Thursday, March 10, 2016

When the Nobel Laureate came to Grinnell...

In 1985 Grinnell College hosted Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), distinguished poet and prose writer who had won (among many other honors) the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. Milosz was invited to present the Thursday morning Scholars' Convocation, and also to take part in a couple of informal sessions with students and faculty. Since at that time I taught a survey course on the history of modern eastern Europe, I was asked to introduce Milosz at convocation. It was my only time ever to shake hands with a Nobel laureate, and I am sure that I, blinded by the sun of fame, overdid the introduction. Nevertheless, it was a rare occasion, and one that remains fixed in my memory. What I did not realize then was how that visit would echo back upon Grinnell, and become fixed in a small corner of that great writer's opus.
Czeslaw Milosz (from a 2011 Lithuanian stamp)
The convocation was, predictably, packed. With the rise of the Solidarity labor movement in the 1970s and the 1981 imposition of martial law in Poland, things Polish had come to occupy a large place in the news. Milosz, who had at one time served the post-war Polish government but whose Captive Mind (1953) had dissected the lure and moral failure of Stalinist communism, was therefore not only a gifted poet, but also something of a lightning rod on Poland's failed post-war history. Naturally, therefore, many came to hear him, as much for his political as for his literary views.

In those days Scholars' Convocation almost always convened in Herrick Chapel—a grand auditorium, but perhaps not the best site for non-religious, academic discussions. Speakers stood behind the chancel-like podium, and those who introduced them sat on a small pew behind the podium, off slightly to the side, permitting a view only of the speaker's back. The audience, meanwhile, assembled in wooden pews better intended for early twentieth-century sermons than late twentieth-century lectures. They were obliged to look up to the speaker, whose podium stood on a platform a few feet above the auditorium floor.

Because my own education had focused upon Russia, rather than upon eastern Europe, my mental map of eastern Europe's several languages, changing borders and political systems was not all that firmly established. Most of what I knew of eastern Europe had come from the course I taught, but it was only a survey in which I usually learned at least as much as my students.  I was, therefore, nervous about the introduction I had to make, and so I typed out the whole thing, anxious not to make a bad impression. I do not now recall exactly what I said, but I am certain that it was too long, too detailed, too officious. Finally, however, I yielded the podium to Milosz and sat down.
Undated picture of Grinnell House from when it was the official residence of the Grinnell College President
Milosz had arrived in Grinnell on Wednesday, and had overnighted at Grinnell House where a large dinner was held in his honor. Neither that night nor next day did the poet seem worried about the talk he was to give Thursday morning. No doubt he had done this sort of thing many times, dropping in on College X to give a talk—any talk—and he had no doubt gotten used to ad-libbing, living mainly off his reputation and general knowledge. I wondered what he might say at Grinnell, but as I took my seat on the platform behind him, I readily perceived that he intended to wing it. Although he carried his briefcase up to the podium, plunking it down at his feet, he placed no notes or papers on the podium. After thanking Grinnell for the invitation (and the no doubt generous honorarium), Milosz began to speak...ex tempore. What Milosz said in those first minutes I have now forgotten; I imagine that he spoke off the cuff about circumstances in Poland. What I recall clearly is that, after a few minutes and having exhausted whatever thoughts he had on the subject, he fell silent. More than a half-hour of the convocation period remained, but silence prevailed in Herrick Chapel. A panic seized me: what should I do if Milosz sat down? I supposed that Nobel laureates can do whatever they please, but that did not help assistant professor Kaiser!
Undated photograph of Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) (
Luckily, Milosz did not sit down; instead, bending down behind the podium (so that those in the audience lost sight of him), he began to rummage through his brief case. After what seemed like a very long time (but was, I suppose, only a minute or two), he stood again at the podium with a book in his hand, and began to speak about another poet, Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998). And this is what I remember from that morning's talk, because until that moment I knew nothing about Herbert, who, Milosz told us, had recently published Report From the Besieged City and Other Poems (in Polish). Reading from the text, then interrupting himself to comment, Milosz emphasized the importance of this work, whose title guaranteed that readers would associate it with martial-law Poland. But Herbert clearly had a much longer Polish perspective in view:

...the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them...

Milosz carried on this public reading and commentary spontaneously, without any outline or notes—occasionally flipping through pages in search of something specific. I remember him referencing Mr. Cogito, that "everyman" whom Herbert had first introduced in poetry a decade earlier and whose moral compass Herbert—and Milosz after him—endorsed. It was remarkable, and one of the more informative talks I heard in all my years at Grinnell.

