Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Hal Crowther, “Dante on Broadway” (nonfiction) from Narrative, Winter 2019

Which heroes of the past do we expect to see honored by urban statues? In the South, mostly generals. Everywhere, politicians, saints, philanthropists, famous athletes. I couldn’t see the statue’s head, up there among the spring leaves, but the larger-than-life-size (nine and a half feet, actually) male figure was dressed in an outfit that looked nothing like a military uniform, more like an academic gown or a priest’s cassock that covered the big fellow down to his shoes. A medieval aristocrat’s everyday street wear, as it turned out, specifically Italian, Florentine, thirteenth century. If I had been sitting on the other side of the little park, I would have seen its name on a large iron sign: Dante Park.

Complete story available online at Narrative

This was not my first Crowther essay. Back in Pushcart 2014, he was represented by a piece that started off with “ a wonderful riff on the crwth,” as I said at the time (a string instrument that has fallen into obscurity). Then he went on to bemoan how everything of value has been supplanted by modern versions of less aesthetic and/or humanistic worth. I rather took exception to that, though I did feel a tug of sympathy for all the crwths in the world collecting dust on antique store shelves.

He’s basically written the same essay here. And I’ve had basically the same reaction. In fact, as I’ve been keeping track, it’s the third piece in this volume that’s had me more or less in agreement with parts, yet resentful of the overall tenor.

The essay starts out with his own recent discover of Dante Park in New York, featuring an outsized statue of the Italian poet who created The Divine Comedy. At that time, he was distracted by a passing truck that specialized in shredding documents.

Representing the thirteenth century, Dante, father of the modern Italian language, progenitor of the Renaissance, disciple of Aristotle, a great poet whose sacred mission was to preserve the wisdom and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans and protect their precious, fragile links to his own time and culture. Representing the twenty-first century, Information Destruction at Your Door.
Irony doesn’t hit us much harder than that. I like to think that a lot of people, if they had shared my vision at that moment, would have been as blindsided as I was. Realistically I know that 95 percent of the people who pass through Dante Park have never heard of the poet (“Dante? A wide receiver for the Browns?”) and would have no negative response to a Pro Shred truck. And that, of course, is a huge part of the problem.

I have to wonder if Crowther realizes the documents being shredded include things like financial and medical records containing identification numbers that could be used to pirate identities or commit various forms of extortion. Sometimes they also include obsolete manuals and forms that could just be thrown away, but shredding typically is done for security purposes. They aren’t destroying dictionaries or copies of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or the original Gutenberg Bible or Book of Kells. Those things are, in fact, in abundant existence, not only in museums on paper (where moth and rust doth corrupt) but as facsimilies on library shelves and even household shelves, not to mention in the Cloud where everyone can take a good look at them from their cozy bed at 3am should the desire arise.

I should admit now that I became interested in Dante because the professor of a math mooc spoke so lovingly of it, and I ended up studying it with the help of another mooc, and the online site of a third university. Dante isn’t going anywhere.

In America’s social-media century, with an illiterate Twitter-addicted liar steering the ship of state, even yesterday—the past twenty-four hours and their printed, taped, and digitalized record—is routinely erased, distorted, denied. There are idiots afoot who must start every day like the first day of creation, as empty of memory as Adam waking up in the Garden of Eden.

And of course here is where I agree with him. Right now, as I read this, there’s a misinformation campaign in overdrive convince America that the Orange Man had the pandemic solved long ago and it’s Obama’s fault the tests didn’t work and Hillary’s fault China is growing bat viruses in labs and that his press conferences get the best ratings of any tv ever in history (let me be clear lest I become part of the problem: none of that is true), while medical personnel are getting sick and, in a few cases, dying because PPE is being kidnapped by the Feds and ransomed for maximal profit instead of being directed to where it’s needed… oh, never mind, just go read the news.

And yes, I agree, we tend to forget things. There’s a meme on the internet – which Crowther seems to scorn – that starts, “I’m old enough to remember…” and concludes with something that happened a year ago, or a month ago – or sometimes, just days ago. There is an epic battle for history being fought right now in the present, and revisionists are re-revisioning as often as necessary. Any attempt to show them actual proof of their former positions meets with cries of “fake news” or “you’re a nasty person”, the latter often reserved for women who have the nerve to contradict a man.

