Sunday, August 31, 2014

Yazidi women held in Islamic State prison . . . as sex slaves

Flag of The Islamic State

According to Chris Pleasance, "Hundreds of Yazidi women [are being] held in Islamic State prison . . . as sex slaves or sold off as jihadi brides" (Daily Mail Online, 28 August 2014; updated 29 August 2014):
Hundreds of Yazidi women being held prisoner [in Badush Prison] by Islamic State fighters in Iraq are being sold off as brides for as little as $25 or repeatedly raped if they refuse, it has been claimed. Survivors have told how beauticians were brought in to put makeup on the women before they were attacked, and said some victims were forced to call their families after to explain what had happened. According to those who escaped Badush Prison, in Mosul, northern Iraq, the number of women held there could be in the thousands and include Christians and Turkomens - a largely Muslim group closely related to the Turks . . . . According to Pakhshan Zangana, an official in The Kurdish Regional Government, women arriving at the jail are given two choices: convert to Islam and be sold off for between $25 and $150, or refuse and be subjected to rape and slow death. She [said] . . . that one girl called her mother from inside the jail and described being raped by dozens of men in the space of just a few hours . . . . 'It's complete psychological warfare. These families are already destroyed by the loss of their loved ones, and now ISIS has them calling to tell them of the atrocities they have suffered.'
I've previously noted the fact that Islamists defend their 'right' to use women taken prisoner as sex slaves. For instance, I blogged on Salwa al-Mutairi's desire to introduce sex slaves to Kuwait (MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 3924, June 19, 2011):
"I asked [a Saudi mufti]: What is the law with regard to slave girls? The mufti told me that the law requires there to be a Muslim country raiding a Christian country -- sorry, a non-Muslim country -- and taking POWs. I asked him whether it was forbidden [to turn them into slaves], and he said that Islam does not prohibit keeping slave girls -- on the contrary . . . . Here in Kuwait too, I asked religious scholars and experts about this, and they said that for the average, good religious man, the only way to avoid forbidden relations with women is to purchase slave girls."
Apparently, Ms. al-Mutairi thought that this would be an excellent way to prevent fornication among Muslims. One Muslim whom I blogged on who would agree with her is the Egyptian Salafi Shaykh Abu-Ishaq Al-Huwaini, who tells us:
When a slave market is erected, which is a market in which are sold slaves and sex-slaves, which are called in the Qur'an by the name milk al-yamin, "that which your right hands possess" [Qur'an 4:24]. This is a verse from the Qur'an which is still in force, and has not been abrogated. The milk al-yamin are the sex-slaves. You go to the market, look at the sex-slave, and buy her. She becomes like your wife, (but) she doesn't need a (marriage) contract or a divorce like a free woman, nor does she need a wali. All scholars agree on this point -- there is no disagreement from any of them.
The Islamists seem to agree that sex slaves are legitimate according to Shariah, so the Islamic State (IS) of course practices sexual slavery. Indeed, the IS publicizes it, just as the IS publicizes all its atrocities. My only way to understand their openness about their atrocities is that they intend to strike terror into the hearts of infidels everywhere.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét: On the End of a World

Valeria Victrix
Badge and Standard of Legion XX
Moulded Antefix Roof Tile
Holt, Clwyd, Wales

In Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "The Last of the Legions," the first-person narrator, a centurion of high intelligence, speaks with his Greek friend Agathocles, who keeps accounts for the legion, about the growing darkness as Rome begins to pull back from its borders, in the legion's case, from the northwest of Britain, and he asks why order ends:
"But tell me," I said, "why does it end?"

He shook his head. "I do not know," he said. "Men build and they go on building. And then the dream is shaken - it is shaken to bits by the storm. Afterwards, there follow darkness and the howling peoples. I think that will be for a long time. I meant to be a historian, when I first joined the eagles. I meant to write of the later wars of Rome as Thucydides wrote of the Greek wars. But now my ink is dry and I have nothing to say."

"But," I said, "it is there - it is solid - it will last," for I thought of the country we had marched through, and the boy, unafraid, on his pony.

"Oh," said Agathocles, "it takes time for the night to fall - that is what people forget. Yes, even the master of your villa may die in peace. But there are still the two spirits in man - the spirit of building and the spirit of destruction. And when the second drives the faster horse, then the night comes on."

"You said you had a state and a law," I said. "Could you not have kept them?"

"Why, we could," said Agathocles, "but we did not. We had Pericles, but we shamed him. And now you and I - both Romans" - and he laughed and coughed - "we follow a hairy general to an unknown battle. And, beyond that, there is nothing."
And I wonder, as I look on the state of our world today, how dark is the future we face in the face of our storm.

Read the story.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

David Mitchell's Insight: "Wrong versions become the scaffolding that you use to build the novel."

What did the writer David Mitchell mean in stating, "Wrong versions become the scaffolding that you use to build the novel"? He explains in an NYT interview, "A Master of Many Universes" (August 24, 2014), written up by Alessandra Stanley, who gets Mitchell to talking about his most recent novel, The Bone Clocks, apparently an intricately structured work about the life of the main character, Holly Sykes:
When he began writing the novel four years ago, Mr. Mitchell envisioned an even more intricate structure. He tried to write it as 70 short stories that each took place in a single year of Holly's life, from 1969 to 2039. After writing 13 of the stories, he got stuck.

"It's one of those ideas that sounds good, but when you start writing it, you hit the problem: 'Ah, that's why no one has done this before,'" Mr. Mitchell said. But when he started over, he had much of the novel mapped out.
Mitchell then concludes:
"Wrong versions become the scaffolding that you use to build the novel."
An insight for writers to remember. And the book sounds good, too, if you like what you read in the following plot-spoiling paragraph:
"The Bone Clocks" opens in 1984 England, where a rebellious teenager, Holly Sykes, runs away from home and unwittingly gets caught up in an occult war that has been raging for centuries. In classic Mitchell fashion, the narrative transgresses time, space and genre, jumping from 1980s England to contemporary Iraq, the medieval Swiss Alps, the 19th-century Australian outback, a Manhattan townhouse that serves as a metaphysical portal, and finally to an Irish village in 2043, where an elderly Holly struggles to protect her grandchildren after an environmental catastrophe. As the story progresses, Holly learns that she has been a pawn in a battle between two rival camps of immortals, the Horologists, who reincarnate by taking on new bodies, and the Anchorites, who stay eternally young by preying on the living.
Not everybody's cup of tea, I reckon, but it sounds good for me, and I'd bet that starting in 1984 is some sort of fictional nod to Orwell.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Islamist Cleric Hussein bin Mahmoud: "Islam Is A Religion Of Beheading"

