The Last Neanderthal’s Love Song

Fourth installment of a set of children’s poems I wrote a dozen years ago.

The Last Neanderthal’s Love Song

O ancestors! Please hear my cry.
I’m eighteen summers old.
I need a wife, but evolution’s
Left me in the cold.

I’m the last Neanderthal.
I have some woman friends—
Nice-looking, others tell me—but
They’re Homo sapiens.

I’d like to meet a girl like Mom
With a rich potato form.
These sapiens are willowy;
They don’t look very warm.

A woman looks her best, I think,
With low, protruding brow,
But the female forehead fashion
Is high and flat right now.

A lady’s lower jaw should sink
Delicately in.
Beneath their lips, these girls have got
A pointy, prickly “chin.”

A sideways egg’s the pretty shape
That suits a female skull.
But modern girls have heads as round
As the moon does when it’s full.

Alas, O ancestors! Alas,
Our race will not survive.
I’ll never wed, and I’m the last
Neanderthal alive.

The meaning of whales

This morning, Mathieu P. left the following comment to my post on Melville's poem "Monody":

I am currently reading Melville's Moby Dick. Although I enjoy the book, I fail to understand fully the meaning of the chapter devoted to whaling, such as the one about cetology or the one about whalemen eating whale meat. There are enough comments about religion or cannibals to make me think that these chapter should be taken with a pinch of salt. I do not however understand to which degree exactly they should be taken and what their precise aim is. I would welcome any pointers or explanations. I may add that my only clue about American literature is Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, which I read eagerly (my English professor of my undergrad years praised that book).

I thought I'd try to answer publicly, not because I have the answer, but because by coincidence I've been thinking about this very question, among others, for a lecture that I've been invited to give at SUNY Geneseo's English department in honor of the Thoreau scholar Walter Harding. (The lecture is scheduled to take place at 4pm on September 23 on the SUNY Geneseo campus.)

What I hope to talk about at Geneseo is the problem of esoteric knowledge in Melville's work—that is, the sense that the reader has that Melville's work has a secret meaning, and that among the pleasures and duties of reading him is the pursuit of his secret. It isn't at all obvious that a work of art should have a secret meaning, and I think most successful works of art don't. It's hard enough to communicate when one is taking care to be honest and forthcoming. Jane Austen's novels don't seem to have secrets; not even a book as heavy with symbolism as the Great Gatsby does. Infinite Jest, on the other hand, seems to me to be hiding something—to be begging for exegesis—especially toward the end, when it turns compressed and the allusions to Hamlet start to accumulate. Books that provoke in the reader a sense of secret knowledge almost never, of course, make a claim to such knowledge explicitly, so deciding which books fall into the category is tricky and somewhat subjective.

There are more books in the world than anyone has time to read. Why should a reader think it worth his while to ferret out the meaning of a writer who is withholding it? Moreover, why should a reader believe that a withheld meaning is true? When people believe that someone has access to secret truths, it's generally because they think of the person as a prophet, a guru, or even an incarnated god. Why should a novelist have such access? Or to put the question another way: How does a novelist go about convincing readers that he has such access?

This is all a little far afield from Mathieu P.'s particular question, the short answer to which is that there is no consensus about what whaling signifies in Moby-Dick. Two books that suggest answers are Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael and C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, both of which lay more emphasis on political and economic meanings than is common in academic analyses. I hope in my lecture that I will be able to articulate some of my own hunches about the secrets in Moby-Dick, which always sound half-mad even to myself when I try to put them into words. My method will be to compare them to the half-submerged ideas that appear in Mardi and Clarel, two works of Melville's that are less successful but also try to lure the reader into the pursuit of hidden meanings. A whale is an intelligent mammal that doesn't kill, doesn't have to work, and needn't have second thoughts about its sexual nature. Though apparently simple, when that definition works its way through Melville's strangely intertwined ideas about gender, incarnation, sexuality, immortality, and capitalism, the reader ends up in a strange place. I read Byron's Cain this week, and it occurred to me that Melville's whales share a great deal with the beings that existed in the world before Adam, shown to Cain by Lucifer during a visit to Hades:

