Friday, November 30, 2007

"barbarians at the gates"

While we are talking about movies, "Barbarians at the Gates"is a movie from Quebec that I will enroll in the Whig canon; the title is particularly evocative these days. (The "barbarians" in this case are Americans.) The barbarian oligarchs and television evangelists who seized control of the Republican Party and, briefly, all three branches of the federal government, have an uncomfortable similarity to the Saudi and Wahabbi families in the Arabian peninsula (see the fine book by John R. Bradley, available at who are systematically dismantling the ancient and largely peaceful civilizations that have fallen under their rule. Just now we are watching the relentless polarization of the Middle East by allied gangs of barbarians, ours among them. A "peace" process that excludes rival gangs of Iranian tyrants and their allies in Gaza and Lebanon, and is evidently aimed at destroying them, is likely to lead to further destruction of ancient civilizations on the battleground, as rival mobs engage. Poor old Henry James condemned the barbarian of his day, the emperor of Germany, who plunged Europe into war and treated whole nations as mere means to an end. But James was optimistic, and in the long run - although it has been a very long run indeed - I think he was right to be hopeful. Civilization is sturdy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

"the band's visit"

Talking about Henry James at a bookstore gathering last night (the admirable Norwich Bookstore) turned my thoughts again to James's Whig sensibility, and the ways in which it may have survived. If you haven't seen the film "Ratatouille" that I mentioned in an earlier post, you should. James would like the images of Paris as the city of light; perhaps would also enjoy seeing his sensibility rendered in that most American and democratic of media, the animated film. But do also see "The Band's Visit," which sends an Egyptian band wandering in an Israeli desert, and summons with true Jamesian humor and skepticism the sensual encounter of new and old cultures. Mass market entertainment is no better than it ever was, in the days of penny newspapers and serial novels, but every now and then a film (or a television series) self-consciously carries forward what once were only literary and theatrical traditions.

Friday, November 16, 2007

the mature master

I have been a bit distracted by the imminent publication of my book, Henry James: The Mature Master, (which is on sale now, but the formal "publication date" is November 20). A reporter asked me, in the course of an interview, what I thought was Henry James's relevance to a reader today. I am afraid I was not prepared for the obvious question. Why read the biography of a rather conservative gentleman who died almost a century ago and who was loyal to values that today seem quaint? I mumbled something about the disastrous twentieth century and the possible interest of the civilization that preceded it and was largely destroyed. I suppose I should have added that James was a conscience Whig, at least in principle (the party having wrecked itself as a political force by trying to avoid the issue of slavery). That is to say, he wanted to carry European language and culture, the art of living, into the democratic American age that he thought morally superior. This seems to me an admirable purpose, and I would like to do my bit, my iota of assistance. I see that I am no better at expressing the thought here than I was in the interview; but let it stand.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

john quincy adams

 It has also been on my mind to add John Quincy Adams to the honor roll of founders. Adams was President of the United States for a single term, but was defeated for reelection by Andrew Jackson in 1828. Jackson is celebrated as one of the founders of the Democratic Party, and of party politics; he and his campaign manager, Martin Van Buren, discovered that a grass-roots, national political party was a machine with which the Electoral College, and the constitution's restraints on direct democracy, could be unseated. Adams' memory accordingly has been shouted down in repeated celebrations of Jackson's triumph. Adams was a terrible politician who hated campaigns and publicity. He sat for the first photographs taken of an American president, in which one can see his dislike and resentment of the necessities of public life. I prefer the paintings like this one (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons) that show both his forbidding public face as well as his private good nature. Adams was a "conscience Whig," a bitter opponent of slavery; he had a vision of a federal government that would reserve the vast wealth of natural resources in North America for public purposes and keep them out of private hands. Like his father, the first president Adams, he believed the United States to be a great and diverse empire, with native American and European settlements united by common ideals. Like his friend Henry Clay, he would rather be right than president; not a bad motto. Not perhaps a realistis one, and Adams died embittered by defeat, but then Whigs are the anti-realist party.
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Have you seen the film "Ratatouille"? The author-illustrators use animal images to stand for race and class. (Think of Maus.) I propose to add it to the canon of Whig literature. The story is about the encounter of an old world civilization with democracy, and the ending is a happy one, albeit not sentimental. Civilization is the art of living, and can be enjoyed by anyone, even a rat. But art cannot be made by anyone, only a genius can work the magic it requires. A genius can come from anywhere, however, can even be a rat. The enemies of art are the twin dangers of democracy, commerce and politics. A rat chef evades them, by practicing his art in a modest cafe, for both humans and rats. (This is Henry James's The Tragic Muse, in which a Jewish actress revives English drama, which had been decimated by commercialism and government censorship.) Well, yes, I know "Ratatouille" is just an animated cartoon. But that is the point, non?

Monday, September 17, 2007

back from maine

I haven't been keeping up my whiggery in recent weeks. Part of the reason can be seen in this photo of Monhegan Island, of the coast of Maine. There is a little fishing village / artists' colony, but most of the island is protected by a conservation easement, and outside the village, aside from hiking trails, there are only the farms abandoned decades ago, gone back to spruce and pine, with their bleak views of the sea. This is New England; it is not wildernes, but an inhabited place that constantly reminds one of the sea-going past. My blog began as a commentary on current affairs from the perspective of the past, but I think the past -- or at least what continues, what has been saved from he wreckage of time (in Henry James's phrase) -- has a better claim to attention.

