Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Very Bad Day at the Summer Resort—Pompeii, 79 AD

The Eruption of Vesuvius by Edward Turner, early 19th Century.

On August 23, 79 AD by traditional accounts Mount Vesuvius near the shores of the Bay of Naples erupted destroying of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The destruction of the cities was known through an eyewitness account of the eruption from across the bay by then 17 year old Pliny the Younger, later a noted historian in his own right, in letters to the historian Tacitus
The letters described the fate of his uncle Pliny the Elder, commander of the Roman Navy on the bay, who attempted to rescue friends by boat but was trapped on land by unfavorable winds and died the next day, probably of inhaling the toxic fumes of the eruption.  The Elder was only one of tens of thousands of victims
Vesuvius is one of the most active and dangerous volcanoes in the world, then and now.  Not only does it erupt frequently, it is apt to explode violently, as it did that year first sending up a huge column of ash, expelling rocks and boulders, and the sending waves of deadly pyroclastic flowfast-moving currents of hot gas and rock—which travel down the slope of the volcanic cone at speeds generally as great as 450 mph.  The gas can reach temperatures of 1,830 °F. 
The region was unsteady due to volcanic activity.  Ancients told of earlier eruptions and the Greek demigod Hercules was associated with the volcano.  The town of Herculaneum, a sea port, was named for him.  Vesuvius was associated with Jove and his cult centered in the area. 
Earthquakes were common.  Seven years earlier a large quake heavily damaged Pompeii, and some areas of the city had still not been repaired.  But the towns had been resettled and residents grew used to regular tremors.  These intensified in the days before the eruption. 
Residents were at first unconcerned with the eruption, but were soon thrown into a panic as rock and heavy ash began descending on them.  Those who could attempted to escape.  Some made it to boats in the bay, others escaped by land.  But many were still trapped when the pyroclastic flow engulfed the cities, killing anyone in its path.  Within days both cities were completely buried in ash
Over time the exact location of the cities were lost.  

Vesuvius today still looms over the ruins of Pompeii.  It is still active and one day may well bury the city again.
Vesuvius continued to erupt regularly, although never as violently as in 79 AD.  Eruptions were recorded in 787, 968, 991, 999, 1007 and 1036.  After a period of relative quiet a new spate of eruptions started in 1631 and was followed by events in 1660, 1682, 1694, 1698, 1707, 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, 1794, 1822, 1834, 1839, 1850, 1855, 1861, 1868, 1872, 1906, 1926, 1929, and 1944 with the mountain “smoking” and regular earthquakes in between.  The volcano has not erupted since 1944. 
It remains the most active volcano in the world and sits in a densely populated region with 600,000 people living in the so-called Red Zone on the slopes of the mountain or in likely kill zone of another major pyroclastic flow.  

Sexually explicit frescoes like this so shocked Catholic sensibilities that ruins were ordered reburied or walls were plastered over to prevent them from corrupting the morals of those why laid eyes on them.

The two Roman towns were buried by up to 75 feet of ash in the original eruption and further burred over time.  In 1599 a worker digging a tunnel discovered walls covered in frescos, including one that bore the inscription decurio Pompeii—the town councilor of Pompeii—but an architect examining the findings did not connect it with the rumored ancient city.  Shocked by the erotic content of the frescoes, he ordered the ruins reburied and they were forgotten again.
Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 by workmen digging for the foundations of a summer palace for Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples. Pompeii was rediscovered as the result of intentional excavations in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre.  Charles, later King of Spain, took an interest in the antiquities discovered, ordered the areas preserved, and began the first excavations to unearth the towns. 
Those highly sexual frescos and even common kitchen items incorporating phallic motifs were frequently reburied or even plastered over in the early years.  The sexual mores of the Romans, at least those who could afford the luxury of summering at the resort city of Pompeii, were looser than anything then—or now.  Some of the repeating phallic imagery, however, has been attributed to fertility cults rather than sexual libertinism.   
Some of this material was still not regularly available for public viewing until the year 2000 and still requires minors get parental permission.  Christian moralists have long argued that Pompeii represented a later day Sodom and Gomorra and was destroyed by God’s wrath
Today, even after more than 200 years of excavations less than 20% of the total areas of the two cities have been uncovered.  But what has been found presents an astonishing glimpse of well preserved everyday life in the early Roman Empire down to the discovery that graffiti was common.  Hundreds of remains have been found intact, preserved where they fell by the ash.  The skeletal remains of others have been discovered still cloaked in the remnants of clothing and wearing jewelryCastings made of the dead where they fell have become a tourist attraction.  

