In the Arena

Looking Backward: Sumer Is Icumen Gone

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My favorite season, gone, gone, too soon, even if it was a summer of discontent in the land. I spent Labor Day Weekend doing some zeitgeist catchup, and now seems a good time to appreciate a summer’s worth of reading, listening and watching, as we head back to school and work.

Books: Without question, the most important cultural experience I had this summer was reading a 22-year-old book called Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer. It is, quite simply, one of the most important books about America ever written–and it is spot on relevant to our current political morass. 

Fischer writes about four British “folkways” and the settlement of colonial America. The Puritans, who mostly came from East Anglia and settled Massachusetts. The Cavaliers, who came from Sussex and Wessex and settled Virginia. The Quakers, who came from north-central England and settled the Delaware Valley. And the fierce Borderlanders, also known as Scots-Irish, who settled Appalachia. He writes in precise detail about their speech patterns, clothes, cooking, architecture, naming patterns, religion–but most important, their sense of society, community and government. He shows how their separate and distinct influences have carried through to modern America–and indeed, the Tea Party seems a classic Scots-Irish sort of effusion (although it is ironic that today’s Teasies apotheosize the Constitution, a document vehemently opposed by their Scots-Irish ancestors as a federal impingement on individual liberty).

I read other books this summer, including several great memoirs by the New Greatest Generation of veterans–The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens and It Happened on the Way to War by Rye Barcott stand out. And my old editor Dorothy Wickenden’s lovely memoir about her grandmother’s year teaching school on the Colorado frontier, Nothing Daunted. But a transcendent experience like Fischer’s book tends to dwarf everything else. I’m sure I’ll be drawing upon it over the next year, as I focus on the presidential campaign.

Movies: Is it just me, or are we in the midst of a run of movies where supposedly civilized Establishment Americans are taught a thing or two about being human by allegedly lesser species of aliens (last year’s, Avatar), animals (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and races (The Help)? It doesn’t say much for our confidence as a society–although the fact that The Help, an old-fashioned liberal epic, has proven to be a blockbuster success in Tea Party America does indicate something more complicated, and sophisticated, is going on in the country. I liked The Help a lot, obvious and gooey as it was–but Planet of the Apes was the smartest and most entertaining summer blockbuster sort of movie I’ve seen in a while.

Music: Speaking of The Help, Sharon Jones spent most of her live as a housemaid, but has now emerged as the avatar of the Soul Revival. I’ve been a fan for years, but something just clicked for me this summer–maybe it was listening to her version of This Land is Your Land, with the sound full blast. It is–sorry Bruce–the most righteous and rocking Woody Guthrie cover I’ve ever heard. It should also be noted that Sharon Jones’s backup band, the Dap Kings, provided the backup for Amy Winehouse’s sadly definitive album, Back to Black. Ah, Amy, is icumen gone too soon, as well.

(Most of my musical thoughts are prospective, right now–to the Austin City Limits festival, which I’ll be attending as part of my border-to-border road trip, beginning next week…and also to my pal Rodney Crowell’s new album of 15 songs he wrote with kick-ass memoirist Mary Carr, featuring guest shots by Lucinda Williams, Nora Jones, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill.)

Television: I’m still seething about getting jerked around by the ending of  The Killing, but I’ve got to worship at the altar of whomever it is who is buying series at AMC. You don’t need to hear anything from me about Mad Men (except, maybe, that the drinking is as hilariously persistent in Mad Men as the rain is in The Killing), but I’ve got to say that Breaking Bad has to be one of the most brilliantly insidious things I’ve ever seen on American television–not only for Brian Cranston’s incredible performance, but also the quality of the writing, directing and the cinematography, which captures that stark, overbright southwestern light with memorable clarity.

One last thing–Bill Nighy and Emily Blunt. I’ve seen them appear as father and daughter in Gideon’s Daughter, a British TV movie by the amazing Stephen Poliakoff (I should haul off and write something longer about Poliakoff’s magic someday); and then as unlikely lovers in Wild Target, a British comedy about assassins. Bill Nighy is always impeccable and, when he wishes to be, entirely hilarious–but Emily Blunt shows some terrific comedy chops in Wild Target as well.

Oh, I just thought of something else. Speaking of magical entertainment experiences, take a look at this…and let it send you peacefully, but with purpose, into the autumn.