Liberal democracies did not simply spring from a void. According to Timothy Ferris in his compendious and very informative book The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature, democracies came along as the natural result of the scientific inquiry that so informed The Enlightenment and later eye-opening intellectual movements.
Over the past few centuries, two transformations — one scientific, the other democratic — have altered the thinking and the wellbeing of the human species. The scientific revolution is still gathering momentum, but has already revealed more about the universe than had been learned in all prior history… The democratic revolution has spread freedom and equal rights to nearly half the world’s inhabitants, making democracy the preference of informed peoples everywhere.
Early in the book, Ferris draws the distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning. Deduction, he writes, “reasons from first principles and [rejects] any precept about which [one] could conjure any doubt.” Induction is “an approach that starts with observation and adduces hypotheses from them.” So, in the first system of thought, one can believe that God is great and that all observable phenomena in the universe derive from that August Figure’s consciousness.
In the second system, a scientist looks at a hitherto unobserved form of light, shares his observations with other scientists and the resulting lively debate results in something like the Big Bang theory or quantum mechanics. Ferris points out how “this is the opposite of starting with a deeply held faith and accumulating evidence to support it,” (i.e. deductive reasoning). “Scientists have a story of discovery to tell,” (i.e. inductive reasoning) “…dogmatists, a story of obedience to authority.”
The Science of Liberty is a primer on the history of science and liberal democracies since The Enlightenment. Ferris includes many short biographies of individuals who either were scientists, or who supported scientific inquiry on the part of others. So we get revealing brief lives of such as Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Bacon, Thomas Edison, David Hume, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Winston Churchill, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Paine and many, many others.
To support his arguments for scientific inquiry as the natural birthplace of liberal democracies (and vice versa), Ferris also gives us detailed views of a couple of dictatorial governments and their “scientific” efforts. To read the chapter titled “Totalitarian Antiscience” is to receive a fundamental lesson in the dangerous stupidity of such leaders as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. We learn of the totalitarian, ideologically-driven practices of science among such stellar and murderous non-entities as the Germans Robert Ritter, “whose data were employed by the SS to dispatch Gypsies to Auschwitz,” and Ernst Wenzler, “who coordinated a pediatric euthanasia program that killed thousands of children”.
The Soviet Union gave us Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who fathered the collectivist agriculture polices that resulted in many millions of deaths across Stalin’s intellectually suffocated territories. Mao Zedong’s politically prescribed and nutty scientific certitudes caused The Great Leap Forward, and even worse famines and numberless deaths.
It’s no surprise that leaders like these so hate spirited scientific debate and liberal argument. Those practices dispute the crackbrain truisms and outright falsehoods that they use to keep them in power.
One of my favorite chapters in the The Science of Liberty — sadly for me — is titled “Academic Antiscience.”
Once the liberal democracies had prevailed against fascism and communism — vanquishing, with the considerable help of their scientific and technological prowess, the two most dangerously illiberal forces to have arisen in modern times — you might think that academics would have investigated the relationship between science and liberalism. But instead, academic discourse took a radical turn from which it has not yet fully recovered.
Ferris goes on to describe how “radical academics began challenging science itself, claiming that it was just ‘one among many truth games,’ and could not obtain objective knowledge because there was no objective reality. Ferris gives a history of the development of such thought, mentioning scholars like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. The “deconstruction” movement in literary criticism comes in for special attention from Ferris.
I myself gave up on Derrida and the others long ago because they seem simply unable to write clearly. Their language is gibberish obfuscation. It is glutted with so much jarring, barely readable clumsiness that it seems to me an effort at some sort of un-understandable oracular self-importance intended to keep the poor reader out, rather than to bring him or her in. Very often I wonder if Professor So-and-So has ever read the Shakespeare play about which he is writing, since the professor’s language is so torturously illegible in its logic and irredeemably boring in its flow. Shakespeare, a great comic writer and a master of irony, would be doubling over in laughter at the striving foolishness of such writing.
I scuttled an academic career in English Literature years ago because of the language that it seemed to me I would have to learn in order to be taken seriously by my academic colleagues. Timothy Ferris has dispelled any second thoughts I may have had about it with his revelation that “Derrida got the term ‘deconstruction’ from Heidegger (who got it from a Nazi journal edited by Herman Göring’s cousin).”
