Moses’ Last Exodus

Wilmington, Del., Nov. 30, 1860

The knock came after dark. Hastening to answer it, the old Quaker found a familiar figure in the doorway: a tiny, dark-skinned woman, barely five feet tall, with a kerchief wrapped around her head. Someone who didn’t know her might have taken her for an ordinary poor black woman begging alms – were it not for her eyes. Wide-set, deep-socketed and commanding, they were the eyes not of a pauper or slave, but of an Old Testament hero, a nemesis of pharaohs and kings.

Harriet Tubman, circa 1860s.

Five others followed her: a man and woman, two little girls and, cradled in a basket, the swaddled form of a tiny infant, uncannily silent and still. They had braved many dangers and hardships together to reach this place of safety, trusting their lives to the woman known as “the Moses of her people.”

As politicians throughout the country debated secession and young men drilled for war, Harriet Tubman had been plotting a mission into the heart of slave territory. She did not know that it would be her last. Over the past 10 years, she had undertaken about a dozen clandestine journeys to the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, the place from which she herself had escaped in 1849. She had managed to bring some six dozen people – most of them family and friends – across the Mason-Dixon Line into freedom, then across the Canadian border to safety. But Tubman had never managed to liberate several of her closest relatives: her younger sister Rachel and Rachel’s two children, Ben and Angerine. In the autumn of 1860, she decided to rescue them.

Slave ads from a newspaper on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, 1859.

Although it lay on the border between North and South and had few large plantations, the part of Maryland east of the Chesapeake Bay was an especially hazardous place to be a slave. Soil depletion and economic stagnation had left many local planters with more field hands than they needed – as well as chronically short of cash. By the mid-19th century, the Eastern Shore had become known as one of the nation’s principal “breeder” regions, where slaves were frequently sold to slave traders, speculators who sent them south to the burgeoning cotton and sugar plantations of the Gulf Coast. As a child, Tubman had seen two of her own sisters sold away, and heard her parents’ anguished tales of others taken before her birth. Four of her remaining siblings had escaped, three of them helped by their sister Harriet. Only Rachel had remained.

By this time, Tubman was well connected to the nationwide abolitionist movement, and before departing, she raised money for the trip (and for possible bribes along the way) from Wendell Phillips and other activists. She set out from her home in Auburn, N.Y., and by mid-November she was in Maryland.

Tubman arrived to learn that her sister would never know freedom: Rachel had died a short time earlier. There were still the two children, her niece and nephew, to rescue. Here too, Tubman failed. She set a rendezvous point in the woods near the plantation where the two were held, but they failed to appear at the appointed time. Tubman waited all through that night and the following one, crouching behind a tree for shelter from the wind and driving snow. At last she gave up. Ben and Angerine’s fate is unknown.

Ad for a runaway slave, in Macon (Georgia) Daily Telegraph, Nov. 30, 1860.

Tubman had, however, found another family that was ready to seek freedom: Stephen and Maria Ennals and their children, six-year-old Harriet, four-year-old Amanda and a three-month-old infant. (One or two other men may have joined them as well.) The fugitives made their way up the peninsula, traveling mostly by night. Once, they were pursued by slave patrollers alerted to their presence. The escapees hid on an island in the middle of a swamp, covering the baby in a basket. Eventually a lone white man appeared, strolling casually along the edge of the marsh, seemingly talking to himself. They realized he was an agent of the Underground Railroad, telling them how to reach a barn where they could take shelter.

As they continued on their journey, Tubman would go out each day in search of food while the Ennalses hid in the woods, their baby drugged with an opiate to keep it from crying. Returning at the end of the day, Tubman would softly sing a hymn until they heard her and reemerged:

Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
Grief nor sorrow, pain nor anguish,
Shall no more distress you dere.

Even as the group approached Wilmington, it was not yet out of danger: Delaware was still officially a slave state. In fact, due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the escapees could have been recaptured anywhere in the North and returned to bondage. Tubman herself could have been re-enslaved, or – as an abettor of fugitives – sentenced to spend the rest of her life in a Maryland prison. But at last, on the night of Nov. 30, she reached the house of the elderly Quaker, Thomas Garrett, a leading Underground Railroad “conductor” who would smuggle the Ennals family to relative safety in Philadelphia.

