Friday, September 12, 2003

Wright, Emerson, and the Shakers

Michael Blowhard must be delighted with the blogosphere's extended discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright. The business began innocently enough, when he claimed that Wright's most famous buildings may not necessarily be great architecture. Sure, they're nice to look at -- but they're tough to live with, they tend not to last very long, and after a while their novelty wears thin.

Well, this post unleashed passionate reactions all over the Internet. Wright fans cited the man's eye-popping artistry, his unique building materials, and his mastery of open space. Detractors invoked his overbearing personality, notorously leaky roofs and sadistically low ceilings. I'm afraid my own position is fairly noncommittal: I think both sides have valid arguments. Wright's houses are lovely to visit, but I don't think I would ever want to live there.

To me Wright represents an odd paradox: the Emersonian dandy. Like fin-de-siecle aestheticists, he believed the creative mind lived above petty moral and financial concerns. Thus, Wright's disregard of budgets and his liaisons with clients' wives affirmed his artistic license as thoroughly as did his flamboyant hat and cape. Dorian Gray would have been right at home in his skin -- and if Wright could have halted his own aging, he doubtless would have screwed around, designed blueprints and ignored clients' wishes indefinitely. (Wright's lifelong fascination with the Orient also reflects aestheticist leanings: What were his "Prairie School" houses, if not nativist variants on Japanese pagodas?)

Yet in Wright's Emersonian moments, he invoked nature and experience to create personal architecture which he hoped would would owe no allegiance to "courtly muses of Europe." Emerson's Nature outlined six steps by which one could ascend to this truly American view of the world. "Commodity" was only the first step; the endpoint (after various stages of aesthetic and intellectual understanding) was no less than "Spirit." Since Wright, with characteristic modesty, considered himself a summa cum laude graduate of Emerson's six-step program, he designed his buildings accordingly. Not only do these structures convey his superior spirituality, they also move their occupants along the path to enlightenment. Living in them is an exercise in spiritual discipline, requiring constant deference to the architect's great soul.

Most people can't live in a house that lords its spirituality over us, no matter how comfortable or pleasing it may be -- and Wright's houses were frequently neither. Like Thoreau, we would be master of our castle, and Wright's houses tend to go the other way 'round. Taliesin is the major exception: Wright built it for himself, and therefore didn't use it to drum some Great Spiritual Principle into his client's head. That may be why Taliesin is his only major building that doesn't leave me feeling like a freshman in Transcendentalism 101. The "Great Living Room," with its carefully orchestrated clutter, is not only a masterpiece of design, it's also genuinely convivial.

But as far as I'm concerned, the Shakers beat Wright at his own game. In the early nineteenth century, when most Americans lived in little log huts, they stood at the cutting edge of technology and design. Their architects are unknown to us, if they had any. Most likely a group of master builders followed a general outline, modifying their designs as needed. Today, their buildings exemplify classic architectural ideals of use, strength and beauty -- and what's more, they do so in a highly spiritual, thoroughly American manner.

Use. Shakers believed that everything should have a clearly defined function. A cupola on the outside and open stairwells within were lovely to look at, but they also let in sunlight and fresh breezes. Built-in storage units and shelving reduced clutter and encouraged cleanliness. High ceilings kept Shakers cool and comfortable on the hottest summer days; thick quilts and large fireplaces kept them warm in winter. Even the cross-and-bible designs on their doors had a purpose: They represented Christianity, and kept evil spirits away.

Strength. Shaker communities existed throughout the Eastern United States. Their members believed that in a thousand years Jesus would pay them a visit in the flesh, and they meant their buildings to be around when He showed up. Sturdy walls, carefully pitched roofs, and solid foundations ensured that these buildings would fall only if someone deliberately knocked them down -- and even then, it would take some doing. Some of their structures are still in use as historical museums and bed-and-breakfasts.

Beauty. The Shakers' aesthetic was as powerful as their faith. Thomas Merton wrote that when a Shaker built a chair, he built it with the expectation that an angel could sit there at any moment. Spare white walls give their interiors an uncommon sense of lightness; unlike other nineteenth-century living spaces, their rooms never seem dim or oppressive. A few of their buildings feature elegantly curving spiral staircases -- ostensibly to minimize floor space, but also perhaps to impress outsiders.

With their airy, uncluttered, useful living spaces, the Shakers created a viable alternative to elaborate facades and overstuffed parlors. It might not have been feng shui, but their approach to design reflected their passion for cleanliness, convenience and modernity. These buildings embody an original, American relationship to the world -- unlike Frank Lloyd Wright's work, which for the most part merely lectures about it. By imbuing craftsmanship with a sense of sacred worth, the Shakers proved that plain, pragmatic architecture can offer comfort for the body and sustenance for the soul.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Another September 11

On September 11, religious extremists declared war on the United States. Believing an American invasion was imminent, they perpetrated a massacre which, despite our best efforts to deny or forget, altered the course of our nation's history.

The year was 1857.

Mountain Meadows, Utah Territory, was a rare patch of grassy ground on the Old Spanish Trail to California. Bands of westbound pioneers would stop here and rest before their long trek across the desert. From Cedar City, a man could walk to the meadows in a few days. On horseback, the trip took just hours.

Ten years earlier, the first Mormons arrived in Utah. Their leader, Brigham Young, ruled his domain absolutely, and paid no heed to American authority. By 1857 President James Buchanan had had enough, and made plans to invade. Prohibitive costs and unexpected resistance forced Buchanan to recall his troops the following year. Still, these Latter-Day Saints weren’t taking any chances.

Associates claimed that nothing could happen in Utah Territory without Young’s
approval. So when a group of Arkansas emigrants began to cross Utah Territory in the summer of 1857, Young made it clear that these people were not welcome. In Arkansas, only a few months earlier, Mormon missionary Parley Pratt had been killed for converting, then marrying another man’s wife. For Pratt’s death and Buchanan's militarism, the Fancher party -- forty men, thirty women, and some seventy children -- would feel the wrath of Zion.

Unlike most pioneers, these people did not intend to settle in the West. Instead, they were transporting their cattle to California, where livestock commanded a hefty price. The Fancher party would sell their cattle there, then return to their homes, as they had done many times before without incident.

According to Mormon sources, these emigrants antagonized the locals at every opportunity. They claimed they had murdered Parley Pratt with their bare hands. In more extreme moments, they said they had killed Joseph Smith himself. They even poisoned wells and springs along the way. But these accounts are dubious at best. From period documents we know that the Fancher party knew about the general hostility in Utah, if only because several Mormons refused to sell them supplies. The most reliable evidence indicates that they tried to get out of the territory as quickly and quietly as possible. By September 6, they had reached Mountain Meadows.

Gunfire greeted them at dawn on the seventh. A combined force of Mormons and local Paiutes had lain in wait, and from secure positions on the surrounding hills they picked members of the Fancher party off one by one. Mormon reinforcements arrived from Cedar City, and the trap was complete. For four grueling days the Fancher party remained under siege. On the fifth day, September 11, eminent citizen John D. Lee -- a political and religious insider whom Brigham Young had adopted as a son -- told the survivors they would be allowed to leave under armed escort. They would proceed back to Cedar City, where they could make arrangements to return home, minus their cattle and most of their wagons. Hungry, thirsty and exhausted, they agreed to Lee’s terms.

They were assigned at least one guard apiece, presumably to protect them
against further attacks. But when they had walked a mile from the battlefield, John Higbee, a "Major" in the church's official military, ordered the guards to "do their duty" and shoot the prisoners. Several Mormons balked at the order; these were murdered with the emigrants, as apostates. (To this day, the Paiutes claim to have played no part in the massacre, merely assisting with the siege. Documents from the time seem to support their statement.)

The scene quickly degenerated into chaos, as Saints in redface surged forward to kill anyone who might offer testimony against them; at this point, the slaughter was indiscriminate. Only seventeen children, all under the age of seven, were spared. The Mountain Meadows Massacre would be the bloodiest single incident on America’s western trails.

The bodies at Mountain Meadows remained unburied until 1859, when US soldiers placed them in a single mass grave and erected a rock cairn as a monument. When Young visited the site and saw this cairn, he had it dismantled. Meanwhile, cattle from the Fancher party were found in Mormon herds. Their blankets and personal items appeared in Mormon homes. It was whispered that more than one prominent Saint had made his fortune off the spoils at Mountain Meadows. Yet for over a decade, the church stymied every attempt to discover or prosecute the massacre’s leaders. To the end, Young claimed that he had no knowledge of the incident, and would have prevented it if he had known.

As we mourn the recent World Trade Center attacks, why do I invoke the memory of another September 11th almost 150 years ago? I’m not quite sure, gentle reader, but it may be because grim history can offer greater hope. In 1857, Mormons practiced “blood atonement” against non-Mormons in the name of God Almighty. Their government was a theocracy; dissent was apostasy, and in some cases (as you've seen) it was punishable by death. Church militia groups waged protracted wars against outsiders and indigenous people alike, often with disastrous results. The Mormons couldn’t grow cash crops in the desert, and they were cut off from most trade routes. They were paranoid, desperate, low on resources, and absolutely certain of God’s will for them -- a perfect recipe for violence and terror. In retrospect, the only surprise about Mountain Meadows was that there weren’t more attacks like it.

Yet within a few years Utah’s situation improved dramatically. The Transcontinental Railroad opened the region to the outside world, and created new possibilities for commerce. Iron, coal and salt replaced anger, fanaticism and poverty. With new prosperity and an influx of outsiders, the church gradually relaxed its control over the population. Mormon leaders were asked to account for their misdeeds at Mountain Meadows, although they dodged the issue by offering Lee as a scapegoat.

A few more years, and the church's doctrine of “blood atonement” would be abolished. Polygamy followed it to the dustbin of history. Eventually Utah’s state constitution would be one of the most liberal in the nation, granting women the vote almost a quarter of a century before the 19th Amendment. If you go to Utah today, you see practically no trace of the mindset which led an earlier generation to murder over a hundred men, women and children in cold blood.

The story -- which I'll admit may not be much of a story -- is that reason prevailed. Perhaps when people have a chance to make a good life for themselves, they become less eager to throw it away in futile religious warfare. History gives me hope: Since I know reasonable people could prevail there and then, I know we can also prevail here and now.

* * *

(Footnote: The primary historical source for this post is Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Bagley's book has surpassed Juanita Brooks to become the definitive work on the subject.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Update: Tim's "Documents of Freedom" meet the 20th Century

Another loyal reader weighs in:

"I like your list of alternatives, but you're skewed as heavily to the past as Salon is to the PC present. Surely there must be some 20th century contributions."

At first I was hard pressed to think of any. Could I have included FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech, or the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights? FDR's speech trumpeted "freedom of speech" and "worship," yet offered globalized socialism as the antidote to "want" and "fear." The UN Declaration was far worse, stating in Article 29 that individual liberty "may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations."

Perhaps I could have found a few places for Soviet dissidents. But like FDR and the narrow-minded editors of Salon, they focused on freedom of expression and forgot about greater economic freedom. I suspect they wouldn't object to Big Government as long as it allowed them to say what they wanted.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is a much better candidate: No single document in the twentieth century has deployed the rhetoric of the Framers to greater effect. Its original context in the 1963 March on Washington strikes me as a bit problematic, though. King's speech was the climax of a leftist rally, during which organizer Bayard Rustin presented a list of demands to the federal government -- a higher minimum wage, new federal jobs programs, and an "end to urban poverty," among others. Lyndon Johnson would eventually create today's bloated welfare state in response. Yet when taken on its own terms, King's mystic invocation of American liberty can still inspire.

I probably should have cleared a spot for at least one of Reagan's speeches. The First Inaugural Address would be the most obvious choice: The Great Communicator found the mantra for a generation of conservatives when he stated, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem." Unfortunately, it's not the mantra for this generation of conservatives. Only a week ago George W. Bush told us, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government's got to move." So much for the Reagan Revolution.

Ironically, Reagan's legacy abroad has proven far more durable. His 1982 "Crusade for Freedom" speech signaled America's renewed commitment to economic freedom and democracy, a commitment which would lead to the Soviet Union's collapse and the liberation of Eastern Europe. Two decades later, the countries of this region would join our "coalition of the willing" to liberate Iraq. They're still grateful. (Many thanks to Alan Sullivan, who brought this speech to my attention.)

I should also have included Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom on my list. In the middle of World War Two, Hayek took a scalpel to socialism, boldly exposing its inner dysfunction, and noting that economic freedom is the sole basis for personal liberty. Like the great Reagan speeches he inspired, Hayek is more revered than heeded.

By and large, the twentieth century hasn't been good for limited government and individual liberty. Americans no longer view excessive taxation and expanding bureaucracies as threats to our freedom; in a way, we've even come to like them. We are told that government spending creates jobs. We believe that it will improve our lives, and we elect representatives who funnel as much of it as possible into our own backyards. Alas, this lumbering behemoth of democratic socialism will likely prove the twentieth century's single greatest legacy.

My first "Documents of Freedom" list gave short shrift to the past hundred years. The slight was intentional. But perhaps it shouldn't have been.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Tim's "Documents of Freedom"

A loyal reader e-mails:

Okay, Tim, Salon really sucks. But what "documents of freedom" would you have picked?

Here are my choices. My criteria are that these documents must advance the ideas of limited government and individual liberty, and have a demonstrable effect on later human thought. I promise I'll pare descriptions to a sentence or two.

Pericles, "Funeral Oration" (from Thucydides, History of the Peleponnesian War): In a brutal war pitting Athenian democracy against Spartan totalitarianism, Pericles reminded his listeners why freedom was superior.

Plato, Apology of Socrates: As Socrates defends his life of intellectual inquiry, he condemns the narrow-minded judges who will put him to death.

Magna Carta: This document placed limits on kingship for the first time in Western history. Take a few minutes and read it.

Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty: Three years after the "Ninety-five Theses," Martin Luther argued for a direct relationship between God and the individual soul. But to Luther's dismay, his newly autonomous believers decided they should have more tangible rights as well.

John Milton, Areopagitica: Although Milton advocated state censorship, he defended freedom of thought. For this defense we still venerate him.

Thomas Jefferson et al., Declaration of Independence: Known less for its list of grievances than for its self-evident truths, this document remains a model to freedom-seekers everywhere.

Thomas Jefferson, "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom": America's separation of church and state begins here. Any study of the Middle East should tell you how important that is.

United States Constitution with Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the Constitution set clear restrictions on federal power. In a world of monarchies and despotisms, the notion of a weak central government was ... well, revolutionary.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: De Tocqueville explains how and why limited government works. If I owned only one book on politics, this would be it.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address: In another internecine war, this one pitting Northern liberty against Southern despotism, Lincoln promised America "a new birth of freedom" that would embrace all people. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing "equal protection under the law" was the great legacy of this speech.

There you have it: Tim's "Documents of Freedom." It's very Eurocentric, but so are the ideas of limited government and individual rights. And I didn't mention the 1960s (or the twentieth century) once.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]