It was an awakening for me to learn just how influentially damaging this movement has been, both to the pursuit of science in universities, as well as the study of the arts in those institutions. For me, much of literary criticism these days is academic anti-language, and Ferris’s spirited attack on its use in scientific as well as literary studies is refreshing, to say the least.
Researched in amazing detail, and vividly well written, The Science of Liberty is a book that anyone interested in science, history, modern politics and the future of creativity should read.
The portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez that hangs in a gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is surrounded by other estimable works, even a few of genius. But this work compels the viewer to look. It is a portrait of personal disappointment and anguish, and its great beauty deepens that anguish profoundly.
I felt this the moment I first saw the painting, and I go back to visit it every time I’m in New York. I’ve always sympathized with Juan de Pareja and worried why he was suffering so deeply in such seeming silence.
In Rome in 1650, the Spaniard Velázquez was on a royal mission to obtain paintings, sculptures and other Italian artwork to decorate new rooms in the Alcázar. He spent two and a half years on this assignment, in search of the best the Italians could offer. Among his retinue was a man named Juan de Pareja, who was the mixed-race son of a female slave and, until 1654, a slave to Velázquez himself.
Juan had been born in Antequera, Spain, around 1610. As a young man, he had been consigned to work in Velázquez’s studio, most probably as some sort of shop assistant. Velázquez’s biographer Antonio Palomino writes that Velázaquez would not allow Juan himself to paint because, he believed, art of the sort that Velázquez did was too great for a slave to undertake. He believed that such art should be reserved for free men. Juan apparently painted anyway, in secret, without the master’s knowledge.
By the time they got to Rome, Juan was one of the painter’s principal assistants, and there Velázquez undertook to paint the portrait of him. In Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces, the art critic Wendy Beckett writes this:
Amazingly, this man was technically a slave; we still have the document of manumission with which Velázquez formally set him free. However, we can see from Velázquez’s painting that the two were undeniably equals. That steady look of self-controlled power can even make us wonder which of the two held a higher opinion of himself.
Sister Wendy sees “self-controlled power” in Juan’s look, but I’m not sure that that’s all there is. Juan de Pareja is a slave, and the circumstances of his servitude are clear in his face. He’s looking at us and, of course, at his master, with a gaze of quite genuine sadness, of the knowledge of having been betrayed by an accident of birth and victimized for it all his life…perhaps especially by his master.
I assume from the deep passion that is so evident in Velázquez’s depiction that, despite his treatment of his slave, he understands him. Somehow Velázquez sees into Juan’s anger, so much so that, in part, this is a painting about anger itself. Juan looks like he would prefer taking Velázquez by the lapels of his coat and shaking him violently for all that’s been done to him. But of course he cannot do that. So instead he looks on with dignity, intensity, and silent disdain. There is more than a hint of rage in his look. The irony is that the great painter Velázquez has taken the time to display the depth of his slave’s pain, yet has done nothing — at least to this moment — to relieve the basis of that pain.
Antonio Palomino said that the portrait of Juan de Pareja “was generally applauded by all the painters from different countries, who said that the other pictures in the show were art but this one alone was ‘truth’.”
It is truth. I cannot imagine that Velázquez himself did not understand the depth of the story he was telling. The painting is too good, the anguish in Juan’s face too profoundly expressed, for it to be anything but an accurate appraisal of the man’s rage. The irony is that it was Velázqez’s ownership of Juan’s fate that surely was the cause of that rage. Conveying truth is a struggle for artists, as it should be. It should also be the goal for artists of whatever medium, and there are some, like Velázquez, who have achieved it. This stunning painting is an example.
Legend has it that the king of Spain was to visit Velázquez’s studio one day, and that Juan de Pareja secured a place there where the king would inevitably come across one of Juan’s own paintings. The king and his procession arrived, all dominion, pomp and authority. When he approached Juan’s piece, the artist prostrated himself before His Majesty and explained that he was a slave, yet a member of Velázquez’s studio, and had taught himself to paint. He asked for help, for recognition as an artist. The king replied that “any man who has this skill cannot be a slave,” at which point Velázquez had little option but to grant Juan his freedom.