My memory is fuzzy about how the convocation ended; I have the impression that at some point Milosz simply stopped, rather than concluded. Students rushed off to lunch, the chapel emptied, and Milosz himself soon departed, our encounter with literary greatness having passed into memory. My nervousness faded, and, as Poland subsequently emerged from that dark night that martial law had brought about, I forgot about Mr. Cogito and the besieged city.

Until one day some years later (I think it must have been around the change of the millennium) a poet friend of mine—Dr. Alex Moffett—told me about a letter he had received from yet another poet (John Mole, Magdalene College, Cambridge University) who, on reading a 1985 Milosz poem ("A Portrait With a Cat"), had found a mysterious reference to Grinnell, and had written Alex to inquire what the referents were.

A little girl looks at a book with a picture of a cat
Who wears a fluffy collar and has a green velvet frock.
Her lips, very red, are half opened in a sweet reverie.
This takes place in 1910 or 1912, the painting bears no date...
I contemplate the painting in Grinnell, Iowa...

I could recall no such painting, but I guessed that it must have hung in Grinnell House when Milosz stayed there during his 1985 visit. Always attracted by a little mystery, I started to inquire. Milosz had reported the artist's name, Marjorie C. Murphy, so I had a clue, and soon learned that Marjorie Connor Murphy (1888-1980) had lived in Santa Barbara, CA where she had painted and taught painting. More to the point, after the death of her husband, John Frederic Murphy (1887-1957, graduated Grinnell College 1910), she had donated to Grinnell College a collection of Piranesi prints, at the time valued at about $60,000. Packaged with the Piranesi prints was an unspecified number of her own paintings, including, it seemed, the picture that had so attracted Milosz's attention that he had immortalized it in a poem.
Untitled painting of Marjorie Connor Murphy (1888-1980) (image courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archive)
But when I inquired, I learned that this particular painting was no longer part of the college art collection. Perhaps because the painting, having hung in an unprotected environment and menaced daily by daylight and the elements, had faded or suffered other damage, it had been de-accessioned at some point after Milosz's visit. A slide of the painting remained, however, and I was able to have it copied, entrusted it to Alex, who in turn sent it on to John Mole in England.
So, twenty years after his visit to Grinnell, a brief echo of that visit reverberated across the Atlantic Ocean. Milosz himself never returned to Grinnell, and after his 2004 death was buried in Krakow's Skalka church. Alex Moffett, too, soon went to his eternal reward, hoping there to rejoin his wife, Virginia, who had died in 1997. Marjorie Murphy's painting of the little girl with the book of a green-frocked cat has never resurfaced, and presumably never will. But the little girl and her cat survive in a poem whose genesis depended upon the visit to Grinnell of a Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Dancing with Wolves...

In recent years Iowans have been surprised to discover in their urban and suburban communities increasing numbers of wild and dangerous animals. Perhaps most shocking have been the encounters with mountain lions: in 2011 in Iowa City; in 2012 in Des Moines; in 2013 in Sioux County, near Sioux City; and again that same year in Altoona.The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that between 1995 and 2013 there were thirteen confirmed sightings (along with numerous unconfirmed reports). Meanwhile, sightings of black bears, once native to Iowa, have also been on the rise, as a cluster of 2014 reports indicates. In the age of easy video recording, one can easily locate videos of black bears in people's back yards. And in 2014, for the first time in decades, a wolf was sighted in Iowa, a hunter in Buchanan county having shot an animal he mistook for a coyote. A few months later an almost identical scenario played out, and another wolf was confirmed dead in Iowa (Jones County). Almost certainly these wolves had wandered into northeast Iowa from either Minnesota or Wisconsin where gray wolves have long been established, but their appearance in Iowa provoked considerable surprise, since wolves had practically disappeared in Iowa, the last sightings having been almost seventy-five years ago.
2014 Iowa Department of Natural Resources map of wolf sightings
Having read these stories, I fell to wondering about early Grinnell and what its residents' experience with wild predators had been. As regular readers of this blog might recall, one reason I gave for offering these bite-size pieces of history was the conviction that we require some assistance to realize that things were not always the same as they are now. The story of Iowa's experience with wolves nicely illustrates the point, and effectively brings Grinnell into that story.
In a 1940 article published in Iowa Journal of History and Politics (reprinted in 1960 in The Palimpsest), William J. Petersen brought together an enormous collection of reports on "Wolves in Iowa." Many were the early Iowa diarists and reporters who claimed "the howling of wolves made night hideous," and the animals' frequent presence obliged settlers to devise strategies by which to protect themselves and preserve their supplies. Petersen cited a Marshall County woman who, in the middle of the nineteenth century and without a basement, suspended smoked hams and shoulders from the outside eaves of her cabin. The dangling meats taunted the wolves, who gathered around the cabin at night and "practice[d] 'light gymnastics there in rows, leaping up to reach the coveted plunder.'" Other reports make clear that the wolves were no joke, and that at least occasionally they took not only dogs and other animals, but also people who found themselves beset by packs of hungry animals.

