Literature, Poetry, and Books
April 29, 2009
As promised on arrival, I have been stimulating the Global Economy like no tomorrow. This is easy to do in a place where your hotel breakfast sets you back forty bucks, if you skip the orange juice. If I understand the approved G-20 recovery program, the principle is spend, spend, spend. Especially spend what you haven't got. This puts you in debt, and debt is the key. Once everyone gets comfortable being in debt up to their eyebrows again, there will be confidence. Then people will lend, lend, lend, and Bob's your uncle. Useless spending, if I've grasped the essential idea, is best. People will keep buying useful things despite the crisis--they have no choice. It's the buying of useless things at exorbitant prices with money you haven't got that really falls off in a crisis like this. Government's role is to assist you in not having the money you must spend, by raising your taxes.
The second prong of the travel campaign is juicing up the Special Relationship, and a pleasant trip to Oxford the other day provides a great opportunity for some juicing up. P.G. Wodehouse, of course, was not able to go to Oxford because, though "Plum" was a cracker-jack student of Greek and Latin, his father couldn't afford to support him in university. Unlike Shakespeare, however, who despite earning the title of America's Greatest Poet also did not attend Oxford, Wodehouse actually became an American. Put it on your patriotic calendar: he made it official on 16 December, 1955, if I've got my facts straight. On the joyous occasion, with his usual keen syntactical sense, he wrote a friend: "Thank God for being an American (I don't mean God is, I mean I am)." Anyone who knows Wodehouse knows what an effusion of strong passion is expressed in the title of his memoir of gratitude to his adopted country: America, I Like You.
Plum's biographers say that as a lad he could write Greek and Latin sentences as rapidly as he could write sentences in English, and Wodehouse acknowledges that his boyhood study of Greek and Latin shaped his writing. This is a good advertisement for the classical languages, because Wodehouse's English sentences are wonderful works of art. Sometimes they entertain just by making you keenly interested in seeing how they are going to turn out. No matter what roof he throws them off of, they always land on their feet. Before winning fame for his Jeeves and Bertie stories, he was a great lyricist for American musical comedies in their golden age. You might be interested to learn, if you hadn't heard it in some bar already, that Wodehouse once said that Harry Leon Wilson's Ruggles of Red Gap "made a great impression on me and ... may have been the motivating force behind the creation of Jeeves." No small contribution to Western Civilization!
But we were in Oxford. ... (Maybe some of the stuff above, and certainly some of the stuff below comes from the recent Robert McCrum biography and David Jasen's 1974 portrait, and I apologize for muddling the quotations--I don't have a Kindle so I can't carry all my books with me.) Wodehouse was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature (D.Litt) by Oxford University on 21 June, 1939. The annual ceremony for these awards was called an Encaenia. The university's Public Orator (PO) customarily delivered a Latin salute to the honorands on these occasions. The PO, Cyril Bailey, had never read Wodehouse, and was given some of his writings to prepare him for the salute. According to Wodehouse's recollections of the ceremony, his fellow honorands received "tepid applause" while he "had to stand for quite three minutes while thousands cheered." (McCrum)
The Public Orator saluted Wodehouse with
a brilliant and witty celebration of Wodehouse's gifts composed in faultless Latin hexameters after Horace. Having made ingenious reference to Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Mr. Mulliner, Lord Emsworth, the Empress of Blandings, Psmith and Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bailey concluded in prose that Wodehouse was 'our Petronius, or should I say, our Terence?' (Petroniumne dicam an Terentium nostrum?) a tribute that provoked more wild applause. (McCrum)
Terentium nostrum, indeed! Vice-Chancellor of the University, George Stuart Gordon, presented the degree to Wodehouse with these words:
Vir lepidissime, facetissime, venustissime, iocosissime, ribidundissime te cum turba tua Leporum, Facetinarum, Venustatum, Iocorum, Risuum, ego auctoritate mea et totius Universitatis admitto ad gradum Doctoris in Litteris honoris causa.
Which meant more or less:
Wittiest of men, most humorous, most charming, most amusing, full of laughter, by the authority vested in me and the entire university, I hereby admit you and your whole crowd of witty, humorous, charming, amusing, uproarious creations to the degree of honorary Doctor of Letters.
(Jasen, McCrum, and a bit of Flannery)
Now there is an honorary degree worth having! At formal dinner for four hundred at Christ Church afterwards, the undergraduates began "to bang the tables, chanting 'We want Wode-house ... we want Wode-house.'" Amen.
But isn't it most wonderful to think of those thousands of undergrads bursting into wild applause at the Latin jokes?
As a beginning young writer in London at the turn of the 20th century, Wodehouse dreamed of sailing to America, to the New World. His dream came true in 1904, when he was just 22. As Robert McCrum says, he "fell in love with Manhattan at first sight." Wodehouse:
To say that New York came up to its advance billing would be the baldest of understatements. Being there was like being in heaven, without going to all the bother and expense of dying.
When he returned to London several weeks later, he found that he was regarded as an expert on America (a very different kind of Tocqueville, no!?), and his writing on the subject of America was in great demand: "After that trip to New York, I was a man who counted. ... My income rose like a rocketing pheasant." So, it's not just that his American readers love his idyllic England; his English readers are charmed by his mythical America! (McCrum) What could be better for the Special Relationship?
Wodehouse lived the last 30 years or so of his life in America--Long Island--and died on Valentine's Day 1975. The names of Psmith, Lord Emsworth, Mr. Mulliner, Bertie Wooster, and Jeeves are inscribed on his tombstone, the way Jefferson had inscribed on his tombstone his greatest accomplishments. I gather tourists can have a rough time finding Wodehouse's grave, but it is behind the Remsenburg Community Church in Long Island.
Oh yes, Oxford. It takes you only 50 minutes to get there from Paddington Station in London on a perfectly pleasant train. And if you haven't packed your four course lunch as half the veteran passengers seem to do, and you're especially peckish when you arrive, stop by the Brasserie Gerard 5 minutes into the 10 minute walk into town from the train station. Try the croque madame or the quiche Lorraine. It's not Anatole's best, but you won't regret it.