But wait a minute. Dante “wrote his greatest poetry in the Tuscan vernacular to expand the reach and influence of ‘those who know.’” This was not considered a good idea at the time, as scholastic and literary work was in Latin. Wouldn’t Dante be on Twitter or Youtube or Tik Tok today, trying to expand knowledge? And let’s not forget he didn’t know Greek and was dependent on translations of Homer. That’s not a serious flaw, but a 13th century Crowther might have seen it as one.

I’m tired of academics and the intelligentsia blaming the internet for everything. There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. In the 13th century, I’m willing to bet most of Florence was more interested in gossip and love ballads than in Aristotle. Someone like Dante would have been among the most educated, in a stratified society that depended on lower castes as laborers. And don’t forget, Dante was run out of town by the rulers of the day, and the leadership of the Church, as he exposed in “The Inferno”, was a corrupt cesspool. So don’t go crying about evil modernity and blame everything on the Internet.

There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. You know what else is there? Courses on Dante, on Milton, on Shakespeare. Videos of lectures on topics from protein purification techniques (sorry, I’m taking a biochem mooc at the moment, that’s where my head is) to the history of Ethiopia to the differences between various musical modes and keys, as well as theoretical reconstructions of music from Egypt and ancient Greece and pretty much everywhere else. Through Twitter, I get to peek over the shoulders of classicists, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, medievalists, artists, writers, etc etc. While this alone isn’t educating, it’s often a springboard to papers, books, and courses on topics I’d otherwise never see.

If you can’t find anything but crap on the internet, blame yourself.

While I seem to be thrown by these I-agree-I-disagree pieces, I find that I like them. They help me clarify my thinking, draw boundaries without insisting that everything is right or wrong. That’s another problem we’re dealing with right now: cancel culture, the all-or-nothing approach.

I sympathize with Crowther’s sense that the world is leaving him behind. The world left me behind years ago, and I’m a little younger than he is. I prefer books to e-readers, myself. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is a bad thing. Sometimes it means the way things are saved and stored changes. And, yes, sometimes things are lost: no copies, no notes, of The Divine Comedy in Dante’s hand exist. And somehow, it’s still with us, because of the means of duplication in existence at the time.

When I saw the title of this essay in the Table of Contents, my first thought was, Oh god, someone made a musical out of The Commedia, or out of Dante’s life. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, it could be amazing; but more likely, it’s a lot of catchy tunes and special effects rather than anything to do with the guy who got lost halfway through the journey of his life, and turned to his poetic idol to see him to a salvation that transcended poetry. So I was relieved when I didn’t have to choose.

I doubt I’ll ever get to New York at this point, but if I do, I will seek out Dante Park. And if I happen to catch sight of a shredder along the way, I won’t worry about it, but will give a toast to Crowther for drawing me there.

Pushcart XLIII: Hal Crowther, “Christian Soldiers” (essay) from Narrative, Spring 2017

Father Dan was the poet, the intellectual of the brothers Berrigan…. As a federal fugitive, Dan Berrigan represented the confluence of serious poetry and nonviolent resistance to the government of the United States—to me, at that time, an irresistible combination. I read most of Berrigan’s work that was then in print. Impressed by his craftsmanship and passion, I was an unlikely candidate for his brotherhood of faith. His poem “The Face of Christ” begins “The tragic beauty of the face of Christ shines in our faces.” A pilgrim like me, from a family of agnostics, Unitarians, and hardheaded, freethinking Scots, is not instantly engaged. But what fascinated and haunted me was the life where his intellect and faith had led him, a life that in a few months would place him in a prison with felons who had never read a poem.

Daniel Berrigan, for those of you who only read about the 60s in high school history textbooks, was a fixture of the Vietnam era as an anti-war priest. He ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and was imprisoned several times for destroying draft records and other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience (and lest you think he was some kind of radical liberal, he also protested at abortion clinics). One of the fine points that’s been lost to history – a history not that old – is that a great deal of protest against the Vietnam war was generated by the draft, an element that is no longer in play today when we send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan. I have to wonder if the Iraq war, now considered a major policy failure by a broad range of analysts, would have happened if there’d ben a draft.

