Unfolding the Map
We're going to go Mediaeval and get Romantic in this post. While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) travels through Bad Axe and tries to locate Ivanhoe, Michigan but only finds a church, I will look a little more into the place's namesake and explore Romanticism in general. It's going to be fun, really! With a cartoon at the end. Do an heroic quest for the map to locate Ivanhoe!
"....I was on state 142, just west of the farm town of Bad Axe, and looking for Ivanhoe. Later when I was - apparently - in Ivanhoe, I had found only a church,..."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 1
After moving through Bad Axe, LHM really makes an effort to find Ivanhoe, Michigan. I surmise that his interest is based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott. I don't know if Ivanhoe is named for the novel but I will spend the post on this possibility since the novel touches on some themes that I've already covered in previous posts.
So, what is Ivanhoe? It was written by Scott and published around 1820 or thereabouts. I've never read the book, but the author was trashed by one of my favorite writers. More about that later.
Ivanhoe is a novel based in Romanticism and Mediaevalism. Romanticism was in many ways a reaction against the ideals and progress of its time. In Europe, first the Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution led to many changes in society. Rural lifestyles were supplanted by the growth of cities and the rise of new technology. Social movements formed as well, upending the traditional class systems. In the midst of this, Romantics looked inward, focused on emotion and feelings, believing in natural law (universal laws derived from nature rather than man-made law) and gazed longingly on a mediaeval past and a simpler, happier time. In America, Romanticism helped birth some of our greatest literature - James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans is an example - where Native Americans were noble savages helpless to preserve themselves against the industrial and military might, and intrigues, of France and Britain in their attempts to conquer North America. It also led to the Transcendental Movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Romanticism not only fueled literature but also art and music also and had a large effect on politics as well. In Germany, its ideals not only inspired Richard Wagner's great operas, but also may have culminated in Nazi ideology which was based in large part on a hatred of industrialization and the idea that with enough "living room," Germans could be strong and mighty heroes that would return their country to its traditional pastoral and rural past.
Ivanhoe itself is a novel set in a time of change. The Normans had conquered England, and the last remaining Saxon families are having to decide their allegiances. Wilfred of Ivanhoe, son of a Saxon lord, pledges allegiance to the Norman king Richard I (the Lionhearted) and disrupts his father's plans to marry his ward, Lady Rowena, to another powerful Saxon lord and possible claimant to the throne. In this backdrop of change the winners (Normans) are consolidating their claim to England and marching forward through history while the losers (Saxons) look back longingly and helplessly upon what they have lost.
I've never considered myself a Romantic, but I've struck similar tones at times throughout this blog, particularly about the potential harmful effects of technology. I have wistfully looked back on times when people spent less time on their cell phones, IPods, IPads and Facebook and actually talked with each other. I have fondly remembered when a busy signal meant that the person you were trying to reach would not be available for awhile. I have recalled a time where cable television had only thirteen stations when I grew up. At times, I have felt like a modern Ivanhoe, caught between a world of yesterday and today. Like Ivanhoe, I have embraced the present (my Richard I is computers, media at my fingertips, music when and where I want) and yet yearned for the past I've lost (my Lady Rowena is the simpler life that I used to lead without all of these things).
I've already mentioned that one offshoot of the Romantic movement might be Nazism. Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors, lays another fault at the feet of Romanticism, particularly that espoused by Sir Walter Scott. Twain writes that Sir Walter Scott:
sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish
forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government;
with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds,
and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.
He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any
other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now
outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them;
but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so
forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.
There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth
century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter
Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical,
common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up
with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an
absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.
But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner--
or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it--
would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed,
and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.
It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major
or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it
was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations.
For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also
reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.
Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and
contributions of Sir Walter.
Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed
before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.
It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had
any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might,
perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of
the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War:
but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman.
The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter's
influence than to that of any other thing or person.
Life on the Mississippi
I'm not sure if it's fair of Twain, as much as I like him, to blame not only the character of the South before the Civil War, slavery, and the Civil War itself on Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps he was making him the figurehead of the Romantic movement. In that case, the progressive forces of industrialism and modernity, moving in the Union, won the war.
In fact, LHM is sort of on a Romantic quest in his trip around America and he too laments some of the things that are changing and that are lost. I believe each one of us will always wrestle with those two sides of our Janus. The forward looking, modern and ultimately hopeful sides of our characters will always fight, even a little, with the side of our character that looks back and wonders what we've left behind, and whether our progress has really been worth it.
Possibly the apex of music of the Romantics, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is the beginning of the third act of Die Walküre, which is the second opera in his Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. You'll recognize the tune from Apocalypse Now.
If you want to know more about Bad Axe and Ivanhoe
Next up: Ubly and Port Huron, Michigan