Although the Underground Railroad had already become famous – and, for many Americans, infamous – only a tiny percentage of slaves managed to escape to the North: estimates have put the number at just a thousand or so each year out of a total enslaved population of some four million. Still, these fugitives were a major bone of contention for disgruntled Southerners. An adult field hand could cost as much as $2,000, the equivalent of a substantial house. To Southerners, then, anyone who helped a man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief. But more infuriating than the monetary loss it occasioned, the Underground Railroad was an affront to the slaveholders’ pride – and a rebuke to those who insisted that black men and women were comfortable and contented in bondage.

In an 1860 speech, Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia thundered against Republicans “engaged in stealing our property” and thus “daily committing offences against the people and property of these … States, which, by the laws of nations, are good and sufficient causes of war.” As secession loomed, some Northerners attempted to soothe such fears. A New York Times editorial suggested not only that stronger efforts be made to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, but that the federal government compensate slaveholders for their escaped “property.”

Tubman was back in Auburn by Christmas Day, 1860, having conveyed the Ennals family safely to Canada. (Abolitionists often noted the irony of Americans fleeing the “land of liberty” to seek freedom under Queen Victoria’s sheltering scepter.) Her secret missions ended with the approach of war.

But one night in the midst of the secession crisis, while staying at the house of another black leader, a vision came to Tubman in a dream that all of America’s slaves were soon to be liberated – a vision so powerful that she rose from bed singing. Her host tried in vain to quiet her; perhaps their grandchildren would live to see the day of jubilee, he said, but they themselves surely would not. “I tell you, sir, you’ll see it, and you’ll see it soon,” she retorted, and sang again: “My people are free! My people are free.”

Sources: Kate Clifford Larson, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero“; William Still, “The Underground Rail Road”; Sarah H. Bradford, “Harriet, the Moses of Her People”; Catherine Clinton, “Harriet Tubman, The Road to Freedom”; Fergus Bordewich, “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America”; James A. McGowan, “Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett”; “Speech of Robert Toombs, of Ga., Delivered in the Senate of the U.S. January 24, 1860”; New York Times, Dec. 10, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/29/moses-last-exodus/

Cleopatra’s Guide to Good Governance

LET’S say you can’t readily lay your hands on “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” or those of Winnie the Pooh. And let’s say the political mood around you is bleak; gridlock is the order of the day. Why not turn to a different management guru, a woman who left some 2,000-year-old teachable moments, each of them enduring and essential?

At 18, Cleopatra VII inherited the most lucrative enterprise in existence, the envy of her world. Everyone for miles around worked for her. Anything they grew or manufactured enriched her coffers. She had the administrative apparatus and the miles of paperwork to prove it.

From the moment she woke she wrangled with military and managerial decisions. The crush of state business consumed her day. Partisan interests threatened to trip her up at every turn; she observed enough court intrigue to make a Medici blush. To complicate matters, she was highly vulnerable to a hostile takeover. Oh, and she looked very little like the other statesmen with whom she did business.

Herewith her leadership secrets, a papyrus primer for modern-day Washington:

Obliterate your rivals. Co-opting the competition is good. Eliminating it is better. Cleopatra made quick work of her siblings, which sounds uncouth. As Plutarch noted, however, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. It happened in the best of families.

The royal rules for dispensing with blood relatives were as inflexible as those of geometry. Cleopatra lost one brother in her civil war against him; allegedly poisoned a second; arranged the murder of her surviving sister. She thereafter reigned supreme.

Does this suggest by extension that a family business is a bad idea? It does.

Don’t confuse business with pleasure. The two have a chronic tendency to invade each other’s territory. But what were John Edwards, Mark Hurd, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer thinking?

If you’re going to seduce someone, set your sights high. Cleopatra fell in with the most celebrated military commanders of her day, sequentially allying herself and producing children with her white knights, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. As she demonstrated, the idea is to kiss your way up the ladder. Along the same lines, there was an ancient world equivalent of the hire-an-assistant-of-whom-your-spouse-can’t-be-jealous wisdom. Cleopatra surrounded herself with eunuchs. They got into less trouble than did other aides, or at least different kinds of trouble.

Appearances count. As President Obama has learned and unlearned, theater works wonders. You may campaign in poetry, but you are wise to govern in pageantry. Deliver carnivals rather than tutorials; a little vulgarity goes a long way. Just wear the flag pin already.

Leadership is a trick of perception, a bit of wisdom Shakespeare lent Henry IV, to pass along to Prince Hal. And if you intend to command, look the part. Work boots with a suit are always a nice touch when you’re the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in an occupied Middle Eastern country, for example. Make something of a spectacle of yourself. Yes, you can do that in jeans and a black turtleneck. In a televised world as in a pre-print era, it’s the stage management that counts. Literally or not, the idea is to create and star in your own reality show.

