Wednesday, April 13, 2016

America’s Would-be Homer—Joel Barlow

Joel Barlow painted by Robert Fulton, 1805.

Joel Barlow was an ambitious man, not for himself, but for his infant nation which he fervently believed was destined to be the shining hope of the world and a model civilization which would inspire the “uniting of all mankind in one religion, one language and one Newtonian harmonious whole,” and that “the American Revolution as the opening skirmish of a world revolution on behalf of the rights of all humanity.” What the country really needed, he decided was its own national epic poem along the classical lines of the Greek Homeric epics and the Roman Virgil.  A Yale scholar of note he considered himself to be just the man to fill the need and write the saga which would inspire the nation and win it international cultural respect.  He took Christopher Columbus as his theme and as an allegory for rising New World.  He imbued The Mariner with prophetic powers to envision that new civilization to be born. 
The Vision of Columbus was published in 1787 and much of the educated American Public was duly impressed.  Among the poem’s fans was Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State and author of the Declaration of Independence, who was also eager to establish the cultural independence and influence of the new Republic.  Jefferson would first enlist his friend in diplomatic affairs as he traveled in France.  After many years and adventures abroad including becoming an ardent French Revolutionary, accepting French citizenship, and serving in the French Assembly as well as becoming an American diplomat, Barlow returned to the United States where he greatly expanded—many would say inflatedThe Vision of Columbus into an even grander epic re-titled The Columbiad which he published in 1808 along with voluminous notes and essays of interpretation.  

Barlow wrote in his notes on The Columbiad that he had a copy of this famous portrait painted from the original likeness hanging in Italy.

Once again his efforts were widely hailed, but one suspects that his new book was most often laid aside half-read to molder on dusty, neglected shelves.  The poem was turgid beyond belief and a stultifying read.  Within a generation it was largely neglected and forgotten.  Aside for one other poem, the mock heroic satire The Hasty-Pudding which celebrated humble corn as the basis of a new civilization and a mark of its Republican simplicity and virtue and which is a staple of American poetry anthologies, Barlow’s memory and reputation rested on his diplomatic career.
Barlow was a Connecticut Yankee born on March 24, 1754 at Redding.  His family were upstanding members of a New England Standing Order congregation which retained all of the ferocity of Cotton Mather hell-fire-and-damnation Puritanism that was already disappearing in the old Boston and eastern Massachusetts churches.  Evidence suggests that as a very young man he was taking those long Sunday sermons with a grain of salt.
He came from a well established family that was prosperous enough to give him a good education.  He started at Dartmouth but soon moved on the Yale College from which he graduated in 1778 and where he continued graduate studies for two more years. 
While in school he became a passionate patriot.  He was with the Connecticut Militia which was sent to reinforce the Continental Army for the disastrous Battle of Long Island.  He managed to avoid getting killed there, or worse captured and subjected to the brutal conditions of a prisoner of war. 
Barlow returned to his studies.  He made his first mark as a writer with the publication of The Prospect for Peace in 1778, which made a bold statement against slavery.  He became acquainted pamphleteer Thomas Paine whose Common Sense rallied the nations to the Patriot cause early in the War of Independence and whose continuing pamphlet series The American Crisis was very influential.  Paine became a close friend to the young man despite their different class and education backgrounds.  Their association would resume in England and revolutionary France where Barlow would work to get Paine released from prison.  Paine also helped move Barlow away from the shreds of Puritanism and toward the most radical end of the Deist spectrum.
In 1780 despite his new unorthodoxy and lack of ordination as clergy, Barlow became Chaplin with the 4th Massachusetts Brigade of the Continental Army and served through the rest of the war.
Afterwards Barlow returned to the Nutmeg State and settled in Hartford where he established the American Mercury, a newspaper not to be confused with the 20th Century literary magazine founded by H. L. Menken.  His association with the paper only lasted a year, but helped him establish a reputation as a writer.  He fell in with other young pen men—Lemuel Hopkins, David Humphreys, and John Trumbull—who became known as the Hartford Wits.  With them he contributed to Anarchiad, a series of satirico-political papers.
In 1786 Barlow was admitted to the Bar.  He practiced law and had various business dealings, but his passion continue to be writing.  It was just a year after hanging out his shingle that he published The Vision of Columbus which gave him a national reputation and brought him to the attention of Jefferson. 
About the same time he became involved in a project to recruit French settlers to emigrate and found a community in the Ohio country.  He drafted the brochure which circulated in France and then in 1788 was sent to Paris as an agent of the Scioto Land Company.  Barlow was unaware that the company was an elaborate swindle and had no legitimate claims on the lands it was selling. A group of aristocrats fleeing France after Bastille Day invested.  When they arrived at their wilderness destination on the Ohio River, they discovered they did not own the land they had purchased and promised improvements had not been made.  They were bailed out by George Washington’s Ohio Land Company which sent men to fell timber, clear plots, and erect cabins at what became Gallipolis, Ohio.  Scioto Company collapsed in a scandalous failure that bankrupted many on both sides of the Atlantic. 
Despite the disaster, Barlow emerged with his reputation relatively unsullied.  More importantly, he was in Paris at the right time to become a participant observer of the unfolding French Revolution.  His commitment to the Revolution deepened and he became identified with the most “advanced Republicans.”  Barlow was made a French citizen in 1792 and was elected to the Assembly where he supported the execution of Louis
Dividing his time between Paris and London he re-connected with Thomas Paine and became involved with the radical Whigs of the London Society for Constitutional Information which was busy supporting the French, advocating a British Republic, and scaring the hell out the British ruling classes. He published Conspiracy of Kings, a Poem addressed to the Inhabitants of Europe from another Quarter of the Globe in 1792 which was suppressed along with other London Society publications by the British Authorities.
Barlow's friend and political and religious inspiration, Thomas Paine.

