Category Archives: writing & Such

Stunning New Artificial Intel Programs Are Here Now—Look!

  • Good grief!

The two images below  look like professional quality photographs, but no camera made them. No person or object posed for them. Nor did a human artist paint or draw them.

Well, not exactly.

Humans produced them. One set of humans, software developers, made the tool, called DALL-E2. One other, tech columnist Kevin Roose, used it to “create” them, for the New York Times.

”Create” feels like the most appropriate term here, because Roose’s procedure reads as if it were lifted right from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis:

Roose said, “‘Let there be . . . ‘

— And there WAS — a hyper-realistic image of a complete fantasy.

Let Roose describe it:

For the past few days, I’ve been playing around with DALL-E 2, an app developed by the San Francisco company OpenAI that turns text descriptions into hyper-realistic images.

OpenAI invited me to test DALL-E 2 (the name is a play on Pixar’s WALL-E and the artist Salvador Dalí) during its beta period, and I quickly got obsessed.

I spent hours thinking up weird, funny and abstract prompts to feed the A.I. — “a 3-D rendering of a suburban home shaped like a croissant,” “an 1850s daguerreotype portrait of Kermit the Frog,” “a charcoal sketch of two penguins drinking wine in a Parisian bistro.”

Within seconds, DALL-E 2 would spit out a handful of images depicting my request — often with jaw-dropping realism.

Here, for example, is one of the images DALL-E 2 produced when I typed in “black-and-white vintage photograph of a 1920s mobster taking a selfie.” And how it rendered my request for a high-quality photograph of “a sailboat knitted out of blue yarn.”

Voilá!

If I had DALL-E2, I’d be saying, “Show me with my mind boggled,” and the image would be what I saw in the mirror a few minutes ago, something like this:

Roose: DALL-E 2 got a lot of attention when it was announced this year, and rightfully so. It’s an impressive piece of technology with big implications for anyone who makes a living working with images — illustrators, graphic designers, photographers and so on. It also raises important questions about what all of this A.I.-generated art will be used for, and whether we need to worry about a surge in synthetic propaganda, hyper-realistic deepfakes or even nonconsensual pornography.

“Big implications.” An understatement:

Roose:

Only a few years ago, A.I. chatbots struggled even with rudimentary conversations — to say nothing of more difficult language-based tasks.

But now, large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-3 are being used to write screenplays, compose marketing emails and develop video games. (I even used GPT-3 to write a book review for this paper last year — and, had I not clued in my editors beforehand, I doubt they would have suspected anything.)

Note that he didn’t include writing blog posts on this list. But is it just my paranoia, or will the next version — let’s call it DALL-E3 — soon be sending pre-breakfast emails advising me that:

“Attached you’ll find three posts, one each on Ukraine, the newest blossoms in your yard, and the former president, plus a pair of recycled Quaker jokes. Click on the link to upload them, and then go back to bed.”

Is this ridiculous? Maybe. But maybe not for long:

Roose:

“An A.I. breakthrough at Google or OpenAI today doesn’t mean that your Roomba will be able to write novels tomorrow —“

[I don’t have a Roomba; whatever.]

“But the best A.I. systems are now so capable — and improving at such fast rates — that the conversation in Silicon Valley is starting to shift. Fewer experts are confidently predicting that we have years or even decades to prepare for a wave of world-changing A.I.; many now believe that major changes are right around the corner, for better or worse.”

Did Roose really write that? Or is DALL-E2 now finishing his column, and not just illustrating it?

At least, I can still supply my own cliche: Stay tuned.

Damn. Garrison is Definitely Losing it. I’ll Let Him Break the Bad News

The Column: 08.19.22

It was a week of crazy change, a couple of big wallops, and here I am still standing, head bowed but marching forward. An ace ophthalmologist broke the news that my dimming eyesight is the result of glaucoma, which makes me grateful that I’m 80 because if I were young this would be very bad news but at my age I can see a way around it.

And on the same day, the University of Michigan found out that its prized Galileo manuscript is a fake, in which Galileo noted his observations of Jupiter, which led him to challenge 17th-century dogma that the universe revolves around Earth, which made him a heretic — it’s the work of a 20th-century forger — which means (Yes!) that the universe does revolve around Earth and that FBI agents attempting to distract the nation from the Galileo hoax planted top-secret papers at Mar-a-Lago in hopes of unseating the one truly elected (by a landslide) president, Mr. Trump, who is the center of the center of the universe.

If you step outside and look at the night sky, you see clearly that indeed we are the center. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a loser.

The glaucoma news was definitive and I was glad to have it. No need to sit in more ophthalmologists’ chairs, chin on the chinrest, looking at the doctor’s earlobe as he or she peers through the scope into my dilated eyeball — I have the answer: I am (very) slowly going blind. So look to the future and make the best of the deal.

I never was a sight-seer. I know too many amateur photographers who compulsively take pictures of dewy meadows, sunsets, sunrises, wildlife, birds, more birds, and they bring out portfolios of pictures and you’re required to glance at each one and sigh — well, they don’t pass their portfolios to a blind man. He is free of it.

My wife loves fine art. I don’t. Andy Warhol exposed the art world for the sham it am and who needs it? When I gain my blindness, I’ll accompany her to the Met and I’ll wait in the coffee shop and overhear young women discussing their relationships. Mark Rothko is an empty shell compared to women’s descriptions of their partners. They know more about humanity than Van Gogh ever guessed at.

I’ve always preferred music and conversation to the visual arts. Dance is a bore, all the extensions and twirling and dippy-hippy moves. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lakeis all you need to know, and Mahler’s Fourth and the Brandenburgs and some Chopin. Listen to them in the dark and you feel the emotional force full-strength.

My new career, beginning now, is octogenarian stand-up performance and I look forward to the day — in ten years, maybe twenty — when I walk onstage wearing black glasses, carrying a cane, and feel a wave of sympathy from the crowd and I sing:

The blind man stood in the road and cried,
Crying, O Lord, show me the way to go home.

The song is so heartfelt, people get teary-eyed and no longer do they see a white man of privilege, they see a fellow sinner in trouble, and when I have them on the verge of anguish, I go into my storytelling. Homer was a blind man who gave us the Iliad and the Odyssey and in his honor, I shall proclaim:

Speak, Memory, of myself the hero,
Lost time and again, at sea, confused,
Blinded by reckless ambition, and now,
I the wanderer have, by loss of sight,
Regained my memory and found my way
Home to my wife.

