Correspondents Afield.

May 30, 2009

All correspondents afield; please call again tomorrow.

Correspondants, afield.

Correspondents, afield.


Tolkien and The Norse

May 29, 2009

It’s probably little (except perhaps among scholars) known that J.R.R. Tolkien, apart from his Lord of the Rings trilogy, was an accomplished philologist who studied and taught courses in the Old Germanic, Old English, and Old Norse languages at Oxford University.

Old Norse was the language spoken by the tribes which settled Iceland, and the language in which they preserved and amended their legends, including that of “Sigurd and Gudrun.” Sigurd’s Beowulf-esque adventure, complete with dragon-slaying and the fantastic romancing of Brynhild, was the inspiration for Richard Wagner’s operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, in which a Germanic Sigurn courts and wins Brunnhilde. William Morris tackled the legend in 1877, releasing “Sigurn the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs” to about the amount of acclaim one might expect. Now Tolkien, Oxford linguist and consummate storyteller, is having a go, of sorts.

Tolkien, at work.

Tolkien, at work.

Tolkien’s newly-released “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” is the most authentic translation of the Old Norse yet, and includes commentaries and appendices by his son, Christopher, who arranged for the publication of the book. Tolkien eschews the operatic and Victorian restraints which hampered Wagner and Morris, engaging instead directly with the text and taking pains to replicate the Old Norse meter. The blunt and hard Scandinavian verse tears through Tolkien’s handling of it, no less haunting or brutal for the passing of seven centuries.

The Sigurd legend remains largely intact in Tolkien’s hands, despite some redactions and dimunitions via authorial license. The Niflungs still drink the “blacktongued” blood of the dead, Signy sleeps with her brother, and werewolves abound. The legend is a darker, more violent story than The Lord of the Rings, bereft of whimsical Hobbits, yet in it readers will see clearly the makings of Middle Earth, of Elves, dragons, dwarves, and swords. Here is both Tolkien’s inspiration and his ideal, and the book is worth a read as either.


Watering Holes: White’s Club

May 28, 2009

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#37-38 Saint James Street, London, England

If location is everything, then White’s undoubtedly is too: the club was founded at #4 Chesterfield Street in 1693, when Francesco Bianco (“Francis White”) organized it to sell hot chocolate and tickets to the King’s Theatre and Royal Drury Lane Theatre productions. In 1778 it moved to #37-38 Saint James Street, also in London, and has been there since, remaining mercifully immune to progress of any sort or shape (save one application of fresh paint in 1970).

Clubs judge themselves, and are judged, by the caliber of both their membership and of their waiting lists. White’s excels in both. Past and current membership has included, or does include, Beau Brummell, King Edward VII, the sixth Earl of Dartmouth William Legge, Prince Charles, and Evelyn Waugh (who made earning admittance his life’s work).

In 1783 White’s became unofficial headquarters to the Tory party. Brooks’s Club, down the street, similarly hosted the Whigs. A few especially affable gentlemen held membership in both, and used to walk between them during meetings. Through it all, White’s remained, and remains, a bastion of all things traditionally and refinedly masculine: discussions around the bar range in concentration from upland pheasants to falconry to horsemanship to the engravings on side-by-side wing guns.

The club keeps a table squarely in front of a large bow window, for which it is famous: the chair at the head of the table has been White’s de facto throne since its installation. Beau Brummell held court there till he moved to America in 1816, when Lord Alvaney took it up and, legend has it, bet a friend 3,000 pounds one day on which of two raindrops would be the first to reach the bottom of a window. Gambles like these are recorded in White’s house ledger, kept near the table, in which all table bets are noted. Bets marked down include, in addition to raindrops, social marriages, sporting events, political developments, and whether or not the French Revolution would fail.

White's Club, London, England.

White's Club, #37-38 Saint James Street, London, England.


Three Songs

May 28, 2009

Presented here, for your consideration: three worthwhile songs, one well-known, one less so, and one not at all.

Pianist and singer Nina Simone’s jazzy take on the soul standard Sinnerman stole the scene in 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair, while indie rock outfit The National’s haunting Fake Empire is known for angst-y appearances on NBC teen dramas. Last and also least well-known, at least outside of Canadian folk music circles, is Bruce Cockburn’s hypnotic Golden Serpent Blues. These three, especially the first and last, are worth the time.

Nina_Simone_-_Amazing_Nina_Simone

The Amazing Nina Simone, 1959.


