February 13, 2013

The big flip flop

This blog is gearing up for a major series looking at the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson (along with the usual links and comments about current events). But to understand Emerson's world it is probably important to understand a huge flip-flop that happened in this country's religious history between the 1600s and the 1800s, the effects of which are still with us today.

Here's what I mean. If one had to generalize today about which parts of the good old USA are most prone to theological rabies, the South would win hands down.

It didn't used to be that way. I refer the interested reader to the 1997 book Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt by Christine Leigh Heyrman.

Short version: in the late 1600s and for much of the 1700s, New England rather than the South was the region of religious conservatism and theocracy. Think Salem witch trials and guilt ridden Puritans. In much of the South, the dominant religious was a kind of lax Anglicanism (to which this author subscribes). Alas, the Anglican church in American suffered much during the Revolution, since clergy were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. The loss of Anglican clergy left the field open to traveling Baptist and Methodist revivalists.

Too bad, I say, but that's just me.

The weird thing is that by the 1830s or so, much of New England Puritanism had morphed into a fairly laid back Unitarianism, while the South became a bastion of not only political and racial but also religious conservatism and dogmatism.

It was in that Unitarian milieu in New England that blossomed from the embers of Calvinism that Emerson first began his career. Ironically, he was too radical in his vision even for the Unitarians, a feat which would be hard to replicate today.

THE RESOURCE CURSE is discussed here.

STATE OF DENIAL: right here in WV.


February 12, 2013

By their fruits

A few weeks back, I scored a major find at a local library. It was, and, yes, this does show what a geek I am, a 24 part lecture series on Transcendentalism and I was totally jazzed. I was all over it and regretted when it came to an end.

I'm not sure still what to make of Transcendentalism, that name for a diverse and fractious movement of writers, poets, dreamers, cranks and crazies that came spinning out of New England in the mid 1800s. And what a mixed lot they were, ranging from brilliant to batty.

But still, for all the amorphous verbosity, this was a movement or a trend in American thought that spread far beyond this continent and it had a largely beneficial influence, as its ripples were felt in the anti-slavery movement, support for the Union cause and abolition in the Civil War, the early women's movement, environmentalism, the utopian community movement,spiritual egalitarianism and other social reforms.

You could make a good case that one of these guys (Thoreau) accidentally laid the foundations for the theory of nonviolent action, which did great things during the Civil Rights movement and in many other circumstances..

People like Emerson and Thoreau were also among the earliest cultural bridges, promoting respect for other religions. No history of Buddhism's migration to the West or of the dawning appreciation in this country of such Indian classics as the Bhagavad Gita would be complete without a nod to this movement.

Jesus said "by their fruits shall you know them" and I try to make it a point to avoid sharp disagreements with him. By that standard, as loopy as some of the Transcendentalists were, they did pretty good.

Much more on Ralphie to come.

LATEST RANT. Here's my call for WV Governor Tomblin to expand Medicaid coverage to working West Virginians.


IT HAS BEEN WAY TOO LONG since I ran something about zombies.


February 11, 2013

A good time for writing

The period of time between 1850 and 1855 has sometimes been thought of as a golden age of American literature. (In terms of politics, race and slavery, it was anything but that.) Still, this was a time when great writers bloomed in this country. Think Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman.

In 1941, F.O. Matthiessen published an enduring work titled American Renaissance: Art and Experience in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. I actually read through all 600 and some pages of it a few years back, not that I remember a whole lot about it at the moment.

In recent years, predictably, Matthiessen has been criticized for emphasizing white male writers. After all, this was also the time of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Emily Dickinson, not to mention Frederick Douglass.

I am, however, not interested in staging literary show trials in the English department.

Instead, I must admit that I have turned to these writers, most of them anyway, for sustenance over the years and am a better person for it. I have wallowed in Thoreau and Whitman. I am wallowing again in Melville even now. I love Hawthorne's guided tours to the Dark Side.

But one of these writers is still a bit of a mystery to me and over the next spell I'm going to try to "settle accounts," as the Marxists used to say, with him. I am referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson. I can't decide whether he was a wise man or a wind bag or some combination of the above.

So over the next few weeks, as the WV legislature ramps up and things get crazy here, this blog is going to put Waldo through his paces. I'll share some key ideas from his essays and interesting facts about his life and some interesting quotes and see what there is to keep and what to discard.

Stay tuned...

STATE OF THE UNION? Here's one opinion on that.


MEANWHILE, BACK IN BRAZIL, it's raining spiders.


February 10, 2013

Fair warning

My mind has been taking a stroll backwards lately to the spring of a year right before the millennial odometer rolled over. Most of us might not have been aware of it, but these were kind of the good old days in America. Maybe the last of them.

The country was at peace, mostly. The economy was booming, although it was kind of hard to tell in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia. In a word, things hadn't quite gone to hell yet as they would in the early years of the next decade.

It had been a good year for me as far as work was concerned. We won some major fights defending the safety need for poor families and people with disabilities, both in courts and in the legislature.

I was also working my way through graduate school in sociology, a class or two at a time. I had just completed another class in theory and was enjoying the fact that my reading time was again my own.

To clear my mental palate, I listened to an 84(!) part lecture series by Arnold Weinstein on the classics of American literature, courtesy of The Teaching Company and my local library. And I resolved to read or listen to as many of the works discussed as I could.

This is probably a sad commentary on my life but that whole thing was one of the more pleasant experiences I've had. I read or listened to Irving; renewed my cursory acquaintance with Emerson; learned new things about Poe; hit some of Twain's and Melville's work that I had missed; dove into Fitzgerald and Faulkner; read the great plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller; discovered "new" writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, etc.

Say what you want about the USA, but this country has produced some kickass writers.

Over the next few weeks, as things heat up in WV and I'm going to be spread kind of thin, this blog is going to focus on an early and hugely influential current in American literature, with a special focus on the work of one writer who is difficult to classify.

More on that to come.

I'M GETTING TIRED OF THIS DRAMA-OF-THE-WEEK GARBAGE from Washington, and from the leadership of the US House in particular. Here's a look at what the latest mess (the sequester thingie) would look like.

THE UBER MAMA OF MODERN MAMMALS, including us, was a bit of a rat.