an intellectual adventure

 

 

“My father never judged people by what they wore, how much they earned or what school they attended. He wanted to know if someone was an intellectual. By that, he meant someone who read books and thought about ideas. That was his kind of person.”

— Judith Colp Rubin, eulogy for Ralph Colp Jr., MD, November 2008

 

 

i In my first two brief therapy sessions with Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. at Columbia University, he asked me some standard questions for a psychiatric interview and I shared with him in general some of the problems and anxieties I was having, such as feelings of frustration in dating and romantic relationships and with my job.

In our third session, I said something which I can’t recall precisely — something along the lines of I am not just a bored, frustrated office worker living a life of quiet desperation; I have a rich intellectual life.

“Tell me about them,” he said. (I seen to recall that I had mentioned books.)

I told Dr. Colp that I was reading Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection and — as has been the case with me through my life; there are books that come along, so to speak, that overwhelm me — about how Resurrection overwhelmed me on so many levels: the story, the writing; the underlying moral and human questions addressed. I think I said something to him about how I had always thought that I would be likely to prefer Dostoevsky (whom I had already read) to Tolstoy, and here I was bowing at the altar of Tolstoy.

As was usual, Dr. Colp did not say all that much. But he was never a passive listener, never cold, bored, or indifferent (He was simply reserved and very thoughtful.) I could tell that this “disclosure” by me had him thoroughly engaged and was giving him a truer picture and appreciation of me. It was another level for us to connect deeply on: the intellectual or “thought” sphere.

A few sessions later, I said something to Dr. Colp that I knew he appreciated very much as feedback. I could see and sense it. I told him, “I can feel the interest [in me, his as a therapist] on your part. That in itself, that alone, is therapeutic.”

 

 

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Dr. Colp’s whole life was that of an intellectual. I realize now, at this stage of my life, that this is now, and has always been, true of me. It has given my life meaning and purpose, and whatever achievements or value it has involved or amounted to.

At some point, much later, I told Dr. Colp that I had been reading Samuel Johnson’s essays and that they were a revelation for me: the depth of penetrating insight, the practical wisdom that one could take away from them. (Dr. Colp once complimented me with having the gift of “rapid insight.”)

Dr. Colp belonged to a reading group. He told me that my comments about Johnson were illuminating. He said that a man in his reading group had once said, “The only reason that Johnson is of any interest is the book Boswell wrote about him.”

I told Dr. Colp that (I had already read Boswell’s biography, about which I had talked at length with Dr. Colp) Johnson’s own writings assuredly were well worth reading.

“I guess he was wrong,” Dr. Colp said of the past remark. He always welcomed the opportunity to learn something new.
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I told Dr. Colp once, ruefully, that I had bought quite a few expensive books, including multivolume sets of the works of writers such as Whitman and Parkman. (And a multivolume set: The British Empire Before the American Revolution by Lawrence Henry Gipson, which I still have not gotten around to reading. Dr. Colp told me that he had been told that it was a great read). I felt rueful because I had “overbought” and would probably never be getting around to reading most of the books. My appetite was bigger than what I could consume.

“You’ll get around to reading them,” Dr. Colp said emphatically. I wondered if that was true, but I felt better about my indulgences.

 

 

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Right now, I am having a sort of intellectual adventure. I love to map out such intellectual endeavors for myself, and then try to follow through on them. I am reading Samuel Johnson’s works in the Yale Edition. They are splendid books, superbly edited and annotated, and beautifully produced. There are twenty-three volumes, of which I own all but two.

I probably won’t read them all. I have already read, in their entirety or in part, Johnson’s Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, many of the essays (which are a must), a portion of his Lives of the Poets, and other miscellaneous writings by Johnson.

Johnson is, I would suspect, not in fashion nowadays, and his style is often said to be dated. His political views would probably be regarded as retrograde. He has typically been portrayed as a stodgy Tory conservative, if not an arch-conservative. This is simplistic and amounts to making Johnson a caricature (as Boswell has been accused of having done.) Books such as Donald Greene’s The Politics of Samuel Johnson (which I have read) demonstrate this. I think it is more accurate to say that Johnson was a contrarian who hated political cant and what today might be called liberal smugness.

