essays and articles by david g allen


Nouns

 

A tribute to Dorothy Davis (1914--2004); teacher, writer, historian

 

For our purposes of understanding the dilemmas of the present day, perspective can be a wonderful study tool, can it not?  Our only problem to date with perspective seems to be its Dopplerian nature because we seldom know where we stand in our own time whenever it is that we have chosen to revisit history.  When we do travel back in time, we examine the written record which invariably includes interpretations of literature as well as the catalogue of historic fact.

In the last two decades, T. S. Eliot has been both praised and vilified for his commentary on human behavior.  CATS was brought to the Broadway stage as Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical interpretation of Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.  But since the show's premiere, there has been a tussle of criticism (in literary circles) over Eliot's perceived anti-Semitic writings.  And therein may lie our dualistic problem with perspective--perception. 

I enjoyed the verse as well as the musical.  I've also read some of Eliot's other works while in college though well before academia construed them to be anti-Semitic.  Thus, I recently concluded that I must be living in some out-of-sync era because I have not been able to understand this modern criticism of Mr. Eliot.  If turnabout is indeed fair play, then it seems that the literary critics should pay heed to my perspective as well.  My perspective?

Some would say that our notion of April was forever changed when Eliot pronounced it the "cruelest month" in The Waste Land.  How many times since have we seen this line quoted in the print media whenever there's so much as a cloudy day in April?  And yet, it's hard for one to believe that this stern passage was penned by the same man who poked fun at us and the perceived importance of our own names in The Naming of Cats:

               ...of the thought of his name, of the thought of his name:  
                    His ineffable effable  
                    Effanineffable
                    Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Well, any hint of freshness in April was wrung out in 1922 with the publication of The Waste Land and we didn't have to wait much longer until the critics sought quotable modifiers for each of the remaining months.  This eyeshaded brassiness led to the maligning of October after the stock market crash in 1929.  Even "Bloody Friday" took it on the chin!  And it was all as if something dire had never happened on an October Friday before. 

So whatever happened to the kinder, gentler times when our children could make jest of the months when playing in the schoolyard?  They'd ask:

                If April showers bring May flowers, then what do Mayflower's bring?

Nothing cruel about April here!  Only a kid's attempt to humor his chums at the expense of the Puritans.

Fortunately, for those of us living in West Virginia, April is anything but cruel.  Our forested Appalachian hills muffle the echoes of even neighborly criticism--mine included.  April is considered our good friend, teasing us like schoolchildren with her green wisps and flowery swatches of Nature's new fashion collection.  April has her flair for being, too.  For us, an Appalachian April is the month of re-birth.

Well there!  I've had my go at naming months!  

Perhaps we all do because it came as a surprise to me that no less a student of the Appalachian hills and of T. S. Eliot, the venerable Dorothy Davis, had figured mightily during her teaching career that September, if not altogether cruel, was at least the "dreaded month".  Why September?  'Twas the month when school went into session for most of her career.  Oh, to be sure, you could understand a charmless, hot and humid August as being a teacher's nightmare.  That's when we march to the bus stops nowadays.  But for bygone generations, Labor Day was the bellwether that signaled when summer was done and school days began.

She first told me of this prejudice one winter's day while she stoked the fireplace.  There, at the end of South Dale Street in Salem, sits the house built by her father-in-law, the town's physician, and it, probably as did he, surveys the goings-on in Salem with a professional's detachment.  Often, when I'd stop by in winter, Dorothy and I would talk on and on about the nonsensical and inconclusive state of world and national affairs.  I suppose there were times when we took ourselves seriously but, surely, that was at the beginning of the hour and not near the end.  Because at the end of our chats, we'd usually arrive at the same conclusion:  namely, that life in general really hasn't changed in all these years even though we're quick to say that it has.

In retirement, her perception of September had changed.

There can be no doubt that September's harvest is a reminder of why we toil all spring and summer.  It's that time of final ripening that allows us to reflect on the amount of rain and sun and weeds and bugs that the growing season brought us.  All at once, bushels of vegetables tell us the numbers in the latest inning of the game between man and Nature.  And no matter what the score or the sum total of our errors, we usually conclude that victory was ours for the taking.

That wintry day when she first expounded on September wasn't a particularly cold one.  But the fireplace was lit and the hearth stocked with Osage-orange logs, a hearty, crackling wood seeming just right for inviting two armchair philosophers to discuss the merits of life and living.  And the crackling nature of that wood, while never quite as predictable as our conversations, nevertheless seemed to accentuate our remarks.

