Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

“Self-discipline” was defined by William Bennett as, “controlling our tempers, or our appetites, or our inclinations to sit all day in front of the television.”  Modern Berne-Knox-Westerlo students last year got a taste of earlier school discipline when they visited a one-room schoolhouse in Knox.

In his memoirs, Ben Franklin wrote, “There was never a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous.” I’m not sure who “The Prophet of Tolerance” would put in the category of “great men” today, but I am sure he would not call them virtuous because the words “virtue” and “virtuous” have all but disappeared from our vocabulary.

Even “habit,” as a disposition of the soul — and long associated with virtue — is non courant and might explain in part a growing concern about the loss of the “virtue” of self-discipline.

Years ago, William Bennett, who served as the nation’s first drug czar under George Bush (the 41st president), was bothered by this erosion in cultural values and took it upon himself to assemble a more than 800-page tome called “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.” This “‘how to’ book for moral literacy” is filled with poems and stories Bennett hoped kids would read and “achieve at least a minimum level of moral literacy” through the development of “good habits.”  

He showcased 10 virtues among which were “compassion,” “courage,” “honesty,” “loyalty,” and “self-discipline” — the last of which he begins the book with — the “controlling our tempers, or our appetites, or our inclinations to sit all day in front of the television.” 

I went back and looked at what Bennett said about discipline because there were several articles in the newspapers recently in which discipline took center stage.

On March 14, Paul Sperry of The Post wrote a piece called “How liberal discipline policies are making schools less safe.” Sperry said, “New York public-school students caught stealing, doing drugs or even attacking someone can avoid suspension under new ‘progressive’ discipline rules adopted this month.” Id est: The inmates are running the asylum.

Such a take on self-control is not new. In his column a while back, psychiatrist Greg Smith bemoaned the erosion of discipline at home and school alike.

In school, he said, teachers were “hamstrung” and at home, “Parents do not feel that they make the rules anymore. There can be no house rules. There can be no punishments, behavioral or corporal or otherwise, because Little Johnny has the Department of Social Services on speed dial on his $600 iPhone and will call them if his parents lift a finger to keep order in their own home.”

A cynical assessment from a psychiatrist and a pretty paranoid kid, unless of course he knew something we didn’t.

But Bennett comes to the rescue with a solution for how to handle such unrestrained beings using the words of Hilaire Belloc’s poem “Rebecca.” Belloc says there was “a wealthy banker's little daughter,” Rebecca, who was “aggravating” and "rude and wild" and made "furious sport" by “slamming doors” in the house startling the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of uncle Jacob.

And because this little darling did not seem amenable to feedback, shall we say, someone in the family took it upon himself — or herself (it does not say who) — to set a heavy marble bust atop the door so that, when Rebecca blew through next and clapped the portal shut, the bust came down and killed her on the spot. 

Rebecca’s good points were mentioned at the funeral but a warning was sent to those situated similarly to "The Dreadful End of One/Who goes and slams the Door for Fun." Through the words of Belloc, the drug czar’s riposte of neutralization makes boot camp seem like vacationing in Rome. 

Then there was the article in The Times on March 11 about the Arkansas senator, Tom Cotton, who was responsible for “the” letter to the leaders of Iran urging them to not make a deal with the Obama Administration on nuclear arms.

Cotton’s fans and detractors both said he was highly “disciplined.” But retired Army General Paul D. Eaton, a senior advisor to the National Security Network, said, “The idea of engaging directly with foreign entities on foreign policy is frankly a gross breach of discipline.”

What! Is there a good discipline and a bad discipline? Can one stay in bounds in some arenas and then transgress boundaries in others? Such a division would seem antithetical to self-control.

To prevent the transgression of boundaries and the harm it creates — which might include tempers flaring and appetites spilling out onto the floor of the world — for ages monks “took the discipline,” that is, used a cattail whip of knotted cords (itself called a discipline) to lash themselves across the back during prayer. Pope John Paul II was said to have taken the discipline and even brought his whipping belt on vacation.  

But we know externally imposed discipline and neurotic attempts at controlling the self work intermittently and have no legs. E.g.: We’re speeding along, we see a cop, we slow down, a half-mile down the road we ramp it back to 80 — without a wisp of guilt.  So much for the threat of boot camp.

Years ago, I was taken with the great classics teacher and philosopher Norman Brown’s famous Phi Beta Kappa speech at Columbia University in 1960 — another was Emerson’s at Harvard in 1837 — where he spoke about how to achieve a lasting discipline, far afield of any marble bust snapping the neck of a child across a door jamb.

