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What do cows in India, Mexican bugs and Egyptian mummies have in common?

If you said, “Rembrandt,” give yourself a cigar.

Most of us, when think of color, think in the abstract. Color is the spectrum or the rainbow. Or the deciding factor in which car we buy. We think we know what “blue” means, or “yellow,” but that doesn’t say what particular blue or what of many possible yellows. Just an abstract approximation. Exact hues require incarnation. 

And so, for an artist, color is pigment, and pigment is ornery, peculiar and sometimes toxic, sometimes distressing, even morally questionable.

Poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his book-length Paterson, “No ideas but in things.” It was the total anti-Platonic declaration of faith in the here-and-now, the lumpy, gritty, quotidian things we can feel with our fingers or stub our toe with. I paraphrase his dictum with “No color but in things.” This is not abstract, but palpable.

A painter cannot simply decide on green or yellow, but on what pigment that paint is made from. Each acts in its own way, mixes with others differently, dilutes differently, requires a different thinner, binder or medium, displays varying levels of permanence, transparency and glossiness. The painter cannot think in abstract hues, but in the actuality of the physical world. Hands in the mud, so to speak.

The earliest pigments were dug from the earth or sifted from the cook-fire: Ochers and soot. The caves of France and Spain were painted with these pigments. 

They had to be worked into submission by the artist, grinding, mixing, adding medium and binder. His — or her (we cannot know for sure) — hands got dirty in the process. There was a smell to it, fresh loamy smell or the acrid residue of the hearth. There was a feel, gritty or pulverized, oily, or smudgy like moist clay.

So, until the mid-19th century, all paints were made from the things of this world. Soils and rocks, plants and snails. Each pigment had its idiosyncrasies and those had to be reckoned with when mixing them or placing them side-by-side. None was pure, save, perhaps, the blackness of soot.

Then, in 1856, an 18-year-old chemist named William Henry Perkin, trying to find a cure for malaria, found instead a new, synthetic purple dye — the first aniline dye. He called it “mauve,” or “mauveine.”

A decade later, the German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, working for BASF, synthesized alizarin crimson, making an artificial pigment that matched the natural alizarin dye that had been extracted from the madder plant. It was the first color created from an element of coal tar — a byproduct of turning coal into coke.

Apres moi, le deluge” — Since then, there has been a flood of synthetic colors, all devised in the laboratories of giant corporations. There are the aniline dyes, the azo dyes, the phthalocyanine dyes, diazonium dyes, anthraquinone dyes — a whole chemistry lab of new industrial color. Many of these new dyes and pigments were brighter and purer of hue and more permanent.

 (Not all: the new chrome yellow that Vincent Van Gogh used developed a tendency to turn brown on contact with air. Properly protected, chrome yellow is familiar as the paintjob on most schoolbusses).

Nowadays, even oil and acrylic paints with traditional names, such as burnt umber and ultramarine are likely to be produced industrially using chemical derivatives. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Rembrandt or Michelangelo had to arrive at their paints through laborious and time-consuming processes.

Most pigments came to the artist’s atelier in the form of a rock or a sediment. It had to be ground down to a powder, a process normally done by an apprentice — basically an intern: “Bring me a latte, a bearclaw and the powdered cinnabar.” Being ground to a grit wasn’t enough; the poor apprentice sometimes had to spend days with the pigment between grinding stone and levigator or muller, working it into pulverized paste that could be mixed with a binder and medium and finally used by the artist on canvas.

It wasn’t until the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention of a pigment-grinding machine in 1718, that the tedious work of pigment making became doable in large quantities. And it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that prepared paints, sold in zinc tubes, made it possible for artists to buy portable paints they could carry out into the countryside to paint in the open.

But we should not forget the sometimes ancient origins of the paints used for the canvasses of the Renaissance, the Baroque — the Old Masters. This is where the Indian cows, the Mexican bugs and the Egyptian mummies come in.

First, let’s look at a few of the standard paint-sources from this pre-industrial age. Many of them have wonderful and memorable names, now largely gone out of use.

We’ll take the reds first. None was perfect, several were lethal. 

Carmine — This is the Mexican bug I mentioned above. The cochineal scale insect grows on certain cactuses in Central and South America. It is a bright violet- to deep-red color. The Aztecs called it “nocheztli,” which means “tuna blood,” and dyed the tunics of Aztec and Inca royalty.

Crimson — Before the Conquista, a European scale insect, growing on the kermes oak, provided a red dye. These insects were picked from the twigs with fingernails and processed into a scarlet dye. It was the color used to dye the curtains of the Temple in Jerusalem. Also widely used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. It was less efficiently grown and produced than the cochineal of Mexico, and so was replaced. Michelangelo used it in his paint.

Vermilion — A scarlet red form of mercury sulfide and highly poisonous, it was mined in Europe, Asia and the New World as cinnabar and was used also for cosmetics and medicine — hardly a wise use. In its mineral form, it was used to color Chinese lacquer. A finer, and redder version was first synthesized in China in the fourth century BCE, and depending how well powdered it has been ground, produces hues from orangey-red to a reddish purple that  one writer compared to “fresh duck liver.” It is still also produced by grinding cinnabar. 

The terms “cinnabar” “vermilion” and “Chinese red” are often loosely interchangeable. The finer the grinding, the brighter the red. Painter Cennino Cennini in his 15th century Craftsman’s Handbook wrote: “If you were to grind it every day for 20 years it would simply become better and more perfect.” It was the most common red in painting until it was replaced in the 20th century by cadmium red.

Dragon’s blood — Mentioned in a First-Century Roman travel guide (a periplus), it is a maroon-red pigment made from the sap of various plants, most notably the Dracaena cinnabari. Medieval sources wrote that it was made from the blood of actual dragons. It is also what gives classic violins their reddish varnish. In several folk-religions and in neo-paganism, it is a source of magical power, presumably because of its supposed connection to dragons. 

Minium — Also known as red lead, this orange-red pigment was commonly used in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was made by roasting oxidized lead in the air to form lead tetroxide. It is named for the Minius River between Spain and Portugal, and because this red lead was used for the small letterings and illustrations in hand-made books, it is the source of our word, “miniature.” 

Near colors of yellow, orange and purple had their sources, too. 

Gamboge — A yellow pigment formed from the resin of the evergreen Cambodian gamboge tree (genus Garcinia). Coincidentally, the name comes from the Latin name for Cambodia. It is the traditional color used to dye Buddhist monks’ robes. The pigment first reached Europe in the early 17th century. When mixed with Prussian blue, it creates Hooker’s green. A strong laxative if ingested; in large doses can cause death. 

Orpiment — A bright yellow pigment gathered from volcanoes and hot springs and is a highly poisonous compound of arsenic and was once used as an insecticide and to tip poison arrows. It was traded as far back as the Roman empire. Its name is a corruption of the latin auripigmentum or “gold pigment.”

Realgar — Realgar was, along with orpiment, a significant item of trade in the ancient Roman Empire and was used as a red paint pigment. It is an arsenic sulfide mineral and sometimes called “ruby of arsenic.” Early occurrences of realgar as a red paint pigment are known for works of art from China, India, Central Asia and Egypt. It was used in European fine-art painting during the Renaissance, a use which died out by the 18th century. It was also once used as medicine and to kill weeds, insects and rodents. Be grateful for modern medicine. 

Madder — Another dye that goes as far back as ancient Egypt, it is a violet to red color extracted from the Rubia tinctorum and related species, plants that grows on many continents, and in southern France is called garance — for those of you who love the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis. It is turned into a pigment from a dye by the process known as “laking,” and so often encountered as madder lake.

Tyrian purple — This is the purple of the Roman emperors, and is extracted from a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of a predatory sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean. It was worth its weight in silver and it might take 12,000 snails to produce enough dye for a single garment.

Blues and greens were often so close as to be made from variants of the same thing. 

Bice — Is a dark green-blue or blue-green pigment made from copper carbonates, primarily the mineral azurite, sometimes malachite. Lightened, it was often used for skies.

Smalt — First used in ancient Egypt, it is a cobalt oxide use to color glass a deep blue. The glass is then ground into a powder used as a pigment.

Ultramarine — The ultimate blue, made from the mineral lapis lazuli, found almost exclusively in Afghanistan, which, for Europeans, was “beyond the (Mediterranean) sea” or “ultra-marine.” The process of making the pigment from the mineral was complex and the final color was so highly prized, and so expensive, that its use had to be expressed in the contract commissioning a painting by Renaissance artists, less they use some less costly, and less glorious blue. 

Prussian blue — The first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian blue is iron hexacyanoferrate and a very dark, intense blue. It is also sometimes called Berlin blue or Paris blue. It is the blue of traditional blueprints and became popular among painters soon after it was formulated in 1708 — by accident when a chemist attempted to make a red dye and got blue instead. It largely replaced the more expensive ultramarine. After it was imported to Japan, it became the standard blue of woodblock prints. 

Egyptian blue — Long before Prussian blue, the ancient Egyptians manufactured a light blue pigment from calcium copper silicate, by mixing silica, lime, copper and an alkali. First synthesized during the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2500 BCE), its use continued through the Roman period. The Egyptians called it “artificial lapis lazuli,” and used it to decorate beads, pots, scarabs and tomb walls. 

Indigo blue — The familiar color of blue jeans comes from indigo, made from the indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria. At least, it once did. Now the dye is synthetic. It is a deep, dark blue, almost black. Before the Asian indigo plant was imported to Europe, the dye was made from the woad plant Isatis tintoria. Before the American Revolution, Asian indigo, grown in South Carolina, was the colony’s second-most important cash crop (after rice), and counting for a third of the value of exports from the American colonies. Initially, European woad processors fought against the importation of Asian indigo dyes, as later, after adopting the Asian product, they fought tooth and nail against the synthetic. Progress. 

Verdigris — A green pigment formed by copper carbonate, chloride or acetate. It is the patina on the Statue of Liberty, but in oil paint, it has the odd property of being initially a light blue-green and turning, after about a month into a bright grass green.

Viridian — A darkish blue-green pigment, a hydrated chromium oxide, popularized by Venetian painter Paolo Veronese.

Sepia — a dark brown to black dye and pigment extracted from various species of squid. Most popular as an ink, it has also been used for oil paint.

You will have undoubtedly noticed how many of these pigments were poisonous. It has certainly been suggested that Van Gogh’s madness may have been caused by his habit of tipping his brushes on his tongue.

So many of these pigments relied on the unholy trinity of toxins: mercury, arsenic, and lead. Their toxicity was understood from ancient times. The cinnabar used for vermilion was mined in China by convicts, whose life expectancy was — well, who cared? They were convicts. 

