While a Fellow at the New York Public Library, author Colm Toibin delved into the papers of Lady Gregory held in the Berg Collection and published this thoroughly entertaining biographical sketch in 2002. It may be a short read, but it reassess the literary contributions of Augusta Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin while also having a bit of fun with the mystique of W. B. Yeats’ role in Irish nationalism and the Celtic literary revival.
Augusta, Lady Gregory’s founding of the Abbey Theatre and her encouragement of Irish playwrights is well known. Her writing, especially her contributions to plays attributed solely to W. B. Yeats, is less known. Although Yeats gave Lady Gregory some public credit for this collaboration, he “never acknowledged the extent of her work on Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” which bothered her.
Yet Lady Gregory also let Yeats take the lion’s share of credit for stage management of that production, even though he led just a single dress rehearsal when press were present. In their collaboration on the cycle of Irish legend-plays, Lady Gregory had the better ear for dialogue. She drew on a lifetime of conversations with farmers, trades workers and servants.
Cultural nationalism can’t be the product of one or two persons, no matter how well intentioned or talented. Myriad influences contribute to bonding a culture to a nation or a political stream. Irish authorities thought the plays based on Celtic myths would incite the nationalists to bolder action. Against the advice of cooler conformist advisors such as G. B. Shaw, Yeats and Lady Gregory forged ahead with the Abbey productions. As Toibin explained in an essay for the New York Review of Books (v. 48, n. 13, Aug. 9, 2001, p. 40) written while he was working on this book, the enduring legacy of the Abbey Theater was the nurturing of fresh voices and producing mythic dramas rather than staging political plays that incited hot heads to riot and ruin.
Lady Gregory sustained creative friendships with many writers during her eighty years. The narrative is spiced with anecdotes about the curious habits and behaviors of several icons of 20th century literature culled from Lady Gregory’s letters and diaries. Toibin’s irreverent scholarship sheds light on W.B. Yeats’ inflated sense of self and Lady Gregory’s efforts to edit her public image in order to maintain ties to the Irish aristocracy while supporting revolutionary nationalists.
Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, Colm Toibin
University of Wisconsin Press, 125 pages, ISBN: 029918000X
This review by L. Peat O’Neil appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.
Too bad every teacher in the rich hemisphere can’t hustle the class off to Africa for a semester on wheels.
It takes an unusual teacher to lead students on trips that extend for a semester in places on the fringe of the average college attendee’s comfort zone.
The author is that exceptional type, an English professor specializing in African studies and African literature at Doane College in Nebraska. She leads small groups of college students on enriching study tours through southern and eastern Africa. Betty Levitov skillfully shares the experiences gleaned during several teaching tours in Africa focused on cross-cultural communication and experiences. The narrative usually unfolds in the present tense giving immediacy and connection to the characters.
The Africa Semester sounds like a great idea and Dr. Levitov’s lighthearted motherly presentation should put at ease the parents or guardians of prospective exchange students. Even if the students aren’t headed for Africa, this book offers travelers handy advice for how to get along in challenging circumstances and how to interact with people from other cultural and economic backgrounds.
It’s hard to put down this unusual biographical narrative by a Korean War veteran and POW who elected to settle in China after the war rather than return to the low horizons available to African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era South.
Twelve years later, after earning a degree at Beijing University, working for years as a translator for the government publishing enterprise, and developing sincere friendships with Chinese colleagues, Clarence Adams left China during the Cultural Revolution when intellectuals, teachers and writers were attacked by gangs of Chinese youths encouraged by Chairman Mao to make a “permanent revolution.”
He returned to the United States in 1966 and may as well have stepped barefoot into a minefield. In the U.S. some media outlets distorted his actions and played to the quick prejudices of the public confused by rapid social change and the numbing carnage of the Viet-Nam War. Adams and the twenty other American POWs who had elected not to return to the United States after the end of the Korean War had already been tried and condemned as traitors by the media and popular opinion, even though the treaty that ended the war included a clause permitting prisoners of war to choose any country for repatriation. Adams returns to this point throughout the book. He explains that by staying in China after release from the war prisoner camps, he was given the opportunity for education and professional experience that would not be open to him in the United States at that time.
Adams grew up in a clearly defined segregated South in a Memphis family used to dealing with the harsh economic and political realities of segregation and discrimination. He learned to hustle for extra tips at a hotel job by playing up to people’s need to feel important. Then came the call for soldiers to fight in Korea.