Beheading of James Foley

According to Memri's Special Dispatch No. 5826 (August 25, 2014), a "Jihadi Cleric Justifies IS [Islamic State] Beheadings: 'Islam Is A Religion Of Beheading.'" The jihadi cleric, Hussein bin Mahmoud, argued on the Shumoukh Al-Islam forum (August 21, 2014) that Islam not only allows but even encourages such acts as beheading because Islam is a warrior religion:
[P]eople are weeping over a Christian American harbi infidel who entered the Islamic State, knowing full well what the Islamic State is, and without a pact [of protection] . . . . All scholars, without exception, agree on the permissibility of killing a harbi infidel, and agree that his blood and property are fair game . . . . Many Muslims are influenced by the West's false views and its repulsive ideas, which are exported to the Islamic nation in order to weaken it and change the perception of its youth so that [the youth] become cowardly and subdued and abandon the means of power and terror, and thus create a generation that does not know fighting or the cutting of necks. Recently we saw some who are considered scholars mixing things up and deceiving the nation, changing the concepts of Islamic law to fit the plans of the enemies. We don't know if they did this out of ignorance about some of the tenets of Islamic law, or were [simply] lying . . . . Chopping off the heads of infidels is an act whose permissibility the [Muslim] ummah agrees on. Beheading a harbi infidel is a blessed act for which a Muslim is rewarded . . . . As for beheading infidel Jews, Christians and 'Alawites, as well as apostate Shi'ites, who commit crimes against the Muslims, they must be terrorized, filled with fear and beheaded without any respect. Cutting off heads is part of the tradition of the [Prophet's] Companions. In the Koran Allah ordered to smite the infidels' necks and encouraged the Muslims to do this. He said [in Koran 47:4], "When you meet those who disbelieve on the battlefield, smite at their necks until you have killed and wounded many of them" . . . . How many hadiths [relayed by] the Prophet's Companions have we read in which they demanded . . . the striking of necks . . . . Striking necks was a well-known matter that did not elicit any condemnation in the eras of the Prophet, the rightly-guided caliphs and their successors, right until the time of the Christian occupation of the Muslims' lands in the [20th] century. Those crusaders fought the Islamic legal concepts, distorted the religion, and convinced the Muslims that their religion is a religion of peace, doves, love and harmony, and that there is no blood in it, no killing and no fighting. The Muslims remained in this state until Allah revived the tradition of beheading by means of the mujahid and slaughterer Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, may Allah have mercy upon him and accept him as a martyr . . . . The truth is that what distorts the image of Islam is not the beheading and terrorizing of infidels, but rather those who want [Islam to follow the path of] Mandela or Ghandi, with no killing, fighting, brutality, bloodshed or the striking of heads or necks. That is not the religion of [the Prophet] Muhammad son of 'Abdallah who was sent [to fight] with the sword [until] Judgment Day. The only Koranic surah that is named after him, Surah Muhammad, is [also] called "The Surah of Fighting" . . . . Islam is a religion of power, fighting, jihad, beheading and bloodshed, not a religion of turning the left cheek to whoever slapped you on the right cheek. On the contrary, it is a religion of breaking the hand that is stretched out to humiliate the Muslim. [Any Muslim] who fights for his property, blood or honor is a martyr . . . . There is no true life for its believers except through jihad, [and] the goal of its fighters is to die for the sake of their religion.
This is certainly Islamism. Hussein bin Mahmoud, the jihadi cleric, says that it's true Islam. Is he right? He doesn't offer a careful argument, but he does cite a few sources from the Qur'an and the Hadith.

My impression is that he's not so much trying to convince the ignorant as trying to remind the knowledgeable, as though every Muslim ought to know these things already.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ronald J. Granieri contra Geert Wilders on Islam

Ronald J. Granieri

I receive regular E-Notes from the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), and since I am interested in Islam and Islamism, I was glad to receive an article by Ronald J. Granieri, "More Faith, Less Fear: Islam, Islamism, and the Future of the West" (August 2014), for based on a couple of previous articles I've blogged on, I expected a careful analysis on why the Dutch politician Geert Wilders is wrong about Islam, but I found Granieri's argument rather less than careful, as the following shows:
First and most obviously [concerning Geert Wilders' errors] is his characterization of Islam, which he claims is not a religion but a "political ideology," which he compares to Nazism and Communism. "Therefore, there is no such a thing as moderate Islam," he declares. "Sure, there are a lot of moderate Muslims. But a moderate Islam is non-existent." This simplistic assumption is flat out wrong. The vast majority of Muslims in Europe, just as the vast majority of Muslims in the world, are not intolerant Islamist radicals. Most of them are hard-working people with families who are simply trying to make their way in the world. That Wilders feels it necessary to characterize a religious community that has existed for 1500 years and that includes hundreds of millions of peaceful people who have never threatened anybody (Indonesia, for example, is the world's largest Muslim country, and currently threatens no one) as a relentless enemy of humanity, and that he wants to dismiss it as merely an ideology is the most stereotypical form of cultural arrogance and short-sightedness. Wilders even gets the basic definition of Islam wrong. He correctly identifies it as "submission" but the context he makes it seem as though that submission is of a political form, when actually what Islam is about is submission to God and God's laws. I know of no monotheistic religion that does not basically expect the same thing of its believers. It's also false to assume that there is no disagreement among Muslims about the practice of the faith, considering that most of ISIS's victims are fellow Muslims who do not happen to measure up to ISIS's particularly stringent dogma.
Whether Wilders is right or wrong - and I disagree with Wilders' claim that Islam is not a religion - Granieri's argument above is so fundamentally flawed that any reader should be able to spot it immediately. Granieri quotes Wilders as saying that "Sure, there are a lot of moderate Muslims. But a moderate Islam is non-existent." Granieri says that this is "flat out wrong" and adds, "The vast majority of Muslims . . . are not intolerant Islamist radicals." But this misses Wilders' distinction between "moderate Muslims" and immoderate Islam.

What Granieri needs to demonstrate is that Islam is not immoderate. I think that Granieri intends to make this point by his remark that every monotheistic religion expects "submission to God and God's laws," but what he ignores is that submission to God differs in the various monotheisms, and he neglects to tell us what Islam considers God's laws to be. In Islam, God's laws are codified as sharia, and when I look closely at Islam's system of laws - including the rules governing warfare - I find much that is hardly moderate.

I thus found Granieri's article less than satisfying.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Nahi Mahdi: A Good Man

Nahi Mahdi
Google Images

A sense of humanity can overcome divisions, as we see in this video clip of television host Nahi Mahdi breaking down in tears over the plight of Christians recently driven from their homes by the Islamic State, which has taken control of much of eastern Syria and western Iraq:
Guest: "[It is terrible] when people come and force you to leave your home. This is what happened to the Christians today."