Cain. What are these mighty phantoms which I see
Floating around me?—They wear not the form
Of the Intelligences I have seen
Round our regretted and unentered Eden;
Nor wear the form of man as I have viewed it
In Adam's and in Abel's, and in mine,
Nor in my sister-bride's, nor in my children's:
And yet they have an aspect, which, though not
Of men nor angels, looks like something, which,
If not the last, rose higher than the first,
Haughty, and high, and beautiful, and full
Of seeming strength, but of inexplicable
Shape; for I never saw such. They bear not
The wing of Seraph, nor the face of man,
Nor form of mightiest brute, nor aught that is
Now breathing; mighty yet and beautiful
As the most beautiful and mighty which
Live, and yet so unlike them, that I scarce
Can call them living.

In Byron's play, the pre-Adamites are not the same as whales, which do however make an appearance a few pages later, when Lucifer, on the same tour of Hades, shows Cain an ocean, a thing Cain has never seen before:

Cain. 'Tis like another world; a liquid sun—
And those inordinate creatures sporting o'er
Its shining surface?

Lucifer. Are its inhabitants,
The past Leviathans.

Notebook: The Ludlow Massacre Revisited

Boardman Robinson, book jacket for Upton Sinclair's King Coal (1917, rpt. 1921) “There Was Blood,” my review-essay of two recent books about the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, appears in the New Yorker on 19 January 2009. What follows is a bibliography and supplementary online smorgasbord, which won’t make much sense until after you’ve read the article itself.

My first debt, as ever, is to the books under review, Thomas G. Andrews’s Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War and Scott Martelle’s Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, both excellent. Also in print and useful were Rick J. Clyne’s Coal People: Life in Southern Colorado’s Company Towns, 1890-1930, Ron Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Elliott J. Gorn’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Marilynn S. Johnson’s Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents arrived too late for me to consult it when writing the article but we dipped into it while fact-checking. Among older sources, the most useful were Barron B. Beshoar’s Out of the Depths: The Story of John R. Lawson, a Labor Leader (1942), George Korson’s Coal Dust on the Fiddle (1943) for lore and songs, George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge’s The Great Coalfield War (1972), and Zeese Papanikolas’s Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre (1982).

Which should you read, if you want to know more about Ludlow? Martelle has the best day-by-day account of the conflict. Andrews has the most insight into the geological, economic, and sociological forces, and he gives the context of the preceding decades in more detail than any of the others. I think both deserve the highest marks in terms of their scholarship and their accuracy. Beshoar’s father was a doctor who treated the Ludlow strikers, and the strikers named a camp after him. As a result, Beshoar’s version of events is frankly partisan, and sometimes he veers into the propagandistic. His account is one of the liveliest, though, perhaps because he tapped oral sources not available to later writers (don’t be put off by the subtitle; his book is only nominally restricted to Lawson). As you would expect, McGovern and Guttridge are very good about the politics, which got quite complex, as the federal government was brought in against the state, and as various committees undertook to investigate the mine operators and interfere with one another’s investigations in the process. Papanikolas’s is a very nice piece of writing, though a somewhat melancholy one, and he has a novelist’s eye for detail. When Papanikolas tracks down Tikas’s grave, for example, the manager of the cemetery recalls for him how he adopted a runaway St. Bernard on the day of the massacre. Later, reading testimony contemporary with the massacre, Papanikolas finds mention of a St. Bernard loose in the desolate camp carrying a burning timber in its mouth, and he wonders if he’s found the historical trace of the cemetery manager’s animal. Papanikolas’s book is worth reading as much as an essay on the historical impulse as for its account of Ludlow (like Beshoar’s, his book isn’t limited by its apparent focus on a single individual). Though I name-check King Coal in my article, it isn’t Upton Sinclair’s best novel. If you’re hell-bent on reading Sinclair, which I’m not sure you should be, read Oil! instead (and notice, when you do, that in the book, corporate power and false religiosity are hand-in-glove allies—not opponents, as in the movie—and that they are united to suppress the revolutionary force of labor, which the movie knows not of).