This story may be true, and Juan did have talent. His painting “The Calling of Saint Matthew” at The Prado in Madrid shows his technical mastery. But — at least in this painting — he shied from the kind of emotional profundity that Velázquez himself had found in him. Juan puts himself in the painting, to the far left, looking out at us. The character is of mild interest, a bit-player in the scene, and appears to be of indifferent importance to Juan himself.
Sadly, it took the cynical slave-owner Velázquez to convey the truth of Juan de Pareja’s situation to us. What an irony that Velázquez understood his slave’s heart so well, and showed it to us so clearly, yet thumbed his nose at the possibility that such a man could have artistic talent himself.
Sister Wendy continues:
Nearly thirty years ago, when a British earl offered the family’s Velázquez (i.e. the portrait of Juan de Pareja) for sale, protestors marched from many parts of England and Scotland, pleading with the government to save the piece for Britain, but governments, as we know, are penny-pinching creatures, and so this portrait of a man of North African descent, painted by a Spaniard while residing in Italy, finally came to rest in New York.
Of all the paintings I’ve ever seen, this one takes my heart the most.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about an artist in San Francisco, will be published later this year.)
In the history of literature, the genre of the letter has been a very important element. Epistolary exchange has shed light on the lives of most of the important artists and historical figures — and some less important figures that happened to have written well — in the history of the world.
This light has revealed profound emotional difficulty and expressions of love… savored love, questioned love and destroyed love. Letters often exposed the high comedy of family disputes. The horrors of war were made memorable in letters from the front, while the onerous effects of preposterous government or church intrusion on the sensuous spirit were brought into the open. The letter, as a form, shed clear light on just about everything.
Now we have email. When I first encountered this phenomenon several years ago, I was heartened. With the birth of the telephone and, much later, the television, good personal writing had abruptly disappeared. It was easier to pick up the phone and call. It was more fulfilling to watch a game show than to write to your lover. So, most people gave up writing letters, and an entire literary genre almost ceased to exist.
Email held out the possibility for a resurgence of the letter-form through use of the Internet. Perhaps now people would write to one another again, a consummation devoutly to be wished. The letter is so important to the history of human affairs that its disappearance was like the withering away of a human organ, one that spirits the blood and makes it flow. Email would restore that organ, I hoped.
It has become apparent, though, that email has not risen to the challenge.
Letters hold together. Emails often have nothing to grab on to. Letters call for contemplation and soulful enjoyment. Emails call for very little. Letters contain cries for understanding, personal descriptions of terrible events or recoveries of soul. Emails tap-tap-tap across a depthless surface, asking only that they not be ignored, which they so often are. Letters contain a beginning, a middle and an end. Emails are dull wisps of nothing, written in as few characters as possible. It is this kind of artless dodging of anything important that is the norm in email and in its little brother, texting. And texting’s little brother, the tweet, is now the perfect email.
So my wish for the return of real writing has not been fulfilled. This is due to something I had not foreseen at all, which is that although the usual emailer may want exchange of some kind (perhaps a revised bill of lading, a recipe for goulash or Miley Cyrus’s URL), an email generally is not exchange. It almost never cares for good writing. The email is a depthless, short, ungrammatical demand. There are slightly meaningful emails, to be sure, like those that talk about one’s cat or how to screw in a light bulb. But even emails like these are random momentary conversations that go nowhere, or at least not far.
And now, horror of horrors, we have the Twitter novel, which somehow I feel is not destined — at least yet — to deny Dickens and all those others their insurmountable place in the pantheon. But it might. We will have seen the end of human transcendence on this planet when a chapter like number 42 in Moby Dick, on the whiteness of the whale, which is surely one of the most lyric and strange pieces of writing in the English language, is replaced by a chapter of 140 characters that have little to do with each other, as is the case with most tweets.
So, for the vast majority of this new language I propose the term “@e-speak.” The word could be an adjective, a kind of descriptive term that refers simply to the nature of the email/tweet itself. For example, you read a short little tweet, of a few impenetrable words and signs, with no capital letters and no punctuation, something about nothing written in illiterate language. It rattles with @e-speak inconsequence. That’s an adjective.
My use of the term would also make it into a noun. @e-speak is the language that, in another context, would be called gibberish. OMG!
The new rudeness is silence.