The most common toxic color through history was white, which was most often lead carbonate, or flake white, aka white lead. It was easy to manufacture by soaking sheets of lead in vinegar for weeks at a time and scraping the resulting white powder off the surface of the metal. Flake white was a wonderful, opaque and brilliant white pigment. Unfortunately, it could kill, blind or make mad those who used it. Even today, older houses have sometimes to be de-leaded of their original paint in order to be sold legally. Children are especially vulnerable.

A substitute for white lead was looked for. Zinc white — an oxide of zinc — was tried, but was not as opaque or as white. Nowadays, titanium white is used, safer and nearly as good a pigment.

But, as I said at the top of this article, some of the old pigments were not only dangerous, but morally questionable.

Ivory black — made from elephant ivory, and essentially ivory charcoal, it is (or was) an intense black pigment. Nowadays, it is most often made from bones, as bone black, aka Mars black.

Indian yellow — A pigment brought to Europe from the east, it was described as being made by feeding cows solely on mango leaves, which made their urine an intense yellow, which was then evaporated into a sludge, dried and sold. The cattle were severely malnourished by this diet, and the practice outlawed. There are those who doubt this explanation of the pigment, but no one doubts the strong stench of the bolus. It is no longer made.

Mummy brown — A bituminous brown, made from ground-up Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Popular from the 16th century, it was good for “glazes, shadows, flesh tones and shading.” In the 19th century, the supply of Egyptian mummies was so great that in England, they were used as fuel for steam locomotives. But when the actual origin of the pigment became widely known, a moral repugnance swept England and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones was horrified to find out what he was using, “and when he heard what his brown was made of, he gave all his tubes of this color a decent burial” in his garden.

Makes you look at all those rich, warm browns in Rembrandt with a slightly different eye.

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This blog entry is significantly rewritten and expanded from an earlier essay published on the Spirit of the Senses website in March, 2018.

Click on any image to enlarge

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from May 1, 2020, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

Imagine Persia — Then think of Iran. 

Very different places occupying the same geographic location. The names of places carry a kind of emotional scent that surrounds them. Persia has an exotic perfume; Iran rather stinks to American minds as moldy bread.

Persia is a land of legend of djinn, of harems, and magic carpets; Iran rather has its mullahs, its chador, and its Revolutionary Guard. Persia had its Omar Khayyam and his “The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.” Iran has religious fundamentalism and “Death to America.”

Certainly the political situation has changed radically over time and that contributes to our different perceptions of the same country, but the names we use conjure up very different associations, too, and not just for Iran, but the names we use around the world and especially, over time. Most locations on the globe have born a variety of toponyms over the ages. Some of these names are better for journalism, some for poetry.

The same land that we now know as Iran was once called Parthia. Once called Media — land of the Medes — once called Ariana, at another time, the Achaemenid Empire. In the Bible, it is Elam. (The borders are never quite the same; borders are notoriously fugitive.) There are other names, too, all accounting for parts of what are now The Islamic Republic of Iran: Hyrcania; Bactria; Jibal; Fars; Khuzestan; Hujiya; Baluchistan.

Some of these names, such as Baluchistan and Bactria, have a kind of exotic emotional perfume and remind us of the Transoxiana of folklore and half-remembered, half-conjured history. Samarkand and Tashkent; Tales of Scheherazade or Tamurlane, stories recounted by Richard Halliburton or Lowell Thomas. One thinks of old black and white National Geographic magazines.

Countless Victorian paintings depicted a romantic Orientalized version of seraglios, viziers, genies, pashas, often with women in various states of undress.

I have long been interested in this nomenclatural perfume, and how the names of places conjure up emotional states. The Sahel, Timbuktu, Cappadocia, Machu Picchu, Angkor Watt, Bali, Madagascar, the Caspian Sea, Tristan de Cunha, Isfahan. You listen to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia or his Polovtsian Dances, or Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Watch the Cooper-Schoedsack 1925 silent film documentary of the annual Bakhtiari migrations in western Iran, Grass

There are Paul Gauguin’s brown-fleshed vahines from Tahiti, or the Red Fortress of Delhi, or the Taj Mahal. 

All have taken up residence in our subconscious imaginations. Places we likely will never visit except in art or literature. We watch Michael Palin and vicariously sail across the Arabian Sea on a Dhow, or look south from the Tierra del Fuego towards the icy basement of the planet. We read Herodotus, Marco Polo or Ibn Batuta. The best writing of Charles Darwin can be found in his Voyage of the “Beagle”. Or Melville’s Encantadas

And how often those aromas and scents are ambiguous as to be unplaceable. Where, for instance, is Bessarabia? What about Saxony? I have written before about how borders change over time, and the names of places change along with the borders, but here I am writing about the emotional resonances of those place names.

Saxony, Westphalia, Silesia, Franconia, Pomerania, Swabia, Thuringia: These are names from history books, but we are quite unlikely to know where to spot them on a map. They are all sections of Germany and Eastern Europe that have been subsumed by more modern nations, but a few centuries ago were their own kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms. Some reappear as regions or counties in larger nations, but some are pretty well evaporated. Saxony, for instance, as it exists now as a part of Germany, was originally a separate nation, and not even in the same place where the current Saxony lies.

The older names often have a more exotic connotation than the current names. Siam brings to mind Anna and Yul Brynner; Thailand may elicit thoughts of sex tourism. Abyssinia is a place of Solomonic apes and peacocks; Ethiopia is a nation that went through the Red Terror and famine of the Derg. Burma had its Road to Mandalay, its Kayan women with their elongated brass-coiled necks or even George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” but Myanmar brings to mind military rule, extreme xenophobia and Rohingya genocide.

Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon, but it was also known as Serendip, from which we get the word “serendipity.” Both “Ceylon” and “Serendip” derive from the ancient Greek word for the island, Sielen Diva. And according to legend and literature, it was originally named Tamraparni, or “copper colored leaves” by its first Sinhalese king, Vijaya. That name becomes the more common Taprobana.

The older names are almost always more resonant, more perfumed, which is why they show up so often in poetry and literature. Where have you heard of Albion, Cambria, Caledonia, Hibernia or Cornubia, but in verse? England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall just don’t have that literary heft. It’s hard enough for non-Brits to keep straight the difference between England, Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom or UK.

If you’ve ever wondered what the ship Lusitania was named for, that was the former name for what is now Portugal. When James Joyce talks about Armorica in Finnegans Wake, he is using the old name for Brittany. Firehouse Dalmatians are named for the former Roman province located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and now part of Croatia.

Eastern Europe is a coal bucket of forgotten or half-remembered toponyms. These places don’t translate one-for-one with modern nation-states, but across the map from Poland through Ukraine and down to Romania you find such redolent names as Pannonia, Sarmatia, Podolia, Wallachia, Pridnestrovia, Bohemia, Moravia. All of which makes the region a fertile spot to locate a fictional country when you want to write a spy novel or film comedy. Just make up a name that sound vaguely plausible.

Of the following, only one has ever been real. The rest are made up. Can you pick the genuine from the bogus?

If you picked Ruritania, a slap on the wrist for you. You have probably heard of it, but it is the fictional country that Anthony Hope used to set his 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. It has since been used myriad times as a stand-in for any small nation in a movie or book.

(Other fictional countries that show up on celluloid: Freedonia and Sylvania from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; Tomainia, Bacteria and Osterlich from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; Moronica in the Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy. There are many more.)

The ringer in the question is Ruthenia, which was a real name for a real place in Eastern Europe, now parts of Hungary and Ukraine. As for the others: Brungaria is from the Tom Swift Jr. series of boys’ books; Estrovia is from Charlie Chaplin’s film A King in New York; Lichtenburg is from the 1940 film, The Son of Monte Cristo; Pontevedro is from operetta and film, The Merry Widow; and Grand Fenwick is from the Peter Sellars film The Mouse That Roared.

There are names for mythical places, too, and they really carry their exoticism well: Atlantis; El Dorado; Shangri-La. Less well known, but once more current are the lost continents of Mu and Lemuria, both popular with cultists, and the sunken Arthurian country of Lyonesse and the drowned city of Ys.

But even real places have their exotic past. What we now call Mexico was once Aztlán. Iceland was once the almost legendary land of Thule. What we know as Xi Jinping’s China was to Marco Polo, Cathay. There is more incense to that than the more modern smog-choked superpower. Properly, Cathay was the northern part of modern China during the Yuan dynasty; the south was called Mangi. Shangdu is the modern name once transliterated as Xanadu. It has gone the way of Ozymandias.

Ruins of Xanadu

Turkey wants to be part of the European Union and is a NATO member, but in the far past, we knew the part of it east of the Dardanelles  as Asia Minor. But even that part was originally known by its regions: Anatolia in the east; Bithynia in the northwest; Cilicia in the southwest; Pontus in the northeast; and Galatia in the center (that’s who the New Testament Galatians was addressed to). The nation’s current capital is Ankara, but how much more soft and silky is its earlier incarnation as Angora?

The Middle East is now divided up in a jigsaw created after the world wars. What was The Holy Land is now Israel and its surrounding lands, which used to be aggregated as Palestine. But that whole end of the Mediterranean used more commonly to be called the Levant. I love those old terms: The Levant east of the sea and the Maghreb along the sea’s southern coast west of Egypt.

Hawaii used to be the Christmas Islands, counterweight to Easter Island. But speaking of counterweights: Tonga used to be the Friendly Islands and to their east is Niue was once Savage Island. (“Niue” translates as “Behold the Coconut”).  Back in the Atlantic, the Canary Islands were latterly the Fortunate Islands.

Nations like to attempt to make their own emotional perfume, with more or less success. Some nicknames are quite familiar: Japan is “The Land of the Rising Sun;” England is “The Land of Hope and Glory;” Ireland is “The Emerald Isle.” Norway is “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” Some nicknames aren’t particularly glorious. Italy is “The Boot;” France is “The Hexagon.” Some are just descriptive: Australia is “The Land Down Under;” Canada is “The Great White North;” Afghanistan is “The Graveyard of Empires.”

States have nicknames, too. Alaska has a bunch of them: “The Last Frontier” is printed on license plates. But others are less chamber-of-commerce-ish: Seward’s Ice Box; Icebergia; Polaria; Walrussia; the Polar Bear Garden.

Among the odder state nicknames: Arkansas is the Toothpick State; Colorado is The Highest State (which now has added meaning with the legalization of marijuana); Connecticut is both The Blue Law State and “The Land of Steady Habits;” Delaware is The Chemical Capital of the World; Georgia is The Goober State (for the peanut, please); Massachusetts is The Baked Bean State; Minnesota is “Minne(snow)ta;” Nebraska is The Bugeating State; New Jersey is officially The Garden State, but many call it “the Garbage State,” none too kindly; North Carolina used to be The Turpentine State; South Carolina used to print on its license plates, “Iodine Products State;” Tennessee is The Hog and Hominy State.

