Who was Henry Shoemaker?

In speaking to Penn State students earlier this month on “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” I mentioned Henry W. Shoemaker, Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. I thought I’d share a bit more about him, because his life was remarkable not only in Pennsylvania history, but for its lessons about the value of human beings sharing stories with one another and how whole cultures can be stronger and more remarkable as a result.

Shoemaker wasn’t just Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. He was also a prolific journalist, and Progressive-Era friend of people like Teddy Roosevelt. He’s most remembered for his many volumes of American Indian folk stories and legends collected throughout Pennsylvania. Shoemaker preserved settler-versions of what were claimed to be some of the last surviving oral stories of the American Indians of Pennsylvania—the Lenni Lenape, the Iroquois, Shawnee, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Oneida, and others.

A few of his more well known collections include Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania, Black Forest Souvenirs, Allegheny Episodes, Susquehanna Legends, and Penn’s Grandest Cavern. Simon J. Bronner, a Penn State professor, wrote a biography of Shoemaker in 1996 called Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History.

It’s at least in part thanks to Henry Shoemaker that the world knows the “Nittany Lions” of Penn State, and that we know of the Indian legend of Princess Nita-Nee. A few years ago I helped the Nittany Valley Society compile a special collection of the folk stories and legends specifically pertaining to the area of Central Pennsylvania where Penn State is located. The book is called The Legends of the Nittany Valley, and is a small way we hope to perpetuate not only the stories themselves, but also memory of Shoemaker and other American folklorists incredible efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to perpetuate a spirit and feeling for the American Indians who we so thoroughly wiped away from their historic homes.

When I was initially learning about Shoemaker, I particularly liked this language used to describe him and his work:

In many ways, Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958) embodies the spirit of the Progressive movement in America. A prominent reformist newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania, he used his wealth and position inherited from industrialism to promote the preservation of America’s wilderness and native cultures. He fell in with such national leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who hoped to rekindle a rugged American nationalism. He became America’s first State Folklorist and a pioneer of national conservation. Shoemaker’s consuming passion was for preserving the cultural and natural heritage of his home state. He authored hundreds of pamphlets and books on Pennsylvania’s nature, history, and folklore. Today his memory lives on in the legends he helped promote…

Ken Poorman also provides a convenient snapshot of Shoemaker’s most notable achievements:

  • Newspaper publisher, author, folklorist, raconteur, diplomat
  • Mobilized interest and public funding to preserve historic and natural heritage
  • Leading conservationist, promoter of state parks
  • Romanticizer and popularizer of folktales, legends, and history
  • First official Folklorist in America
  • Director of Pennsylvania Historical Commission
  • Responsible for planting thousands of historical markers
  • Connection with Juniata through serving on M.G. Brumbaugh’s staff in Harrisburg
  • For many years after 1930 conducted pilgrimages to MGB’s grave near Lake Raystown

Despite pioneering folklore as an interest of Pennsylvania government as a means of “inspiriting the land” and cultivating civic pride and common experiences in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic America, folklorists who’ve come along since tend to look down their noses at Shoemaker and his contemporaries, like Katharine Berry Judson in the Pacific Northwest or William W. Canfield in New York.

Shoemaker opens himself to the criticism of contemporary folklorists because he injected too much of his own voice and his own era’s sensibilities into lots of his folklore. This has led to the charge that Shoemaker simply wrote all of the folklore himself. I’m far from convicted that Shoemaker created all of his folklore. Even if true, it would mean that he was incredibly creative and prolific, deserving of honor in and of itself. But more to the point, he frequently cites people he spoke with on trips throughout Pennsylvania and discloses the towns and places he heard stories, and thanks specific people by name. If all of this was purely fictional, in other words, practically everyone would have known it at the time. And the historical record doesn’t seem to bare that out.

In any event, the nature of oral stories and tradition is that the details of the folklore tend to change with almost every telling even while the stories attempt to retain the essence of their narrative. That’s what oral tradition is: the histories and stories of people passed down by the person-to-person telling. I wish Shoemaker interjected less of his generation’s own attitudes, biases, etc. into many of the stories. But it’s still easy and worthwhile to read them and enjoy them for what they are: fantastic stories that might just reach back into the earliest human stories and experiences of Pennsylvania shared by American Indian peoples, who we can still try to honor as our cultural ancestors.

The photo above shows Henry Shoemaker at Restless Oaks in 1913 with “Ramsden Rex,” his “English-bred Russian wolfhound.” I think the Juniata College Archives has the original version of this photo.

