Monday, November 24, 2014

Adam Arenson’s “The Heart of the Great Republic”

This is a strange book to be reading about St. Louis right now.

Adam Arenson published The Heart of the Great Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War in 2011. He’s focused his academic studies on the American west and its settlement; his other books include Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (2012) and Civil War Tests: Testing the Limited of the United States (February 2015). The Heart of the Great Republic is about the role St. Louis played leading up to the Civil War and after, and how the great forces of slavery, abolition and manifest destiny converged on St. Louis.

St. Louis is the prism through which Arenson examines the major American themes of the 19th century, and he largely confines himself to the 19th century. What is both strange and surprising is that some of those themes – perhaps all of them – continue to be played out today.

For most if not all of the 19th century, St. Louis was a larger city than Chicago. It was the gateway to the west (the theme of the Aero Saarinen’s Arch in downtown St. Louis), the place where all the wagon trains started to head to the promised lands of Oregon and California. Henry Shaw, an Englishman who founded St. Louis’ beloved botanical gardens, made his fortune selling hardware to the settlers traveling west and passing through St. Louis.

St. Louis was the largest city in a state where slavery was legal. It became the home of thousands of German immigrants, many of whom left Europe after the failure of the Revolutions of 1848. These Germans brought their fierce notions of freedom with them; they would turn out to be strong supporters of abolition, settling in a slave-owning city.

And thus the fusion of the great themes, the ideas that became the realities of conflict, war, and reconstruction. St. Louis escaped the physical ravages of the Civil War, but experienced the psychological and political ravages perhaps more than any other city of the North or border states.

Arenson, a professor and historian, discusses how these themes developed Arenson discusses how these themes developed in St. Louis through the great fire of 1849, which destroyed much of the city; the Compromise of 1850, whose popular sovereignty led to Bleeding Kansas and Nebraska; the impact of German immigration; the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court (Scott and his family lived in St. Louis); the Civil War itself, and how competing factions battled for control of the city; emancipation and reconstruction; the movement to make St. Louis the new capital of the United States; and what happened when St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis separated themselves in a popular vote marred by corruption. (This separation continues to have a major impact on the metropolitan area today.)

Adam Arenson
The author’s point is that the conflicts of the 19th century were a cultural civil war, and St. Louis occupied the physical location where that cultural civil war converged. And more than that: the landscape of St. Louis today still reflects the larger history of that cultural civil war. “The local history is national history, and St. Louisans sense it,” he writes.

And that’s precisely where the strangeness of the book is. If Arenson is correct, and I believe he is, then what does the current troubles and tension of St. Louis – arising form the shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer – suggest for the larger reality of the United States? What if the themes of the cultural civil war are still being played out on the streets of St. Louis?

As I write this, the grand jury investigating Michael Brown’s death is still deliberately, and an announcement could come at any time. The city feels like something of an armed camp. If there is one dominant emotion, it is fear. But there is also the understanding that what is happening is here is larger than St. Louis, extending across the nation.

St. Louis history is still American history.

Photograph of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis by Yinan Chen via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sit on a rock

Sit on a rock
and stare

across the water
and the road

to the bluff,

and rock soaring
to the sky

blue and hard.

Consider the effort

to carve and layer
these mounds of rock.

Wonder if God’s hands
got dusty.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Christian Wiman’s “Once in the West”

I’ve read a lot of poetry over my lifetime, and likely more in the last 10 years than the rest combined. Rarely have I been as taken with a collection as I have with Christian Wiman’s Once in the West: Poems.

The poems originate in Wiman’s childhood and coming of age in Texas. They extend beyond that, into the reader’s mind and own experience, a collection of sharp, piercing stones with cutting edges that leave blood on the floor – the blood of life and of a life lived.

Some may mind the occasional profanity. I didn’t, and it surprised me that I didn’t.

I’ll have more to say later, but here is one example of a poem from the collection.

A soul

from the body’s

needs a body
of loss

is that, then,
what we were

in that back-

seat, sweat-
soaked, skin-

habited heaven
of days

when rapture
was pure

and sinning



Photograph by Silviu Firulete via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, November 21, 2014

St. James Park Tube Station

A small station,
St. James Park is,
threatening inconsequence,
caught as it is in the space
between the riot of people
that is its nearby sister Victoria
and the riot of government
and tourists that is
its nearby brother Westminster.
But it has a reach, it does,
bordering on the formidable:
Buckingham Palace
the Horse Guards
Scotland Yard
Westminster Abbey
Victoria Street
Birdcage Walk and the park
the Ministry of Justice (all
those CCTV cameras) and sharing
a building with the tube’s HQ.
It even merits a ticket office,
attended by personnel, where
we wait in queue, quietly,
for our Oyster cards, topping off
with more pounds. 

We stand on the platform
waiting for the train
from Victoria (eastbound) or
from Westminster (westbound)
making sure as we board
to mind the gap. 

The St. James Park tube station in London has three entrances – one on Broadway, one on Petty France, and one on Palmer Street. We used all three, although the Palmer Street entrance was the closet to our hotel. 

Photograph: Exterior of the St. James Park tube station, Petty France entrance.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar”

As we rather quickly planned our vacation to London (the flights and hotel finally came together three weeks before we actually left), we bought tickets for a play that a friend had recommended. It starred Roger Allam, an actor we had seen in a number of British television programs, including Endeavour, the series on Inspector Morse when he was a young policeman (Allam played Morse’s boss, Fred Thursday). Allam is most famous for first playing Inspector Javert in the stage production of Les Miserables when in opened in London in 1985.

