“…and he saw his days burn up like paper in fire.”

“Quid Plura?” is still here, and although the site is updated less than before, I’m still pleased to have an online notebook for stuff that fits nowhere else. I say that every year, and it’s still true. Writing projects, the ongoing pandemic, and a string of losses made for a tiring year, but a few blog posts did go live in 2021, and there are more in the pipeline. As is my tradition, here’s a rundown of the blog-year that was.

First and foremost, I’d love it if readers would buy a copy of I Have Started for Canaan, the book I co-wrote in 2020 with my friends at the Sugarland Ethno-History Project. As far as we can tell, the book is the first full-length history of a Reconstruction-era African American town in Maryland, and it tells a hopeful and inspiring American story. All proceeds go toward the upkeep of the community’s historic church and, eventually, the construction of a small museum to house their vast collection, and I hope you’ll give it a look.

Did a kid obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons go mad in the steam tunnels at his college? I revisited rumors from the 1980s and discovered the weirdly poignant truth.

I put in a good word for Human Voices Wake Us, the poetry podcast of a semi-anonymous friend whose enthusiasms are eloquent, engaging, and wonderfully un-commercial.

The Brood X cicadas returned, and I dug up Benjamin Banneker’s admirably civilized observations upon their earlier emergence.

I watched the new Green Knight movie and found it, for better or for worse, to be a product of its time.

At the end of the year, I found a passage from All Creatures Great and Small that sums up life’s tendency to surprise and change us in welcome ways.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by!

“Last of the line at an honest day’s toil…”

“But today the endless patchwork of fields slumbered in the sun, and the air, even on the hill, was heavy with the scents of summer. There must be people working among the farms down there, I knew but I couldn’t see a living soul; and the peace which I always found in the silence and the emptiness of the moors filled me utterly.

“At these times I often seemed to stand outside myself, calmly assessing my progress. It was easy to flick back over the years—right back to the time I had decided to become a veterinary surgeon, I could remember the very moment. I was thirteen and I was reading an article about careers for boys in the Meccano Magazine and as I read, I felt a surging conviction that this was for me. And yet what was it based upon? Only that I liked dogs and cats and didn’t care much for the idea of an office life; it seemed a frail basis on which to build a career. I knew nothing about agriculture or about farm animals and though, during the years in college, I learned about these things I could see only one future for myself; I was going to be a small animal surgeon. This lasted right up to the time I qualified—a kind of vision of treating people’s pets in my own animal hospital where everything would be not just modern but revolutionary. The fully equipped operating theatre, laboratory and X-ray room; they had all stayed crystal clear in my mind until I had graduated MRCVS.

How on earth, then, did I come to be sitting on a high Yorkshire moor in shirt sleeves and Wellingtons, smelling vaguely of cows?

“The change in my outlook had come quite quickly—in fact almost immediately after my arrival at Darrowby. The job had been a godsend in those days of high unemployment, but only, I had thought, a stepping-stone to my real ambition. But everything had switched around, almost in a flash.

Maybe it was something to do with the incredible sweetness of the air which still took me by surprise when I stepped out into the old wild garden at Skeldale House every morning. Or perhaps the daily piquancy of life in the graceful old house with my gifted but mercurial boss, Siegfried, and his reluctant student brother, Tristan. Or it could be that it was just the realisation that treating cows and pigs and sheep and horses had a fascination I had never suspected; and this brought with it a new concept of myself as a tiny wheel in the great machine of British agriculture. There was a kind of solid satisfaction in that.

Probably it was because I hadn’t dreamed there was a place like the Dales. I hadn’t thought it possible that I could spend all my days in a high, clean-blown land where the scent of grass or trees was never far away; and where even in the driving rain of winter I could snuff the air and find the freshness of growing things hidden somewhere in the cold clasp of the wind.

“Anyway, it had all changed for me and my work consisted now of driving from farm to farm across the roof of England with a growing conviction that I was a privileged person.”

