A Blog by Jameson Parker
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
I missed this somehow. It was first published in 1995 and someone gave me a copy more than ten years ago, but I got distracted by other things, by life, which seems so frequently to get in the way of my plans.
Thomas Cahill’s subtitle for his book is: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. That’s accurate, but it tells you far less than the book offers. History can be little more than a dusty recitation of facts (I once had a professor of Greek and Roman history who could make me yawn until my jaw creaked) or it can be a magical transportation back across millennia, a process of bringing long dead worlds, long dead cultures, long dead people vibrantly alive again, and that process of resurrection takes both imagination and a capacity for telling a story. What a good historian does is approach his topic not solely as history so much as a tale to be told by a turf fire in a stone cottage on a dark and stormy night; in other words, a good historian transforms himself into an Irish seanchaí, and Thomas Cahill, son of Irish-American parents, knows his craft. And more than simply telling the tale, Cahill also provides a context for fifth-century Ireland that creates a mirror for today and tomorrow. All history is both mirror and signpost, but not all historians provide that context.
Part of Cahill’s skill lies in his ability to weave seminal figures (St. Augustine of Hippo, for example) together with people so obscure they almost—but not actually—qualify as fictional (his humorous extrapolation of character from a tiny thumbnail self-portrait of a scribe on a 1600-year old illustrated manuscript), using both to lay the foundation for historical facts and to give those facts life and interest. What do we actually know about Saint Patrick? Not much, based on what is traditionally considered to be historically factual, but when we search for the character of the man in his own writing, and compare that to what is known about him (birth, death, kidnapping, his life as a slave, seminal accomplishments, seminal failures—for failure can be both as instructive and revealing about a man as accomplishments) a portrait comes to life of a specific and compelling and very human saint, one about whom we long to know more.
And by bringing these men and these times alive, Cahill tells us about the extraordinary burst of creativity that occurred, improbably, on a remote island on the outer fringes of the known world, a burst of creativity that preserved both religious and secular classics, for the early Irish Christians seem to have been remarkably free of the religious prejudices of the Roman Catholic Church. Both the creativity and the lack of prejudice were due in part to St. Patrick, and in part to the Irish tongue, a Gaelic that has sadly almost vanished from the world, in large part due to the thousand-year long rapine and narrow-minded arrogance of the rulers of the British Empire. The Irish have always been known for their addiction to words and language and story-telling; perhaps the loss of Gaelic has diminished that somewhat, but then again, perhaps not. Consider some of the recent geniuses of Irish literature—William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, Brian Friel, Maeve Binchy, Frank McCourt, John Banville, Seamus Deane, Iris Murdock… And those are just living ones whom I happen to have read. (Well, Iris Murdock has died, but I still count her as a current contemporary.)
There is one other living contemporary Irish writer who deserves mention here. Okay, okay, if you want to be a stickler for facts, Thomas Cahill was actually born in Queens and raised in the Bronx, but he clearly inherited an Irish love of words and how to put them together even as he relates past to present, and present to future. Remember that he wrote this back in the early nineties, and consider the following:
“Rome’s demise instructs us in what inevitably happens when impoverished and rapidly expanding populations, whose ways and values are only dimly understood, press up against a rich and ordered society. More than a billion people in our world today survive on less than $370 a year, while Americans, who constitute five percent of the world’s population, purchase fifty percent of its cocaine. If the world’s population, which has doubled in our lifetime, doubles again by the middle of the next century, how could anyone hope to escape the catastrophic consequences—the wrath to come? But we turn our backs on such unpleasantness and contemplate the happier prospect of our technological dreams.”
I don’t usually reprint other people’s work on this blog, but I had an unusual concatenation of events not so long ago. I received an alumni bulletin from my alma mater, Beloit College (where I received an excellent education many years ago, for which I am very grateful), in which there was an article about the college working with a local Black Lives Matter group. This was followed very shortly after by a fundraising appeal from my alma mater. Both of these came during a period of several days when there was much news coverage of different angry Black Lives Matter marches and protests, in one of which marchers were chanting ugly things about law enforcement including, in one case, a chant that could be interpreted as a call to kill law enforcement. I decided not to send any money to my college.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am an ardent supporter of law enforcement, and that I have many friends who either are or were in some branch of law enforcement. Just to forestall the assumption that my white skin and privileged upbringing have sheltered me from anything but the most positive interactions with law enforcement, I should point out that my very first encounter with police occurred when I was nineteen or twenty and hadn’t even yet gotten a speeding ticket.
I had been suspended from Beloit for a year (girls dorm, vodka) and was using the time to work at a theater in Washington, DC. I was walking home very late one night when a squad car pulled up next to me and an officer vaulted out and body slammed me. I was handcuffed, frisked, and made to stand against a wall for about an hour while various officers showed up, questions were asked about my activities that night, where I had been and when, all of it in a manner that clearly indicated they thought I was a lying piece of vermin. Finally another squad car pulled up and a young lady stepped out and looked at me and told the officers, no, that’s not him. I was released with apologies and I thought no more about it. Mistakes happen.
I have had several other less dramatic but similar interactions with law enforcement over the half century since then, and my attitude about them is the same: mistakes happen.
The article that follows was written by Heather MacDonald, and if you are a supporter of law enforcement who believes, as I do, that Black Lives Matter is stupidly radical organization, made dangerous by their own stupidity, you will probably agree with most of what Ms. MacDonald has to say. If you are not a supporter of law enforcement, or if you believe Black Lives Matter is a valid and reasonable organization with a valid and reasonable point of view, I would like to make one observation:
You should never trust anything that you see or read in the news and especially not on blogs like mine.
Do your own homework. Clearly, in this case, I am not in a position, nor do I have the skills, to research every allegation Ms. MacDonald makes or every statistic she cites. Some however, I can, and in an effort to make it easy for you to double check some of her facts and figures so that you may then draw your own conclusions, here is the link https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/ucr to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, an impartial and unbiased compilation of crime statistics over multiple years, breaking those statistics down into multiple categories so that anyone can do their homework before they jump to conclusions.