American moral consensus

David Carlin writes that strong societies used to require a common religion:

Once upon a time, everybody believed that if a society was to cohere it had to have a common religion. And thus kings and other rulers had little choice but to persecute heretics; for heretics, like criminals and political rebels, were great disturbers of social unity.

Queen Elizabeth I persecuted Catholics on the one hand and Puritans on the other, not because she was a religious fanatic but because she was a conscientious ruler. If she failed to punish dissenters, she’d be allowing them to undermine social unity.

Likewise the Puritans who settled Massachusetts in the 1600s. They fled England, generations of American schoolchildren have been told (I remember being told this in the 4th grade), in search of religious freedom. True enough. But not the principle of religious freedom for all; only the desire of freedom for themselves.

One of their number, Roger Williams, believed in the principle of religious freedom for all, and for that heresy they tossed him out into the wilderness of Rhode Island. They also expelled Ann Hutchinson for heresy, and they punished Quakers by hanging them.

After many religion-based wars – for instance, 16th-century civil wars in France, the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48), and the English Civil War of the 1640s – the world, having discovered that compulsory religious uniformity didn’t always work well, began to turn in the direction of religious freedom. It was a gradual process and took a long time, but much of the European-American world finally arrived at the conclusion that society could cohere without a religious consensus.

And things seemed to change with the United States. We didn’t need a single national religion, but instead could live in a pluralistic society with many different denominations of a single religion:

In the United States, from the beginning of the republic, we did fine without an ecclesiastical consensus; that is, we didn’t all belong to the same church. But we didn’t have to do without a religious consensus, albeit an informal one. Virtually everybody was Protestant. There were a few Catholics and Jews and Deists and frank unbelievers. But they didn’t count very much; they were small non-Protestant drops in a very large Protestant bucket.

The Protestants, of course, came in many denominational varieties: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, and more. But all Protestants, regardless of their denominational differences, agreed on many things: the infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Ten Commandments, Heaven and Hell.

They all agreed too that Catholicism was a great perversion of Christianity. We should never forget that anti-Catholicism was an important “glue” holding the Protestant world together.

As Catholics and Jews came into greater numbers in America, and as the confidence and strength of Protestant denominations waned for various reasons, the fusionism of Judeo-Christianity sought to serve the role of social glue for an even more pluralistic society:

By the early years of the 20th century, however, you could no longer say that the USA was a Protestant country. Too many Catholics and Jews were living here by then, and too many of them were playing important roles in American life. But then somebody came up with the brilliant idea that, if we could no longer have a Protestant religious consensus, we could at least have a “Judeo-Christian” religious consensus. It wasn’t as “thick” a consensus as had been the Protestant consensus, but it was thick enough. Just think of all the things religious Protestants and religious Catholics and religious Jews agreed upon.

And so, by 1950, more than 300 years after Roger Williams had argued for freedom of religion, Americans still had a religious consensus, albeit one that was informal and not legally prescribed.

That finally collapsed in the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory prayer in public schools is a violation of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment. Until then schools, in keeping with the spirit of our national Judeo-Christian religion, had mandated prayers that gave no offense to Protestants or Catholics or Jews. Usually, this was the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer whose content gave no offense to any believer. But all prayers would give offense to atheistic parents of school children.

Just as the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954 was a symbolic moment declaring that blacks are equal to whites, so the prayer decision of 1962, Engel v. Vitale, was a symbolic moment declaring that atheists are equal to Judeo-Christian religious believers. If Brown meant that racial segregation was on its way to the dustbin of history, so Engel v. Vitalemeant that our informal national religion was headed in the same direction.

Judaism and Christianity in all their forms seemed to work well together to deliver great social and moral victories in the 20th century in the form of largely non-violent political and civil rights movements:

So it is only since the second half of the 20th century that we Americans have had to try the experiment of living without a religious consensus. How are we doing? Not too well, I’d say, to judge from the great divisions currently plaguing American society.

The great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) argued that in modern secular society, where religious consensus is impossible, we could still have a moral consensus. This moral consensus would be based on natural law, a law that applies to all humans and is known by all humans, whether religious believers or atheists or something in between.

But is this moral consensus, boiled down in simple terms to a shared sense among Christians, Jews, and others in America of a “natural law” written in the heart of human beings, still a meaningful social force? Carlin continues:

Now I’m a great fan of Maritain and a great believer in the idea of natural law, and many years ago, influenced by Maritain, I expected that in America a moral consensus would replace our collapsing religious consensus. But it hasn’t. We have no moral consensus on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism, pornography, capital punishment, and other things. We are very badly divided on questions of morality, and the divisions are growing worse.