Go big or go home. Cleopatra appeared before Antony at an age when, according to Plutarch, “women have most brilliant beauty and are at the acme of intellectual power,” a moment every woman knows to be several years behind her. But no matter. Cleopatra took with her extravagant gifts, chests of money, rich textiles. She left behind the boxed sets of DVDs and scale models of Marine One. She traveled on a gilded barge with purple sails, amid a cloud of incense. She laid out carpets of roses. To Antony’s officers she handed around gem-studded vessels, couches, sideboards, tapestries, horses, torch-bearing Ethiopian slaves. It was not surprising that the most astute of Antony’s generals should several years later vouch for her military genius.

 

Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Millenniums before Wallace Shawn delivered up that pearl of wisdom in “The Princess Bride,” Cleopatra seems to have intuited as much. She nonetheless financed Antony’s military expedition to the restive area east of the Tigris, a multiethnic, multicultural region of shifting alliances, one that had resisted 30 years of Roman efforts at organization. The Roman general who had last ventured that way had not returned. His severed head wound up as a prop in a royal production of Euripides. His legions were slaughtered. Antony fared only marginally better. Asian allies double-crossed him. Guerrilla tactics and treacherous geography undid him. At the conclusion of a demoralizing campaign and a disastrous retreat he had lost some 24,000 men. Cleopatra bailed him out.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Cleopatra comported herself flamboyantly and delivered on drama. But occasionally — despite a huge staff that included pages and scribes, masseurs and tasters, lamplighters and pearl-setters — something slipped through the cracks.

Alas such was the case in her dealings with Cicero, who left only damning lines about the Egyptian queen, whom he would not deign even to mention by name. He had little reason to be inclined toward a rich and foreign female sovereign. But the animus derived from something else. Cleopatra had promised Cicero a manuscript — it may have been one from her library in Alexandria — on which she failed to deliver. The oversight sealed her fate for posterity. No one has ever paid so lasting a price for a forgotten library book.

It pays to sweat the details, as Newt Gingrich reminded us when he shut down the federal government in 1994, after he was assigned a lousy seat on Air Force One.

If you can’t pay your debts, debase your currency. Egypt’s economic affairs were dismal when Cleopatra ascended to the throne. She devalued the currency by a third. She issued no gold and critically lowered the value of her kingdom’s silver. And she ushered in a great innovation: she introduced coins of various denominations. In an early prefiguring of paper currency, the markings rather than the metal content determined their value. A coin might feel light in the hand, but if Cleopatra said it was worth 80 drachmae, it was worth 80 drachmae. The arrangement was both lucrative to her and encouraged an export-driven economy.

 

A friend of a friend may well be an enemy. Cleopatra’s charm was said to be irresistible, her presence spellbinding. But one person on whom she failed to work her magic was Herod.

Well before religion clouded the picture, the Queen of Egypt and the King of Judaea were rivals for Rome’s friendship. Cleopatra did everything in her power to frustrate Herod. She kept him as far from Antony as possible and claimed proceeds from Judaea’s most lucrative natural resources. At one point she incited a war between Herod and his Arab neighbors the Nabateans, ordering her commander in the region to prolong the contest as long as possible. She counted on them to destroy each other, which they did not. Cleopatra did supply Herod with further reason to malign her in Rome, however.

Good neighbors make good fences. Shortly after the war between Herod and the Nabateans, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian soundly defeated Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. She retreated to Alexandria, from which she attempted several escapes. In one particularly bold maneuver, she dragged her Mediterranean fleet 40 miles overland in order to relaunch it, via the Gulf of Suez, into the Red Sea. Both the bravado and the engineering were staggering. Cleopatra essentially anticipated the Suez Canal.

The tribe on the far side of the Gulf was unfortunately the Nabateans, newly recovered from their costly war with Herod. They set fire to each of Cleopatra’s ships as it reached their shore.

Unsurprisingly, Herod was happy to escort the conquering Octavian directly to the Egyptian border. He saw to it that the Romans lacked nothing for the desert march ahead. Several weeks later Cleopatra was dead.

 

Control the narrative. Cleopatra understood well that the storytelling mattered as much as the decision-making, and that the best narrative is the easy-to-follow narrative.

She discovered early on that it helps to have a god on your side — or to claim to speak for one. She remained at all times on-message, truthfully and not. She cruised the Nile with Julius Caesar, a splendid advertisement of Egyptian abundance to her Roman visitor and of Roman military might to her people. After her defeat at Actium, she sailed back to Alexandria with head high, passing off a mission entirely botched as one expertly accomplished.