Here is Ms. MacDonald’s article:
For almost two years, a protest movement known as “Black Lives Matter” has convulsed the nation. Triggered by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement holds that racist police officers are the greatest threat facing young black men today. This belief has triggered riots, “die-ins,” the murder and attempted murder of police officers, a campaign to eliminate traditional grand jury proceedings when police use lethal force, and a presidential task force on policing.
Even though the U.S. Justice Department has resoundingly disproven the lie that a pacific Michael Brown was shot in cold blood while trying to surrender, Brown is still venerated as a martyr. And now police officers are backing off of proactive policing in the face of the relentless venom directed at them on the street and in the media. As a result, violent crime is on the rise.
The need is urgent, therefore, to examine the Black Lives Matter movement’s central thesis—that police pose the greatest threat to young black men. I propose two counter hypotheses: first, that there is no government agency more dedicated to the idea that black lives matter than the police; and second, that we have been talking obsessively about alleged police racism over the last 20 years in order to avoid talking about a far larger problem—black-on-black crime.
Let’s be clear at the outset: police have an indefeasible obligation to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, and to act within the confines of the law. Too often, officers develop a hardened, obnoxious attitude. It is also true that being stopped when you are innocent of any wrongdoing is infuriating, humiliating, and sometimes terrifying. And needless to say, every unjustified police shooting of an unarmed civilian is a stomach-churning tragedy.
Given the history of racism in this country and the complicity of the police in that history, police shootings of black men are particularly and understandably fraught. That history informs how many people view the police. But however intolerable and inexcusable every act of police brutality is, and while we need to make sure that the police are properly trained in the Constitution and in courtesy, there is a larger reality behind the issue of policing, crime, and race that remains a taboo topic. The problem of black-on-black crime is an uncomfortable truth, but unless we acknowledge it, we won’t get very far in understanding patterns of policing.
Every year, approximately 6,000 blacks are murdered. This is a number greater than white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the national population. Blacks are killed at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. In Los Angeles, blacks between the ages of 20 and 24 die at a rate 20 to 30 times the national mean. Who is killing them? Not the police, and not white civilians, but other blacks. The astronomical black death-by-homicide rate is a function of the black crime rate. Black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at ten times the rate of white and Hispanic male teens combined. Blacks of all ages commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined, and at eleven times the rate of whites alone.
The police could end all lethal uses of force tomorrow and it would have at most a trivial effect on the black death-by-homicide rate. The nation’s police killed 987 civilians in 2015, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post. Whites were 50 percent—or 493—of those victims, and blacks were 26 percent—or 258. Most of those victims of police shootings, white and black, were armed or otherwise threatening the officer with potentially lethal force.
The black violent crime rate would actually predict that more than 26 percent of police victims would be black. Officer use of force will occur where the police interact most often with violent criminals, armed suspects, and those resisting arrest, and that is in black neighborhoods. In America’s 75 largest counties in 2009, for example, blacks constituted 62 percent of all robbery defendants, 57 percent of all murder defendants, 45 percent of all assault defendants—but only 15 percent of the population.
Moreover, 40 percent of all cop killers have been black over the last decade. And a larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths are a result of police killings than black homicide deaths—but don’t expect to hear that from the media or from the political enablers of the Black Lives Matter movement. Twelve percent of all white and Hispanic homicide victims are killed by police officers, compared to four percent of all black homicide victims. If we’re going to have a “Lives Matter” anti-police movement, it would be more appropriately named “White and Hispanic Lives Matter.”
Standard anti-cop ideology, whether emanating from the ACLU or the academy, holds that law enforcement actions are racist if they don’t mirror population data. New York City illustrates why that expectation is so misguided. Blacks make up 23 percent of New York City’s population, but they commit 75 percent of all shootings, 70 percent of all robberies, and 66 percent of all violent crime, according to victims and witnesses. Add Hispanic shootings and you account for 98 percent of all illegal gunfire in the city. Whites are 33 percent of the city’s population, but they commit fewer than two percent of all shootings, four percent of all robberies, and five percent of all violent crime. These disparities mean that virtually every time the police in New York are called out on a gun run—meaning that someone has just been shot—they are being summoned to minority neighborhoods looking for minority suspects.
Officers hope against hope that they will receive descriptions of white shooting suspects, but it almost never happens. This incidence of crime means that innocent black men have a much higher chance than innocent white men of being stopped by the police because they match the description of a suspect. This is not something the police choose. It is a reality forced on them by the facts of crime.
The geographic disparities are also huge. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, the per capita shooting rate is 81 times higher than in nearby Bay Ridge, Brooklyn—the first neighborhood predominantly black, the second neighborhood predominantly white and Asian. As a result, police presence and use of proactive tactics are much higher in Brownsville than in Bay Ridge. Every time there is a shooting, the police will flood the area looking to make stops in order to avert a retaliatory shooting. They are in Brownsville not because of racism, but because they want to provide protection to its many law-abiding residents who deserve safety.
Who are some of the victims of elevated urban crime? On March 11, 2015, as protesters were once again converging on the Ferguson police headquarters demanding the resignation of the entire department, a six-year-old boy named Marcus Johnson was killed a few miles away in a St. Louis park, the victim of a drive-by shooting. No one protested his killing. Al Sharpton did not demand a federal investigation. Few people outside of his immediate community know his name.
Ten children under the age of ten were killed in Baltimore last year. In Cleveland, three children five and younger were killed in September. A seven-year-old boy was killed in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend by a bullet intended for his father. In November, a nine-year-old in Chicago was lured into an alley and killed by his father’s gang enemies; the father refused to cooperate with the police. In August, a nine-year-old girl was doing her homework on her mother’s bed in Ferguson when a bullet fired into the house killed her. In Cincinnati in July, a four-year-old girl was shot in the head and a six-year-old girl was left paralyzed and partially blind from two separate drive-by shootings. This mindless violence seems almost to be regarded as normal, given the lack of attention it receives from the same people who would be out in droves if any of these had been police shootings. As horrific as such stories are, crime rates were much higher 20 years ago. In New York City in 1990, for example, there were 2,245 homicides. In 2014 there were 333—a decrease of 85 percent. The drop in New York’s crime rate is the steepest in the nation, but crime has fallen at a historic rate nationwide as well—by about 40 percent—since the early 1990s. The greatest beneficiaries of these declining rates have been minorities. Over 10,000 minority males alive today in New York would be dead if the city’s homicide rate had remained at its early 1990s level.