—James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small

“But down in the underground, you’ll find someone true…”

If you were an adolescent in the early 1980s, you probably heard tales from a college your friend’s brother’s cousin attended on the fringes of wherever you lived: a kid obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons had lost his mind and then lost himself in a maze of tunnels underneath the campus. You may have seen an exploitative novel based on the legend or, more likely, you watched a campy TV-movie based on the book. For most of us, these stories were as enticing—hey, where can I explore some steam tunnels?—as they were elusive. Thanks to a 1985 bestseller by the guy who solved the real-life case, we now know that the truth was weirder than any legend, with an emotional dimension that’s troubling, and illuminating, 40 years later.

In August 1979, James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State. The 16-year-old was a clever chemist and a computer whiz at a time when almost no one had seen a personal computer. Awkward, immature, and small for his age, Egbert sought solace in every subculture on campus, desperate to belong but unable to become anything but a curiosity to older students, including sketchy acquaintances with agendas of their own. When college officials were baffled by the disappearance and the press dwelt on a possible Dungeons and Dragons connection, Egbert’s distraught parents called William Dear, a private investigator from Texas who would disclose the full story five years later in The Dungeon Master, a true-crime yarn that’s probably more compelling today than when it was first published.

To read The Dungeon Master now is to be thrown back to a freewheeling time when college students were reckless proto-adults and their daily lives simply weren’t the concern of administrators, when every crevice of a campus wasn’t monitored and mapped. Being a fan of fantasy and science fiction was still a fringe pursuit, and the press was already learning to pounce on any suggestion that role-playing games might lead to mental breakdowns, Satanism, or suicide. Even a campus with its fair share of quirky loners didn’t quite know what to do with children like Dallas Egbert: weird, sensitive, brilliant, creative, reckless, and troubled. As a record of the past, The Dungeon Master is an evocative read, but the book isn’t just a grim, nostalgic artifact of 1979. It’s a personal account of an adult trying to bridge cultural and generational gaps, first because it’s his job, and then because the case turns deeply personal.

At the beginning of their investigation, Dear and his assistants ponder Egbert’s fate—kidnapping? runaway? murder? suicide?—and privately stow their predictions in their wallets. In the weeks that follow, after butting heads with campus police and local cops, Dear crawls through Michigan State’s network of steam tunnels, which are more suffocating and treacherous than the legends implied. He gets unsolicited help from a Dungeons and Dragons player who flies in from California and proclaims himself an expert. He puts to good use a gay investigator from New York who has fallen in love with Dallas Egbert based on media reports. To understand Egbert’s mind, Dear gets so implausibly immersed in a D&D game run by a college kid that he loses his sense of self. A mysterious woman stalks Dear’s room while he’s out investigating the case, strange phone calls and notes hint at sinister conspiracies, and reporters camp out in the hotel lobby, ravenous for news.

If you’re intrigued by the case of Dallas Egbert but haven’t heard how his disappearance concluded, don’t seek out spoilers; just read Dear’s book. Despite his reputation as a James Bond character with fancy gadgets and a private jet and despite his later, lurid involvement in the O.J. Simpson case and the “Alien Autopsy” TV show, Dear writes with unusual tenderness about the missing child. This book, and the case that inspired it, turned Dear into a celebrity sleuth, but amid all the exploitative acquaintances, weirdos, hangers-on, and media hounds that gravitated toward Michigan State in the autumn of 1979, the logical, hard-nosed Dear comes off as the only one who sees Dallas Egbert as a human in full.

Dear’s account of Dallas Egbert’s disappearance serves an added purpose in the early 21st century: It’s a guide for how to remain rational, sane, and empathetic in the midst of a moral panic. It’s not a major spoiler to tell you that the Dungeons and Dragons connection, highly marketable when The Dungeon Master came out in 1984, proves to be slight, but Dear’s professional insistence on not judging the various underground movements of 1979 highlights a contrast between then and now. All of the subcultures in Dallas Egbert’s life—computer programming, the LGBT scene, role-playing games, science fiction and fantasy fandom, and neopaganism—have since been corporatized, commercialized, and entrenched in the mainstream. Superficially, that may be progress for kids who used to be different or odd. Perhaps it also means that if a 16-year-old prodigy were feeling lonely and lost on a college campus today, entrenched interests would claim their piece of him without a care for his welfare or his individuality. When everything is mainstream, when attractive and popular kids are programming computers, immersed in role-playing games, fluent in comic books, writing the rules and setting the boundaries, what becomes of the kids who still can’t fit in? Dear’s book made me wonder who we’re missing. Where are their steam tunnels, real or imagined? Where do they go when they’re tired of being told how to be?