It’s a great opening. I’ll tell of my own history — I’m 80, I’ve got buckets of it — and recite poems and sing and when needed go into some blind-man jokes, many of them dirty. A sighted man couldn’t tell them, he’d be lynched, strung up, only a blind man can tell them, so I will.

Blindness is an opportunity, not a problem. Other writers give readings; I don’t. I have no paper, I let memory speak and it does and I’m amazed at what it recalls. My Crandall ancestors were driven out of the colonies in 1776 by my wife’s ancestors, the Spencers and Holmans and Griswolds, and my grandpa James Crandall came to Minnesota where his descendants crossed paths with my wife’s Holmans, and ancient enmity was buried and I fell in love with the family that stole our silverware and drove us to Canada.

So when my blindness is complete, so long as the sun keeps going around the Earth, I’ll be the greatest glaucomedian of all time. You read it here first.

 

Frederick Buechner: Religious Novelist

NOTE: I was not much of a fan of Frederick Buechner, a writer who died last week at 96. I tried his quartet of novels about a semi-charlatan-but-maybe-a-saint preacher in Florida, but Buechner lost me with his character’s name, Leo Bebb, which is bar none the most uneuphonious & off-putting monicker in my experience of what is said to be serious fiction.

But on the other hand, his work did hit me a glancing blow once, glancing but perhaps mortal.

It happened when a woman friend named Patricia, assigned to do a reading, pulled a slim book from her purse and opened it somewhere in the middle. The book is called Peculiar Treasures, and in it Buechner collected short sketches of various biblical characters. Here is what Patricia read, complete:

Isaiah

There were banks of candles in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness and stinging his eyes, and high above him . . there was the Mystery Itself . . . and the whole vast reeking place started to shake beneath his feet . . .and he cried out, “O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and the member of a foul-mouthed race. With my own two eyes I have seen him. I’m a goner and sunk.”

Then one of the winged things touched his mouth with fire and said, “There, it will be all right now,” and the Mystery Itself said, “Who will it be?” and with charred lips he said “Me,” and Mystery said, “GO.”

Mystery said, “Go give the deaf hell till you’re blue in the face and go show the blind Heaven till you drop in your tracks because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.”

Isaiah said, “Do it till when?”

Mystery said, “Till Hell freezes over.”

Mystery said, “Do it till the cows come home.”

And that is what a prophet does for a living, so starting from the year that King Uzziah died when he saw and heard all these things, Isaiah went and did it.

— Frederic Buechner, “Peculiar Treasures, A Biblical Who’s Who.”

NOTE: I’ve forgotten when and where the reading took place, and lost touch with Patricia. But I hunted down & bought the book, and hung on to it for years. Just one sketch like that can put a reader in permanent debt to a writer, even if the guy published 38 other books (as Buechner did) which were over my head or didn’t speak to my condition.

As a writer, I should be so lucky.

New York Times

Frederick Buechner, Novelist With a Religious Slant, Dies at 96

He drew on his theological credentials in essays and memoirs, and his fiction, full of colorful characters, was admired for its elegance, wit and depth.

Frederick Buechner, who wrote 39 books, exploring the human condition from inspirational and sometimes humorous perspectives.
Credit…Alan Fortney, via Buechner family

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister who never held a church pastorate but found his calling writing a prodigious quantity of novels, memoirs and essays that explored the human condition from inspirational and often humorous religious perspectives, died on Monday at his home in Rupert, Vt. He was 96.

His son-in-law and literary executor, David Altshuler, confirmed the death.

Drawing on literary and theological credentials over six decades, Mr. Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) published 39 books, many of them well-received fictional excursions into the adventures of charlatans, lovers, historical or biblical characters and ordinary people who take on self-imposed superhuman challenges and stoop to only-too-human skulduggery, all in the name of God.

Continue reading Frederick Buechner: Religious Novelist

Twofer Thursday: Garrison Keillor at (almost) 80; and the Decline of Religion in the U.S.

There’s not a direct connection between the two items excerpted here. Garrison Keillor is definitely religious, in his low-key, often self-mocking way.
But like others of his (& my) generation, he’s watched in bemusement as the generations behind him have been mostly quietly, but steadily dumping religion.  Following Keillor, pastor-researcher Ryan Burge takes a look at this undeniable, but still puzzling slide: contributing factors are easy to name; but clarity and implications are elusive.

#1 – Excerpted from The Saturday Evening Post:

[Garrison Keillor’s new book] Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80, is a playful yet deeply felt meditation that ought to be a standard in the literature of human aging. I asked Kate Gustafson, president of

Keillor’s production company, how she’d characterize the work. “It’s a novelty book, a gift book,” she ventured after a long pause. Keillor chortled when I told him that. No, no, he corrected, it’s actually “a memoir with an essay wrapped around it.” . . .

About his “canceling/MeToo” ordeal, Keillor himself was plenty angry. He has written that he was unable to defuse what boiled within him until one day, in New York City, a priest prayed into his ear that the “injustice done to me” could be put aside. And that was it, Keillor wrote in his memoir. He was suddenly unburdened, and could return to the “quiet domestic life with the woman I love,” his third and current wife. But as the Washington Post reported in a lengthy piece last year, the scandal represented a “downfall” from which Keillor never fully recovered. Continue reading Twofer Thursday: Garrison Keillor at (almost) 80; and the Decline of Religion in the U.S.

Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks

Author and novelist Jessamyn West (1902-1984), best remembered for her classic The Friendly Persuasion (book and movie) was raised and shaped by a long line of Quakers. Rooted in Indiana, they wound up evangelical and Holiness-centered, as well as cousins to Richard Nixon, in southern California.

Jessamyn West, circa 1946

Her family left their southern Indiana Quaker homeland when Jessamyn was six. West left its Quakerism as a young woman; as her church moved in ever-more conservative directions, she wound up, not an activist, more a loyal ACLU liberal. But her Quakerism never really left her.

In West’s 1966 semi-autobiographical novel, A Matter of Time, this Holiness Quakerism is called the Pilgrim Church, Indiana becomes Kentucky, and she is renamed Tasmania Murphy. Tasmania/Jessamyn describes how she resisted her growing heretical thoughts, and departure, by trying to get saved. Continue reading Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks

A Whole Year In One Stroke

A year ago, on October 10, 2019, I had a stroke. And I saw a vision of my future.