In this context the settlers first undertook their own solutions to the problem, organizing "circular wolf hunts" with the help of dogs and horses, trapping wolves within the circle and dispatching the animals. Gradually government inserted itself into this problem, with counties issuing bounties for wolves. Once Iowa had become a state, legislators attempted to regularize bounty practice. In 1856 J. B. Grinnell introduced a bill to "protect the wool growers from the destruction of wolves," but that bill failed. Two years later, on the initiative of a legislator from Delaware County, a new bill "allowing a Bounty upon the scalps of certain Animals" successfully passed the legislature and was signed into law. The measure provided bounties of $1.50 for several animals and $3.00 for the "large species of Wolves known as the Timber Wolf." Controversy immediately ensued, in part because treasuries were insufficient to keep up with the claims, with the result that the bounty was lowered to $1.00 until 1892, when the State Sheep-Breeders and Wool-Growers Association campaigned for a $5.00 bounty for an adult wolf and $2.00 for a wolf cub.

Here again the city of Grinnell played a part in the story. Petersen quotes an 1892 complaint of A. J. Blakely of Grinnell, who argued for the elimination of what he called the "trifling and unequal bounties" against the wolf and the establishment instead of a "State bounty of $20 for the scalps of old wolves and $5 for the young ones." Why? Because, said Blakely, "real wolves, large wolves prowl over the Iowa farms in increasing numbers, seeking what they may devour." Blakely, who had withstood Pickett's charge at Gettysburg in 1863, was someone to believe.

Readers of the Grinnell Herald will have encountered stories of wolf predation in the immediate neighborhood. An 1891 newspaper snippet reported rather casually on a successful kill by Mr. Edward Lincoln, who found a wolf at work among the turkeys on his farm in Washington Township near Oak Grove. According to the newspaper, the wolf was only one of many who victimized livestock that year.
Grinnell Herald 20 June 1891
Wolves were apparently so usual that even college students took time out from their books to take part in hunts. An 1891 issue of The Unit, a publication that reported on college and alumni activities, listed, along with more prosaic notices of new books, sickness and injuries, new classes, and the dissolution of a club, an occasion that drew "several of the boys" into a wolf hunt.
The Unit, vol. 2 (1891):158
Certainly the Iowa sheep-farmer had reason to worry, even if legislators did not grant his wished-for change in the law. Time overcame government resistance, however, and by 1913 a $20 bounty was established. Still, the wolves refused to go away, continuing to attack sheep and other livestock. Petersen reports that between 1913 and 1919 the state paid out almost $150,000 on wolf bounties, most of which came from rural sites. All the same, even city folk in this era encountered wolves; Petersen cites a case from Keokuk where in February, 1915 a wolf was spotted in a vacant lot on Fifth Street, between Bank and Times streets; later the wolf was caught trying to raid a chicken coop.

In the early twentieth century wolf bounties were being claimed at such a rate that in 1919 the payout was reduced to ten dollars. Still government treasuries continued to hemorrhage at an astonishing rate—by Petersen's count, another $150,000 between 1920 and 1932. In 1933 the wolf bounty was reduced ($5) once again, but claims continued, the largest payouts coming in counties along the Missouri River.

In central Iowa, however, bounty payments fell off steeply in these years. According to Petersen's calculations, in the twenty years after 1918, Jasper County paid out some $1800 and Tama County $1605; Mahaska County, on the other hand, in that same period paid only $270 in wolf bounties, Marshall $645, and Poweshiek just $568. Poweshiek County Financial Reports, which Dorrie Lalonde kindly investigated for me, document the diminishing claims on wolf bounties: $56 in 1923, $60 in 1926, and only $10 in 1929. Wolves were obviously in retreat.
In other words, as today we witness the faint revival of wolves and other predators who once were common in central Iowa, we can better understand how different a world of fauna our ancestors encountered. We might argue about whether all the efforts to extirpate these animals was wise, but what cannot be contested is how different a world it was. If, therefore, you happen to spot a wolf or bear in your backyard, try to think about our Grinnell predecessors and the world in which they lived with these animals.