Tuesday, 28 July 2009

the river

hi my friends,

some of you already know that I've developed an obsession with the
Mississippi River and its place in American culture, politics, and
geography. I've spent the last several months getting ready to journey
down the river at a human-powered pace, investigating what the river
means at this particular moment in our shared lives. I'll be starting
at the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minnesota on August 1 and expect to
arrive in New Orleans in late November or early December. I'll make
work in response to the journey, and then next season I imagine
traveling back up the river retracing my path, performing the work
I've made in response to the first trip.

I have designed the trip not as a solo journey but as a shifting set
of collaborations with various friends and colleagues who will be
traveling with me for shorter or longer periods, shaping my
perspective in varying ways depending on their passions and interests.
My first two collaborators are the linguist and historian Richard
Steadman-Jones, with whom I will be working on a project called
Archive of Exile, and Mac Walton, a musician and adventurer with whom
I share many interests that will undoubtedly take shape in some fun
way I can't yet predict.

we will be making the trip by a combination of kayak and bicycle, with
a backup car carrying our gear. the three of us just spent a couple of
days in Minneapolis getting outfitted with a kayak, (see below for
evidence) and we're leaving tomorrow for Lake Itasca, and I am so
excited about all this I can barely speak!

I won't be sending email announcements like this very often if at all
over the next few months, so before heading out, I'm inviting you to
follow along with me on the blog I've set up at http://evbvd.com/riverblog/

I think it'd be really great if we can create a community of virtual
wayfarers or something like that! you can also follow me on twitter
(evbvd) and/or facebook (eve.beglarian) if that's your thing. and if
you want to meet up in person along the way, let me know! while part
of this trip feels like some kind of quest or pilgrimage, I don't
imagine it as a retreat in any sense, but an engagement, a seeking,
and I invite you to join me in whatever ways might be meaningful to
you, whether vicarious or actual.

in the meantime, I hope you have a great rest of your summer!



Only if it's not likely to
Can the believed-in happen.
James McMichael

Eve Beglarian
PO Box 1677
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10011

EveBeglarian (skype)
new project: http://evbvd.com/riverblog/

Friday, 10 July 2009

Inkslinger's Song

The other moment when the 'myth of the frontier' is called into question comes in a song sung by Johnny Inkslinger, Bunyan's book-keeper:
It was out in the sticks that the fire
Of my existence began
Where no one had heard the Messiah
And no one had seen a C├ęzanne.
I learned a prose style from the preacher
And the facts of life from the hens
And fell in love with the teacher
Whose love for John Keats was intense
And I dreamed of writing a novel
With which Tolstoi couldn't compete
And of how all the critics would grovel
But I guess that a guy gotta eat.

I can think of much nicer professions
Than keeping a ledger correct
Such as writing my private confessions
Or procuring a frog to dissect
Learning Sanskrit would be more amusing
Or studying the history of Spain.
And, had I the power of choosing
I would live on the banks of the Seine
I would paint St. Sebastian the Martyr
Or dig up the Temples of Crete
Or compose a D major sonata
But I guess that a guy gotta eat.

The company I have to speak to
Are wonderful to me in their way
But the things that delight me are Greek to
The Jacks who haul lumber all day.
It isn't because I don't love them
That this camp is a prison to me
Nor do I think I'm above them
In loathing the site of a tree.
O but where are those beautiful places
Where what you begin you complete
Where the joy shines out of men's faces
And all get sufficient to eat?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Auden's Blues

There are two moments in Paul Bunyan when a less triumphalist version of history comes to the fore. One is the song named 'The Blues: Quartet of the Defeated', which goes like this:
Gold in the North came the blizzard to say
I left my sweetheart at the break of day,
The gold ran out and my love grew grey.
You don't know all, sir, you don't know all.

The West, said the sun, for enterprise,
A bullet in Frisco put me wise,
My last words were, 'God damn your eyes'.
You don't know all, sir, you don't know all.

In Alabama my heart was full,
Down to the river bank I stole,
The waters of grief went over my soul.
You don't know all, sir, you don't know all.

In the streets of New York I was young and well,
I rode the market, the market fell,
One morning I found myself in hell.
I didn't know all, sir, I didn't know all.
We didn't know all, sir, we didn't know all.