So I look at this image and think of the work that I have been doing recently, the biographies of Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Two more different men can hardly be imagined, and yet their lifelong friendship was founded on what they shared. A common admiration for the art of life, for instance, which for both of them was to be seen and learned in Europe. This art rested on the freedom that a few people had gained as the profit of centuries of injustice. They each knew that bleak truth, and each in his own way pursued the ideal of harmonizing justice and beauty, America and Europe; of creating a democratic civilization.

Each thought of his own career as a performance, and tried to make it not only beautiful but sublime (strange words to use about a lawyer, I know). Holmes and James were both poets, each in his own way; performing their own works. Fine art is the strategy of the powerless, and neither of them had much power in the material sense. Each lectured on the duties of the powerful, the self-restraint that alone provides a hope for a moral civilization. Hard to talk about any of this today, at least in the English-speaking world.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Whig History

The link above will take you to Mark Lilla's article in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "The Great Separation," in which he reminds us that Whigs invented the separation of theology and politics. Their hired propagandist Thomas Hobbes had the idea that monarchies were not divinely established, but were a purely human arrangement. After five hundred years of brutal state warfare in Europe and America, the idea took hold and "we" seem to have settled for liberal democracy. A little broad brush, but what the hell; Lilla's article this morning is the third most blogged item in the Times. I am glad to welcome him to the modern Whigs, and especially note his warning that not every nation necessarily follows this course. He is warning us, perhaps unnecessarily, about Muslim nations. He doesn't mention, as he might, the perpetually smiling bully who occupies the office of president and who seems to think he was anointed by God to make war on the infidels.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Boss Tweed

The presidential system has turned out badly, for a couple of reasons. Two recent books by Kenneth D. Ackerman (both are entertaining in lots of ways) illustrate them. In "Dark Horse," he talked about party politics in the amazingly corrupt era after the Civil War, when Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government, and fell to fighting over the spoils. In his latest, "Boss Tweed," he talks about Tweed's audacious effort to seize control first of the Democratic Party in New York City, and then to extend his control first to the state and then to the national government. He was thwarted by a venomous rival, Samuel Tilden, who used the governor's powers to bring down Tammany Hall. Ackerman makes it a curiously modern story of political power, media power, and the use of criminal prosecutions for political ends. Some lessons drawn in the final chapter have a familiar ring: "It's hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed's system. . . . The Tweed Ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically placed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury, and the ballot box." The system was financed by contracts awarded to the friends of Tammany Hall, and the contracts were financed by borrowing. "Tweed's system had an irresistible logic . . . Taxes stayed low; [the Ring] financed city operations mostly with debt, selling bonds [abroad] . . . pushing off payment until another day. For the wealthy, Tweed produced dynamism and growth." His regime produced a surge of civic pride, a kind local nationalism. Unfortunately, the pyramid of debt eventually collapsed, as it was bound to do. Moral of the story, perhaps: Party rule leads to problems, whatever the party.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Speaking of Princes. . . .

The tenth anniversary of Diana's death has been marked by innumerable television, magazine and book releases, not many of which I have seen. I did watch with great pleasure the film "The Queen," starring the admirable Helen Mirren as the Queen, which cast Tony Blair as a Whig anxious to preserve the ceremonial monarchy. (The Queen came off as a Tory, divine-right-of-monarchy sort, which I imagine was fair enough). The most interesting of the items I have seen is Jeremy Paxman's book "On Royalty," an extended, smart and very funny investigation of modern, constitutional monarchies. He is puzzled to know why anyone would want to be a powerless monarch, living in a bell jar, or why so many people in otherwise democratic countries cling to their monarchs. Lots of food for thought, including this passage from the preface, reflecting on the popularity of Elizabeth and Diana in the US: "America has defined itself in part by the way it filled the vacuum created by throwing off the monarchial yoke. The monarch, in absentia, is as crucial to the identity of America as she is, in person, to the idea of Britain. Perhaps that is why she remains such a figure of fascination." Hum.

Prince Barack

I would like to recruit Barack Obama to the Whig party; as candidate for Prince of the North, rather than president. A great many people seem to share my sense that he literally embodies America's diverse history and idealism, European, African and Asian. He has devoted himself to public service and is just the face we would like to hold out to the world -- like Princess Diana and President John F. Kennedy -- an aristocratic and attractive champion of the disadvantaged. The difficulty with our constitutional system is that the president has to be an able commander-in-chief and chief magistrate, as well as the embodiment of the nation. The Whig project is to separate the two functions, and who better to represent that program than the ideal royal, Barack Obama. You will object that he is too intelligent to be a royal, which is a point well taken. But perhaps we can begin a new tradition. . . .

Monday, July 16, 2007

First Whiggery

Thinking about Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and what I might have learned from them while I was writing their biographies, led me to Whiggery. James passionately embraced America's European history, while Holmes had a part in shaping the future of America's evolving constitution. I would like to say that James, at least in his mature years, was a Whig (his father was one of the founders of the party, and James himself wrote for a Whig newspaper The New York Tribune), although the Whig party had vanished by the time he reached voting age. Holmes was a Progressive Republican, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to the Supreme Court; some of his friends in England were Liberal Imperialists, a name that gives some of the flavor of their politics and his. Holmes and James were on opposite sides of many political issues, which makes it more interesting that they came out of the same moral world and had many of the same aims. The biggest thing they shared was a fondness for European civilization, and a wish that it might somehow be harmonized with American democracy. Can there be harmony between age and youth, peace and war, unity and diversity? Not a bad ideal, even today, even if it seems as distant as ever.