Half of a New Navigation Editor

by Tom Tredway

It sometimes happens that decisions formed collectively are wiser than those made by a single individual, that a committee is smarter than a solitary person. That was the case with the recent move made by the mavens who guide Pietisten. They split the responsibilities held by the Poetry and Navigation Editor into two parts and assigned these parts to separate individuals. Only Bruce Carlson, one of Pietisten’s major contributors and supporters, could have held the two jobs, poetry and navigation, at the same time. They reflected two sides of his fascinating and brilliant persona. Carlson was at once a deeply read and enormously creative patron and practitioner of the arts, poetry among them, and a great knower and lover of the wood-lined lakes and country lanes of his native Minnesota. No one but he could have navigated the labyrinthine channels and inlets of Bay Lake, Minnesota, (always in a wooden Chris Craft) while reciting long passages of Yeats or Frost from memory.

But to the great sorrow of his many friends and colleagues Bruce Carlson is gone from those roads and waters, sent off to the strains of Dale Evans’ “Happy Trails to You.” That was the last music performed at the powerful service commemorating his life and marking his death, held at Plymouth Church, Minneapolis, early in August this year. The morning after that service the Editorial Board of Pietisten decided (collectively) to assign the jobs of Poetry and Navigation to two of his old friends. They believed correctly that no single man but Carlson could hold the positions simultaneously. The Poet Laureate of Pietisten, Brainerd-Minneapolis-Kauai-Seattle pastor, Arthur Mampel, has assumed the role of Poetry Editor. For this issue he has written an impassioned exposition and defense of the meaning and place of poetry in our lives. And Mampel walks the walk, as his nine volumes of poems (published through the efforts of his now absent friend Bruce Carlson) attest, Mampel’s gift of vision, his perception of the beauty and meaning in all of life’s places and events, common and special, endeared him to Carlson. So it is fitting that he should now take up this part of Bruce’s responsibilities. If the poetry keeps coming from Seattle as it has, the blessings to and from Pietisten will continue to be great.

But Mampel has, alas, no particular gifts for navigating. (He recently lost his way between Minnehaha Academy, of which he is an alumnus, and Lake Avenue, Minneapolis, two blocks away.) Navigation was once an art, though not all artists could practice it. People found their way by the stars and by certain landmarks. But as Gerard Manley Hopkins reminded us at an earlier time in the industrial age:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

We have torn up the earth for freeways and sooted up the skies with chimneys; the old landmarks are, many of them, chopped down, and the stars are hidden by smog. Navigators need maps and GPS devices, and much of the mystery and splendor of finding our way is lost. So is much of the risk. Navigation is now a science. And we find our way through life, as well as across sea and land, guided by science.

Now history is not an exact science. But if it is not science in the sense that chemistry is, it is usually more particular and specific (and always, by definition, more prosaic) than poetry. So it is appropriate that the navigation part of Bruce Carlson’s job should have been assigned to this writer, a superannuated history teacher and college manager. My credentials are clear, if dubious. Once I received the “Charmin College Credit from Misery Award” from my undergraduate students for my work in a seminar on Nazi history. And once I lost a prospective job at a theological seminary because when asked by the faculty interview committee what I thought the role of church history in such a school should be, I answered, “To tie the balloons of the theologians down.”

When vision fails because either the eyes or the skies are clouded, we must steer by what means we have left, even if one of them, history, is only a semi-science. A sense of the past performs the simple role of reminding us of former realities, some honorable, some we would rather forget. These are the records and memories—maps—if you will—that our forebears have left us. Frost reminds us:

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
Not in position to look too close.

Direct revelation, or even glimpses of heaven, being rare, given sparingly, and not susceptible to micro-inspection, we are usually left to figure things out for ourselves. So we turn often to the ideas and experiences of others. At its simplest and best that is what history does: it helps us find our way, to navigate. So when assigned Navigation as my share of Carlson’s work, I asked the editors to add “(and History)” to my title. History is a valuable, if humble, navigational device.