 

 

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So why go through this self-appointed intellectual task, this “journey” of plowing through Johnson’s works? Because there is so much to be learned — so much that I am learning as we speak — from him, both from his writings, the excellence of which I can only hope to emulate; and his deep thoughts, which cause me, in the words of Charles Darwin (Dr. Colp’s alter ego), to “think energetically.”

The other books can wait.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

Joshua Prawer

 

 

 

English Society in the Early Middle Ages

 

 

In the spring 1966 semester, I took the course History 124a, “Feudalism: Medieval Society and Political System,” at Brandeis University.

The course was taught by Professor Joshua Prawer. Prawer, who was a visiting professor on leave for the academic year, was dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was an internationally known medieval historian. Books which he later published include The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages, The World of the Crusaders, Crusader Institutions, and The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I took great courses and did well in my first two years of college. I had placed out of a few required core courses, which enabled me to take several higher-level elective courses.

 

 

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Despite enjoying the courses — greatly — I was a shy, inhibited person in those days, and I was unhappy with the social milieu at Brandeis. I tended to be repressed and taciturn. And diffident among other students and probably in class as well. (I can’t exactly recall.)

I recall that there was no final exam for Professor Prawer’s course, in which I received a final grade of B. There was a required term paper.

My term paper was based on the English historian Doris Mary Stenton’s English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066–1307), which was published in 1951 as the third volume of the Pelican History of England. She was the wife of the medievalist Sir Frank Stenton, author of Anglo-Saxon England, c550–1087, Volume II in the Oxford History of England.

I recall that I worked fairly hard on the paper and enjoyed Doris Mary Stenton’s book. I was very interested in medieval history and society. I seem to recall that my paper mostly amounted to summarizing the contents and findings of the book and I thought that, on that account, it was probably not a great paper.

To my great surprise (really and truly), I got the paper back with only the following (no other comments or marks): an A+ on the top of the first page and the professor’s comment beneath, “Why didn’t you open up more in the seminar?”

If I may say so without bragging, what this seems to show is that a good writer can write well at any time about almost anything, and under constraints and deadline pressure. It must have been my writing that impressed Professor Prawer. I don’t recall that the paper was otherwise remarkable.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2020

feudalism

 

 

 

… Lecture 7 [in A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773 by Sir Robert Chambers] deftly capsulizes the complicated economic history behind the conversion of villenage from the yoke of abject slavery to the privilege of landholding. Villenage arose in early feudal Europe not because foreign invaders made slaves of conquered people but because the inherently primitive circumstances of agrarian societies produced a lower class in economic bondage. [italics added] Opposed to theoretical notions of an original human equality was the stark historical situation of an unequal distribution of property and an overabundance of laborers to farm a limited number of estates. Since Europe lacked commercial diversity and economic opportunities for social advancement and ownership found in a civilized milieu, most of the populace faced either dire poverty or cruel servitude under a feudal lord:

 

When the accommodations of life were few, but few arts were necessary to produce them. One man was therefore less necessary to another, and the numerous wants and ready supplies by which the system of polished life is held together, were not yet known to the world. Men held commerce with men but as givers and receivers; where there was little traffic there was little money, and all the products of the earth which are now circulated through a wide range of buyers and sellers, then passed immediately, if they passed at all, from him that raised them to him that consumed them. He only was rich who was the owner of land, and he that had no land was necessarily poor. And the poverty of those days was not want of splendour but want of food …. Yet this was undoubtedly the state of the first feudal communities: of which the traces still remain in some parts of the world. (Sir Robert Chambers, “Of the Feudal Law, Strictly So Called, and of the Effects of That Law on Our Constitution and Government. IN A Course of Lectures on The English Law; Contained in Four Lectures, Volume I; one of a series of lectures delivered at Oxford University 1767-1773; manuscript in British Library)

 

[Samuel] Johnson would observe numerous traces of such a backward feudal economy in Scotland and contemplate measures for alleviating the widespread poverty upon his return to England. What Lecture 7 sets forth as historical remedies for the end of serfdom might have offered Johnson some pertinent lessons for evaluating the Highlands. According to the lecture, the emancipation of villeins coincided with the spread of peace, religion, law, and economic mobility, as more of the peasants shared in the ownership of lands by copyhold tenure. Alarmed by the spectacle of mass emigration from Scotland, Johnson would have welcomed some curtailment of “the inequalities of life” in northern Britain to stabilize a region caught between a medieval heritage and modern progress.

