Inventing Ethan Allen – John J. Duffy & H. Nicholas Muller III

Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)

“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”

As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.

If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.

On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.

Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.

The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.

The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.

When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.

Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.

Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.

ΔΔΔ

I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.

Going to Parts Unknown

More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.

I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.

I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.

I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.

Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.

But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.

As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .

We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”

The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak

At the height of Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign a curious pair arrive in Istanbul. One is a young white elephant named Chota, the other a twelve year old boy named Jahan, both allegedly from India. The elephant and mahout join the Sultan’s menagerie, a position adjacent to the opulence of court, but fraught with risk. Safety lies in Chota’s ability to win the favor of the Sultan, through tricks and through utility in war and peace—and certainly not in Jahan becoming smitten with the Princess Mihrimah, who desires to know where this pair came from. Nor does Jahan’s life become easier once he catches the attention of the royal architect, Sinan, who takes him on as apprentice. Instead, Jahan finds himself caught up in his master’s feuds that swirled and eddied around the construction of some of the crown jewels of Ottoman architecture.

At some level, The Architect’s Apprentice is a novel without a plot—or one with several light plots connected by Jahan. One follows Jahan’s infatuation with Mihrimah, others follow Jahan’s other relationships, including with Captain Gareth who saw him installed in the palace for nefarious purposes and with the the Roma, who adopt him as family. Another is the titular plot, following Jahan’s relationship with Sinan and the other apprentices, first during the master’s life and then in the wake of his death. Beyond resistance from Sinan’s enemies at court, the projects do not progress without complication, for reasons that become apparent.

The virtue of this approach is to follow Jahan as he grows up, surrounding him with an eccentric cast of characters and getting lost among the rising mountains of mosques on the streets of Istanbul. In this, Shafak is partially successful. Some of the characters are funny or insightful or interesting, but too often I found them flat and acting from motivations that were opaque until telling Jahan a story about it after the fact. The narrow narrative focus on Jahan thus is an inherent limitation, particularly because I was generally uninterested in him as a character. On the one hand, hidden motivations can provide a story depth, but this combined with the flat characters gave the sense that there were two distinct stories, one being told by or to Jahan that is superficial, and another more interesting one lurking beneath the surface.

The saving grace for me was the ulterior message of this hidden story. At its best, The Architect’s Apprentice is a story that interrogates the fissures between the face we show to the world, the image the world projects on us, the underlying assumptions, beliefs, and relationships that inform these stories, and the lives we lead. Beneath the surface of every person or object is a story and each story contains a secret.

The Architect’s Apprentice was not totally satisfying for me, but Shafak showed me enough that I am going to give her books another shot.

ΔΔΔ

I have since finished Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful Exit West and begun Inventing Ethan Allen, by John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III.

Programming Update, June 2018

Summer 2018 has set in, making this a good time to update what is going on here. The spring semester concluded a few weeks ago and I promptly left on a whirlwind road trip that included Savannah, Washington DC, New York City and Vermont, before returning to a 94-degree day in Central Missouri. It was a good trip, but a busy one that left little time for reading, let alone writing.

I am resolved to spend time recuperating this summer after a busy semester that included some medical issues that were probably related to stress and/or anxiety. At the same time, though, I have been hired to teach a three-week World History course in June and am trying to submit a book proposal by the end of the summer. The proposal itself is essentially set, but I am still editing the accompanying sample chapters. (My current worry is that that the chapters are weaker than the proposal.) These are my two concrete projects, but I also have ambitions to rewrite my application materials, rethink the structure of my Greek history class, and work on some of my other academic projects—before considering any of my non-academic projects, including some work to expand and develop some of the pages on this site.

Suffice to say that I have my work cut out for me this summer. I will be writing here this summer as topics come up, much as I have in this past and hopefully without lengthy lulls. To that end, I have two book write-ups planned and will probably write about writing, historical topics, and other varia. This space remains adjacent to my professional identity, but not limited to it, more John Scalzi’s Whatever than Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections or Joel Christensen’s Sententiae Antiquae. I admire people who run dedicated professional blogs and have found myself writing about professional topics with more regularity in the past few years, but still like to have a space to write about other topics.