Cities have their nicknames, too. Some are in universal parlance. Paris is The City of Light, Rome is The Eternal City. In the U.S. we can drive from Beantown to the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love and through Porkopolis on to the Windy City and head south to the Big Easy and then out west to the Mile High City (again, now a double entendre), and finally to The City of Angels or more northerly to Frisco. (The full name given to Los Angeles is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles or “the town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.” Put that on a Dodgers ballcap.)

But there are less common and less polite names for cities, too. And some real oddball ones. Albertville, Ala., is The Fire Hydrant Capital of the World. Berkeley, Calif., is “Berzerkeley.” LA is also “La-La Land.” Indianapolis is “India-no-place.” New Orleans is also the “Big Sleazy.” Las Vegas is “Lost Wages.” Boulder, Colo., is The People’s Republic of Boulder.

You can string together toponyms and almost make poetry, or at least a song: “Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty/ You’ll see Amarillo/ Gallup, New Mexico/ Flagstaff, Arizona/ Don’t forget Wynonna/ Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino/ … Get your kicks on Route 66.”

“I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota/ Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota/ Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma/ Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma/ Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo/ Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla, I’m a killer/

“I’ve been everywhere, man/ I’ve been everywhere.” 

But I ain’t been to Timbuktu. 

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from Jan. 1, 2020, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

“Constantinople is not Constantinople anymore…”

That’s how the song goes. “Constantinople is now Istanbul…” etc. etc. for the rest of the tune. The change in name happened officially in 1926, although it took until the 1950s before the switch made it down to the level of a pop tune.

This is hardly the first time that the city on the Bosphorus has switched identities. If we look in the rearview mirror, the city has been named Stamboul, Istanbul, Constantinople, Islambol, Constantinople (again), Byzantium, Nova Roma, Augustina Antonina, Byzantium (again) and, according to Pliny the Elder, was first founded as the city of Lygos by Thracian immigrants in 13th or 11th century B.C.E.

Besides the official names, there are the names the city was known by in other languages and cultures. For instance, the Vikings called it Miklagarth or “Big Wall.” It is Tsargrad (or “Caesar City”)  in old Slavic languages (and remains so in Bulgarian). To the Persians, it was Takht-e Rum, or “Throne of the Romans.” In Medieval Spain, it was Kostandina. And in old Hebrew, it was Kushta.

During the Ming Dynasty in China, the city was Lumi, but in the Qing Dynasty it was Wulumu, or alternately, Gongsidangdinebole. That’s a mouthful. In modern Pinyin Chinese, it is Yisitanbao, in which you can hear the echo of “Istanbul.”

I bring this up, oddly, because Ukraine is so much in the news. When I was learning geography in grade school (another outdated name), it was “the Ukraine,” very much parallel to “the Argentine,” or “the Midwest.” A few years ago, the definite article was officially sent packing.

The issue was born of history. In the 12th century, the city of Kiev dominated the trade routes from northern Europe to Constantinople and the region developed into a quasi-nation called the Kievan Rus. Later, the city of Moscow, to the north, grew stronger and became dominant.

And so, there were two Russias and the larger, ruled by Moscow, acquired the name “Russia,” and the lesser became known as “Little Russia,” or Malaya Rossiya, or, for short, Mala Rus.

(Excuse this oversimplification of history. This is not even the Cliff Notes version of Russian and Ukrainian history and leaves out a whole lot, but I hope gives the gist of what goes on with the naming of the spot on the globe. I have not even begun to mention the Tatars.)

To continue: With Muscovite Russia taking over, what was called Little Russia was seen as a kind of borderland between Russia and Poland. A “buffer zone.” Russia has always been obsessed with buffer zones. By the most commonly accepted etymology, “Ukraine” means “borderland.” And hence, the definite article. The Ukraine: The Borderland.

As a digression — Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies. The three final ones are huge, grand statements and a bulwark of the symphonic repertoire. The first three are lesser works. His second symphony is known as the “Little Russian” symphony. Many people have assumed it was a smaller symphony that was somehow Russian. But it is named for the composer’s use of Ukrainian folk tunes in the music. Hence: “Little Russian.”

Back to the story. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, there was a backlash against any idea that their nation was the little brother and popular sentiment abhorred the older idea of Little Russia. They resented the popular image that they were the hicks and hillbillies of the Steppes. And they equally it hurt their national pride that they were merely a borderland between other, more important powers.

The country also has a more recent beef with their former overlords. Through the first half of the 20th century, Ukraine was devastated by Soviet  policy. In the 1930s, untold millions were starved to death by Stalin. Later, untold millions were killed by Hitler. This sorry story is recounted brilliantly in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands. Grim but important reading.

And so, once they were independent, in 1991, they asked the world to drop the article in their name, and on Dec. 3 of that year, the Associated Press officially changed the style and asked newspapers to use “Ukraine” and no longer “the Ukraine.”

I remember when that happened. I was working at The Arizona Republic; it was a small footnote to that year. The AP frequently updates its stylebook, but the loss of the “the” struck me at the time as kind of ugly. Linguistically, I liked the distinction the nation had as an outlier. I have always liked language anomalies.

Sorry. I keep getting distracted. So, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Russian-ish troops into eastern Ukraine, the leader of the separatist movement and head of the self-proclaimed state of Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Sakharchenko, proposed renaming his portion of the Ukraine as Malarus, or “Little Russia,” to acknowledge his allegiance to the idea of a single grand Rus. The idea went nowhere; even the Russian-leaning populace wanted to distance themselves from the old idea of “little brother.”

We have a habit, probably hard-wired into our evolution, of thinking of the world as static, as a given. We may change, we may age, we may marry and divorce, but the land we live on is permanent. It is not.

Not only are nations and borders constantly shifting, but rivers change course, mountains lose half their height overnight (Mt. St. Helens or  Vesuvius). You can find on the internet several YouTube animations demonstrating the wiggling, shifting borders of nations over the past thousand years. Poland notoriously rolls around like mercury on a plate. Even after World War II, the whole of Poland lifted up its skirts and moved 200 miles to the west.

But for our purpose here, it is the names of places that I want to point out. They change constantly. Either because the old name has demeaning connotations, or because of political change, or the splitting up of ethnic portions of a once-single nation, or the rising linguistic influence of a powerful imperialist neighbor.

So, not only has the Ukraine become Ukraine, but Peking has become Beijing; Bombay is now Mumbai; Upper Volta became Burkina Faso. Cambodia turned to Kampuchea, but then went back. Burma tried on Myanmar and is now loosening up to be Burma again. But Rangoon is pretty secure as Yangon.

As political influence shifts, names come in and out of circulation. Where Germany and Poland contend, you sometimes have both names, such as Danzig and Gdansk, Stetin and Szczecin, or Auschwitz and Oswiecim.

Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Mapmakers must go crazy trying to keep up.

Even in Ukraine, Kiev is changing to Kyiv.

Persia became Iran in 1935; the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd became Saudi Arabia in 1932; Abyssinia turned into Ethiopia in 1941; Siam became Thailand in 1949.

One of my favorites — In 1384, the Duchy of Brabant became Burgundian Netherlands; a century later, it became Habsburg Netherlands. Give another hundred years and it became Spanish Netherlands. In 1713, it became Austrian Netherlands followed in 1815 as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, only to turn a few years later into what we now know as Belgium. There is a bubbling separatist movement that may turn the whole thing back into two countries: Wallonia and Brabant, bringing full circle.

Utah was once called Deseret. Kolkata was once Calcutta. St. Petersburg became Petrograd became Leningrad became St. Petersburg once again.

I don’t think even Ovid could have kept up with all the shifting identities.

Bechuanaland is Botswana; Basutoland is Lesotho; Ceylon is Sri Lanka; British Honduras is Belize; Dahomey is Benin; Madras is Tamil Nadu; Londonderry is Derry. Russia itself went through a cataclysmic shirt to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to the Russian Federation and back to good ol’ Russia.

Joseph Stalin kept the commissars humming. The city of Tsaritsyn was renamed in his honor as Stalingrad. But genocidal dictators come and go, and now the city is Volgograd. Dushanbe in Tajikistan was changed to Stalinabad in 1929 to honor Uncle Joe, and was de-Stalinized later, returning it to Dushanbe. Of course, the man history knows as Stalin wasn’t born that way; he was originally Iosep Besarionis dze Jughashvili.

I could go on listing name changes. Illyricum in the Roman Empire was Yugoslavia during the Cold War and has since shattered into various entities, forming and reforming now into Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. Give it time and the region will certainly transform again.

The point of all this is that the world is dynamic. Our sense of it is static, but the reality is constantly shifting. When I hear politicians rail on about national sovereignty or diplomatic recognition for rogue states, I turn my head and blush for them. It is all just snakes in a bucket, over time, wriggling and writhing. New York was once New Amsterdam; Oslo used to be Christiania; Guangdong was first known to us as Canton.

Nothing stays the same. It is always changing. Tempus fugit. Everything fugit.

Even Regina, Saskatchewan was once a town named Pile of Bones.

I woke up this February morning to a gray, cloudy, cold day, with reaches of fog climbing up the sides of the mountains, giving them all the look of a Chinese painting. Brouillard in French. Nebel in German. 

And that set me to thinking about Long John Nebel, a radio personality from WOR-AM in New York, who had an all-night talk show when I was a kid, interviewing people who claimed they had been in flying saucers, or explained there was a civilization that lived in the center of the earth, or that could bend spoons with their minds. It is where I first heard of Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and astral projection. 

Long John’s theme song was originally written for the movie The Forbidden Planet by David Rose, but was never used there. It was distinct and spooky, just like most of Long John’s guests.

Remembering Long John reminded me also of Jean Shepherd, whose program ran on the station just before Long John. For 45 minutes each night, Shep told stories of his childhood or army life, ranted about modern culture, played the Jew’s harp or kazoo along with The Sheik of Araby, and drove his engineers and management nuts. His theme music was Eduard Strauss’s polka Bahn Frei, in a Boston Pops arrangement by Peter Bodge. Eduard was the lesser known younger brother of  Johann Strauss II and you could call him the Eric of the Strauss family. I listened to Shepherd night after night and heard the polka so many times — thousands — that as soon as I think of it, it becomes an ear worm and for the next couple of days, it plays in my head endlessly. 

And so, I’m sitting there this morning, enjoying the nasty weather outside and my mind wanders to TV show theme music. There’s the William Tell Overture and The Lone Ranger; Love in Bloom for Jack Benny; Love Nest for Burns and Allen.

Burns and Allen was a show we watched regularly in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I can see it as the first Postmodern series, as George would retreat to his study above the garage and watch the same show we were watching, on his TV and commenting on the plot as it played out. This level of knowingness became common later with such shows as It’s Like, You Know… Everyone’s doing it now. 

These connections, from fog on the mountain to Postmodernism, are the way the human mind works. One damn thing leads to another. We might all like to think we are rational beings and think logically, but no, it’s a slow bumping from one thing to another, and sometimes we make them fit together like the Tab A and Slot B of a puzzle. 