Though the segregated military was supposed to be a thing of the past by 1948, it took years for the entrenched military to change. Various encounters in the military underlined the defacto segregation in the North that led Malcolm X to this statement: “The Mason Dixon line begins at the Canadian border.”
The Chinese entered the Korean War, surprising US troops fed on Thanksgiving turkey and incomplete information from their US superiors. Adams observes a black regiment providing cover for white troops escaping enemy fire, leaving no cover for the African- American soldiers. This event distilled into Adams’ a life long protest: though blacks in America lived in a climate of distain, were denied equal opportunity and basic human rights, they were shipped off to fight America’s wars.
In An American Dream, Adams writes of harrowing scenes of capture by Chinese troops, the march on iced roads to prison Camp 5 near Pyuktong and the near-starvation of the captured Americans. His narrative includes acts of kindness by the Chinese captors, but Adams is politically aware and knows that getting out alive will require communicating with the army prison officials. During the march to their permanent prison Adams couldn’t keep up with the main column of prisoners. Weak POWs who lagged behind were being shot, so Adams bargained for his life, begging to be allowed to start out early on the march and continue slowly to the next night’s camp behind the main column. He lost toes on one foot; he didn’t sleep, but he made it to the camp. Though afraid he might be branded a collaborator, months later, Adams stepped forward when the Chinese asked for representatives from the prisoner ranks to work with them to improve camp conditions.
After the war, Adams and 20 other American POWs (three African-Americans including Adams) elected to settle in China, some, like Adams, were placed in university degree programs, others were given factory jobs. All, according to Adams just wanted a better life than what they knew would be waiting for them back in the US. Vilified by the press, the 21 American POWs had varying degrees of success in China. Adams explains his choice: “I might not have known what China was really like before going there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America, and especially in Memphis.” (P.64)
Adams married a Chinese woman, they had two children, and he finished university and worked as a translator for the Foreign Language Press. During the Vietnam War Adams spoke on Radio Hanoi appealing to black American soldiers to think about their position in the war, suggesting they should be fighting for their own civil rights back home. The broadcast to American soldiers in Vietnam was used as grounds for a summons to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dropped the charges after questioning Adams for a week in camera.
After 12 years in China, Adams decided to return to his homeland. The Cultural Revolution had begun with unprovoked attacks on westerners, beatings and incarceration of educated people and intellectuals, not to mention, widespread destruction of art and cultural artifacts. When his employer told him to leave the Foreign Language Press and work in a distant factory, Adams knew his run of good relations with the Communist government was over.
Who was Louise Colet? Close friend, confident and lover of one of France’s greatest novelists — Gustave Flaubert. But long before she met Flaubert, she was a highly productive poet and essayist, a feminist dedicated to fighting for equal rights for women and honored by the Académie Française. She is usually described in the context of her friendship with Gustave Flaubert and billed as his muse. Yet, it is important to remember that when the writers met, she was the celebrated one, a 36 year old self-supporting poet noticed by the Académie, while he was an unpublished 24 year old aspiring novelist.
Louise Colet developed into a scathing political satirist, dedicated to supporting the mid – 19th century drive for liberty and justice. Decades after the American and French Revolutions which certainly jolted the aristocratic land-owning class, representative governance and human legal equality were still a distant dream for most people. The “trickle down” factors of economic equity, universal suffrage and political liberty were still being hammered out in North America and Europe. The idea that human rights and political equality and legal independence applied to women was hardly a view shared by men of the era. In this time period the people of many European countries pushed for democracy, labor and voting rights, legal equity and individual liberty. And so were Americans seeking civil justice, an end to slavery, voting rights for women and poor people who were excluded from participating in elections.
To follow the footsteps of Louise Colet, go to Provence, to Mouriès, the village near Servanes. The Hostellerie de Servanes is the ancestral estate where Louise Révoil grew up. Born in Aix-en-Provence, east of Servanes, Louise’s maternal family were local gentry with generations serving in the Parliament of Provence. Her father, from the merchant class, was head of the local postal system. She learned quite naturally to align herself with the people’s causes and in strictly divided class-conscious Aix, Louise’s aristocrat mother directed her family to walk on the side of the promenade for ordinary people rather than the elite side of the Cours Mirabeau, the “see and be scene” promenade in Aix, even though they were certainly entitled to walk with the local aristocracy. The Fonds Louise Colet, her papers and other archival material from Louise Colet ‘s life and work, is housed in the Médiathèque Ceccano section of the Bibliotheque Municipale d’Avignon.