Two Short Reviews: The Buddha in the Attic and Journey into the Past

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, but one of my favorite slices of literature recently has been books written by Japanese-American women, so I picked it up on a whim. The result was somewhat surprising, but not disappointing.

The Buddha in the Attic is a group biography of Japanese picture brides—women who left their families in Japan and crossed the Pacific Ocean to marry men in California who they had never met in the early 20th century. In succession the book follows these women from their voyage to the meeting, to their relationships, children, lives, and departure to the internment camps in 1942.

Some of the women receive names, but rarely individual personalities. Instead, this is a true group biography that captures diversity within their collective experience. As a group they were transplanted to a new world, married men who were not like the pictures they saw, and were rejected by their new country. Individually, they had affairs, dreams, and heartbreaks, leaving mementos behind.

The result is a poignant slice of lives, with a highly specific spotlight on a fundamentally American story of acceptance and rejection.

ΔΔΔ

Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig

Ludwig is an ambitious young German scientist taken into his employer’s home as a secretary and confidant. There he falls in love with his employer’s wife, a feeling she reciprocates. They delay their feelings, first out of a sense of propriety and then because he departs for a two year stint in Mexico, only to be trapped there by the outbreak of World War One. When their communication falters, Ludwig marries and has children in Mexico, but when he is able to return to Germany after the war he attempts to recapture that moment he lost from his youth.

On the one hand, I was put off by the triteness of the sexual cliches at the heart of Journey in the Past, both in the arc where a young man falls in love with the wife of an employer or other authority figure and in the arc where the slightly older man ignores any loyalty to his family in order to complete the conquest of a woman he thought was his due from an early age in his life. The first is an issue I have had with Zweig before, notably in Confusion, while the latter is a toxic fallacy regarding the relationship between men and women.

The problem is on the other hand. Zweig does not wholly exonerate Ludwig’s behavior even while couching it in terms that seem designed to make them understandable. Both characters have changed and the period of young love has left them both behind, and this, ultimately, is the message.

I appreciate Zweig’s observations on a number of fronts, some of which hit close to home. For instance:

Outwardly his title of Doctor, cheap but impenetrable armour, made up for his low social status, and at the office his fine achievements disguised the still sore and festering wounds of his youth, when he had felt ashamed of his poverty and of taking charity. So no, he was not going to sell the handful of freedom he now had, his jealously guarded privacy, not for any sum of money.

I just wish that Zweig’s plots offered a less problematic vehicle to explore these issues.

ΔΔΔ

I am now reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.

Summer Academic Reading Plans

One thing I’ve noticed in working on my primary research project, first as a dissertation and now as a book, is that I’ve gotten away from reading things that are not directly related to that research. As such, I am setting a summer reading goal of one article or book chapter on on the history of the Mediterranean (non-research category), theory or methodology, or pedagogy per weekday. By my count this is about seventy articles. So far the list (see below), consists of twenty five articles—a good start, but too short.

The problem is that I don’t know what I don’t know or, more specifically, I don’t necessarily know what I should be reading. The current iteration of this list is developed from perusing recent journal tables of contents as well as some suggestions crowd-sourced from Twitter, but I could still use more.

So, please, if you have a favorite article or book chapter** that fits the parameters listed above and published in the last fifteen years, I want to hear about it. Tell me what I should be reading!

