Outside of my regular reading for the courses I’m teaching—this semester, this week, Livy’s History of Rome, Books 1-5, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book 1—I have been reading mainly books and articles with some relation to nostalgia, broadly speaking. That has included what for me have been some gratifying discoveries, such as Thomas Molnar’s The Counter-Revolution, which takes a scalpel to the root nodules of the liberal cancer infesting the Western world. That cancer is a detestation of stable forms, says Molnar; of enduring wisdom passed down through the generations, but also of the notion that categories of existent things are what they are, with boundaries that are not subject to alteration by political force, or by the sentimental magical thinking that underlies the liberal state. Molnar did not live to see the magical thinking of transgenderism, which by the anti-logic of the left itself can only be a bridge from nowhere to nowhere, but it fits his thesis hand in glove.
Another find has been two series of articles, in The Century Magazine from the 1880’s and 1890’s, that would surely leave the academic dalla sinistra in complete confusion. One is by the redoubtable Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer, also known as Mrs. Schuyler van Rensselaer, the most prominent American author on architecture during her time. She writes on the great cathedrals in Europe, and the various and partly home-born styles of church architecture in the United States, heavily influenced by the Puritan spirit, the same that she acknowledges was responsible for the destruction of so much of the English art she loved and studied so carefully. In other words, Mrs. Schuyler van Rensselaer, unlike her female descendants in the modern academy, was a grown-up. She could view things in their historical context, and not reduce human greatness and human folly to platitudes. She was also one of the leading opponents of woman suffrage. The other series is on the Indians in Southern California, and what had happened to them after the Franciscan missions had been first plundered by the Mexican government during the revolution, and then obliterated by the conquering Americans. It is by one Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and so also the “right kind” of woman, but she spends most of her time setting up the troubles by describing, carefully, the misery of the Indian life before Father Junípero Serra and his brothers came, and then what Father Serra did for them, teaching them the Faith, instructing them in a terrifically wide variety of trades, helping them turn the land into the richest farms, vineyards, and orchards then west of the Mississippi, and loving them as his children. Her accounts come from the writings of the brothers and from elderly eyewitnesses, Indians whom she interviewed. The Century Magazine, by the way, can be acquired in bound volumes of six months each. We have nothing remotely resembling such magazines now. Other notable authors in my copies: Mark Twain, Henry James, a young Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells, the naturalist John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt.
“Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” That must go down as a classic dud quotation. The words were spoken by Neville Chamberlain on his return to Heston Airport, bearing the scrap of paper signed by Hitler promising peace. Did no one in Chamberlain’s entourage remind him that he was quoting Hotspur from Henry IV, Part One, and that Hotspur did not make it to the play’s end following his spectacular misjudgment of forces?
But Robert Harris, in Munich: A Novel (new from Knopf), makes out his case for Chamberlain in a lightly fictionalized piece of revisionist history. He covers the four days of the Munich crisis in September 1938, and views Chamberlain as undeceived by Hitler, “a jagged black figure at the centre of a great white light, his arm stretched out, like a man who has thrown himself on to an electrified fence.” Harris does not answer the immensely powerful case made by Churchill: “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.” Nor does he deal with later events such as the guarantee to Poland in April 1939.
History judges Chamberlain as a well-meaning, opinionated failure. Harris’s special pleading does not shift the rocks of fact. Munich is a well-written vignette posing as a thesis; I prefer my history neat.