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A 'Jewell' of a Book on Greenwich's Waterfront History; and 'A Most Dangerous Book'

Cruising through history ... of Greenwich and centuries ago.

Those who, like me, are of a certain age and have A.B. degrees from liberal arts colleges probably scraped at least some acquaintance with the greatest of all Roman historians, the aristocratic Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56-117), perhaps in the original Latin and if not in English translation.

In addition to Tacitus’s longer and better known works, his Historiae and his Ab Excessu Divi Augusti (“Annals”), he wrote a short book called Germania, a generally unflattering account of the formidable and loyal, but uncultured and semi-savage, tribes of central Europe, whom Tacitus regarded more or less as Yahoos.

When the manuscript was rediscovered in the 15th century, Germania was to have a strange history, and was later used in ways which would have appalled its aristocratic author, who made no secret of his  views on the lunatic tyrants of his own era such as Nero. In short, it would become what Dr. Krebs , Professor of Classics at Harvard, calls A Most Dangerous Book, subtitled “Tacitus’s Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich.”

Whether you think you have an interest in 1st-century Roman historians, however great they may be, this book should grab your attention on two fronts. First, the account of Tacitus’s life and times, the switch from tyrants and monsters like Nero and Caligula to (as he called them) “Nerva and the Divine Trajan,” the first two of Gibbon’s “five good emperors,” and his observations, are inherently absorbing.  Second, the larger part of Dr. Krebs’ book is devoted to the various uses to which Germania was put over the four-plus centuries from the first emergence of the idea of a “German” nationality at all, down to its utter perversion by the Nazis.

Tacitus, as was not unusual for the best prose writers of his era, from Pliny to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was no mere scribbler for hire but a great man, a power in the state as well as a powerful mind. He came from northern Italy, what the Romans called Cisalpine Gaul, which was famous as fertile and prosperous  and ”also for the morality of its inhabitants … traditional Roman virtues – piety, simplicity, disciplined virtuousness.” He was about 15 when the odious Nero was disposed of, and there followed a crazy year in which there were three emperors; Tacitus said “whoever won would be the worst.”

There were some years of peace under competent Vespasian and his elder son Titus, but then came the horrible Domitian, who but for his homicidal tendencies would have been a joke: “nothing good was to be expected of a man who enjoyed stabbing flies with a sharpened stylus.”  Even crazy tyrants often recognize the need for competent viceroys, so Tacitus prospered in provincial roles.  Close to the last straw for Domitian is described in Agricola: in 83 “he celebrated his first triumph over the Chatti (a Germanic tribe) before they had been conquered;” you can almost see Tacitus’s aristocratic nose being held as he records Domitian’s procession of fake captives “purchased and dressed up to pass as prisoners of war.”

Tacitus gave the German Yahoos credit where he found credit due.  Their human values included “freedom, fortitude, morality and simplicity.” They resisted “luxury and its twin vice, decadence.” Adultery was rare, and here comes the part that was to cause trouble centuries later: their tribes “not tainted by intermarriage with any other nations, exist as a distinct, unadulterated people that resembles only itself.  Consequently, all of them share the same physical appearance … fierce blue eyes, tawny hair, huge bodies.”

Fast forward to the Renaissance age when Germany had yet to ‘discover itself’ as a nation, unlike France or England. The rediscovery of the manuscripts of Germania – even though Tacitus was no anthropologist and had probably never been to what is now Germany, provided a legend for the story of a “German” people. The saddest part of the book is the perversion of Tacitus’s casual remarks by the ‘racial’ theorists and pseudo-scientists of Hitler’s Germany. It is sad, but a useful lesson is how the shallow ‘study’ of ancient texts can have evil results.

On a more cheerful note, Karen Jewell from the Norwalk Hour newspaper has written a swell little book called A History of the Greenwich Waterfront, subtitled Tod’s Point, Great Captain Island and the Greenwich Waterfront.

Lavishly illustrated with maps and pictures, old and new, it is a treat for anyone who lives in and loves our town. We got our start on the water in 1640 when Capt. Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake bought from the Indians the land between the stream on the Stamford line and the stream through Binney Park; Mrs. Feake bought what is now Tod’s Point on her own account.

Now, 371 years later, unlike so many other uglified places, our shoreline “has grown and evolved over the years into one of the most charming and exceptional coastal towns in all of New England, if not the entire eastern seaboard.”

I especially liked the old maps (Belle Haven, Riverside and Byram) are perhaps the most interesting, and the numerous illustrations, especially of Cos Cob’s long-gone Palmer Boatyard, the old ferryboats which served our islands and more distant places, oyster boats, tide mills (hence the Mill Pond, also in Cos Cob).

I learned things I didn’t know, like the name of Gus Eimer, the young man in whose memory that unusual tower on Calf Island was built in 1925 (not by the Vikings, as I have teased the occasional gullible guest on my boat). I didn’t know for sure that the “Captain” after whom our major islands are named was indeed our Founding Father Daniel Patrick.

Most of all, I didn’t know that our beautiful, and now nicely fixed up, light house on Great Captain Island was not our first. An 1829 light house was so poorly built that it was replaced by the one we see now in 1867. 

There are whole chapters on Tod’s Point, the Riverside Yacht Club, the Belle Haven Club and the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, on oystering and on packet boats and steamships. She only missed a couple of things. Though it shows on a century-old map of the Mianus waterfront, what was then the Riverside Post Office has survived as the little candy store know to generations as “Ada’s” in honor of its late proprietress.

Finally, there was not a word on another small, but very dear, place: the Rocky Point Club in Old Greenwich, refuge and playground for three generations of my family.  But these small quibbles aside, Ms. Jewell has produced an enjoyable book for anyone in Greenwich, newcomer, old swamp Yankee or in between.

Danielle Claroni August 26, 2011 at 01:07 PM
Where can one get a copy?
Martha August 27, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Oh my God, the reader should not be required to read 8 paragraphs of stuff that is irrelevant to the book, before getting to the first mention of this book. Please, do not put the Greenwich book in the headline with a photo unless the article is about that book! . In response to the person who asked where to get a copy, I have seen it at bookstores and even at stationery stores and Zyn's stationers, I think.
John Linsenmeyer September 09, 2011 at 01:39 PM
Actually, the August 26th "Literary Lines" was a review of TWO books, one on Tacitus and one on our lovely waterfront. I don't compose the headline; I just submit my copy and graphics marked "Literary Lines" plus date. I'm sorry Martha wasn't interested in Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, but I suppose it is even conceivable that some other reader might be passionately interested in great Roman historians and not care a whit about our waterfront. The four pictures in any event gave a hint it was about two books.

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