Getting Away From It All

Sometimes I find it useful to clear my head of the madness of our times. I put myself in the company of well-educated but otherwise ordinary people who don’t watch our television, read our newspapers, comment on our current events, slobber over our pornography, and enlist as infantry in the great march of lemmings into the maw of the future.

I open one of my volumes of The Century: June 1918. Here’s what I find. It begins with a poem, “On Hearing the Carillon of Antwerp Cathedral.” The poet notes that on July 30, 1914, “the bellmaster of Antwerp gave a concert on the chimes.” The following evening, the great bell Gabriel called the Belgian men to war against the German invaders.

Then a short story, “The Emerald of Tamerlane,” a humorous meditative piece on similarities between Washington and Teheran, where the story is set.

Then a magnificent 10,000-word essay, “The Religion of a Man of Letters,” delivered by Gilbert Murray, as a presidential address to the Classical Association. Few college professors could make much of it now. Murray assumes that you are conversant with Goethe, Aeschylus, Milton, Plato, Isaiah, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Browning.

Here are words no professor now would write:
“A scholar, I think, secures his freedom by keeping hold always of the past, and treasuring up the best out of the past, so that in a present that may be angry or sordid he can call back memories of calm or of high passion, in a present that requires resignation or courage he can call back the spirit with which brave men long ago faced the same evils. He draws out of the past high thoughts and great emotions; he also draws the strength that comes from communion or brotherhood.”

Then an even longer historical essay, sprightly and stocked with photographs, “The Renaissance of the Puppet Play,” referring to Voltaire, Haydn, Maeterlinck, George Sand, and Punch and Judy.

Then a meditative piece called “Nature Lore,” by the naturalist John Burroughs; a humorous love story, “Nettle and Foxglove,” and then a grim analysis, “Quebec and the Draft,” of Canadian politics and the indifference of French Canadians to the outcome of the war.

Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer by William A. Coffin, 1890 [Museum of the City of New York]
Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer by William A. Coffin, 1890 [Museum of the City of New York]

After some war drawings comes another long essay, by Rose Strunsky (women authors are well represented in The Century), “The Russian Revolution – An Interpretation.” It’s a hopeful work, too hopeful as it turned out. But the author was certainly correct to say that the West had better understand the “religious” force of the revolutionaries. “People do not go to their death for political reforms,” she says, “and the Russians have gone ‘to their death like bees flying to honey,’ as Tertullian said of the Christian martyrs. The Russian Revolution has indeed all the psychic traits of that early martyrdom.”

Then a wistful love poem with a delicate ending: “I read your eyes this morn and saw / That hope is more than fear.”

Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer – I’m not inventing the name of this prolific author – on the establishment of public arboretums, “A Living Picture-Book for Artists,” for don’t we know that artists are to be found outdoors, drawing and painting from the beauties of nature?

That is followed, or balanced, by a first-person account, “Oh, About Average,” of a sailor in the merchant marine during wartime. How does an intelligent sailor write? “It would be a proud business for a man to go about,” says Nelson Collins, “this carrying of food to the beleaguered nations in whom he believes and who are depending and dependent on him, even if the task were only one of activity and skill and perseverance in the ordinary emergencies of the sea-carrying trade, if he went about it amply protected in life and limb.” But during war “he runs the greatest of all dangers, the double peril of sea and foe.”

Following a story about a fortunate failure at the hunt, “The Pink Crane,” there comes another hopeful essay, “Russian Women and Their Outlook,” in which we are encouraged to visit war-worn Russia to “measure the moral superiority of women,” who do necessary work while “for a year the streets, public conveyances, and resorts have been full of idling men in uniform.”

What women become when divorced from religious faith, the author never considers, because he no doubt never considered it possible. What they become when divorced from common sense, he does consider, when he discusses the “women’s battalion” of the Russian army, disbanded by the Bolsheviks:
“What thoughtful man could watch without a lump in his throat the drilling of its awkward squad, the lines of the girlish figures so tender and unmartial, the womanly garb so little suited to military exercises! . . .Had Amazonism spread along the fronts of both sides, another great wing of our civilization would have crumbled. Think of the effect upon women of getting accustomed to use of the bayonet! Upon men of becoming habituated to deadly hand-to-hand combat with women!”

