Book Reviews: Bright Immensities

Book Review graphic

January-February 2011

By James T. Tresner II, 33°, Grand Cross, Book Review Editor

One of my very favorite hymns is a little-known work by the Rev. Howard Chandler Robbins, entitled “And Have the Bright Immensities.” Not only do I love the melody and the lyrics, but I find the phrase “bright immensities” compelling. Robbins is speaking of interstellar space, “Where light years frame the Pleiades and point Orion’s sword,” but it seems to me there are other bright immensities as well. Surely the term might be used to describe the lives of people who have made a major difference in the world—whose talents or character have had a lasting effect on generations. We begin this new year with three such Brothers.

Chernow, Ron, Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010, Hardcover, 904 pages, illustrations, ISBN-13: 978-1594-202-667. Cover price, $40, available on the Internet from $22, new.

Chernow is a first-rate biographer, and this book is simply excellent. A great deal of recent research has been done on the era, making new information and insights available, and Chernow takes full advantage of them. Washington’s life is truly a bright immensity, but too often it becomes a series of views of a wax museum rather than a motion picture of a vital, complex, and powerful life. No wax here!

And Chernow highlights the importance of Freemasonry in Washington’s life and character.

In his seemingly inexorable rise in the world, Washington proved no less resourceful in the social sphere. In September 1752 a new Masonic lodge was convened in Fredericksburg, and two months later Washington was inducted as one of its first apprentices. Within a year he progressed swiftly through the ranks to become a Master Mason…. Still a relatively young movement, Freemasonry had been founded in London in 1717, drawing its symbols from the squares and compasses of masons’ guilds. While American Masons preached the Enlightenment ideals of universal brotherhood and equality, they discarded the anticlerical bent of their European brethren. Washington believed devoutly in the group’s high-minded values. He attended lodge meetings sporadically, came to own two Masonic aprons, walked in Masonic processions, and was even painted in full Masonic regalia during his second term as president. Repeated throughout his career, he paid tribute to the movement. “So far as I am acquainted with the principles and doctrines of Free Masonry,” he said toward the end of his life, “I conceive it to be founded in benevolence and to be exercised only for the good of Mankind.” (Page 27)

A far happier association was with the Masons. Whatever conspiracy theories later circulated about the group, the brotherhood provoked no suspicions in late eighteenth-century America, and Washington seldom missed a chance to salute their lodges. The group’s soaring language, universal optimism, and good fellowship appealed to him. When he was sent Masonic ornaments late in the war, he recast the struggle in Masonic imagery, saying that all praise was due “to the Great Architect of the Universe, who did not see fit to suffer his superstructures and justice to be subjected to the ambition of the princes of the world.” In June 1784 he was inducted into the Alexandria lodge as an honorary member, which gave him dual membership there and in the Fredericksburg lodge. Later elevated to master of the Alexandria lodge, he earned the distinction of being the only Mason to hold the post while simultaneously serving as president of the United State. Where he had kept a wary attitude toward the Cincinnati, he proudly embraced Masonic rituals. (Page 500)

[At Washington’s funeral] the coffin was borne by six pallbearers, five of them Masons, followed by the mayor of Alexandria and the chief Mount Vernon employees. Conspicuously absent was Martha Washington, who likely stayed hidden in an upstairs bedroom, too traumatized to venture forth. For once, her sense of public duty deserted her. As a remembrance of her husband, she asked Tobias Lear to snip locks of hair from the corpse before it was deposited in the coffin. At the burial vault, the Reverend Thomas Davis pronounced the Order of Burial from the Episcopal Prayer Book. Then, testifying to Washington’s deep faith in the brotherhood of Freemasonry, Dr. Elisha Dick stepped forward and, in his capacity of Worshipful Master of Masonic Lodge No. 22 in Alexandria, officiated over rituals performed by Masons garbed in their customary aprons…. Free of grandiosity or false sentiment, the funeral was restricted to family, friends, neighbors, and associates—exactly as Washington might have wished. He had always been civic-minded, and the strong institutional presence—the government, the military, the church, the Masons—mirrored the priorities of his life. (Page 810)

This is a really good book and brings Washington to life in a way you will not soon forget.

Twain, Bro. Mark, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, Hardcover, 760 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0520-26-7190. Cover price, $34.95, available on the Internet from $19.22

We had to wait about 100 years, but it’s here. This is the very first publication of Mark Twain’s Autobiography in its complete, unexpurgated form. Actually, it’s the first volume of the Autobiography, but the most important text is in this volume.

Versions of Twain’s autobiography have appeared before, edited by various scholars, but Twain himself did not want the full text printed until he had been dead for a century. With one major flaw, this is a great edition—curses be upon the heads of publishers who use extra small type. For many of us, a magnifying glass is necessary, but it is worth the effort.

I must admit that Twain in a great favorite of mine. I enjoy the novels, of course—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are classics of American literature—but my real loves are the short stories and the lesser known works. On the Damned Human Race is a wonderful counter to excessive “touchy-feelyness,” and the short story “Letter from the Recording Angel to Abner Scofield, Coal Dealer in New York” simply ranks as one of the best examples of caustic satire one could find. On the other hand, “Was It Heaven or Hell” still brings tears to my eyes these 50 years since I first read it.

Twain tried to write his autobiography several times, and was pleased with none of them. Finally, he simply dictated, letting his mind wander from memory to memory. The result is like spending an evening in Twain’s home, drink in one hand, cigar in another, while he thinks back on his life. It is a roller coaster ride of humor, pain, sarcasm—and you want so much to be able to buy him another drink and say, “Don’t stop now, Brother.”