 

— Thomas M. Curley, “Editor’s Introduction,” A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773, by Sir Robert Chambers, Second Vinerian Professor of English Law; And Composed in Association with Samuel Johnson, Volume I, Edited by Thomas M. Curley (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 64-66
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In his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Samuel Johnson, who is known to have collaborated to an undetermined extent with Sir Robert Chambers on his Oxford lectures, wrote:

Where there is no commerce nor manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich …. The laird is the original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed /through the labyrinths of traffic, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it to the mouth that eats it …. Among manufacturers, men that have no property may have art and industry, which make them necessary, and therefore valuable. But where flocks and corn are the only wealth, there are always more hands than work …. He therefore who is born poor never can be rich.”

 

 

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Feudalism has always fascinated me, ever since I majored in history at Brandeis University and took almost half of the courses in my major in medieval history.

The above excerpts from works I was recently reading — my interest in Sir Robert Chambers was spurred by my knowledge of his relationship with Samuel Johnson — seem to provide an excellent and succinct explanation (which I shared with my wife, who agreed) of the workings of pre-capitalist economies in Europe.

 
— posted by Roger W. Smith

    January 2020

 

 

Ganshof

I have kept and treasure the books from my medieval history courses.

 

 

 

Stephenson

 

“Wish We Had Satchel Paige to Pitch”

 

 

Satchel Paige – Daily Worker 10-8-1940 pg 8

 

 

“ ‘Wish We Had Satchel Paige to Pitch Pay-Off Game for Us,’ Tiger Players Say”

Daily Worker

October 8, 1940

pg. 8

 

Cincinnati, Ohio, Oct. 7–With their star pitchers, Newsom, Bridges and Rowe, insufficiently rested for the seventh and critical game of the world series, the cry “Satchel Paige could win for us” rose in the Tiger dressing room this afternoon after the Detroit team lost, 4 to 0, to the Cincinnati Reds. Schoolboy Rowe started it when he called “it looks as if Satchel Paige will pitch for us at 1:30 tomorrow.” Buck Newsom, Tigers’ pitching hero who hails from South Carolina, took it up, saying, “I wouldn’t mind seeing him pitch. He’s one of the greatest in the country. I pitched against him many times out on the coast and only beat him once and then when he had only one day’s rest.”

Rowe chimed in with the remark that McMullen, a catcher, then playing in California, never hit a foul of Paige in half a dozen games. Newsom added: “Charlie Gehringer was the only one who could hit him. He’s got great stuff and we could use him right now. [Tigers catcher] Birdie Tebbetts joined in the praise for Paige saying that he remembered the screen test baseball handicap in 1933 and also in again 1934 when Paige was the outstanding star.

This call for the great Negro pitcher who Buck Newsom called the Negro Rube Waddell came as Del Baker, manager of the Tigers frankly admitted that the Detroit pitching situation was desperate and that he could only pick a pitcher out of his hat.

The next day, October 9, the Tigers lost the seventh game and the Series to the Reds by a score of 2 to 1.

 

 

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I came across this news story while doing research (unrelated to sports or baseball) in the Daily Worker in the New York Public Library.

I was surprised to find that the paper, which was priced at five cents and was eight pages long during the 1940s (it was published from 1924 to 1958), was, it seems, an excellent, well written paper, despite its dogmatism and rigid adherence to the Stalinist party line (it was published by the Communist Party USA). It was, besides being totally pro-USSR, very much the champion of workers and unions; and it was against arbitrary exercises of government power as a means of suppression, including abuses by the police. The Daily Worker back then was ahead of its time in that it was very much pro-civil rights — something which can be clearly seen in articles about abuses such as lynchings, targeting of blacks by the police and legal system, and many other examples of discrimination. The paper advocated the desegregation of professional sports.