What is behind this historic crime drop? A policing revolution that began in New York and spread nationally, and that is now being threatened. Starting in 1994, the top brass of the NYPD embraced the then-radical idea that the police can actually prevent crime, not just respond to it. They started gathering and analyzing crime data on a daily and then hourly basis. They looked for patterns, and strategized on tactics to try to quell crime outbreaks as they were emerging. Equally important, they held commanders accountable for crime in their jurisdictions. Department leaders started meeting weekly with precinct commanders to grill them on crime patterns on their watch. These weekly accountability sessions came to be known as Compstat. They were ruthless, high tension affairs. If a commander was not fully informed about every local crime outbreak and ready with a strategy to combat it, his career was in jeopardy.
Compstat created a sense of urgency about fighting crime that has never left the NYPD. For decades, the rap against the police was that they ignored crime in minority neighborhoods. Compstat keeps New York commanders focused like a laser beam on where people are being victimized most, and that is in minority communities. Compstat spread nationwide. Departments across the country now send officers to emerging crime hot spots to try to interrupt criminal behavior before it happens.
In terms of economic stimulus alone, no other government program has come close to the success of data-driven policing. In New York City, businesses that had shunned previously drug-infested areas now set up shop there, offering residents a choice in shopping and creating a demand for workers. Senior citizens felt safe to go to the store or to the post office to pick up their Social Security checks. Children could ride their bikes on city sidewalks without their mothers worrying that they would be shot. But the crime victories of the last two decades, and the moral support on which law and order depends, are now in jeopardy thanks to the falsehoods of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Police operating in inner-city neighborhoods now find themselves routinely surrounded by cursing, jeering crowds when they make a pedestrian stop or try to arrest a suspect. Sometimes bottles and rocks are thrown. Bystanders stick cell phones in the officers’ faces, daring them to proceed with their duties. Officers are worried about becoming the next racist cop of the week and possibly losing their livelihood thanks to an incomplete cell phone video that inevitably fails to show the antecedents to their use of force. Officer use of force is never pretty, but the public is clueless about how hard it is to subdue a suspect who is determined to resist arrest.
As a result of the anti-cop campaign of the last two years and the resulting push-back in the streets, officers in urban areas are cutting back on precisely the kind of policing that led to the crime decline of the 1990s and 2000s. Arrests and summons are down, particularly for low-level offenses. Police officers continue to rush to 911 calls when there is already a victim. But when it comes to making discretionary stops—such as getting out of their cars and questioning people hanging out on drug corners at 1:00 a.m.—many cops worry that doing so could put their careers on the line. Police officers are, after all, human. When they are repeatedly called racist for stopping and questioning suspicious individuals in high-crime areas, they will perform less of those stops. That is not only understandable—in a sense, it is how things should work. Policing is political. If a powerful political block has denied the legitimacy of assertive policing, we will get less of it.
On the other hand, the people demanding that the police back off are by no means representative of the entire black community. Go to any police-neighborhood meeting in Harlem, the South Bronx, or South Central Los Angeles, and you will invariably hear variants of the following: “We want the dealers off the corner.” “You arrest them and they’re back the next day.” “There are kids hanging out on my stoop. Why can’t you arrest them for loitering?” “I smell weed in my hallway. Can’t you do something?” I met an elderly cancer amputee in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx who was terrified to go to her lobby mailbox because of the young men trespassing there and selling drugs. The only time she felt safe was when the police were there. “Please, Jesus,” she said to me, “send more police!” The irony is that the police cannot respond to these heartfelt requests for order without generating the racially disproportionate statistics that will be used against them in an ACLU or Justice Department lawsuit.
Unfortunately, when officers back off in high crime neighborhoods, crime shoots through the roof. Our country is in the midst of the first sustained violent crime spike in two decades. Murders rose nearly 17 percent in the nation’s 50 largest cities in 2015, and it was in cities with large black populations where the violence increased the most. Baltimore’s per capita homicide rate last year was the highest in its history. Milwaukee had its deadliest year in a decade, with a 72 percent increase in homicides. Homicides in Cleveland increased 90 percent over the previous year. Murders rose 83 percent in Nashville, 54 percent in Washington, D.C., and 61 percent in Minneapolis. In Chicago, where pedestrian stops are down by 90 percent, shootings were up 80 percent through March 2016.
I first identified the increase in violent crime in May 2015 and dubbed it “the Ferguson effect.” My diagnosis set off a firestorm of controversy on the anti-cop Left and in criminology circles. Despite that furor, FBI Director James Comey confirmed the Ferguson effect in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School last October. Comey decried the “chill wind” that had been blowing through law enforcement over the previous year, and attributed the sharp rise in homicides and shootings to the campaign against cops. Several days later, President Obama had the temerity to rebuke Comey, accusing him (while leaving him unnamed) of “cherry-pick[ing] data” and using “anecdotal evidence to drive policy [and] feed political agendas.” The idea that President Obama knows more about crime and policing than his FBI director is of course ludicrous. But the President thought it necessary to take Comey down, because to recognize the connection between proactive policing and public safety undermines the entire premise of the anti-cop Left: that the police oppress minority communities rather than bring them surcease from disorder.
As crime rates continue to rise, the overwhelming majority of victims are, as usual, black—as are their assailants. But police officers are coming under attack as well. In August 2015, an officer in Birmingham, Alabama, was beaten unconscious by a convicted felon after a car stop. The suspect had grabbed the officer’s gun, as Michael Brown had tried to do in Ferguson, but the officer hesitated to use force against him for fear of being charged with racism. Such incidents will likely multiply as the media continues to amplify the Black Lives Matter activists’ poisonous slander against the nation’s police forces.
The number of police officers killed in shootings more than doubled during the first three months of 2016. In fact, officers are at much greater risk from blacks than unarmed blacks are from the police. Over the last decade, an officer’s chance of getting killed by a black has been 18.5 times higher than the chance of an unarmed black getting killed by a cop.
