Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Becoming Unstuck In Time

Listen.  Pete Reilly has come unstuck in time.

I've been thinking about easing up just a bit on to start to get with some of the projects I have assigned myself for this blog.  I keep thinking that if I just stopped goofing off so much
ing off so much - You know doing things like playing Scrabble on facebook where my record since June 10, 2014 is 459/491/1 and am desperately trying to get to even - I could do it all, but it is just not happening.  And of course my covivant who is also my business partner expects me to do some real work.

The latest project that I have assigned myself starts with an illustration as to why I should stay away from Abebooks, if I don't want to die broke.  I found something irresistible,  A copy of a 1934 edition of Boswell's life of Johnson that was owned by James Gould Cozzens.  It was from the collection of Matthew J. Bruccoli who was Cozzen's biographer and I'm pretty sure friend to the extent that Cozzens was capable of having a friend.

It is interesting that Bruccoli's wikipedia bio focuses on his expertise on F. Scott Fitzgerald. There is something even more intriguing.  Cozzens is known as a chronicler of the Wascpocracy of which he is firmly a part. Some of the WASPs in his masterpiece By Love Possessed set in a fictional Pennsylvania county seat in the early to mid fifties have a fond condescending relationship to the "negroes' in the town who seem to be all related to a single escaped slave two or three generation back, whose current patriarch makes sure that they only serve the "best" families in town.  They feel under assault, though, by Catholics and Jews.  These attitudes were ascribed to Cozzens himself, which stirred up quite a bit of controversy.  It was an unfair attack, Cozzens had a fairly jaundiced view of humanity regardless of race or religion.

Oddly enough in our generation the Waspocracy ended up being swamped.  The best evidence of that is that the Supreme Court has no Protestants on it and its most conservative member is of Italian descent and a graduate of a Jesuit high school.

At any rate Bruccoli has an odd background to become the chronicler of the chronicler of the Waspocracy.  Ethnic Italian family in the Bronx.  Graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.  There must be an interesting story there.

So at any rate added to my unfinished projects for this blog is transcribing the Boswell passages that Cozzens highlighted.  Of course before I do that I have to reread Boswell and in the process of doing that I have to read some of the things that Johnson wrote, since for the most part I relate to the guy only from his sayings which are really great. Somehow I just can't get the poetry.  The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia  is pretty compelling though.

And then in the process of doing all this reading I find myself getting hooked by a Jean Shepherd biography - Excelsior You Fathead. So I'm bouncing between the three of them and somehow it is all connected.  In some ways, for many of us, Jean Shepherd is our Samuel Johnson and because of his peculiar relationship with us through the radio, we are all his Boswell.

I sometimes say that after Middlemarch, there is really no point in having any more novels, but I think it is fair to make an exception for Cozzens and Shepherd who both chronicled different aspects of the American experience in different ways. Nobody has really done it yet for the almost entirely dethnicized descendants of the Irish Famine, although Matthew Thomas in We Are Not Ourselves gives it a pretty good shot.

So my unstuckness in time is partially literary as I connect Samuel Johnson and Margaret Fuller and George Eliot and James Gould Cozzens to Jean Shepherd and those of us who are walking around and scratching today.

The other thing that brings it up for me is family memories, of which I appear to have more than my share.  One of my young cousins as a school project interviewed me as kind of a member of my generation.  It was a very odd experience.  He is 16 and my first cousin twice removed.  I was telling him stories about his great great grandmother, whom I remember pretty vividly.  As I branched into other family events I told him about something that had happened over twenty years ago and I commented that he was there, which is kind of idiotic.  Of course I was thinking of his father.

Nobody ever told me a story about one of my great great grandparents.  One of my great grandparents fought, well more like served, for the Union during the Civil War, but the only family memory I ever got about that was that he was in the infantry. I learned quite a bit more by doing research and his portrait which was hidden in attic when I was a lad hangs in my living room. I even may have stood not far from where he camped exactly 150 years after the battle in which he came within the sound of the guns.

So I'm telling this kid about hearing a story 50 years ago about something that happened over 60 years before that and somehow it all is seamlessly connected.

Peter J Reilly, who flunked out of graduate school in history, hopes to be the first tax blogger to give up his day job.

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