Then a chapter from a serialized novel, The Boomerang; an article, “Garden Conscription – the Solution of the Food Problem”; a humorous short story, and a couple of humorous poems, including “To a Hen Crossing a Road,” which ends with these magniloquent lines, musing about when

                  The primal hen crossed the primeval way

And some rude (probably arboreal) Shaw

Startled the forest with the world’s first why.

No polls, no political jabbering, no speculation upon Democrats and Republicans, no porn, no obscenity, no naked ladies smearing themselves with chocolate and calling it art, no advertisements, no blaring headlines SEX SEX SEX, no blathering about “hate speech,” no nail-biting about the Supreme Court Royal, no recommendations for federal intrusion into local or family affairs, no cult of celebrity; nothing hateful, nasty, coarse, impious, or stupid.

Nothing that would now be printed in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Sweet air after sewage, and sanity (even when the authors are wrong) after madness.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Randall Peaslee

    Many issues of The Century can be found in online archives. Are there any similar magazines existing today? The New Criterion comes to my mind.

    • Tony

      The New Criterion comes closest. But there are features of The Century (and of magazines like it: Scribner’s, The Strand) that no longer characterize any magazine that I know of: serialized novels, serialized biographies, long continued histories and associated articles written by several authors, first-person accounts, short stories, travelogues …

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The excerpt from Gilbert Murray called to mind an observation of Bl John Henry Newman: “Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical commonplaces, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival. Perhaps this is the reason of the medieval opinion about Virgil, as if a prophet or magician; his single words and phrases, his pathetic half lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time.”

    I am sure that, even today, not a few college professors (and their former students) would see in that the reflection of their own experience.

    • Bebop

      Reference to Murray brought to my mind T.S. Eliot’s humorously scathing review of a performance of Medea done to Murray’s English verse translation.

      Of the quality of Murray’s appropriation of a Euripidean past, Eliot had this to say:

      “Greek poetry will never have the slightest vitalizing effect upon EnglIsh poetry if it can only appear masquerading as a vulgar debasement of the eminently personal idiom of Swinburne…

      “If we are to digest the heavy food of historical and scientific knowledge that we have eaten we must be prepared for much greater exertions. We need a digestion which can assimilate both Homer and Flaubert…

      “We need an eye which can see the past in its place wIth Its definite differences from the present, and yet so lively that It shall be as present to us as the present. This is the creative eye; and It is because Professor Murray has no creative instinct that he leaves Euripldes quite dead.”

      I saw a performance by the Artist formerly known as Prince last evening that I’m sure would have wowed them at the City Dionysia, in a way that Swinburne’s Lesbia Brandon perhaps may not have.

  • John Willson

    Head clearing is right; and I have often found, reading old magazines, that every interpretation of significant events later invented by “scholars” was present at the time those events happened. But, on the other hand Dr. Esolen, perhaps it is well that you did not pick up an issue from 1918 of the New Republic. The Progressive hope at the end of the Great War might have been mind-numbing instead of head-clearing.

    • Tony

      A point well taken, John. The Century is best when it stays away from interpretation of current events — not current social conditions, but current events. That Progressive hope you mention is well represented by one or two of the articles in the course of the half-year of issues in that bound volume.

  • We get the NY Times free on the weekends (it’s a long story). Anyway, I realized shortly after the free deliveries started that I have to be very careful when reading it. After flipping through one section, I noticed that the entire back page (which I had been holding up while our young children played in the same room) was an advertisement featuring a nearly naked woman in a sultry pose. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Now I throw out most of it, and I tear the puzzles page out of the magazine section, which the kids and I work on during the week. I wonder if the irony of it all ever strikes the editors of the Times; how they decry the “treatment” of women by the Catholic Church while at the same time reducing them to mere objects of desire and lust on the very same pages of their paper.

    Reading your book now Dr. Esolen, “Ten Ways To Destroy Your Child’s Imagination”, and hoping that it is not too late for our children. Keep writing…please. If I believed in reincarnation, I would believe that Professor John Senior has come back to us!

  • Bro_Ed

    What a grabber of an opening paragraph. One of the best ever. I hope you share your writing skills with the next generation of young writers.

    “People do not go to their death for political reforms…and the Russians have gone ‘to their death like bees flying to honey,'”

    This line conjures up two Army memories from the Fifties. Our platoon sergeant had seen action in both World War II and Korea. He told us about the Japanese suicide fighters holding the islands in the South Pacific, and later the swarms of Chinese crossing the 38th Parallel in Korea: He said: “The ordinary German soldier was like us. He wanted to live. These guys came at you in waves, not caring if they lived or died. It’s Hell to fight a guy who doesn’t care if he lives or dies.”