“…and if we live the lie, let’s lie in trust…”

“The Green Knight is everything you love about King Arthur, but with a twist.” That’s the tag line Comcast is using to advertise streaming rentals of writer-director David Lowery’s visually sumptuous new movie. The angle surprised me: I didn’t know Arthuriana still sells. My sense was that the Arthurian boom peaked in the late ’90s with scores of fantasy novels and a few Hollywood movies, and I don’t think the streaming-video and Marvel Cinematic Universe generation has any particular love for the Matter of Britain.

Yet Lowery is undeterred, cheekily billing The Green Knight in its opening credits as “a filmed adaptation of the chivalric romance by Anonymous.” Of course, it’s not really an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The court is never identified as Arthur’s Camelot, Gawain has a girlfriend, and the young squire takes up the Green Knight’s challenge out of a mixture of gratitude to his royal uncle and a yearning to star in a tale of his own. “Do not waste this,” warns the king, who doesn’t see the need to decide if the Green Knight’s wager is a trivial Yuletide game or an opportunity for greatness. Scenes, characters, and motifs from the medieval poem make cameos, but once Gawain sets off on his quest, even a reader familiar with the source material is well off the edges of the map.

The film provides signposts to amuse and misdirect the medievalist. To my amazement, a battlefield scavenger refers to a line from the ninth-century Welsh chronicler Nennius. At one point, Gawain reads “When the nyhtegale singes” from the 14th-century Harley manuscript in the British Library. The artwork showing the changing seasons behind a children’s puppet show is, I think, from a late medieval Book of Hours. I’m sure a ton of other visual references flew right past me. The Green Knight is a determinedly unfunny movie, but the art and design team clearly reveled in creating a setting that feels like an afternoon at the Cloisters, where one medieval century blurs lazily into the next.

Even without these gratuitous flourishes, the world of Lowery’s medieval fantasy would feel convincing. The king, never explicitly acknowledged to be Arthur, looks plausibly weak, aged, a tad unhinged. The queen, gray and mirthless, wears a dress that appears to be decorated with hundreds of medieval pilgrimage badges. Women dye and sew, bishops pray, woodsmen fell forests, and shepherds tend their flocks, and there’s a magical British bleakness to the land itself that suggests the hardness of life. The opening scene, a stationary shot of animals milling about in front of a shed on Christmas morning while a house burns down in the background, nicely suggests the natural world’s indifference to man. When Gawain sets off on his quest, one somber, uncomfortably long shot follows him away from the castle and through a heath, perfectly capturing the quiet uncertainty of preparing to travel alone.

If only The Green Knight had eloquent, poetic dialogue to match these rich visuals. Here’s a speech from the king early in the film:

I look out upon my friends here today and I see songs no muse could ever sing, or dream of. But I turn to thee and I see what? I recognize but I do not know thee. I say this not in reproach but in regret that I have never asked you to sit at my side before this day, or upon my knee when thy [sic] was newborn. But now it is Christmas, and I wish to build bridges.

For a film obsessed with lovely visual and cultural touches, The Green Knight shows no awareness of how speech in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world ought to sound. The mixture of “thee” with “you,” the ignorance of the simple “thou,” and the misuse of “thy” are constant, baffling oversights across the whole movie. At one point, the king asks Gawain, “What have thee?” When a medieval British saint turns up, even she doesn’t understand medieval or early modern pronouns. Some fine actors in this movie end up sounding like eight-graders at their first Renaissance fair, as if they’ve never heard a word of Shakespeare. The 1984 Miles O’Keeffe-Sean Connery fantasy movie Sword of the Valiant, also based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, flies hilariously off the rails after its first fifteen minutes, but at least its script gives good actors lines like “a sword is three feet of tempered steel, with death dancing on every inch and hanging like a dark star on the very point,” or “the old year limps to its grave, ashamed.” There’s a weird lack of wit and precision to the dialogue in The Green Knight, so strange for a movie that’s based on a gorgeous poem, uses quirky on-screen titles, draws directly from medieval chronicles and saints’ lives, and shows characters reading and adoring books.