She astutely manipulated the nomenclature; as mission statements go, you can’t do better than the title she adopted at 32: “Queen Cleopatra, the Goddess, the Younger, Father-Loving and Fatherland-Loving.”

The problems came later. Her enemies wrote her history, reducing her shrewd politics and managerial competence to sexual manipulation. As one contemporary noted, “How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!” It’s rarely about the library book, but so much easier to claim it is. And you never know who’s going to end up addressing posterity.

It could be Newt Gingrich.

Stacy Schiff is the author of “Cleopatra: A Life.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/opinion/05schiff.html

Dangerous Liaisons

A BRITISH ambassador to Venice in the 17th century observed that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” But for centuries, diplomats did more than lie. They bribed, they stole, they intercepted dispatches. Perhaps this will come as some consolation to the many American diplomats whose faces have been reddened by the trove of diplomatic cables released this week by WikiLeaks: whatever they’ve done cannot compare in underhandedness with what ambassadors did in the past.

In 16th-century London, for instance, a French ambassador paid another diplomat’s secretary 60 crowns a month to read the dispatches to which the secretary had access. By the 1700s, a large part of the British Foreign Office’s annual expenses of £67,000 was allocated for bribery.

But as a scene of diplomatic misbehavior, London could hardly measure up to Vienna. Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, an 18th-century Austrian foreign minister, took no monetary bribes, but he accepted expensive presents like horses, paintings and fine wines from people who wanted to influence him. Viennese prostitutes also enjoyed unusual access to the diplomatic corps; one such woman, during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, received a salary from an adjutant of Czar Alexander I, and provided him with information she learned during her visits with other envoys.

These practices had begun in the Middle Ages, when negotiators of treaties would gather information about the host nation. They continued in the Renaissance with the advent of permanent embassies. And the belief that the ambassador was a legalized spy never left the hosts’ minds.

Accordingly, governments intercepted the correspondence of diplomats accredited to them. Specialists in curtained, candle-lighted “black chambers” slid hot wires under wax seals to open letters. Those in foreign languages were translated; those in code, decrypted. Their contents were then passed along to kings and ministers.

The black chamber of Vienna was the most efficient. It received the bags of mail going to and from the embassies at 7 a.m.; letters were opened, copied and returned to the post office by 9:30. When the British ambassador complained that he had gotten British letters sealed not with his seal but with that of another country — clear evidence that they had been opened — Kaunitz calmly replied, “How clumsy these people are.”

When the French ambassador to Russia, the Marquis de La Chétardie, in 1744 protested an order for him to leave, an official began reading him his intercepted letters, showing his meddling in Russian affairs. “That’s enough!” the marquis said — and began packing.

The mores of diplomacy began to change in the 19th century, pushed first by the spread of democracy and republican government. Public opinion came to regard it as wrong and unbecoming to a democracy to do anything illegal — in particular when representing itself abroad. Other factors in that change, according to the British diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson, lay in the emerging sense of the community of nations and of the importance of public opinion. As Lord Palmerston, the mid-19th-century British prime minister, maintained, opinions are stronger than armies.

This shift was exemplified by a growing belief that mail shouldn’t be tampered with. In Britain in the 1840s, there was a huge public outcry over the post office’s opening of the mail of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini; at the time, the English historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay declared that it was as wrong to take his letter from the mail as to take it from his desk. And when the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was passed in 1961, among its prescriptions was that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”

Ambassadors now regard themselves as ladies and gentlemen. They do not lie. They do not steal. But in some ways, diplomacy has not advanced beyond the old ways. And diplomatic cables can always be intercepted or revealed — as WikiLeaks has demonstrated.

David Kahn is the author of “The Codebreakers” and “The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/opinion/03kahn.html

Ten of the best Hamlets

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Tom arrives in London and goes with his witless companion Partridge to see Garrick play Hamlet. Partridge is unimpressed. “‘He the best player!’ cries Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer, ‘why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did.'”

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Mrs Malaprop naturally has a Bardic bent. Talking of Sir Anthony Absolute’s handsome son, she remembers Hamlet’s praise of his father only a little inaccurately. “‘Hesperian curls – the front of Job himself! – An eye, like March, to threaten at command! – A station, like Harry Mercury, new . . .’ Something about kissing – on a hill.”