But back to Berrigan. He died in 2016, inspiring Crowther to write this piece as a remembrance. Through it, he examines the effect of religion on public opinion and societal values, from the conscience-building Jesuit foundations of the Berrigans to “the soft, malleable, spongy sort of God who forgives us for everything or who can be molded to any desperate purpose – the worst examples of this all-too-human heresy would be the KKK using the cross of Dan Berrigan’s Jesus as a symbol of racist terrorism, or jihadists murdering Muslims (and others) in the name of a homicidal god.”

Can traditional religion, burdened by its own history, disrespected by science, crowded almost into the shadows by conspicuous consumption and metastasizing technology, still inspire unusual individuals to live heroically, on a consistently higher moral plane? The answer, for anyone familiar with the Berrigan brothers, is a confident “Yes.” But there’s always my other question, which I’d never be rude enough to pose to a man of faith: If God made and loves us all, why did he make so many of us cruel and stupid?

I’ve said several times that some of the most honorable people I’ve known were Christians – Catholic, Mormon, Protestant – but that their religion was something I learned about after I began to admire them. The people who lead off their Twitter profiles with “Christian” seldom impress me with their ethics; they tend to use religion as a club, in both the weapon and clique sense of the word, and find ways to justify what they want to believe. When I see a person acting with kindness, generosity, and compassion, I’m open to knowing more about where that comes from. When I see someone acting with superiority and judgment, I run the other way.

What seems to attract Crowther to Father Dan’s ethic is an internal consistency, along with a willingness to accept responsibility for his actions. It’s easy to be a Twitter warrior; it’s a lot harder when you are willing to go to prison for actions you believe to be right.

Pushcart 2014: Hal Crowther, “Out of Date: The Joys of Obsolescence” (non-fiction) from Blackbird, Fall 2012

This isn’t a popular song I’m playing, or one you’re likely to hear again. But it isn’t a dirge. Or a swan song. Obsolete and unashamed, we feel like farmers who got their crops in safely before the hard rains fell. As storm clouds gather, it’s a time to walk the fields of stubble with the old dog, the hearthdog, and see, as the Bible says, that it is good. Then comes a long winter musing by the fire—though spring remains a question mark. The past is a flickering daydream, the present is turning ugly, and the future belongs to no one, though the kind of heirs we might have chosen seem less and less likely to inherit. We haven’t said “goodbye,” we’ve just said “enough.”

If you’re looking at essays from a technical point of view, this one (available online) is all about structure, and has a lot to teach us. If you’re only interested in reading essays you agree with, whether you like or dislike this one might depend on whether you read it in a book, or on an iPad.

First, the structure. Crowther starts off with a wonderful riff on the crwth, a medieval Welsh musical instrument similar to a lyre. The crwth has been supplanted, since the 19th century, by pretty much everything else that’s out there: harps, fiddles, guitars, electronics.

Crowther, whose name indicates his roots reach back to an ancient crwth player – “Crwythist?” he muses, though I’d lean towards “crwthier” following the lead of “luthier” –transitions to his actual topic, while moving forward to the more recent past, by bringing in his own instrument of choice, another instrument that has been supplanted:

For twenty-five years I earned a living with an instrument now consigned to an oblivion even more complete than that of the crwth, because there will be no attempt to resurrect the typewriter. Yet this humble machine produced a comforting music of its own. Each year, inevitably and sadly, there are fewer of us who remember the companionable percussion of the Royal, the Olivetti, the Smith-Corona. The atonal but almost syncopated symphony of a big-city newsroom with its clicks and taps and ringing carriages, its tempo as varied as the speed and vigor of the fifty typists, was a sweet sound that will never be heard again on this planet, except in the fitful dreams of old reporters.

Maybe I should mention, my husband had a manual Olivetti. It was one of the things I continued to appreciate about him, long after I stopped appreciating anything else he had to offer.

Then and only then do we move in to the curmudgeonly rant, where Mr. Crowther bemoans his obsolescent state. He does so fairly, noting that many technological advances have been improvements, yet he zooms in on his own profession of journalism as a potential example of the down side: “It may be sheer coincidence that the rapid disappearance of the typewriter and the rapid decline of journalism seem to coincide.” I can see why Bill Henderson would’ve wanted to include this piece; his Pushcart introductions typically (though not this year) include a rant against all things online and lays the decline of civilization at the feet of the World Wide Web. Crowther follows a similar path, declaring privacy to be dead. How interesting that just a few days ago, Thomas Friedman declared “four words are becoming obsolete” and “privacy” was one of them.

