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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

“What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear”

What is "It"? Weather? Learning? History? Class?

Weather and Stuff Like That

It was winter in Leelanau County, and then it was spring, unexpectedly and alarmingly early. The air was balmy, daffodils pushed up eagerly on Waukazoo Street, and ticks—ugh!—awoke from their hibernal slumbers. One of them found Sarah, and an assistant at the veterinary clinic said four other pet owners had called about ticks on their dogs already. Freedom from ticks is one of winter’s blessings, and the return of spring, while thrilling, also brings back dread and worry in the form of ticks.

But outraged winter roared back, with fierce winds and nearly a foot of snow (to bury the ticks—yea!) and temperatures plunging down to the single digits overnight (so cold--boo!). The old folk saying, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” encapsulates the same truth as my philosophy of life in a nutshell: Everything is a double-edged sword, all blessing mixed, fortune a matter of perspective.

Well, then the sun came out again as the mercury rose once more, and those heavy snowdrifts melted so fast they seemed to be saying with a laugh, “We’re sorry! Bad joke!”

But official spring is still two weeks off, and this is Michigan. Anything could happen.

Intellectual Cross-Pollination

My first semester of college (never mind how long ago) was an exciting time, and as I thought this morning about books I’ve been reading the past couple of weeks, I was reminded of that thrilling earlier period of my life. Can I possibly reconstruct my class schedule? Rhetoric (a required freshman class); Voice and Articulation (for my speech and theatre major); an introductory class in Psychology; Botany (big mistake: I’d been aiming for horticulture but didn’t realize the difference; wanted to work with plants, not microscopes); University Choir—but choir was only one credit, so I’m still missing something big, because I carried 19.5 credits that semester.

But of the classes I’ve remembered, what unites them? Not obvious, is it? Voice and Choir seem to go together, and Psychology might well work along with Rhetoric.... All these years later, the web of connections that I felt then, every day, has fallen into dust. All I can say is that all the learning, so much, was coming at me so fast, that it seemed to feed together like one big class.

Oh, here’s one connection I just remembered. A certain school of thought believed emotions were causative and produced actions, while another argued that actions, based on judgments, themselves produced emotions! For example, I run away, and the running produces fear; the faster I run, the more afraid I become. That theory from psychology had clear and obvious potential for the stage and was itself, to one hearing it for the first time, excitingly new and strange and wonderful.

How I managed to bring botanical insights into anything else back then, I cannot say now. Perhaps the connections I made were metaphorical. I’ve been known to do that sort of thing, once typing a book-length manuscript on welding, written by an engineer, and finding in it nothing but poetry about the successes and failures of love!

And So, About My Recent Reading

This winter/spring, it has been Nancy Isenberg’s startling new perspective on American history that set the stage for cross-pollinating streams of book-induced thought, streams first beginning to interweave when, not yet at the end of her book, I began reading the new John James Audubon, by Gregory Nobles. Here are a few ways Isenberg’s focus on class in America transferred, for me, to the story of Audubon in America.

First, there was the whole big question of what constituted science and who would be counted as a scientist. British and European intellectuals in general looked down on early pioneering knowledge efforts in the New World. The European establishment, proud of its focus on ideas and theory, denigrated American practicality. Americans, they thought, could never set aside questions of economic gain, and so the more abstract questions of science, abstractions that Europeans built into entire systems of thought, fell by the wayside. For their part, the Americans, insistent as they were on their intellectual independence, never felt their scientific reputations secure until they had been recognized in Europe.

Europeans, then, backed by tradition and the leisure of old money, held themselves the “pure” scientists. Americans (Audubon was but one example), scrabbling for financial gain and intellectual recognition, were suspect by comparison.

(I find it sadly ironic today that the nineteenth-century American insistence on facts, experiment, and observation over abstract theory seems to have been given up in today’s United States. At least, that is so in our politics, and one wonders about science. Look around. Controversies and divisions in twenty-first century America are all too often fueled entirely by ideology--backed by money, seen as the ideological measuring stick--, and in that, it seems, we have become European—gone back to the Old World way of thinking—I believe, to our peril.)