Meanwhile in Paris, the Reign of Terror was getting out of hand.  Tom Paine was arrested and jailed.  If Barlow had been in Paris, at the time he might have suffered the same fate.  In London he arranged for the publication of Paine’s latest work, the Deist manifesto An Appeal to Reason in popular cheap editions.  It became a best seller in France and America, but was suppressed in England.  He also worked to get Paine released.  About this time Jefferson began enlisting Barlow as an unofficial agent and entrusting him with back channel communications with the French.
Barlow kept his name before the American public by sending home The Hasty-Pudding to be published in New York City in 1773.
In 1775 Jefferson prevailed upon the somewhat reluctant President George Washington to appoint Barlow to the sensitive position of American Consul to Algiers charged with freeing American seamen captured by the so called Barbary Pirates and secure a treaty protecting American shipping in the Mediterranean.  At the time the U.S. had no Navy to speak of and was incapable of defending shipping in the area.
Somewhat controversially, Barlow used State Department funds to pay ransoms and bribes to obtain the release of some imprisoned sailors.  But his conduct and contacts eventually built enough trust to begin serious negotiations on a treaty.  He concluded negotiations on November 4, 1796—coinciding with the election of Federalist President John Adams on the Treaty of Tripoli, a Treaty of perpetual peace and friendship with the Bey of Tripoli, then a self-governing part of the Ottoman Empire.  Despite his Republican political connection in the U.S. and closeness to the despised Revolutionary French, and Adams and his Secretary of State Thomas Pickering had little choice but to submit the treaty Barlow made to Congress.

Adams usually gets the credit but the words were Barlow's.