Although I don’t plan to check, I’m guessing the Internet saw some ugly arguments in recent weeks about the decision to cast an Anglo-Indian actor to play Gawain. Who cares? Dev Patel is a compelling actor with a strong aura of vulnerability, and he’s a great Gawain in a movie where everyone is equally well-cast. Besides, the poem that inspired this film isn’t a historical document; it’s a weird, brilliant, stylized fantasy. Filmmaker David Lowery gets that, which is maybe why The Green Knight felt to me like a sincere 1980s American fantasy flick mated with the cinematographic resources of a humorless European art-house film. That’s not necessarily a deadly combination. Gawain’s episodic quest is packed with eerie images, and as a viewer you can write them off as random or try to find symbolic coherence in them as you please. In that sense, The Green Knight captures some of the unsettling weirdness of reading a medieval romance.

No one would ever take The Green Knight as an attempt at a faithful adaptation, and a generation of graduate students will likely pad their CVs with tiresome conference presentations about its loose relation to its medieval source. The film itself winks a few times in recognition of its creative deviations, first in a quick montage of the title in various typefaces, reflecting different editions and translations, and then in a character who admits to seeing “room for improvement” in certain stories whenever she copies old manuscripts. For me the question is not whether this movie is good or bad based on its level of faithfulness to its medieval source, but whether the filmmaker used his sources as a productive jumping-off point to create a new and interesting work of art.

I don’t think he did. The film puts forward some thoughts about following a code of honor to its thankless end, but the alternative, living a lie, leads to no less unhappiness—a much bleaker conclusion than the original poem’s gracious assessment of flawed human nature, where a hard tale’s leavened by lightness of heart. And so help me, the last fifteen minutes of The Green Knight recall one of the more unsuccessful efforts of Martin Scorsese, and it’s not remade more coherently here. The way Lowery has rooted through history, artwork, and scholarly scraps is an impressive act of medievalism, but his pastiche doesn’t say anything clear about the present or the past.

But maybe it will. Many “medieval” movies—I’m thinking of John Boorman’s Excalibur or that odd 2007 motion-capture Beowulf—need time to age, to cure or curdle into artifacts of their time. The Green Knight might someday be better in hindsight, when it’s influenced a generation of artists, aspiring historians, and would-be scholars who will recall how it felt in their bones to live through a pandemic, social unrest, and a disastrous military withdrawal. By then, this medieval dream and our current age may feel equally distant to them, and the despair in this movie will echo an overcome past.

“I’ve willed, I’ve walked, I’ve read, I’ve talked…”

Build your brand! Optimize your keywords! Like, review, subscribe! Writers now believe they have to carry on with this nonsense. Maybe some must, even though for most of us the returns are minimal and the requisite skills aren’t always inborn. Much good writing goes unread because a poet or novelist lacks the hucksterism of a real-estate agent or a window salesman. It’s a trend we won’t reverse but can resist, by writing whatever the heck we want and earning nothing, versus writing what a publisher wants to buy from us and earning something close to nothing.

And so I cheer when I discover writers who are willfully deaf to marketing trends, the siren song of self-promotion, or the empty allure of becoming Fame’s latest love-child. Since last year, a poet friend of mine has been doing just that with “Human Voices Wake Us,” and a more refreshingly uncommercial podcast I simply can’t imagine. He runs no advertising, not even for his own excellent books, and he doesn’t put his name on the podcast, wishing to be if not anonymous, then at least a wallflower, to let literature enjoy a rare moment of pure attention.

“HVWU” has no set format. Sometimes you might get a week of brief readings of poetry by Seamus Heaney, Robinson Jeffers, and other 20th-century stalwarts—but between those episodes, settle in for hour-long selections from a biography of Walt Whitman and scholarly books about ancient Egyptian religion, or thoughts on re-reading Gilgamesh. As I write this, he’s spending a week mulling over quotations from scientists, politicians, and military leaders about the making of the atomic bomb, to chilling cumulative effect. All of “HVWU” follows the whims of one man’s whirring, well-read mind, but only occasionally does the host consciously focus on his own work. In one episode, he speaks abashedly but with candor about the jealousy with which less successful writers look upon their better-selling peers. In another, he digs up one of his T.S. Eliot-inspired teenage poems about suburban life and reviews it with the pensive, tolerant eye of the 40-year-old husband, father, and poet that high school kid became.