I first became aware of this during the dot.com bust of 2000, when I was working as a marketing executive for an Internet software startup in San Francisco. This was one of those companies, still very much in evidence, that was run by men under thirty-years-old whose background was in the computer sciences and the Internet. They worked eighty-hour weeks regularly. Their favorite cuisine was cold pizza washed down with warm Coke, and they were barely capable of spoken language. They dressed like skateboarders.
Few had any manners. The founder and CEO of the company for which I was working — as a marketing executive responsible for selling the product to Fortune 500 companies — was a young German who had cut his business teeth in Silicon Valley, at one of the very large computer equipment companies. He had no personality, but he had invented what appeared to me to be a very good software product. The trouble was that his rudeness, characterized by his silence in response to the pesky questions of employees, and his silence during sales or marketing presentations to clients, added tremendous weight to the effort to sell the product. Marketing and sales, he sniffed — silently — were beneath him.
Many such have made millions in their start-up business endeavors, and I, who had devoted a career to working in corporations, was smitten with the idea of stock options and the probable millions that I would make too. So, putting my suits and neckties in the closet, I too took to Levis, although I drew the line at warm Coke.
I retained one other habit that I could not shake. I had good manners.
I always returned phone calls. I was considerate of my clients and their real wishes. I did not bully people in order to make the sale. When I emailed someone, I used full sentences, full words, full thoughts. Above all, when asked for an opinion, I gave it, expecting that, since my opinion was being sought, it would be considered.
But I often felt that my manners rendered me beneath contempt by those who ran this company. I was considered old-fashioned, too genteel for my own good, and not decisive enough. My manners were responded to with impatient silence, as though I would never, ever get to the point.
I left that company, the last I ever worked for, six months before it went under to the tune of sixteen million dollars in venture capital investment. The CEO left for New Zealand the day after the failure, I expect silently, and as far as I know has not visited the United States since.
Once I left business myself — in order to write full time — I figured that this new rudeness would also be left behind. But no. I’ve come to understand a subtle variant of the new rudeness, which is not based on the need for business dominance, but rather is being accepted in social circles as the new way of being polite.
Here are a few instances… You issue an invitation to friends to join you for a weekend in the mountains, and they simply don’t respond. You leave a voicemail asking someone to call you back, and he doesn’t. So you ask again, and he doesn’t, again. A long-term friend no longer returns your voicemails, and will give no explanation for why, other than a friendly avowal that there’s nothing wrong at all, followed by continuing long silence. Or your friends email you, inviting you for a weekend in the mountains, and you respond right away that you’d love to join them, “What can I bring?” etc., etc., and there is no more information offered. The invitation is forgotten or ignored by the people who issued it, and the matter is never brought up again.
It’s the worst when the silence is hidden behind a veil of smiling good will. You’ve called someone for an answer that you both realize you really need, to a question that you’ve left for that person in emails and voicemails many times, and when she picks up the phone, she regales you with patronizing good humor and the thought that you’ve been on her mind many times recently. Then, as a kindly afterthought, she hurries to the answer to your question. With regard to your many unanswered messages, there is only silence.
Everyone acts as though there never was such a relationship, never such invitations, never such questions. Silence reigns, the good manners that would enable a forthright conversation go out the window, and we arrive at the very summit of the new rudeness.
No response is not enough. The 18th century British statesman Lord Chesterfield wrote that “manners must adorn knowledge, and smooth its way through the world.” I doubt that there are many in the United States now who would understand what Chesterfield was even talking about.
(This piece first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
“Excuse me,” the man said. He stood across from me in an elevator of the building in which I was working, at 8th and 34th in Manhattan. “I think you are not American.”
His accent was Hispanic.
A large smile appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?'” I had seen him many times on the elevator in the few months since I had moved into my office, but we had not spoken.
“Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?” I said.
“Could be, and I am from Cuba.”
“Yes, and you say ‘Good morning’ now and then. I’ve heard it.”
“Occasionally, even though I’ve lived in New York almost all my life.”
“Well, you’re right,” I said. “I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.” The man’s grin exposed many perfectly aligned teeth.
“Your seeming so foreign.”
I lived in Manhattan for two years during the late 1990s, and felt—the whole time—that I was little more than a tourist. I was aware of John Updike’s remark that “the true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” Now that I was living in New York, I understood how accurate his observation was. There is no town in the world like this one. Sure, San Francisco has its rattling cable cars and Golden Gate. Paris its Louvre and that famous revolution. London its now-sapped British empirical glory. Dublin its James Joyce. Istanbul the Straits of Bosporus.
