Whims and Whispers

I really should know better than to read Henry Miller. The bad-boy American novelist disrupts a bunkered spot in my consciousness that likes to be roiled, stirred to a tumultuous boil, its riotous bubbles bursting violently through the surface into a belching, spitting, steaming, scalding mele. Yes, that’s what Henry Miller does to me, and I’m not ashamed to admit enjoying it. Here’s a man so outrageously honest that his novels were banned in this land until 1961, are still being burned on the village square, which suits me just fine, thank you. In fact, right up my alley. Just me, I guess, perhaps a tad weird; at the very least, unconventional.

My latest Miller journey began quite by accident, the innocent result of a midday whim that spurred me to my second winter trip to a place I visit regularly during fair-weather months. It was Friday afternoon and I was following a trusted pattern through the Montague Bookmill, where, book in hand and ready to check out, I took a quick, impulsive final swing through the “New Arrivals” table in “Literature” and spotted a familiar shiny black spine that read “Tropic of Capricorn.” It’s the middle volume of a naughty trilogy written in the 1930s and finally published to Woman’s Club howls and English Department squirms by Grove Press in 1961. I had already read the two bookends, “Tropic of Cancer” and “Black Spring,” and had nearly purchased “Capricorn” online many times. Finally, I went through with it. I had the book in my hand, a first edition, crisp and clean, like new, just a little inconspicuous and quite insignificant light brown stain across the page-tops. For $4.50, how could it not accompany me home?

My fondness for Miller is borne of having long ago met and observed from afar the first American with the courage to publish him. Pea-capped rabble-rouser James “Jimmy” Cooney and family were friends of friends in West Whately, and I had seen the radical publisher of an interesting pre-World War II literary journal named “The Phoenix” in action at May Day celebrations and other convivial affairs that left an indelible mark on a teenage boy, hormones dancing that hummingbird flitter that’s rare indeed as you grow old.

Actually, I really didn’t sit here today to write about Miller. He just kinda seized hold of me. But it’s not all Miller’s fault. No, perhaps I’m finally getting a little cranky with this winter that won’t quit, that and my own lingering procrastination toward annual income-tax-preparation chores I so loathe. I do have other stuff to write about, though, all of it related to subjects I’ve been focused on for weeks and months and years, topics about which I continue to receive interesting feedback worth answering and pursuing. The problem is that I finished that other Friday Bookmill purchase over the weekend — a book I stumbled upon about the public newspaper feud between 19th century paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of Penn — so Miller is fresher. His angry riffs can literally consume me like spellbinding emotional pain, literally take my breath, at times sweeping me off like a roaring spring freshet and tumbling me out of control underwater, submerged deeply at the base of a foamy waterfall, struggling to find my way to a breath of damp, misty air. That’s what Miller does to me when he goes off on one of his tirades about New York City or American culture, and I guess that’s why Jimmy Cooney listened, and had the courage to publish the work of a gifted, perceptive American artist when no one else would touch him with asbestos mitts, or even take a whiff of his toxic fumes from afar. I’m not sure Miller has an equal on the American literary stage. Yes, there are more acclaimed and popular authors; many, in fact. But what does popularity mean other than the voice is sweet to consumers’ ears? Give me harsh reality, any day, and the courage to portray.

Miller can really send me to disorienting places I must navigate my way out of. It’s not unlike being lost in the woods in dense fog, a snowstorm or darkness, or maybe the time I got lost as a prepubescent boy at the New York World’s Fair and found my way out, or as a teen negotiated getting permanently separated from the two girls who accompanied me to Woodstock. To a lesser degree, it can even be compared to that twice-daily 89 minutes between 12:01 and 1:30 when, if relying on chimes of a tall clock on the hour and half-hour as I often do, you can lose your place with three consecutive single strikes. Unsure what time it is, it brings me to my feet to look at a clock more often than I want to admit. Yes, that’s what Miller can do to me, and I happen to like it, but not nearly as much as I enjoy his barbs at church and state, schools, proud enforcers, and mainstream mayhem. Henry Miller was truly an American original. In my mind, he “got it,” and like many before him, suffered the consequences.

But that’s enough on Miller. I’d hate to take it too far and get myself into trouble with the PTA. The man just unleashes something wild and quite liberating from deep within me that I very much enjoy setting free; always have, always will. Defiant, independent me: that’s all. And it’s too late to change now, or even want to.