If you find National Public Radio unlistenable for its commercialism, predictability, and lazy arts reporting, and you don’t give a damn what everyone else is reading or talking about, and you appreciate an unrushed, gentle-voiced host sharing his favorite poets, ancient myths, and centuries of writers’ thoughts about creativity at a pace that’s entirely his own, then the “Human Voices Wake Us” podcast might fulfill a craving of your heart and mind. You can listen through Google Podcasts or Anchor.fm or whatever other podcast app you use; as long as you see the graphic with the self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, then you’ve found it.

After enjoying more than a hundred episodes during my long drives through rural Maryland, I know the “HVWU” intro by heart:

The poem says, “Human voices wake us, and we drown.” But I’ve made this podcast with the belief that human voices are what we need. And so, whether from a year or three thousand years ago, whether poetry or prose, whether fiction or diary or biography, here are the best things we have ever thought, written, or said.

That’s a heady promise from someone who records episodes in a grocery store parking lot or in a basement after putting his toddler to bed. If the podcast turns out not to be for you, it might at least remind you what independent thought about books and art is supposed to sound like, and how much you’ve missed it.

“Something unseen, some hand is motioning…”

The Brood X cicadas have risen again, crawling up our tree trunks, our wooden posts, our concrete foundations—any upright surface suits them fine. The last time they emerged, I was living in a city and wondering where I’d find myself after 17 years. Now here I am in the country, with the cicadas’ deafening song rattling the farm fields like a siren, as if announcing an endless emergency just beyond the tree line.

In 1800, my fellow Marylander, Benjamin Banneker, recorded his evolving awareness of cicadas in his astronomical journal:

The first great locust year that I can remember was 1749. I was then around seventeen years of age, when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes. I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labour was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension. Again in the year 1766 which is seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first. I then, being about thirty-four years of age had more sense than to endeavour to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit of the earth as I did imagine they would be. Again in the year 1783 which was seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800, which is seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture so to express it, their periodical return is seventeen years: but they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and falls. Then the egg, by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth, and there continues for the space of seventeen years as aforesaid.

I like to forgot to inform that if their lives are short they are merry. They begin to sing or make a noise from the first they come out of earth till they die. The hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them for they still continue on singing till they die.

For those of us who feel trapped these days between competing tribes of vandals, Banneker’s note on cicadas is a model of civilized thought. Time, observation, contemplation, and a willingness to amend his prejudices all add up to a more mature understanding of the world, one that still allows for amusement, enchantment, and even a flicker of poetry. Where I’ll be in 17 years doesn’t matter—probably here in the same patch of woods on the same quiet road—but I hope we’ll find more Bannekers among us.

“Night is day, and twilight’s gone away…”

When the pandemic began, friends asked me what insights I could glean from studying and writing about the Middle Ages for as long as I did. “Nothing,” I told them, which remains true.

Yet I can’t shake the feeling that we’re living through an apocalypse—not necessarily in the religious, end-of-the-world sense, but in the literal meaning of the Greek word for a revelation or an unveiling. Here in our small town, we’ve learned, sometimes contrary to ordinary-time assumptions, which neighbors, including putative leaders, are useless in a crisis, and which ones possess unforeseen reserves of resourcefulness, selflessness, and hope. If we’re being honest, we’ve each discovered a few unflattering things about ourselves too, whether we admit it to others or not. I expect the disquieting clarity will linger even after clouds and fog return.

Every December I post a “best of” recap of the year that was. This was the year I took down the blog because of technical issues and brought it back to life on a stable new host. I shared news of a book I’d been working on for two years with my friends and neighbors, and then I offered thoughts about Mike Tyson’s fascination with Frankish history.

And that’s it. That’s not a prolific year, blog-wise, but given what 2020 has otherwise brought, the fact that we’re still here and I’m still writing will have to suffice. If you’re pass through this blog in the days and weeks ahead, I wish you, in all sincerity, a healthy and prosperous 2021.