The favorite conceit of the Black Lives Matter movement is, of course, the racist white officer gunning down a black man. According to available studies, it is a canard. A March 2015 Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police Department found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on “threat misperception,” i.e., the incorrect belief that a civilian is armed. A study by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Greg Ridgeway, formerly acting director of the National Institute of Justice, has found that black officers in the NYPD were 3.3 times more likely to fire their weapons at shooting scenes than other officers present. The April 2015 death of drug dealer Freddie Gray in Baltimore has been slotted into the Black Lives Matter master narrative, even though the three most consequential officers in Gray’s arrest and transport are black. There is no evidence that a white drug dealer in Gray’s circumstances, with a similar history of faking injuries, would have been treated any differently.
We have been here before. In the 1960s and early 1970s, black and white radicals directed hatred and occasional violence against the police. The difference today is that anti-cop ideology is embraced at the highest reaches of the establishment: by the President, by his Attorney General, by college presidents, by foundation heads, and by the press. The presidential candidates of one party are competing to see who can out-demagogue President Obama’s persistent race-based calumnies against the criminal justice system, while those of the other party have not emphasized the issue as they might have.
I don’t know what will end the current frenzy against the police. What I do know is that we are playing with fire, and if it keeps spreading, it will be hard to put out.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She earned a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. in English from Cambridge University, and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. She writes for several newspapers and journals, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Criterion, and Public Interest, and is the author of three books, including Are Cops Racist? and The War on Cops: How The New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe (forthcoming June 2016).
It’s interesting what one can find when one delves into the past. I was looking for a name and address in a scrap book my mother had specifically left me, and I stumbled across the following poem, unidentified either by title or author:
I shall not bate, for you have trained me well
And I can perch now quiet on your wrist,
Wearing my jesses, swivel, leash and bell,
Hoodshy no longer, I do not resist
That covering, for I am coming to.
Ringing above you, I wait on your word.
I reach my pitch, but I shall swoop for you,
Spread sails, then sink my pounces in the bird
You flush. I do not startle at your voice
Now or your touch, for I am fully weathered.
Haggard, your dark-eyed hawk, I wait your choice
To rest upon your glove or go, untethered.
Mantling at ease, I eschew the sky
Until you lift my hood and tell me, “fly.”
It is possibly entitled “Terms of Falconry,” or that may be simply an identification of the particular page (clipped from a magazine) that includes definitions of the various terms used in the poem. It was accompanied by a black-and-white reproduction of the painting above entitled, Boy with Falcon, identified as being by Albert Cuyp, but when I looked up the painting on the internet, I found it identified as being by a Flemish artist, Wallerant Vaillant.
I posted the poem once before, but I still know nothing about it. Does anyone know who wrote the poem? Does anyone know who painted the portrait? No matter who, both are spectacular.
I am a life-member of both the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, and I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to write those words knowing that it might cause some anti-gun or urban animal-rights activists to have hysterics. But apart from my glee in agitating the kinds of willfully ignorant people who make emotional responses to issues about which they have no knowledge whatsoever, I belong to both those organizations because both of them do very good and important work.
What the NRA does needs no explanation, but SCI fights very hard and spends a lot of money supporting the kind of scientific research and volunteer work that actually protects and helps preserve various species around the world. Yes, they also lobby for hunters’ rights—and I’m glad they do, being a hunter myself—but they also lobby for the kinds of governmental policies that might actually help keep certain species, particularly certain African species, on the planet for another generation to delight in.
SCI publishes a monthly newspaper which I receive, and I was struck by the strange juxtaposition of four separate and disparate articles in the most recent issue.
The first was an article by my friend, retired Colonel Craig Boddington, about efforts to fight poaching in Africa, where that crime is epidemic. Anti-poaching efforts across Africa are both funded and implemented primarily by private outfitters, a phrase which in Africa can mean either the landowners or professional hunters who lease great tracts of land. Governments try to combat poaching on the national game preserves of their country, but elsewhere it is for the most part a private war conducted by private parties and funded almost exclusively by the men and women who go on safari. It’s one of the reasons why hunting in Africa is such an expensive amusement: the landowner tacks on charges to help pay for the private armies (essentially) needed to fight the poachers.
Since I have witnessed the effects of poaching in Africa (I will post a fictionalized account—The Other Side of Paradise—of that experience under my “Other Writings” tab) I have some first-hand experience of what poachers can do, and a lot of sympathy for the poor, courageous devils who take them on.
The second article was an obituary of a father-son team of professional hunters who were shot and killed while on an anti-poaching patrol in Zimbabwe.
The third article was by another friend, renowned and highly respected gun writer Terry Wieland. Terry usually writes about rare and unaffordable guns and obscure cartridges and the famous hunters of a by-gone era, but this particular article was about a broadcast on NPR, the result of joint effort by the BBC and NPR, on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
It appears that Antonin Scalia was an ardent hunter and a member of an ancient hunting fraternity called the International Order of St. Hubertus. I happen to know a little about the International Order of St. Hubertus. A very dear old friend, a hunter whom I have known for decades, was invited to join St. Hubertus, and he asked me if I would write one of the required letters attesting to his character. I did, and I guess they liked my letter because they not only inducted him, they kindly asked me to join too. I had to decline because it costs more than I can afford, but between my writing the letter and being invited to join, I had done a bit of research on the order. This was not difficult to do, since they have a website, and it only took me two phone calls to get some more information from an acquaintance. It did not involve any arduous investigative journalism.
This is what you too can read for yourself on the internet:
“The International Order of St. Hubertus is a worldwide organization of hunters who are also wildlife conservationists and are respectful of traditional hunting ethics and practices. Founded in 1695” [by Count Franz Anton von Sporck] “the motto of the order is Deum Diligite Animalia Diligentes, or Honoring God by Honoring His Creatures.”
They also have, right on the home page, a listing of the functions of the order, all of which involve doing good in various ways, including a mandate to, “encourage wildlife conservation and help protect endangered species from extinction.”
But, boy oh boy, the BBC and NPR were able to find much to censure in that. According to Terry, the program began by describing the order as a “secretive hunting society.” How secretive? I found them on the internet.