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In Goethe’s Bildungsroman, the hero owes the formation of his character as much to Shakespeare’s plays as to any experience of the world. Wilhelm joins a theatrical company and stars in its production of Hamlet. Several chapters are devoted to scene-by-scene analysis of the play, leading to a triumphant performance.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip and Herbert Pocket watch the absurd Mr Wopsle play “that undecided prince” in a production heckled by a rowdy London audience. “On the question whether ’twas nobler in the mind to suffer, some roared yes, and some no, and some inclining to both opinions said ‘Toss up for it’ and quite a Debating Society arose.”

Ulysses by James Joyce

In the “Scylla and Charybdis” section Stephen Dedalus opines about the Dane, hinting at Shakespeare’s covert Catholicism. “Not for nothing was he a butcher’s son wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palm. Nine lives are taken off for his father’s one, Our Father who art in purgatory.” He reckons the play was written out of Shakespeare’s anger at being cuckolded.

“William Holds the Stage” by Richmal Crompton

William has set his heart on playing Hamlet in the school play and takes the stage, uninvited, to deliver the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. His recall is about as accurate as Mrs Malaprop’s, but still remarkable, as he delivers the speech while chased by stagehands.

“Hamlet” by Boris Pasternak

All well-read Russians have been happy to discover their own predicament in the situation of the Great Dane. Pasternak’s narrator is an actor about to play the role: “I’ve slowly come out / To the stage, and leaning at the door, / Try to gasp in echo’s distant sounds, / What’s prepared for me in my life’s store”. Then he becomes the part. “It is defined – the action’s order, / And the road’s end . . . hypocrisy’s all over”.

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

Writer Bradley Pearson develops a tendresse for Julian, the daughter of a friend who is also a rival author. His affair with her would be sufficient revenge, but is twisted by his obsession with Hamlet. He can consummate his passion for the epicene Julian only when she dresses up as the prince.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

Hamlet’s antics as seen by two childhood friends, drafted in by Claudius to find out what the prince is up to. They’re as mystified by his words as the most befuddled A-level candidate, though they see he is “stark raving sane”.

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

The novelist admits that he thinks of himself as Hamlet. In Lunar Park a character called Bret lives on Elsinore Lane, goes to places like Fortinbras Mall, Osric hotel and Ophelia Boulevard. He is haunted (down the phone) by the spirit of his father, whose death he is called to avenge.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/04/ten-best-hamlets

Ten of the best fishing trips

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe Crusoe learns fishing when he is living as a slave in Moorish captivity. His skills come in useful once he is shipwrecked. “I frequently caught fish enough, as much as I cared to eat; all which I dried in the sun, and ate them dry.” He also hooks a dolphin.

“Point Rash-Judgement” by William Wordsworth The poet is walking with friends when they notice “a Man / Attired in peasant’s garb, who stood alone, / Angling beside the margin of the lake”. They moralise to each other about the fecklessness of someone who is enjoying such sport in the middle of the harvest, but then he turns towards them and they see he is “gaunt and lean, with sunken cheeks / And wasted limbs”. He is fishing because he is starving.

“The Fisherman” by WB Yeats Fishing can make you noble, it seems. Yeats recalls a man who went “To a grey place on a hill / In grey Connemara clothes / At dawn to cast his flies”. Silent and intent, “Climbing up to a place / Where stone is dark under froth”, he is contrasted with all the vain and clamorous men that the poet has known.

The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter Jeremy is a frog, who dons a Macintosh and galoshes to go fishing. A good thing too, because after catching and releasing a stickleback, he gets swallowed by a hungry trout. The trout finds the coat indigestible and regurgitates the fortunate Jeremy, who hops home resolved not to go fishing again.

“Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway Nick Adams is off on his own, camping in the wilds of Michigan. He eventually catches a huge fish. “There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped.” Gradually you realise that the minute description of Nick’s pursuit is an evasion of the trauma of war from which he has recently escaped.

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan Much of this hippy classic was written during the author’s camping trip in Idaho, which features in the book. It is a collage of sketches and memories in which fishing recurs, a boyhood enthusiasm that focuses the author’s bucolic ideals.

“So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver A woman finds out that her husband and his pals discovered the dead body of a woman floating in the water where they were fishing. It emerges that they decided not to let the discovery spoil their male-bonding trip, tethered the corpse for a couple of days and went on fishing. Her husband cannot understand her horror.