I recall, I am certain, seeing Satchel Paige pitch once in a televised game. He pitched in the 1953 All Star Game — I was too young then to have watched the game. What I must certainly be remembering is the following game, about which I do not recall any details:

In 1965, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley signed Paige, 59 at the time, for one game. On September 25, against the Boston Red Sox, Finley invited several Negro league veterans including Cool Papa Bell to be introduced before the game. Paige was in the bullpen, sitting on a rocking chair, being served coffee by a “nurse” between innings. He started the game by getting Jim Gosger out on a pop foul. The next man, Dalton Jones, reached first and went to second on an infield error, but was thrown out trying to reach third on a pitch in the dirt. Carl Yastrzemski doubled and Tony Conigliaro hit a fly ball to end the inning. The next six batters went down in order, including a strikeout of [Red Sox pitcher] Bill Monbouquette. In the fourth inning, Paige took the mound, to be removed according to plan by [Athletics manager] Haywood Sullivan. He walked off to a standing ovation from the small crowd of 9,289. The lights dimmed and, led by the PA announcer, the fans lit matches and cigarette lighters while singing “The Old Gray Mare.” — Wikipedia

I remember every one of the Red Sox players.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

traveling from Boston to New York in 1842; a Charles Dickens letter

 

 

In the 1970’s, when I was living in New York City, I frequently took the train from New York to Boston to visit my family in Massachusetts.

Around 1972, a one way ticket cost $12.00. The price was lowered to $9.90 to encourage more travel. Trains were not in fashion then.

The train meandered slowly, passing through some parts of Connecticut with beautiful coastal scenery. The trip took five hours.

Compare (below) the same trip (in reverse) which Charles Dickens took in 1842, except that, besides train travel between cities (there were trains even back then), there were steamboats and detours.

Dickens left Boston on February 5, 1842, and arrived in New York City on February 12, a trip of seven days. He was traveling with his wife, Catherine Thomson (Hogarth) Dickens.

 

 

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We left Boston on the fifth, and went away with the governor of the city to stay till Monday [February 7] at his house at Worcester [Massachusetts]. … The village of Worcester is one of the prettiest in New England. …. On Monday morning at nine o’clock we started again by railroad and went on to Springfield [Massachusetts], where a deputation of two were waiting, and everything was in readiness that the utmost attention could suggest. Owing to the mildness of the weather, the Connecticut river was “open,” videlicet not frozen, and they had a steamboat ready to carry us on to Hartford [Connecticut]; thus saving a land-journey of only twenty-five miles, but on such roads at this time of year that it takes nearly twelve hours to accomplish! The boat was very small, the river full of floating blocks of ice, and the depth where we went (to avoid the ice and the current) not more than a few inches. After two hours and a half of this queer travelling we got to Hartford. There, there was quite an English inn [The City Hotel in Hartford]; except in respect of the bed-rooms, which are always uncomfortable … We remained in this town until the eleventh [Friday, February 11]: holding a formal levee every day for two hours, and receiving on each from two hundred to three hundred people. At five o’clock on the afternoon of the eleventh, we set off (still by railroad) for Newhaven [i.e., New Haven, Connecticut]. which we reached about eight o’clock. The moment we had had tea, we were forced to open another levee for the students and professors of the college [Yale] (the largest in the States), and the townspeople. I suppose we shook hands, before going to bed, with considerably more than five hundred people; and I stood, as a matter of course, the whole time. …

Now, the deputation of two had come on with us from Hartford; and at New­haven there was another committee; and the immense fatigue and worry of all this, no words can exaggerate. We had been in the morning over jails and deaf and dumb asylums; had stopped on the journey at a place called Wallingford [Connecticut], where a whole town had turned out to see me, and to gratify whose curiosity the train stopped expressly; had had a day of great excitement and exertion on the Thursday (this being Friday); and were inexpressibly worn out. And when at last we got to bed and were “going” to fall asleep, the choristers of the college turned out in a body, under the window, and serenaded us! We had had, by the bye, another serenade at Hartford, from a Mr. [Isaac Hull] Adams (a nephew of John Quincey Adams) and a German friend. They were most beautiful singers: and when they began, in the dead of the night, in a long, musical, echoing passage outside our chamber door; singing, in low voices to guitars, about home and absent friends and other topics that they knew would interest us; we were more moved than I can tell you. …

The Newhaven serenade was not so good; though there were a great many voices, and a “reg’lar” band. It hadn’t the heart of the other. Before it was six hours old, we were dressing with might and main, and making ready for our departure: it being a drive of twenty minutes to the steamboat, and the hour of sailing nine o’clock. After a hasty breakfast we started off; and after another levee on the deck (actually on the deck), and “three times three for Dickens,” moved towards New York.