Well, if we cannot have a religious consensus, and we cannot have a moral consensus, what kind of consensus can we have in the United States? For surely we have to have some kind of consensus. A society that cannot agree on anything won’t be able to endure.

The best I can think of – barring a religious and moral revival – is that we will endure, if we do endure, with a consensus about the importance of making money and spending it. If we cannot agree about abortion or homosexuality or euthanasia, we can, perhaps, at least agree about the wrongness of commercial fraud and cheating on taxes and other forms of thievery.

But that’s not an inviting prospect.

“We have no moral consensus on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism, pornography, capital punishment, and other things. We are very badly divided on questions of morality, and the divisions are growing worse.”

That seems broadly true, but maybe that’s just a natural consequence of an America that’s far more pluralistic today that it was a century ago. If that’s the case, the real question is whether there is a limit to how pluralistic a nation can be without ceasing to be one.

Janmot’s soulful eulogy

Louis Janmot’s “The Poem of the Soul” series is incredible. I discovered it after first encountering “The Wrong Path”:

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What did Janmot paint this series, and what is he trying to convey in this arresting and ominous scene? In short, he was responding as a Christian to the dechristening of 19th century France:

Janmot has made an extraordinary accomplishment that has remained unique in Western European painting. He dedicated all his life to a series of thirty-four paintings called ‘The poem of the soul’. Eighteen of these paintings, which date from 1836 to 1855, are painted in colour. The seventeen drawings, which he made after 1855, are in black and white. The paintings are accompanied by a long poem on the same subject. Paintings and poem document and explain each other.

The poem is about the birth and life of a boy, a new soul on earth F6 . God and the angels decide on life (Génération divine), a guardian angel brings life to earth (Le passage des âmes) and the boy finds a loving mother (L’ange et la mère). The boy is joined by a companion girl (Le printemps). They play together in an ideal and untouched paradise. Both their souls retain images of their previous life in the heavens (Souvenir du ciel). The children remain together from childhood to adolescence. They leave their family (Le toit paternel), face the dangers of a secularised university (Le mauvais sentier), the wrong path for them, which will lose their souls (Le cauchemar). But they encounter a wise man who teaches them religious education (Le grain de blé) and shows them the path of Catholic faith (Première communion). The children grow up to adolescents (Virginitas) and start to love each other with a pure platonic love (L’échelle d’or). Time goes by (Rayons de soleil). They climb the hills of life (Sur la montagne), live a simple life in the midst of nature (Un soir). Their souls join (Le vol de l’âme) and fly to the heavens (L’idéal). But the boy cannot follow and is thrown back to earth where he mourns on the tomb of his beloved (Réalité).

The black and white drawings take over from that point. The boy still lingers in the solitude of a forest (Solitude), yet he finds new energy at the beaches, a new touch of infinity to his soul (L’infini). He dreams and receives the revelation of carnal beauty (Rêve de feu). The lovers are joined (Amour), but in a true sensual, earthly love now. Only for a short time: the dream ends (Adieu), the lady has to leave again. In solitude, the young man falls in despair and doubt (Le doute). This is a moment the devil has awaited (L’esprit du mal). He tempts the boy to an orgy (L’orgie), so the youth loses his soul and his God (Sans Dieu). The black hooded phantom now accompanies the man (Le fantôme), his fall continues to a total ending (Chute fatale). In a macabre scene, the man is bound to the corpse of his beloved (Supplice de Mézence), tearing it with him across mountains, and all the generations of Evil are visited by him (La génération du mal). His soul however longs again for purity. He prays and his mother intercedes on his behalf to God (Intercession maternelle). Finally, faith triumphs over evil (La délivrance) and the soul is elevated to the Heavens (Sursum corda).

Janmot has been thoroughly inspired for his poem and series of pictures by Catholic faith. He was one of the representatives of a struggling generation. Since the end of the eighteenth century France and Europe had entered a struggle for the education of the young. For Janmot this was a struggle for the soul of man. …

His painting ‘Le mauvais sentier’, the wrong path, is a hallucinating representation of Janmot’s feeling about secular education in France. At each step of the children along their road of knowledge, science and literature professors grow out of the wall and lead, tempt them further into what Janmot considered to be the wrong, entirely secularised path. This kind of education corrupted the soul. …

Janmot uses Classicist techniques for presenting profoundly Romantic and religious ideas. He applied themes from antiquity however as symbols of the republic and past revolutions: the ‘Orgy’ is in a Greek temple and ‘Chute fatale’ or ‘Fatal Fall’ uses forms that could come out of an Ingres or a David painting. Janmot deliberately wanted to break with Neo-Classical French style and clearly favoured the purity of untouched nature.