Nahi Mahdi: "Yes, the Christians. Today... I cried, at home."

Mahdi breaks down in tears

Guest: "This is one genuine Iraqi we have here."

Nahi Mahdi: "I went to the Al-Marbad market, near the city of Al-Zubeir. There is an area there which is predominantly Christian. I swear, they never made us feel [unwelcome] . . . They are our own flesh and blood. Some of them have left for Sweden or Germany . . . Who does [ISIS] think it is to drive out our fellow countrymen?! I want to take the people of Mosul and the government to task. They must take immediate measures to help these people. Our country is like a rose, and its petals are the Christians, the Arabs, the Kurds, the Sabians, the Shabak people . . . These are all our countrymen. I don't know what to say about this [ISIS]." (Memri Video Clip Nr. 4428, "Iraqi TV Host Breaks Down in Tears at Plight of Christians" Asia TV (Iraq), July 20, 2014)
I know nothing else about Mr. Nahi Mahdi, but I see that on this issue, his heart is in the right place . . .

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Still Pertinent Words in Stephen Vincent Benét's "Nightmare at Noon"

Stephen Vincent Benét

In 1940, over a year before America entered WWII, Stephen Vincent Benét published a warning about fascism to his fellow Americans in the poem "Nightmare at Noon" (New York Times Magazine, June 1940). Some of the words are pertinent today:
Liberty, equality, fraternity.
To none will we sell, refuse or deny, right or justice.
We hold these truths to be self-evident.
But what if . . .
I am merely saying - what if these words pass?
What if they pass and are gone and are no more,
Eviscerated, blotted out of the world?
What if, instead:
Strength is all, worship strength!
Worship, bow down or die!
Sound familiar? Remind you of anything? We'll need more wisdom with the power we do have, or we'll bow to a brutal power that accepts only submission. Just look back at yesterday's blog entry . . .

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Islamic State Gives Yazidis a Free Choice!

Yazidis Freely Converting to Islam
Google Images

Contrary to the bad press that the Islamic State has been getting on the Yazidi problem, the Islamic State is actually helping the Yazidis! Says who? Says the Islamic State: "ISIS Justifies Its War on Yazidis: We Called on Them to Convert to Islam First."
In a video posted online on August 20, 2014, an ISIS commander explains that they offer the Yazidis a chance to convert to Islam before killing them. "The Islamic State does its utmost for the repentance of any infidel - Yazidi, Crusader [i.e., Christian], or Jewish," the commander claims. The video shows a scene of mass conversion, with a hall full of Yazidi men reciting the two shahadas. (Memri Transcript 4438 - video here)
These captive infidel Yazidis were offered a free choice: Convert to Islam and inherit paradise with its 72 virgins or remain in your pagan sins and inherit hellfire through beheading. You see? The choice is absolutely free.

The Islamic State will be happy to offer everyone this attractive choice as well. Be ready, anyway, for the ISIS says you will also get this choice. It's only a matter of time . . .


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Fortunate I am, to have Terrance Lindall as illustrator of The Bottomless Bottle of Beer

This illustration above from The Bottomless Bottle of Beer speaks for itself, of course, on the excellence of Terrance Lindall's distinctive style, but I should note that he is foremost a very accomplished illustrator of John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, as has been noted by people with greater aesthetic expertise than I, as the following citation will attest:
According to Dr. Robert J. Wickenheiser, "Without a doubt, Terrance Lindall is the foremost illustrator of Paradise Lost in our age, comparable to other great illustrators through the ages, and someone who has achieved a place of high stature for all time." Dr. Wickenheiser subsequently added, "I consider myself the most fortunate of Miltonists to have lived during the time of the greatest of Milton illustrators, to have been his friend and brother so that I could say so to others and indeed the world, while discussing Milton."
Who is Dr. Robert J. Wickenheiser?
According to G.W. Stuart Jr., expert on fine and rare books, "Dr. Robert Wickenheiser is the uncontested premier collector of Milton and Miltoniana in the world . . . . There is, to the best of my knowledge, no other privately held collection in the world that even remotely begins to approach the Wickenheiser Milton Collection in scope, range, or importance . . . . The purchase of this collection would immediately catapult the purchaser into world-class status."
You can see why I am fortunate to have Terrance Lindall as illustrator . . . and as friend.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Provisional "Introduction" for Presentation at Literary Festival in late September

Stamp of Approval
Google Images

From September 25 through 27, I'll be at a conference on "Literature and National Community," and I'll be speaking on "The United States and the Case of Stephen Vincent Benét."

Here's my provisional "Introduction":
I am informed that my presentation on "Literature and National Community . . . . will be representing the English speaking countries." That's a lot of countries, and I can probably only manage to represent myself, but since I'm American, I'll pretend to represent the United States. But what am I to say? I suppose I can start with Benedict Anderson's famous view of a nation: "In an anthropological spirit, . . . I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign." Limited, because there are other nations. Sovereign, because not under the rule of another nation. Community, because of a "deep, horizontal comradeship." And imagined, because members do not know most of their fellow-members, yet have a mental image of their communion (Anderson, 6-7). Where does this mental image come from? Partly, at least sometimes, from literature. Which brings me to my subject: Stephen Vincent Benét.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso: 2006.
It's provisional because I'll be submitting it for approval late August . . .

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Terrance Lindall's Dinner With The Devil: September 19, 2014

Dinner With The Devil

My NY friend and famous illustrator of John Milton's Paradise Lost (as well as of the BBB), Terrance Lindall, is having a Dinner With The Devil this coming September 19, 2014 in honor of the electrifying artist Bien 'Bones' Banez, inspiration for the soon-to-be-famous Satanic Verses of Bones Banez!

My own minor poem, "Hell's Bells," might receive mention, but that doesn't matter. More important is the menu, edifying both inside and out!

Here's the cover, aka "Out":

Such meals might be subject to change . . . possibly transubstantiation? I'm merely guessing, based on my knowledge of the authors' whims about sub sandwiches.

But that sort of transformation only makes things better!