“Pike” by Ted Hughes Hughes invokes boyhood memories of fishing in a pike-patrolled pond. “It was as deep as England. It held / Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old / That past nightfall I dared not cast.” The boy fishes frozen in fear, thinking of the pike “That rose slowly toward me, watching”.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx Quoyle flees to Newfoundland and comes to rest in Killick-Claw, a town on the edge of the Atlantic suffused with the tang of fish. He works for the local newspaper, whose editor calls in sick almost every day so that he can go fishing. Quoyle is slowly reborn, finding out all about love and cod fishing.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth Roth’s novel ends with a fishing episode that is as far from philosophic serenity as you can get. Zuckerman finds Les Farley, whom he knows to be a killer, ice fishing on a secluded New England lake. On the ice next to him lies the ice-augur, his murderously sharp cutting tool. “And now you know my secret spot . . . You know everything . . . But you won’t tell nobody, will you?”

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/27/ten-best-fishing-trips-literature

A whole nother language

Embrace your inner American!

Lauren Collins, the New Yorker writer who profiled Benjamin Creme in the Nov. 29 issue, described the London-based spiritual leader as — among other things — “ruddy-complected.” I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the occasional typo, as well as the occasional F-word, in the magazine, but complected — that was a bit of a shock. Wasn’t that a word to avoid in polite company, hardly better bred than irregardless and ain’t?

Complected, our teachers told us, was a misbegotten monster. It seems to have been derived from complection, a once-familiar variant spelling of complexion, but the language didn’t need it; we already have complexioned, in use since the 17th century. And despite its appearance, it’s not related to the verb complect, which means “to interweave.”

Still, if complected had been a favorite of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, it might be the standard form today. But in fact, the earliest citations of the word come from Lewis and Clark, who both use it in the journals of their transcontinental trek. In 1805, Clark recorded having “smoked in the pipes of peace” with the Flathead Indians, who were “Stout & light complected.” A few months later, in January 1806, Lewis described another tribe as “lighter complected…than the Indians of the Missouri.” An upstart American usage, and one that displaces the traditional complexioned: No wonder complected was labeled nonstandard and dialectal.

Does its New Yorker debut mean complected is finally getting some respect? Not necessarily. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, ranks the word at stage 3 (out of 5) on his language-change index, the same level of acceptability as “a couple things,” “grow the economy,” and the spelling straightjacket. But he notes that complexioned outnumbers complected in print sources by 3 to 1, and he urges editors to hold the line.

The mavens at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage are (as usual) more tolerant. Complected, they say, is “not an error, not a dialectal term, nor an illiteracy,” but simply an Americanism, one used by some of our best literary authors. “There seems to be no very substantial objection to the term, other than the considerable diffidence American usage writers feel about Americanisms.”

But much as I admire Merriam-Webster’s usage research, this seems to oversimplify. It’s true that American usagists and literati of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were defensive about Americanisms, fearful of sounding like hayseeds to their British counterparts. They repudiated native coinages like editorial, locate, lengthy, enthused, dirt (for “earth”), and donate (“Good American, but not good English,” grumbled Ambrose Bierce).

But the label “Americanism” no longer embarrasses American writers. The anxiety flows in the other direction these days; it’s British readers who complain about Americanisms, British stylebooks that publish lists of American expressions to be avoided. Just last month, the Guardian’s David Marsh devoted his Mind Your Language blog to readers’ complaints about “ugly Americanisms.” “Recent examples include pony up, mojo, sledding, duke it out, brownstones and suck,” said one correspondent.

And in June, Matthew Engel of the Daily Mail surveyed hundreds of readers’ American-import peeves, including “autopsy for post-mortem; burglarized instead of burgled; filling out forms instead of filling them in; fries for chips; chips for crisps; and food to go as opposed to take away.”

At the Telegraph, the stylebook doesn’t rave about Americanisms, but it quietly reminds writers that an axe “is an implement used for chopping wood…not a verb,” that “people live ‘in’ not ‘on’ a street,” and that movie is only allowed for American films.

BBC News, on the other hand, has an entire stylebook section on Americanisms. “Head up, check out, free up, consult with, win out, check up on, divide up and outside of are not yet standard English,” it declares. Yes, we’ve adopted commuter and baby sitter, but “euthanise is not a verb you will find in any dictionary and it has no place in our output.”

Some Americans, it’s true, dislike some Britishisms — go missing and gobsmacked leap to mind — but few complainers, in my experience, object to (or even recognize) these terms as British. It’s their novelty or illogic or “ugliness,” not their origin, that annoys.

