The Power of Literature

Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.

Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.

We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.

Go Down, Moses

For a time, I tried to write down family tradition. My family was somewhat unusual in that regard. Family saying came generally from my maternal grandparents—my father wasn’t around for my childhood years—and since my grandparents died when I was relatively young, I didn’t hear much of their wisdom firsthand. Still, my mother told me various things her parents used to say and I tried to keep a record. Kind of like I wanted to be an anthropologist for raw folk sayings among the, non-elites. One thing my grandmother used to say, so I was told, was “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” I was always intrigued by this since I supposed it had something to do with Moses the miracle-worker. I guess I imagined Moses waving his rod and the lights coming back on. That single question is all I ever heard of this particular family treasure. I forgot about it until recently, though the miracle of the world-wide web, I learned that the query comes from a song.

Moses gets down

Moses gets down

The song, it turns out, exists in multiple versions. The Library of Congress has a recording dating to 1901 available on the web. According to this version, written by Harry von Tilzer, Moses was not “the” Moses, but a preacher condemning gambling. Also, “lights” is rendered in the singular. So much for the canonicity of family tradition. Duke University library has an undated, but clearly old, version of another song by the same title. This one does reference the biblical Moses, also the name of the song’s narrator. A child afraid in bed at night falls in love with and marries his nurse girl who used to ask him the question “Where was Moses when the light went out?” as he was falling asleep.

Yet another version, dating from 1965, has the question “Where was Moses when the lights (plural) went out?” followed by the answer, “He’s in the dark.” With all of this instant information from the internet, I’m still not certain what was being conveyed by my grandmother with this cryptic question. My mother said she used to say it when someone walked into the room too late to help with something, a kind of sarcastic “Where were you when I needed you?” What is clear is that the song was about as old as my grandmother and she found it somehow appropriate in an unconventional situation. I have to wonder how much of sacred tradition, including the Bible, might have come from misunderstood original instruction. We will, of course, never know. I don’t know what the original lyrics were, but I have learned that even family wisdom has a backstory, like any Scripture, for those who look hard enough.

Jesus for President

From my economical hotel to Duke University was maybe a twenty-minute drive. As a stranger in town I prefered to stay off the heavily traveled corridors during busy morning commute times, never being sure when exactly my exit was coming up. So I took the backroads. Along the way I started to see churches with denominational names I’ve never even heard before. I quickly lost count of just how many houses of worship I passed. With all this rich fare, perhaps it is time to tighten the old Bible belt a bit. The short drive reminded me of my one and only fact-gathering trip sponsored by Nashotah House. I was sent to Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky for a technology conference. Accompanied by an Episcopal priest and a Lutheran pastor, I was not the only one of us to feel a bit besieged by the in-your-face evangelicalism of Kentucky. My Lutheran colleague wistfully commented, “but the ELCA is ‘Evangelical.’” A different species of evangelical entirely.

The chapel at Duke University easily dominates the west campus. The divinity school is one of the flagship seminaries of the United Methodist Church. Founded by the tobacco money of James Buchanan Duke (who also owned the estate in New Jersey where our ill-fated garden was planted this summer) and the fledgling Trinity College, Duke is an interesting mix of the sacred and profane; Eliade in quadrangles and limestone. The campus sports identity is the Blue Devils, and this diabolical emblem can be seen leering from tote bags and campus buses connecting east and west. Money and religion, devils and saints. Life offers many choices, and Duke, as an exclusive institution, serves the blended family of academics in Bible land.

One of my daughter’s favorite movies as a child was Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. In case you missed it, Stitch is an alien (you’ve got to love it already!), and Lilo is a little girl who loves Elvis, a true southern prodigy. The movie features Elvis singing Giant, Baum and Kaye’s “Devil in Disguise.” Although a song about love in crisis, “Devil in Disguise” seems a decidedly useful trope. Human institutions often disguise themselves as divine. After all, no suite trumps the God card. Religion is so prevalent in the Bible Belt that Christianity is less a religion and more a culture. That culture is at barbed odds with itself, for its deepest, darkest desires are out of line with the utter selflessness that Jesus seems to imply is at the heart of Christianity. Travel is one of the greatest teaching tools we have. Sometimes your own country can feel like foreign soil.

Dukes and Serfs

Once upon a time in a land far away, a man and woman worked a fertile garden, blessed by God. That garden was in the incredibly rich, black soil of Savoy, Illinois. The zucchinis harvested were of biblical proportions. Some of them miraculously grew to the size of my calves seemingly overnight. The broccoli and carrots my wife and I grew had so much flavor that we couldn’t believe just how much leeched out while vegetables sat in the back of a truck or on a grocery-store refrigerated shelf. Even with their periodic mistings. It was as if Bunnicula had visited them at night. So long ago, the garden. It seemed obvious in those days why the writers of Genesis compared paradise to a garden. Ours was no Eden – it was hard work – but my wife and I had a lot of fun with it.

James Buchanan Duke, namesake of Duke University, owned a considerable estate outside Hillsborough, New Jersey. Having established both a tobacco monopoly and an electric company, Duke was enormously wealthy. He left his Hillsborough farm (not the tobacco farms which were in his native North Carolina) to his daughter Doris, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Her estate now consists of a socially conscious Duke Farms Foundation that has offered gardening plots to the plebeians of the region. So yesterday I found myself once again back in the garden. Sharing a plot with a friend, we arrived for opening day and were greeted by one of the organizers of the garden. Her name, of course, is Eve.

New Jersey planting requires more manure than the black earth of the Midwest. Yesterday I found myself shoveling horse manure, not for the first time in my professional life, while Eve supervised the garden. It seemed strangely biblical. Dodging between my summer classes this year, I will be emulating the first profession of our mythic father Adam. In the afternoon, after cleaning up, we headed to Rutgers Day, the university public-relations festival that shows off the tremendous wealth that cannot afford to hire full-time faculty any more. As I kept a weather eye on the clouds, worried about the seeds I’d just planted, the future continued to look stormy to me, even on the campus that has at times been my only source of barely sustainable income. Perhaps I should have changed my shoes, because it seemed to me that the smell of horse manure still hung heavily in the air.

I wonder if this is how Adam got started