According to Terry, NPR found it alarming that the founder, back in 1695, stated hunting was a good training ground for war. Yeah, that’s pretty dangerous and radical stuff, if you are so ignorant of history that you don’t know hunting has always been used as training for war. That concept has been a staple of every civilization you can think of, from the North Sea to the China Sea, from long before classical Greece to sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century when warfare changed so dramatically it rendered hunting obsolete as a training device.
According to Terry, the program described the International Order of St. Hubertus as sinister because of its religious associations. Yeah, right. Radical Islamic terrorists are bombing and beheading, but a Christian organization is sinister because it was founded by Christians, took its name from the seventh/eighth century patron saint of hunters, Hubert (who was converted to Christianity after he had a vision of a crucifix in the antlers of a stag), adheres to Christian values (which, curiously enough, do not include slaughtering non-Christians), and because the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, was an early member. Ooh, that’s scary stuff, all right.
According to Terry, the NPR commentator’s response to the organization’s reverence for all God’s creatures was a snarky, “Yeah, we love God’s animals so much we want to shoot them all.” Heh, heh, heh. I wonder what that man has done to help combat poaching in Africa. Or America, for that matter.
And the final article was about something completely unrelated, but it contained a reference to SCI’s Sportsmen Against Hunger program, intended to help feed the needy, which in Missouri last year donated almost 27,000 pounds of venison. That’s just one state in one year.
Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.
Chris Kyle was the Navy SEAL who wrote the autobiography American Sniper which in turn was made into a blockbuster movie starring Bradley Cooper. Both the book and even more the movie generated a firestorm of controversy, most of which consisted of mean-spirited and hysterical snarkiness from the usual suspects, self-proclaimed liberals who—and I’m taking this from a consensus of the comments I have read in both mainstream press and online—felt it was wrong to portray the killing of men and women (and in one case—almost—a child) all of whom were trying to kill American soldiers.
This is not the place for a debate about whether or not America was justified in going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, what stunned me was to read hysterically angry reviews and comments from people who seemed to have no problem with vastly greater body counts in movies about superheroes and galaxies far, far away, or even inner-city drug-dealing gangstas happily shooting each other in a variety of bloodthirsty and barbaric ways. What seems to have offended so many liberals about American Sniper was the political context of the movie. One writer for Rolling Stone actually began his review by mentioning that he went into the theater primed to hate it. The same writer then defended his own admittedly biased and negative review by saying it was more important for him to be a liberal than to be a journalist, a comment that once upon a time would have gotten any self-proclaimed journalist immediately fired from any self-respecting magazine, which perhaps explains why he writes for Rolling Stone. (To be fair, another Rolling Stone writer, the movie critic, praised the film.) The point is, if a creative work of art (movie, play, book, poem, concert, ballet, painting, sculpture, whatever) can only be judged by how it makes us feel within the framework of our own ideology, then we’re no better than the barbarians who destroy art and antiques that conflict with their distorted religious beliefs, or the pampered little college cupcakes who get hysterical whenever someone disagrees with their personal opinion.
With this in mind, any reader who is not interested in firearms would be well-advised to stop reading now.
Before he was murdered, Chris Kyle was working on a book called American Gun: A History of the United States in Ten Firearms. The book was published posthumously and probably actually finished by his co-author, William Doyle, and his widow, Taya Kyle, but regardless who finished it, it is a very engaging and informative work.
The subtitle is more than somewhat disingenuous in that it has little to do with the history of the United States and much to do with the history of firearms development in America. But that history is fascinating, a combination of an intricate linking of various factors: need; painful learned experience; the natural inventiveness of man and his ability to improve on what already exists; and occasionally a flash of genius that seemingly comes out of the ethers, uninfluenced by anything that already exists. (A good recent example of this would be the Glock, not an American gun, but one that Kyle pays deserved tribute to for both its own merits and its transformative effect on modern pistol design.)
Kyle does many things gracefully in this book. He links one development to the next, showing how A led to B. He lays out just enough history to help us understand the need for improvement that inspired each new step forward. He provides a wealth of fascinating trivia that forms both a background and a context for each progressive step. He shows how each new invention helped the men for whom it was intended, or—in too many cases—how it would have helped the men for whom it was intended if it hadn’t been held up by paper-pushers in Army Ordnance who didn’t have a clue about battlefield realities.
(As an example of fascinating trivia, one of the Army Ordnance deadheads who completely missed the boat on firearms advancement, and thereby contributed immeasurably to the loss of American lives at San Juan Heights and Kettle Hill, was none other than Stephen Vincent Benét, grandfather of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of the same name.)
A large part of what makes this little book so enjoyable is the presence of Kyle himself in the words. I have only seen Kentucky long rifles or Spencer rifles in museums, and I’ve never fired an M16 or even held a Thompson machine gun, but Kyle has the ability to convey the perfection of those tools for their specific tasks. Yes, it helps that he and I clearly share certain prejudices (specifically for the Colt Single Action Army .45 and the M1911 .45 Army pistol), but he manages to make understandable the passion that others have for other tools. And more: he makes you feel that you would have greatly enjoyed knowing him. Of course he would be your first choice to stand at your back in a gunfight (or maybe for you to stand behind his back and let him do the heavy lifting) but he also comes across, not just as a hero, but as the kind of guy you would have loved to have a beer with, share a steak and some stories, the kind of decent and courageous guy we could use more of in America.
For those of you who might not know of him, Dave Stamey is an acclaimed Western singer/song-writer who has been described by Cowboys and Indians magazine as, “the Charlie Russell of Western music.”
It’s a good and accurate description, but like all thumbnails, it leaves out so much more of the man, all the stuff that is not only fascinating, but that contributes so much to actually making him the Charlie Russell of Western music. Even Dave’s self-written bio on his website (http://davestamey.com ) merely states that he was once a cowboy, a mule packer, and a dude wrangler. True enough, but it’s a little like saying Sir Walter Raleigh was once a poet. Well, okay, that’s accurate as far as it goes, but what happened to the soldier, sailor, pirate, explorer, courtier, historian, spy, not to mention unscrupulous butcher of too many unfortunate Irish? Not to imply that Dave Stamey has spent any time butchering people, at least not as far as I know, but you see where I’m going with this.