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle on Stephen Vincent Benét's Anti-Fascism

David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle, the editors of Stephen Vincent Benét: Essays on His Life and Work (McFarland, 2002), also contributed the book's final essay, "Benét as Dramatist for Stage, Screen, and Radio" (pages 215-232), which has this to say about Benét's opposition to fascism:
During the late 1930s Benét, just as many other Americans, was alarmed at the tragedy of fascism in Asia and Europe. He took seriously his role as national spokesperson and began to write poems and stories as warnings to the American people. Among these were "The Blood of the Martyrs," "Into Egypt," "The Last of the Legions," "Nightmare at Noon," and "By the Waters of Babylon," the last of which is credited by science-fiction historians as establishing many of the conventions of stories about a future world of survivors after an apocalyptic war . . . . Benét wished to reach more Americans and realized radio was the way. In those pre-television days, radio had as devoted audiences as TV does now. Benét's poems and stories were read over the air and heard by millions. His good friend, the poet Archibald MacLeish, had written three plays just for radio, and encouraged Benét to do the same. What followed would be the most astonishing output of original works for radio by a literary author ever produced, and more importantly, ever listened to over a four-year period. Benét was a natural writer for radio. As Norman Rosten says in his foreword to the published radio scripts, "Steve Benét had that gather-ye-round quality, and the folks sure did gather when he spoke!" . . . His mastery of poetry and the short story suited the need for compactness with a singular effect; his reputation as a man of conscience and a patriot who loved his country was exactly right for an America facing the threat of fascism that was already producing killing fields abroad. But, as Rosten points out, writing "[p]ropaganda was nothing new to [Benét]. He was always selling Americans the idea of America" . . . .
Izzo and Konkle note that the public response to Benét's works for radio was extraordinary, for letters and telegrams poured in after his broadcasts, expressing gratitude. While I ordinarily find politically motivated literature rather bad literature, I find that Benét wrote propaganda that is also very fine literature. Apparently, he was such a sincere nationalist that he wrote about exactly what inspired him to support 'Americanism' and oppose fascism.

Unfortunately, he did not get to see the American victory over fascism, nor was he to continue his inspiring broadcasts, for he died in 1943, at the young age of 44.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét's Anti-Fascism

"The Blood of the Martyrs" was the second story in Stephen Vincent Benét's 1937 collection, Thirteen O'Clock: Stories of Several Worlds, and - warning, plot spoilers! - it tells the story of an apolitical biochemist named Malzius in an unnamed country, possibly an Eastern European one, who has been arrested and tortured to determine if he is truly apolitical, and being found to be so, he is offered by the dictator his laboratory and position back if he agrees to also become a spokesperson for the state and use his weight as a famous scientist toward the support of the regime and its political ideology, but he then thinks of all the young men who come from around the world to study under him and who do so because of his reputation as a rigorously honest scientist:
He paused again, seeing their faces before him. There were many. There was Williams, the Englishman, who had died in the war, and little Gregopolous with the fox-terrier eyes. There were all who had passed through his classrooms, from the stupidest to the best. They had shot little Gregopolous for treason, but that did not alter the case. From all over the world they had come - he remembered the Indian student and the Chinese. They wore cheap overcoats, they were hungry for knowledge, they ate the bad, starchy food of the poor restaurants, they had miserable little love affairs and played childish games of politics, instead of doing their work. Nevertheless, a few were promising - all must be given the truth. It did not matter if they died, but they must be given the truth. Otherwise there could be no continuity and no science.

He looked at the Dictator before him - yes, it was a hysteric face. He would know how to deal with it in his classroom - but such faces should not rule countries or young men. One was willing to go through a great many meaningless ceremonies in order to do one's work - wear a uniform or salute or be president of the Academy. That did not matter; it was part of the due to Caesar. But not to tell lies to young men on one's own subject. After all, they had called him The Bear . . . . They had given him their terrible confidence - not for love or kindness, but because they had found him honest. It was too late to change.
Though surrounded by military men, he nevertheless resists:
Professor Malzius stood, his fingers gripping the big, old-fashioned inkwell. It was full of ink - the servants of the Dictator were very efficient. They could shoot small people with the eyes of fox terriers for treason, but their trains arrived on time and their inkwells did not run dry.

"The state," he said, breathing. "Yes. But science does not know about states. And you are a little man - a little, unimportant man."

Then, before the General could stop him, he had picked up the inkwell and thrown it in the Dictator's face. The next moment the General's fist caught him on the side of the head and he fell behind the desk to the floor. But lying there, through his cracked glasses, he could still see the grotesque splashes of ink on the Dictator's face and uniform, and the small cut above his eye where the blood was gathering. They had not fired; he had thought he would be too close to the Dictator for them to fire in time.

"Take that man out and shoot him. At once," said the Dictator in a dry voice. He did not move to wipe the stains from his uniform—and for that Professor Malzius admired him. They rushed then, each anxious to be first. But Professor Malzius made no resistance.
Rather, he made no further resistance. No more was needed.

This story by Benét demonstrates his anti-fascist views as early as 1937, such views being perhaps an outgrowth of his Americanism, but also shaped no doubt by his study abroad in Europe.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét's Grave

Grave of Stephen Vincent Benét
Find a Grave
Photo supplied by Robert Rich

This webpage of Find a Grave offers viewers a few photos of Benét's grave, plus a brief but informative bio by "Iola" that tells me a few things I didn't know, including this:
A short story collection, 'Thirteen O'clock' published in 1937, included . . . one of his most famous stories, 'The Devil and Daniel Webster'. The story was later made into a play, an opera, and a film, the title becoming 'All That Money Can [Buy].'
Also, this information speaks to Benét's 'Americanism':
By 1940, Benét was a strong advocate of America's entry into WWII.
But the question is "Why?" For Europe's sake? Or America's?

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét's Dark Moment of Optimism

By the Waters of Babylon
Google Images

Stephen Vincent Benét also wrote a post-apocalyptic short story, "By the Waters of Babylon (1937)," which I excerpt here, though I add a spoiler alert, for the two paragraphs below are the story's conclusion, in which a son tells his father what he has learned from his journey into manhood and priesthood:
I told and he listened. After that, I wished to tell all the people but he showed me otherwise. He said, "Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our fathers forbade the Dead Places." He was right - it is better the truth should come little by little. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.

Nevertheless, we make a beginning. it is not for the metal alone we go to the Dead Places now - there are the books and the writings. They are hard to learn. And the magic tools are broken - but we can look at them and wonder. At least, we make a beginning. And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods - the place newyork - not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others - the gods Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.
The narrator has earlier explained that fire from the sky and a poisonous mist had destroyed the 'ancients' and their world. Much time has passed, and only a priestly class keeps some knowledge alive. The narrator, a young priest, tells of disobeying the law not to go east, but his discoveries convinced him that men must rebuild. His father, who listens to the tale, cautions him about revealing too much too soon, and the son sees the wisdom in his father's words. Note the subtle reference to the Tree of Knowledge in the words of the son: "in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast."

Oddly enough, even this dark story offers an example of Benét's 'Americanism.' The optimism that men can rebuild civilization is spoken by an 'American' . . . or, anyway, by a descendant of Americans. The title itself - "By the Waters of Babylon" (although a re-titling by Benét) - reminds the reader of the biblical line that follows, "we sat down and wept, for we remembered Zion," and just as Zion was rebuilt in the Old Testament, the New Zion known as "America" - the Shining City on a Hill, the Light unto the Nations - would be rebuilt.

