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Monthly Archives: June 2011

What’s all this I hear about reptile dysfunction?

Emily Litella suffered from a dyslexia of the ear. It was Gilda Radner’s genius to build entire segments of the old “Saturday Night Live” (the only one, frankly, worth watching in reruns) on Litella’s mishearings of “sex and violins” or the “deaf penalty.” When corrected, she simply dismissed the previous conversation with “Oh. That’s very different. Never mind.”

Surely there have been classic mishearings and misreadings in Agincourt; misunderstandings that caused more than ripples in the course of community history.

“How will it come, this end of which you’ve spoken, Brother Enim?”

My vision for the next (and presumably last) Agincourt exhibit is large. There are simply too many ideas in my head. Some will never materialize; many will depend on the kindness, creativity and energy of others. A few of them will become plays within the play. The theme is “Homecoming/Coming Home” and the myriad meanings of that much-abused word home.

From the outset, the Agincourt Public Library designed by Anson Tennant was to include a memorial gallery. The core works displayed there were collected by the Tennant family and expanded by gifts and acquisitions. Small unprepossessing works that individually might not seem worthy of public display, but which collectively are greater than their sum. You’ll be surprised that there are already more than twenty-five in this show within the show.

Each of these small artworks tells a story—a story often far larger than the work itself. And that’s where you come in. Is there anyone who’d like to write one of those stories?


PETTENKOFEN, August, “Death and the Scholar” (oil on panel, 5″ by 7 7/8″; undated)

“Death and the Scholar”

One of these two dozen paintings was done by August Xaver Karl Ritter von Pettenkofen [1822-1889]. It’s a study for a larger work that may not have been realized; the miniature for what ought to be hanging in a European museum and been stolen by Nazi art thieves.

In the smokey masculinity of a 19th century study, a formally-dressed scholar confronts the robed figure of Death, scythe in hand, casting an ominous bear-like shadow. The work is untitled but I’ve labelled it “Death and the Scholar” and imagined a bargain struck between them. Is the scholar delaying his own death or offering himself in place of another? What could he offer that Death would accept? If O. Henry were alive, I’d commission a short story. Lacking that, let me present this challenge to you: Write the parable of Death and the Scholar.



There’s the family you get and the family you make. Tell me about yours some time.

lucy shoe meritt

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor


The Muskrat yearbook for 1935 has this to say for Elinor J. Munro: “‘Elie’ — French Club — Yearbook —  Baseball — ‘Hey! Where’d everybody go?'” She played clarinet in the marching band. She played a waitress in the senior play–some long gone tweedy whodunnit in preposterous British accent. She played in the dirt. She wasn’t voted most likely to do anything at all. Her name wasn’t even on the ballot. Some of us blossom late.

College may have done for Elie what it did for me: achieving escape velocity from the breast, the nest and all the rest. How she did it in the Great Depression is a bigger mystery than that senior play.

The summer of her junior year at college, Elinor Jane Munro broke another barrier: she joined an archaeological dig in Mussolini’s Italy, at an ancient Etruscan site near Cerveteri, not far from Rome but a very long way from Iowa. Three months of dust, heat, patience and the gentle hand of Lucy Shoe Meritt, classical archaeologist from Mount Holyoke College, transformed her.


Other than a steamship, what do you suppose brought Elie there? Distance (from home and the familiar)? Adventure (well beyond the comforts of Grant Wood’s Iowa)? Discovery (of an ancient civilization and of herself)? What she got was a baptism in methodological exactitude and monasticized introspection. I’m jealous.

Occasional notes between Munro and Dr Meritt are preserved in the University of Texas archive at Austin—familiar jottings between a respected classicist and her enthusiastic protegé. Whatever Elie had experienced that summer of 1938 either changed the trajectory of her life or, more likely, gave it direction for the first time. Back in America she kept abreast of scholarly journals, even writing one of them with an observation on Etruscan grammar.

Those notes to Dr Meritt reveal a life of the mind unknown to friends and neighbors in Agincourt’s Lilac Court (where she lived) or co-workers at the telephone company (where she worked). Elie Munro led two lives. What her correspondence doesn’t reveal, however, may be the most precious thing she brought back from Cerveteri — her son Larth.

Should she have declared him at Customs, contraband, illicit cargo hidden in her womb?

Miss Munro returned from Italy in time to enroll for her senior year at college, but dropped out after Christmas when the pregnancy began to show. She bore a son, Larth Meritt Munro, in April 1939, while our attention was diverted toward the Europe of his conception and discretely away from issues facing an unwed mother in provincial Iowa.

By the time I was seven or eight, mother and son had moved on, perhaps to avoid the sort of talk that follows illegitimacy—small towns, small minds and such. What I recall is his name — Larth — one I’ve never heard since. It turns out to be ancient Etruscan and may have well suited a dark-eyed, black-haired, slender boy approaching his teenage years.

I wonder where they are today, whether Elie is still alive (she’d be my mother’s age) and how she explained Larth’s conception in the Old World and his arrival in the New. I wonder if a humid summer night at the edge of a terraced and gridded archaeological dig took note of an Iowa farm girl’s passion — for knowledge, self-discovery, adventure. I wonder if such things even matter in the stolid march of civilizations?

We should hope they do.