It started in the living room, about 7AM. I was in my battered recliner, reading newspapers on an Ipad. Across from me, on our long couch, grandson Calvin was stirring. His mom worked nights at Waffle House, so he often stayed over. It would soon be time for him to head out for the school bus.

I glanced up at him, and then something else stirred to my left: A bright metallic blue curtain had appeared, and seemed as if it was being drawn to the right, across my field of vision.

There was no pain, in fact no unusual sensation at all. But clearly something was wrong. I called out to Wendy, asleep in our bedroom. “I think I’m having a stroke!”

Calvin had to get himself up and out that morning. Shortly I was walking into the Duke ER, which is barely a mile away. And immediately I discovered one of the upsides of my condition. Having spent many bleak and painful hours in that ER waiting room, when I calmly answered the reception nurse’s “May I help you?” with, “I think I’m having a stroke,” it was like waving Harry Potter’s most potent magic wand.
Continue reading A Whole Year In One Stroke

Annie Dillard’s Birthday

Today, April 30, 2020, is Annie Dillard’s birthday.

Among the many authors who interest me, she might be the one I would most like to be email & text message-buddies with, so  I could have a chance to keep up with her laser sharp thoughts and squibs on, whatever.

There’s no hope of that; as she says plainly on her bare bones website: 

I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me. . . .
(I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.)

Continue reading Annie Dillard’s Birthday

Nuggets from a Mystery Reading Binge

Here are three  great snippets from Rain Dogs,the latest mystery by Adrian McKinty I just read, a terrific tale set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s Book #5 in a series I started just a week ago, and have binge read in seven days. Like I said in a blurb: Catholic & Protestant, war & peace: their yesterday (and our tomorrow?) —a fine writer spins compelling crime fiction from Northern Ireland’s time of “The Troubles.”

Yeah, they’re that good.

#1- Theology, in a Hibernian Nutshell Two northern Irish cops, Sean & McCrabbin, aka “Crabbie,” are on the way back to the station:

Heavy rain. Floods on the top road. Slow movement from the Seventh on the radio. 

“What’s it all about, Crabbie?” 

He stared at me with alarm. “What? Life, you mean?” 

“Aye.” 

“Endeavour to discover the will of God,” he said firmly. 

“And if there is no God?” 

“If there is no God, well, I don’t know, Sean. I just don’t know.” 

I looked at him. As stolid a Ballymena Presbyterian as you could ask for. He’d do the right thing even if you could prove to him that there was no yGod. While the rest of us gave in to the inevitable, he’d be the last good peeler attempting to impose a little bit of local order in a universe of chaos. 

Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry. . . .”

 – – – – 

#2- Tickling the Ivories

Sean the cop visits his friend Patrick’s piano store, where he frequently browses, but never buys. This time he asks to see a smoke-damaged privately-discounted model:

Patrick eyed me suspiciously. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of police investigation?” 

“I’m hurt, Patrick. Seriously. I thought we were friends.” 

“I’m sorry, Sean . . . of course you wouldn’t . . . look, come over here, out the back.” He took me to a storage room out the back and set me down in front of a gorgeous pre-war Bechstein. 

“Go on, then,” Patrick said. 

I played Liszt’s “La Campanella” and, just to annoy myself, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.” 

The piano had a beautiful tone and wasn’t damaged in the least. When I played the last bar of the “Prelude,” Patrick thought I was money in the bank. 

“You play very well, you know,” he said. 

“I’m rusty.” 

“No, Sean, you’re really good.” . . .

I looked at my watch. It was 11:45. 

“Well? Will I put it aside for you?” Pat asked. 

“Nah, I’ll have to think about it, mate,” I said. 

“I knew it!” Patrick groaned again. “I fall for it every bloody time.” 

I walked to the door. “Hey, Pat, why could Beethoven never find his music teacher?” 

“Why?” 

“Because he was Haydn.” 

“Get out of my shop!”

– – – – – 

#3- The Big Belly Laugh:

Beth, Sean’s ex-girlfriend comes back. She’s pregnant; his. She wants him to take her to an abortion clinic in Liverpool. Sean’s a (bad) Catholic who hates the idea, but he takes her anyway.  When she gets in his car:

She lit a cigarette. Camel. Unfiltered. Should you be smoking that? You know, what with you up the spout and everything, — that is a line I don’t use. This time tomorrow, it won’t make any difference. 

“Got one for you, Duffy,” she says.

“OK.” 

“Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Because all proper tea is theft.” 

“You should put your seat belt on.”

[TEASER: Does she go through with it? Do they have a future? Read the series.]


McKinty labored in productive but penurious obscurity for years, turning out novels that won numerous awards, while he scuffled at everything from Uber driving to teaching and went broke. Just this year he was “discovered” and hit the big-time. I hope he makes a bundle and keeps on turning out more new un-put-downable books.
And I also like his attitude, summed up here, From “”Why I Write,”  a post in his blog:

” .  . . Writers write. Writers sit down at the typewriter, legal pad or computer and they write. All the writers who are popular and successful see writing as a no nonsense job and they just bloody get on with it. I like these people and I like this school of thought. I’ve met a lot of these writers and they are cool.

But this is not my way.


I see things differently.


For me writing is nothing to do with deadlines and word counts and getting the job done. For me a writer is a shaman. A holy man. A holy woman. A witch. A writer has been given a staff made from meteor iron and with that stick she scratches a message into clay tablets and the tablets are baked and they are put in a library and the river moves and the city fails and the library’s pillars fall and the clay tablets lie buried in the sand for four thousand years until someone finds them and reads them and understands. You are telling them a story about life and death and the meaning of life. You are talking to them across the centuries.

. . . Look, look at this! The writer says. I am gone. We are gone. But we were here and we saw and we loved and laughed and we dreamed. We saw beauty and we experienced pain. And we were given a task by the ones who died next to us in the lifeboat: tell them about us.  

Yeah, I know, I just write hack crime novels who am I to talk? But that’s the whole point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s your attitude. Your words could be smuggled on toilet paper out of prison to one old friend or they could be texted to a million followers as you ride the subway car. It’s what you think about the words that counts. An audience of one is still an audience.


So I don’t see writing as just another job. I don’t write to fill my word count. I am on a sacred fucking mission. I’m waiting for the goddess. Because I believe in the goddess. I believe in ghosts. The ghosts of the ones who went before and the ones who have not yet come. And I will witness against the beast. And I will defy the darkness and I will tell our story.“

 

 

 

 

A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven in the Basement

Cambridge, Massachusetts, late 1970s

“Heads up!” called the voice from the basement. “Here come the bags!”