He concludes positively with a “stiff upper lip” attitude towards the decline of civilization as he knows it:

When you’re out of date and committed to it, it frees you up some. I honestly doubt that I’ll live to regret it. The parade goes by, and it can be highly entertaining as long as you don’t have to march, to learn the cadence and keep up the pace. You pick a choice seat on the reviewing stand and watch, unencumbered by performance anxiety, status or public opinion. You don’t count anymore, as the marchers reckon it, and as Janis Joplin once sang in “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

I find it ironic that someone nostalgic for the “good old days” quotes Janis (the song was, by the way, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, and was first recorded by Roger Miller of “King of the Road” fame, by the way; Janis merely cranked it up a level to make it iconic), who was considered the decline of civilization back in the 60s. As were her British contemporaries Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Elton John, all three of whom have been since knighted by that wacky ultraprogressive run amok in modernity abandoning all tradition and decorum, Queen Elizabeth II.

I find myself, after reading this essay, in somewhat the same position as when I read Wendell Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone”: I don’t so much disagree as resent the implication that technological progress is to blame.

I am less than six months from my 60th birthday, so Mr. Crowther and I are more or less of the same generation, being only eight years apart in age. I understand the feeling that the world is zipping past at a speed which exceeds your willingness to keep up. I feel that way, frequently. I don’t understand the thrumming insistence that a cell phone is now a necessity; that the value of education must be measured in terms of future income potential; the impossibility of buying a shirt or a cup of coffee entirely produced by fairly-paid adults, or the research required into my dinner selection to understand the impact that salmon or hamburger or bread may have on the local and global economy and ecosystem, not to mention my own personal health; why I must continually upgrade everything from my light bulbs to my computer in order to simply do the same things I have been doing all along.

So I understand.

But technology isn’t all or nothing. I have a computer; I don’t have a cell phone, tablet, or other gadget. Yes, the day is coming when I’ll need to have a cell phone (I don’t quite understand why, since I’m rarely away from my home phone, but it seems as necessary and universal as indoor plumbing to the world at large). And my computer has greatly enhanced my life, both educationally and socially (by nature – a nature that is classified as a disorder – I am a hermit; electronic relationships have not replaced real-life relationships, but instead have made possible relationships that were not possible before). I have also learned about a wide array of disciplines – math, science, literature, history, art – that I was never able to fully appreciate, unguided, before. Yes, you can find books on Emily Dickinson or calculus; but which one, which one? And it often takes a master teacher to undo the tedium of the wrong one – or of ninth-grade English class, and a host of fellow students to muddle through what was incomprehensible on my own. Not to mention the nearly-instant availability of all sorts of research materials, from information on crwths to a recent comic on the implications of the current generation growing up to a 50-year-old Twilight Zone episode, “The Obsolete Man,” starring a highly sympathetic Burgess Meredith as a librarian who has been declared obsolete by a dystopian State.

Now, Mr. Crowther admits that technological advances can be good things, and that some things should’ve been obsolete long before they were. So he’s fair-minded. And he puts a terrific ending on his essay, completing the circle by returning to the crwth:

In common usage the word “obsolete” has become too pejorative. Many outdated things—Jim Crow, the Vatican, cigarettes, the two-party political system—wear out their welcome but fail to achieve extinction rapidly enough. Yet so much that’s obsolete deserved a better fate. We may be the last of our kind, but we flatter ourselves that we’ll be missed, perhaps even heeded more in the future than we were in the past. In my research I came across a lovely sentence in praise of the homely, ancient instrument that gave its name to my father’s family. With a minor lapse of modesty, I can pretend that the author is speaking of me: “For all of its (his) technical limitations, the crwth has great charm, and is much more than a historical curiosity.”

I didn’t feel as resentful of this essay as I did of Wendell Berry’s piece, although the general outlook was similar: the world’s gone to hell, even though some things are better. As then, I can’t really disagree with anything Crowther says; what’s different here is that somehow he’s encased his curmudgeonly rant in a charming envelope.

I have a fondness for old things, and, despite concern about a society that seems to change more quickly than is good for it, an appreciation for some of the benefits of modern technology. And now, I think I’ll go watch some videos on the history and art of the crwth.