But hey! None of those is New York.
I came back to San Francisco and sat on my experiences of New York for 10 years, thinking that surely I’d be kidding myself if I attempted to write anything about the place. To do so, I thought I would have to have lived there all my life. I worried that the city is too enormous and too varied to be understood by anyone, without his having walked its streets since birth. But then I learned that almost half of New York’s population was born not only somewhere else, but in a language other than English. Hundreds of places somewhere else. I figured, if they can live here and not be kidding, so could I… and moreover, I had the ability to describe the experience.
Almost all the stories I’ve written about New York feature characters who are from elsewhere, almost all of them speaking English as a second language. But as was the case when I lived in Manhattan, these people in my stories are citizens of New York City in essential ways, the fact of their exotic birthplace being one of the most important. The languages alone in New York City (perhaps every language in the world is spoken in those few square miles by somebody) exemplify its ethnic and cultural madness…a very good thing, in my view. Those of our citizens who decry ethnic diversity, and who grasp desperately at the idea that the United States is an English-speaking, Christian nation whose white people are its political and cultural arbiters, clearly have not enjoyed a couple days in Manhattan. Of course, with such ideas as theirs, those few days might be terrifying for them. But for those who realize that the United States is, as touted, a nation of immigrants from every continent, New York is the city where you can find the resultant burst of extraordinary world fruition.
Two books helped me immensely, although neither had much to do with flights of fictional fantasy in contemporary New York. Eric W. Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City contains everything you ever wanted to know about Manhattan as it was on September 12, 1609, the day that Henry Hudson dropped anchor off the island. The geological history of the island, how it once lay on the ocean floor, then was part of a vast mountain range, finally the sea-level vestige of that mountain range, and many other iterations along the way, are all included in this book. As well, the book tells how the verdant natural settings of the island have been changed by the influx of human beings since that day in 1609.
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace is THE history of what those humans did in New York up to the end of the 19th century. Overall it is my favorite book of history ever, and I had the pleasure of reading it while I was living in New York. That allowed me to go to places and surround myself in my imagination with occurrences that are so vividly portrayed in Gotham.
Both these volumes are fueled by the juggernauts of geology and history that made New York what it is today. For my fictional purposes, both presented the fluid, immense noise and excitement of New York, whether it be an island propelled by a tectonic plate into the east coast of what would become the American continent, or an explosively imagined settlement where much of the history of the American continent would be determined, written…and written about.
For a writer of fiction, one of the beauties of living in San Francisco, as I now do, is that San Francisco is a small, sophisticated city holding—barring the next earthquake—to the edge of the west coast. It has fine music, great opera, a ton of writers, wonderful art and terrific food. In my case, because of its relative quiet, it also provides a place of one’s own in which to think calmly about New York.
(Terence Clarke’s story collection New York will be published in book form next year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.)
Critics, ever in the back seat, have yet written marvelously about the graphic arts. When I first read E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, I thought that being an art historian would be something to which I could aspire. The book is still a must for anyone who knows little about the history of Western art and wants to know a lot more. At the time, I knew almost nothing about that history, having survived university without ever taking the time to go to the school’s art museum.
The trouble was that, by the time I did read Gombrich, I was in my mid-20s and married to an artist who had insisted that I read his book, maybe to make myself less embarrassing at art openings. I had also written a couple of unpublished novels. Those agonizingly arrived-at works nonetheless had convinced me that, really, I would be happier making my own art. The only disappointment was that my art would be made of the ever un-beautiful, gracelessly utilitarian typewriter script with which I had to work. The tools—and the talent—that resulted in Velásquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja were not to be mine.
I was able eventually to read sufficient criticism and history—John Ruskin, Robert Hughes, Kenneth Clark and others—to have serviceable enough knowledge to write about art. But it required my own imaginative powers to express how I truly felt about what I was viewing. I simply did not have the technical chops to explain how a painting works, either in terms of its shapes or the materials and tools used to make it. In the time-honored phrase, I knew what I liked.
