On Essays and Letters

Somehow, on my shelves, I have an apparently unread book called Letters from the Country. This book, written by Carol Bly, was published by Penguin in 1981. Carol Bly, as I found out, died in 2007, a well-known figure in Minnesota literary circles. But it was by the merest happenstance that I saw the book one afternoon. I was looking for a book of letters; this book fit the bill. There it was, on the first page, still the $2 price of some forgotten used book store where I found it, intending to read it someday.

At the time this book was written, Bly lived just outside of Madison, Minnesota, in a county with the wonderful name, left in French, Lac qui parle, the talking lake. If I know lakes, of which Minnesota has not a few, they probably do talk a bit if you listen. The city square of this county seat has a huge statue of what is purported to be a “Lutefish,” which might be a cod. But a lutefish or lutefisk, in fact, seems to be dried stockfish, common in Nordic dishes, again not unexpected in Minnesota.

On thumbing through this little book, after I had noted the essay about which I will comment below, I realized that I had indeed read it before. I had marked it in places. I did not recall reading it, though I must have.

Bly seems to have been against everything good liberals are against, again something not unexpected in Minnesota liberals. In an essay entitled, “Our Class System,” she wrote: “Whoever thought up the idea of a (Christmas) crèche at all, who was likely St. Francis of Assisi, had heart to know that starting where the people are is at best useless. What we all care for is what we yearn to be—not what or where we seem to be.”

That is a fine sentiment. I can see why I underlined it, though, as I have often thought, we can also yearn to be where and what we already are. Otherwise, we have no grounds for our yearning. And we do not want the goal of our yearning to be so diverse that it has no relation to “what and where” we actually are and have been. As Aristotle put it, we do not want our friends to become kings or gods but to remain what they are. Ultimately this is a principle that has something to do with the resurrection.

The essay that struck my interest in this second look at Letters from the Country was called, incredibly, “If a Thing Is Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Badly.” I quickly began to read it to see where Bly got this title that was so familiar to me. She says it is from the English composer, Gustav Holst, famous for his “Planets,” among other things. This phrase, “worth doing badly,” as everyone in my circle of friends knows, is from Chesterton. It is found at least as early at 1910 in his What’s Wrong with the World, a simply great book.

In checking the source of this citation, I came across an essay by Mark Small, written in Berkeley Today Magazine, in 2003, an essay on Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had evidently studied with Holst in the London Conservatory. Small wrote: “While in New Haven, I found a copy of Vaughan Williams’s book, National Music andOther Essays, in a used bookstore. It gave me perspective on the value of known and unknown figures in the music community. In the chapter titled ‘Making Your Own Music,’ Williams states that those of all skill levels must perpetuate an art form. He repeats the opinion of fellow British composer Gustav Holst: ‘If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly.’”

It turns out that Holst’s life span (1874–1934) is almost exactly that of Chesterton’s (1874–1936). Williams lived from 1872–1958. It seems inconceivable that these three men would not have known of each other, though I can find no documentary evidence on it. And I suppose the phrase is so graphic that almost anyone might have used it before any of them.

But my concern here is not the genealogy of a most insightful phrase. No one can doubt its Chestertonian origin. I often cite this wonderful phrase in class. I ask then, “What example did Chesterton use to make his point about doing things badly?”

They do not know, of course, but it was precisely “dancing.” There is, after all, something definitely quirky about a young man whose skills on the dance floor are not those of Fred Astaire, not to dance with a young lady because he dances badly. If it is worth doing it is worth doing badly, but it is also worth doing well. Few things in our lives are done well, dancing included, unless we have first done them badly.

Bly’s essay was about small towns in the Midwest. Madison, Minnesota, is over on the South Dakota line, about three counties north of the Iowa border. I was born to the East a couple of counties and down two tiers of counties into Iowa. Madison is less than two thousand inhabitants as is Pocahontas, where I was born. Bly does not see why small towns cannot afford to hear great things.

Bly is against the usual local “art leagues,” which tend to be uppity. She tells of a New Yorker cartoon about the New England summer arts scene where each year, as a local townsman notes, “the goddam summer people” swarm in to put on their plays, as if the locals had no ideas in their own heads. Bly thinks that, from this arty crowd, the good folks in Minnesota are “safer.”

Bly has some rather odd idea that people in committees can write plays about their home town. I suspect all writing that is any good has to come from one person, whether he live in “safer” Minnesota, like Bly herself, or in Minneapolis or in the Big Apple itself. Here is Bly’s conclusion: “We can kill our countryside art with a wised-up ‘audience related’ non-art, in which the producer promises he is starting ‘where the people are at.’ The people are, as they ever were, at the point of starvation for excellence. They want to do their art themselves, and to share in the grand and ancient things.”

The beholding the “grand and ancient things” is indeed a great enterprise. We know what we are most when we behold the noble things that men have left us. When I think of the title of this essay, “Safer in Minnesota,” I realize that ultimately we do not want anyplace to be safe from beholding the “grand and noble things.”

We do not want simply the things that we already know, though these can be lovely, but the things that our kind has bequeathed to us. Carol Bly saw no reason why Madison, Minnesota, on the South Dakota border, or Pocahontas, in Iowa, should be cut off from the great words and deeds and works of our kind. From these, we want no one to be “safe,” so that they can realize that they also “yearn” from where they stand now towards those things that point us to the fullness of what we are.

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