Literary Funambulism

by G. Murphy Donovan (December 2013)

Scholar with blue nails

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.

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

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.

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.

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

testimony to the decay. What at one time was the best school system in the world is sinking like a stone.

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.

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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