Even in his darkest vision, Benét's "can-do optimism" is so very American.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Joan Shelley Rubin on Stephen Vincent Benét's 'Amercanism'

Joan Shelley Rubin
University of Rochester

In Songs of Ourselves (Harvard University Press, 2009), Joan Shelley Rubin describes Stephen Vincent Benét's 'Amercanism':
The most prominent and influential individual to make poetry a weapon to aid the Allies [against the fascist Axis powers in WWII] . . . was Stephen Vincent Benét . . . . When he arrived at Yale in 1915, Benét already thought of himself as a poet . . . . He evinced as well an earnestness about both his calling and his country: as his friend MacLeish later observed, "Steve was more conscious of being an American than any other man I ever knew" . . . . The critical reception of [Benét's 'Americanist' epic poem] John Brown's Body [thirteen years later] was decidedly mixed; a number of reviewers thought the poem uneven and overreaching. Nevertheless, it was among the best-selling nonfiction books of 1928 and the only sustained work of poetry to attain a wide popular audience in the early twentieth century. Although reviewers frequently compared Benét to Whitman because of their shared scope and subject, readers' responses to the poem, as Benét's biographer has pointed out, resembled the enthusiasm the public had shown for Longfellow. Edited by Benét's close friend from Yale, John Farrar, and published by the fledgling firm of Doubleday, Doran, the book sold 130,000 copies in the first two first two years after publication; even in the depths of the Depression, Americans bought an average of 6,000 copies a year at the volume's original price . . . . In sum, John Brown's Body reasserted the figure of the poet as both sage and intimate at a time when high modernism had eroded those roles for many American publishers and readers . . . . John Brown's Body also capitalized on the surge of interest in American culture during the 1920s, and particularly the Lincoln boom of the period. As countless fan letters of the period attest, various qualities of the text itself judiciously appealed to a range of readers: Benét acknowledged the suffering of both North and South, balanced depictions of "virile" action with passages of feminine emotion, and tempered modernist devices such as Eliotic allusions with old-fashioned narrative clarity. The result of all these factors that Benét's best-seller recentered poetry as an American medium suitable for transmitting an American message. John Brown's Body seemed especially susceptible to rereading. "I have no way of telling you the place in my life your [book] has found," a Texas man declared in a letter to Benét. "Let me say this - it is the book I pick up when I am frayed out, disgusted, exhausted - and it always brings back my balance." The response to the work by Benét's readers shaped his cultural function after 1940, as first the threat of fascism and then the outbreak of World War II engaged the country's attention. One concrete result of the persistent popularity of John Brown's Body was its issuance in 1943 in an Armed Services edition. In the wartime context, the principle of freedom from slavery for which Brown had sacrificed his life became the basis for battling the Nazis and Japanese. More generally, the consensus Benét had forged about the centrality of the Civil War for all Americans served as the foundation for his stance as champion of national unity to further the Allied cause. On the air and in print, Benét rallied his audience to hear a single message: American citizens must defend their democratic traditions against the enemies threatening their free way of life.

Among the writings in which Benét expressed that view were those reprinted in A Summons to the Free, a pamphlet in the series "America in a World at War" which Farrar and Rinehart published in 1941. The pamphlet, containing both prose and verse, concluded with Benét's "Nightmare at Noon," a poem that had first appeared in the New York Times Magazine in June 1940. The text depicts Nazi occupation of northern Europe and prods complacent Americans into envisioning what their own cities would be like if fascism prevailed. One passage succinctly reiterates the principle of civic nationalism: "You can be a Finn or a Dane and an American. / You can be German or French and an American, / Jew, Bohunk, Nigger, Mick - all the dirty names / We call each other - and yet American." Acknowledging that American ideals did not always correspond to reality, Benét nevertheless affirmed that "as a country, we try." Still an exemplar of balance - here between isolationists and left-wing ideologues - he thus earned praise from a reader who told him that she wanted to send copies of the text both to "every official in Washington" and to "careless-thinking young radicals" contemptuous of "the American way of living." (Rubin, Songs of Ourselves, pages 230-233)
The crucial point is this: "Benét's best-seller recentered poetry as an American medium suitable for transmitting an American message," and the message was one of national unity achieved through the democratic freedom to be an individual whose unique voice could be raised and heard.

There were obvious tensions in this message since some of those unique voices were the "careless-thinking young radicals" contemptuous of "the American way of living."

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Chauncey Brewster Tinker - Inspiration to Stephen Vincent Benét?

Chauncey Brewster Tinker
Yale University Art Gallery

In his Foreword to Stephen Vincent Benét's juvenalia, Young Adventure: A Book of Poems (1918), published when Benét was merely 20, the professor of English literature at Yale and leading Boswell scholar Chauncey Brewster Tinker wrote the following words:
[Prior to the Great War,] we passed into a false freedom [in poetry] that had at its heart a repudiation of all law and standards, for a parallel to which one turns instinctively to certain recent developments in the political world. We may hope that the eager search for novelty of form and subject may have its influence in releasing us from our old bondage to the commonplace and in broadening the scope of poetry; but we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that it has at the same time completed that estrangement between the poet and the general public which has been developing for half a century. The great mass of the reading world, to whom the arts should minister, have now forgotten that poetry is a consolation in times of doubt and peril, a beacon, and "an ever-fixed mark" in a crazed and shifting world. Our poetry - and I am speaking in particular of American poetry - has been centrifugal; our poets have broken up into smaller and ever smaller groups. Individualism has triumphed.
In this collection of poems, Benét never once mentions America, but he was perhaps affected these words by Tinker, namely, that "[o]ur poetry - and I am speaking in particular of American poetry - has been centrifugal; our poets have broken up into smaller and ever smaller groups," for Benét went on in his more mature works to make an attempt at bringing the varied pieces of America together in a single vision, as we have already seen in his Invocation to John Brown's Body some ten years later, in 1928:
So, from a hundred visions, I make one,
And out of darkness build my mocking sun.
In adopting 'Americanism,' Benét set himself up for "some critics to label him an old-fashioned, quaint, and chauvinistic writer," as has been widely noted.

But Benét is broader than that, as we have seen and shall again see . . .

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét: American Name?

