The Oregon Trail

Francis Parkman

1848

(Horses, rifles, and knives see a party of adventurers through the land of expansive plains, craggy mountains, buffalo, and the Sioux.)

AlfredJacobMiller-FortLaramieCrop of Fort Laramie, by Alfred Jacob Miller (1858-1860), painted from memory, as Miller had joined an 1837 expedition along the Oregon Trail.  This is the only painting of the fort, as no other artist had trekked there prior to 1840 when it was torn down.  Fort Laramie lay at the junction of the east-west Oregon Trail and a north-south Indian trail.  The Cheyenne and Sioux would camp outside the fort for trading purposes.  This painting can be found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“Shaw! Buddy!” Imagine a young, spontaneous Yankee calling out to his friend, both of them just out of college. He proposes that they leave the effeminate comforts of the East, and spend a summer adventuring westward into the untamed lands where life is dangerous and fascinating. Francis Parkman explains (ch.II):

“The restlessness, the love of wilds and hatred of cities, natural perhaps in early years to every unperverted son of Adam, was not our only motive for undertaking the present journey. My companion hoped to shake off the effects of a disorder that had impaired a constitution originally hardy and robust; and I was anxious to pursue some inquiries relative to the character and usages of remote Indian nations, being already familiar with many of the border tribes.”

So they did it. In 1846. Francis was 23. And the recollections of that journey, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, remain with us as one of the best treatments of the early West that we will ever have. Parkman’s prose has the feel of a chronicle—it is obviously nonfiction, a travelogue.  But it is not a ponderous journal of trivia and redundancy through which we must wade for hours to find the few interesting episodes; nor is each sunset a springboard for a forced flight of sentimental fancy in poor imitation of Byron’s Childe Harold or other Old World sketches.  Rather, it is an engaging selection of vignettes, personalities, and anecdotes that admit us to the ranks of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” that was Parkman’s expedition.  Parkman’s writing is like Parkman himself—the stereotypical American at his best, one might say: direct yet perceptive, practical yet romantic, hearty yet insightful.

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Discourse on Method

(Discours de la méthode)

René Descartes

1637

(A scientist-philosopher wishes that all the deep questions of life could be as certain as his mathematical results—so he decides to start from scratch and make them that way.)

Fig32-33_L'HommeFigures 32 and 33 in L’Homme (Man), Descartes’ 1633 work, illustrating the accordance of the operation of the human body with mathematical principles.

 

The influence this little book has had over the past few centuries is (to make a ridiculous understatement) vastly out of proportion to its size.  It is manageable in a single evening sitting, or (as Descartes is kind enough to inform us) in six roughly equal short sittings.  My recent reading of it was over breakfast.  It is strange to think that one can read a book so illustrious and philosophical over breakfast, but such is Descartes’ charm.  He is of course a philosopher of the highest rank: the cogiter of that most famous phrase in the history of thought, cogito ergo sum.  He is one of the chief inspirations for the modern movement in philosophy in which we still are steeped today, which emphasizes, among other things, a systematic and reasoned approach to all matters of inquiry in an effort to gain a scientific understanding of everything there is to know.  Yet, again, the charm of Descartes is that he gives us this little journal, this series of ideas, as if he were chatting to us in front of a fire.  He tells us how he came to think the way he does about things, rather than giving us “the way things are” in an authoritative or textbook manner.  By this strategy he draws us in, perhaps unawares.  This is an important quality to recognize in Descartes today, or at least it was for me.  For I, like most students over the last fifty years or so, was warned about Descartes in college, as a naughty modernist, a reductionist, a disenchanter, a rationalist.  What dry and impersonal words these are, and yet how personal is the Discourse compared with most philosophical writings!  The criticisms may very well be true of his system, but there is more to this book than just a set of statements—we get to meet an author, a person.  We should meet someone before we criticize him too harshly; often knowing the person tempers our antagonism.

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Pliny’s Letters

Pliny the Younger

97-109 AD

(A wealthy lawyer reveals his personality and attitudes, and the way of life in Imperial Rome.)

PlinyAndMotherVesuviusCrop of Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 AD, by Angelica Kauffmann (1785). Here Pliny dictates his most famous letter as he and his mother observe the eruption of Vesuvius. Courtesy of the Princeton Art Museum.

 

Many of us are acquainted with, or at least aware of, a certain species of lawyer, politician, or businessman.  At first we notice the more grating aspects of his personality.  He is near the top of his game, and can barely see beyond his own prosperity.  He knows a whole lot of people, many of whom are famous, and somehow he reminds us of this in nearly every conversation.  He loves to talk of his success stories, his valuable properties, praise he has received, and difficult decisions or tight places from which he has emerged victorious.  He is sensible of the fact that his reputation is what keeps him successful, and he has become entrained on reputation to such an extent that the development of it is unabashedly the single guiding force in his life, the basis upon which he makes all significant choices.  Maybe this is true for all of us to some extent, but what our bold tycoon doesn’t often realize that so ardently exhibiting a concern for reputation can actually harm your reputation.

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Passages from the American Notebooks

Nathaniel Hawthorne

1835-1853

(The exercise of a young author’s pen creates images of the New England landscape and its people.) 

BerkshiresInWinterThe Berkshires in winter, near Lenox, Massachusetts.  Courtesy of BerkshireStyle.com.

 

Mrs. Sophia Hawthorne, after the death of her husband in 1864, respected his wish that no biography be written of him.  However, in lieu of this, she released to an eager public three successive volleys of Passages from his journals.  Those written in America were published first, and are perhaps the most interesting in that they focus on his home state of Massachusetts and the early years of his literary career (his thirties).

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Walden

Henry David Thoreau

1854

(A philosopher and naturalist returns from the woods to deliver a message: Wake Up! Think! Live Meaningfully!)

Courtesy of Walden Pond State ReservationWalden Pond (Photo courtesy of Walden Pond State Reservation)
 

The account of Thoreau’s temporary retreat from civilization and the philosophy he developed and tested during that time, is perhaps the greatest single work in American literature.  I say this not so much because he was right, not because he got the nature of the cosmos straighter than this or that thinker.  Rather, this work is great—I say perhaps the greatest our country has produced—primarily because in it we see a man who is awake.  It is not what he gets right that is earthshattering here, but rather the fact that he sees that there is a right to be gotten, so to speak, and that he bursts the strictures of convention to strive for it, and that he so eloquently exhorts us to do the same.  Thoreau here is a Crusader for examining our lives, for living well, for life itself!  In a world of so many petty tensions, so many lures into complexity and distraction which decompose any central vision or purpose in our lives, Thoreau opens his eyes, looks about him, and realizes the great harm we are slipping into unaware.  He sees the “quiet desperation” of people about him, and the empty catalog of assumptions and dry truths they (we!) harbor in place of a real, living, mission statement.  He, as if by a sudden revelation, is horrified at the masses of humans like lemmings who are content to follow the path over the cliff into the sea of meaningless existence simply because the way is worn clean and so is the easiest to tread.

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