This story is fiction. But the setting, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Massachusetts, is real.

When they heard the cry a hundred men and women straightened up, like ragtag soldiers jerking to attention. Spaced about three feet apart, they stood in a line that ran from the open end of a big tractor-trailer truck squeezed into the horseshoe curve of Longfellow Park, up the sidewalk and across the wide green lawn. It snaked around the corner of the meeting house, past Friends Center, up the three low steps of the meetinghouse porch, through the open double doors, made a sharp right past the small literature table. Then left again to the steep, dim stairway, and down every other step to the basement.

There it ended, at a heap of bulging black plastic trashbags. Each bag was packed full and cinched tightly shut with a strong wire twist. The bags were neatly stacked five high, eight wide, and half a dozen deep, and they seemed to fill the entire low-ceiling room.

Kevin Blackburn stood at the front of the line, wondering how he ended up facing so much hard labor on a quiet Sunday morning.
But there was really no mystery about how he got there. Louisa Cabot, the prim older woman standing next to him, glancing from the pile of bags to the waiting line of people, had asked him.

Actually, “asked” wasn’t quite accurate; “drafted” was closer. After announcements at the end of meeting for worship, she had marched straight up to him, peered at him above her wire-rimmed spectacles, and said firmly, “Kevin, I would like for thee to help me get the shipment out of the clothing room.”

Her tone was friendly enough, but it left no room for any response other than agreement. She spoke, Kevin thought, like the old-fashioned schoolteacher she had been for forty years, still in firm command of her classroom. And in her subdued flower print dress, with its square lace-trimmed collar, she looked the part, too.

Louisa gave the waiting line of Quakers a last quick glance and said, “Well, Kevin, whenever thee’s ready, I suggest thee start at the far end of the stack.”

Kevin did, pulling the top sack out by the bunched plastic neck, catching it in both hands, then passing it to the Friend behind him, who in turn passed it on up the stairs.

Fortunately, the bags weren’t as heavy as they looked; old clothes were more bulk than weight. But before long, when the bucket brigade was going full tilt and the bags were moving quickly up the steps and around the three corners to the waiting man on the truck, Kevin was sweating freely. This was hard work. He would need to go home and take a shower before the concert, or Jenny wouldn’t come near him. And Kevin wanted very much to be near to Jenny.

After hefting two rows of the bags, Kevin felt as if the pile would go on forever. Surely, he thought, there’s enough pants, shirts, sweaters, dresses, socks and underwear here to clothe every refugee in Asia, and Africa too, with plenty left over for Central America, and even a bag or two for the Goodwill downtown.

But then, suddenly, there were only three bags left, and in a flash they were behind him, disappearing up the stairs. As the final bag arrived at the truck and was tossed in, the Friends in the line gave a cheer, shook hands, and then broke up into small groups, mopping the sweat from their foreheads and talking excitedly.

Kevin collapsed in a chair to catch his breath. The basement seemed much bigger now with the bags gone. Mending tables lined one side, each bearing several oversize spools of thread and a number of old soup bowls full of every kind of button imaginable. On one a stack of newspapers for wrapping leaned precariously. Racks of dresses and suits awaiting repair stood along the opposite wall, under a row of small ground-level windows.

Here, several days a week, Louisa gathered a mixed crew of volunteers, mostly other older women, who patched and mended and talked for hours. Kevin had never seen them at it, but they were clearly an energetic and productive bunch: This was the second big shipment that had gone out since he started attending Cambridge Meeting last winter.

“Here, Kevin, thee has earned this,” Louisa said behind him. He looked around and took the glass of lemonade from her. “Thanks,” he said, still panting.

“I hope we didn’t wear thee out and spoil thy plans for the day,” Louisa said.

“Oh, that’s okay,” Kevin said. “I’m just going to a concert later. Then I’ll be back here tonight for Social Concerns Committee.”

And for the committee’s potluck, he added silently. He was a little embarrassed to admit it, but potlucks were his favorite Quaker ritual and the closest to home cooking a single Harvard grad student ever got. Sometimes he wondered if potlucks headed the list of what these Quakers called testimonies.

“Um, what sort of concert?” Louisa asked, cutting into his theological reflections. Her tone was tentative now, as if she felt she was prying.
“Oh, just a string quartet,” Kevin answered. “A woman I’m dating is playing the cello.”

At this Louisa’s eyebrows went up slightly and her expression became thoughtful. “A string quartet, eh?” she mused. “I don’t know much about music myself. English grammar and American history. Those were my subjects. Nothing against it, thee understand, I just never had much time to listen.”

She paused for a moment, while Kevin drained his lemonade. “Um, Kevin,” she inquired, “would thee do me a favor?”

“Sure,” he said, genuinely surprised now at her tone. The old sense of command was gone; she sounded anxious, almost afraid.

“After the committee meeting tonight,” Louisa continued, “I’ll be in the library. Meet me there and there’s something I want to show thee if I can. Something musical, and very peculiar.”

Kevin grinned at her. “I’ll do it,” he said dramatically, “on one condition.”

“What’s that?” Louisa asked guardedly.

“Promise me there’ll be no more heavy lifting,” he said.

Now it was her turn to grin, and smile wrinkles piled up around her eyes. Her old self again, she stuck out a hand.

“Friend,” she said firmly, “Thee has a deal.”

* * * * * * * *
The concert was fine. Jenny played well, and agreed to meet Kevin for ice cream and talk after his meeting. He was looking forward to that.

The committee meeting was a different matter, though. Ever since winter, they had been laboring over a policy statement on war tax resistance. But after months of meetings, they seemed no closer to unity than when they started.

Some Friends felt the meeting had to take a stand and not even pay the federal tax on its telephone, which went directly to support wars like the one that had recently, finally ended in Vietnam. But others felt the group ought to obey the law, and anyway tax money didn’t just pay for war. It paid for other things, too — good things like health care, and housing.

And student grants, Kevin reminded himself.

The meeting room, Cambridge. The clothing room, still in operation in 2019, is below it.

Coming out of the meeting, Kevin’s head ached a little from the arguments. His own opinion seemed to go back and forth; surely, he thought, the meeting ought to take a stand against the billions wasted on bombs and missiles. But on the other hand, he couldn’t deny that some good things were done with taxes. And how were we to tell the difference?

“How long,” he wondered aloud to Louisa as he entered the library, “will it take that committee to make up its mind about war taxes?”
But there was no answer. The lights were on, but the room was empty.