Brown said the answer is enthusiasm and he explained to the assembled that the word comes from the Greek “entheos,” which means “god in us,” so that “the eyes of the spirit...become one with the eyes of the body, and god [is] in us, not outside.”

Who needs external control if you’re on fire with purpose and dedicated to actions that support life and can see their joyful effects?

Enthusiasm excludes high performing, automaton, grade-mongering students in schools and rigid automatons in the workplace. Research shows kids in that boat tend to be superficial in their thinking, less creative, and let go of what they learned when the pay-off ends (when the cop is out of sight). It’s doubtful whether such souls will ever become one of Franklin’s virtuous few.

And, if you’ll recall, the aforementioned Mr. Bennett was a “preferred customer” big-stakes gambler at Atlantic City and Vegas and reportedly lost more than $8 million on Lady Luck’s $500-a-pull-slots and other games of fate.

When Bennett was brought to task for what seemed a contradiction in the words v. deeds department of self-discipline, his ideological ally, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, said that it was a matter between Mr. Bennett, his wife, and his accountant.

I thought it was an issue of controlling appetites. Would anyone on fire for life give even a passing glance to the capricious lure of Fortuna? Enthusiasm would never stand for it.

— From the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers

Howard Stansbury, a civil engineer, was a captain. His only known image is from a carte d’visite; on the back is a handwritten note, attributing his 1863 death “to disease contracted in the Rocky Mountains.” He was born in New York City on Feb. 8, 1806.

In 1852, the United States Senate published the findings of Captain Howard Stansbury’s 1849-1850 expedition to the Great Salt Lake. The report was called “Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah: Including a Reconnaissance of a New Route Through the Rocky Mountains.”

Stansbury, an officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, had been assigned by the Senate to travel from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to the Great Salt Lake to scout out emigration trails, especially locations that might benefit the coming continental railroad. 

The report is comprised of entries of what Stansbury and his team saw and did each day. Scientists were thrilled with his takes on new flora and fauna and the animals they came across, as well as the captain’s account of the Mormon community with which he lived one winter under the direction of Brigham Young.

Ethicists were thrilled with what Stansbury had to say on May 30, 1850 while walking along the shores of Gunnison’s Island situated in the middle of the lake, a key breeding ground for the American white pelican.

Stansbury was admiring the flood of pelicans along the shores of “the bold, clear, and beautifully translucent water” when he came across “a venerable looking old pelican, very large and fat,” which allowed Stansbury to approach him “without attempting to escape.”

More striking was the pelican’s “apparent tameness [and when] we examined him more closely,” Stansbury says, “[we] found that it was owing to his being entirely blind, for he proved to be very pugnacious, snapping freely, but vaguely, on each side, in search of his enemies, whom he could hear but could not see.” 

And because the pelican “was totally helpless,” Stansbury knew he “subsisted on the charity of his neighbors, and his sleek and comfortable condition showed, that like beggars in more civilized communities, he had ‘fared sumptuously every day.’”

Pelicans are piscivorous, fish-eaters, and, since the salinity of the Great Salt Lake allows few fish to thrive, adult pelicans on Gunnison travel more than 30 miles one way to get food for their young — and their blind “comrade.”

A 19th-Century engraving of a pelican by William Heath is roughly contemporary with the expedition taken by Howard Stansbury to the Great Salt Lake of Utah.

 

An admiring Lewis Henry Morgan included Stansbury’s story in his classic “The American Beaver,” published in 1868, but perhaps more tantalizing is that Mr. Charles Darwin recorded that act of empathy in “The Descent of Man” three years later.

Though acts of mutual aid do not fit nicely with “survival of the fittest,” Darwin avers in “The Descent of Man,” “I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog.”

He offers examples of other dogs, baboons, elephants, cattle, and birds acting toward their comrades with a “moral instinct” that can only be construed as empathy. 

The scientist and philosopher-anarchist Peter Kropotkin knew of the pelican story and referenced it in “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” published in 1902. In the first two chapters, Kropotkin offers a host of examples of animals coming to the aid of each other when needed.

And, in an oft-cited lab experiment dealing with animal empathy — written up in the “American Journal of Psychiatry” in 1964 — Jules Masserman and his team at Northwestern University tested to see if monkeys would give one up for the Gipper, as it were, when called upon.