Stephen Vincent Benét
Google Images

I'm still trying to pinpoint precisely what Stephen Vincent Benét's 'Americanism' consisted of, and where might one better look than at his 1927 poem "American Names":
American Names

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy's horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy's Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman's Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
Are the most American names the odd ones derived from British English but given an oddball American twist? Not only. Consider John Brown's Body, published a year later (1928):
Call up the American names,
Kagi, the self-taught scholar, quiet and cool,
Stevens, the cashiered soldier, bawling his song,
Dangerfield Newby, the freed Scotch-mulatto,
Watson and Oliver Brown and all the hard-dying.
The name "Kagi" doesn't sound typically American, but the others certainly do. Or did. But what about Stephen Vincent Benét's own family name . . . did it sound 'American'? Was he overcompensating?

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Invocation to Stephen Vincent Benét's Epic Poem John Brown's Body

Stamp Honoring Stephen Vincent Benét
Google Images

Note the allusion to the Civil War in the stamp's background - those marching African-American troops - an allusion also related to today's blog topic, which I foreshadowed yesterday with my promise to post the Invocation to Stephen Vincent Benét's epic poem John Brown's Body (1928), so here it is:
American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as your land,

As mountainous-deep, as flowered with blue rivers,
Thirsty with deserts, buried under snows,
As native as the shape of Navajo quivers,
And native, too, as the sea-voyaged rose.

Swift runner, never captured or subdued,
Seven-branched elk beside the mountain stream,
That half a hundred hunters have pursued
But never matched their bullets with the dream,

Where the great huntsmen failed, I set my sorry
And mortal snare for your immortal quarry.

You are the buffalo-ghost, the broncho-ghost
With dollar-silver in your saddle-horn,
The cowboys riding in from Painted Post,
The Indian arrow in the Indian corn,

And you are the clipped velvet of the lawns
Where Shropshire grows from Massachusetts sods,
The grey Maine rocks - and the war-painted dawns
That break above the Garden of the Gods.

The prairie-schooners crawling toward the ore
And the cheap car, parked by the station-door.

Where the skyscrapers lift their foggy plumes
Of stranded smoke out of a stony mouth
You are that high stone and its arrogant fumes,
And you are ruined gardens in the South

And bleak New England farms, so winter-white
Even their roofs look lonely, and the deep
The middle grainland where the wind of night
Is like all blind earth sighing in her sleep.

A friend, an enemy, a sacred hag
With two tied oceans in her medicine-bag.

They tried to fit you with an English song
And clip your speech into the English tale.
But, even from the first, the words went wrong,
The catbird pecked away the nightingale.

The homesick men begot high-cheekboned things
Whose wit was whittled with a different sound
And Thames and all the rivers of the kings
Ran into Mississippi and were drowned.

They planted England with a stubborn trust.
But the cleft dust was never English dust.

Stepchild of every exile from content
And all the disavouched, hard-bitten pack
Shipped overseas to steal a continent
With neither shirts nor honor to their back.

Pimping grandee and rump-faced regicide,
Apple-cheeked younkers from a windmill-square,
Puritans stubborn as the nails of Pride,
Rakes from Versailles and thieves from County Clare,

The black-robed priests who broke their hearts in vain
To make you God and France or God and Spain.

These were your lovers in your buckskin-youth.
And each one married with a dream so proud
He never knew it could not be the truth
And that he coupled with a girl of cloud.

And now to see you is more difficult yet
Except as an immensity of wheel
Made up of wheels, oiled with inhuman sweat
And glittering with the heat of ladled steel.

All these you are, and each is partly you,
And none is false, and none is wholly true.

So how to see you as you really are,
So how to suck the pure, distillate, stored
Essence of essence from the hidden star
And make it pierce like a riposting sword.

For, as we hunt you down, you must escape
And we pursue a shadow of our own
That can be caught in a magician's cape
But has the flatness of a painted stone.

Never the running stag, the gull at wing,
The pure elixir, the American thing.

And yet, at moments when the mind was hot
With something fierier than joy or grief,
When each known spot was an eternal spot
And every leaf was an immortal leaf,

I think that I have seen you, not as one,
But clad in diverse semblances and powers,
Always the same, as light falls from the sun,
And always different, as the differing hours.

Yet, through each altered garment that you wore,
The naked body, shaking the heart's core.

All day the snow fell on that Eastern town
With its soft, pelting, little, endless sigh
Of infinite flakes that brought the tall sky down
Till I could put my hands in the white sky

And taste cold scraps of heaven on my tongue
And walk in such a changed and luminous light
As gods inhabit when the gods are young.
All day it fell. And when the gathered night

Was a blue shadow cast by a pale glow
I saw you then, snow-image, bird of the snow.

And I have seen and heard you in the dry
Close-huddled furnace of the city street
When the parched moon was planted in the sky
And the limp air hung dead against the heat.

I saw you rise, red as that rusty plant,
Dizzied with lights, half-mad with senseless sound,
Enormous metal, shaking to the chant
Of a triphammer striking iron ground.

Enormous power, ugly to the fool,
And beautiful as a well-handled tool.

These, and the memory of that windy day
On the bare hills, beyond the last barbed wire,
When all the orange poppies bloomed one way
As if a breath would blow them into fire,

I keep forever, like the sea-lion's tusk
The broken sailor brings away to land,
But when he touches it, he smells the musk,
And the whole sea lies hollow in his hand.

So, from a hundred visions, I make one,
And out of darkness build my mocking sun.

And should that task seem fruitless in the eyes
Of those a different magic sets apart
To see through the ice-crystal of the wise
No nation but the nation that is Art,

Their words are just. But when the birchbark-call
Is shaken with the sound that hunters make
The moose comes plunging through the forest-wall
Although the rifle waits beside the lake.

Art has no nations - but the mortal sky
Lingers like gold in immortality.

This flesh was seeded from no foreign grain
But Pennsylvania and Kentucky wheat,
And it has soaked in California rain
And five years tempered in New England sleet

To strive at last, against an alien proof
And by the changes of an alien moon,
To build again that blue, American roof
Over a half-forgotten battle-tune

And call unsurely, from a haunted ground,
Armies of shadows and the shadow-sound.

In your Long House there is an attic-place
Full of dead epics and machines that rust,
And there, occasionally, with casual face,
You come awhile to stir the sleepy dust;

Neither in pride nor mercy, but in vast
Indifference at so many gifts unsought,
The yellowed satins, smelling of the past,
And all the loot the lucky pirates brought.

I only bring a cup of silver air,
Yet, in your casualness, receive it there.

Receive the dream too haughty for the breast,
Receive the words that should have walked as bold
As the storm walks along the mountain-crest
And are like beggars whining in the cold.

The maimed presumption, the unskilful skill,
The patchwork colors, fading from the first,
And all the fire that fretted at the will
With such a barren ecstasy of thirst.

Receive them all - and should you choose to touch them
With one slant ray of quick, American light,
Even the dust will have no power to smutch them,
Even the worst will glitter in the night.