In the years following her retirement, when dictated schedules began to disappear, Dorothy became appreciative of all the months.  January, she said, allowed her to be "cloistered" and tend to the work delayed by the holidays.  From then on, each month had its purpose.  Christmas at South Dale Street began with the first blooms of May because she was eager to dry the flowers.  Throughout summer and fall, she'd glue the petals to hand-made Christmas cards.  Though it was never mentioned, I always supposed that the haiku she wrote for the greeting was actually composed in June or July.  The potatoes she dug in October were husbanded in the cellar for year-round use as starter for the salt-rising bread which she baked and shared, seven loaves to the batch.  Deadlines for newspaper columns and demands for her thoroughly-researched historical sketches made for timely interruptions.  (A Doctor of Letters  shouldn't be too consumed by the seasonal chores!)  And so went the progressions of the seasons at the two-storied Victorian house on South Dale Street--a virtual symphony of sowing, tending, harvesting, and using all mixed together with research, writing, and an all-too-brief cloistered respite between years.

She hired a workman to install a gas heater in the fireplace when the drudgery and mess of the log fire caught up with her a few years ago.  Made to look like logs ablaze, this new contraption gave the Gas Company its due but little warmth to the homesteader, the heat going up the flue rather than into the room.  This blue-flamed fire was no substitute for the occasions when the Osage-orange popped and crackled.  In fact, based on this one example of technology gone awry, I think our conversations turned to deriding all of the modern substitutes that pretend to capture the warmth of their predecessors.  And once, while I roundly cursed modernity and its pretense at personality, she stopped me in mid-breath to offer this famous quotation:  "May you live in interesting times!"  Then she was the one heard cursing as she couldn't recall who had said it!

"Oh damn!", she roared, "I've lost my nouns!"  (With "nouns" being pronounced, "nownz".)  That may seem odd to you.  After all, our English teachers, retired or otherwise, aren't supposed to mock the language.  But the drawl with which she so richly tarnished "nouns" was so deft as to lend the word only a valued patina.

Ever since, I've often brought to mind that quote, "May you live in interesting times!", and it makes me come to think that its author wanted us to seize on the interesting moments in our own lives rather than dwell on a disinterested historian's retelling of events.  It may be read either way, though.  I'm sure that the Roaring Twenties had at least one saloon full of boors.  And I'm certain that our Civil War had regiments of the disinterested as well as non-combatants.  Alas, in history, both eras qualify as interesting times. 

Isn't our present day as interesting as life has ever been?  With access to multimedia, we know so much gossip!  We simultaneously complain that we know too much while brazenly asking for more.  Whether our taste for scandal is comparable to an addiction or chewing gum losing its flavor is academic--we do live in interesting times. 

From time to time, Dorothy and I concluded that the skunks in office today probably didn't smell any worse than yesteryear's.  We recalled Warren Harding (whose own father told him that if he'd been born a girl then he'd always be in the family way) as being a standard of comparison.  Indeed, unless the people of the future elect Ben Dover to the presidency, then Harding's currency will remain intact.  And while lack of personal integrity seemed to be the one thing that we concluded had deteriorated, we then paused to reconsider our argument.  If past generations had had the lack of censure as we do today, would they have cheated any less?  Most likely they would have done the same, which is: Obey the standards that your era demands.

Philosophy or no, these discussions sometimes left us with a hint of sadness.  We weren't trying to judge our peers as being inferior but were regretful to see that today's youngsters would likely not be exposed to the ideals that make men and women reach for the stars.  In the present era, we have sought the common denominator, the Lake Woebegone children, whose creator, Garrison Keillor, said were "all above-average".  It should not be.  But we have made it so and we've proved the results statistically.

In time, people will tire of the blissful mirage of Lake Woebegone.  The pursuit of ideals eventually springs forth even in a desert.  This same phenomenon caused our forbears to leave home and seek new shores and will, no doubt, do so again. 

Since the beginning of civilization, hope has been marred by sadness, only to revive itself.  Adam and Eve, upon learning of the escalating feud between their sons, most likely warmed to the crackle of their campfire and asked of each other, "How could this happen?"  As nouns did not exist prior to them, can we even begin to imagine their bewilderment?  So then, was that the moment of our genesis--this living in what we call "interesting times"?

*   *   *

 

Perhaps someday, a young person puzzled by the mystery of life will warm to my hearth and ask of me for a philosophy that he or she can recognize as being true.  When that day arrives, then I too shall recall that wonderfully puzzling quotation, "May you live in interesting times!"  And when asked for attribution, I'll be able to answer forthrightly that a credentialed scholar, published historian, and esteemed friend named Dorothy Davis coined that blessing. 

That is to say, until the time comes when I've lost my nouns.

 

David G. Allen, 1997

christmas card by dorothy davis made from dried flowers

The candle's soft glow
Mates the wonder, awe and joy
We know on Christmas.

Dorothy Davis

Christmas, 1996

 

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Copyright 1990-2005  David G. Allen