I was delighted to find on board a Mr. [Cornelius Conway] Felton whom I had known at Boston. He is the Greek professor at Cambridge, and was going on to the ball* and dinner. … We drank all the porter on board, ate all the cold pork and cheese, and were very merry indeed. …

About half past 2 [on February 12], we arrived here [New York].** In half an hour more, we reached this hotel [the Carlton Hotel on Broadway], where a very splendid suite of rooms was prepared for us; and where everything is very comfortable, and no doubt (as at Boston) enormously dear.

 

— Charles Dickens, letter to John Foster, February 17, 1842, IN The Letters of Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition, Volume Three: 1842-1843, edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson; associate editor, Noel C. Peryton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 67-70

 
*The Boz Ball, held on February 14, 1842, in Dickens’s honor, at the Park Theatre in New York City. Boz was a nickname Dickens had become known by — he employed it as a pseudonym in his early years as a writer.

 
**The final leg of Dickens’s journey was on the packet New York from New Haven, which docked at South Street in lower Manhattan. Dickens would have then traveled uptown to his hotel by stagecoach. The hotel charge was two dollars a night.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

Kids are so matter of fact.

 

 

 

The L train this morning.

9:45 a.m.

Two cute kids, boys, sitting next to me.

I waved (raised palm) at the boy next to me, on my left. “Hi, good morning,” I said.

He smiled and said something.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Madison Square Garden.”

“For what?”

“To see the Harlem Globe Trotters.”

“Wow! They’re still playing? I used to see them as a kid [a fact which doesn’t interest or impress my interlocutor].”

No response.

(I’m not sure what I actually did say. I never did see the Globetrotters play, as a spectator.)

“They’re a lot of fun,” I said.

No response, at first, then the boy said, “It’s for my birthday.”

“How old are you?”

“Nine.” Said in a flat tone, without inflection, as if it were no big deal.

And, indeed, at this age, while having a birthday is certainly fun and exciting, the fact of what one’s age is is not an important one.

And life is taken and experienced as it occurs.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   December 27, 2019

“Go find your wife!”

 

 

To put this post in context I should begin by saying that I have had a bad day. All sorts of things big and small have been going wrong.

I have been highly stressed and then when I was about to go out, my wife and I had a pointless argument over something trivial that spoiled my afternoon.

 

 

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My wife does most of her grocery shopping at Costco. Costco is a huge store selling grocery and other products at reduced prices; it operates on a membership-only basis.

My wife and I went shopping together in the early evening, beginning with Costco. The store is usually crowded, especially on days before holidays.

I decided to wait outside while my wife was shopping. Big Costco-like stores tire me.

After a half an hour or so, I got bored and restless. I’ll go inside and see if I can find my wife, I thought. Better wandering the aisles and gawking at shoppers than sitting still.

There was a burly guy at the entrance. He was talking with a coworker and didn’t seem to notice me. But then he said something indistinct indicating that he was inquiring whether I was a Costco member. I knew it was a members-only store, and on the rare occasions when I am there with my wife she shows her card at the door.

I might have just kept going (pretending I hadn’t heard). Sometimes that works. But I thought to myself, honesty is probably the best policy. It usually is.

“I’m looking for my wife. She’s shopping,” I said. Then I added, “I don’t have a Costco card.”

“You’re looking for your wife?” he replied with a big smile. He seemed amused, acted as if that tickled him.

“Welcome, brother!” he said. “Go find your wife!”

This little incident and interaction made my day and magically helped offset or reduce the tension I had been feeling. The Costco “gatekeeper” displayed humanity and a lack of officiousness.

The moral of the story. The smallest acts of human empathy and kindness can do more good than one would think and can have an incremental effect in terms of their larger benefits.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   December 23, 2019