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“Our work is not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the philosopher, but for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation.”–Thomas Bulfinch
Ah. Polite conversation. Remember when people in public life engaged in polite conversation? Me neither, for the most part. (Of course, there are exceptions.)
But (please note there is nothing before “but”) it must be said that the current round of “impolite conversation” has sunk to such a level of vulgarity that, instead of reaching for my copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, perhaps to learn why the term “narcissist” has come to mean what it does, I generally have to steel myself, grit my teeth, make sure my granddaughter isn’t looking over my shoulder, and open up the Urban Dictionary. (Language warning. Oh, I see they cover narcissists, too, right there on the home page. Not like Bulfinch, though. Another language warning.)
And when public discourse today isn’t unconscionably and repetitively vulgar, it’s ignorant, banal, and moronic. Thus, we see the Speaker of the House of Representatives talking, publicly and seriously about “doggy doo,” the President of the United States using on occasion what can only be described as “word salad” to try to get his point across, Hank Johnson worrying that Guam will tip over and fall in the sea, and AOC equating children in the southern United States suffering from ringworm (a common fungal disease of the same family as athletes foot) to third world children with intestinal parasites. Then, in a class all by himself, there is Joe Biden, who’s never done better in the polls than since he began hiding in his basement and largely keeping his mouth shut after telling one potential voter, “you’re a lying dog-faced pony soldier,” and another–a Detroit factory worker–“you’re full of [expletive].” (You won’t find references to either of those allusions in Bulfinch.)
Wait. What’s this? “Tweet anything at me, Jack. I’ll show ya where to put it, ya two-timing eggman.” Surely not even Biden actually said that? Rats. He didn’t. There’s a BidenInsultBot, and it’s from there. Gosh, it’s good though, innit? Here’s another: “Why, you’re just a chicken-hearted circus peanut.” Even I have to admit that these are pretty funny. But now we’ve gone beyond amusing to that whole “vote for Trump and you ain’t black” business. Crimenutely. Oh for a serious politician, with serious, right-thinking ideas, the ability to get things done and to win elections, and the verbal facility to form a complete thought in his mind and get it out of his mouth in one piece without insulting a sizeable proportion of his constituents along the way. Really? Is that too much to ask?
I long for the days when even impolite conversation was as erudite and interesting as its more civil counterpart. When it wasn’t full of suggestions that we all go off and do the anatomically impossible, or accusations that each of us enjoys carnal relations with our own mother. When vulgarity was infrequent enough that it could still actually shock, rather than simply repel, or even worse, not even register. Or when insults were somewhat clever. The days when FDR called Herbert Hoover a “fat, timid capon,” and Hoover responded by calling FDR a “chameleon on plaid.” Or Churchill’s less well-known takedown of Ramsey Macdonald, “he is a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” (The other one is here.)
Thomas Bulfinch, the son of a Boston architect who designed parts of the US Capitol, was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard College, and worked lifelong at the Merchant’s Bank of Boston. The study of myth and fable was an avocation for him, not a career, and he was dedicated only to:
telling the stories of mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement. We have endeavored to tell them correctly, according to the ancient authorities, so that when the reader finds them referred to he may not be at a loss to recognize the reference. Thus we hope to teach mythology not as a study, but as a relaxation from study; to give our work the charm of a story-book, yet by means of it to impart a knowledge of an important branch of education. The index at the end will adapt it to the purposes of a reference, and make it a Classical Dictionary for the parlor.
It’s a quaint idea, this Victorian one–that ordinary people must want to educate themselves, and that they could become learned and could read their way to an education without in any way compromising their “station” in life or getting above themselves, and that they would be better people for so doing. And I found it interesting, in today’s quote of the day, that in 1855, the year Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes was published, Bulfinch was equally committed to enlightening, and informing, both men and women, regardless (or irregardless as the case may be) of the readers’ sex.
Bulfinch’s Mythology, published fourteen years after his death, was a compilation of his three earlier works on myths, fables and romance. It was the go-to standard for study and enjoyment of the ancient stories for almost a century. (The Kindle edition is just$2.99 on Amazon.) I read great gobs of it when I was a child, although by the time I attended college, it had been superseded by Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Which is also quite good.
Thomas Bulfinch died 153 years ago, on May 27, 1867.
Did you read Bulfinch’s Mythology as a child? Or in school? What’s your favorite myth? Do you miss erudite conversation in the public sphere? (Thank goodness we have Ricochet.) And do you have a favorite insult or witty rejoinder (either one of your own, or a famous one) that’s you’d like to share?
Dorothy Parker tells me of the last time she encountered Playwright Clare Boothe Luce. The two ladies were trying to get out of a doorway at the same time. Clare drew back and cracked, “Age before beauty, Miss Parker.” As Dorothy swept out, she turned to the other guests and said. “Pearls before swine.”–Sheila Graham, Hartford Courant, Oct. 14, 1938.