“And this world’s a fickle measure…”

They told me, “You have to watch this interview where Mike Tyson talks about medieval history,” and so I did, and there he was at the New York Public Library in 2013 being interviewed by curator Paul Holdengräber, whose German accent strikes the American ear as both effortlessly intellectual and lightly amusing, and who would seem to have nothing in common with the face-tattooed boxer.

The two men do, in fact, find much to talk about. Their discussion is mesmerizing, because to most of us Mike Tyson is nothing but a face and fists, not a man who reflects aloud and at length about his inner life. Holdengräber prompts a reticent Tyson to narrate clips of his greatest moments in the ring, and newcomers to boxing will easily see why Tyson was such a sensation, but Iron Mike grows more animated when other matters arise.

Half an hour into the interview, Holdengräber says that their mutual friend, eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog, urged him to ask Tyson why he’s so fascinated by Clovis, the founder of the Merovingian Frankish dynasty, and Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian king of the Franks. Tyson’s answer, however halting, makes him come alive:

I don’t know—it all comes from my insecurity from being poor, and not having enough—to be insecure, and being—yeah, that’s what it is: obscure. I never wanted to be obscure. I was born in obscurity and I never wanted to deal with that again, never wanted to be that. And they came from obscurity.

Tyson then narrates a capsule history of the Frankish kings. He rambles, he doesn’t get all the details right, and his mispronunciation of names marks him as an autodidact, but it’s a shame to hear the audience laugh when Holdengräber asks, “Mike, how do you know all this shit?” Whether Tyson is mapping his own experiences onto medieval history or hearing echoes of the Franks in his troubled life, the credentialed, status-conscious audience is uncomfortable with his sincere interest in a past they find trivial.

Yet Tyson is the real deal, a book lover not because his peer group yaks about whichever author the New York Times has dubbed fame’s latest love child, but because he’s hungry for ideas, for meaning, for connections across time. He speaks with undisguised emotion about Cus D’Amato, the trainer and manager who turned him into a lethal boxer. Obsessed with Nietzsche and Clausewitz, D’Amato taught Tyson to see boxing as war and war as the key to decoding the world. “That is just what I do,” Tyson explains, an attentive pupil and dutiful son. “I love war. I love the act of war. I love the players in war, the philosophy of war.”

Tyson is searching for more than war on the pages of the past. Having grown up amid crime and chaos and founded his life on violence, he now relies on books to make moral and ethical sense of the world:

Yeah—they’re our most priceless possessions, because if you think about it, you know, a room without a book is like a body without a soul. It’s the only way that we can connect the future with the past. Without that, there’s no way that we can know about the future, and know about particularly the past, or the present, you know, that when you think about history, the value of history is not necessarily scientific but moral. By liberating our minds and deepening our sympathies and fortifying our will, we can control—pretty much history allows us to control not society but ourselves, which is a much more important thing to do, you know what I mean? And it would allow us to pretty much meet the future more so than foretell it, and for that reason alone, in order to predict the future we always have to look through the past, because very rarely does time not repeat itself, and it always will repeat itself.

I’ve heard a quote before in a book that we would be fools to think historically that the past is us in funny clothes, but the past is us in funny clothes, and that’s truly what it is. That’s from somebody who really said a really profound statement but he misquoted what he was saying, he must have been saying it backwards, because that’s really what the past was, it’s just us in funny clothes, in different times, that’s really what it is.

Of course, to hear Tyson cite a quip inaccurately attributed to Cicero, “a room without books is like a body without a soul,” is to wonder if he’s putting us on. Late in the interview, he jokes that if you quote books, you fool people into thinking you’re smart—but Tyson, for all his malapropisms and mispronunciations and odd mannerisms, is intelligent. He’s going round after round with big questions that many of the ostensibly educated attendees at his book-talk don’t bother to ask.

When Holdengräber suggests that Tyson’s knowledge of history didn’t improve his behavior, Tyson calmly disagrees. He compares himself to the fictional Ben-Hur, a fellow athlete and celebrity who achieved glory but was doomed to be unfree until he set his priorities in order: “He may not have been famous again,” Tyson points out, “but he got his family, and that was his success.”