One nineteenth-century transatlantic argument in natural history was between Buffon in France and Wilson in America and concerned the mutability of species over time. Evolution and its direction.

Buffon did not visit the New World but advanced a theory, nevertheless, that species degenerated in the American climate. Alexander Wilson (against whom Audubon continued to compete long after Wilson’s death) argued that Buffon’s theory flew in the face of facts, and even Thomas Jefferson got into that fray! Here I couldn’t help making the connection between what Buffon saw as “degeneracy” in America and the class distinctions and characterizations of “degeneracy” Americans themselves made against different groups in their own country, so carefully laid out in Isenberg’s history.

Well, that was the theory/fact divide. On a much lower plane was the distinction made in nineteenth-century America between “gentlemen sportsmen” and “pot hunters,” a class distinction if ever there was one.

As Audubon himself might kill thousands of birds in scientific pursuit, so the killing of birds for “sport” was judged pure and unobjectionable, regardless of the enormity of any particular slaughter—and slaughter it frequently was, with no limits to the killing established by law or admitted according to need. Birds were simply moving targets, and the greater the number killed, the more glory to the “sportsman” who brought them down.

But a “pot hunter”? One who killed to feed himself and his family? To market the meat for gain, as a livelihood? Anathema! Motive, you see, was the dividing line, not numbers of birds killed; male bonding a gentlemanly motive for killing, making a living by killing beneath contempt.

Audubon the American woodsman occupied a strange, anomalous position in the class history of the United States. When he traveled downriver by flatboat, paying his fare by shooting birds and game to provision passengers and crew, the term “pot hunter” clearly applied to him, and all his life, from one line of business to another, providing for his family was of paramount concern. On the other hand, both as an artist and as a scientist, he found doors open to him that would have been closed to others of his social rank—even if, in the best American upstart tradition, he did have to push some of those doors open himself.

Making Me Think

“Not our kind” (or "not our class, dear") is the vaguely worded, classically voiced objection signaling the speaker’s belief in his or her superiority. I started to type the phrase in quotes and missed a key the first time around: “not our kin” is the way it came out on the screen. There you are, I thought. Who will we count as part of the “family of man”?

From Isenberg and Nobles, I turned to the fiction of Charlotte Brontë, re-reading Jane Eyre to prepare myself for Sarah Shoemaker’s new novel, Mr. Rochester, which I am now about halfway through, and again and again, in both, class distinctions come to the fore. But those observations can wait for another day.

For now I only observe that the collecting of books is traditionally a leisure class pursuit, while the selling of them locates one clearly “in trade.” It is in this that I am perhaps most stubbornly American: I have always been proud of making my way in the world. Whether cleaning cabins, picking apples, or typing manuscripts, I've never been ashamed of working for a living. And bookselling has given me much more: through my bookstore, I've grown a life.

1 comment:

P. J. Grath said...


'Your post this morning took me back to my own years in college.Like you, I wanted to major in everything. In my junior year, when I had to pick one, I made scraps of paper for English, French, Psychology, Philosophy, Modern languages, and Geology. I put the scraps in a bag, and drew one out at random. It turned up Modern Languages. I loved studying them, but now all I can do with them is say the Hail Mary in German (I'm not even a church-goer), and passages from Le Petit Prince that I memorized as part of my application for a Fullbright scholarship. I never thought of majoring in art until I returned to school in the 80's.

'Anyway, as I read your post, thoughts of "Rabbit, Run," "Henderson, the Rain King," "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," "The Invisible Man," etc. fluttered around in my head. In French there was "La Nausee," "Madame Bovary," and their ilk....German offered "Schult Oder Verhangness (not sure of the spelling),."....well, thanks for the trip down memory lane. It's nice to be reminded that I once had a brain.'

Cheri, you and I both still have brains--and plenty of spirit! Happy Women's Day! And let me say, in closing, that I'm hoping that when I forget my own name, maybe I'll remember the poems I memorized as a child....