I don’t know if the New Yorker’s endorsement of complected is the start of something big. But if a new era is dawning — one in which Americans proudly embrace our linguistic inventiveness — I have some other nominees for a reputation rescue. “A whole nother” is a wonderfully useful expression, and surely good enough for journalism. There are good reasons for “it’s a ways away,” and for “way back” too (either in time or in a station wagon). Americans are apparently replacing the verb career with careen; I say, right on.

I’m not yet loving the AP’s newly approved drive-thru, I admit, and complected still leaves me cool. But maybe we can finally agree that the answer to Edwin Newman’s 1974 question — “Will America be the death of English?” — is a resounding no.

Re-imagine

John Lennon wasn’t the pacifist we’ve turned him into

Of all the honorifics John Lennon amassed during his lifetime, he probably didn’t expect that he’d have a crater on the moon named after him. But last year, the International Lunar Geographic Society announced that a large depression in the moon’s landscape (almost four miles in diameter) would henceforth be known as the “John Lennon Peace Crater.”

Meanwhile, for two hours each night between Oct. 9 (John Lennon’s birthday) and Dec. 8 (the date he was killed), the Imagine Peace Tower, near Reykjavik, Iceland, beams a sharp blue light high into the sky in Lennon’s honor. And celebrations of Lennon’s utopian vision are hardly limited to the celestial realm. In Belfast, a man is currently crusading to make Lennon’s song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” a worldwide number one hit before the new year. On the Web, fans have kept up a long-running petition supporting an international holiday for Lennon and his commitment to world peace. And last Oct. 9, when Lennon would have turned 70, Yoko Ono called upon his admirers to “Tweet a million wishes for peace for John’s birthday!”

Surely we’ll be hearing even more about Lennon as we approach the 30th anniversary of his assassination on Wednesday. At Strawberry Field, the landscaped memorial at Central Park situated across the street from the Dakota apartment building where he was shot, fans will gather around a mosaic of inlaid stones that spell the world “Imagine.” They’ll set up makeshift displays of candles, photos, and flowers, and they’ll sing anthems like “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Lennon will be celebrated as a man who boldly proclaimed for peace in a world gone mad.

No doubt the tendency to remember Lennon in this way arises, at least in part, from a desire to underscore the tragedy and senselessness of his death. The idea that John Lennon, a man who stood for peace, was gunned down by a lunatic certainly makes for a powerful narrative. For many baby boomers, his assassination was a generation-shattering event (all the more so because it came about a month after Ronald Reagan was elected president). There is also no denying that in some of its iterations, the pacifism that Lennon championed can seem truly beautiful. So long as the world is plagued by hate and war, people are going to look fondly upon those who proselytize for peace and love.

Nevertheless, all of these well-intended tributes and vigils are off the mark. It isn’t just that they extol a naive style of pacifism (though there is that). They also ask us to genuflect before a highly idealized and simplified version of the slain Beatle. During his lifetime, Lennon was ambivalent about pacifism, and his public enthusiasm for the peace movement was fleeting and capricious.

Though he lived for 40 years, Lennon’s reputation as a peacenik derives from just a brief period in the very late ’60s and early ’70s, when antiwar attitudes were practically de rigueur among the hip cognoscenti. Until then, he had largely kept quiet about politics. The Beatles had originally fashioned themselves as bohemian, leather-clad rockers, but in early 1962, under the supervision of their savvy manager, Brian Epstein, they began styling themselves as teen idols. From then until Epstein’s death in August 1967, the group was under strict orders to avoid controversial statements of any kind, for fear of alienating part of their audience. Lennon may have been annoyed by this restriction, but for the most part, he acquiesced. In 1966, he provoked a minor controversy by letting it slip that the Beatles opposed the Vietnam War, but even then, he hardly sounded like an activist. “We don’t agree with it. But there’s not much we can do about it,” he said. “All we can say is we don’t like it.”

The peace protests that Lennon is best known for probably were not even his own ideas; more likely, they were Ono’s. In 1969, the couple staged their famous “Bed-Ins” for peace, sent “acorns for peace” to various world leaders, lobbied for peace while cloaked in a white canvas bag, and commissioned billboards in major cities across the globe, announcing “War Is Over — If You Want It.” Lennon lent a bit of his impish humor to these stunts, but (let’s face it), all of this was much more in keeping with the whimsically flavored avant-gardism for which Ono was already well known.