After listening to Mike Tyson—childhood criminal, devastating fighter, struggling alcoholic and recovering drug addict, convicted rapist, pop-culture eidolon—speak for an hour and a half, I still don’t quite know who he is. He may be the closest thing 21st-century America has to a Robert E. Howard character, a born barbarian who’s ignorant of social niceties but possesses earned wisdom that the civilization around him disdains. I don’t know whether he’s all in on his bookish pursuits or one slight away from again gnawing off someone’s ear. Whether he’s a good man or a bad man feels foolish to ask about a professional punch-thrower who reads Nietzsche, but Tyson looks like a better man, one who has perhaps searched harder for his humanity than the onlookers snickering from the safety of their library seats. What has their pride gained them? Tyson’s, by contrast, has brought him perspective, and with it the humility to admit that his story is still being written—and has been before.

I Have Started for Canaan: The Story of the African American Town of Sugarland

I don’t have romantic notions about what writers do—but every so often, our work has profound implications for neighbors and friends.

In January 2019, I met two great-granddaughters of the founders of Sugarland, a town established by former slaves immediately after emancipation in rural Montgomery County, Maryland. My new friends were tenacious historians who had collected 150 years’ worth of sources—photographs, meeting minutes, construction contracts, land deeds, funeral programs, military records, church ledgers, oral histories, artifacts, you name it—and they were ready to turn their collection into a book for a wide audience. After nearly two years of brainstorming and collaboration, we’re finally putting that book in readers’ hands.

Defying familiar narratives of the African American experience that focus on sharecropping or urban life, I Have Started for Canaan is a remarkable chronicle of rural self-sufficiency. In a corner of the countryside 20 miles from the nation’s capital, the Sugarland families owned 200 acres of farmland immediately after the Civil War. At its height, their town boasted a schoolhouse, a general store, a post office, a practice hall for a brass band, and a church that still stands today. To the best of our knowledge, I Have Started for Canaan is the first book-length history of a Reconstruction-era African American town in Maryland.

To learn more about the work that went into this book and the richness of the primary sources in the Sugarland collection, check out this online presentation I gave in May. If you’d like to buy a copy, you can order directly through the Sugarland Ethno-History Project online store.

I Have Started for Canaan was a volunteer project for me, so every dime of profit from book sales will go back to the Sugarland Ethno-History Project for the upkeep of their cemetery and historic 1894 church, the preservation of their collection, and—if all goes well—the eventual creation of a small museum. I’m proud to have helped bring this story to the world, and I hope you’ll be as inspired as I was to hear the clear, confident voices of the Sugarland founders resound across 150 years.

“…and in this town of stops and starts…”

It took a few months, but I managed to transfer this blog to a new host. Links to posts from outside sources may no longer work, so if you’ve linked to a book review or favorite post in the past, you’ll need to find it via the search box in the sidebar and re-link to it.

On the plus side, the entire blog going back to 2007 has been restored, with special thanks to George for technical assistance that made it possible to save all of the photos as well.

If you’re new to this blog, welcome! For 13 years, I’ve used this site to write about America’s obsession with the Middle Ages, but I’ve also veered off into literature, history, formal poetry, and other topics that aren’t of interest to editors who actually pay for eyeballs and clicks. To see what I mean, browse the “categories” list in the sidebar, which includes the yearly “best of” posts.

Right now I’m focused on a project with a definite place in the world. For the past a year and a half, I’ve collaborated with two friends on a history of a Reconstruction-era African American town. The book will be available this fall; check out this video presentation from May and you’ll see why I’m enthusiastic about the story my friends’ ancestors have to tell.

(If the video doesn’t play, try clicking through to YouTube here.)

Thanks to all of you who sent emails, left comments, or shared thoughts on social media back in the spring. You convinced me that it was worth the trouble to keep the blog up and running. The traffic I get from search engines further suggests that someone, somewhere is always searching for more about a book, a poem, or a scrap of history that once caught my attention too.

Words aren’t precious; I don’t understand why all writers don’t have blogs for catching the sheer overflow of ideas, but I thank you for visiting mine. I may never post on a regular schedule, but I’ll offer you this: whatever turns up here you’ll never find anywhere else.