On Essays and Letters

Students of mine travel. Not a few of them manage to send me a note or a card, especially when they run across something they read in class or something they thought Schall would enjoy seeing. “I am currently in France,” a recently graduated student wrote to me, “and often think of you when I visit monuments and reflect on how they connect us with the past, or in cozy old bookstores like Shakespeare & Co., in Paris, that I visited yesterday. I am currently in Bordeaux and was able to visit Montesquieu’s home (as pictured here on postcard) and thought you would like his magnificent library.” Montesquieu became the President of the Parliament of Bordeaux.

Though I have been in Paris, I never heard of Shakespeare and Company, evidently on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame. It was established by an American, George Whitman, in 1951. The walls of the shop contain signed photos of many famous writers who have visited the place. The current bookstore, originally named Le Mistral, really goes back to Sylvia Beach in 1919. She called her shop “Shakespeare and Company,” a name Whitman took over on her death in 1950.

The blurb about Whitman reads as follows: “George had spent many years walking though Latin America and was touched by the hospitality of the locals, who would often feed him and accommodate him. This had a profound impact on his life and led him to create a bookstore that is a sanctuary for writers, aspiring writers, and artists. Some 50,000 have placed their heads on Shakespeare and Company’s famous pillows.” Walking through Latin America somehow reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, a title of great theological import.

The Montesquieu Library contains 3,800 volumes and is found in the Library of the city of Bordeaux. Someone once asked me if I had read every book in my own collection. I said, “No.” It makes me wonder if Montesquieu read them all. But no doubt he read a lot of them. There is something almost arrogant about reading every book that comes our way in this life, even if you are a Montesquieu.

Another student sent me a card containing a map of Nantucket Island. She tells me that her folks have a house in a town called Cisco at the southern end of the island. She adds that Cisco is “the place where Nantucket makes its own beer and spirits.” It turns out that Cisco Brewers produce, among other things, Whale Tale Pale Ale and Cap’ Swan’s Extra Stout. In these days of anti-obesity phobias, I love the equivocal name “extra stout.” I have, alas, never encountered either of these two Cisco brews. We find wineries on Nantucket also. The same student told me that she is also on herway to London and Edinburgh, from whence latter place I received a card showing the famous Military Tattoo. After that she was to visit her grandmother in the Napa Valley of California.

“I am writing from the Elin Valley in Wales,” a young man writes on a card showing a dam with a lake backed into low hills. This is “a beautiful system of ancient Roman reservoirs and dams that are designed to overflow into each other. I figured you’d get plenty of big-city cards, so here’s something from the country-side.” The modern dams of the Elin Valley were inaugurated in 1904 by King George VII and Queen Alexandra. The system is designed to supply water for the city of Birmingham. But no one who has visited Chester and Bath in England, or read Belloc’s book The Old Road, will be surprised by the remains of Rome in England. Actually, Belloc’s book was published in 1904.

This student was studying at the London School of Economics. “The LSE and London are amazing, and I hope to see as much of Europe as possible. Italy is next. As Samuel Johnson writes: ‘A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority.’” Sometimes I worry about my traveling students. Someone—Chesterton it was in What I Saw in America—remarked that “travel narrows a man.” The Englishman when he travels, Chesterton also said, sees exactly what he saw at home. And yet Johnson is right and I am pleased that my student knows that there is a certain “inferiority” at never having been in Italy.

Another student sends me a striking card of Tower Bridge, which reads in fine print: “Tower Bridge was completed in 1894, having taken 432 construction workers eight years to build. The bridge is 244 meters long and each tower is 65 meters high.” The young lady writes: “As I am here, I am constantly reminded of our class as I begin to see more meaning in the phrase ‘City of God/city of man.’ It is interesting to see a country with ties so close to ours has a completely different political system, again reminding me about the question of what is the best city/regime. There is no doubt that class has followed me here, even during spring break.” The smile symbol is added!  

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.

Father Schall’s students send him postcards from their travels. Here he reflects on places that several of them have recently been.