The Musée Calvet in Avignon preserves Colet memorabilia, according to the acknowledgements in du Plessix Gray’s book, but I was not able to successfully search for items related to Louise Colet using the search function on the museum website. It’s likely material related to Louise Colet would be in a museum archive or library, rather than part of the collection on view digitally.
During her years in Paris, Colet lived in several different apartments, as might be expected for a single mother supporting herself with free-lance writing and literary stipends from the government. Louise Colet lived at 21 rue de Sèvres during the time she hosted her own literary salon, then very much in vogue. This apartment was not far from L’Abbaye aux Bois where Madame Récamier conducted her famous artistic and philosophical discussions until 1849. Colet had a falling out with her friend over the usual miscommunications and misunderstandings. Colet also lived at 21 rue Neuve Fontaine Saint-Georges (rue Fromentin). It was in this lodging in Montmartre where she decided to separate in 1842 after living briefly with her spouse, the musician Hippolyte Colet.
Louise Colet died March 8, 1876 in her daughter’s apartment, rue des Ecoles in Paris, although some books report that she died in a small hotel on that street. During the previous summer in Paris, Colet’s letters of the period were written from the Hotel d’ Angleterre, Rue Jacob and the Hotel du Palais-Royal, Rue de Rivoli. Contrary to her wishes, she was buried with Catholic Church ceremonial pomp that she despised, in daughter Henriette Colet Bissieu’s (her husband)’s family plot in the municipal cemetery in Verneuil, Normandy. The Bissieu family estate was named “Fryleuse” and is located in or near Verneuil. It is likely that the town “Verneuil” refers to Verneuil-sur-Avre which is in Normandy.
Beyond her writing, fired-up feminist rhetoric and long friendship with Gustave Flaubert, Louise Colet took on the Vatican and launched a public relations campaign on behalf of the mid-19th century freedom fighters Garibaldi and Cavour.
During her months in Italy, Louise Colet followed the footsteps of writers she admired, frequenting Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, Venice and searching for the exact rooms in the Hotel Nani (later, the Hotel Danieli) where writer George Sand and her lover Alfred Musset lived and worked decades earlier in 1833-1834.
But Colet’s main mission was to shine a light on the efforts of Cavour and Garibaldi to create a unified Italy. Their efforts to unify the fiefdoms and city-states of the Italian peninsula challenged the temporal power of the Vatican. Papal States scattered throughout the peninsula we now call Italy were gradually being brought under the unifying rule of Victor Emanuel; democratic government would follow unification. Colet used her considerable literary fame to seek meetings with key members of the Vatican government.
Francine du Plessix Gray writes:
“In February of 1861, after visits to Sicily that inspired many more pages of art history, Louise Colet left Naples for Rome. Victor Emmanuel had vastly diminished the Papal States the previous autumn when he occupied the Marches and Umbria, as Garibaldi had wished to do. The papal territory was reduced to the city of Rome, where the entrenched conservative factions had grown more bitter. The city was rife with secret police that kept watch on antipapist elements; one of its targets, in the first months of 1861, was Louise Colet. As soon as she had settled at the Hôtel Inghilterra – a lovely hostelry still standing today on the Via Bocca del Leone, two blocks from the Spanish Steps – she was warned by one of her compatriots, a bookstore owner, that she was under police surveillance.
The warning left her undaunted She was determined to remain in Rome = whose antiquities thrilled her as its religious artifacts horrified her = to continue her campaign against the Catholic clergy, which she considered to be the principal enemy of human progress.
Louise’s anticlericalism was fanned by a pope who was one of the more repressive Catholic leaders of the post-Reformation era and whose pontificate was the longest in the history of the papacy (1846 – 1878). Although he had begun as a fairly liberal reformist, Pius IX became an arch conservative in the 1850s, when Cavour attempted to limit his temporal power. He militantly opposed every goal of the Risorgimento, and his reign was defined by two of the most regressive encyclicals of papal history, those that set forth the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
When she arrived in Rome, Louise immediately set off to visit the Vatican, where she assisted at a Mass officiated by Pius IX in the Sistine Chapel. She describes the obese little Pope, his thick head doddering over a swollen neck, his muddy eyes and weak lips, his blotched red face and powdered hair, the archaic pomp with which his chair is carried into the church by fourteen papal guards. She considered the basilica of Saint Peter a site “of glacial pomp … totally devoid of any mysticism or mystery.” With the exception of the Pietà of Michelangelo, who “would have been a far greater artist if he had fawned less upon illiterate pontiffs,” the basilica’s “overabundance of riches” was a “a monument to hypocrisy … catering to the taste of parvenus and bankers.”