If not - the dry bones littered by the way
May still point giants toward their golden prey.
Most of you probably didn't read the entire Invocation. I've had to read it three times to understand it. Basically, the poet calls upon the unnamed American muse - which he compares to a seven-branched elk, a buffalo-ghost, a broncho-ghost, a running stag, a gull at wing, and a mysterious bird of the snow, all of which he is actively pursuing, in effect, hunting - in hope that this muse will aid him, "So [that], from a hundred visions, I make one, / And out of darkness build my mocking sun." By "mocking," he doesn't mean that he is ridiculing the theme he has chosen. Rather, he means that he hopes to imitate the sun that lights "a hundred visions." Benét celebrates America's diversity, but he is no multiculturalist, for he seeks the completion of e pluribus unum ("Out of many, one"), not the division of ex uno, plures ("Out of one, many"). That's the sun that unifies the manifold visions.

Benét is not uncritical, for does refer to the European settlers as "Shipped overseas to steal a continent." And his poem is about slavery . . .

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Back to Benét: References to America in John Brown's Body

Tragic Prelude (1938–1940)
John Steuart Curry

I actually saw this mural when I visited Topeka, Kansas with Sun-Ae and my older brother way back around 1993. The image of a gigantic John Brown makes him to be a force of nature like the fiercely whirling tornado and the wildly raging fire in the painting's background.

Anyway, in line with my investigation into Stephen Vincent Benét's 'Americanism' for the upcoming conference on "Literature and National Community," I was wondering how many references there are to America in Benét's poem John Brown's Body, first from the "Invocation":
American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as your land . . .

Never the running stag, the gull at wing,
The pure elixir, the American thing . . .

To strive at last, against an alien proof
And by the changes of an alien moon,
To build again that blue, American roof
Over a half -forgotten battle-tune . . .

Receive them all and should you choose to touch them
With one slant ray of quick, American light,
Even the dust will have no power to smutch them,
Even the worst will glitter in the night . . .
That's four references. Now from "Prelude: The Slaver":
His hand made the outflung motion of a sower
And the mate, staring, seemed to hear the slight
Patter of fallen seeds on fertile ground,
Black, shining seeds, robbed from a black king's storehouse,
Falling and falling on American earth
With light, inexorable patter and fall,
To strike, lie silent, quicken . . .
That's one reference. Several passages from the long poem itself:
The bearded faces look strange
In the old daguerreotypes: they should be the faces
Of prosperous, small-town people, good sons and fathers,
Good horse-shoe pitchers, good at plowing a field,
Good at swapping stories and good at praying,
American wheat, firm-rooted, good in the ear.
There is only one whose air seems out of the common,
Oliver Brown. That face has a masculine beauty
Somewhat like the face of Keats . . .

A Mr. Brua, one of Brown's prisoners,
Strolled out from the unguarded prison-room
Into the bullets, lifted Stevens up,
Carried him over to the old hotel
They called the Wager House, got a doctor for him,
And then strolled back to take his prisoner's place
With Colonel Washington and the scared rest.
I know no more than this of Mr. Brua
But he seems curiously American . . .

When the news of Beckham's death spread from bar to bar,
It was like putting loco-weed in the whiskey,
The mob came together at once, the American mob,
They mightn't be able to take Brown's last little fort
But there were two prisoners penned in the Wager House . . .

One need not weep romantic tears for them,
But when the last moonshiner buys his radio,
And the last, lost, wild-rabbit of a girl
Is civilized with a mail-order dress,
Something will pass that was American
And all the movies will not bring it back . . .

Call up the American names,
Kagi, the self-taught scholar, quiet and cool,
Stevens, the cashiered soldier, bawling his song,
Dangerfield Newby, the freed Scotch-mulatto,
Watson and Oliver Brown and all the hard-dying . . .

Singing at night against the banjo-moon
That you will be a match for any song
Sung by old, populous nations in the past,
And stand like hills against the American sky,
And lay your black spear down by Roland's horn . . .

And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been . . .
That's seven references. Looks like twelve references all told. Not many, especially for an epic poem, but I was relying on a search function, which can miss a misspelling (I caught one that it missed). The call to the American muse is full of patriotic fervor, but many of the other instances of American references are neutral or even critical, as you can see in these passages even without a context.

I'll look more closely at the invocation tomorrow.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: For God Before Caesar

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In "Between God and the Führer," a review (August 8, 2014) by Randall Balmera of Charles Marsh's Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we read the following:
As a leader of what would become the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer organized a school for dissident seminarians at Finkenwalde, near the Baltic Sea. Until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937, Finkenwalde immersed Bonhoeffer in Christian community, a place where, in his words, "the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously" . . . . An avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer secured an appointment with German military intelligence, which allowed him remarkable freedom to travel both in and out of Germany. His complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler, however, sealed his fate, although his principal involvement lay in providing moral justification for tyrannicide.

Marsh contends that Bonhoeffer produced his finest work during his final months, including those in prison, where "the strenuous austerity of his writings" gave way to "a faith more open, munificent and sensuous." Here the paradox of a believer in the face of evil comes fully into focus. Bonhoeffer "gave his blessings to those who conspired to murder the Führer while affirming the essential nonviolence of the Gospel," Marsh writes, invoking Luther's dictum to sin boldly. "Bonhoeffer did not try to resolve the paradox by assuming moral innocence but accepted the paradox by incurring the guilt born out of responsible action."
Bonhoeffer evidently put God before 'Caesar,' but Islamists do the same, yet we judge them extremists. What is the difference? The difference between Allah as pure, absolute will for Islamists and God as rational in essence, at least in the best of Christianity?

An appeal to God's will alone is an appeal to ungrounded fideism, but that's the error Protestants most often fall into . . .

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Basil Davenport on Stephen Vincent Benét's Americanism

Stephen Vincent Benét
Google Images

In the Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benét, Volume One: Poetry (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1942), Basil Davenport writes in prefatory remarks of Benét's "Americanism":
Americanism is so much in fashion now that Benet's Americanism, for all its brilliance of technical achievement, its breadth of sympathy, and its depth of feeling, is apt, now that the intellectual climate of the day has caught up with it, to seem less remarkable than it is. It is worth remembering that when other young men of his age were writing rondeaux and villanelles and tales of far away and long ago, Benet was already turning the ballad to American themes; and that at the end of the tinsel twenties, when it was the fashion to say that American life was rootless, drab, and everywhere the same, Benet was already writing John Brown's Body, with its sensitive feeling for half a dozen countrysides and racial strains, and for the American wilderness and the old English songs that frame the exquisite idyll of Jack Ellyat and Melora Vilas . . . . There is no one to touch Benet in the variety and skill of his treatment of American themes; yet even his Americanism is only the outcome of something deeper. If he says, "Dear city of Cecrops," it is because that is the nearest earthly approach to the dear cry of God. He loves New York as the communal achievement of the spirit of man; he loves America because there every man can most freely become what God meant him to be . . . . When the free life of man is threatened by the cult of death, by those who deliberately make their souls eunuchs for the sake of the kingdoms of this earth, it is such a man who has both the surest guard against ultimate despair, and the most tragic sense of immediate peril. (pages xii-xiii)
I now see that I misunderstood a remark in an earlier post when I read that Benét's writing had sometimes been accused of "chauvinism or narrow nationalism" ("Stephen Benet: The Ultimate Objectives of Free Men are to be Discovered in their Arts and Letters," Life, April 5, 1943, page 22, column 3). I opined that, "The charge is immediately refuted, but in a time of National Socialism in Germany extolling Teutonic nationalism and Aryan racial superiority, the strong American patriotism of Benét perhaps needed some defense."

