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Awakenings, Of A Sort

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So.  It’s Sunday morning, and my work for the day is finished, and I have tea.  I should have Bach playing behind me, or Mozart, or that sort of thing, because that’s what I do on Sunday mornings.  That is not happening, right now, because, for some reason known only to itself, the machine on which I usually play my music has decided that it doesn’t like the CD with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony on it. 

In fact, it hates that particular CD so much, it refuses to even recognize that it’s there.  I put the CD in the machine and the message pops up:  open tray.  I open the tray and then close it again and the message pops up:  open tray.

After about 15 minutes of this, I got Matt up out of a sound sleep so that he could try it for a while and then explain to me that it probably just needed to “rest.”  The machine, that is.  You turn it off and leave it off for an hour or two, and then when you turn it back on…

And people wonder why I think of electronics as being a sentient race of …somethings.

Whatever.

I’ve been reading, over the past week, a book called New England’s Moral Legislator:  Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817 by John R. Fitzmier.

This is not, however, a book recommendation.  Oh, there’s nothing particularly awful about the book–except, possibly, the fact that the author feels compelled to write (sic) after every single quoted 18th century spelling–but it’s not the kind of thing most of you have indicated any interest in reading.  It’s also a published doctoral dissertation.

Some people, when they publish their doctoral dissertations, make a point of turning them into “real books.”  This, not so much.

I’ve had this book lying around my house for many years, part of my project to come to some systematic understanding of the history of New England and of the place of the American founding in it. 

That sounds very dry and academic, but all it really amounts to is that I was born and brought up here and the place interests me. 

And because the place has interested me for a long time, I’ve come increasingly to the suspicion that everything everybody says about the American founding and the separation of church and state is complete and utter crap. 

Okay.  That is more overly simplified than the other thing was overly academic.

But–Timothy Dwight.

In the first place, I should say that it would never have occurred to me to read anything about the man if it hadn’t been for an accident of geography.

When I was in high school and first moving out from fiction to other kinds of books–when Ayn Rand, of all people, got me interested in reading Aristotle, and Aristotle got me interested in reading Locke–the town in which I lived was not great at providing that kind of thing.  It was the days before Interlibrary Loan, so that didn’t help, either. 

What’s more, at fourteen, I couldn’t get into New York on my own, and my  mother was afraid of the place.   What she wasn’t afraid of was New Haven, where she herself had grown up and where her sister still lived, along with my cousins.

And New Haven has Yale.  And Yale has–or had?–the Co-op, where cheap editions of every philosopher you’d ever heard of could be found, stocked for students who needed them for classes.

And the place was open to the public.

It didn’t take me very long to figure all this out, and to establish a patter whereby my birthdays and the week after Christmas consisted of my father giving me a wad of cash and my mother dropping me off at the New Haven green while she went to visit my Aunt Dot. 

This worked really well, because I truly hated visiting my Aunt Dot and my New Haven cousins, and I truly loved spending hours on end in the Yale Co-op. 

I also liked wandering around the middle of New Haven, and through that part of it that is Yale.  Yale represented to me, at the time, everything I was hoping to reach after digging my way out of…well, my mother’s family.   It was beautiful Gothic buildings and books and people who spent all their time reading them and thinking about them and talking about them.  It was only a minor annoyance that the university, at the time, admitted only men.

It would be a major annoyance, later, when I found out that my ideal world did not exist on the Yale campus of that time, or of anywhere else of that time. 

A friend of mine once asked me if I didn’t have a place where I just fit in, and the answer is:  no.  I would fit in in my imaginary Yale, if it existed, but apparently it does not.

At any rate, my mother would drop me off at the Green and I would go wandering around the Yale part of New Haven, looking at the buildings and daydreaming, until I got to the Co-op and could go in to buy books.  One of the clusters I passed regularly was the gate to and buildings of Timothy Dwight College. 

Yale is arranged in residential “colleges,” in imitation of Oxford.  My favorite was Jonathan Edwards College, which is how I came to get hold of a copy of Edwards’s Freedom of the Will at a very young age.  That was because the book, published by the Yale University Press, was in the philosophy section of the Co-Op and I came across it one day.

I never came across anything by Dwight, and so, until fairly recently–say, twenty years ago–I had no idea who he was or what he had done to get a college at Yale named after him.

For what it’s worth, what he’d done was to be President of Yale for a while, something that his grandfather had also done.  His grandfather was that same Jonathan Edwards whose college I’d loved and whose book had introduced me, for the first time, to Protestant theology. 

Granted, I hadn’t actually learned much about Protestant theology, but it was a start.  And it turned the history of New England into a lifelong obsession.

There turn out, in fact, to be some interesting things about Timothy Dwight.

He wrote one of the earliest true crime accounts in American literature, for one.  He was one of the earliest promoters of conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, for another.  He was one of the earliest Americans to excoriate all things French.   “The touch of France is pollution,” he said.  “Her enbrace is death.”

Dwight is not the kind of writer I usually consider as important for those lists I’m always making up.  He wrote allegorical poems about the founding of America in heroic couplets.  And they were long.  He wrote endless sermons whose tone was essentially scolding.

But he did something else, and that something else is why he is not a waste of time for me.

He became the lynchpin of the conservative side in a national conversation about the place of religion in American society and government–and in a conversation so eerily similar to what we have now that it feels like an hallucination when I read it.

But I’ll get on to that, secularism and religion, the Second Great Awakening, the drive of secularism–and how both sides lost.

Right now, I’d better eat something.

Written by janeh

August 14th, 2011 at 10:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Awakenings, Of A Sort'

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  1. Strange. I literally can’t remember a time without Interlibrary Loan, though I didn’t start working it hard until about 1969. Allen County Public Library is a serious one.

    Computers and CD players are Large Inanimate Objects. It is well known that Small Inanimate Objects hide, while Large Inanimate Objects refuse to work. This may be a conciliatory gesture on their part. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if your car hid or your car keys refused to work? (Now that I think of it, this has happened to me a couple of times on large parking lots.)

    Don’t believe I’ll follow you through New England. I OD’d on New England town studies back when everyone else was OD’ing on pharmaceuticals. But be sure to visit Samuel Elliot Morrison while you’re passing through–at least THE FLOWERING OF NEW ENGLAND.

    And coming to Aristotle through Ayn Rand sounds perfectly reasonable to me. How else?

    robert_piepenbrink

    14 Aug 11 at 11:30 am

  2. Sloppy today. Van Wyck Brooks for FLOWERING, of course, and Jane would already know that. Morrison for 17th Century intellectual life and for Harvard, but it sticks in my mind that he was also useful on the popular culture of New Englnnd. Possibly MARITIME HISTORY OF MASSACHUSETTS? The New England sections of Fisher’s ALBION’S SEED were fun, but I’m not hauling Demos out of storage.

    robert_piepenbrink

    14 Aug 11 at 9:53 pm

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