One of things that Dave resolutely does not tell people about himself is that, apart from his song-writing, he is a damned good writer. In fact, he once wrote and published cowboy novels under a pseudonym, and he still writes what he describes as “an occasional newsletter” he sends out to friends and followers. This is his latest:
We don’t have television at our house. It was a decision we made several years ago after realizing we could click our way through a hundred channels and find nothing worth watching, and we were paying a good chunk of money every month for the privilege. It seemed a silly thing to be doing, so we pulled the plug.
Getting weaned was tough, especially for me, because, being a guy, I am genetically predisposed to sitting on the couch eating potato chips and staring at a screen where inane things are going on. It’s in every man’s DNA, right there next to the part that makes you want to scratch yourself in public or leaf through the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition at the news stand when you think nobody’s looking. But I struggled through, and got some distance on it, and can proudly say I’m completely cured of the habit. Until, when out on the road, I check into a motel room somewhere. The first thing I do is flick the dreaded thing on. I grab the remote and scroll through forty or fifty or a hundred and twenty channels, whatever’s available in the town I find myself in, and discover—surprise!—there’s still nothing on.
It’s all the same show. Every production is about a group of people between the ages of 23 and 33, living in a stylish urban setting, all of them very slim and fit with good teeth, teeth that are white and straight like chiclets, saying snarky things to each other. This seems to be the whole point. Everybody walks around with a curled lip, looking very fashionable and sexy, being caustic and snide, and at the end of the episode whoever the star of the show is gets off the snarkiest bit of dialog and the show is over until next week—or until the next program comes on and the same thing starts all over again with a different cast, all of which are interchangeable. Even if it’s a cop show, solving the crime is of secondary concern. The real purpose of the mystery is to allow the clever and biting repartee to occur between the characters.
The only variance in an evening’s line-up is the so-called reality show full of rednecks with scraggly beards and exaggerated southern accents. These rednecks are also interchangeable. They dig for gold or make moonshine or wrestle with alligators, and they all seem to be the same bunch of morons. I can almost hear the directors shouting at them between shots. “You’re not acting stupid enough!” Because everybody knows if you don’t live in town you are a hick, and hicks are backward and ignorant, and probably sub-human, and do and say stupid things.
Twenty years ago, when I was still in the “dude business,” I took a middle aged gentleman on a two hour horseback ride. He was balding, bespectacled, perhaps a little melancholy, but a nice enough guy. In an attempt to keep things interesting, for me as well as for him, I asked what he did for a living.
“I write for television.”
“No kidding!” I said.
He nodded grimly, as if it were something regrettable, and mentioned several things he had written. They ran the gamut, from sit-coms to dramas, even a couple Movies of the Week. I became immediately fired up.
“Mister,” I said, “You’ve got a lot to answer for. I know you’re not personally responsible for it, but you’re as close as I’m likely to get. Explain to me why it is whenever a character on TV is supposed to be from a rural area, he’s always a toothless, tobacco chewing rube.”
“Because,” the writer said, “the producers who run the studios honestly believe that’s how it is.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m dead serious.”
Starling. But, considering everything, I’m not surprised they believe it. Of course they do. It’s not their fault, really. They’ve just bought into the same B.S. we’ve all been fed, year after year, decade after decade. Convenient characterizations are time-savers, because once we’ve got ‘em we don’t have to stop and consider actual people. And they’re lots of fun, too. Aren’t they! Judy Canova was hugely popular in the forties on radio, playing the goofy, gingham clad country girl with red pigtails and–as my friend John Reese once put it—an innocence so vast it was almost a form of stupidity. Simple people. Trusting people. Foolish. Think Ma and Pa Kettle. Think the Beverly Hillbillies.
On the other side of the coin, movie stars Ronald Coleman and Myrna Loy were the constant thrust and parry of rapier wits, as were the urbane Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and weren’t they smart and wouldn’t we all like to be them, so erudite and glib with such nifty wardrobes to boot? City people, smooth and classy.
Convenient characterizations. The problem is, these days the characterizations have become mean spirited. The innocent and trusting are now portrayed as idiots. The smooth and classy are depicted as arrogant and cruel. Everything has to have an edge to it. Everything has to sting.
So we don’t have television anymore. I find that this has improved my attitude and lowered my blood pressure. Because when you go out there and start walking around, there’s just people. Very few Ronald Colemans, even fewer Judy Canovas. Just folks. None of them have writers feeding them dialog, witty or otherwise.
Thank goodness. I would never be able to keep up.
I wanted to run his “occasional newsletter” here because I see so much of this kind of convenient characterization by most of the political candidates and virtually all of the pundits discussing the political candidates. If you support Trump, you’re a knuckle-dragging, red-necked Neanderthal with a single-digit IQ and violent tendencies. If you support Hillary, you’re a slick, conniving, unscrupulous LGTB well-connected insider hoping to steal money from widows and orphans as soon as she gets elected. If you support Bernie, you’re a pampered, spoiled, ignorant college student who thinks everyone should get a gold star just for taking up space on the planet. Rooting for Ted Cruz? Clearly you’re a bible-thumping creationist who wants to take America back to the days when seven year old children worked sixteen hour days in the coal mines.
You get the picture. Personally, I used to be an angry, old, white, bible-thumping, gun-toting racist who believed in Dr. Ben Carson’s quiet civility and intelligence, but in politics quiet civility and intelligence have obviously gone the way of the one-horse shay and the ox-drawn plow, so I guess I’ll have to find another easy, denigrating characterization for myself.
In the meantime, just to cheer you up, I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics to one of Dave’s most hauntingly beautiful songs:
The horse I ride is old but he has served me well
Coat like old tobacco rich and warm
He is old but he is sound
My rein chains ring like bells
We fit well together as we glide above the storm…
The life I live goes on it fits me oh so well
Old and new together evergreen
I mount my horse at dawning
My heart rings like a bell
And we ride through the canyons
Where the air is fresh and clean….
After watching Emma Thompson’s movie and realizing I had never read the book, I ordered a copy of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I have no intention of reviewing or critiquing or even praising Jane Austen’s masterpiece—it certainly needs no pat on the back from me—but I was so impressed by the edition I got that I do want to review that.