The silence surprised him. Louisa was surely punctual if she was anything. Then he was startled by a voice behind him. Louisa, was coming through the doorway with a book under her arm. “Did I hear thee complaining about war taxes?” she asked.

“It’s the committee,” he said. “We can’t agree on what to do about them.”

“Humph,” she said brusquely, “Friends have been arguing over what to do about them for more than 300 years, with no end in sight. Don’t let it bother thee.”

She set the book down on the library desk. “A waste of time, if thee asks me,” she concluded firmly. “Come along and let’s see if we can find something a little more interesting.” Turning toward the door, she motioned for him to follow.

She led him out of Friends Center, into the quiet night of Brattle Street. Stepping up to the darkened meetinghouse, she signalled silence with a finger to her lips, then quietly tried the door.
It was locked, as it always was at night.

“What–?” Kevin began, but her rising finger stopped him.

“This way,” she whispered, and tiptoed toward the far corner of the meetinghouse. There she stopped and peered cautiously around the corner, then stepped back and motioned to Kevin.

He looked past her, at nothing special: a high board fence divided the meeting’s property from the neighbors’ garage, a big old maple rustled gently at the far end, and a narrow strip of grass lay in between, dark like a carpet except where a wedge of dim light turned a patch dull turquoise.

Kevin turned back to Louisa and shrugged. She shook her head and leaned toward his ear. “The light,” she hissed.

He looked again. Now that she mentioned it, there was something peculiar about the light. It was an odd color, like a very blue fluorescent bulb, and was coming from down low — the basement, the last couple of ground level windows.

Louisa whispered again: “The music — do you hear it?”

As soon as she said it, he realized he did. The faint but unmistakable sound of strings — several strings, probably a quartet. The sound seemed to be coming from down by the maple tree.

Kevin stepped around the corner of the meetinghouse, and tiptoed forward, with Louisa rustling quietly behind him.
The farther along the meetinghouse they moved, the louder the music played. And it wasn’t coming from beyond the tree, Kevin quickly understood, but from the far end of the basement, the same place as that strange blue light.

They stopped halfway down the building and pressed themselves against the wall. The music was quite loud now.

“Does thee recognize it?” Louisa whispered.

“Sure,” he whispered back after listening another moment. “It’s Beethoven. The Razumovsky Quartet. They played it at the concert today.” It was also, he thought, either the best recording he’d ever heard, or a live performance. And a very good one, too.

“What is it?” he whispered. “Who is it?”

Now she shrugged. “Take a look,” she whispered.

“Me?” he asked, suddenly nervous. “Why don’t you look?”

She drew herself up in the darkness. “Because,” she hissed, “it frightens me. Besides, thee is the music expert.”

“Well, this frightens me, too,” he said. But despite himself he crouched down, and carefully and quietly peered in the low basement window.

There wasn’t much to see. The blue light seemed brightest right below the window, near the wall beyond his field of view. The mending tables were faintly visible, and he could make out the bowls of buttons and the stack of newspapers, but nothing out of the ordinary.

He straightened up and whispered, “Nothing.”

Louisa began edging back toward the front of the
meetinghouse, beckoning him to follow. Once there, she strode quickly across the driveway to Friends Center.

Back in the library, she sat down behind the desk and spoke firmly.

“This is the third night that music has been playing in my clothing room. I’ve worked there twenty-two years, and nothing, I repeat, nothing like this ever happened before. I don’t like it.” Her voice was severe, as if reprimanding a particularly stubborn pupil.

“Have you gone down there?” Kevin asked. “You have a key.”

“Certainly not,” she snapped. “It’s not safe. Who knows who, or what, is down there?”

“Well, will you go with me?” Kevin asked. “I’m up for a little adventure. And besides, what could be so bad about ghosts that play Beethoven?”

“Ghosts?” Louisa said, “Why, whatever can thee be thinking of?”

“I don’t know,” he answered jauntily. “But do you have a better idea? Come on!”

She glared up at him for a moment over her glasses, then said, “Very well.” She stood up resolutely and pulled a key ring from a pocket of her dress. “It’s the large brass one in the middle. But thee goes first.”

In fact, he was more than a little nervous as he stuck the large, worn key in the lock. They had paused on the way to peek around the corner, confirming that the blue light was still shining, and the music was still playing.

“Might as well get it over with,” he muttered as the doorknob turned and then moved away from him.

“All right, we’re coming down!” he shouted as he pushed past the door, fumbling with one hand for the light switches as he groped towards the stairway in the dark.

“Here,” Louisa murmured from behind; her fingers, intimate with the building, found the switches on the first try.

The entryway suddenly lit up, and there was the stairway in front of him.

“Here I am,” he called, thumping loudly down the steps, “and I don’t mean you any harm–”

He hit the light switches at the bottom, and swung through the doorway.

No one was there.

The room looked much as it had after the morning’s bag brigade; the mending tables here, the racks over there, a few stray garments hung over the odd folding chair; certainly no sign of a concert. He took a few steps into the room, looking around uncertainly.

“Is thee all right?” Louisa croaked from the stairway.

“Yes,” he called. “Come on.”

She stopped in the doorway and surveyed her small domain carefully. Knowing it better, she saw what he had missed.

“There,” she said, pointing. “Those chairs!”

Of course, he thought. He hadn’t noticed them against the dark background of the racks. Four folding chairs stood in front of the last rack near the far wall. On two of the chairs a black evening suit was draped over the back; on the others hung black dresses, formal but severe.

“Look,” Kevin said, walking over to them. “They’re set at angles, as if around a music stand.” He touched one of the hanging jackets. “Do you recognize these clothes?” he asked.

“Hmmm,” she fingered a dress. “They must be off our racks here. But I recognize this one; Bay State Costume Exchange sent it over. I’m not certain about where the others came from.”

“Aren’t these a little classy for refugee duds?” he wondered, moving to the other suit.

Louisa bristled. “Friend,” she said sternly, “does thee think that only farmers and laborers are made homeless by war? I’ll have thee know that after Vietnam we sent suits to half the former college professors in the South. Nasty, useless war that was. And there’s many an educated Palestinian–”

“All right,” he grinned, “you made your point.”

* * * * * * * *
Louisa saw him glance at his watch. “Holy cow!” he exclaimed, “I’ve gotta call Jenny. I’m late.”

“There’s a phone over there,” Louisa pointed toward a venerable black instrument on a battered desk in a corner. Kevin rushed to pick it up.