In the saloons I heaved a sigh
Lost in deserts of alkali I lay down to die
There's always a sorrow can get you down
All the world's whiskey can never drown,
You don't know all, sir, you don't know all.

Some think they're strong, some think they're smart,
Like butterflies they're pulled apart,
America can break your heart.
You don't know all, sir, you don't know all.

Brogan quotes the third stanza - the alto solo by the woman from Alabama - and says:
For a moment the true sorrows of the frontier and the cotton-fields as they affected women come to life, but the hint is never followed up. The "Blues" is only a warning - one which the operetta's characters ignore.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

F.J. Turner

I'm struck by Hugh Brogan's comment that 'even in 1939, when the influence of F.J. Turner was at its height', Auden could have learned about both the economic pressures operating on the loggers and the emptying out of game and people from the forests. Turner's famous essay on the frontier experience as the engine of Americanization contrasts the 'civilization' of the east with the 'wilderness' of the west and sees the fault line between them as the space in which distinctively American ways of being emerge. Interestingly for our purposes, he mentions the Mississippi as one of a sequence of frontiers where this kind of process occurred:
In these successive frontiers we find natural boundary lines which have served to mark and to affect the characteristics of the frontiers, namely: the "fall line"; the Allegheny Mountains; the Mississippi; the Missouri where its direction approximates north and south; the line of the arid lands, approximately the ninety-ninth meridian; and the Rocky Mountains. The fall line marked the frontier of the seventeenth century; the Alleghenies that of the eighteenth; the Mississippi that of the first quarter of the nineteenth; the Missouri that of the middle of this century (omitting the California movement); and the belt of the Rocky Mountains and the arid tract, the present frontier. Each was won by a series of Indian wars

I think it's also interesting that Turner envisions a process of 'becoming-Indian' taking place when a new frontier is first opened up:
[The frontier] takes [the colonist] from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is that here is a new product that is American.

Auden and Britten

I'm interested in the fact that northern Minnesota has claimed the Paul Bunyan story as its own and I've just been listening to Benjamin Britten's operetta of the same name, the libretto being by W.H. Auden. Here are the comments of Hugh Brogan, a Professor of American History based in the UK:
[Auden's] libretto is in many respects as brilliant and beautiful as the music [...] but the theme he expounds sticks in my craw. Once upon a time the New World, he says, was nothing but virgin forest. Then Paul Bunyan, the giant, was born, and dreamed of felling trees - of being the greatest logger in history. And such he became. When the forests had all been cleared, "America" had emerged - the America of the farmer, the clerk, the hotel manager, and Hollywood. Paul Bunyan therefore moved on, leaving his followers with the message, "America is what you make it."

The difficulty is not simply that this myth of America seems ecologically and historically unsound to anyone who knows something of the pollution and despoliation inflicted by American logging companies; nor even that the total elimination of the natives from the story (except for one reference to fighting Indians) is a grave falsification; nor even that the accumulation of these and many other simplifications produce an effect that in today's terms is politically incorrect and in 1941 seems to have been thought patronizing. It is that to anyone with actual knowledge, however slight, of American history, Auden's myth is so inaccurate as to make any suspension of disbelieft largely impossible. To take but one detail: as Auden said himself, Paul Bunyan is a post-industrial-revolution myth: he is a product of the nineteenth-century frontier, in the tall-tale tradition. The loggers, like the mountain men, the boatmen, the cowboys, and the slaves, were at the mercy of large economic forces; they consoled themselves for their impotence by developing the legend of the giant lumberjack who was invincible and omnipotent. The forests were far from virgin: if they were silent it was because first the game and then the original inhabitants had been driven off by the process of European settlement. Even in 1939, when the influence of F.J. Turner was at its height, Auden could have discovered these points - probably did discover them. But he chose to ignore them.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Paul Bunyan in Brainerd

And seven miles east of Brainerd, you can visit Paul Bunyan Land. Can we go? Can we?? Lol.

Paul Bunyan in Bemidji

Bemidji, the 'first city on the Mississippi', claims to be the birth place of Paul Bunyan and there is a monument to him there:
[A] huge statue of Paul, 18 feet tall weighing 2 1/2 tons, stands on the shore of beautiful Lake Bemidji. Next to Paul, stands a statue of Babe, the Blue Ox, all five tons of the mightiest Ox that ever lived!