Bruce Carlson and I spent many hours on Bay Lake and on our computers arguing about the meaning of the past for current political, social, and religious dilemmas. I would posit some parallel with the decade before World War II, and Bruce, well-read and avid, would tell me my interpretation was skewed and faulty. We never settled these debates convincingly one way or the other, and often, if Art Mampel was listening, he would head off to read Keats or Updike, reciting under his breath, and with irony, these lines from the latter:

And did I, while being a smarty,
Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,
So they murmured, when I’d left the party,
“He’s deep, he’s deep, he’s deep.”

For Mampel, the debate would have been better conducted with poetical insight than with shaky historical reference.

But as Carlson knew from a life of arranging the minutest details of concerts—this was a great part of his success as an impresario—our vision must be balanced with some sense of the practical and mundane. So he kept up our friendship. And we argued on about what the compromises and cowardice of western diplomacy in the 1930s meant for dealing with Iraq or North Korea in this new century. And did the Athenian expedition to Syracuse mean we should go after Iran or leave it alone? Or does Donald Rumsfeld live up to or betray Alexander Hamilton’s vision for America?

There are, of course, several levels at which history helps us navigate. It was clear from our discussions that neither Bruce Carlson nor I thought that there is a simple one-to-one relationship between the past and the present. Each historical event, like each human’s DNA (identical twins excepted), is unique. None is exactly replicable, so to assume an exact correspondence between past events and current ones is at best naïve. But we did think that history sometimes provides a kind of grid to help us fix our current position, much like the letter and number indices that run across and down the sides of a map. If you want to find Galena, look for intersection A-3 on the Illinois road map. If you wonder what gives American Protestantism its unique character, consider the place where Luther’s doctrine of justification meets John Wesley’s view of sanctification. Or recall the deep moralism of Wilson’s foreign policy as well as the shrewder realism of FDR’s if you want to understand something about the mix of sanctimony and self-interest that have characterized the U.S. role in the world for the last decades.

But often our uses of the past are even less direct than the (futile) attempt to draw exact parallels between past and present on the one hand or the fixing of contemporary acts and attitudes by some two-axes grid that is history-based on the other. Usually historical knowledge and wisdom become just one factor in the effort to determine our current position—by a kind of triangulation (or quad- or pent-angulation). We normally consider three or four or five factors that influence our judgments and plans about the present and future. For example: should the church (Covenant, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist) keep or sell its valuable Bible or youth camp properties in the North Woods? Each of these camps has a tradition or history that is unique to itself and dear to the people who once spent summers there. But the land is often valuable now, and the churches have other pressing obligations: social ministry, theological education, or care for the elderly. These obligations have moral, economic, and religious dimensions too. So history or tradition becomes one factor to be considered along with others in the effort to fix the church’s current position and future plans. It is part of the “triangulation.” Not only denominational but national policy as well is developed in this way. Often enough when we disapprove of the actions that the leaders of our church or our country are pursuing, we base our objections on the claim that they have not properly weighed these factors. One of the factors is usually historical. So we navigate with the help of history, if not entirely because of it.

As I take on the job of Navigation (and History) Editor, I will remember Bruce Carlson and his love of old faces and places, his sense of the importance of the past to the present. Many of his friends have rediscovered and stayed in touch with each other because of him. He cherished and respected the common history that binds us. So he kept us steering toward one another, in age as we did in youth. The poets should sing for him, and the historians record his doings. He reminded us that we ought to navigate through life together, for our collective decisions and acts are often much wiser—and (when Bruce Carlson was involved, anyway) a lot more fun—than those we make and carry out alone.

In one of his song-poems Thomas Moore, the Irish poet-minstrel, lamented the loss of youth and its passions:

Has sorrow thy young days shaded, like clouds o’er the morning fleet?
Too fast have those young days faded, that even in sorrow were sweet?
Does time with his cold wing wither each feeling that once was dear?
Then, child of misfortune, come hither. I’ll weep with thee, tear for tear.

Full of the joy of life and youth to the very end of his days, Bruce Carlson brought it to many others, even as they all grew older. We will miss him very much

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway