaves little room for reason.

Alas, what we read in books is not necessarily fact and rarely complete truth; all written words are extracts. And facts selected to tell a tale, or make an argument, are just those — selected at the expense of what might not be included. Literature, especially history, is by necessity (or design) a distillation. And like many adult beverages, a few are excellent, most just another happy hour.

Nonetheless, I began my list with the Adams family, those illustrious Boston Brahmins who produced two American presidents and Henry. The Education of Henry Adams (1907) has more than a little merit as a primer for a girl in transition, living in age of transition. Adams wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. He was appalled by changing values associated with the advent of commercialism. My niece was born midst our fin de siècle. The looming digital age is likely to create as much angst for her peers as any industrial revolution.

Henry Adams was a historian by trade, yet he is best known for that third person biography and his wife’s suicide. Ironically, the Augustus Saint-Gaudens grave marker for wife Clover in Rock Creek Cemetery, was commissioned, one might think, as homage to love, loss, and grief. In fact, the monument is still an enigma; and probably more iconic in popular culture than Adams or any of his ancestors.

Clover Adams

Withal, the Adams autobiography is unique; especially when you consider that Henry was a lifelong advocate of a “scientific” approach to history. Ironically, his memoir, surely history of a sort, is better literature than history. Adams never mentions his wife, leaves a two-decade donut hole in the middle of the narrative, and tells a tale of self in the third person. Not much science there.

The third person for an autobiography was surely a curious choice too. Some see the third person as distance and objectivity; others might argue that the third person is the first refuge of cowards. Virginia Woolf is the egregious 20th-century  example of third person abuse, seeking refuge in “one thinks” or “one believes” or “one should” to the point where uno seems to be the principal actor. Oddly, in her domestic dramas, Mrs. Woolf literally wore her husband’s pants and caroused with the likes of Maynard Keynes, the Nobel Prize laureate who laid the intellectual bricks for the modern nanny state. The Bloomsbury set politicked in the first person progressive.

Getting outside of self and looking back is a kind of literary funambulism. To his credit, Henry Adams brings it off with aplomb. Such feats of balance tell us something about the nature of science and art, not as separate disciplines, but as kissing cousins. 

History is science in the same sense that ‘rap’ is music. What we think of as history is not a chronicle of events or the story of great men and women. History is what some lesser mortal chooses to write. Facts are frequently self-evident. Why one fact is selected over another is another matter. Any history is a choice and always incomplete record, often created long after contradictory evidence is forgotten. We like to think of history as logic, because order is the object of desire. Reason has little to do with history. In fact, history is as much a function of spilled ink as it is a chronicle of dialectics. Apologies to Hegel and Fukuyama.

There will always be more historians than there are great men and women, the former simply dine on the latter.

Reason has never been used exclusively to search for truth anyway. Science is just as often used to spread ignorance. Indeed, the cognoscenti have created another “ology,” to describe the phenomenon; Agnotology, the willful propagation of ignorance

Antisemitism is an example. Despite his paeans to objectivity, Henry Adams was fond of laying the excesses of industrialization and enterprise at the feet of Jews. A few years later, a fellow British practitioner, Arnold Toynbee, abused his stature as a historian with similar bias. Toynbee was fond of referring to Jews as a “fossil society.” Unfortunately, Toynbee’s idiosyncrasies influenced foreign policy. The classroom cloister prepares professors for the ‘logic,’ but not the ethics, of public service. 

Toynbee did the 20th-century spade work for the Emerging (nee Third or Developing) World “victim” paradigm, the kind of history that picks winners and losers in retrospect. Invective and blame are usually reserved for successful nation states. Never mind that the adjective “developing” is too often a triumph of hope over experience.

The Toynbee thread was picked up in our time and woven into whole cloth by Edward Said, another chap who blurs disciplinary boundaries. Said was a teacher of literature by trade, indeed a noted literary critic one who eventually got lost in a thicket of revisionist history.

From a tenured perch at Columbia University, Said sought to rationalize Third World pathology with a theory of Orientalism. His argument suggests that “developing” nation shortcomings, if not the distinctions between winners and losers, can be attributed to racism, colonialism, and/or exploitation. His thesis is at the heart of today’s elaborate rationalization for an irredentist Muslim world, one fourth of the world’s population.

Professor Said is the dinner guest who turns on his host. He came to America as an Arab immigrant, helped himself to a large slice of American pie in New York, and then proceeded to blame his mentors for the ills of a world that Said had abandoned. Between them, Professors Toynbee and Said had a profound influence on all species of 20th-century special pleaders, “victims,” and progressive bigots.

When the flaws of the illuminati are exposed, the common defense is to claim that they were “men of their times.” Mohamed’s slaughter of Jews at Yathrib (672 AD) was rationalized recently with just such language in a CPB ‘history’ entitled The Life of Mohammed. The Banu Qurayza were a tribe of Jews exterminated by the prophet in what is now Medina, Saudia Arabia. Unfortunately, the partisan narrator didn’t explain why anti-Judaism is still a toxin in the Arab and Persian worlds after 1400 years of Koranic enlightenment. Apparently special bias in history is a perennial. Today Arabia is still Judenfrei.

History is merely what we choose to remember, record, or teach. The weak link is usually memory. We tend to celebrate the good because the bad is so painful. Thus the past, and the public record, is often like the future — so much wishful thinking.

The “science” of history is replete with such inconsistency and irony. Henry Adams is just another exemplar. He spent a lifetime trying to sell history as an objective discipline, but in the end he was known best for his art, personal foibles, and his patronage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. 

For the truly inspired, great art happens in spite of the artist, the Adams autobiography and the Saint-Gaudens sculpture are examples. Neither patron nor artist could have anticipated that a grave marker would become an enigmatic global memorial for emotion. In his lifetime, Adams resented that his wife’s head stone was called “Grief,” an icon appropriated by popular sentiment.

Adams Memorial at Rock Creek

Surely Adams did not see his idiosyncratic biography as an enduring work of literary art either. Good art transcends the motives and morals of makers and patrons.

Much that we think of as art must marinate in time. Many great artists are slighted by contemporaries. Jane Austen, Vincent Van Gogh, and Herman Melville are examples. Austen never became wealthy from her writings. She raised the romance novel to high art and died a country spinster. Today, she is an industry. Van Gogh never sold a painting. He died poverty-stricken. And Melville’s Billy Budd was written in draft sometime before his death in 1891; the definitive edition wasn’t published until 1962. The author of Moby Dick was buried in an obscure Bronx cemetery. At least two obituaries misspelled his name.

Withal, true art has meaning beyond wealth, celebrity, or conceit. The jury is still out on science. Nuclear physics has meaning beyond radiation therapy, but much that we call science seems to focus on what it can, not should, do. Written histories often suffer from such shortcomings. The search for meaning, morality, and conscience is left to art and philosophy by default. Alas, the great questions facing mankind are moral, not scientific.

If history is science, then egoism is the mortar that binds the bricks. Who but the egoist could presume to know any subject so well that he or she should lay down the “objective” record? The worst historians are often revisionists too, deconstructionists if you will. They seek reputation through controversy. Shakespeare studies are shot through with such entrepreneurs.

This is not to suggest that the conventional wisdom doesn’t need a wire brush. Often, those who revise received knowledge best are not professionals – or scientists. Fawn Brodie is an example. Mrs. Brodie, an English major from Mormon schools, deconstructed the reputations of Joseph Smith and Thomas Jefferson to good end, set the record straight, as it were.  Smith was an inspired fraud and  bigamist; and Jefferson, in a least one respect, was a kind of colonial William Clinton, a political poseur who preyed on the help.

Brodie was one of the first women to earn tenure at UCLA – without a Ph.D. Imagine the chances of any aspirant attaining a teaching position at any American university today without the punched ticket.

Being egoists, conventional historians tend to judge others as they would like to be judged — on public accomplishment, not personal behavior. Yet in the end, merit for historians and their subjects is the same as it might be for everyman. Integrity is how you behave when no one is looking. A hat tip to General David Petraeus in our time might be appropriate here.

Modern moral relativism argues that we should not judge public men or women by their “private” behavior, as if public figures are entitled to two reckonings. Realistically, all of us are three specters; the person we are, the person others see, and the person we ought to be. Education and maturity are virtues that fuse the trinity. Accountability is the benchmark for maturity. Charles Dickens understood these things without the benefit of science. Parsing public and private behavior diminishes the currency of human merit.

Most children are taught by fools who make careers out of schools. Spending a lifetime at the academy, and posing as an expert, is a little like living in a tree house and expecting to become a bird. Life experience is the best schoolhouse; but for too many academics, that is usually the road not taken.  

Credentials are often mistaken for achievement anyway. For true talent, the pursuit of credentials can be an impediment.

Learning is perennial curiosity. The more we learn, the more we understand how little we know. From that abyss, that trough of humility, true education begins. Almost all American children go to school out of coercion. Sadly, coercion and curiosity are too often at sixes and sevens.

Education is discovery. Over time; parents, schools, and teachers are marginally relevant. And too often, those who teach have too many titles and too few accomplishments to offer.  Many ‘students’ take up space in school because they are compelled. Those schools, in turn, confuse knowledge and education with the rote of received wisdom.

So why have a bucket bibliography, one that includes the likes of Henry Adams?

First, formal education is now a threat to body and mind. And the latter matters permanently. Independent reading insures that formal schools don’t completely eliminate the possibility of education.

Public schools are the employer of first resort for the bottom of the academic barrel. Primary and secondary institutions are host to the worst in an industry where an “education” degree, not knowledge, is the norm. Below college, the credentialed empty hat is now a generational problem.

Meaningless credentials now run the secondary asylums, a system where ticket-punching and tenure trump achievement. The rot at the bottom is starting to tell at the top now, at the university level.  Even honor students from high school might encounter a rude awakening if they are lucky enough to find a university with performance standards.

Beyond standards and performance, American education has become a haven for the bong resin of late 20th-century politics: dare we say post-Marxist flotsam. Surely these mandarins are men and women “of their times.” The politically correct, not the educated, are in charge; and their toxic social politics now influence textbooks and reading lists. Edward Said’s moonlit treatise is just one prominent example. Any student who challenges politically correct twaddle is likely to be ostracized.

Over time, the American academy was hijacked by mediocrity; a generation of special pleaders with sinecures. The drastic slide in college and graduate level knowledge norms for American students is testimony to the decay. What at one time was the best school system in the world is sinking like a stone.

Warehousing, masquerading as education at all levels, public and private, is probably, other than government, the largest industry in the country. And like government, the service gets shoddier over time; in both cases, inflated prices for inferior products. Such things are the makings of catastrophe. The American future is not what it used to be.

Just before the turn of the last century, Henry Adams worried too about the decline of standards and mores in a dawning 20th century. Much of his angst was validated by the chaos of the next fifty years; a Great War, agricultural collapse, a Great Depression, a Holocaust, and another world war. Some of this sad litany had to be endured, for a time, without the comfort of cocktails.

In his time, Henry Adams was a gifted chap; well born, well educated, and accomplished as a scholar and literary figure. Nonetheless, late in life he concluded that his time spent with formal education was wasted.

A hundred years later, it’s hard to know what such a man might think of poshlust in the Internet Age. Still, an ego like Adams was never so self-absorbed that he could not, like his ancestors, reflect and write. Indeed, the personal observations in the Education of Henry Adams have more resonance with readers today than Henry’s many volumes of colonial history.

We don’t stop learning because we get older, we get old, in some cases infirm, because we stop learning. 

So the Adams autobiography is the first entry in my niece’s bucket bibliography, a tale of a talented, troubled, perhaps guilty, monocarpic egoist looking at himself and his times through the occluded lens of the third person singular.


The author is a graduate of one too many institutions of higher learning. He should have quit with Cardinal Hayes HS in the South Bronx where he learned to read, write, count his change, and avoid detention with Father Jablonski, legendary Dean of Discipline.


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