    That’s a lesson we’re learning again with ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Marie

    Where do you get these old magazines, Dr. Esolen?

    • Tony

      Marie — I have been picking them up in antique stores. There are others besides The Century. I have no idea how many such there were, but others include Scribner’s, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, The Strand, and World’s Work …

      • David W

        If you’re interested, Amazon has a collection of free Catholic magazines (The Catholic World) on Kindle from the 19th century (1860s)

  • Marie

    My great-great grandparents were pioneers to the Texas Panhandle. They and their neighbors got together with their neighbors and built a school. Soon, they and the other 5 families decided they would be better off if the school were in a different location, so they moved the (small) building two miles. One of their kids grew up to be a doctor, one a businessman, and I don’t know about their other 7 kids. How many people have that much authority over their children’s education?

    Every two weeks, my farmer great-great-grandfather would ride his horse 20 miles from his farm to the nearest town to pick up the latest issue of a philosophy journal. Today, how many college-educated people read philosophy online, let alone go well out of their way to get it?

    They -11 people- lived in a dugout with one room built above ground. But I don’t know whether to pity or envy them.

  • Jill Dembroff

    Don’t all disciplines have their own jargon, their own depths of knowledge, unplumbed by the vast majority? It would be wonderful to know everything, but not many can do that. How many can maintain or secure familiarity with all of the names mentioned in this essay and still do whatever it is that puts food on their table? If you’re decrying the illiteracy of professors of the humanities, well, OK. And I have no argument with anyone who claims that our citizens today are suffering from a darkening of the intellect, but few in any century will be conversant with “The Century.”

    • Tony

      Jill — that wasn’t true, actually. At its height, in the 1890’s, The Century had a subscription rate of 200,000, for a population of 65 million. That would be comparable to a million now, and consider that the journal would go to a household, and households were not single people living here or there, or couples living with three dogs.

      It is true that disciplines have specialized words, but the jargon of the inhumanities now is something different, as George Orwell was at pains to show in “Politics and the English Language.” It is not meant to convey meaning, but to pretend to meaning, or to obscure it.

      I will have to print some of the letters to the editor written by Civil War soldiers, to The Century’s very long treatment of the Civil War, spanning a year or two, in my copies from 1889. One of them was by an African American. You have to see it — to read it — to believe it.

      • Jill Dembroff

        I have heard of the incredible literacy – proper spelling and grammar and broad vocabulary – of ‘illiterate’ Civil War soldiers. Oh, how I know that our level of education has plummeted. When the students I tutor pull out their calculators for 156 – 100 = …. I sigh.

        But, Tony, with the widening of the amount of “stuff” we know, widening in every direction, creating specialities that are so narrow that only 3 people in the world understand, how is one to know how to broaden one’s knowledge? How can we delve into literature when science is so interesting? How can one even choose which field of science to enter, or subspeciality of that field?

        I wish we’d exchange a big pile of our ‘knowledge’ for a small pile of wisdom.

  • Poor Sinner

    Too true, too true.

  • Macmooski

    Some volumes of The Century magazine are available online, but there’s nothing like holding the real thing and turning pages.

  • Ben

    A major difference is that most Catholics have seemingly abandoned the faith in one aspect or another. We sacrificed the Mass and morphed it into a pseudo-Protestant worship service in vain hopes of attracting countless tidal waves of Protestant converts: that was a spectacular failure, and instead we have lost MILLIONS of Catholics to other religions and atheism.

    • Anthony

      I agree wholeheartedly, Ben.

  • Jnjosephs

    One thing the author totally misses is the war issue. War continues. Weapons may be different. Causes may be different but people are still dying.

  • pescher

    A famous announcer coined the term “negative yardage” to describe a play in football where the ball-carrier lost ground as opposed to gaining ground; the latter being the objective of said player. Esolen’s look back seems to suggest a similar oxymoron (or euphemism?) in that so many believe that we -in the 21st century- have indeed made tremendous progress, have moved so far ahead of our ‘ignorant’ forefathers and yet their claim of societal advancement (often described as “by leaps and bounds”) suggests that it too is “negative progress”.