Louise was particularly disgusted with the opulent tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden – “a ruler more pagan in her mores than those of pre-Christian times” – whose recently published letters had revealed her to be “a thief, a violent, insolent and debauched strumpet.” In the middle of Saint Peter’s, Louise shouted, “I protest this sanctification of Christina of Sweden! As a saint,as one of the truly just, I far prefer Garibaldi!” Her outburst terrified a priest, who took to his heels and rushed back into the depths of the basilica.
Later that month, she wrote a burlesque of a Holy Week Mass at Saint Peter’s, which re-created the Last Supper: The Holy Father himself served food to the thirteen beggars who were seated at the table as stand-ins for Christ and his apostles. At the end of the liturgy, a few seconds after the Pope had left the church, a group of fat monks rushed to the altar, chased out the beggars, and stuffed the food and wine into large baskets for their own use (Louise’s description of Rome’s decadent religious mores occasionally strain the imagination).
Visiting the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Louise was prompted to make her own profession of faith, in which she revels a nonsectarian piety. She was, in fact, a Diest: She believed in a Supreme Being but maintained that the truths of this “Implacable Unknown” could not be incarnated in any temporal sect or power. Her credo was a blend of the ideologies that had influenced her since youth – her maternal grandfather’s Voltarian skepticism, Victor Cousin’s eclectic mysticism, Alfred de Vigny’s Stoicism, Victor Hugo’s catchall pantheism.
“Although I long ago left the Catholic faith [she wrote in the fourth and final volume of L’Italie des Italiens’, I enjoy meditating whenever I can in a great empty basilica. I do not feel as much communion with infinity there as I do when gazing on a beautiful starry night or the immensity of the ocean; but I cannot enter into one of these temples which a succession of religious sects erected to their gods without feeling a sorrowful compassion concerning our finitude.
… In our time the human soul is stifled by Catholicism, an antihuman doctrine whose architects suppressed all air and light … Liberty, Justice, Charity, Science, and Chastity have been no more than ringing words in the mouthpiece of the Church. … and at this very hour, the forces of liberty and justice shout out against the Church through all the voices of the Italian fatherland: “Why do you deny our liberation?” ”
These are the opinions with which Louise assaulted Cardinal Antonelli, Prime Minister of the Papal States, one of the Church’s highest-ranking prelates, when she cornered him at the Vatican in an attempt to obtain an audience with the Pope. It was a few days before her return to France, and Louise had a grand purpose in desiring to talk with the Holy Father. She wished to convert Pius IX to the cause of Italian liberation, to the side of Garibaldi and Cavour!
Sitting so close to her that his frock touched her dress, the cardinal, who wore immense rings of square-cut emeralds, addressed Louise as “cara mia” and heard her out but was not in the least swayed. “The Church,” he told her, “cannot recognize the people’s novel claim to emancipation, which of course is no more than the right to rape and murder. The meaningless concepts of ‘patriotism,’ ‘liberty,’ or ‘universal suffrage’ can only be brought about by violence.” Nor did the prelate rush to get Louise an audience with Pius. She had given him three days to arrange the meeting, and the cardinal explained that the Holy Father did not accept ultimatums. Thus were we deprived of a colorful episode – Louise Colet preaching revolution to the most reactionary Pope of modern times.
Louise left Rome for Paris in the spring of 1861, after a year and eight months in Italy. She would soon grieve over Camillo Cavour, who died suddenly, at fifty-one, a few weeks after she returned to France. But the revolutionary goals Cavour pursued had been fulfilled. All of the Italian peninsula, with the exclusion of Rome, had voted to be annexed to Victor Emmanuel’s kingdom. In March, at a parliamentary session in Turin, Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed the birth of a united kingdom of Italy.
The venom in Louise’s pen, and the biting social satire that Flaubert considered to be her greatest literary talent, increased in her later years. “Please accept the assurance of my most perfect disdain,” she signed letters to some of her antagonists.
Source: Gray, Francine du Plessix. (1994) Rage & Fire : A Life of Louise Colet. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp 307-310
No, it couldn’t happen in America, not in the 20th century. No way!
Oh, but forced sterilization did happen, encouraged by state governments, doctors and social workers. The programs were sometimes supported by pharmacy manufacturers and were based on lousy research by people who weren’t geneticists. The political ramifications bear close attention.