Then in 1972, Lennon abruptly terminated the activist phase of his career while under pressure from the Nixon administration. At the time, he and Ono were fending off a deportation order from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lennon’s lawyer, Leon Wildes, advised that under the circumstances, it might be wise for him to clam up about his political views, and that is precisely what he did. Plainly put, the couple decided they’d rather live in New York than continue speaking out against the Vietnam War. After Lennon got his green card in 1975, he could easily have returned to politics, but he retreated instead into quiet domesticity.

Finally, even during the era when Lennon was politically outspoken, his thoughts about pacifism were inconsistent. In May 1969, when the cartoonist Al Capp interviewed Lennon and Ono during their famous Montreal Bed-In, the couple seemed committed to an absolutist position.

“Tell me how you would stop [Hitler],” Capp demanded.

“If I was a Jewish girl in Hitler’s day,” Ono replied, “I would approach him and become his girlfriend. After 10 days in bed, he would come to my way of thinking. This world needs communication. And making love is a great way of communicating.”

When Capp fumed that this sounded like “stark raving madness,” Lennon shot back “What’s mad about it?”

In the spring of 1968, however, Lennon was much less settled in his views about political violence. That is when he recorded “Revolution,” a song that was widely interpreted as a celebration of the hippie counterculture, and a toxic put-down of the confrontational politics championed by some New Leftists, who had recently clashed with authorities in the streets of London and Paris (and would soon be causing a ruckus at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago). Most people are familiar with the version of the song that was released as a 45 rpm — the one that begins with Lennon screaming abrasively over heavily distorted guitars.

But in another, slower version of “Revolution,” which appeared on the White Album, Lennon added a word to the lyrics: “When you talk about destruction/ don’t you know that you can count me out — in.” He added the “in,” he explained, because he “wasn’t sure” where he stood on the crucial question of political violence — hardly the position of a pacifist.

In the same song, Lennon delivered a famous zinger against Mao Zedong, the ruthless Chinese leader who was being celebrated by a few ultra-militant factions in the youth rebellion. Though some saw Mao as a potent symbol of revolutionary culture, Lennon seemed unimpressed. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”

But by December 1970, Lennon was backpedaling again. Now he seemed highly skeptical of peaceful remedies for social change. “I really thought that love would save us all,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner. “But now I’m wearing a Chairman Mao badge….I’m just beginning to think he’s doing a good job.” In retrospect, this sounds like the purest expression of radical chic. Lennon could not have known at this point that Mao was one of history’s greatest mass murderers. But nor could he possibly have believed that Mao was in any way a peaceful man. (“Revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao had famously said. “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”) In the same interview, when asked about the possibility of a “violent revolution,” Lennon announced, “If I were black, I’d be all for it.”

Finally, it bears remembering that despite briefly campaigning for peace, and writing exuberantly about love, Lennon’s inner life was stormy and tumultuous. On this point, the historical record is so unequivocal that it is almost unseemly to delve into the details. Growing up, he is remembered as a garden variety, fist-fighting delinquent, and he continued in this vein until the first flush of Beatlemania. Armed with a caustic wit, he could be spectacularly cruel (particularly if he sensed weakness in any of his targets). With women, he was a notorious cad. By his own admission he was a lousy and distant father to his first son, Julian, and biographers agree that some of the storybook elements of his relationship with Ono are greatly exaggerated in the public’s mind.

None of this rests comfortably alongside Lennon’s reputation as a spokesman for nonviolence. But if people could bring themselves to delve a little deeper into Lennon’s life and thought, and stop dwelling on his soapiest platitudes from the Vietnam War era, they might still find his example instructive. One of the big themes of his career, after all, was his hostility to orthodoxies. This is a man who expressed cynicism about Jesus and his apostles, denounced the Maharishi as a fraud, and then, at age 31, turned his back on the Beatles.

Similarly, he never seems to have settled on a single viewpoint concerning pacifism, and at various other times, he found it personally necessary to mute some of his beliefs. But few of those who lived through the vertiginous ’60s are likely to judge him harshly on either count. His experience may even help us to understand just how harrowing and uncertain that decade was.

It’s harder to arrive at these insights, though, so long as Lennon’s admirers continue to freeze him in a brief moment of time when he was at his most gauzily idealistic. His stint as a carnival barker for the peace movement represents only a small fraction of his career. Everyone remembers one of Lennon’s most famous compositions, “Give Peace a Chance.” Another very good, but less heralded, song that he wrote, was called “Gimme Some Truth.”

John McMillian is an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. His book ”Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America” is being published in January by Oxford University Press. Currently he is writing a joint biography of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the Free Press.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/12/05/re_imagine/