Louisa listened to him spinning the old rotary dial, then blurting breathlessly. “Jen–I know I’m late, but you won’t believe what just happened. Can I come tell you about it? I’ll bring the ice cream. Great! Be there in a flash!”

He clanked the phone down, turned on his heel and hurried heedlessly to the stairs. He had trotted halfway up them when his steps abruptly stopped, paused, and then walked slowly back down.

Louisa regarded him skeptically as he came back into the room. “I’d like to think,” she said, “thee realized thee was leaving me here alone with this — whatever — and wanted to offer to walk me to my car. But I get this feeling thee has something else on thy mind.”

Kevin felt sheepish. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted, “I was going to ask if you know where I can buy some ice cream at this hour on Sunday night. But you’re right, of course, it was thoughtless to rush off like that.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Louisa said. “I was a lovestruck youngster once myself, and in that state, forgetting thy manners is the least of thy problems.”

She smiled now, a prim but wistful, remembering smile.

“Come on,” she said, “thee can follow me to the all-night market. And on the way to my Ford, let’s consider what to do about this possible poltergeist I seem to have inherited.”

Outside, as she locked the meetinghouse door with the large brass key, she turned partway toward him and murmured, “French vanilla was a very appealing flavor in 1932. My favorite in fact.”

Kevin’s expression showed that he realized she was not really speaking to him, and was gazing past his shoulder in the night. He waited a moment, letting the older woman in the flowered dress enjoy her reverie. Then he said quietly, “You’re right. French vanilla it is.”

* * * * * * * * * *
On the way to the car, what they decided to do was to treat the strange intrusion as something of a cross between a mystery and a research project. Louisa would look into the origins of the clothes they found on the chairs. Kevin would take a music history approach, and see what he could find out about Beethoven, and his string quartets. They agreed to meet at Friends Center after dinner the next night, to see what conclusions they could draw.

* * * * * * * * * * *
But reporting to Louisa after a day of effort, all Kevin was able to draw was blanks. “I found out a little about Razumovsky,” he reported. “He was the Russian ambassador in Vienna for years, and Beethoven wrote three quartets for him. As far as I can tell, it was just a job for Beethoven. He thought all the bigwigs who hung around the emperor’s court were a flock of turkeys. I don’t think there’s anything there. What did you turn up?”

“Not very much either, I’m afraid,” Louisa said. She sat at the library desk, drumming the fingers of her right hand nervously. “Mr. O’Neill at Bay State Costume Exchange recognized the evening suit and one of the dresses, but he couldn’t remember where he got them. It could have been The Boston Symphony. So I went down to that office. But,” she sighed tiredly, “the property manager has only been there a few weeks and doesn’t know anything. All in all a wasted day,” she concluded. Her fingers kept up their restless drumming.

“Maybe you’ve been looking in the wrong places,” put in Jenny, who had come in with Kevin and had been sitting quietly beside him.

Louisa had liked her from the first. She was pretty all right, but looked serious too, and unaffected. Jenny seemed, Louisa concluded judiciously, to have the makings of a good strong Quaker wife — if that was how her romance with Kevin, and his romance with Quakerism, turned out.

Now she asked the young woman, “What does thee mean?”

“Well,” said Jenny, “suppose your musical ghost isn’t in your basement because of Beethoven, or because of an old evening dress. What if it’s here because of the meeting?”

“Hey, yeah,” echoed Kevin, brightening. “What if it’s coming back because of something that happened here? Louisa,” he asked, “have there ever been any string quartets played in the meetinghouse? The acoustics would be terrific.”

Louisa furrowed her brow. “I seem to recall something about music, but it was quite a few years ago and I didn’t hear it. As I told thee, Kevin, music was not my subject.”

Kevin thought a moment. “What about the meeting minutes?” he asked. “Would there be anything about recitals in them?”

Louisa shrugged. “Probably. They’d need permission for a concert in the meetinghouse, and that would be in the minutes. After all,” she added, “permitting the playing of music in a silent Friends meetinghouse would never have occurred to my old Wilburite grandfather, God rest his plain Quaker soul.

She pointed past the tables. “The minute books are over there, on that shelf by the window, all but the last five years or so, and there haven’t been any concerts in that time.”

Kevin stood up; he was excited now. “Okay, let’s start with the latest minutes and work our way back.” He moved toward the shelf.

“No, Kevin,” Jenny objected, “it would make more sense to start at the beginning and work forward.”

Kevin’s face showed irritation. “I don’t see what difference it makes,” he said sharply, “and I want to start with the recent minutes.”

There was a long, stiff pause, while the two young people glared at each other.

And so, Louisa thought, and sat slowly down  in her folding chair. Here we are at one of those seemingly minor hurdles these new young lovers will have to get over. Do they now get lost in their little egos, or do they work this out? She crossed her arms. How well, she thought. Alas, how well I remember.

“Perhaps,” she interposed after a moment, “you could work from both ends.”

To their credit, and to Louisa’s relief, they reached out for her little olive branch.

“Of course,” Kevin said, “why not?”

“Sure,” said Jenny, “that’s a good idea.”

“And I’ll start in the middle,” Louisa said. “The meeting was organized in 1940, so halfway puts me in 1965. Fifty years is young for a Quaker meeting in New England,” she observed, “but it’s still a lot of minutes. Let’s get busy.”

So each of them pulled down a stack of the heavy bound minute books. Kevin and Jenny sat them down on the big reading table, while Louisa took hers back to the desk.

Beethoven

* * * * * * * * *
For the next hour and a half, as night settled over Cambridge, there was little sound in the library other than the rustling of pages being turned. Kevin, working backward, found that, yes, there had been a chamber concert series in the meetinghouse in the summer of 1973.

“Let’s see,” he said, “here’s one for 2 harpsichords, one for lute, and another for some madrigal singers.” He signed, “But no quartets. And no Beethoven, either. It’s all renaissance and baroque.”

“I haven’t found any music,” Louisa commented at another point, “but here’s Social Concerns Committee in 1969, haggling about war taxes again.” She adjusted her glasses. “Didn’t get anywhere that time either.”

“No music in the forties, or most of the fifties,” Jenny added. “But I’ll keep looking.” She turned a few more pages, then stood up and stretched. “It’s getting stuffy in here,” she said. “Can I open a window?”

“Certainly,” Louisa said. “Fresh air will do us all good.”

When Jenny opened the window, cooler air poured in. But something else came with it — the faint but unmistakable sound of a string quartet.