I must say the Marsh-Cope feud really hit home for me after observing local competitive archaeologists criticize each other over the past year or two. Plus, reading of the cantankerous post-Civil War squabble over dinosaur bones uncovered out west only confirmed my suspicion that newspaper accounts of weird archaeological discoveries must be heavily scrutinized before accepted as fact. Two local researchers who are convinced that human giants and/or space aliens roamed our land and were erased from the record by scheming Smithsonian scientists have personally brought my attention to 140-year-old newspaper reports they say give the true stories before they were cleansed by conspiratorial government spinmeisters. My knee-jerk reaction to that claim was in both cases a friendly warning to beware of newspapers, which I have learned after decades of microfilm research can’t always be believed, especially back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when isolated, uninformed editors across the land were cherry-picking sensational “news” items written by scribes who had been told of something bizarre, taken it hook, line and sinker, and reported it verbatim or embellished as fact. Although I think my friendly warning fell on deaf ears, I feel more comfortable having said it now, after reading about rampant misidentifications and straight-out hoaxes that rose from the Marsh-Cope race to paleontology treasure.

It seems only a coincidence that Mr. Marsh shares his surname with one Dexter Marsh, a Montague native of local paleontological fame. Dexter Marsh, who moved to Greenfield in 1834 and worked as a janitor, made rare discoveries of local fossil dinosaur prints up and down the Connecticut River beginning in 1835, first while extracting sidewalk stone from a quarry near Turners Falls. His collection of prehistoric Franklin County footprints can still be viewed in worldwide museum collections. As for the two Marshes that descended from the same family that helped found Hartford, Conn., with Rev. Thomas Hooker, they were separated by a generation, one growing up in Montague, the other in New York. The men definitely would have known of each other but likely never met. Greenfield’s Marsh died in 1853, before Professor Marsh was teaching at Yale and collecting bones far and wide. The good professor did study Connecticut Valley fossils, though, was probably around Greenfield, and surely knew of his distant Marsh cousin.

Something else about these Marshes and the hubbub that seemed to follow them, Dexter Marsh, that uneducated Greenfield “amateur,” ultimately felt wronged by Greenfield physician James Deane and Amherst College geologist Dr. Edward Hitchcock, both of whom he claimed had stolen his fossil-discovery thunder. And, go figure, this type of jealousy still exists between amateur and professional historians and scientists today, and is now raging in the Connecticut Valley to loud denials. I have seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears and recognize it for exactly what it is. Not only that, but I believe it’s detrimental to scholarship and discovery.

In the meantime, I continue to take phone calls, receive email and even an occasional personal letter like the one I opened from James Stuart Smith, the legendary Deerfield Academy football coach known by most as Jim Smith. Now there’s a coach I could have probably played for. His letter arrived from Buckland this week, telling how fabled Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne held utter disdain for folks who pronounced his first name “Nute.” Smith mentioned it in reference to something I had written about Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, who had been critical of disrespectful Americans for mispronouncing his first name as “Noot.” One other little item worth reporting by way of Coach Smith: Rockne called the Catholics he coached “Mackerel Snappers,” then became one himself after his greatest player, George Gipp, died of pneumonia. I’ll have to take Smith’s word for that.

Something else … fascinating correspondence came my way from a local woman intrigued by the Sugarloaf Paleo dig and wanting to lead me on a woodland exploration to some potential rock shelters and formations behind her home. It’s a vast upland area I know a little about but have not explored in years despite wanting to for the last year or so due to claims by archaeologist Mike Gramly. I’ll wait for the snow to melt and take a hike with spring in the air and corn snow underfoot through shady depressions.

But that’s gonna have to wait. First, I must finish Miller, get my checkbook and business records in order, and schedule a couple of annual accounting appointments. By then, hopefully, the sweet sap will be rising through the forest as I run the dogs over new, hilly terrain I last patrolled as an adolescent about the same time I was observing cantankerous Cooney. It’s a Pioneer Valley landmark where ancient footprints lie and mischievous woodland spirits lurk, peeking around giant shagbark hickories and whistling softly into gentle breezes only the perceptive can detect.

I’ll be looking and listening.

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