The one disadvantage of the book, for me, is that it is much over-academicized. I want to tell the editors to sit down, shut up, and let Twain do the talking. It is not that the hundreds of pages of editorializing are without value, but one sometimes gets the feeling that they forgot Twain was the star. But never mind the small print and the excessive disquisitions. Twain is here, telling a story we’ve waited a century to hear.

Morris, Edmund, Colonel Roosevelt, New York: Random House, 2010, hardbound, 761 pages, illustrations, ISBN-13: 978-0-375-50487-7. Cover price $35, available on the Internet new and used from about $17.

Here is a bright immensity indeed! This book is the third in a three-volume biography of Roosevelt by Morris. I learned about this one first, and I’ve now ordered the first two books (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex). Theodore Roosevelt is still a powerful force in the world—the ideas and view of humanity he championed have had and continue to have a profound effect on our society.

There are many parallels between Roosevelt and Albert Pike. Both were heroically proportioned (which lesser beings call “heavy”), both were Freemasons, both were known in their days as crack shots with pistol or rifle, both were explorers, both were profound lovers of nature, both were tireless reformers, both were excellent writers with a huge literary output, both were famed as orators, both were horsemen of note, both were celebrated for their senses of humor and ability to tell a great story. Pike was primarily interested in philosophy with a strong secondary interest in natural history, Roosevelt was primarily interested in natural history, with a strong secondary interest in philosophy. Above all, both had a belief in human potential and a sense that individuals and society could be developed to ever higher levels, both saw ignorance and greed as the greatest obstacles to that development, and both deeply distrusted the mob and feared the ease with which freedom gives place to tyranny.

Morris focuses much more on Roosevelt the man than the politician, and the quotations from Roosevelt’s writings, especially those on nature, are carefully and beautifully presented. Even if you do not enjoy biography, I think you will like this book. Roosevelt’s life resembles a Victorian adventure yarn, with the added fillip of being true. Great book!

Levin, Flora R., trans., The Manual of Harmonics of Nicomachus the Pythagorean, Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1993, paperbound, 208 pages, illustrations, ISBN-13: 978-0933-9994-35. Cover price $18.00, available on the Internet from about $11.

Another kind of bright immensity is presented here. The idea of geometry runs throughout Masonry, of course, and may reach its highest expression in the Middle Chamber. There, we are confronted with not only arithmetic and geometry, but also music and astronomy. And in many ways, they are the same thing. The classical scholar Nicomachus (a.d. 60–120) was perhaps the most highly regarded mathematician in antiquity after Pythagoras. In The Manual of Harmonics he established and explained the relationships discovered by Pythagoras, and expanded them. Levin has done an excellent job, not only with the translation, but also with the introduction and notes which add greatly to the enjoyment of the book.

It is not a book which will interest everyone, but those who have a special interest in mathematics and music as it appears in the Fellowcraft Degree will find that this adds to their understanding.

Janes, Bro. William H., The New Masonic Music Manual: Containing Odes, Chants, Male Quartets, Solos, and Marches, Adapted to All the Ceremonies of the Fraternity, Also Organ Solos, Social Songs and Male Quartets for Refreshment and Special Occasions, Selected From the Works of The Best Masters, originally published 1898, LaVergne, TN: Nabu Press, reprinted 2010, paperbound, 124 pages, ISBN-13: 978-11467-865-08. Cover price $19.75, available on the Internet for $15.41

A discussion of The Manual of Harmonics leads naturally to music, and a fine collection of Masonic music is available again for the first time in many years. The title pretty well says it all, but Masons in most states may be surprised to learn how much music was used in the glory days when almost every Lodge had a piano or harmonium, and almost every member had learned to sing either in church or in the many singing schools. There were musical settings for the Bible passages of the circumambulations, which were often sung rather than read. You will find them in this book. There were many other instances of incidental music as well, the beginning and ending of the “legend” portion of the Master Mason Degree, for example. It is interesting to read the score or have a friend play through them if you do not read musical notation. And what a treat it would be to have some lodge add the music to a degree, if only as a matter of Masonic education. I’ll be a lot of Masons would come to see and hear it.

Cryer, Rev. Neville Barker, Compendium of Masonic Prayers and Graces, Hersham, Surrey: Ian Allen Publishing, 2010, paperbound, 48 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0-85318-340-2. Cover price: $7.95, available on the Internet from $6.20.

The Rev. Bro. Neville Barker Cryer is a well-established Masonic scholar. He is a Past Master of Quatuor Lodge No. 2076 in London and a Past Prestonian Lecturer, and he has 13 currently in print and many more out of print. This time out he has produced a delightful little book of 137 prayers and graces, some historical, some humorous, all appropriate for some occasion. At 4″ × 5 ⅝”, it will easily slip into a jacket pocket, and can be quickly ready for table grace.

I don’t mind saying grace, but I usually fall back on an old standby like, “Dear Lord, bless the hands that prepared this food, the food to the nourishment of our bodies, and we to Thy greater service.” It’s plain and sturdy and gets the job done, but it doesn’t have much panache. The prayers, nearly all in verse, are categorized to help you select the right one, for example “After an Annual Church Service,” “At a special Ladies’ Day,” “On Lodge Election Night,” and so on. While I didn’t find all 137 suited me well, there are more than enough that this is going to be a regular passenger in my apron case. (S. Brent Morris, 33°, Grand Cross)

So there we have some bright immensities of Masonic life—in the lives of Brethren, in the science of the winding stair, and in the music of the Lodge. Not a bad beginning for the year.