Jenny listened without turning around.

“Is that–?” Kevin asked.

“Yes,” Jenny answered quietly. “The third Razumovsky. We should have been expecting it, I suppose.”

“Let’s go down there,” Kevin said, standing up. But Jenny reached out to touch his sleeve, and he paused.

“Wait a minute,” she said softly. “I want to listen here for a minute. There’s something familiar about the playing.” She listened again, for a long moment, until the playing subsided, then stopped. “That was the slow movement,” she said.

“What about the playing?” Kevin asked.

“I-I’m not sure,” Jenny said. “Maybe we should go over. We’re not finding anything in these minutes.”

“I’m ready,” Louisa announced, closing a minute book with a thump. “I guess we’ve established that whoever or whatever they are, they don’t have guns.” She pulled the key ring from her pocket and headed for the door.

They paused only briefly at the corner of the meetinghouse, to peek around and be sure, once again, that the pale blue light was indeed shining from the last two basement windows, and the music had begun again. Then Louisa walked briskly up the three steps and stuck the big brass key in the lock. She was first down the steps this time, too, stepping smartly into the again-deserted basement and over toward the far end of the racks, where the four chairs stood as before, the suits and gowns draped over them.

“Nothing different here,” Kevin said, looking over the tableau.

“There most certainly is something different,” Louisa snapped.

“But what?” Kevin persisted. “Here are the chairs and the clothes, just like last night.”

“That’s precisely it,” Louisa insisted. “This morning I hung up those clothes and put the chairs back at the table before I went to the Bay State Clothing Exchange. They’ve all been moved back.”

“Wait a minute,” came Jenny’s voice from behind them. “I think I’ve found something over here!”

She was at the mending table, looking at a newspaper from the stack, spread out on it. Kevin came to her side. “What is it?” he asked.

“There,” she said. “The obituaries.” She sat down as Kevin picked up the page and began to read:

“Isidore Kominsky, principal cellist with The Boston Symphony for more than twenty years and founder of the highly-regarded New Freedom String Quartet, died at his home last week.” He broke off and looked at the top of the page. “When was this?” he mused.

“Last month,” Jenny murmured gently.

Kevin’s eye skimmed down the paragraphs. “Let’s see… `escaped from his native Czechoslovakia in 1949, after a year’s imprisonment by the Communist government….Founded the New Freedom Quartet with three other exiled musicians in 1956, to raise funds for relief of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, after it was crushed by Soviet troops and tanks.

This photo is reportedly of a young Hungarian refugee somewhere in Europe, after the 1956 revolution was crushed.

“`Their first concerts were highly successful. Thereafter the quartet played several concerts each year, always as refugee benefits, even after Kominsky’s retirement from The Boston Symphony in 1971. “

He took a breath, and frowned.  “‘The group continued until 1976, when violist Ada Steinberg, one of its two women members, passed away, and Kominsky soon disbanded the group. He was the last surviving member of the quartet. In 1977–”

Kevin was stopped by a stifled sob beside him.

Jenny’s face was in her hands. “He was my first teacher,” she whispered. “He was old then, and had arthritis in his fingers, but he still played like an angel when the pain wasn’t too great. He had to stop after a year because of a stroke.”

She took a handkerchief Kevin was holding out to her, and wiped her eyes. “I heard the quartet play a few times before that, but I was just a kid. I didn’t know about the refugee part.”

Louisa had picked up the newspaper. “Thee missed the fine print, Kevin,” she said. He looked over her shoulder and read aloud again:

“A private memorial service is planned, and friends are asked to send donations in lieu of flowers to the Quaker Material Aids Program, care of Cambridge Friends Meeting.”

“As a matter of fact,” Louisa put in quietly, “we did receive several checks listed in his memory. But the name was strange to me because–”

“I know,” Kevin said, “music is not your subject.”

“Well music is my subject,” Jenny said firmly, wiping her eyes once more and blowing her nose. “And I know a reunion concert when I hear one. And we’re interrupting it.”

She faced Louisa. “I’ll bet if we could trace those clothes, they’d lead straight back to Mr. Kominsky, Mrs. Steinberg and the others. And they’ll be gone from here soon, in one of those trash bags, to who knows where. So while they were here together, their owners gathered with them one last time. And they didn’t get to finish, because we’re in their way.”

Jenny stood up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kominsky,” she said softly in the direction of the chairs, “I didn’t mean to intrude.” Then she walked toward the door.

Louisa and Kevin followed, snapping the basement lights off behind them. When they reached the door upstairs, though, Louisa gestured to Kevin before she hit the switch. As the entrance became dark, Kevin reached for Jenny’s hand and led her soundlessly after Louisa into the meeting room.

There, just as they sank noiselessly onto a long, sturdy bench, they heard the music start again below, with the cello mounting a vigorous, deeply felt melody, which the viola and violins answered in turn.

Kevin leaned over toward Louisa. “It’s the finale,” he murmured, and felt, rather than saw, her slight nod.

The music moved swiftly to an impassioned climax, then died away on a final, ringing chord.

After another few moments of silence, Kevin reached over and shook Louisa’s hand, then Jenny’s.

* * * * * * * *
A little later, after the young couple had escorted her to her Ford and then driven away, Louisa got out of the car, walked up to the meetinghouse, and quietly let herself in.

Downstairs, she found what she was expecting: The chairs were again at the table, the suits and gowns hanging on the rack.

So, she thought, they are finished. And I suppose that means that after tonight, they won’t be back.

But on the other hand, she reflected, after tonight, I expect young Kevin and Jenny will be.

 

Previous Quaker Holiday Stories:
#1 A Hospice for Hope

#2 How I got so Lucky

#3 Candles in the Window

**A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven In the Basement


If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is

FMC-Cover-Clip-4-Web

 

 

part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and for Kindle. It makes a fine gift.

Copyright © Chuck Fager

 

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, You Old Anti-Imperialist!

Mark Twain born Samuel Clemens November 30, 1835

Hat tip today to Reporter Olivier Knox, whose Daily 202 newsletter for the Washington Post, reminded me that today (November 30) is the birthday of Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain (born 1835).

Knox sent me in search of some Mark Twain quotes, of which there are of course many. Here are a few, relatively new to me, followed by a brief discussion of his views on imperialism, which are another reason I admire him.