The experiment allowed rhesus monkeys to pull a chain to access food but, when they did, a monkey next to them was zapped with an electric shock. After a time, the monkeys refused to pull the chain — maybe Masserman should have pulled the plug at this point — one monkey not eating for 12 days, risking starvation to avoid paining another.

On Gunnison, what went on in the pelicans’ minds such that they “felt” compelled to bring fish for a useless comrade? Or what makes the famed meerkat risk death when serving as a lookout for his foraging clan? Can we attribute such acts to protoplasm alone?

Several years ago, Voorheesville veterinarian Holly Cheever told me a story of her earliest days of practice with dairy farmers in upstate New York.

She said she got a call one day from a farmer complaining that one of his brown Swiss cows — who just delivered a calf on pasture (her fifth for the farmer) — when brought onto the milking line, was found to have a completely dry udder. It could not have been the calf because her calf had been taken right after birth — standard practice.

The dry-udder situation continued for days when the bottom line says a new mother should produce one hundred pounds (12.5 gallons) of milk a day. The farmer was at his wit’s end. 

Cheever reiterated last week that the mother was healthy, she was following the routine of the other cows — out to and back from pasture — but still no milk.

Finally, on the 11th day, the hapless farmer followed the cow and saw her head into a woods at the edge of the pasture where, mirabile visu, he saw a calf waiting for his mother whom she fed at her heart’s delight. She had given birth to twins!

If she had hid both calves, the farmer would have known right away; all things being equal, a pregnant cow would not go out to pasture and come back with nothing.

I think, as Chever does, that this cow had a maternal sense of justice. She had already given the farmer five babies, all taken right after birth. Now that she birthed two at once, she figured: One for him, one for me! She tipped the scales of justice her way. 

Cheever said, “All I know is this: There is a lot more going on behind those beautiful eyes than we humans have ever given them credit for, and, as a mother who was able to nurse all four of my babies and did not have to suffer the agonies of losing my beloved offspring, I feel her pain.”

I know about the Animal Protection Federation and the recent efforts of Albany County District Attorney David Soares enabling authorities to better respond to, and prevent, animal abuse in the county.

But I remain stunned as to how folk can harm our compatriots who tell us in a million different ways where we came from and how we might better ourselves by offering aid to every blind pelican that comes our way.   

— Etching by Adolphe LaLauze

Schadenfreude: In his memoir, 18th-Century Italian playwright Count Carlo Gozzi describes actress Signora Ricci being the butt of Sacchi’s jokes and derision as others in the theatre troupe laugh.

I’m sure most people, when asked to provide a list of emotions they experience in a given month, would not include “schadenfreude” even though it rears its head often enough.

Coming from the German “schaden,” which means harm, and “freude,” meaning joy, the experience is one of feeling pleasure at the misfortune of another.

It’s a strange emotion to be sure because we usually associate joy with a pleasant outcome whereas schadenfreude is pleasure derived from another’s ill.

And the experience is universal. William James in “Principles of Psychology” says, “There is something in the misfortunes of our very friends that does not altogether displease us; [even] an apostle of peace will feel a certain vicious thrill run through him, and enjoy a vicarious brutality, as he turns to the column in his newspaper at the top of which 'Shocking Atrocity' stands printed in large capitals.”

Indeed researchers who seek to quantify its presence in our lives say schadenfreude is on the rise. In “The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreuse and the Dark Side of Human Nature,” Richard Smith says he looked at the number of times “schadenfreude” appeared in the English language from 1800 to 2008. In modern times, he says, from the 1980s on, schadenfreude as concept and “practice” has achieved a greater share of our emotional landscape.

I’m inclined to think it’s because we’ve become a more punitive and cynical society, maybe even more sadistic, and schadenfreude is one of the manifestations of that callousness — though schadenfreude is not in the same ballpark as sadism (or even gloating), which are more actively aggressive in nature.

Because schadenfruede is etymologically German, for years critics characterized it as a peculiarly German phenomenon, especially during World War II! But, when we examine the spectrum of world cultures, we see that every culture has its own word or combination of words to denote this emotion or some approximation of it.

 The French have their “joie maligne,” Hebrew has “simcha-la-ed,” and ancient Greek has “epichairekakia,” which ancient as well as modern scholars say is a distant relative of greed, avarice, and envy.

In Japanese, there’s “meshiuma,” which means, “Food tastes good that comes from the misfortune of others.” The writer Gore Vidal once remarked, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” The converse would be, “Every time a friend fails, I am more alive” and the double converse, “I derive pleasure from the misfortune of others.”

For those unfamiliar with the word (I will not say the experience), an example might be helpful at this point.