It’s a version of the Kevin Bacon game. How many steps to get from this to that. For instance, I can get to Vladimir Putin in only three steps. When I was music critic in Phoenix, I was friends with the director of the Arizona Opera, the late Joel Revzen (an unfortunate  Covid victim late last year; I will miss him). After he left Arizona, Revzen worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and became the designated repetiteur for Valery Gergiev (Revzen would rehearse the orchestra and singers for weeks to get them ready for the jet-set conductor who would swoop in the last week and put the finishing touches on the performance). Gergiev also invited Revzen to conduct his orchestra in Moscow, the Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev, in turn, is pals with Putin. Three jumps and bingo. 

I can connect with Albert Einstein in two steps: My friend and predecessor as music critic in Arizona was Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was born in Berlin. Dimitri’s father was a noted violinist, and when Dimitri was a young boy, the family played string quartets at home, and occasionally, Einstein — an amateur fiddler — would sit in. A quick two-step. 

Dimitri knew many of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, and through them, I could trace connections to Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Rubinstein, even George Gershwin. And through Gershwin to Arnold Schoenberg, and through him to Gustav Mahler. Short trips and many connections. 

Let’s see how many connections I need to make it to Johann Sebastian Bach.

—I knew Dimitri; who knew cellist Gregor Piatagorsky; who recorded Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with Artur Schnabel; who studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky; who learned piano from Carl Czerny; who was a pupil of Ludwig von Beethoven; who met Wolfgang Mozart; who knew Johann Christian Bach; whose father was Johann Sebastian. Nine steps over 271 years, an average of 30 years per step.

That’s a bit over the standard Kevin Bacon line, but I can still claim only six degrees from Beethoven. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc., who knew Beethoven. Finding connections, whether of acquaintance or through association of ideas, everything is connected to everything else. When we isolate anything, we rip it from its context, and its context extends, however tenuously, to the edges of the universe. 

And I cannot think of 271 years as being all that long ago. I have lived for nearly three-quarters of a century; my father was born 102 years ago. That’s the year of the Versailles Treaty and the year Pierre-Auguste Renoir died. So, that’s a century, a father-son century. Only 10 of those father-son centuries and we are in the reign of King Canute of England. The Middle Ages. A millennium. And only 10 of those brings us to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization itself, growing along the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley and in China. That’s just the father-son century times 10 times 10. All of civilization, there between your thumb and forefinger. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that everyone with even a drop of European in their DNA can count Charlemagne in their family tree. We are all related. Further back, we seem all to have the bones of Lucy as our great-great-great, etc. grandma. 

And anyone who saw the 1978 James Burke television series, Connections, knows that the world doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, but by accretion. It takes a handful of previous inventions to permit the breakthrough we all know. It’s a web, not a line. 

Even today’s weather in Asheville is dependent on yesterday’s rain in Tennessee and last month’s disturbance over the Pacific Ocean. 

In my own life, I realize I could have had a Ph.D. in some specialty, maybe a sinecure in a college or university. It was actually what my life-arc seemed to predict. But I could never narrow down my interests. I wanted to learn everything. An impossibility, of course. But I have spent my seven decades looking for the way all things are related, for the bigger picture. The beaker into which it all mixes. The mind casts a wide net, wide enough to move from a gray day through a radio talk show to Charlemagne and even to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. 

Today we enter a year that is a calendric anomaly: Every 101 years, for the past 12 centuries, the year is written in consecutive numbers. This year is 2021; the last time this happened was 1920. 

This stuff is for geeks only. There is absolutely no significance to this peculiarity. But we are a species hardwired to find significance where there is none. I am fairly certain that 13 months from now, there will be predictions for the end of the world on Feb. 22. Why? Because it will be written in the shorthand as 2/22/22. That hasn’t happened since Jan. 11, 1911. 

So, we may ask, will anything significant occur in 2021, other than the misdating of checks for a month or two? In 1920, there were several significant events. Prohibition began in the U.S. In Germany the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or German Worker’s Party, changed its name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or National Socialist German Worker’s Party, a rather long and clumsy name soon shortened to Nazi. More meaningful to us now, perhaps: The Spanish Flu Pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people, officially ended. 

Also of significance, upside and downside: The 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote; and hydrocodone is first synthesized. Of no significance at all: the East Bengal Football Club was established in Kolkata, India. 

Going back a century and a year, in 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia; Alabama admitted as the 22nd U.S. state; and Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born. In 1837, she becomes Queen Victoria and gives her name to the rest of the century. A less significant event, but perhaps related to Queen Victoria: In 1819, the erotic and explicit wall paintings discovered in Pompeii were barred from view to the public. 

Another lurch backward and A.D. 1718 was the year of Blackbeard the pirate, who in May attempted to blockade the harbor at Charleston, S.C. and who was killed in November at Ocracoke, N.C. by the Royal Navy, when he is hit by five musket balls and sliced with 20 sword wounds. 

The abbreviation A.D., or Anno Domini, is traditionally printed ahead of the date, as opposed to B.C., or “before Christ,” which comes after the date, although this nicety is often abused in practice. And now, it is replaced with C.E. and B.C.E. (Common Era and Before Common Era) which, while less Christian-centric, sound rather more bureaucratic. Perhaps the formality of “A.D.” could be reduced if we used a more modern translation from the Latin and rendered it not as “Year of Our Lord,” but instead as “Year of the Boss.” Tradition lends sanctity to the old Jacobean translations with their “thee” and “thou.” For instance, what sounds important and holy as the Ark of the Covenant sounds reverential if we call it simply “the box with the contract in it.” 

Anyway, this game of sequential numbers really only begins with A.D. 910. Before that, zeros get in the way: 809 doesn’t quite work. We could print it as 0809, but no one does. So, the anomaly starts with 910, the year Alfred the Great’s son, King Edward defeated the raiding vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall in the West Midlands of England. But do they teach that in New Jersey grade schools? No. 

The year 1011, or MXI in the Julian Calendar, Danish King Thorkell the Tall and his army laid siege to the city of Canterbury, taking hostage the archbishop, Ælfheah; Godwine, Bishop of Rochester; and Leofrun, Abbess of St. Mildrith’s. The archbishop was then murdered by being “pelted with the bones of cattle” and then struck with “the butt of an ax.” In other worlds, “Going Medieval” on him. 

In 1112, Otto the Rich is appointed Duke of Saxony by Emperor Henry V. Also Garcia the Restorer of Navarre and Henry the Blind of Luxembourg are born and Vasil the Robber of Armenia dies. In other news, Duke Boleslaw III of Poland has his half-brother Zbigniew blinded and thrown into a dungeon, so, we’re still in the Middle Ages. 

Pope Innocent III called for the Fifth Crusade in 1213. Not so innocent, he had also caused the Fourth Crusade, which razed Constantinople and killed thousands and included the rape of nuns by the crusader army. If that weren’t enough, Innocent also instituted the Albigensian Crusade, in which papal forces massacred about 20,000 men, women and children, heretical Cathar and orthodox Catholic alike (his general said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”)

Which brings us to 1314, when Jacques de Molay, 23rd Grand Master of the Knights of Templar is burned at the stake in Paris. The phrase “nasty, brutish and short” comes to mind for all these centuries. Also, Robert the Bruce defeats Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn. 

A theme is developing. In 1415, the Council of Constance tries Jan Hus for heresy and then sentences him to be burned at the stake. And, at the Battle of Agincourt Henry V of England defeats the larger French forces on St. Crispin’s Day. St. Crispin is patron saint of cobblers, curriers, tanners and leather workers and was beheaded in the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian. 

In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia, a book describing the perfect society, probably because the real world wasn’t. It was a busy year: In addition, the first national postal service was created by Henry VIII in England, the world’s first ghetto was created in Venice, and — little known or celebrated —  Christopher Columbus had a cousin, Rafael Perestrello, who actually did sail to China and trade with merchants at Guangzhou. 

In 1617, Johannes Kepler begins publishing his theory of elliptical planetary orbits; and John Napier invents Napier’s Bones, the first multiplying computer; and Henry Briggs publishes his book describing logarithms. Science is beginning to win over superstition, except that in Sweden at least seven women are burned to death as witches at the Finspang Witch Trial. 

Which takes us by a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to 1718 and the settlement of New Orleans in New France and the introduction of the white potato to New England. Everything seemed new, including the potatoes. 

And the Panic of 1819, the first major peacetime financial crisis in the U.S., which some historians call the “First Great Depression.” 

And 1920 and the first great Red Scare, when a terrorist exploded a bomb on Wall Street (very like Nashville), and the Palmer Raids arrested more than 4,000 suspected communists and anarchists and held them without trial (as at Guantanamo) and the New York State Assembly refused to seat five duly elected Socialist assemblymen. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested. Also: The oldest existing movie footage of a professional wrestling match. America becomes America.

And now, 20 and 21. Already momentous: The UK leaves the EU as ethnic nationalism once again begins to show its ugly face around the globe. And the Covid pandemic has caused us to replay much of 2020: the 2020 Summer Olympics are planned for this year, and also the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. The U.N. has declared 2021 as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development — and they say the U.N. is too bureaucratic. It is also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.

Also expected in XXMMI is Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla. And in the U.S. the largest brood of 17-year locusts, called Brood X, will emerge for the first time since 2004. Something to look forward to. 

The Long Nineteenth Century began in the waning years of periwigs and knee britches and didn’t end until World War soured everything. In between, it was the age of Victoria, of expansive optimism, of smug colonialism, of scientific, commercial and engineering progress, of George Stephenson, Richard Trevithick, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  

It was also an age of the sacralization of middle-class family life and a sentimentalized ossification of gender roles. Even the queen acted like a bourgeois burgheress. But if women were ever more restricted in their fields of endeavors, they picked up the slack by becoming ever more powerful within those limits. They were, among other things, accorded the authority to run the households, including family finances, hiring and firing servants (even modest middle class families had servants), the dealings with merchants and butchers, and complete oversight of the kitchens. The men might have the offices and streets, but the women were domestic executives. (I am not making the claim this was a fair trade; please don’t shoot me.)

And many seized that power and made good with it. Cookbooks were already ceded to the fairer sex, but most of them wrote a single cookbook and had done with it; in the 19th century, several women upped the ante and turned their cookbooks into an almost industrial level, and became franchises, pumping out books in their names one after the other, as proto-Martha-Stewarts. They became brand names.

Earlier, in the previous century, there arose an appetite for books written for women, either as family cooks, or ladies in charge of a servant kitchen. The first such book was published in 1674 by Hannah Wolley; she was followed by Mary Kettilby, Eliza Smith, Sarah Harrison, Elizabeth Moxon, Susannah Carter, Elizabeth Raffald and Amelia Simmons — the last being the first cookbook author in America. And Hannah Glasse, who wrote the best-selling cookbook of the 18th century. 