A Few Mark Twain quotes:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

“Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”

God created war so that Americans would learn geography

The absence of money is the root of all evil

(To a missionary): You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?

no much a boat Siri made America In his unfinished novel, The Mysterious Stranger, he wrote, “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination. No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those.”

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.

And for special attention:
I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

Twain’s anti-imperialist attitudes developed and took up much of his writing in the last decade of his  life, which overlapped with the U.S. government’s decision to join the club of imperial nations which was carving up the globe. The brief sketch of this period is taken from an article by a left-wing periodical, The Internationalist: “Mark Twain and the Onset of the Imperialist Period Imperialist Period’ (full text here):

Excerpts:

“Mark Twain faced the onset of European and American imperialism at the end of the 19th century with an acute understanding that white racism denied the very humanity of people of darker skin. He was aware that vile theories were then either being generated or revived by the educated hirelings of the European and American ruling classes, to justify their piratical conquests in Africa and Asia. These depraved bourgeois scientists posited that the single human race was actually comprised of several different “races,” and that these “races” could be ranked in a hierarchy based upon intelligence and culture. Not surprisingly, they placed their own “race”?—the “white race” at the top of the hierarchy and therefore deserving of world domination. . . .

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Mark Twain was living in Austria, and was only able to summon a fuzzy picture of its causes. He was painfully aware of the imperialism of the European powers, which were just then engaging in a frenzy of world conquest. Since sentiment in Austrian ruling circles ran in favor of Spain, Mark Twain initially supported the United States, which he thought might bring democracy to Cuba and the Philippines. However, he soon changed his views, as events revealed the true aims of the American rulers.

The war provoked by the McKinley administration was a one-sided slaughter designed to make the United States a world imperial power. The U.S. rulers found immediate cause for the war they wanted in the suspicious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February[1898].

The ill-fated U.S.S. Maine

Two hundred sixty-two sailors were killed, but while the navy’s own commission of inquiry found no evidence that Spain was culpable for the disaster, the jingoist newspapers, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in the lead, took up the battle-cry, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” McKinley presented a list of demands to Spain, which quickly acceded to every one. The U.S. imperialists declared war anyway, and in a few short months destroyed Spain’s decrepit navy and seized much of its tottering empire, occupying Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines.

The U.S. now had an empire—almost. In anticipation, Senator Albert Beveridge triumphally declared:

“The Philippines are ours forever…. And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.”
— quoted in Jim Zwick, Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse University Press, 1992)

. . . Mark Twain arrived in New York in October 1900, and at once announced his anti-imperialism in several newspaper interviews, which were widely reprinted.

“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [between the United States and Spain], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
New York Herald, 15 October 1900

The author’s powerful statements at once came to the attention of the “Anti-Imperialist League” (1898-1920), a politically heterogeneous organization founded in Boston to oppose the American seizure of Spain’s empire. Its officers included former abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Mark Twain’s best friend, novelist and self-described socialist William Dean Howells; reformist labor leader Samuel Gompers, and capitalist Andrew Carnegie.

The league’s liberal founders sought to use the names of prominent Americans to influence the foreign policy of the McKinley administration; however, the organization soon burgeoned into a nationwide mass movement with a half-million members, and its literature included articles by socialists as well as African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass Jr. and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.

The League invited Mark Twain to become a vice-president in 1901; he accepted, and would hold this office for the remainder of his life. He consistently opposed any compromise with imperialism, an attitude not shared by many of the league’s leaders. . . .

In the February 1901 North American Review, Mark Twain published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” perhaps his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essay. It was an acid indictment of the brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American capitalist governments were committing all over the world.

The “Person Sitting in Darkness” is Mark Twain’s ironic term, borrowed from the Gospel According to Matthew and used by the Christian missionaries when referring to the “savage,” “heathen,” “uncivilized” populations of the lands the imperialists were conquering. The author condemned the casual atrocities of Lord Kitchener’s British troops in South Africa, who routinely bayoneted unarmed surrendering Boers, as well as those committed by the American forces in the Philippines, which did the same to the Filipinos. He also pointed out that the Americans had openly proclaimed they were adopting “Kitchener’s Plan”—concentration camps–for their opponents. (Tens of thousands of Boer women and children and black Africans had perished in these camps.)

A concentration camp, invented and run by the British, in South Africa during the Boer Wars.

At the same time, Mark Twain denounced the multinational plundering and dismemberment of China, which had provoked the Boxer Rebellion–the mismatched attempt of the Chinese people to drive the imperialist murderers, who introduced mass opium production and trafficking, out of their country. (In a November 1900 speech he had already proclaimed “I am a Boxer.”) The author charged the American Board of Foreign Missions with looting pauper peasants in China, and condemned the missionaries as part of the “Blessings-of-Civilization-Trust,” that deals in “Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion).” At the end of his essay, Mark Twain proposes a flag for the United States’ new “Philippine Province”: “we can just have our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” attracted a good deal of attention, and eventually set off a storm of controversy. Even within the Anti-Imperialist League, reaction to Mark Twain’s essay was mixed. Though the League reprinted it as a pamphlet—it had the widest circulation of any League publication—League censors excised significant passages, included the author’s quotation from the New York Sun on the prevailing squalor in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as well as his bitter condemnation of the activities of Christian missionaries in China. . . .

Mark Twain remained a “traitor” to imperialism for the rest of his life [he died in 1910], raising his voice and his pen to oppose American and European savagery frequently and with unwavering resolve. He was an open advocate of the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, and took heart at Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905 –the protest in which the Tsar’s troops massacred perhaps 500 peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg — the author published “The Tsar’s Soliloquy,” a powerful condemnation of the fatuous brutality of the regime of Nikolai II. . . .

Mark Twain struggled against powerful opponents on behalf of humanity and justice, as he understood them. He was not entirely consistent in the views he expressed— he remained mainly insensitive to the oppression of American Indians throughout his life and occasionally expressed discomfort at the rising tide of immigrant workers. Though his criticisms of American capitalism were often astute, he never seriously examined socialism. Nevertheless, in his regard for the humanity of the millions upon millions of Asians and Africans who were just then being victimized by imperialism, he eclipsed even most socialists of his day, owing in part to his profound understanding of racism in America. The brutal realities of colonial subjugation inevitably recalled for him the legacy of slavery in the United States.”

So Happy 186th birthday, Mark Twain, wherever you are (another of his quips: “Heaven for the climate, hell for the company . . . .”) We need more such voices of such clarity and wit today.

The essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Mark Twain, 1901 is online as a Full text FREE download from: Internet Archive, here.