The internet has replaced the independent corner bookstore for many people, and while I find that a lamentable thing generally, I have to admit it is a boon for those of us who live out in the boonies. Looking for a copy of Sense and Sensibility, I mulled over the many possibilities on the market (new, used, collectible, rare, hardbound, paperback, and many further permutations within each of those categories), and being an inquisitive type who enjoys learning, I decided to get an annotated edition. I selected one edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks of the University of Virginia, and published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University.
I don’t know exactly what I thought I might be getting, but it certainly wasn’t this. For one thing, the book is very large by today’s standards, ten inches high by almost ten inches wide. To call it a hardbound book is understating the thing considerably: it is hardbound the way books used to be hardbound a century ago and the way all good books worth keeping ought to be bound today, which is to say it is bound to last and endure, with heavy cloth covers and real, honest-to-God stitching. It has subtly watermarked endpapers (if I get some of the terminology wrong, forgive me: I am not a bookbinder) and the pages themselves are of heavy and durable bond paper. Even the dust jacket is heavier and more substantial than on any book I have seen for many a long day.
The volume is profusely and magnificently illustrated with, primarily, appropriate contemporary art (think William Blake, Sir David Wilkie, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs, a watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, some of the illustrations done for early editions, that sort of thing) all of it carefully chosen to illuminate either references in the original text or commentary by Ms. Spacks.
And Ms. Spacks knows her stuff! Much of the effect of Jane Austen’s writing relies on her observations of the habits and customs of her day, and sometimes there were subtleties of behavior in 1800 that no longer exist. As an example, when Lucy Steele tells poor Elinor that she, Miss Steele, is engaged to Edward Ferrars, Elinor is able to cling to disbelief until the moment Lucy Steele shows her a letter written by Edward to Miss Steele. It is not the content of the letter that is of any importance—in fact, we never learn the content—it is the fact of the letter that is so momentous, because in those days a gentleman simply did not, could not, write a letter to a young lady unless he intended to marry her. It is that kind of subtlety I might have missed, but for Ms. Spacks.
Another reason to get this annotated edition is because language is a mutable and constantly evolving thing, and words are used in different ways to mean different things today than they were two-hundred years ago. I admit that I’m at least as arrogant as the next fellow: I flatter myself that I am reasonably well-read; I rarely have to look up a word or an unusual usage of a word when reading Shakespeare, say; and I certainly didn’t expect to learn as much as I have from Ms. Spacks’ commentary. To take the most obvious example, both the words “sense” and “sensibility” had slightly different and far more complex implications of meaning than we are used to, differences that have a profound influence on how we understand what Miss Austen was saying.
Finally, I’d like to compliment Emma Thompson. As Ms. Spacks points out in her commentary (quoting an earlier critic of Jane Austen), Edward Ferrars is probably the weakest character in Sense and Sensibility. The reader must believe that Elinor loves him, but because Austen has used the plot device of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele that causes him to be depressed and dispirited, the result is that Edward is unable to reveal his real persona to Elinor and so becomes a sort of pale watercolor of a figure, with the result that the reader is left a little confused as to why Elinor loves him to the exclusion of all other possible men. In her movie version, Emma Thompson very cleverly solved this problem in part by casting the offensively handsome and charming Hugh Grant as Edward, and also by showing Edward interacting with the youngest sister, Margaret, in ways that make him very appealing. (Elinor catches him discreetly pushing a large atlas under the table where Margaret is hiding from her mother; he subsequently starts a lovely piece of nonsensical conversation with Elinor about the source of the Nile—“I think it’s in Belgium.”—to finally draw the little girl out from her hiding place; he sends the atlas to her later as a gift; a wonderful scene where he is observed by Elinor fencing with Margaret, using wooden swords, and losing badly.) I normally quake at rewrites of masterpieces (I believe it was the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that famously included the credit, “additional dialogue by…”) as being the result of the febrile arrogance of fools, but in this case, Ms. Thompson was exactly right (or write, take your pick). She identified a problem, and provided a charming and graceful remedy.
If you love Jane Austen, buy this book. Hell, even if you don’t, go ahead and buy this book. The illustrations alone are worth it.
“A Farmer found in the winter time a Snake stiff and frozen with cold. He had compassion on it, and taking it up placed it in his bosom. The Snake on being thawed by the warmth quickly revived, when, resuming its natural instincts, he bit his benefactor, inflicting on him a mortal wound. The Farmer said with his last breath, ‘I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel!’
“The greatest benefits will not bind the ungrateful.”
The Fables of Aesop
In my very first acting class (with the great Kirk Denmark at Beloit College in another century) I was taught that it was the actor’s responsibility to make sense of the senseless, to comprehend the incomprehensible. In other words, if you are cast as Iago, the villain Samuel Taylor Coleridge once described as the epitome of “motiveless malignity,” it is your job to find motives for his villainy, the idea being that pure good is only possible for God, and pure evil is only possible for the devil, and neither of those make for compelling or even playable characters on the stage. (I could make an argument that Coleridge was all wet, and that Iago gives a very good reason for his malignity, but that’s a blog for another season.)
With Professor Denmark’s admonition in mind, I have been trying to comprehend the Islamic terrorist bombing in Belgium.
For well over three decades, European countries have opened their borders, their doors, their wallets, and their hearts to a steady stream of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Pakistan, and North Africa. In recent times, ISIS times, that trickle has become a cataract. Those same European countries have tolerated a lot of abuse from their guests: violent crime rates have soared in some countries (particularly Great Britain, Luxembourg, Denmark, and Hungary; in Germany specifically, rape has increased dramatically); Muslims have demanded and in many cases been allowed concessions to their own minority culture, concessions that frequently fly in the face of the habits and customs of their host country; Muslims have created “no-go” zones in some metropolitan areas where sharia law is enforced; food and drink have had to be modified in the public schools of some countries to accommodate the dietary restrictions of the immigrants; in at least one British prison, all the toilets had to be retrofitted to accommodate Islamic needs; the list goes on.