The paintings of Janmot are magnificent, large and important works of art that illustrate one of the great tendencies of the battle of ideas that were the essence of the nineteenth century. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon shows them in all their glory next to each other. The paintings are to be admired as the dedication of a great artist to his ideas. Janmot of course was a great Romantic artist. He devoted his life and his creativity to one idea only, a eulogy in the defence of the soul. Here was an artist not gifted with the power of a genius, devoting all his creative energy to an idea that most people of his times and almost all of ours would mock. We may find Janmot very naive and we may regret his futile effort. Yet, his series on the soul represents the cravings of many persons of Western Europe of the nineteenth century. Many Romantics sought the ideals of medieval and Renaissance Christianism and even though Europe was de-christened in the end, the values and messages of Christianism did not die out.

“A eulogy in defense of the soul”.

‘Unfinished justice’ and charity

Bradley J. Birzer’s on Russell Kirk’s “unfinished justice”:

When Russell Amos Augustine Kirk passed away in April 1994, he had begun what would have become, most likely, a rather large book. While it might not have joined the ranks of The Conservative Mind or The Roots of American Order in size, it almost certainly would have joined them in stature and importance. For years, Kirk had wrestled with the meanings, essences, and development (or perversion) of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. While he firmly believed in the objective truth of each, he knew all too well how current problems and democratic or totalitarian moods might manipulate and distort the original meanings. Just as Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and Academic Freedom were each “prolonged essays in definition,” so, too, would be his book on justice.

If we, a people living in the midst of an ideological age, might find our way back to the origin of one of the most important words in our language and in civilization, we might very well be able to restore its original meaning and, equally important, begin to debate how best to implement it in this fallen world. … Unfortunately, Kirk passed away before completing his work. Indeed, not even an outline of the book remains extant. …

Kirk had already written extensively on justice, but he had done so in the context of American constitutionalism and politics, affirming James Madison’s very Aristotelian notion that the end of all government is justice. Kirk had dealt with issue most directly in his 1957 primer for military personnel, The American Cause. In the early 1980s, he had also written on the meaning of the virtues as a whole, and he had, importantly, given several lectures to the Heritage Foundation on the nature of justice in particular. It would not be far-fetched to assume and presume that these speeches would serve as distinct chapters in Kirk’s final book on justice. This, after all, was how Kirk often wrote his books—first as pieces, then, masterfully, stitching them together as a whole. …

In our time, so cynical and devoid of respect for the ancients, modern Americans might very well scoff at citing Socrates or Plato or Cicero to establish a definition of justice. Yet, Kirk continued, because justice is rooted in nature and because in its perfection transcends all time and space, one can innately observe virtue in the actions of wise women and men. Such observation of our heroes and those we admire might be the best teacher in our current day, serving as reminders of what has always been true, but lost, forgotten, or mocked. … Kirk’s words intentionally fit the Socratic definition of justice: “to give each person his due.”

As Kirk—and every conservative before and after—understood, “to give each person his due” is not to make all men one, but rather to acknowledge the unique gifts and talents bestowed upon every person by God. The only equality we share is equality of original sin. It is our excellence that makes us unique as humans, and, therefore, allows us to know what “to give each person.” For those we encourage in their gifts, we do so as justice, but with charity. For those who fail, we encourage with justice, but also in charity.

That Kirk died in the middle of his project does not make it less important. Perhaps quite the opposite is true. “Justice” should never be left in the demented minds and hands of Rousseau and Rawls. Rather, through imagination, we must understand a true justice, a Socratic justice, a Judeo-Christian justice, one that does give each person his due, but always in the name of charity. Charity does not replace or conquer justice; it fulfills it.

In C.S. Lewis’s “Till We Have Faces“, his retelling of the Greek myths of Cupid and Psyche, there’s a bit of dialogue toward the end where Orual, Psyche’s sister, asks her tutor something like, “Shall I not expect justice from the gods?” To which her tutor replies with something like, “Goodness, child, we should hope not!” To receive a pure and untempered justice, in other words to receive really everything that we deserve, would be more than anyone could really bear. Which explains Birzer’s commentary about charity fulfilling justice.

