Somehow it seems appropriate: in a train that runs along the Hudson between New York City and Poughkeepsie, I re-read Nick Howe’s book that seems to have least (and, finally, most) to do with his work on Anglo-Saxon England: Across an Inland Sea. For all its romance, the title didn’t mean terribly much to me at first; rather, it was the subtitle that caught my attention: Writing in place from Buffalo to Berlin. My father’s family comes from Buffalo, and lives there still – it is an estranged home for me, I was intrigued what another Anglo-Saxonist would make of the city I’d never known.
The golden brilliance of the autumn sun in which I read Across an Inland Sea for the second time, throws into relief the theme that dominates the titles Howe brought into Anglo-Saxon studies. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England, Home and Homelessness in medieval and Early Modern Europe, Visions of Community in the Pre-modern World: each title reflects its author’s investment in the idea and construction of home, and the ways in which the loss of that home inscribes itself in a place, and moreover in writing. Howe’s work is distinctly characterized by the way he lives with texts, and in Across an Inland Sea he tells his stories of place in that difficult to define way that charts a journey not only in landscapes but in the words written about them, and so written both in and by them.
A scholar’s mind is at work throughout the text – he writes a travel narrative, but it is one marked by his knowledge of history and theory, a story not of Anglo-Saxon England, but still inscribed irrevocably by the great knowledge of the man who wrote it. The places of this book are marked with elegy rather than nostalgia, a memorial built by a wanderer for a place always already receded, always already on the edge of forgetting. Writing of home--at that time Columbus, Ohio—Howe’s engagement with travel leads him back to the world of the "Wanderer" and Beowulf:
Beyond the shape of buildings that line High Street, it is the changing light of home that measures the passing of time for me. The sun fading in the late afternoon across the brick buildings gives me peace because it evokes what has passed, and also what might be. Elegy registers what has passed, of course, but always with the hope that someday there will be someone there to hear its song against forgetting. The old poets of Rome and Germania loved to lament the passing of old days by evoking the persistence of places: shattered or diminished as these places may have been, they still survived, if only as names on a map or in a passing mention by a writer. The poets of Anglo-Saxon England comprehended the past through the remains of stone-build Roman buildings—what they called the “old work of giants”—because they themselves lived in a world that built with wood and thus was impermanent. Their elegy for these stone and masonry places was a gesture against forgetting. (191)
A gesture against forgetting – the wanderer’s weary lament voiced to the world – hu seo þrag gewat, genap under niht-helm, swa heo ne wære (how that time darkened, vanished under night’s helm, as if it never were). Throughout the book it is Howe’s engagement with this voice, his own voice, speaking of place not in a spurious way (in the way that some travel literature seems to), but in a sober, honestly personal and reflective tone that recognizes its own transience. Howe’s book is marked by ruins – Buffalo, the city he grew up in, is a city in decline, and in its elegant splendor, the train station points to the ineffable aura that signals both the city’s greatness and its barrenness. In a meditation of breathtaking efficacy, Howe evokes the scene: In its emptiness, this space had the beauty of heartache. It should have been swarming with noise and motion, with people as jazzed as the great express trains that once waited below, impatient to head off at speed. The building was intact but a ruin—its time had passed and there was nothing to do with it so far from downtown (12-13).
His description of the train station draws us endlessly back to the empty walls and broken ruins of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the walls which slip in amongst the descriptions of places that still exist in our present day, that still mark the landscape through which Howe moves intellectually, physically, and even spiritually (though not religiously). Writing of his modern pilgrimage to Chartres, Howe observes the temporal paradox of the places of pilgrimage, the simultaneous specificity and repetition of an endless return: The return enacted by pilgrimage need not be—perhaps rarely is—within one’s own experience or life; it is more powerfully a return within commonly shared practices and memories. Pilgrimage is an act of following…A pilgrimage site endures in the life of a person paradoxically as a place of transience. You journey there, you are there, and then you leave. If you stay, it is no longer a pilgrimage site; it becomes something close to home. But from that pilgrim’s place comes some understanding that it is not transient and fixes it in memory so it can be found again (114). Howe looks at the pilgrimage sites in his fourth chapter with a nuanced eye, registering the troubling aspect of Chartres in his reading of pilgrimage and desire: the vertigo comes instead from recognizing that in our time a pilgrimage site exists only as it is made and remade through the desire of each visitor. He goes on to explain that Chartres is a ruin for this reason, aside from its eternal scaffolding—in another, more troubling sense, though, the cathedral will always be a ruin for me because I do not visit it as a place of worship (115-6).
Howe’s concern is always with the stories – the stories of places, the ways place shapes and sets a life: If time is the element we fear because it is inexorable and diminishing, places can be the counterweight for the stories of our lives (194). The methodology of his book, then, as he states in his afterword it to ask how [places] shape and reshape a life (193). Howe finds in these questions stories – stories told by his mother of the train station in Buffalo, stories lost because no one remains to ask, stories that are so distant and remote one cannot even speculate on the creatures who first voiced them. Returning, as Howe does so often, to the enta geweorc of the Anglo-Saxons, in his meditations on the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, he shares the notes he hastily wrote in the place: Travel as seeing the work of giants; history as knowing giants left traces (137). His notes capture a spirit, a mood – for him, the sense that there are places so old in mystery that their endurance across time is more compelling and more reassuring than any answer about their origin could ever be (137). He resists the urge to narrate their story, or even to intuit it: …these stones cannot become attendant spirits of place, austerely minimalist figures on the verge of speech. For it is not those stories that trouble me, but rather those that were being told as the stones were raised by people we know little about. The stories told as the site was being made are lost (138).
His words here define, for me, the overarching coherence of his work, from Migration and Mythmaking to “Anglo-Saxon England and the Post-Colonial Void.” Howe’s respect of the past is clear, and it is this respect that connects Across an Inland Sea to his work on Old English: what is irrevocable is irrevocable, and Howe nobly resists the urge to tell the stories that don’t belong to him, the stories he has no access to. The problematic nature of the desire for origins is a constant concern for him when working on Old English, and Howe’s careful readings of the past engage ethically with the difficulties of how high the stakes can be in the study of this remote period, and the tragic results that can come of shaping the past to one’s own desires and ideologies. The result across the whole of his work is a profound comment on the questions raised by studying the past – and in Across an Inland Sea it is a study that teaches as much about being a medievalist as it does about being a traveler. Across an Inland Sea tells a story few academics ever do – it tells a personal story, a story of journeys that is itself a journey. Within, I find (perhaps because I desire it) that the travel narratives are interwoven with a long, unspoken story: the account of how one academic related to the field he studied, and how vital that work truly was for him, enough so that Anglo-Saxon England, and the Middle Ages more generally, were perceptibly present even in a book that wasn’t really about them. And in the end, his own words presage my silence in this moment of mourning for a professor I hardly knew, though through his writings he seemed to suggest he knew me, knew all of us – or at least knew why we were drawn to the Anglo-Saxon world:
There are certain places where words should fail us, where we cannot shape a story. This silence lies not in our inability to find words for the sublimity of a place, that oldest of poetic excuses. It lies in a stony reticence that certain sites, like the Ring of Brodgar, impose on us. We owe them more than a journal entry scribbled with breathless musings about our pilgrimage. (139)
So I will end my musings with words I never got to speak to him: Thank you, Nick. For Across an Inland Sea, for all the work you’ve done that so elegantly engages questions that concern us not just as scholars but as people. You demonstrated the type of kindness and generosity that makes this work worthwhile. You will be deeply missed.