The Mexicans interested me tremendously. For one, they weren’t Europeans, a single fact that goes a long way to explaining why they are so special. The unique mixture in Mexico of the vernal, myth-fueled sensitivities of the indigenous peoples and the crazy otherworldly enthusiasms of the Spanish conquistador artists made for something entirely unique. When I saw the great Rivera murals in the National Palace in Mexico City and the heart-chilling Orozco depictions of The Conquest at the then-orphanage in Guadalajara, I realized a more earth-bound pagan-animist consciousness than what I had read about in so much of western European, heaven-touring art. Diego Rivera’s earth-mothers and colossal Indian cityscapes and Jose Clemente Orozco’s flame-wrapped, man-angel swirling into the Guadalajara universe struck my heart.
I recently completed a novel in which I created a fictional Mexican artist whose work has the same combination of fruitful grit and celestial transformation of these and so many other Mexican artists. He comes to San Francisco, California and determines to paint murals across the entirety of the outside of the Cathedral of Saint Mary in that city (which actually exists, at the corner of Gough and Geary Streets). The local archbishop thinks the artist and his ideas crackpot, and therein lies the tale. Jesús Lázaro is the artist, and The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro is the book I’ve written about him.
When I started it, I knew that I would have to describe Jesús’s fictional art. What I had always thought necessary in writing about actual art became, precisely, the task at hand. But while the Mona Lisa has qualities that are abundantly evident, in my case the paintings I describe do not exist at all. So my writing took on all the responsibility of providing for the reader’s emotional response. The reader of my book can only imagine the painting, and I have to give him/her the words that bring that imagining to flower.
That’s difficult enough when you’re presenting some sort of social scene, which is the basic stuff of almost all fiction. But describing an entire individual piece of art that is so ephemeral as to not be there at all is a different task. Luckily for me, it was a lot of fun, which lightened the burden considerably. But nonetheless, I would love to see Jesús Lázaro’s paintings, wherever they may be, to see if I got them right.
(The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year. This piece originally appeared in Huffington Post.)
Until recently, I never myself owned a cowboy hat. Then I met Jimmy Harrison.
I have envied many cowboy hats in my life. John Wayne’s, for instance, which is iconically famous, a big hat for a big man, its very wide brim reminding me of a ship’s wake making its way across a troubled sea. Clint Eastwood’s is not as grand, but it very much suggests the character that he plays in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. The hat is grizzled and slow to burn. It says little. Its crown resembles a dented tin can that its owner has carried around from one gunfight to the next.
Then there is Noah Beery Jr.’s. A lot of people may not remember him, a character actor who played in many westerns from the thirties to the fifties and went on to a career on television’s Rockford Files as James Garner’s father. He is one of my favorite screen cowpokes, principally because of his hat. It resembles a porkpie, its narrow brim rolled up all the way around. He wears the hat back on his head, a shock of hair coming out from beneath it to adorn his forehead. In Red River, one of John Wayne’s greatest films, Beery’s character, Buster McGee, is always identifiable because of this hat, which is totally unique among those of all the other cowboys in the movie. Even in the famous roundup scene that begins with the cowpunchers whooping it up individually, each one singled out by the camera through almost a dozen cameo close-ups, Beery’s is special because the hat makes him look like a little kid hurrying to play cowboy. He’s excited, happy and ready to ride.
Then, in the chaotic scene filled with long shots in which the cattle are, indeed, being rounded up by all the cowboys, you can identify Beery immediately because of his hat. Horses are flying around. Cattle are confused and afraid. Dust is everywhere. Beery on his horse battles all these elements, his hat consistently reminding you of exactly which cowpoke he is.
Jimmy Harrison is the founder and proprietor of Double H Custom Hat Company
in Darby, Montana, and among those who know their hats, he is a famous man. He has built hats — his phrase — for Dick Butkus, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, chef Paul Prudhomme and former Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, among many thousands of other customers.
Jimmy operates out of his store in downtown Darby, a town of perhaps a thousand people at the southern end of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. He builds several lines of hats that he displays in the shop, but his favorites—and his most popular—are those he custom builds for individual clients. The workroom behind his store is a place filled with hundreds of remnants of felt and leather, hand tools, work tables, hat forms, hand-made hat bands, photographs of Jimmy, his family, friends and customers, all in a seeming jumble of confusion. But it is also a place where careful thought, individual pride, precise handiwork, thoughtful design and only the best of materials come together in each individual hat. “I guarantee everything,” he says. “You can wear these hats forever.”