What’s a ‘smart’ city?

Bruce Sterling writes on “smart cities”:

Rome and London are two huge, sluggish beasts of cities that have outlived millennia of eager reformers. They share a world where half the people already live in cities and another couple billion are on their way into town. The population is aging quickly, the current infrastructure must crumble and be replaced by its very nature, and climate disaster is taking the place of the past’s great urban fires, wars, and epidemics. Those are the truly important, dull but worthy urban issues.

The digital techniques that smart-city fans adore are flimsy and flashy—and some are even actively pernicious—but they absolutely will be used in cities. They already have an urban heritage. When you bury fiber-optic under the curbs around the town, then you get internet. When you have towers and smartphones, then you get portable ubiquity. When you break up a smartphone into its separate sensors, switches, and little radios, then you get the internet of things.These tedious yet important digital transformations have been creeping into town for a couple of generations. At this point, they’re pretty much all that urban populations can remember how to do. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent—these are the true industrial titans of our era. That’s how people make money, that’s how they make war, so of course, it will be how they make cities.

However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect. …

If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized. … It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there. …

“Smart cities” merely want to be perceived as smart, when what they actually need is quite different. Cities need to be rich, powerful, and culturally persuasive, with the means, motive, and opportunity to manage their own affairs. That’s not at all a novel situation for a city. “Smartness” is just today’s means to this well-established end.

The future prospects of city life may seem strange or dreadful, but they’re surely not so dreadful as traditional rural life. All over the planet, villagers and farmers are rushing headlong into cities. Even nations so placid, calm, and prosperous as the old Axis allies of Germany, Japan, and Italy have strange, depopulated rural landscapes now. People outside the cities vote with their feet; they check in, and they don’t leave. The lure of cities is that powerful. They may be dumb, blind, thorny, crooked, congested, filthy, and seething with social injustice, but boy are they strong.

What we continue to need are qualities like vision, courage, and the boldness to act in pursuit of better, specific places. The building out of the physical infrastructure of a place seems to be what makes it “smart,” and at a minimum building out the right sort of infrastructure, with the right models for its conservation and permanence, will make a place resilient to the shocks that the future inevitably brings.

Scenes leaving State College

As I was driving back to Philadelphia last Thursday morning after my “Inspiriting Mount Nittany” talk, I snapped these photos during periods of traffic slow-down along Route 322, leaving State College. I left town at 7:15. It was a beautiful, slightly damp, and slightly fog-enveloped morning:

Founders Day

Today is Founders Day at Penn State, when students, alumni, and townspeople celebrate figures like Evan and Rebecca Pugh, Frederick Watts, James Irvin, George Atherton, and so many others who figured prominently in the creation of what became Pennsylvania’s land grant university. I’m not in State College, but I shot this clip of Old Main in steady rain when I was in town on February 14th for my “Inspiriting Mount Nittany” talk. It’s a scene any Penn Stater would be familiar with:

Tonight Chris Buchignani will be speaking on behalf of the Nittany Valley Society about the essence of cultural conservation, and some of the remarkable stories of Happy Valley over the generations as part of Lion Ambassador’s event:

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Remembering Michael Novak

Yesterday I wrote about knowing Ben Novak for ten years, and toasting to his 75th birthday. Today I’m sharing the program from a program honoring his brother Michael at Catholic University of America here in Washington, DC:

A Legacy of Faith and Reason: Honoring Michael Novak

Join the Busch School of Business and Economics for a very special event honoring Michael Novak – a mentor, colleague, and friend – on the occasion of the first anniversary of his death.

We will welcome the Novak family and hear from a number of voices, celebrating and reflecting on Michael’s life and work, as well as our role in carrying forward his legacy of faith, reason, and service to both our Church and our country.

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Schedule

  • 8:45 a.m. – Registration and continental breakfast
  • 9:30 a.m. – Welcome and introductory remarks, Dr. Andrew Abela, provost, The Catholic University of America
  • 9:45 a.m. – Dr. Jay Richards, The Catholic University of America and host of EWTN series “A Force for Good”
  • 10:30 a.m. – Break
  • 10:45 a.m. – Panel of Catholic University colleagues including Dr. Michael Pakaluk and Dr. Max Torres
  • 11:30 a.m. – Fr. Robert Sirico, founder and president, Acton Institute
  • 12:15 p.m. – Lunch and screening of “A Force for Good”
  • 1:30 p.m. – Panel of former students
  • 2:15 p.m. – Remarks from Ms. Mary Ann Novak and Dr. Ben Novak
  • 3:00 p.m. – Mass in the Crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine
  • 4:15 p.m. – Reception

I was standing just a few feet from Michael when the photo above was taken in Ave Maria, Florida, in front of what was then Ave Maria University’s Oratory. I think he was a bit tired that day, but his joie de vivre shines through in it nonetheless.