Clothes and the Man

May 27, 2009

“Clothes make the man,” wrote Mark Twain, nattily turned out in seersucker; “naked people have very little, or no, influence on society.” True, but the naked man may have an interesting explanation for his condition, and in that way his lot is considerably improved over that of the poorly dressed man, for whose situation there is no excuse.

There is a difference, note, between poorly dressed and inexpensively dressed. Men can dress very well on the cheap; style is a matter of taste, not money, and no amount of money can purchase taste. Luckily, the same holds true in reverse: since taste isn’t for sale, style can be had for free (or close to it). It’s a matter of care: care in building a wardrobe, care in making use of it, and sufficient care for one’s own appearance to make the first two worthwhile.

There was a time when men wore hats and macintosh trench coats and rubber overshoes when rain looked likely, and despite the questionable fashion of rubber overshoes, their passing is regrettable because it signals also the passing of that generation of men who cared whether or not they stood on the train platform with wet shoes. Those men cared for appearance, but not for its own sake: appearance was the mark of civility and industry. It wasn’t a matter of social class, but of care, of concern for oneself and one’s environment and for the propriety of things.

Men, dressed as such.

Men, dressed as such.

Men now are, sartorially, a generation stunted. They wear sneakers to the office, eschew belts, and wear t-shirts to restaurants. Earlier generations might not take issue with today’s styles and fashion (though they would be right to), but rather with the lack of care with which men dress themselves. Wearing a belt with pants isn’t a matter of class or money, but of care, of completeness. Going without, unless the look is intended, is lazy, and the generation which would scoff at the thought, the rubber overshoe generation, the generation which defeated Nazi Germany handily and which laid the foundation for the most robust economy and productive workforce in the world, was anything but lazy. 

Twain was correct: clothes make the man, because the man assembles the collection of them. From the ways in which he employes that collection he may be judged tasteful or not, careful or not, civil or not, industrious or not. Whatever the verdict, the judgment is certain, and it is entirely regrettable to lose, without refreshing, that generation of men who cared not only about that judgment, but were their own most demanding judges, who expected the most of themselves, and who presented themselves to the world as if they got exactly what they expected.


Styron House for Sale

May 26, 2009

Novelist William Styron’s Roxbury, Connecticut home, which sits on 4.5 woodsy and protected acres, is on the market now for $2.2 million. The American writer died in 2006.

The 4,600 square foot home dates from 1850 and is about 85 miles north of New York. Also on the acreage: a guest house, in-ground pool, tennis courts, and manicured gardens and ponds. Mr. Styron’s memoir Darkness Visible notes the home’s “autumnal loveliness.” Mr. Styron previously won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Styron at home.

Styron at home.


Robinson, on Hart

May 26, 2009

Peter Mark Robinson, a Stanford University research fellow, author, and television host, is currently a Trustee of Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1979. Mr. Robinson studied further at Oxford University before accepting positions as speechwriter to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Here is Mr. Robinson’s 2005 essay on Dartmouth professor emeritus of English Jeffrey Hart, himself often re-published here.

While John Steel was attempting a revolution here in Hanover, Ronald Reagan was starting one in Washington, and if you supposed the two had nothing in common, youd need to reconsider. A startling number of people served as firebrands in both. First, they used the pages of The Dartmouth Review to support John Steel’s efforts to turn Dartmouth upside down—or, rather, right side up. Then they used positions in the Reagan administration to help the fortieth chief executive do the same to the world.

At the Reagan White House, I wrote speeches for the President, Will Cattan ’83 wrote speeches for the Vice President, and Dinesh DSouza ’83 helped administer the Office of Domestic Policy. Within a few blocks, Gregory Fossedal ’81 held a senior position at the Department of Education, Benjamin Hart ’81 produced position papers for the Heritage Foundation, Michael Jones ’82 wrote speeches for the Secretary of the Treasury, and Laura Ingraham ’85 served as an assistant to the Secretary of Transportation. So many Dartmouth students went from the Reviewstraight to positions of responsibility in the nation’s capital that Sidney Blumenthal, a reporter for the Washington Post, composed an article about us in which he hinted darkly at some sort of conspiracy. (Blumenthal saw conspiracies everywhere. Known as “Sid Vicious,” in the nineteen-nineties he joined the Clinton staff and quickly earned a reputation as the most paranoid person in the White House. But still.)

How did this happen? How did so many twenty-somethings from an upstart student newspaper at a small college find ourselves working for the leader of the free world? Each of us would answer in the same two words: Jeffrey Hart.