The following century begins with books very like those of the previous century. Ages don’t develop their character with the flipping of a calendar page. The first best-selling cookbook of the new century was Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families from 1806. It was much like its predecessors, but better organized. The book went on for 67 editions, and usually known generically simply as “Mrs. Rundell.” In addition to recipes, it offered advice on how to set up a home brewery, and the usual medical prescriptions and how to give directions to servants. 

The book was first published with only the attribution, “By a Lady.” So many of the cookbooks of the time did the same. In 1810 The Cook’s Complete Guide on the Principles of Frugality, Comfort and Elegance came out, “By a Lady,” who proved to be Esther Copley. In 1827, Copley’s The New London Cookery and Complete Domestic Guide came out, also “By a Lady.” She was a prolific author of children’s books, religious texts and an abolitionist tract, A History of Slavery and its Abolition (1836). She also followed up her New London Cookery success with a series of other cookbooks and household instruction books: The Housekeeper’s Guide, or A Plain and Practical System of Domestic Cookery (1838), Cottage Comforts (1825), The Young Servant’s Friendly Instructor (1827), Catechism of Domestic Economy (1850).

In the new United States, however, the older model persisted: single books by women authors, beginning with American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, “an orphan.” Many of the new American cookbooks were expressions of regional tastes, most famously in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, of 1824. It was republished 19 times before the Civil War and contained some 500 recipes.

Historian Cynthia Kierner wrote of Randolph that she “presented a Southern — specifically, a Virginian — model for Southern readers. … using Virginia produce for dishes influenced by African, Native American, and European foods. the book included recipes for Southern classics such as okra, sweet potatoes, biscuits, fried chicken, barbecue shote (young pig), and lemonade.” 

She also included a recipe called “Dough Nuts — a Yankee Cake.”

She was  born to a prominent Virginia family and when she died in 1828, she was buried in what later became Arlington National Cemetery. 

Chef Jose Andre cites Randolph as an influence and he serves her Gazpacho at his America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C., and says the recipe “demonstrates just how far back the notion of this country as a cultural melting pot goes.” 

Gaspacho-Spanish — Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a sallad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skins taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkle with pepper, salt and chopped onion; do this until the bowl is full; stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard, oil and water, and pour over it; make it 2 hours before it is eaten.

Other regional cookbooks followed. In 1839, Lettice Bryan wrote The Kentucky Housewife and in 1847 Sarah Rutledge wrote The Carolina Housewife, again acknowledged only as “a lady of Charleston.” Rutledge was the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A report says that until about 1920, “the name of a Charleston woman appeared in print but thrice — when born, when married and when buried — legal necessities.” When Rutledge was outed as the author after her death in 1855, it was said that the disclosure would have made her “spin in her grave.”

Here is her recipe for Hopping John:

Three books by African-Americans should be mentioned. Malinda Russell was a free Black woman from Tennessee who wrote the first known cookbook by an African-American woman. Her Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen came out in 1866 and included recipes for catfish fricassee, Irish potatoes with cod and sweet onion custard. 

Former slave Abby Fisher wrote What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking published by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco in 1881. Mrs. Fisher was a pickle maker by trade and her book includes many recipes for pickles, in addition to fried chicken and biscuits. Here is one:

Breaking the mold of cookbooks written by women for women, the first recipe book by an African-American author was written by a man for other men. In 1827, Robert Roberts published The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families. Roberts was butler and majordomo for Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore. His book is aimed at those running a household, including how to complete chores, how to clean, how to behave properly and then, to prepare foods. 

“In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up.” He also includes his method of curing a drunk of his habit:

All of these cooks and authors were impressive, but none holds a candle to the formidable Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880). She wrote in many veins, probably best remembered today for the lyrics to “Over the River and Through the Woods,” she took on many dragons: She was an abolitionist, a women’s rights activist, a spokesperson for Native American rights, and opponent of Manifest Destiny, white supremacy and male dominance, an advocate of women’s education, a novelist taking on issues such as miscegenation. And she was a journalist and poet. Mrs. Child could walk through walls, and don’t get in her way.

In 1833, she wrote An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, calling for instant emancipation with no compensation for slaveholders. In it, she wrote “The intellectual inferiority of the Negroes is a common, though most absurd apology, for personal prejudice.” She went on to publish The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act and act as editor of a national abolitionist periodical. 

As a women’s rights activist, she wrote that significant progress for women could not be made until after the abolition of slavery, because women and slaves were similar in that white men held both groups in subjugation and treated them as property. 

She also worked for Native American rights, too. Her novel Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times concerns an interracial marriage between a white woman and an Indian man, who have a son together. 

Beyond that, she was a notorious freethinker. She wrote, “It is impossible to exaggerate the evil work that theology has done in the world,” and “What blooming paradise would the whole earth be if the same amount of intellect, labor and zeal had been expended on science, agriculture and the arts.” 

But I have become sidetracked by my admiration for Ms. Child. What we are concerned with here is her cookbook, The American Frugal Housewife for Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, published in 1829 when she was 27 years old. It went through 33 printings in 25 years. In it the same indomitable schoolmarm certainty reigns. I have to wonder if she ever told — or even heard — a joke, in her life. 

The book was aimed at women cooking for their families without servants to do the work. It is written simply, and always with an eye to saving money. It begins:

“The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money.”

That includes children, who shouldn’t be wasting their time in “useless play:”

“Children can very early be taught to take all the care of their own clothes.

“They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor; they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market. … it is a great deal better for the boys and girls on a farm to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play. They enjoy themselves just as well; and they are earning something to buy clothes, at the same time they are tearing them.”

In a chapter concerning “The Education of Daughters,” she enjoins: 

“The greatest and most universal error is, teaching girls to exaggerate the importance of getting married; and of course to place an undue importance upon the polite attentions of gentlemen.”

Her recipes extoll the frugality of finding the best cuts of meat and of using those parts that others snub. 

Or:

Another multi-tasking and prolific writer was Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, who published under the simplified name as Frances Green, although, for her cookbook, she was listed on the title page of The Housekeeper’s Book (1837) as “By a Lady.” 

She was a poet, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate and spiritualist. Her many books include Memoirs of Elleanor Elbridge, a Colored Woman (1838); Might and Right (1844), a book about the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island; The Primary Class-Book of Botany (1856), a botany text for students; and Beyond the Veil (1878, posthumous) about communicating with the dead. 

The Housekeeper’s Book: Containing Advice on the Conduct of Household Affairs: with a Complete Collection of Receipts for Economical Domestic Cookery (earlier centuries doted on enormous titles) was written for middle and upper class women and those in their employ and covers everything from freshening up bedding to making cordials. 

“The work has been founded on the results of actual experience, and is intended for every day use; that the receipts, directions, and general advice have all been prepared with strict view to utility, and true economy; and that nothing has been omitted which the author deemed subservient to the general design – the promotion of domestic happiness by attention to the constantly recurring and inevitable duties of good housekeeping.”

 

Back in England, the absolute queen of the kitchen and cookbook was Isabella Beeton. Her books were everywhere. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management came out in 1861 and by 1868, had sold nearly 2 million copies. It was reprinted well into the 20th century. In fact, it can still be bought today.

The book was first published as 24 installments in her husband’s magazine, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Samuel Beeton was a magazine editor and publisher and brought out the first British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was also a proponent of the equality of the sexes.  There seemed to be a connection in the 19th century between abolitionism, feminism and cookbooks. 

Mrs. Beeton’s work was published and republished in many forms, re-edited and resold under many titles after her early death at age 28 in 1865. At her death, she was working on her Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery. 

After her death, her husband sold the publishing rights to Ward, Lock and Tyler, a firm that continued to resell the book through dozens of editions, sometimes with only the flimsiest connection to the original. By 1891 the term Mrs Beeton had become used as a generic name for a domestic authority. They suppressed the fact of Mrs. Beeton’s death, so that the name became, like Betty Crocker, really a brand name rather than a person. The book became for the 19th century what The Joy of Cooking has been for the 20th. 

Mrs. Beeeton was one of the first cookbook authors to present her recipes with a list of ingredients and their measurements, in the modern style. In her introduction, she wrote: 

“I have attempted to give, under the chapters devoted to cookery, an intelligible arrangement to every recipe, a list of the ingredients, a plain statement of the mode of preparing each dish, and a careful estimate of its cost, the number of people for whom it is sufficient, and the time when it is seasonable.” 

She explains that she was thus attempting to make the basics of cookery “intelligible” to any “housewife.”

Author Christopher Clausen, in his study of British middle classes, wrote that Beeton’s book reflected Victorian values, particularly hard work, thrift and cleanliness. “Mrs. Beeton has … been for over a century the standard English cookbook, frequently outselling every other book but the Bible”

Did I mention that they loved preposterous titles in those days? The full title of the book was The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort.

The closest thing America had to Mrs. Beeton was Marion Harland, pen name of Mary Virginia Terhune. She published some 50 books during her life, including novels, short story collections, biographies, travel guides, histories and cookbooks. Her first novel, Alone, came out in 1854. Her first cookbook, Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery, came out in 1872. It eventually sold more than a million copies. 

Harland became a franchise, much like Beeton, but lived to see her success. She died at 91 in 1922. Among her domestic books, published after Common Sense in the Household, were Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea (1875); Bills of Fare for All Seasons of the Year (1889); House and Home (1889); Marion Harland’s Complete Cookbook: A Practical and Exhaustive Manual of Cookery and Housekeeping (1903); and The Helping Hand Cook Book (1912), written with her daughter, Christine Terhune Herrick. 

If there is a theme beyond food in all these cookbooks, it is one of moral improvement. Each of them has chapters on proper deportment, how to run clean household, and frugality. This tendency runs on hyperdrive in Ella Eaton Kellogg’s Science in the Kitchen (1892), which features vegetarianism and hygiene as aspects of the same thing. She married John Harvey Kellogg, superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the inventor of corn flakes, which he saw as an anaphrodisiac, and proponent of eugenics. Ella Eaton joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, becoming associate superintendent of the Social Purity department. 

She ran the kitchen at Battle Creek and wrote that:

 “One of the evils of unwholesome food is its decided tendency to create a craving for intoxicants. Bad cookery causes indigestion, indigestion causes thirst, and thirst perpetuates drunkenness.” 

Kellogg recommended bland foods, as being not only healthier, but leading to a more moral behavior. Vegetarianism is the key:

“The use of large quantities of animal food, however free from disease germs, has a tendency to develop the animal propensities to a greater or less degree, especially in the young, whose characters are unformed. Among animals we find the carnivorous the most vicious and destructive, while those which subsist upon vegetable foods are by nature gentle and tractable. There is little doubt that this law holds good among men as well as animals. If we study the character and lives of those who subsist largely upon animal food, we are apt to find them impatient, passionate, fiery in temper, and in other respects greatly under the dominion of their lower natures.”