The Treaty included the clause often attributed to Adams but drafted by Barlow and approved by Adams that, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”  Despite an uproar it passed the Senate.
After years abroad, Barlow returned to the U.S. in 1805 and moved to Washington.  He bought and land in the District of Columbia just outside the original boundaries of the city.  He named his estate KaloramaFine View—and had Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Latrobe enlarge and beautify an existing home there into a suitable mansion.
He finished and published The Columbiad there in 1808 and also published books of political essays and economics.
In 1811 President James Madison called Barlow back into the diplomatic service with one of the most prestigious of all appointments—Minister Plenipotentiary to France.  He was given one main charge, negotiating a commercial treaty with Napoleon and securing the restitution of confiscated American property—mostly shipping trying to trade with Britain and her allies against France.
Although there was a sort of caretaker government in Paris, initiatives like this could only be taken up directly with the Emperor—who was busy invading and then retreating from Russia by the time Barlow arrived in Europe.  That sent the Minister chasing the Army east.  He almost had an appointment for an audience at Wilno (Vilnus) in what is now Lithuania but military reverses sent the Grand Armee reeling in a disorganized retreat.  Barlow followed in snow and cold and generally miserable conditions.  He contracted pneumonia and died on December 12, 1812 in the village of Żarnowiec in Austrian Poland.  He was 58 years old.  His death was considered a national tragedy.
What academic interest in Barlow’s epic might have had for modern readers is pretty much destroyed by his disastrous choice for a hero.  No major historical figure has fallen from grace to disgrace so far and so fast.  Still lauded as the Great Discover through the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, in monumental sculpture, novels, and motion pictures (at least 5 silent movies and a 1949 bio-pic staring Fredrick March) well into the 20th Century, a reassessment began preceding the 500th anniversary of the San Salvador landfall in 1992.  Native American and aboriginal groups across the Western Hemisphere began protesting homage to a man who claimed land that was not his or his monarchs’; brutally enslaved, tortured, and exterminated native peoples as Viceroy; destroyed native culture and imposed an alien religion.  In addition historians were increasingly convinced that he was not the first European to find what we now call the Americas—there were multiple “discoveries” over hundreds of years and even confirmed Viking attempts at colonization.  More over Columbus didn’t know where the hell he was when he got there.  He was still convinced he had found outlying islands of Asia.  By the time of his fourth voyage when almost everyone had concluded that a land mass lay between Europe and Asia he remained delusional about it and nearly killed his entire crew in mad schemes to prove himself right.  Shortly after his brutality against the native Caribs sickened even the Catholic missionary priests and his greed and arrogance offended would-be Conquistadores and he was stripped of his titles, taken to Spain in chains, and imprisoned in a dungeon.
Protests to honoring Columbus have led many cities to abandon Columbus Day parades and observance and to celebrate Native Americans that day instead.  Movements are well along to abolishing the state and Federal holidays.  Statues and monuments have been taken down on both sides of the ocean.  As early as 1992 two competing bio-epics both failed at the box office while several documentaries in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe retold Columbus’s story through anti-colonialist lenses.
Barlow, who did extensive archival research, started his epic with Columbus in that dungeon in disgrace. But it paints him as the virtuous victim of a rotten and corrupt monarchy and of the Catholic Church of the Inquisition.  Very surprising for a man who had reveled in Royal patronage and who was to the end a super devout Catholic—even if possibly a secret converso.  More over Barlow gave Columbus visions in which he saw a rising, liberal civilization and put in his mouth the noble ideas of the Rights of Man, universal Brotherhood, and even Deist free thought.  Never was a more unsuitable messenger selected for such notions.  Yet Barlow, generally gob smacked with hero worship, saw no conflict in projecting his own high post-Enlightenment values on the wicked old scoundrel. 
So if the poetry is turgid and the subject revolting, why are we spending time here?”  Well there is always the fascination with a train wreck.  And there is much to learn about Americans as a people and how we got this way.
What follows is a relatively brief passage from the opening of The Columbiad, Book 1 in which ol’ Chris is cooling his heels in that dungeon.  I cut it short to spare you greater pain.

The Columbiad, first edition.

The Columbiad
Book 1

I sing the Mariner who first unfurl’d
  An eastern banner o'er the western world,
  And taught mankind where future empires lay
  In these fair confines of descending day;
  Who sway’d a moment, with vicarious power,
  Iberia’s sceptre on the new found shore,
  Then saw the paths his virtuous steps had trod
  Pursued by avarice and defiled with blood,
  The tribes he foster’d with paternal toil
  Snatch’d from his hand, and slaughter’d for their spoil.

  Slaves, kings, adventurers, envious of his name,
  Enjoy’d his labours and purloin’d his fame,
  And gave the Viceroy, from his high seat hurl'd.
  Chains for a crown, a prison for a world
  Long overwhelm’d in woes, and sickening there,
  He met the slow still march of black despair,
  Sought the last refuge from his hopeless doom,
  And wish’d from thankless men a peaceful tomb:
  Till vision’d ages, opening on his eyes,
  Cheer’d his sad soul, and bade new nations rise;
  He saw the Atlantic heaven with light o’ercast,
  And Freedom crown his glorious work at last.

  Almighty Freedom! give my venturous song
  The force, the charm that to thy voice belong;
  Tis thine to shape my course, to light my way,
  To nerve my country with the patriot lay,
  To teach all men where all their interest lies,
  How rulers may be just and nations wise:
  Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee,
  Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.

  Night held on old Castile her silent reign,
  Her half orb’d moon declining to the main;
  O’er Valladolid's regal turrets hazed
  The drizzly fogs from dull Pisuerga raised;
  Whose hovering sheets, along the welkin driven,
  Thinn’d the pale stars, and shut the eye from heaven.
  Cold-hearted Ferdinand his pillow prest,
  Nor dream’d of those his mandates robb’d of rest,
  Of him who gemm’d his crown, who stretch’d his reign
  To realms that weigh’d the tenfold poise of Spain;
  Who now beneath his tower indungeo’'d lies,
  Sweats the chill sod and breathes inclement skies.