Michael was a joy to be around, even and especially when he was admonishing you for some failing and maybe especially when he was encouraging you to work harder, because in those moments you realized you were with someone who really cared about you, and really wanted you to strive for something greater, and to reject self-satisfaction and laziness.

I’m here today to hopefully honor that spirit of his, and to keep the flame alive. I’ll share photos from the day afterwards:

Robb Klucik from Ave Maria also sang this short, adapted version of Hillaire Belloc’s “Benedicamus Domino” in honor of Michael:

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Ben Novak’s 75th birthday

Ben Novak celebrated his 75th birthday on February 14th at home in Ave Maria, Florida, and this evening, at La Chaumière on M Street in Georgetown, I’ll be with Ben and family and friends for what I’m sure will be a night of joyful stories, memories, and mirth.

I first met Ben in 2008. At the time, he was living in Bratislava, Slovakia in what was partially a self-imposed exile after a full life and career as a Central Pennsylvania attorney, founder of the Mount Nittany Conservancy, four-term Penn State trustee, and a dozen other or so things to contribute to public life in State College, Pennsylvania.

I remember, vividly, meeting Ben for the first time. A few minutes after shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Ben asks me what I’m majoring in at Penn State. “Political Science,” I offer. As we’re walking down College Avenue, he responds: “What good is that going to do for you?” And I loved that reply, and was attracted to him for having the pugnacity to put that question to me so directly, because I understood his meaning to be not “What practical/career value will that degree have?” but rather, “What good is that going to do for you?” What will it do to and for you as a human being; to your soul? What sort of person does it help you to become?

That exchange captures so much about Ben, both his willingness to be forthright and incredibly direct to the point of consternation, as well as his concern for the true and the good and the necessary pursuit of those things in a life that’s to have any meaning. These sound like high-minded things, but in practice with Ben they almost never are.

The essence and fullness of Ben Novak is expressed in all the everyday things: in his willingness to do almost anything for someone he cares about; in his self deprecation; in his longing for community and communal life with other good people; in his quick smile and his hearty laugh; in his intellectual humility and his insistence that the intellectual and philosophical stakes are real and worth engaging; in the tireless work ethic that seems to run in his family; in his love and affection for his parents; in his spirit of adventure both external and internal.

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst,” writes C.S. Lewis. In Ben, I met a man with a chest, and with a sense of honor that made trust and fast friendship easy—even when he was being a damned bastard about some point or other. To turn Lewis around a bit, and poorly: in Ben I was shocked to find a whole man in my midst.

Is Ben a brother to me? Yes. Is Ben like a father to me? Yes.

We’ve collaborated many times over the past decade. An inspiration for the Nittany Valley Society, he was the one who introduced me to American Indian folklore. He and Vince Verbeke and others introduced me to a love for Mount Nittany. He helped me think more deeply and meaningfully about Penn State and the nature of a university. He showed me in practice a deep sort of Christianity that’s unselfconscious and confident. He recovered in me a love for the grail legends of King Arthur and an authentic chivalric sense of honor and duty and love. I’ve spent collectively coming up on a year living in Ave Maria, Florida with him and his late brother Michael. Together, we’ve published his essays “Is Penn State a Real University? An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal” and his craft beer columns in “The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.” We recorded and released two audiobooks, with a third (on the American Indian legends of Central Pennsylvania) coming later this year. I kept kicking him until he finally knuckled down to publish his PhD dissertation on Abductive Logic, the logic of Sherlock Holmes and the tyrants of modernity. Here’s Ben telling Henry W. Shoemaker’s legend of Princess Nita-Nee:

Unlike his brother Michael, the diplomat, Ben might be described by contrast as the aggressor. In our present cultural moment, that confounds and frightens some people. What both the diplomat and the aggressor shared as brothers and Novaks might be described as the desire to “get at the heart of things,” urged on by Joseph Campell’s sense of the “call to adventure.” Celebrating Michael’s 80th birthday a few years ago in Washington, at the Army-Navy Club was a joy, in particular this vignette: Ben toasting to the genius of his brother’s “Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” and its key insight that capitalism didn’t just have to be tolerated, but could be defended as a force for moral good against the allegedly morally superior Marxist-Communist ideal, so long as it was restrained from rapaciousness:

(That’s Clarence Thomas seated in front of Ben, which was cool.)