And spicy foods cause terrible diseases, she said:

“Physicians have long observed that in tropical countries where curry powder and other condiments are very extensively used, diseases of the liver, especially acute congestion and inflammation, are exceedingly common.”

The undercurrent of racism is unmistakable throughout the book. 

And her instructions for cooking macaroni makes for mush:

“The length of time required may vary from twenty minutes, if fresh, to one hour if stale. When tender, turn into a colander and drain, and pour cold water through it to prevent the tubes from sticking together.”

So much for “al dente.” 

There is more real and systematic science found in The Boston Cook-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, from 1896. Farmer revamped the former Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. Mary Johnson Lincoln had been head of the Boston Cooking School and published her book in 1884 as a textbook for her classes. Farmer expanded the book to some 1,850 recipes and her version eventually became the most popular cookbook in the country and was known simply as the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” 

At a time when most American cookbooks were still saying to use a “dollop of butter” or a “teacup of cider,” Farmer used precise measurements in 8 oz. cups and leveled tablespoons. She organized recipes with ingredients and measurements before the text. 

Her book became so popular, she followed up with a series of books,, including Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898); Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (1904); What to Have for Dinner: Containing Menus with Recipes for Their Preparation (1905); Catering for Special Occasions (1911); A New Book of Cookery: Eight-hundred and Sixty Recipes (1912); The Priscilla Cook Book for Everyday Housekeepers (1913); and A Book of Good Dinners for My Friend, or “What to Have for Dinner” (1914). 

There are many books I have been forced to leave out, including The Epicurian by Charles Ranhofer, who was chef at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York. His book was an encyclopedic guide to haut cuisine. 

Or Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Every-Day Cookery; Mrs. W.G. Water’s Cook’s Decameron and her Just a Cookery Book; or Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book; or Mary Harrison’s Guide to Modern Cookery; or Mary Doncaster’s Luxurious Modern Cookery. 

But I want to end with Elizabeth Black Kander, a Progressive reformer and founder of a settlement house in Milwaukee where she wrote a book titled The Way to a Man’s Heart, but almost universally referred to as The Settlement Cook Book. 

Daughter of European Jewish immigrants, Kander joined the settlement movement in America, a movement meant to bridge the gap between the poor and the middle class through education and assimilation. Jane Addam’s Hull House in Chicago was a famous example. Kander founded the Settlement House in Milwaukee in 1900. To help fund her relief work, she wrote her cookbook, using recipe that were taught to immigrants in her Settlement House classes. The book became a surprising success and was revised and updated every year from 1901 to 1954, selling more than 2 million copies. 

The World War that came soon after twisted a knot in history, and what followed after, in everything from politics to literature to economics and even to cookbooks, was qualitatively different. The world became modern, for better and for worse. 

Epilogue

Taking the long look from Sumer through Apicius to Ina Garten, there are eon-long trends in cookbooks. The earliest made little distinction between food and medicine and recipes were as often apothecary, mixed with gustatory. 

Somewhere, in the 16th or 17th centuries, the medical part shrunk and became a appendix chapter or two on how to feed the feeble, sick and convalescent. But those same centuries, and especially the 18th, also added chapters on how to deal with servants and how to maintain a household. 

The Victorian age added moral uplift and chapters on proper deportment, mostly for young wives, and the need for cleanliness and rectitude. At its fringes, it advocated crank fad diets. 

After World War I, cookbooks dropped most of the admixture and concentrated on clear recipes, with measurements, serving sizes and instructional information on processes, such as found in The Joy of Cooking or Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. 

In the past few decades, there has been a resurgence in fads and weight-loss or coronary-health, but also a growth in combining recipes with travel and culture, such as you find in Diana Kennedy, Madhur Jaffrey, Joyce Chen, Patricia Wells, and so many others. 

Of course, cookbooks are facing the same changes as everything else in the digital age, and more people are now turning to YouTube or television for their cooking instruction, which really only brings us, by a commodius vicus back to the days when cooking was taught chef to apprentice or mother to daughter by hands-on verbal instruction. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

Click on any image to enlarge

“Kitchen” Vincenzo Campi, 1580

Between the 14th and 16th centuries two big changes came over cooking and cookbooks in Europe. The first was a change of taste, leaving behind the spices of the East and taking up the herbs of the garden; the second was the invention of the printing press. 

It needs to be remembered that until 1450, all cookbooks were written in manuscript and copied when needed. Their reading public was limited by the literacy of the populace when only the very few could “reckon letters.” And so, those cookbooks were aimed at the kitchens of the wealthy and aristocratic, and their instructions were given to those who already knew the basic techniques. The cookbooks rarely mentioned quantities or explained widely understood preparations. 

And, beginning in 1517, as northern Europe emerged, and Protestantism grew, it shifted the locus of thought there away from the Mediterranean. Rome saw Paris flex its muscles and a rivalry began. 

Le Viandier and Le Managier

The first of these European-aimed cookbooks is Le Viandier, traditionally credited to Guillaume Tirel (1310-1395), aka Taillevant (“Cut Wind”), who was chef to the court of France during the Hundred Years War, although the earliest of four surviving manuscripts is dated from 10 years before Taillevent was born, making the attribution a bit dodgy. 

The book contains about 130 recipes and they are still heavy on exotic spices, such as this one for a Fish Grané:

Take pike or carp or other fish. Scale and fry the fish. Then toast bread and soak it in a puree of peas. Strain it and put in large slices of fried onion. Boil it all together with ginger, cinnamon and other spices, infused with vinegar. Add saffron for color. 

Other 14th century manuscript cookbooks include the Portuguese Llibre de Sent Sovi from 1324 and the German Daz Buch von der guter Spise from 1350. And the English The Forme of Cury, by “The Chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.” From 1390, it is written in Middle English and sounds very like Chaucer.

The Forme of Cury, pages

One recipe begins: “Sawse madame. Take sawge, persel, ysope and saueray, quinces and peeres, garlek and grapes, and fylle the gees therwith; and sowe the hole that no grece come out, and roost hem wel, and kepe the grece that fallith therof.”

Translated into modern lingo, the whole recipe runs:

Sauce Madame. Take sage, parsley, hyssop and savory, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes, and stuff the  geese with them, and sew the hole so that no dripping comes out, and roast them well and keep the dripping  that falls from them. Take the gelatin and dripping and place in a posset (a hot drink made by curdling milk with ale or wine). When the geese is roasted enough, take and chop it in pieces, and take what is within and put it in a posset and put in wine if it is too thick. Add to it powder of galangal, powder-douce and salt, and boil the sauce and dress the geese in dishes and lay the sauce on. 

Here is the original recipe for rabbit in gravy:

Translated, it reads: “Take rabbits, smite them to pieces. Parboil them and draw them with a good broth with blanched and brayed almonds. Do therein sugar and powdered ginger and boil it and the flesh therewith. Flour it with sugar and with powdered ginger and serve forth.” 

I love that “smite them to pieces.” The language has an almost biblical feel to it. Another recipe says to “Shell the oysters and seethe them in wine and in their own broth.” 

In 1393, Le Ménagier de Paris, or “The Householder of Paris” was published. It is less a cookbook and more a treatise on how to be a good wife, presented as an older husband counseling his young bride. It includes gardening tips, etiquette and even sex advice. Its second section contains recipes. It set the model for many books in the coming centuries aimed not at professional kitchens but at the edification and instruction of women. 

Other Medieval cookbooks include Du Fait de Cuisine (On the making of cuisine”), written in 1420 by the master chef of the court of Burgundy; and the mid-15th century Venetian book, Libro per Cuoco. Who knew that the name of the star of TV’s Big Bang Theory was “Kitchen full of Kale?” Perfect for a Hollywood actress.

Bartolomeo Sacchi, aka Platina

Then came Johannes Gutenberg and cookbooks ever since have been largely printed in large numbers for a growing literate public. The first real bestseller cookbook was printed first in 1475 and called De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, or “On Honorable Pleasure and Health,” by Bartolomeo Sacchi, better known as Platina. He was a courtier and soldier born near Cremona in Italy and wrote dozens of books on diverse subjects. 

De Honesta Voluptate was written in Latin and cribbed from the notes of Martino da Como, who some have described as the world’s first “celebrity chef.” He was kitchen-master in the Vatican. Sacchi credits him in De Honesta Voluptate. The book went through untold editions and translations for the next century or so. 

Sacchi tells us that the lentil is “digested with difficulty, generates black bile and creates scaly skin disease, causes flatulence and a stuffed feeling, harms the brain and chest, dulls the eyes and represses passions.” 

A recipe for eel pie includes almond milk, rosewater, raisins, sugar and spices, but why he includes this is questionable. His comment on the dish: “When it is finally cooked, serve it to your enemies, for it has nothing good in it.” 

The shift from the Mediterranean to more continental tastes should, in part, be credited to Martin Luther. His insistence that people learn to read the Bible for themselves caused a great increase in literacy in northern Europe, and with Gutenberg’s press, led to a new profusion of cookbooks in vernacular languages.

In 1570, a second Bartolomeo came out with his cookbook, both printed and in ordinary Italian. It was the Opera dell’Arte del Cucinare, or “Works on the art of the kitchen,” by Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577), who was chef to three popes. It continues the old tradition of exotic spicing, but it is the first cookbook to include illustrations. 

The book is divided into six parts and contains 1000 recipes. It begins with a dialog between the chef and his apprentice, laying out the workings of a smoothly operating kitchen, its implements and ingredients. A second part discusses meat from quadrupeds and birds, and how to make sauces. A third covers fish, eggs and vegetables. The fourth lists foods by season. The fifth teaches the making of pastries, cakes and a miscellany of things. The book ends with a chapter of food for the infirm; so many of these early cookbooks mingle food and medicine, as if they were two sides of a single coin. 

Scappi’s braised beef

He writes of preparing frogs for Pope Pius IV “in the way the pope was used to eating them.” He writes, “Frogs abound in Lombardy, and especially in Bologna, where they are transported in bags on carts.” 

And although it was published some seven decades after Columbus sailed to the New World, the only Columbian Exchange item to show up is the turkey. No potatoes, chiles, tomatoes or chocolate. 

So far, most of these cookbooks are written by cooks for popes or royalty, and their menus are often exotic and call for an abundance of spice. But as the printing press pumped out more and more material, their buying audience widened to include middle class cooks, too. And that also means that their demographic shifts from male chefs to women at their home hearths. 

And this shows up in the number of books aimed at teaching women the best or proper way to make their homes. Often the recipes are only a portion of the books’ contents, which spreads out to include etiquette, home finances and household management. This is a trend that expands in the 17th century and exponentially in the 18th century. 

Thomas Dawson published The Good Huswifes Jewell in 1585 and Gervase Markham wrote The English Huswife in 1615. 