  His feverish pulse, slow laboring thro his frame,
  Feeds with scant force its fast expiring flame;
  A far dim watch-lamp's thrice reflected beam
  Throws thro his grates a mist-encumber’d gleam,
  Paints the dun vapors that the cell invade,
  And fills with spectred forms the midnight shade;
  When from a visionary short repose,
  That nursed new cares and temper’d keener woes,
  Columbus woke, and to the walls addrest
  The deep felt sorrows bursting from his breast:

  Here lies the purchase, here the wretched spoil
  Of painful years and persevering toil.
  For these damp caves, this hideous haunt of
  I traced new regions o’er the chartless main,
  Tamed all the dangers of untraversed waves,
  Hung o’er their clefts, and topt their surging graves,
  Saw traitorous seas o’er coral mountains sweep,
  Red thunders rock the pole and scorch the deep,
  Death rear his front in every varying form,
  Gape from the shoals and ride the roaring storm,
  My struggling bark her seamy planks disjoin,
  Rake the rude rock and drink the copious brine.
  Till the tired elements are lull’d at last,
  And milder suns allay the billowing blast,
  Lead on the trade winds with unvarying force,
  And long and landless curve our constant course…

—Joel Barlow

A 19th Century edition of The Hasty-Pudding.

The Hasty-Pudding
A Poem in Three Cantos

Canto 1

Ye Alps audacious, through the heavens that rise,
To cramp the day and hide me from the skies;
Ye Gallic flags, that o’er their heights unfurled,
Bear death to kings, and freedom to the world,
I sing not to you. A softer theme I choose,
A virgin theme, unconscious of the muse,
But fruitful, rich, well suited to inspire
The purest frenzy of poetic fire.
Despise it not, ye bards to terror steeled,
Who hurl your thunders round the epic field;
Nor ye who strain your midnight throats to sing
Joys that the vineyard and the stillhouse bring;
Or on some distant fair your notes employ,
And speak of raptures that you ne’er enjoy.
I sing the sweets I know, the charms I feel,
My morning incense, and my evening meal,
The sweets of Hasty Pudding. Come, dear bowl,
Glide o’er my palate, and inspire my soul.
The milk beside thee, smoking from the kine,
It's substance mingled, married in with thine,
Shall cool and temper thy superior heat,
And save the pains of blowing while I eat.
Oh! could the smooth, the emblematic song
Flow like thy genial juices o'er my tongue,
Could those mild morsels in my numbers chime,
And, as they roll in substance, roll in rime,
No more thy awkward unpoetic name
Should shun the muse, or prejudice thy fame;
But rising grateful to the accustomed ear,
All bards should catch it, and all realms revere!
Assist me first with pious toil to trace
Through wrecks of time thy lineage and they race;
Declare what lovely squaw, in days of yore,
(Ere great Columbus sought thy native shore)
First gave thee to the world; her works of fame
Have lived indeed, but lived without a name.
Some tawny Ceres, goddess of her days,
First learned with stones to crack the well-dried maize,
Through the rough sieve to shake the golden shower,
In boiling water stir the yellow flour:
The yellow flour, bestrewed and stirred with haste,
Swell in the flood and thickens to a paste,
Then puffs and wallops, rises to the brim,
Drinks the dry knobs that on the surface swim;
The knobs at last the busy ladle breaks,
And the whole mass its true consistence takes.
Could but her sacred name, unknown so long,
Rise, like her labors, to the son of song,
To her, to them, I’d consecrate my lays,
And blow her pudding with the breath of praise.
If ‘twas Oella, whom I sang before,
I here ascribe her one great virtue more.
Not through the rich Peruvian realms alone
The fame of Sol’s sweet daughter should be known,
But o’er the world's wide climes should live secure,
Far as his rays extend, as long as they endure.
Dear Hasty Pudding, what unpromised joy
Expands my heart, to meet thee in Savoy!
Doomed o’er the world through devious paths to roam,
Each clime my country, and each house my home,
My soul is soothed, my cares have found an end,
I greet my long-lost, unforgotten friend.
For thee through Paris, that corrupted town,
How long in vain I wandered up and down,
Where shameless Bacchus, with his drenching hoard,
Cold from his cave usurps the morning board.
London is lost in smoke and steeped in tea;
No Yankee there can lisp the name of thee;
The uncouth word, a libel on the town,
Would call a proclamation from the crown.
For climes oblique, that fear the sun's full rays,
Chilled in their fogs, exclude the generous maize;
A grain whose rich luxuriant growth requires
Short gentle showers, and bright ethereal fires.
But here, though distant from our native shore,
With mutual glee we meet and laugh once more.
The same! I know thee by that yellow face,
That strong complexion of true Indian race,
Which time can never change, nor soil impair,
Nor Alpine snows, nor Turkey’s morbid air;
For endless years, though every mild domain,
Where grows the maize, there thou art sure to reign.
But man, more fickle, the bold incense claims,
In different realms to give thee different names.
Thee the soft nations round the warm Levant

call, the French of course

Ev’n in thy native regions, how I blush
To hear the Pennsylvanians call thee

—Joel Barlow

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