After the scandal of the Jerry Sandusky revelations, and the Penn State Trustees’ utterly scandalous response to the allegations of Sandusky’s crimes, which itself led to the unjust loss of Joe Paterno’s reputation and a reputational taint that Penn Staters will need a half century to recover from, Ben helped lead the way in showing that love and community feeling were some of the only responses that could lead to recovery. Here we are attempting to honor Joe Paterno’s legacy by reading from his autobiography in November 2011 on The LION 90.7fm (WKPS), Penn State’s campus radio station, where we delving into the coach’s sense of right and wrong through Virgil:

And here’s Ben around the same time on The LION 90.7fm’s “Radio Free Penn State” public affairs talk show reading Paul and Maralyn Mazza’s public letter, “Chin Up, Shoulders Back” to their friends Joe and Sue Paterno:

The shock of both the Sandusky scandal and Penn State’s disastrous response to it all led us to release the adapted essays of “Is Penn State a Real University”, which were essays that Ben first drafted in the late 1980s and which originally helped him get elected to his four-terms as a Penn State trustee. We also recorded the audiobook version of those essays, because people today tend not read books:

Is Penn State a Real University?

And it was in Ben who I encountered a love for nature and for the power of symbol, particularly in recovering a memory of Old Willow as Penn State’s first symbol and a tangible and lasting gift of Evan Pugh and Penn State’s founders. Here’s Ben telling the story of Old Willow:

Yes, Ben is the sort of person who would devote himself to honoring a tree. Of course, “honoring a tree” is only how someone without a deeper sense of the value of such things would think of it. The same love Ben has for Old Willow is what inspired his titanic efforts to conserve 300+ acres of Mount Nittany in the 1980s and found the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and in these things I recognized the same values that he would have shared with my grandfather, and I felt echoes of the experience of nature of my boyhood, growing up near great trees Pop planted and near surviving suburban woodlots, and feeling so deeply the power of creation to speak to the soul of a person.

In Ben’s “open letter to the future,” first published in the Centre Daily Times in 1995 and narrated below, Ben uses the Disney film The Never-ending Story to call out to Penn Staters of the future to find something true and good in the essence of Penn State and recover it with love:

Vignettes and testimonies and reminiscences of my friendship with Ben over the past ten years in honor of his 75th birthday.

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‘New men’

A great and strong passage from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s recent remarks in Phoenix, Arizona, specifically on “sex and the ‘new man'”:

Now because I made such a big deal about the importance of memory, some of you will remember that I also promised to talk about sex and the making of the “new man.” So I’ll finish with those two items.

Since most of you are familiar with those two little details called the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, I’ll mention the obvious things just briefly. Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t put yourself in a situation where the idea would even occur to you. Don’t mislead and abuse women, and damage your own dignity as a man, by sleeping around before marriage. And if you’re already doing that, or did that, or you’re toying with the idea of doing it sometime in the future, stop it, now, and get to confession. Finally, don’tdemean your wife, your daughters, your mother and your sisters by poisoning your imagination with porn. It steals your time and your heart from the people who need them the most—the wife and family you love. Pornography exploits and humiliates women. And it dehumanizes men at the same time. God made us to be better than that. Our families need us to be better than that.

Those are some of the don’ts. The dos are equally obvious. Do love the women in your life with the encouragement, affection, support, and reverence they deserve by right. Dobe faithful to your wife in mind and body. Do show courtesy and respect to the women you meet, even when they don’t return it. Chivalry is dead only if we men cooperate in killing it—and given the vulgarity of our current national environment and its leaders, we certainly need some kind of new code of dignity between the sexes. Finally, those of you who marry, do have more children, and do invest your time and heart in them. America is facing a birth bust, and it’s a sign of our growing national selfishness. Children are the future. They’re the cement of love in the covenant of a husband and wife. They’re also an anchor to the imperfection and beauty of reality. They’re the single best antidote to selfishness.

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and all the other blots on recent male behavior are merely a symptom of an entire culture of unhinged attitudes toward sex. Women are right to be angry when men treat them like objects and act like bullies and pigs. But a real reform of male behavior will never come about through feminist lectures and mass media man-shaming by celebrities and award ceremonies. In a lot of men, that kind of hectoring will merely breed nominal repentance and inner resentment. A man’s actions and words change only when his heart changes for the better. And his heart only changes for the better when he discovers something to believe in that transforms and gives meaning to his life; something that directs all of his reasoning and desires. In other words, when he becomes a new man.