My fitting for a Double H hat took about twenty minutes. Jimmy sat me down on a stool in the shop and brought out a metal device that he fitted over my head. It was a kind of airy helmet. One circular piece of thin, pliant metal went around my head horizontally. It was connected to a few pieces of the same metal that fit over the top of my head, front to back and side to side. There were bolt-like adjusters that tightened or loosened the whole device as Jimmy set about figuring out the exact outside dimensions of my skull.
He took many notes. As he carefully adjusted the device, I felt that I was being examined by a nineteenth century physiognomist to determine the nature of my inner being, my character and the level of my intelligence. I also briefly felt as though I were being readied for the electric chair. But finally Jimmy was satisfied, and he told me there would be no problem building a hat that I would truly value. It came to my office in San Francisco about six weeks later, and fit perfectly.
Among hat makers, Jimmy is a purest. “I guarantee everything,” he says. “I put the ‘HH’ brand on every hat I make, and that means it’s the highest quality. The materials in my hats are simple. The prime quality is a 100 percent beaver felt, and I also make a less expensive model with a 50-50 mixture of beaver and rabbit felt.” He removes his own, a black cowboy hat that appears to be in perfect shape, brand new. “This one’s 15 years old. 100 percent beaver. It still holds its shape perfectly. It blocks very well, and I wash it once a year. So it’s been washed 15 times.” He holds it out before him for inspection. It still looks pristine. “You’re not going to get a hat like this somewhere else.”
Making these hats is not Jimmy’s only talent. As a very young man, he rode steers and horses in the rodeo. This was tough duty. “It wasn’t the same then as it is now. Now you’ve got all this money and big prizes. When I was doing it, it was for the fun of it. The skill. You’d take a fall. You’d get back up. You know, I’d make a couple hundred dollars a year and think that was great.”
But there was a price to be paid. Once, while riding a bronco, Jimmy was thrown to the ground with such force that he broke his pelvis in several places. “Yeah, it had to be knitted back up again.” Jimmy took it pretty much in stride, but decided that another line of work was in order. “But there weren’t a lot of physical jobs I could do, and I really enjoy working with my hands.” Jimmy had already been learning about shaping hats, and he saw that he had a distinct talent for this sort of thing, “Building a hat appealed to me. It’s a tangible product, and you can see that you’ve done something.”
So he apprenticed himself to Sheila Kirkpatrick, a custom hat maker in Wisdom, Montana. He had known her for years, and had heard that she was going to sell her business. He asked if he could learn the basics from her, and with that he set about mastering the art. “And I’ve done pretty good,” Jimmy smiles.
Incidentally, Jimmy shrugs at the idea that rodeo was a very dangerous thing to be doing. “I worked as a cowboy for some years, too. And I think I probably got more injuries from that than from riding those broncos.”
“One of the hardest hats to make,” Jimmy says, “is an old beat up one. Someone will bring in his grandfather’s hat, that looks like it’s been out in the backyard in heavy weather for years. It’s got big stains. The brim is faded and it’s lost its shape. You know, it looks terrible. But the guy loves it because it was his grandfather’s. So he wants a new one just like it. In just as bad a condition, but a brand new one.” Jimmy shrugs. “That’s very hard to do.” He surveys his shop and all the examples of his artisan craftsmanship. “But that’s part of the game. That’s what they want.”
For Jimmy, the customer is king. “If I make a hat that suits you, it will become part of you. I’ve had people come into the store and the fellow will buy a cowboy hat for his wife, custom-designed, custom-fitted. And when she gets it, she’ll say ‘This is so beautiful, I want to hang it on a wall.’ But you know, a year later, they’ll come back in, and she’ll have the hat on, and her husband will tell me ‘Jimmy, she wears that hat everywhere she goes.'”
He looks around the shop, at the shelves and racks that hold the myriad non-custom hats he has built (nonetheless by hand, nonetheless of top quality) and nods. His own black hat adds unmistakable cachet to the gesture. “My favorite customer? Someone who’s gonna appreciate it. And above all, no one that leaves here with one of my hats is gonna look silly. I make the top quality hat, and people like the fact that I can give them one.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.