When I ordered the tickets online, I discovered that the play was close to sold out. On the night we planned to go – our last Saturday in London – there were two tickets left – right in the middle of the orchestra, six rows back from the stage (the Hampstead Theatre seats 325). Someone must have just turned them back in. I grabbed them.

The theater is in near northwest London; we maneuvered our way there via the tube, exiting at Swiss Cottage (the theatre must be all of 50 feet from the tube station entrance). The building is on the contemporary side.

The play was Seminar, written by American playwright Theresa Rebeck. The play debuted in New York on Broadway in 2011, in which actor Alan Rickman played the role Roger Allam had in London.  

Exterior of the Hampstead Theatre
In addition to the programs, I also bought the script – it cost five pounds, about the same price as the ebook on Kindle. Reading the script after seeing the play allowed me to see the small but important changes in the stage play to accommodate a largely British audience (mostly references to writers’ colonies in the United States).

Seminar is a play about writers and writing. Four young writers (Kate, Martin, Izzy, and Douglas) are meeting at Kate’s apartment for a writing seminar, taught by an older writer and editor named Leonard. They share the insecurities common to all writers – the fear of being bad, the fear of rejection, the fear of fellow writers becoming more successful, or even being published first. Leonard, with the subtlety of a charging bull elephant, runs over all of them.

Interior of the Hampstead Theatre
Leonard, as it turns out, has his own insecurities (what writer doesn’t?). He had had a promising writing career until accused of plagiarism. It wasn’t true (or was it?), but it was sufficient to derail him, until a friend got him a job as an editor, which he was brilliant at.

And so they listen and spar, argue and scream at each other, have affairs with each other (and Leonard), and make more than ample use of the f-bomb. For a group of writers, their vocabulary seems limited, and the f-bomb is clearly one of their most commonly used words. (There’s also brief nudity; Izzy lifts her blouse for a few moments while she walks around the stage to make a point.)

But still, the play is about writing, and what it says about writing and writers is familiar to anyone who has picked up a pen and sat in front of a computer screen to use words. 

It was also a treat to see Allam; he played the part of the aging writer/editor to perfection, f-bombs and all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Desires, Dreams and Destiny

We see a lot of advice these days about following your passion. Determine what your passion is, pursue it, and you will find happiness. Huffington Post even has a whole section on the subject. It ‘s a subject usually but not always associated with “Gen Y” or millennials – those who were born roughly between 1980 and 1995. Yet I’ve heard Gen X-rs and Baby Boomers embrace the same idea. It’s usually tied in with the idea of quitting your existing job and pursing that desire or dream that’s been rattling around in your head.

However the idea got started, the inevitable pushback has followed. “Follow Your Passion is Not a Career Plan,” says Business Week. George Washington University professor Cal Newport says it’s bad advice. Mashable reposted the Cal Newport video and then elaborated on why it’s bad advice. So did the Minimalists. So did Fast Company. (That Cal Newport fellow has had a considerable influence.)

The appeal of the idea of following your passion is understandable. You find yourself in a boring job, or a job that’s taken turns you didn’t expect, or the organization reorganized itself three months after you walked in the door, or that great new boss you were working for suddenly quit, or the company was acquired and layoffs are coming. Or perhaps the layoffs have started. None of this leads to happiness, and it is happiness that has come to be the main goal of life in Western culture.

What I think we do is confuse passion with desire, or even dreams.

I have a great desire to spend more time in London, seeing cool stuff, like we did on our recent vacation, and preferably staying at the hotel we stayed at. It’s a desire – and a quick way to spend a lot of money.

I have a dream of being a full-time writer, writing what I would like to write. It’s been a dream since I was in my 20s (it’s an old dream). I didn’t begin getting really serious about it until about 10 years ago. Yes, I’ve authored two novels and a book about the poetry of work. I won’t be living off the royalties any time soon. The dream is still a dream, and one that I believe I’ll be closer to realizing in a few short months, when I retire from the day job.

Ideally though, you never quite realize the dream. You keep reaching for it. The reality of the dream is in the reaching.

And then, say John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall, the authors of The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, there is destiny.

Their definition isn’t what you might expect. Most of us today would define destiny as fate or perhaps providence. What The Cure suggests, however, is that we typically look at this from the wrong end of the telescope.

“Destiny,” the authors write, “is the ordained intention God has sacredly prepared with your name on it.”

That’s the desire we should have, the dream we should reach for, and even the passion we should follow.

Yes, it’s about you, but it doesn’t start with you.

And it won’t end with you.

But you do have a destiny.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Cure. To see more posts on this chapter, “Two Destinies,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines and Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by Anne Lowe via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Evening with Billy Collins

Wearing a black suit and an orange shirt (Halloween was the night before), he looks around the room. “A poetry traffic jam is something I haven’t seen too often,” he sa7s. “This is wonderful.”

“He” is Billy Collins, two-time poet laureate of the United States. I tell my wife he’s one of the three poets in the United States who makes a living from poetry.

“Who are the other two?” she asks.

“I can’t remember their names offhand,” I reply.

We are sitting in the main room of the St. Louis Country Library in Frontenac, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Billy Collins is giving a poetry reading from his new work, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems.

More than 800 people are in the room. My wife and I have what is a “package ticket” – two admission tickets and a copy of the book for $20. The volume retails for $16 for the paperback (just over $12 on Amazon), so the package ticket is a good deal.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.