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Civility and Disobedience

I do not for a moment believe that my Agincourt is bluer than where you live; that the ratio of civil disobedients constitutes a higher percentage of the population than other parts of America. As a small town in a rural state during the 50s and 60s—predominantly White and certainly Republican, though in an Eisenhower-ish way that would hardly be recognized or respectable today—Agincourt struggled with racial equality and civil rights. Same-sex marriage is possible there today only because the state Supreme Court said so; not from any grass roots movement or secularist tendencies. That would be too much to hope.

I wonder about those and other decades of strife and hope that its citizens somehow found consensus; that they resolved to move in the direction I think of as “forward”. You may not share that hope.

After all it is in the 4th Congressional District represented by Steve King.


Is it possible to balance civility and disobedience when you can look into the face of “the other” and see your friends and neighbors?

When FDR issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942—barely two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—I wonder how Archers reacted. [That’s what residents of Agincourt call themselves. Hell, it’s better than being a “Tampan” from Tampa.] If the enemy is the other, and the other lives predominantly on the West Coast, how might Agincourt have responded when E.O.9066 affected one of its own?

The shameful story of Japanese internment is a blot on American history. Why do I think it will be purged by the Texas board that selects school textbooks.

Gordon Olschlager wrote internment into the history of the 1966 Fennimore county courthouse competition, and I’ve wanted to carry the story a little farther. His character had been a Californian and the camp where her brother died was also in California or Arizona—I forget which. Could the story be brought more directly to Iowa, I wondered.

Iowa had two internment camps—in Clarinda and Algona—for prisoners of war, mostly captured Germans. I haven’t verified that Japanese were held there as well. Remember that the Germans were captured soldiers, not American citizens. Our national shame lies in the fact that American citizens of Japanese ancestry were taken into custody, their property confiscated, and their lives interrupted for as many as four years. Neither German-Americans nor Italian-Americans received such treatment. So, I did a quick survey of the 1930 census to gauge how many ethnic Japanese resided in Iowa. Not many, it turns out; perhaps no more than a dozen. And I do not know how E.O. 9066 may have affected them. Were they, too, shipped off to Anzanar?

Racial stereotypes might suggest that all Japanese in the early years of the 20th century were gardeners. In iowa in 1930, however, they were domestic servants, chefs and a stenographer in a law office. With that sketchy beginning, here is my story of civility and disobedience.

Tadao Ito (忠雄伊藤)

Tadao Ito’s parents had emigrated from Japan to our West Coast in the 1890s; he was born there in 1903. Orphaned by the 1906 earthquake and fire, however, Tadao was raised by relatives, agricultural workers in the San Joaquin River Valley. After high school, he began working for the Union Pacific railroad, first as a baggage handler on the mainline between Oakland and Omaha, and then rising through the pecking order, first as an attendant in Pullman cars, and then serving compartments where the work load  lightened and the tips improved. Despite a spotless work record, however, the Great Depression compounded a dislocated shoulder and found him without a job in the Fall of 1936. The pink slip came in Omaha, where thankfully he knew a few people who took him in and helped with part-time work.

That November, Mr Ito had a reason to give thanks. As luck would have it (happily, Agincourt’s curator gets to predict when “luck”  happens), there was an opening for night manager at The Blenheim, our upscale hostelry, which a friend had heard about and conjured letters of abject admiration. Abilities to organize, to manage, complemented by quiet reserve made him popular. But, let’s face it, how many folks get to meet the night clerk? Ito wasn’t exactly invisible—most of his guests were from somewhere else!—so when Executive Order 9066 came in the wake of Pearl Harbor, just a few understood what it might mean for Agincourt’s sole Japanese citizen.

The story of Agincourt’s civility in the face of injustice is forming in my mind. But I do know it will be easiest for Tadao Ito to hide in plain sight.

The Corvo Festival

Howard just sent an email I should share with you.

corvo pic

Wednesday evening / 05 June

Hi, Ron: Just got back from a meeting and wanted to let you in on the consequences of last year’s Christmas gift.