**I am also open to book suggestions in the same fields and fiction, but already have a long backlog of both.

The List

  • S. Fachard, “A decade of research on Greek fortifications,” AR 62 (2015–2016), 77–88
  • R. Stoneman, “How Many Miles to Babylon?,” G&R 62 (2015), 60–74
  • D.M. Pritchard “Public Finance and War in Ancient Greece,” G&R 62 (2015), 48–59
  • M.J. Taylor, “Sacred Plunder and the Seleucid Near East,” G&R 61 (2014), 222–41
  • D.M. Pritchard, “The Position of Attic Women in Democratic Athens,” G&R 61 (2014) 174–93
  • D.M. Pritchard, “The Archers of Classical Athens,” G&R 65 (2018), 86–102
  • L.M. Yarrow, “How to Read a Diodoros Fragment,” in Diodoros of Sicily, edd. L.I. Hau, A. Meeus, and B. Sheridan (Leuven: 2018), 247–74
  • S.E. Kidd, “How to Gamble in Greek” JHS 137 (2017), 119–34
  • Ali Akhtar, “Enterprising Sultans and the Doge of Venice,” in Arabic Humanities, Islamic Thought, edd. S. Toorawa and J. Lowry (2017), 361–74
  • C. Belsey, Criticism: Ideas in Profile (Profile Books: 2016)
  • M.E. Irwin, “Venturing where Vine and Olive don’t grow.” SyllClass 14 (2003), 83–99
  • D. Tober, “Greek Local Historiography and Its Audiences,” CQ2 67 (2017), 460–84
  • A.W. Collins, “The Persian Royal Tent and Ceremonial and Alexander the Great,” CQ2 67 (2017), 71–6
  • R. Konijnendijk, “Mardonius’ Senseless Greeks,” CQ2 66 (2016), 1–12
  • A. Livarda, “Archaeobotany in Greece,” AR 60 (2013–2014), 106–16
  • M. Yue, “Naming the Greeks in the Archaic Period,” JAC 31 (2016), 45–84
  • S.C. Murray, “Lights and Darks: Data, Labeling, and Language in the History of Scholarship on Early Greece,” Hesperia 87 (2018), 17–54
  • R. Sobak, “Sokrates among the Shoemakers,” Hesperia 84 (2015), 669–712
  • L. Khatchadourian, “The Satrapal Condition,” in Imperial Matter (Los Angeles and Berkeley: 2016), 1–24
  • S.E. Psoma, “Athenian Owls and the royal Macedonian monopoly on Timber,” MHR 30 (2015), 1–18
  • J. Giebfried, “The Mongol Invasions and the Aegean World (1241–61),” MHR 28 (2013), 129–39
  • C. Rowan, “Coinage as commodity and bullion in the Western Mediterranean,” MHR 28 (2013), 105–27
  • J. Haubold, “The Achaemenid Empire and the Sea,” MHR 27 (2012), 5–24
  • K.L. Gaca “Reinterpreting the Homeric Simile of Iliad 16.7–11: The Girl and Her Mother in Ancient Greek Warfare,” AJPh 129 (2008), 145–71
  • S. Greenblatt, “Theatrical Mobility”, in Cultural Mobility, ed. S. Greenblatt (Cambridge: 2009), 75–95

White Trash – Nancy Isenberg

[Redneck] had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity.

White Trash starts from a provocative thesis: all (or nearly all) developments in American history can be traced to the underlying tension between “the American Dream” on the one hand and what to do about the *white* people who don’t measure up. Isenberg examines how these tensions are articulated, repurposed, exploited, and weaponized as America went from a country where land was plentiful to one that was heavily urbanized, and as notions of science, eugenics, and racial uplift changed.

America’s tortured history with non-white people, Isenberg suggests, are painful consequences of this other, innate conflict.

Isenberg begins her story in Britain, showing how the only reason many of the early white settlers left was that they were “waste people” in England, discarded to North America to turn their lives around or just not be around anymore. Once in America, though, the question of what to do with these people remained. Many of the colonial elite wanted to avoid interbreeding with people they saw as lesser than themselves, and there was an open question whether giving them land (where squatters were often already living) would allow for racial uplift. Then came the Civil War, a hybrid class-race war, the age of Eugenics where the idea was to stop poor whites along with African Americans from breeding, and finally the emergent “Cult of the Country Boy” in the 1950s.

White Trash has something of a teleological progression toward the final two chapters of the book, a section called “The White Trash Makeover.” Her argument holds water. The terms change and the widespread cultural cache that the lifestyle currently holds is a modern phenomenon, but “white trash” has been a persistent part of the American landscape for centuries. The change, Isenberg posits, is that what was once explicitly marginal is now mainstream, albeit in a way that still consciously frames itself as marginalized.

The story in White Trash is distinctly uncomfortable, particularly as someone whose hometown Isenberg might as well have been writing about. This same discomfort makes it all the more important. Certain aspects of redneck culture have been commercialized and accepted, but it is notable that in the latest iteration of the electoral victory for this class of people, the people filling the executive branch are overwhelmingly not representative of them. This seems to me not an accident, the latest iteration of the same issues that shaped the debates around squatters in the 1700s.