We are driving along our favorite county road, staying well beneath the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit because the road is highly patrolled. All of a sudden, a large SUV appears in the rearview mirror with a young kid at the wheel and he’s up our bumper. 

Staying our course, we see the “kid” begin to wave his arms in what seems to be gestures of anger; he then pulls out over the double yellow line and guns it past us. As his passenger window nears ours, he looks down at us with derision and double-guns it up the hill and out of sight.

A few moments later, as we near the hill, we see his car pulled over and a cop writing him a ticket. If we feel a certain satisfaction at this point and think something like, “He got what he deserved,” or, “Justice triumphed,” or, “There is a God,” we are in the schadenfreude business.

When Martha Stewart was indicted in 2001, the United States experienced a kind of national schadenfreude. People felt that the person who had dictated personal and social tastes for years finally got her comeuppance.

There is some debate over whether the shadenfroh’s delight comes from the bodily pleasure produced or seeing society’s fabric saved. In other words, was justice done to the nervous system or to the collective? And there is strong evidence that shows when the experienced misfortune is great, schadenfreude all but disappears and a hybrid form of empathy kicks in.

Understandably schadenfreude has been linked to envy because when we envy another’s possessions or achievements, we engage in an internal (and often subtle) trash-talk dialogue, subconsciously trying to improve our own lot. People pay big money to therapists for years to understand and get out from beneath such a complex.

The irony is that people will talk about schadenfreude experiences openly whereas they are far more reluctant to speak about what they envy because envy is an open admission of inferiority.

Of course the moral implications of schadenfreude have not gone unnoticed. In Spanish there is a saying: Gozarse en el mal ajeno, no es de hombre buen (“A man who rejoices in the misfortunes of others is not a good man”). Or should we say is a person who has not reached emotional maturity?

We do know that when schadenfreude is primed with emotional steroids, the frequency and intensity of its presence leads to the destruction of relationships. When I first came upon schadenfreude years ago, I immediately thought of the great psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s concept of “vindictive triumph,” which she saw alive in her patients saddled with neurosis.  Vindictive triumph might be viewed as schadenfreude when it becomes a structural part of our identity and one justified by a more highly toxic logic.

In “Neurosis and Human Growth,” Horney says the drive to vindictively overcome others grows out of “impulses to frustrate, outwit, or defeat [them] . . . because the motivating force stems from impulses to take revenge for humiliations suffered in childhood.”

Often enough, this chronic illness might be accompanied by headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and insomnia because the drive to see others get their “due” is relentlessly churned up in the subconscious.

If vindictive triumph is indeed a compensatory mechanism, and schadenfreude and vindictive triumph are in fact manifesting themselves more frequently in our culture, as research suggests, what are we compensating for? Why has the need to triumph vindictively moved center stage? Why the need for such an array of trophies?

Heavy stuff indeed, but, as the United States continues to undergo its current identity crisis, understanding what drives people to increasingly take joy in the misfortune of others will enable us to forge a less aggressive future self. Maybe that’s what the great American poet Allen Ginsberg was alluding to when he said, “Candor disarms paranoia.”

La Grande Chartreuse is the head monastery of the Carthusian order and is situated in the Chartreuse Mountains north of Grenoble, France. The order, founded in 1084 by St. Bruno, follows rules called the Statutes. Visitors are not permitted at the monastery and motor vehicles are prohibited on nearby roads. Philip Gröning’s movie about the monastery, Into Great Silence, is available for loan at both the Voorheesville and Guilderland public libraries.

Nearly 50 years ago, I made a rule never to recommend movies, restaurants, and vacation spots to anyone save a few intimates whose number today I gladly count on half a hand.

And though I firmly believe rules are made to be kept, I’d like to call attention to Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary on the Carthusian monks at La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian motherhouse in the valley of the Alps of Dauphine north of Grenoble, France.

The highly critically acclaimed film is called Into Great Silence and its tourdeforcity is a human magnet.

At a period when Gröning was obsessed with trying to understand “time,” he wrote to the superior of the 4,268-foot high Carthusian charterer house seeking permission to record the life of the monks. The superior wrote back saying they wanted to think about it. Sixteen years later, Gröning received a reply saying they were ready, if he still had interest.

He did and arrived at the monastery in mid-March 2002 as a team of one: the film’s director, producer, cameraman, soundman, grip, and whoever else was needed to get the job done. To fully grasp the depth of silence the monks lived in, Gröning decided to live with them and follow their highly structured horarium. 

And though the monks chipped in to help Gröning move his equipment up mountainous slopes surrounding the monastery when needed, the director was solely responsible for lugging his tools.

One day, while shooting along a steep ridge, he fell 20 feet and found himself spread out on a slab of stone thinking his day had come. It hadn’t, and after a bit he was back shooting the 120 hours of film that served as the vein from which he mined the 162 minutes that comprise Into Great Silence.

The editing was harrowing for Gröning; it took him more than two-and-a-half years to find a proper narrative. He could not find the glue to hold things together.

Those familiar with Roman Catholic religious orders know the Carthusians are the strictest of all. The monks live in near-total silence, spending most of the day in their cells (warmed by a tin-can-shaped wood-fired stove) and in a walled-in garden.

In these spaces, the monks meditate, pray the liturgy of hours, read, write, and eat alone. Each monk washes his own clothes, does his own dishes, splits his own wood (it gets cold there), and works in the garden for exercise and cultivating plants.

The monks are also assigned communal chores to support the upkeep of the house. For some, this means making the green-colored Chartreuse liquor for which the monks have been famous for centuries.

Some have said the highly structured schedule leaves no “free time” for the monks, but the monks say their whole life is free.

They do leave their cells to chant in the chapel and celebrate Mass. On Sundays, they eat together in silence as one of the monks reads aloud and once a week they take a walk in the woods for hours where they converse about “edifying” things. Gröning caught the monks sliding down the snowy slope of a hill, yelping like kids on holiday, using their shoes as sleds.

Twice a year, the monks may receive a daylong visit from family members, and the silent grounds of the monastery grow abuzz with the chatter of kids and adults alike. Though not of this world, the Carthusians recognize the importance of the human feelings and the connections the monks had (have) with the families they grew up in.

They sleep no longer than three hours or so at a time. To bed at eight, they’re up past eleven praying and singing psalms, then back to sleep for three hours, and up again to celebrate more lectio divina.  Those who persevere after the novitiate spend an average of 65 years in the monastery doing the same thing every day of every year, with no place to go and no apparent goals.

Gröning beautifully captured their spirit on film and I recommend it because it does deal with “time” in that it shows human beings who treat each moment of life as if it were the totality of that life and who find happiness in such gestures of gratitude. If you watch the film, it will blast smugness out of every bone.

When I speak to Roman Catholics about the film, more than a few claim the movie is a Roman Catholic venture because the Carthusians are a Roman Catholic order. And I tell them they are reading it wrong because the movie is about human beings who fully appreciate what life presents to them each moment of the day, and that that human possibility is not sectarian but belongs to everyone.

I saw the movie at the Spectrum 8 in the city of Albany when it first came out and it knocked my socks off. I was back three days later for a second sock-knocking. I’ve watched it on DVD after that but judiciously because it is such a workout. 

The writer Adair Lara said that, when she was growing up, her mother “used to wash our clothes in a wringer washer and then hang them on the clothesline outside.  As she pinned up each garment, she said, she thought about the child it belonged to.  She never wanted a dryer, even after we could afford one, because it would steal this from her, this quiet contemplation.”

That woman understood the great silence of La Grande Chartreuse, aware of the precious gift that every moment is, realizing that that gift could disappear in the blink of an eye.  

If you decide to watch the film, pour yourself a beer or cup of tea, or whatever you like to have at the movies, sit back, and give yourself over to the life ahead without interruption.

You will be transported into another world of time and space and perhaps like me return transformed, an appreciator of the soil in which great silence is born.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who lived from 1793 to 1864, has long been heralded as Guilderland’s most prominent son, in these pages and elsewhere.

In his local history classic Old Hellebergh, published in 1936, the late Guilderland town historian, Arthur Gregg, said, “There has never been in the long category of soldiers, patriots, statesmen, manufacturers, educators, and jurists, born and reared in sight of the ‘Clear Mountain,’ [the Helderbergs] one with more fame than the pioneer . . . Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.”  

A Renaissant-like omnivore of human experience, Schoolcraft was a glass manufacturer early in life, then a mineralogist, then a geologist, explorer, ethnologist, poet, editor, and for 19 years, from 1822 to 1841, served as United States Indian Agent headquartered at the frontier posts of Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinac Island, assigned the tribes of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

To many folklorists, Schoolcraft is considered the first “scholar” to amass and publish a body of Indian folklore and deserves to be called the father of American folklore.  When he arrived in Michigan, he lived with the family of John Johnston, an Irish fur trader who married the daughter of a prominent Ojibwa war chief and civil leader from northern Wisconsin.

Schoolcraft married Johnston’s daughter, Jane, who provided him with a host of Chippewa legends. His mother-in-law gained access for him to stories from “the greatest storyteller of the tribe” and to ceremonies open only to tribe members.

Schoolcraft’s ethnological findings were published in many volumes, the magnum opus of which is his six-volume folio-size Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, published between 1851 and 1857, and costing $150,000.

As editor and writer, Schoolcraft, in 1826 and 1827, produced a much-sought-after weekly journal called the Literary Voyager. The 15 issues constitute the first magazine produced in Michigan and one of the first to appear in the frontier west.

Schoolcraft’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. In the Midwest, particularly Michigan, the Schoolcraft name is ubiquitous. A Michigan County is named after him, a town, a village, river, lake, island, highway, ship, park, and even the culinary arts Schoolcraft College in Garden City, Michigan has a food court called Henry’s.

As a person with an abiding interest in local history, I paid due attention to Schoolcraft over the years, particularly his relationship with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” was based on information Schoolcraft published.

But what enthralled me most about Schoolcraft was a touching one-page story I came upon two years ago when I was looking at Oneóta or Characteristics of the Red Race of America, published in 1847. It is called “Chant to the Fire-Fly.” 

Schoolcraft relates that on hot summer evenings before bedtime Chippewa children would gather in front of their parents’ lodges and amuse themselves by singing chants and dancing about. 

One spring evening, he says, while walking along St. Mary’s River, the evening air “sparkling with the phosphorescent light of the fire-fly,” he heard the Indian children singing a song to the firefly. He was so taken with the chant he jotted it down in the original “Odjibwa Algonquin [sic].” 

Below the text, Schoolcraft offered two translations of the chant — one “literal,” the other “literary” — of a song he says that was accompanied by “the wild improvisations of [the] children in a merry mood.”

I will not give the Ojibwa — you can find it on page 61 of Schoolcraft’s Oneóta — but I will provide Schoolcraft’s literal translation. After I read the poem several times, I could not escape its charms. I envied Schoolcraft that evening when he first heard the children sing. This is his translation:

 

Flitting-white-fire-insect!

Waving white-fire-bug!

Give me light before I go to bed!

Give me light before I go to sleep!

Come little dancing white-fire-bug!

Come little flitting-white-fire-beast!

Light me with your bright white-flame-instrument—

Your little candle.

 

I was so taken with this text that I wrote two poems about the firefly and started looking deeper into the story but the more I did the more I smelled something rotting in Denmark.

That is, I found a chorus of folklorists, linguistic anthropologists, ethnopoeticists [mine], and those of that ilk, taking Schoolcraft to task for being a “textmaker” rather than a scientist dedicated to taking down the Indian world as it presented itself to him.

Schoolcraft wanted to produce something “literary” (marketable), and to achieve that, he engaged in mediating between what the Indians said and what a projected readership might accept from the “savage.”

Schoolcraft says he began to weed out “vulgarisms,” he “restored” the simplicity of style, he broke legends “in two,” “cut [stories] short,” and lop[ped] off excrescences.”

In the introduction to The Myth of Hiawatha and Other Oral Legends, published in 1856, he said the legends had been “carefully translated, written, and rewritten, to obtain their true spirit and meaning, expunging passages, where it was necessary to avoid tediousness of narration, triviality of circumstance, tautologies, gross incongruities, and vulgarities.” In other words, what did not fit his aesthetic and religious views of reality, went.

While giving credit to Schoolcraft for his pioneering work, the early 20th-Century folklorist Stith Thompson noted, “Ultimately, the scientific value of his work is marred by the manner in which he reshaped the stories to suit his own literary taste. Several of his tales are distorted almost beyond recognition.”

This is not an imposition of postcolonial standards on Schoolcraft’s doings. As Richard Bremer points out in his full-length biography of Schoolcraft, Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar, even Francis Parkman told Schoolcraft to stick to the facts.

Though he often exhibited paternalist sympathies with the Indians, Schoolcraft signed treaties as the Indian Commissioner for the United States that displaced the Michigan Indian. The Treaty of Washington in 1836, concluded and signed by Henry Schoolcraft and several representatives of the Native American nations, saw approximately 13,837,207 acres (roughly 37 percent of the current State of Michigan) ceded to the People of the United States.

I went over to Willow Street the other day to visit Henry’s house, waiting in the cold outside, thinking he might come out. I have many questions for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

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