From 1963 until his retirement three decades later, Jeffrey Hart taught English at Dartmouth. He also composed a weekly column that appeared in dozens of newspapers and wrote for the National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Hart, who now lives in Lyme, continues to serve on the editorial board of National Review.) Generous with all his students, Hart proved a particular friend to conservatives. Often he would invite us to his Vermont farmhouse overlooking the Connecticut, where we would talk late into the night about literature and politics. It was during one of those sessions that Hart first suggested the establishment of an alternative, and conservative, student newspaper. During the Review’s early years, Hart helped the Review staff constantly, suggesting story ideas, writing for the newspaper himself, and helping to find legal assistance, and the money to pay for it, whenever the administration tried to shut the newspaper down.

Because Hart knew so many prominent conservatives—including Ronald Reagan himself, for whom Hart, taking a leave of absence from the College, had written speeches during the then-governor of California’s unsuccessful bid for President in 1968—he was able to help alumni of the Review land jobs in the administration. But none of us would have lasted if Hart hadn’t taught us a few critical lessons. Ill mention three. They helped those of us who went to Washington, but they also informed the founding of The Dartmouth Review—and continue to inform the Review to this day.

Lesson one: Never truckle.

Hart was famous for flouting campus orthodoxies. During the energy crisis of the early nineteen-seventies, for instance, Hart took to driving around Hanover in a second-hand Cadillac limousine; at a time when liberals were giving pious speeches about the need to conserve fossil fuels, Hart was lucky if he got eight miles to the gallon. The first time I set eyes on Hart, during a football game in Alumni Stadium, he was dressed in an ankle-length raccoon coat. After each touchdown he would reach deep into a shaggy pocket, pull out a hip flask, and take a celebratory swig. The austerity of the Carter years? Jeffrey Hart preferred the exuberance of the Jazz Age.

By defying opinion in Hanover, Hart showed those of us who would serve in the Reagan administration how to stick up for ourselves in Washington—and set an example of sweet outrageousness that you’ll still find in every issue of the Review.

Lesson two: Be serious.

This may seem an odd lesson to have learned from a man who was willing to appear in a raccoon coat, but Hart taught his students high seriousness.

I took my first course with Hart, a poetry survey, during freshman spring. Hart would enter the classroom, place a book on the lectern, open it, and begin to talk about a poem. No commentary on world affairs. No campus politics. Just the poem. If during the discussion period a student talked about the way the poem made him feel, Hart would return the attention of the class to the poem’s historical context, rhythm, or rhyme scheme. He wasn’t interested in the ability of 18-year-olds to emote. He was interested in the text. After two or three classes, this approach had its effect. Students began to emulate Hart by devoting concentrated attention to the act of reading.

The text—attend to the text.

For those of us in Washington, the text amounted to tax cuts, rebuilding our defenses, and renewing the nation’s pride in itself. We all did our share of larking at parties in Georgetown, of course. But none of us was cynical about the Reagan agenda. None of us treated politics as a game or saw his time in Washington as a career move. Jeffrey Hart taught us better.

As he taught The Dartmouth Review.

For students at the Review, the text amounts to the fundamental purposes of the College and the competence of the administration to achieve them. A quarter of a century ago, the Review more than any other publication asked searching questions about the College. Today the Review still asks the most searching questions. Just looking at the current issue as I write, the issue of June 2 presents a searing analysis of the College’s “hollow curriculum” and a tightly reasoned and utterly persuasive call for reform. High seriousness.

Lesson three: Have fun.

One of the most productive members of the faculty, Hart somehow always had plenty of leisure time. He would pop up at the tennis courts, watching the team practice while he puffed a pipe. (Hart’s pipe collection included a long-stemmed pipe he might as well have purchased from a leprechaun and an enormous calabash in the style of Sherlock Holmes.) During the summer, Hart would climb into his motorboat each morning, then roar down the Connecticut to town to pick up the New York Times. On the way back, he would cruise over to the Dartmouth dock and holler to the sunbathing students. If any of them wanted to water ski, Hart would toss out skis and a line, then spend an hour towing the students up and down the river.

Fight the political fight, Hart taught those of us who went to Washington, but never let it consume you. The same approach has informed the Review since it was founded. Pointed as its arguments often are, the Review remains catholic. It publishes the best book reviews on campus. It follows Dartmouth sports. It has fun.

As Jeffrey Hart himself used to say, “Life consists of more, thank God, than politics.”