Actually, as I now see, Benét was more popular during WWII because of his Americanism, which Davenport believed helped mold those men who, "[w]hen the free life of man is threatened by the cult of death," have "both the surest guard against ultimate despair, and the most tragic sense of immediate peril." In other words, Benét's Americanism was the best antidote to the Nazis.

And in "radio broadcasts" of the early forties he inveighed "particularly against Nazis," especially in letters to "Adolf" but died in 1943, his job unfinished . . .


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Companion to Literature on Stephen Vincent Benét

In the Companion to Literature: Facts on File Companion to the American Short Story (edited by Abby H. P. Werlock Infobase Publishing, 2009), the entry on Stephen Vincent Benét says the following:
His work is characterized by his interest in FANTASY and American themes, including stories of American history, stories celebrating the country's ethnic and cultural diversity, and contemporary narratives. The patriotic and romantic themes of Benét's work (see ROMANTICISM) became less fashionable after his death and led some critics to label him an old-fashioned, quaint, and chauvinistic writer who wrote "formula stories" designed to appeal to mainstream readers. However, his use of fantasy and of American historical and folk events and his idealized, lyrical style created a subgenre of writing known as "the Benét short story" that continues to attract readers in the early 21st century. (pages 80b-81a)
We see that his "patriotic . . . themes" get him labeled a "chauvinistic writer," but the anonymous author of this entry does not seem to agree.


Friday, August 08, 2014

Michael Kammen on Stephen Vincent Benét's "chauvinism"

Michael Kammen
Google Images

In Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011), Michael Kammen offers a passage on collectors of Americana that might shed light on what led some critics to charge Stephen Vincent Benét with a "narrow nationalism":
If we ask why these people collected, the answers are even more diverse than what they sought to possess. Begin with the most obvious reason, sheer love of country: old-fashioned patriotism that often verged upon chest-thumping chauvinism. We find it, for example, in a fascinating "open letter" to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., written by the editor of The Americana Collector. It is an unabashed appeal for the creation of a Rockefeller Foundation of Bibliographical and Historical Research because "such an institution would become one of our richest assets for a patriotic people. Our heritage from the heroic past must be preserved as continued guidance and inspiration to ourselves and to all mankind." The same spirit animated one of Stephen Vincent Benét's most striking ballads, written in 1927, "American Names." It opens with the line "I have fallen in love with American names," and the fourth stanza contains both the geographical range desired and the nemesis being rejected:

I will fall in love with a Salem tree.
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea.
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.
One can see why some of Benét's works were criticized for their "narrow nationalism," though today's critics would more likely be disturbed by the fourth line of the fourth stanza. But Benét probably spoke as a man of his era in his use of the N-word, and the context makes clear that he was was praising the blues singer (though this doesn't efface the offence), precisely as he was extolling the "Salem tree," the "rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz," and the "bottle of Boston sea."

This makes twice now in my research, by the way, that Benét has suggested the superiority of the American muse.

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét's "chauvinism or narrow nationalism"?

Daniel Webster

In the April 5, 1943 issue of Life magazine's editorial on the recent death - March 13, 1943 - of Stephen Vincent Benét, "Stephen Benet: The Ultimate Objectives of Free Men are to be Discovered in their Arts and Letters," is found an admission that "[b]ecause of his strong American utterance, Steve Benét has sometimes been accused of chauvinism or narrow nationalism" (page 22, column 3). The charge is immediately refuted, but in a time of National Socialism in Germany extolling Teutonic nationalism and Aryan racial superiority, the strong American patriotism of Benét perhaps needed some defense. He had, after all, opened his epic poem John Brown's Body (1928) with an invocation to the "American muse":
American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as your land . . .
And his 1937 novella The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benét has the famous senator, orator, and lawyer Daniel Webster defend a New Hampshire farmer who had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for good luck. In the course of an argument between Webster and the devil, the latter insists that he himself is American, at which point Webster persuades the devil to let his client have a trial by jury:
"I stand on the Constitution! I demand a trial for my client!"

"The case is hardly one for an ordinary court," said the stranger, his eyes flickering. "And, indeed, the lateness of the hour-"

"Let it be any court you choose, so it is an American judge and an American jury!" said Dan'l Webster in his pride. "Let it be the quick or the dead; I'll abide the issue!"
The devil agrees to the conditions, but fills the American jury with traitors, criminals, and other unsavory men nursing a grudge against America. Webster, however, rises to the challenge:
He started off in a low voice, though you could hear every word. They say he could call on the harps of the blessed when he chose. And this was just as simple and easy as a man could talk. But he didn't start out by condemning or reviling. He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.

And he began with the simple things that everybody's known and felt - the freshness of a fine morning when you're young, and the taste of food when you're hungry, and the new day that's every day when you're a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn't a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.

Then he turned to Jabez Stone and showed him as he was an ordinary man who'd had hard luck and wanted to change it. And, because he'd wanted to change it, now he was going to be punished for all eternity. And yet there was good in Jabez Stone, and he showed that good. He was hard and mean, in some ways, but he was a man. There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too. And he showed what the pride of it was till you couldn't help feeling it. Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you'd know it. And he wasn't pleading for any one person any more, though his voice rang like an organ. He was telling the story and the failures and the endless journey of mankind. They got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey. And no demon that was ever foaled could know the inwardness of it - it took a man to do that.
And by his eloquence and gentle manner, Webster reminded those twelve damned men of their innocent childhoods in what came to be America, and of the mistakes that men make, and he even succeeded in getting Stone released from the conditions of his contract with the devil - all by reminding men of what being free Americans felt like, even if the twelve had gone on to err in their adulthood.

From these passages I've quoted, I wouldn't call Benét's nationalism "chauvinism or narrow nationalism," though it is an American-centered nationalism . . .

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