Great books, killing, the Bay, Mudd

Books Of The Region

November 04, 2001|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

In the realm of intellect in 20th century Maryland, the single most striking event may have happened in Annapolis in 1937, when the Great Books Program began at St. John's College. There are no statues to the two founders, and the obstacles they overcame have dimmed; but Charles A. Nelson gives their flame new brilliance in his book, Radical Visions: Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan and Their Efforts on Behalf of Education and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Bergin & Garvey, 226 pages, $59).

Nelson uses the word "radical" in its original sense -- "going back to the roots of." When two of World War I's young alumni met at Oxford University as Rhodes Scholars -- Winkie Barr from the University of Virginia, Scott Buchanan from Amherst -- compulsory Greek was on the way out there; but it was still Oxford, with tutors and don rags. Afterward, back in the U.S., the two friends went separately into teaching, just as the collegiate trend narrowed, toward specialized career tracks. But off in the corners of Columbia, Amherst, Wisconsin and Chicago, people named Erskine, Meiklejohn, Hutchins and Adler were inaugurating courses in ancient authors and disciplines (mathematics, languages, science, logic).

Only when an "all-but-bankrupt" Maryland college agreed to total reorientation, with Barr as president (and front man) and Buchanan as dean (and planner) did the Great Books of Western Civilization go full-time, soon becoming a national wonder. Two-tutor, free-form seminars?

Then came World War II; the Navy, huge and glowering, moved to swallow up tiny, older St. John's. With peace, the threat lifted; yet in 1947, the two head men suddenly left.

Never afterward did Barr or Buchanan head a movement, as they separately promoted Third World aid, spent foundation money, taught, wrote books, remained friends, died. That stability and growth came to St. John's was thanks to Richard D. Weigle, president for 31 years, and a series of deans.

The biographer, Nelson, went to St. John's, and he profits from letter collections and an earlier college history by J. Winfree Smith. A civilized voice, Nelson's, and he excels at reading complex minds and personalities.

Be it noted: By now the graduate reading list at the Great Books' western campus, in Santa Fe, N.M., includes Hindu, Chinese and Japanese authors. The Koran cannot be far behind.

Teaching philosophy students, Stephen Vicchio can reach only so many minds as he aligns major ideas into combat formations. So he has been turning to a love of his youth, the theater, and writing for it. The action in his most recent play, Executioner's Hill (Institute for Public Philosophy, 98 pages, $9.95 softbound) occurs in 1799 Holland. But its theme reverberates across all recorded time: When -- if ever -- is the state justified in executing a prisoner?

Vicchio's problem is to put on stage people who are interesting as individuals but not too much so. Whether an appealing young hero and heroine shall or shall not be beheaded must not distract us from the central dilemma -- even though they are the executioner's sister and his childhood friend.

However turbulent his final scene (which could appall some stage directors), the professor remains faithful to his classrooms. In a postscript, he cites Brecht, Camus and especially Par Lagerkvist, the Swedish author of an earlier play on state-sponsored killing, The Hangman. And, lest someone overlook it, Vicchio notes that real-life Holland doesn't go in for hills.

Mostly, biographies are of the dead. But when John R. Wennersten writes an "environmental biography" of Chesapeake Bay, we should flinch, not wear mourning. He merely raises the question (in a chapter heading): "Is The Chesapeake Bay Dying?"

If his answers are complicated, in The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography (Maryland Historical Society Press, 255 pages, $30), well, so is the question, for this place of constant change. And he speaks amid a clamor: the "rich literature" of the bay by now includes more than 4,000 reports, investigations and scientific studies -- "it is considered the most intensely studied estuary in the world."

Wennersten, an Eastern Shoreman and college professor, is good on the past, relentless toward the present (his final bay verdict is "impaired") and scary as to the future. He underlines acid mine runoff (above us), alien marine species arrivals (below), oil spills (everywhere). More fertilizer now filters down from suburbia than from farms. Sewage-plant effluent? How about some 2,000,000 septic tanks at bay-country housing, with a dependable breakdown or rustout rate of 5 percent annually? Kepone, Pfiesteria, what's the next fright, for a population bent on recreation?

Chesapeake Bay doom isn't immediate. Long before that, Wennersten figures, society as a whole will face really big pains: growth-rate expectations that are unsustainable, resource depletion, simple overcrowding. A Halloween book? No, an any-season book.

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