Sterilization programs did happen and not just in one place or during a remote time long ago. Utah, where researching ancestry is an ardent pursuit, was sterilizing people without their consent as recently as 1963. I’m relieved to note that my home state — Maryland — never passed a compulsory sterilization law. However, sterilizations without consent still occurred.
If you can stomach it, read Against Their Will to learn about the awful reality of North Carolina’s 20th century sterilization program which curtailed forever the capacity to reproduce for thousands of people without their consent. When was this North Carolina law finally struck down? In 2003!
Eugenics programs existed in many states. More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized without their consent, part of the eugenics fad of the 1920s that found its way into the rhetoric and practices of Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany and the United States of America were not the only nations engaging in compulsory sterilization — two provinces in Canada followed the US lead in this practice of weeding the gene pool.
North Carolina considered setting up the first Department of Heredity, leading to program where agencies across the nation would track family roots and decide who should or could reproduce. That didn’t happen.
Heroic journalism by the Winston-Salem Journal reporters Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey and Scott Sexton brought this repulsive episode to light. The series led to the North Carolina governor issuing an apology to the involuntary participants in the program. The North Carolina legislature was the first in the U.S. A. to consider compensation to victims of eugenics or involuntary sterilization.
Carol Ann Bassett, the author of A Gathering of Stones and a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, sure does get around. The book covers journeys to Ecuador, the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Mojave, the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and other outposts around the globe.
Bassett’s writing and subject matter appeals to the thoughtful traveler. In the first chapter, Calling Down the Moon, she offers a lucid explanation of the geologic evolution of the Sonora Desert, the birthing of the west, its plants, volcanoes and stones. Her writing is engaging, not always an easy task when explaining geology and botany.
A few of the journeys occurred a number of years ago and could have profited from factual updates. For example, in the compelling account of a 10-day shepherding trek across Arizona with immigrant Basque herders in 1986, Bassett skillfully captures the men’s wistful lonely life and their crusty exteriors. She reports that the men come from their Spanish Basque homelands to work a few years (or longer) on contract with the Western Ranger Association. It’s not revealed whether any of herders are working there now or whether other men are still arriving from Basque lands to herd in the American west.
Geoglyphs, which are rock alignments and giant figures created by indigenous peoples, are best seen from the air. Bassett describes some of these monuments in the Mojave located inside U.S. Army training compounds. Quite possibly the rock figures have been defaced by routine weapons firing. The rocks were sacred relics for first peoples of the lower Colorado River region, yet we don’t know the current condition of the rock alignments or whether scientists who want to study them are still forbidden entry to the military area. Such mindless institutional desecration is difficult to read about. Perhaps that is Bassett’s intent: to send the curious reader to the Internet to research the status of these cultural relics.
Bassett tackles the downside of nature tourism, which can deposit hundreds of visitors a day in fragile habitats such as the Galapagos Islands. She discusses the inveterate laxity of enforcement even though protective laws may be in place.
Though all of the chapters offer sleek writing about important subjects, the facts are sometimes left open ended. Perhaps this serves brevity, but the absence of fact grounding and updates reveals the previous incarnation of many of the chapters — as newspaper and magazine feature content for travel consumers hunting down fresh exotica. Collected in book format, the older journeys would be more meaningful for a contemporary reader if current conditions in these threatened regions had also been examined, at least as brief epilogues.
In the chapter Where Butterflies are Souls, Bassett paints a detailed portrait of the Tarahumara people and handily compares the Aztec Day of the Dead celebrations with a gloomy Catholic mass. This second largest (Navaho nation is larger) indigenous American population north of Mexico City experiences socio-cultural stress from clear-cutting of forests for lumber and abandonment of their traditional practices in favor of work in the lumber mills. Attentive readers will also get the message that the indigenous people are also affected by the intrusion of ethno-tourists who pack into eco-lodges to observe the Tarahumara ways.
In other chapters, Bassett bravely discusses the issue. Ethno tourism may provide survival revenue for tribal peoples near extinction, but at what cost? It is demeaning to the natives and tourists alike as the visiting westerners peer at household rituals of fire making, eating and washing. Are we to stop traveling, stop the momentum of progress?
Curious readers will want to do further research to investigate the outcomes of these threatened locations and peoples. The collection is a solemn drumbeat, a wake for vanishing people, regions and cultures.
Book review by L. Peat O’Neil was published in excellent book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.
Peat O’Neil is a writing instructor and author of Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story published by Writer’s Digest Books.