In a classroom, I would want to build from Isenberg’s book to make more explicit the horrific consequences of these class conflicts for people of color and other minorities, and not simply in that they are treated as a lower class. Overall, though, I found White Trash to be an effective frame through which to think about American history, one that recognizes the aspirations of the American dream, but also recognizes the ways in which that dream is dangerous as an exclusionary club with which to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t measure up in terms of breeding, education, culture, or wealth. There are ways to quibble with White Trash, but the overall product is a powerful message that demands consideration.

ΔΔΔ

I’ve been in the end of semester crunch the past few weeks, with a conference thrown in to boot, and have also finished two short novel/novellas, Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past and Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. With the semester coming to an end, I hope to start writing here with some more frequency, but, at the moment, I’m mostly just tired.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

Note: this book did double duty, since I applied a tried and true technique of assigning for class a book I have been meaning to read for years. It was on my list first, though, so I’m going to count it toward my non-academic reading anyway. The opinions expressed in this post are my own, but developed through class discussion with my students.

The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps–the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life–is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.

Some men are born to lead, to envision, to shape and mold the politics and opinions, the attitudes, the mores, the outcomes of their times, from individual to individual or on a world scale. Others take it upon themselves to intervene rather than to forge, to serve, to help, to intuitively recognize problems or the potential for problems and give whatever is necessary to prevent or at least rectify them. Still others merely exist. Trembling at the thought of the horrible responsibilities that making a decision entails, and willing to let their lives –and, by association, the lives of others—unfold or collapse according to dumb luck, they seek out obscurity. They choose or arrive at insignificance and soon enough become willing to suffer the consequences. There was a time when the Minotaur and his ilk were important, creating and destroying worlds and the lives of mortals at every turn. No more. Now, most of the time, it is all the Minotaur can do to meet the day-to-day responsibilities of his own small world. Some days he can passively witness the things that go on around him. Other days he can’t stomach any of it.

What if Theseus lied? What if, instead of killing the dread Minotaur in the Labyrinth and returning a hero, Theseus was struck dumb with fear and perhaps defeated and in the darkness struck a deal with the Minotaur in return for his life? What if the immortal Minotaur has been existing on the margins of human societies for the last five thousand years?

This is the basic premise of Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. After millenia of wandering, M. finds himself in rural North Carolina, where he lives in a trailer park and works in the kitchen of Grub’s Rib where Grub, the proprietor, pays him in cash so that he doesn’t have to deal with a bank. Despite issues with his horns in the cramped kitchen, M. likes the work; cooking, like sewing, and working on the mechanical engines such as are found in cars, makes sense to him, consisting of simple, repeatable patterns that tend not persist through the years. Certainly, these are easier to assay than the intricacies of conversation that is dependent on ever-changing contours of society, even before considering the limitation of a bull’s tongue in forming human words.

The kitchen staff accept M. as a member of the team. Cecie even flirts with him. The wait staff is generally not hostile to M., but neither are they willing to include him in their social interactions outside of the restaurant. Mike and Shane are exceptional in their mockery, something that M. chalks up to the malice of young men that lashes out at whatever is different and incomprehensible to them.

But then there is Kelly, a new waitress who suffers from epileptic fits. Her difference draws M.’s attention and forces him to face questions about what he wants in life. Their budding romance gives M. hope that, at least for a while, he will not be alone, but also exposes prejudices hidden beneath a facade of civility.

This novel about a classical monster is at its core a story about interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise. M. is moderate and careful, aware of his bovine instincts, but communicates through lows and single words. His rich and sensitive thoughts are known only to the reader. Most people do a double-take upon seeing M., but generally mask their reactions with civility, while kids are both less judgmental and less circumspect. M.’s difference (along with the difference of the other mythological creatures who are living on the margins of American society) is simultaneously all-encompassing and totally irrelevant.

Sherrill makes M. occupy the intersection two two masculine stereotypes in modern America. On the one hand, he is the African American man, gawked at and assumed to possess overwhelming, subhuman sexual appetites that threaten to be unleashed, particularly against white women. On the other hand, he is the hispanic illegal immigrant, handy and silent, working on the margins of society. In neither is he totally accepted by the white establishment except by the handful of benevolent patrons and a smattering of outcasts who sympathize with his otherness.