Hadrian the Seventh was such a fine read that I mentioned it at lunch one day to Ellen Weiss. She just got promoted, by the way, and will chair Language Arts at the college this fall. Ellen knew about Frederick Rolfe, alias Baron Corvo, and even loaned me her disintegrating copy of his Toto stories. I was hooked after just a few pages. A week or so later, we had pizza and beer with her colleague Jasper Finney, director of the theater, and a conspiracy began to form before the second pitcher: In the centennial year of his death, Agincourt would have its first—and, very likely, only—Corvo Festival.

This evening (over a kettle of wild rice soup) we roughed out a week’s worth of activities for the last half of October. Our wish list is pretty bold:

  • Jasper will direct Peter Luke’s play “Hadrian the Seventh” based on the Corvo novel, but probably at the Auditorium rather than Reinhardt Hall at the college—maybe two evenings and a Sunday matinee.
  • We’ve written to Cecil Woolf, British publisher now in his 80s, who seems to be the authority on Frederick Rolfe. Besides being the nephew of Leonard and Virginia Woolf—how’s that for a fringe benefit?—he’s written introductions to recent editions of Rolfe novels and even published some of Rolfe’s surviving correspondence. You told me about A.J.A. Symons’ discovery of some of those letters; apparently a great many more have come out of hiding. We hope Woolf will accept an invitation to be our keynote speaker. Possibly on Tuesday night, October 22nd, at Reinhardt.
  • Did you know Rolfe was a camera enthusiast? Four or five years ago Donald Rosenthal published a volume of surviving photographs—goodness knows from whence they came—and Mitsuo Urushibara thinks we can borrow them and convince Rosenthal to speak, a talk at the Tennant Gallery among the photos themselves.
  • Ellen will present Rolfe in context—title to be determined.
  • And the college Film Society will sponsor a showing of “Death in Venice” the 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel. It’s creepy how the film parallels some of the events leading to Rolfe’s sad end—except the novel was published the year before. I guess Life can sometimes imitate Art.

What do you think of our scheme? Looks like a fairly ambitious agenda, just short of asking the Coen Brothers to apply their documentary skills to Rolfe’s remarkable life. Then there’s the question of money. And if we build it, will they come? At least we can count on you and Peter—for attendance at least, if not cash.

Say hello to Dr Bob.



PS: Did you know Rolfe died on October 25th (in 1913)? What a wonderful coincidence! That’s also St Crispin’s Day, a.k.a. Founders Day, hereabouts, and about which we’re inclined to make a fuss.

Frederick William Rolfe [1860-1913]

Ever vigilant for an anniversary to celebrate, 1913 has delivered a big one: the death one hundred years ago of Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo. If you don’t know him you should.


Baron Corvo

The eccentric idiosyncratic Rolfe disappeared from his native United Kingdom briefly during the 1890s and returned with an Italian title and a plausible explanation which, given his temperament, no one questioned. For those not familiar with the irascible baron, I recommend two books: 1) The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons (published in 1932 but reprinted recently in an inexpensive edition by New York Review Books) and 2) Hadrian the Seventh, Rolfe’s own first semi-autobiographical novel published in 1904 and also available from NYRB.

Symons had been given a copy of Hadrian by a friend and became such a Rolfe enthusiast that he undertook to write a biography of the then very obscure, nearly forgotten author. But the task was so formidable, the sources more rumored than real, that he wrote instead, not a book about Rolfe, but a book about writing a book about Rolfe. It’s an involved detective story, really, and fascinating as a study in research strategies. I read it fifteen years ago in one night—couldn’t put it down.

Monday’s mail brought me a first edition of Nicholas Crabbe, or the one and the many which had remained an unpublished manuscript for forty years following Rolfe’s death. [Not incidentally, who gets the royalties on posthumous publication? Certainly not the hapless Rolfe.] And while reading Cecil Woolf’s cogent introduction, I noted Rolfe’s 1913 death date. I should have recalled it. So this morning at 6:30 the muse struck: If there is any place on Earth where the eccentric Rolfe will be celebrated in his centennial year, it’s Agincourt.

In 2006, in a Venetian water bus on the way to the outer island of Torcello, I passed within a hundred and fifty feet of Rolfe’s burial site on the cemetery island of San Michele. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know he was there.

Is it an honor to be on the top shelf? Out of sight is out of mind. Or is it out of reach?

Or closer to Heaven.