“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
“The Ladies of the Literary Society”
The Japanese tree lilac at Gnostic Grove is at full bloom. But even before you see its creamy effervescence, the scent is overwhelming. Pollenating insects, take note! This annual event triggered several happy memories
Did you know that our sense of smell has more power to stimulate memory than any other sense. For me, that tree is a memorial to the visit of our British friends Margaret and Alec Parks, and my thoughts of them today mean the tree is doing its job.
During their two weeks with us, I was amused more than once that Alec, an army veteran who served in Burma and a plantation superintendent in Rhodesia long before those countries became Myanmar and Zimbabwe, was disoriented by our rational cartesian grid of streets, avenues, and a sprinkling of alleys and lanes. Britain and those other foreign places evaded the Cartesian Curse that came with the Enlightenment and French colonization. Thomas Jefferson was infected with it, otherwise Fennimore county and Agincourt itself would be irregular and organic, and you wouldn’t have to explain metes and bounds as a legal system for recording property at the courthouse.
Rene Descartes offered us a more rational way to position ourselves in space than “…thirty-nine paces from the old oak toward the rising sun on the summer solstice”, so you see why his alternative was seductive. I invite a visit to Salt Lake City: Descartes on acid! And so it was that the original Agincourt townsite filed in the waning years of Enlightenment enthusiasm used a more or less orderly pattern of streets and avenues proceeding in near lockstep outward from a zero-zero point which is still marked with a large bronze “X”.
As the city grew beyond the convenient scale of simply pointing where someone or thing could be found, the abstraction of Fourth avenue and Sixth street as a coordinate for Aunt Harriet became an issue. At which point the ladies of the Literary Society intervened, offering the pattern we know today of N-S numbered streets and E-W avenues named for America’s Transcendental authors — about as UN-cartesian a bunch as you’re likely to find. Invoking Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and James Fenimore Cooper put us all in a literary frame of mind at the very moment a public library was under discussion — by those same ladies, I suspect. Oh, and for inevitable growth they left us Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, and the less-well-known Margaret Fuller as spares.
Be grateful they hadn’t strayed too far outside the rationalist box, or we’d enjoy the pattern of one neighborhood in San Diego where streets and avenues are distinguished by authors and composers, which yields the unwieldy intersection of Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky. Or a very Polish section of Lemont, Illinois which honors revered former priests like Fathers Moczygemba and Ledóchowski. Imagine the brackets required to stabilize those projecting aluminum street signs in a high wind!
Lest you think this was an easy and uncontested change, think again. As always there were diehard traditionalists (ruled by numbers, as I am, sadly) who recoiled at The Founders’ expected reactions; the dead have a way of ruling from the Beyond. Others of a more pragmatic bent saw unacceptable expense printing new stationery and the unspecified disorientation of their clientele; a fear that their shops couldn’t be found. But even more vocal were supporters of characters in other categories: trees and flowers (imagine the sensory overload at Catalpa and Quince); dead presidents (what respectable Republican would live on a street named “Garfield”, who was not yet quite dead?); or simply letters of the alphabet (if numbers work E-W, why not letters N-S and an open-ended pattern for expansion?) What a relief that the ladies prevailed, though not envisioning the arrival of a Literary Dark Age in recent years.
How many young readers checked out an Alcott novel because they had been on her street?