But lest one get the impression that The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is a serious interrogation of issues of race, I should say that it alternates between an emotionally powerful look at loneliness, isolation, acceptance, and the search for connection in modern America and an absurdist comedy. Much of the humor comes from putting M. in absurd situations unique to him such as a brief stint as a rib-cutter operating a mobile cart, but others, such as a first date playing miniature golf at a course next to a drive-in XXX theater, are simply absurd situations.

I really liked The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, both as a novel and because it gave my students ample material to talk about in the context of monsters and monstrosity in modern America. The writing struck me as overly dramatic at points, self-conscious in a performative way, but neither should that small critique detract from an excellent novel, which works both in the sense of inventive reception of classical myth and in that it offers a thoughtful look at issues that have only grown more important in the years since its original publication.

There is a sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Time, published in 2016 that I have not read yet. As a final note, this is the first book I’ve read from cover to cover on Kindle. I didn’t love the experience, but did like the highlighting and annotating features that allowed me to skip directly to the spot, particularly for the purposes of teaching.

ΔΔΔ

Life has been busy of late, what with the fast-approaching end of the semester and some academic conferences, as well as some unexpected and time consuming developments. Nevertheless, I am now reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which interprets US history through the lens of class, with a particular focus on the down and outs among people who are theoretically still represented by those in power. I am also working on several posts that will probably go up in the near future.

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

The Interdependency has existed for a millennium, ruled from Hub by the House of Wu, whose monopoly on military equipment and strategic location enables it to control access and charge demand tariffs on commerce. Hub is so named because it is the nexus of “the flow,” a poorly understood phenomenon that allows (in relative terms) rapid transportation between the far-flung systems that humans occupied after leaving earth. The stability of the flow has allowed the the development of the Intedependency, an artificial social system of family-based monopolistic guilds, the church, and parliament, all headed by the Emperox. By design, no part of this system can exist on its own, as the new Emperox Cardenia learns soon after her accession, but that does not stop the ambitions of the Interdependency power players.

At the heart of events is the Nohamapetan family, which has aspirations to a marriage with the royal family and designs on End, the most isolated planet occupied by humans and one consistently beset by rebellions. The question is why.

Caught up in the conspiracy are two additional families, Claremont and Lagos. The latter is logical enough in that Lagos is a major trading family and rival of the Nohamapetans, and so a natural target. Claremont, on the other hand, is a minor imperial representative on End, sent away from the center of politics decade ago for reasons that were never made public. Jamies Claremont is not, however, a mere bean counter, but a flow physicist working on a secret project: his models predict that the flow, the very foundation of the Interdependency, is collapsing, or at least access to it is. With his model finally complete, he decides to dispatch his son Marce on what may be the last ship out, represented by Kiva Lagos, to deliver the report in person.

The Collapsing Empire consists of two interlocking threads. The first is the story of the political intrigues of the Nohamapetan clan; the second and more significant one is the race against the impending disaster that will end human life as it is currently known and could end human life altogether. The second thread gives the book a sense of urgency, but remains ultimately unresolved.

The Collapsing Empire is in some ways vintage Scalzi. It is irreverent, with plenty of sex and cursing, thoughtful social and scientific constructions and quickly moving plots. In other ways, it represents the next step in his evolution as a writer. First, its four groups of characters mean that variously intersect mean that the book is the most complex narratives of his that I have yet read. Second, while Scalzi’s characters have always been fun with their snappy dialogue, the characters in The Collapsing Empire struck me as more mature. Not in the vocabulary, but more well-rounded on the one hand, and more varied in their motivations and personalities. (By his own admission, these were some of his favorite characters, too.) While Scalzi also hints at deep insights about humanity in how the Interdependency will be forced to adapt, those issues are put on hold while people resist the inevitable changes to come.

Scalzi’s appeal, and one that he fulfills in The Collapsing Empire, is a witty, fast-paced science fiction adventure. The optimistic potential of human society, tempered as it is by ambition and greed, and political resonances are just a bonus.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished reading a collection of Camus’ essays. I’m not going to do a full write-up, but I like his lyricism and his aspirations to investigate the meaning of life. He is well-worth reading. Now I’m reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which demonstrates how poverty has been articulated as a foundational sin in US history.