The Ludlow massacre and the Great Coalfield War are well documented online. The best compilation is the Colorado Coal Field War Project, produced by the University of Denver, which has a historical outline, a bibliography, photos, a historical map that links to some of the photos, and information about an archaeological exploration of the site. The Holt Labor Library of San Francisco, meanwhile, also offers a Ludlow bibliography, comprised of print and online sources. The Bessemer Historical Society, custodian of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company’s archives and legacy, has published a brief history of the company and sells several texts about mining and CFI in its store, including a reprint of Camp & Plant, the weekly run by CFI’s Sociological Department.

The Sort of Houses the Mexican Employes Built for Themselves at Segundo, Camp and Plant 2.15 (11 October 1902) The Sort of Houses that the Company Builds for Them, Camp and Plant 2.15 (11 October 1902) As it happens, Google Books has digitized a stray volume from Camp & Plant, so you can examine for yourself the paternalism of CFI’s early years, as instanced in such photos as these of worker-made adobe homes (left) and the factory-made wood-and-concrete structures that replaced them (right). Here, by the way, is what the factory owners thought of workers who failed to subscribe to their periodical. (Andrews reports that one miner quipped that the mule workforce “was unionized before some of us.”)

Most of the surviving photographs of the Ludlow massacre were taken by Louis R. Dold, whom Papanikolas, amazingly enough, tracked down and interviewed for his book. (Elsewhere Dold’s first name is sometimes spelled “Lewis” and his last name “Dodd.”) Dold’s Ludlow photographs, and those taken by several others, are available for browsing in the Denver Public Library’s Western History collection. Here, for example, is an evocative one of the pit below Tent No. 58, which Dold has annotated as follows: “Hole Where Bodies of 11 Women and 2 Children Were Recovered From After Fire at Ludlow Coloney [sic].” You can also see strikers’ children playing in the snow with what is either an effigy or a scarecrow; the chaos in Trinidad when a panicked National Guard general ordered his cavalry to “ride down” a group of women protestors; the Death Special; strikers playing baseball; numerous shots of the Ludlow camp before and after it was razed; and an image of Tikas’s corpse, mislabeled in the Denver Public Library’s files as being that of another striker (the indefatigable Papanikolas writes of having come across the same misidentification when he visited the archives in person).

Coal miner's wife (detail), Denver Public Library Western History Collection, X-60426 Mary Thomas O'Neal, 1974 More cheerfully, there’s also a 1914 photo of a “coal miner’s wife”, whom I believe may be Mary Thomas O’Neal. I’m guessing based on the resemblance between the photos reproduced here. At left is a detail from the Denver Public Library’s photo (call number X-60426). At right is an image of Mary Thomas O’Neal that pops up when you play an oral-history interview with her conducted in 1974 and available online through the Virtual Aural/Oral History Archive at California State University Long Beach. Mary Thomas O’Neal is one of the few Ludlow survivors who left a first-person account, published as Those Damn Foreigners in 1971. As Martelle observes in an end note, her memoir “differs radically” from the testimony she gave shortly after the massacre; Papanikolas had similar doubts about the reliability of her memory when he interviewed her; and the oral history comes with the caveat that she herself was aware that her memory was deteriorating. But there’s no doubt that she was a coal miner’s wife (though she was separated from her husband during the strike); that she was active in the union cause, lending her talent as a singer to its recruiting parties; and that she was in Ludlow camp with her children the day of the massacre. You can hear her, in her eighties, singing the union song “We’re Coming, Colorado,” if you click through to section 1a, segment 11, of the Virtual Aural/Oral History Archive interview with her. (She starts singing roughly at the 1:50 mark.)

Relics

Ammonites, near Fort Worth, Texas

Not far from my mother's house in Fort Worth, a creek has dug a wide gully down through about ten feet of chalky sediment. Walking by, last week, we happened to notice that some of the rocks had shapes, and over a few visits, gathered a number of these fossils. I'm not at all sure of my identifications, and would welcome corrections, but the ones above seem to be ammonites, ancient versions of the nautilus, squidlike creatures that lived in curvy shells. Those below are various snails, aka gastropods. Below left are a kind of echinoderm, sort of fat versions of sand dollars, perhaps the ones known locally as "Texas stars" or "Texas hearts." The twisty, filamentous ones below right are mysterious to me—worms? seaweed?

Gastropod fossils, near Fort Worth, Texas

Echinoderm fossils, near Fort Worth, Texas, also called Texas stars

Fossils, found near Fort Worth, TX