The Jewell gives recipes for pancakes and haggis and is the first in English to mention sweet potatoes — a New World ingredient. It also has a recipe for “A Sallet of All Kinde of Hearbes:”

“Take your hearbes and picke them very fine into faire water, and picke your flowers by themselves, and washe them al cleane, and swing them in a strainer, and when you put them into a dish, mingle them with cowcumbers or lemmons payred and sliced, and scrape suger, and put in vineger and oyle, and throw the flowers on the toppe of the sallet, and of every sorte of the aforesaide things and garnish the dish about with the foresaide things, and harde egges boyled and laide about the dish upon the sallet.”

The full title of Markham’s book is quite long and runs: The English Huswife: Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman: as her Phisicke, Cookery, Banqueting-stuffe, Distillation, Perfumes, Wooll, Hemp, Flaxe, Dairies, Brewing, Baking, and all other things belonging to an Houshold.” Which gives some sense of the direction cookbooks in general will be headed in the following centuries. 

Markham was by profession a soldier, and he shows some humility in his introduction: Thou mayst say (gentle Reader) what hath this man to doe with Hus-wifery, he is now out of his element,” but goes on to say that he had his manuscript vetted by an honorable lady of quality. But no doubt, he was not the original mansplainer. 

There are quite a few 17th century cookbooks, and I cannot include them all, but I can’t avoid The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened, from 1669. Digby was a courtier, diplomat, natural philosopher, astrologer and Roman Catholic intellectual, once called “The Ornament of This Nation.”

If you open his closet, as it were, you find many directions for alcoholic drinks, but also a fair number of delicacies, such as Capon del Conte di Trino, which calls for ambergris (from the intestines of a whale), dates, raisins, currants and sugar, all boiled inside an ox bladder. 

To boil eggs: “A certain and infallible method to boil new-laid Eggs to sup up, and yet that they have the white turned to milk, is thus: Break a very little hole, at the bigger end of the shell, and put it into the water, whiles it boileth. Let it remain boiling, whiles your Pulse beateth two hundred stroaks. Then take it out immediately, and you will find it of an exact temper.”

The language and spelling are a delight. Here is another:

“A FLOMERY-CAUDLE — When Flomery is made and cold, you may make a pleasant and wholesome caudle of it, by taking some lumps and spoonfuls of it, and boil it with Ale and White wine, then sweeten it to your taste with Sugar. There will remain in the Caudle some lumps of the congealed flomery, which are not ungrateful.”

Markham in An English Huswife defines flummery as a soft, starch-based sweet pudding: “From this small Oat-meale, by oft steeping it in water and clensing it, and then boyling it to a thicke and stiffe jelly, is made that excellent dish of meat which is so esteemed in the West parts of this Kingdome, which they call Wash-brew, and in Chesheire and Lankasheire they call it Flamerie or Flumerie.” A caudle, by the way, is potion or porridge for infants or the infirm. 

And to feed your chickens and make them plump and juicy, Digby writes:

“AN EXCELLENT WAY TO CRAM CHICKEN — Stone a pound of Raisins of the Sun, and beat them in a Mortar to Pulp; pour a quart of Milk upon them, and let them soak so all night. Next morning stir them well together, and put to them so much Crums of Grated stale white bread as to bring it to a soft paste, work all well together, and lay it in the trough before the Chicken (which must not be above six in a pen, and keep it very clean) and let a candle be by them all night. The delight of this meat will make them eat continually; and they will be so fat (when they are but of the bigness of a Black-bird) that they will not be able to stand, but lie down upon their bellies to eat.”

Chickens gotta eat, too. 

Next: The 18th Century where we will not forget the ladies. 

I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 

Durban

I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.

Seattle

I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 

Phoenix

I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 

Asheville

I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

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We all have roots. We draw up family trees, naming as far back as we can our ancestors; sometimes we discover Charlemagne or Henry II hiding in the branches. Many of us have tested our DNA to discover the nameless past before that and perhaps trace our route from Africa through Europe or Asia by haplogroup. 

There is a lineage — a straight line that leads from some familial Adam to ourselves. Or at least, we see it that way: The reality is messier. Each of the names above ours on the family tree doubles; parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. That lineage becomes a mesh, a network of interconnectedness. Thousands of Adams and their Eves woven together.

Yet, there is still the sense of having gotten from there to here. A sense that, however complex the root system, the florescence is now. 

This seems to me to be true culturally as well as genetically. I am certainly American, with my bona fides in Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. But there is still something behind those names. When one marries and begins a family of one’s own, there is still the family in which you were raised and it never really goes away. One day when you are 50, you look down and at the ends of your arms you discover your father’s hands. Or you find yourself saying something that rings the bell of remembrance: This is what the old man used to say. Your wedded family, like your friends are acquired later, but your original family stays with you forever. It is somehow more unshakable than the one you later don. You may divorce a first wife, but you can never lose your birth family: It is traced in your muscle and bone. 

And it is, at least for me, the same for the culture I resonate to. I find ever more as I grow older, that I am at heart European. It is European literature, music, thought — even landscape and city — that I respond to. France has always felt like home to me. And the painting and sculpture of the Old World — from Ancient Greece, through Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and into the horrifying terrors of the 20th century — they all speak to me more directly than the neotenous and optimistic culture of the New World. 

This is not to claim any supremacy for Europe. There are many great cultures in the world, and just as one knows one’s own family may not be the greatest one — indeed, it has its characteristic neuroses and scars — it is nevertheless your own and has a deep comfortableness and familiarity that you cannot get from other families. I am inoculated against any sense of European supremacy; I’ve read my Jared Diamond. But that can’t change my cultural genes.

And so, I see my grandfather’s nose taking over the center of my face. I find the patience so inborn in my father taking over my own, and his natural moderation in all things political guiding my own, and overtaking the youthful certainty and idealism that drove me to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ” and stew in a smug self-righteousness. 

So, there is Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, Montaigne, Dante, Gibbon, Tolstoy — these are my cultural parents and great-grandparents, and I find their hands at the end of my cultural arms. 

Yes, American culture owes a great deal to Africa, Asia and Native America, but underneath it all, the “dead White guys” are peeking out. Whether it is Indian art on canvas or blues riffs over triadic harmony, the basement layer supporting all the ethnic and cultural overlay, all the borrowings and tinctures, is European.

It’s so etched into the American memory, even on a pop-culture level,  that it’s the starting point for all American culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Can we recognize it when we see it? Do we know how European we are? The older I get, the more I know it. Others feel the amalgam in their blood. They grew up on pop music and TV. I grew up on Stravinsky and Bach, and the pop culture never quite took hold. 

First, what do we mean by “Europe”? We sometimes have to laugh at any definition of Europe; after all, Europeans cannot agree on it. The European Union is now contemplating whether Turkey is part of Europe — a Muslim nation in Europe, and the United Kingdom is trying to divorce itself from the rest of the continent, as if you could divorce your parents. 

The continent got its name from ancient Greece, which divided the world into three: Europe was where “we” lived; to the east was Asia, meaning primarily Persia, the Levant and what is now Turkey; Africa was usually called Libya and included Egypt and Ethiopia. These three continents were surrounded by Ocean, the great river that circled the known world. That is the world as Herodotus knew it. 

Nowadays, Europe usually is defined to include Iceland, the western end of Turkey as measured from the Dardanelles, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.

It’s a huge and disparate place, including cultures that are Mediterranean, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic — even Turkic. But when we talk generically about European culture and art, we most often mean that of Western Europe: a cultural tradition that began in classical Greece, spread through the Roman Empire and flowered again in the Renaissance.

But what makes European art European? What distinguishes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare from art made in China, Ghana or Pre-Columbian Peru?

There are many things Europe gave us, from rationalism to colonialism, from democracy and humanism to the nation state and patriarchy, to say nothing of two world wars. Each aspect is cheered or booed, depending on whether you have come to praise Europe or to bury it.

But there is something familiar to it, whether it’s a Madonna or an Apollo: It is the heritage I feel in a way that Japanese noh theater and Tibetan thankas — no matter how beautiful or meaningful — I do not.

(Do not get me wrong here: I try to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I’ve read the Mahabharata three times, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mao’s little red book. As a teenager, I took up the use of the shizuri and sumi stick; I have a collection of African sculpture. I hope I am not a completely ignorant yob. But I can never drink as deeply from the vast elsewhere as I can from my backyard  European well.) 

For me, it is European art that is a touchstone for history, for ideas of beauty, for widely held social values, some of which are out of date and some of which are lamentable, even shameful. But an Old Master painting has just as much validity in our cultural ambience today as learning about Shakespeare in literature or Mozart and Tchaikovsky in music. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural experience, all tied into European art and culture.

What makes it European? I suggest five key things:

—First, there is a bias toward realism.

—Second, an astonishing persistence of Classical antiquity.

—Third, a belief, justified or not, in the idea of progress. 

—Fourth, the pervasive influence of Christianity.

—And finally, the singular importance of the human body and the nude that we might distill into the word “humanism,” a belief in the nobility, or divinity, of corporeal human existence.

(Also, in music, the use of harmony as the basic building block.) 

Deeply rooted realism

In the caves of southern Europe you can find the world’s oldest art, dating to 30,000 years ago. Even that long ago, proto-European artists created paintings that looked like the world they lived in: the aurochs and horses of Lascaux and Altamira often are so naturalistic that they can be taxonomized by zoologists into genus and species.

Prehistoric art from other cultures — South African, Australian and Southeast Asian — tend to be more diagrammatic: symbolic stick figures rather than shaded, colored images mimicking what the eye sees.

Aristotle said it 2,300 years ago: “Art imitates nature.” You can see it in Greek art from the fifth century B.C. The Greeks were intensely interested in realism. It is not just in the physicality of the statues, the lifelike figures, but in the drapery that clothed those statues. Later European artists, going back to that, like Poussin or Courbet, those lush mythological landscapes with that gleaming pink flesh. It is a love of the actual, of the real, physical world.

In our sophisticated provincialism, after a century of increasingly abstract and intellectualized art, we may think we have left all of that behind. But is Andy Warhol’s soup can any different?

Antiquity endures

We often say Europe was born in ancient Greece, which gave us so many of the philosophical and political ideas that we still live with. But even in art, antiquity remains in our lives. Go to any neighborhood and notice the homes with porticos, columns, architraves and pediments. Or listen to a pop tune sung in major or minor key and hear the remnants of a medieval and Renaissance idea of how the music of antiquity sounded.

Even in films, you have things like 300 and Troy. Even O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Theaters have their prosceniums and orchestras. 

Our poets still write odes, 2,500 years after Pindar, and the statues in our city squares mimic the poses of Augustus and Constantine. Turn to the back of your Yellow Pages and you’re likely to see a chiropractic ad with a photograph of a man in pain, in the pose of the famous Greek statue of Laocoon. These things persist in our visual memory.