Rapidly falling ash quickly buried victims and preserved many of their bodies in the final moment of their lives as they were overcome by the hot, poisonous gasses.  Plaster castings like this one are on display in Pompeii.

Both archeological sites have been declared World Heritage Sites by the United Nations.  A large number of artifacts from Pompeii are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum and about 20% of excavated Pompeii can be visited by tourists.  Both sites are now within the boundaries of Italy’s Vesuvius National Park.  Park authorities have stopped most new digging to preserve the site.  Whether the archeological treasure—and the modern towns that surround it—can survive a future eruption of sleeping Vesuvius is open to question.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Restless Soul of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters as a young man.

Edgar Lee Masters was the author of one of the greatest single volumes of American poetry ever—The Spoon River Anthology.  That book in which the denizens of a small 19th Century Illinois village graveyard tell their stories, is still a shock and an eye opener for anyone who bought into the Disney version of small town life as a kind of perfect idyll.
Masters was born on August 23, 1868 in Kansas where his father had briefly established a law practice.  When that failed the family moved back to his grandparents farm near Petersburg in Menard County, Illinois.  In 1880 the family moved again to nearby Lewistown where the boy attended high school and showed an interest in both writing and following his father’s shaky footsteps in the law.  He had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News—a Democratic challenger to the dominance and hegemony in the state of the Republican Chicago Tribune.

In the late 1880’s he attended Knox Academy, the prep school for Knox College but was forced to drop out when his family could no longer support him.  After that he read law at his father’s law office.  His dad was the village Freethinker and thus something of an outcast.  The practice revolved around the margins of local life, petty civil cases for those who could not afford the lawyers who hobnobbed with the judges and bankers, criminal cases, divorces, anything that exposed the underside of the community.  It was an eye-opening experience.

Edgar Lee Masters' boyhood home in Lewistown, Illinois

After passing the Bar, young Masters hot footed it out of town to Chicago in 1893 where he hoped to advance both his legal and writing careers. He went into practice with Kickham Scanlan and began to publish poetry under the name Dexter Wallace.
In 1898 he married the daughter of a prominent lawyer and began a family that grew to three children including a daughter Marsha who grew up to be a poet and a son Hilary who became a novelist.  But the union grew stormy due to Master’s extramarital affairs.
In 1903 Masters went into partnership with Clarence Darrow, already noted as a top labor and defense attorney.  They were united in their Democratic politics, instinctive radicalism, Free thought, and admiration for the labor Democrat hero, Governor John Peter Altgeld.  As a junior partner in the firm, master handled mostly routine criminal and civil cases for the poor, often pro bono.
Despite an amicable beginning, the partnership foundered in 1908 and formally broke up in 1911 due to a business dispute with Darrow and a messy, scandalous marriage.    Despite the bitter personal falling out, he remained an admirer of Darrow.
Masters published two little noted volumes of poetry under pen names in 1898 and 1910.
During his hiatus from the active practice of law as his partnership with Darrow disintegrated he began work on writing and polishing poems inspired by his home town.  In 1914 he began to publish these in Reedy’s Mirror out of St. Louis under another nom de plume, Webster Ford.  A year later the poems were collected and issued as The Spoon River Anthology with the assistance and encouragement of Harriet Monroe of Poetry Magazine to instant critical and popular acclaim.
The poet/lawyer in 1910 on the cusp of fame. 
During his hiatus from the active practice of law as his partnership with Darrow disintegrated he began work on writing and polishing poems inspired by his home town.  In 1914 he began to publish these in Reedy’s Mirror out of St. Louis under another nom de plume, Webster Ford.  A year later the poems were collected and issued as The Spoon River Anthology with the assistance and encouragement of Harriet Monroe of Poetry Magazine to instant critical and popular acclaim.
Suddenly the obscure lawyer was famous.  He gradually wound down the practice of law to concentrate on a literary career.  Although he was embittered in old age that none of his subsequent work got the attention of that book, he produced prolifically and with great skill.  In all there were 19 more volumes of verse including a sequel The New Spoon River, 12 plays, 6 novels, and 7 biographies.  Among the subjects of his biographies were fellow Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman to each of whom he owed a debt of gratitude.
His 1931 bio Lincoln the Man was a highly controversial self-proclaimed de-mythologizing of the Prairie President.  In part it was a direct refutation of fellow Illinois poet Carl Sandburg’s lyrical and lionizing biographies.  His jealousy of Sandburg was well known, but he seems to have been most influenced a loyalty to the Democratic Party of the 19th Century which was already vanishing outside the Deep South.  He pictured Lincoln as a Whig tool of the banks and railroads from the beginning in service to concentrated wealth against the common man.  He was pictured as tyrant who rushed the country into an unwanted war to the applause of Eastern elites.  The book was a popular success in the South, but it virtually destroyed his reputation with the liberal literary establishment, many previously admiring critics turning against his whole body of work.
He had quit the practice of law entirely by 1920 and moved to New York to concentrate on writing.  Masters finally divorced his first wife in 1923 years after abandoning the family.   In 1926 he married Ellen Coyne with whom he had another son, Hardin.

Masters in Egypt in 1921.

Although Masters won plaudits and honors including the Mark Twain Silver Medal in 1936, the Poetry Society of America medal in 1941, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1942, and the Shelly Memorial Award in 1944 he never matched the fame and glory of his contemporary Carl Sandberg and often felt snubbed the Eastern and academic poetry elite.  He was not experimental enough to be ranked with the Imagists and modernists. 
He died March 5, 1950, in a convalescent home near Philadelphia and was buried back home in Petersburg in the cemetery that inspired his greatest book

Masters' grave in the cemetery at Lewistown that inspired him.  A few feet away a stone inscribed with his poem now marks Ann Rutledge's grave.

Here are samples of Masters’ work.  First from The Spoon River Anthology:
Jim Brown
While I was handling Dom Pedro
I got at the thing that divides the race between men who are
For singing “Turkey in the straw” or “There is a fountain filled with blood”—
(Like Rile Potter used to sing it over at Concord);
For cards, or for Rev. Peet’s lecture on the holy land;
For skipping the light fantastic, or passing the plate;
For Pinafore, or a Sunday school cantata;
For men, or for money;
For the people or against them.
This was it:
Rev. Peet and the Social Purity Club,
Headed by Ben Pantier’s wife,
Went to the Village trustees,
And asked them to make me take Dom Pedro
From the barn of Wash McNeely, there at the edge of town,
To a barn outside of the corporation,
On the ground that it corrupted public morals.
Well, Ben Pantier and Fiddler Jones saved the day—
They thought it a slam on colts.

—Edgar Lee Masters

Masters was not so down on Lincoln in those days as reflected in one of the most famous pieces from the collection.

Ann Rutledge

Out of me unworthy and unknown
The vibrations of deathless music;
“With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficient face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!

—Edgar Lee Masters

And finally from a later collection a glimpse of the restless soul, the Free Thinker taunted by a spiritual yearning he barely understood.

Inexorable Deities  

Inexorable revealers,
Give me strength to endure
The gifts of the Muses,
Daughters of Memory.
When the sky is blue as Minerva's eyes
Let me stand unshaken;
When the sea sings to the rising sun
Let me be unafraid;
When the meadow lark falls like a meteor
Through the light of afternoon,
An unloosened fountain of rapture,
Keep my heart from spilling
Its vital power;
When at the dawn
The dim souls of crocuses hear the calls
Of waking birds,
Give me to live but master the loveliness.
Keep my eyes unharmed from splendors
Unveiled by you,
And my ears at peace
Filled no less with the music
Of Passion and Pain, growth and change.
But O ye sacred and terrible powers,
Reckless of my mortality,
Strengthen me to behold a face,
To know the spirit of a beloved one
Yet to endure, yet to dare!

—Edgar Lee Masters