And now, by way of thank-you, Islamic terrorists have declared war—or jihad—on the innocent civilians of the very countries that took them in and gave them shelter. The terrorist Salah Abdeslam, the mastermind of the 2015 Paris attacks who was arrested just four days before the Belgian attacks in which he was also involved, was born in Brussels to parents who had emigrated from Morocco.
I was thinking about the description of the undetonated bombs the police recovered, packed with nails and malignity. If a foreign country, let’s take the North Koreans as an unlikely but not incomprehensible example, somehow managed to invade America, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill as many of them as I could by whatever means I was capable of, and it wouldn’t disturb my sleep by one second. So I can understand violence and killing in terms of self-defense; I can even understand the motives that sent US troops to Europe in World War One and to Europe and Asia in World War Two. In both cases, evil was afoot in the world and had to be stopped, and a viper can only be stopped by chopping its head off. Perhaps now another kind of evil is afoot in the world. Perhaps now a truly motiveless malignity is afoot in the world.
Say a prayer for the Belgians. Say a prayer for us all.
We live in an era where the art of photography has been sadly reduced by every grey-beard loon who stoppeth one of three and holds the Wedding-Guest with his glittering eye while he shows off smart phone snapshots of family members the Wedding-Guest has never met, never will meet, and hopes to go to his grave without meeting. Even the vast bulk of visual images on the news consists of incidental snapshots taken by people with their smart phones. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t qualify as art.
In this accidental digital age there are still a few old dinosaurs who regard photography as an art form, and among those there are a handful—at the most—who have clung tenaciously to the intricate and enduring past, using large-format cameras to create the kinds of art we associate with Ansel Adams.
And that’s a good place to start, because Jay Dusard is, I believe, the last living photographer to have studied with Ansel Adams.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know who Jay Dusard is, but for those of you who have only stumbled onto this site recently, pay attention, because this is a rare opportunity.
Jay was born on a farm in southern Illinois and studied architecture at the University of Florida, but like many another gifted student, his own success ruined him before he began. He was awarded a scholarship to study American architecture from coast to coast, and set out with good intentions, but he never made it out of the American West. He fell so in love with the landscapes, lifestyles, and skills of ranchers and cowboys that he ended up working on Warner Glenn’s borderland ranch for “bunk and board and seven dollars a day” as he learned the cowboy trade. That gives you a pretty good idea of what you can achieve with a degree in architecture.
A few years later Jay discovered photography, an addiction that led to study with both Ansel Adams and Frederick Sommer, a seven-year career as a professor of photography at Prescott College, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, more books and awards than you can shake a stick at, and exhibits at museums from Mexico City to Calgary and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Now pushing eighty, he still travels extensively to both photograph and teach photography, plays jazz cornet, raises quarter horses, and—like a damned fool—still punches cattle.
Jay and his fellow photographers, Bruce Barnbaum and Bill Ellzey, will be teaching a workshop in the Pacific Northwest, and if you have any interest in photography, and have the opportunity, this is an unparalleled chance to learn from the best of the very best. Jay—being Jay—does not have a website, but go to:
If you go, send me a photograph.
(Photo courtesy of Goucher.edu)
We watched Sense and Sensibility the other night. I’m talking about the 1995 movie, which I believe is the only movie version ever made, with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and the late, great Alan Rickman. It’s about the third or fourth time I’ve seen it, but it’s so good it deserves to be watched repeatedly. I’ve never read Sense and Sensibility, but I was so impressed with Emma Thompson’s script that afterward I went into the library to get a copy so I could dive in and compare Jane Austen’s book to Ms. Thompson’s adaptation. Instead, by accident, the first volume I grabbed was my father’s copy of Pride and Prejudice, and like all confirmed, hardcore, unreformed booklovers, even though it wasn’t what I wanted, I automatically opened it.
There on the flyleaf was my father’s name in his queer, old-fashioned, elegant script, written with a fountain pen (what else?) at the ascending angle he always used putting his name in books. As it always does, just the sight of his writing, and knowing his hand had been on that page, took me rushing back to the golden days when he was alive; he really was the most extraordinary and wonderful man I will ever know.
But then I turned to the first page and saw Jane Austen’s first line of her second major book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Well, I mean to say! The genius of all great first lines is that they capture within a few words both the reader’s interest and the tone and essence of the book to follow. And that thought started me thinking about great first lines.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” which brought to mind a cartoon The New Yorker ran many years ago showing one of those arrogant, self-satisfied editors all writers would love to choke looking across his desk at Charles Dickens and saying: “Come, come, Mr. Dickens! Either it was the best of times or it was the worst of times; it can hardly have been both.”
Actually, Dickens had a lot of great first lines:
“Marley was dead, to begin with.”
“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”
“Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
And J.D. Salinger played off that opening for the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
John D. MacDonald’s first line of his very first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, set the stage and the tone for an entire series: “It was to have been a quiet evening at home.”
The second volume of what will eventually be Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell opens with: “His children are falling from the sky.”
With “I did it—I should have known better; I persuaded Reginald to go to the McKillops’ garden-party against his will,” Saki (H. H. Munro) sets the humorously resigned tone of disaster for all his “Reginald” short stories.
“True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Edgar Allan Poe draws you into the horrors of The Tell-Tale Heart instantly.
“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” Kenneth Grahame draws you into the gentle joys of The Wind in the Willows.
Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for his body of work, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” And his Love in the Time of Cholera opens with: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s first line of Anna Karenina is possibly the most famous first line of all.
The Leper’s Companions, by Julia Blackburn: “One day in the month of September, when the low autumn sun was casting long shadows across the grass, she lost someone she had loved.”
“I lost my own father at 12yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.” Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is written entirely in the late eighteenth century Australian working-class slang of a semi-literate (or semi-illiterate) career criminal, which makes it sound almost inaccessible, but not so, not so; it’s as uniquely compelling as everything Carey writes.
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, set in Ireland in the terrible days of World War One and the Troubles, begins: “He was born in the dying days.”
Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche takes a lighter approach: “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The Old Man and the Sea, arguably the greatest thing Hemingway ever wrote.
There are many, many more great first lines, but what is probably my favorite of all time comes from M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote primarily about food and did it better than anyone else. From Consider the Oyster: “The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.”
Tell me your favorites.