And where do you think that cupid on your Valentine’s Day card comes from?

Artistic progress?

Technological progress has been a hallmark of Western culture, and the tendency has been to see a parallel development in the arts.

Giorgio Vasari, writing his influential Lives of the Painters in the 16th century, argued that “one artist supersedes the last and is better.”  Always march on to the next style.

But while European art history is a parade of changing styles, science and medicine move forward and improve our lives, but it isn’t so clear in art. Is Tom Clancy really much of an improvement on the Iliad? 

It’s not so easy to embrace the idea of cultural progress anymore. Progress covers up a lot of really nasty stuff, like the looting of other cultures. And as we have come to know and understand other cultures better, it’s harder to maintain that our art is “better” than theirs. 

Christianity’s sway

If you were to name the single-biggest source of imagery in European art, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step into the ring with Christianity. It’s the winner by default: The central role of religion in the arts is manifest. Just as Islam governs the art of the Middle East and Buddhism colors the art of China and Hinduism the art of India, so the themes and subjects from the Bible are central to Europe.

Christian themes are an overwhelming component of the European sense of morality and ethics. It is through Christian stories, illustrated in art, that we see how we should think about our own lives. The good Samaritan, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the woman at the well — these serve in our art as parables and lessons.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the universal grief and suffering of Michelangelo’s Pieta. At the other end, you have the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of your car.

The human figure

It has become an emblem of art: The nude figure. Whether it’s Aphrodite born from the seafoam, King David gazing at a naked Bathsheba or the painter’s lover dropping her dress in the studio, the human figure is primary.

It isn’t just men ogling naked women: It’s Myron’s Discus Thrower and Michelangelo’s David. From the Greeks on, the male nude is just as important.

You won’t find this in the art of Asia, Africa, Australia/Oceania or the New World. When you find the naked figure there, it is almost always a fertility talisman or a figure with exaggerated sex. In Asia, you find such things in “pillow books” and other intentionally pornographic images. In Europe, the figure isn’t only sex and generation, it’s a mirror of the divine. It is man as the measure of all things, and that means men and women.

‘Dead White males’

It has been a long ride from the caves of southern France to the latest pickled roadkill of Damien Hirst, and European culture has changed at least as much as it has persisted.

Listen to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, and hear the legacy of Beethoven mixed with the Arabian oud, the Balinese gamelan, the pipa of China and Peruvian flutes. It’s all one big mix.

As Europe has changed the cultures it has come in contact with, its own is being changed in return. Globalization isn’t only economic.

But there’s still a great deal to be learned from the long march we have taken. We think it all must be irrelevant because it comes from so long ago. It’s what people mean when they complain about all that art, literature and music from the so-called “dead White males” that have been taught in universities for centuries. Yes, the world has opened up to include more, but the old art is still as meaningful as ever.

Cultural DNA

Just as genealogy fascinates many people, who trace a great-great-grandfather back to the battle of Appomattox or look at old photos to see in faded black and white where the family nose comes from, so a look at our cultural ancestors shows us where we came from. That cultural DNA is still there.

Again, this is not to make any special claims for European culture: It can speak for itself. And the rest of the world is equally compelling. I love Chinese painting, African carvings, Australian designs, Hopi pottery. The case I’m making is that for myself — and I am speaking primarily for myself here — there is a nest in Europe that my psyche fits almost perfectly. Fragments of its past often show up unacknowledged in my prose or my photographs. The art and poetry speaks a language I was born to. I get the idioms, when other cultures, no matter how much I love them and respect them, are a second language — its idioms will always elude me. 

When I go to Brittany or the Vosges Mountains, or visit the Roman arena — now a bull ring — in Arles or the aqueduct at Pont du Gard, or see the stained glass at Saint Denis, or the stave churches in Norway or the polders of Holland, I have an overwhelming sense of being home. This is my family, for all its faults. 

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“There is something sinister about the past.”

—Artist Kahinde Wiley

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

— Character Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses

The study of history is endlessly fascinating. It is the biggest segment of non-fiction book publishing, a favorite of Civil War re-enactors, the grist for endless op-ed writers, a healthy chunk of the lecture series offered by the Great Courses, and a third of C-Span’s weekend programming. We are all at least amateur historians. 

Everyone knows the major narratives: George Washington as father to the country, Abe Lincoln as martyred Great Emancipator, Hitler as madman, Napoleon with his hand in his shirt, D-Day as the greatest victory of World War II. 

But almost all such interest in history is falsely benign, even when not entirely false. It is history as familiar story, and history with beginning, middle and satisfying end. Rather too neat compared with the messy, chaotic reality. 

It isn’t just that I wish to point out that it is largely a white male history, justifying the status quo, but that the overwhelming lesson of history is human misery. History is not a pageant on a grade-school stage, it is the eternal recurrence of peoples massacring, conquering, colonizing and enslaving each other. 

What we are taught in schools as history is overwhelmingly a list of the dates of the great battles and world-changing wars. There is a reason for this. The bulk of history is one of improved ways of bashing the skulls of opponents into bloody splinters. 

Yes, you can read about how Lincoln used and corralled his team of rivals, or how LBJ managed to pass the Civil Rights bills, but a better gauge of the norm is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about the millions of human beings starved, shot, bombed, buried alive or tortured.

Einsatzgruppe shooting naked women

One writer summarized the theme of the book as the “deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.”

And that is separate from the wartime military deaths, which is more millions of abruptly ended lives. 

Wikipedia lists more than 125 mass killings, genocides, pogroms and massacres before 1945, counting only those that have deserved names: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; Mountain Meadows Massacre; Wounded Knee Massacre; Rape of Nanking; Babi Yar; Holodomor; Shoah. 

Since World War II, massacres notable enough to have acquired names have occurred on the average of more than two per year. 

Skulls of Spanish, Djerba, Tunisia, 1558

I could make a list, but it would go on for pages, from the pyramid of skulls left by Tamerlane to the Cathar genocide of the 13th century to the death of 90 percent of the Carthaginians during the Third Punic War in 149 BCE. 

We can think of all these genocides and massacres as something that took place in distant years and distant lands. But there is ethnic cleansing going on right now, and as for the distance, the U.S. has to answer for both the decimation of Native American populations and the enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans. 

As written about in American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present, by Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt, It is also apparent that the shared history of the hemisphere is one framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery, both of which are part of the legacy of the European invasions of the past 500 years. Indigenous people north and south were displaced, died of disease, and were killed by Christian Europeans through slavery, rape, and war. In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people.”

But let’s not make this into a game of blame the nasty Europeans. Everyone has his share of guilt. We cannot forget the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century Zunghar Genocide, which wiped out 80 percent of the Oirat Mongols of the Altai region; or 19th century genocide of the Moriori, on the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, when 95 percent of them were eradicated by Maoris; or the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and ’66, when up to 3 million people were murdered; or another 3 million by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who eliminated a third of the country’s population, including 100 percent of the Cambodian Viets, 50 percent of the Cambodian Chinese, 40 percent of their Lao and Thai, and a quarter of all city dwellers. 

The Hopi — called the “Peaceful People” in their own language — murdered the entire male population of their village of Awotovi in 1700 for being ka-Hopi: “un-Hopi.” This is the universal truth of humanity. 

2.

All this — and a hundred times more I am not writing about — is just prologue and context for what I want to say. Not just that the past is a slaughterhouse, but that history continues either to make us do stupid and bloody things or to justify our doing them. The past is not only always with us, it too often governs the present.

History oppresses us; it’s what we mean when we say the generals are always fighting the previous war. Or how so-called “originalists” use a 230-year-old Constitution to attempt to halt the flow of time and bind us to outdated strictures. The past is a ruler-wielding schoomarm. It is the punitive fantasy of MAGA. It is the excuse used by every murderous regime.  

The present is simply the sharp point of a blood-smeared sword whose shaft extends at least 3,000 years back into the past. While it is not the cause of every war, history fuels much of conflict. Even when there is more proximate cause, history is soon recruited to justify the fight. History is animated by grievance and payback. It is the Greeks and Turks, the Arabs and Israelis, the Tamils and Sinhalese, the Croats and Serbs, each side revenging the slights of centuries past, even millennia ago. 

The justification made for flying airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was that it was payback for Western interference in the Middle East, which includes the partition of the Levant after World War I, and before that, going back to the Crusades. In turn, we invade Iraq, in turn ISIS slaughters women and children. Hamas (which means “violence” in Hebrew and “Zeal” in Arabic) shoots rockets into Israel; Israel fires artillery into the Gaza Strip. 

It’s like the back seat on a road trip: “Peter hit me.” “Johnny hit me first.” 

You can carry it back, no doubt to Deuteronomy 20, when Jehovah demands genocide toward the Canaanites: “…you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you…”

Massacre at Drogheda

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as during the Irish Revolt of the early 20th century, retribution was taken for the deprivations of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century (estimates of Irish death during that campaign range up to 80 percent of the Catholic population.) 

The power of grievance to sustain is appalling. There is a great line in Auden’s poem, September. 1, 1939: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

When I first went to college in North Carolina in 1966, the first day on campus I was puzzled by a banner hanging from the second story of my dorm. It read: “Forget? Hell!” Being a naive Northerner, I did not fathom the historic resonance of the Civil War in the South. There is still a sectional animosity that plays out. 

This mechanism of grievance and retribution is the mythic substance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy of Greek tragedies. The short and oversimplified version is this: Tantalus butchered his son, Pelops, and cooked and served him to an assembly of the gods. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes; Atreus killed his brother’s sons and cooked and fed them to Thyestes. For revenge, Thyestes then fathered another son on his own daughter, Pelopia, in order that the son would grow up and kill Atreus, which he did. Then, Atreus’ son, Aegisthus, took up with the wife of another of Atreus’ sons, Agamemnon, while Agamemnon was away at the Trojan War. I know this gets complicated, but stay with me. When Agamemnon returned from war, Clytemnestra murdered him, upon which, their son, Orestes was tasked with revenging his father’s death by killing his own mother and her lover. This tit for tat might have continued forever, revenge upon revenge, but for the intercession of Athena, who put an end to the vengeance by putting Orestes on trial in Athens, where he is acquitted. Hence, justice was to be meted out by a jury rather than by blood feud. 

Or that’s the story, anyway. Please let no Classical scholar take umbrage at the violence I have done by streamlining the plot and vow vengeance upon me. 

One can take this myth and open it into the macro world and see the attempt to do as Athena did by setting up first, the League of Nations, and then the United Nations as means of circumventing the natural antipathies that lead to war in the modern world. Alas, we have seen how well that works. 

The world and history is one big Hatfield and McCoy back-and-forth.  A lex talionis writ large and over millennia. 

So as W.B. Yeats had it: “… when they know what old books tell/ And that no better can be had,/ Know why an old man should be mad.”