That expression “new man” has an interesting past. In ancient Rome, the novi hominesor “new men” were men from the lower classes who earned or bought their way into public prominence and leadership. In a sense, they reinvented themselves. In the Renaissance, “new men” were humanists who made themselves indispensable as advisers to princes because of their literacy and scholarship—the tools of the new learning. But since the Enlightenment, and especially since the French Revolution, the “new man” is the man unencumbered by the chains and superstitions of the past—Promethean man who repudiates any memory or morality that could obligate him to the past, and who creates his own identity and future.

Thus the “new Soviet man” and the “new Aryan man” of the last century were creatures of ideology. They were meant to be healthy, learned, unselfish, and zealous in advancing communism or National Socialism, without the help of any god. Both of these “new” men failed. They ended in the gulag, the Holocaust, mass murder and war. And every similar effort will always fail because we don’t and we can’t erase the past. We don’t and we can’t create ourselves. And when we try, we destroy the very thing that guarantees our humanity: the reality that none of us is a god, but all of us are sons and daughters of the true and only God.

By the way, we Americans should remember that the words novus ordo seclorum are stamped on our own Great Seal of the United States. A “new order of the ages”—that’s what the Founders intended this country to be. The potential for good in those words is exactly matched by the potential for vanity, ambition, and evil. And the less biblical we become as a people, the more the balance tips in the wrong direction.

There’s only one way any of us will ever become a genuinely new man—a new man right down to our cell structure; the new man our families, our culture and our world need. It’s by giving ourselves totally to God. It’s by putting on the new man in Jesus Christ that Paul describes in Ephesians 4 (22-24) and Colossians 3 (9-17). And the kind of new men we become demands the armor Paul gives us in Ephesians 6 (11-17)—because, like it or not, as Catholic men, we really are engaged in a struggle for the soul of a beautiful but broken world.

To put it another way: The “new knighthood” St. Bernard once praised never really disappears. It’s new and renewed in every generation of faithful Catholic men. And brothers, that means us. It’s a vocation that belongs to us, and nobody else. The rules of our order—all 22 of them—were written down 500 years ago by the great Catholic humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his book, The Manual of a Christian Knight. It’s a dense text for the modern reader, but here’s the substance of what he says:

  • Rule 1: Deepen and increase your faith.
  • Rule 2: Act on your faith; make it a living witness to others.
  • Rule 3: Analyze and understand your fears; don’t be ruled by them.
  • Rule 4: Make Jesus Christ the only guide and the only goal of your life.
  • Rule 5: Turn away from material things; don’t be owned by them.
  • Rule 6: Train your mind to distinguish the true nature of good and evil.
  • Rule 7: Never let any failure or setback turn you away from God.
  • Rule 8: Face temptation guided by God, not by worry or excuses.
  • Rule 9: Always be ready for attacks from those who fear the Gospel and resent the good.
  • Rule 10: Always be prepared for temptation. And do what you can to avoid it.
  • Rule 11: Be alert to two special dangers: moral cowardice and personal pride.
  • Rule 12: Face your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
  • Rule 13: Treat each battle as if it were your last.
  • Rule 14: A life of virtue has no room for vice; the little vices we tolerate become the most deadly.
  • Rule 15: Every important decision has alternatives; think them through clearly and honestly in the light of what’s right.
  • Rule 16: Never, ever give up or give in on any matter of moral substance.
  • Rule 17: Always have a plan of action. Battles are often won or lost before they begin.
  • Rule 18: Always think through, in advance, the consequences of your choices and actions.
  • Rule 19: Do nothing—in public or private—that the people you love would not hold in esteem.
  • Rule 20: Virtue is its own reward; it needs no applause.
  • Rule 21: Life is demanding and brief; make it count.
  • Rule 22: Admit and repent your wrongs, never lose hope, encourage your brothers, and then begin again.

Maleness, brothers, is a matter of biology. It just happens. Manhood must be learned and earned and taught. That’s our task. So my prayer for all of us today is that God will plant the seed of a new knighthood in our hearts—and make us the kind of “new men” our families, our Church, our nation, and our world need.

I’m setting this down as much for the benefit of my family one day as for my own memory in days to come, when I’m sure to struggle. Have faith. Be courageous in love. Be brave in confession. Repent.