By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
A Personal Beginning
I have strange reading habits—more on that in another post… As an undergraduate student, I studied literature—English literature—and I started out in a Catholic university named Saint Bonaventure. I confess that, at the time, I had little interest in continuing my formal education. This was after graduating from Sleepy Hollow High School…
One of the things that most attracted me to literature, particularly the classics, was the historical component, be it the writings of Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, or pre-Shakespearian drama. People who are aware of my role as Sleepy Hollow Historian often assume that I was a college history major. History has always been a passion of mine, and I have searched for it in out-of-the-way places. I don’t know specifically how I contracted the history “bug.” It might have been my father’s early morning tales of World War II—he occasionally threw a war story off on his way to work. He usually told me the funny ones—about his buddies in the army counter-intelligence corps—not the tragic ones. Or maybe it was my mother who connected me with history, who had taught school in France, who sat telling me stories of ancient Greek myths and the “Song of Roland,” the stalwart knight of Charlemagne.
Somehow or other history and stories of the past seeped into my veins. Many years later I found a kindred soul in Washington Irving himself—his not so crazy mix of history and story. Who can blame me for my history “habit,” seated as I have been with a front row seat on the lower Hudson River, with an unobstructed view on the scene of America’s War of Revolution? Here I can easily see where so many of the players in that epic struggle left their footprints. So little time, so many stories of the past!
As I mentioned, my father, Leopold Steiner, was a veteran of World War II. He was also a small business owner in the New York City film production industry. After several summers of working for him during my high school years, I began to see film production as my career destiny. In those days the number of college film schools in the U. S. could be counted on one hand. The industry was conducted like a workers’ guild of old. It was very much a brotherhood of fathers, sons, uncles, and nephews that almost never opened its doors to others. The union was not particularly interested in welcoming film school graduates either, at least those who were not “family,” and the doors were pretty much closed to outsiders of any kind, this included women and persons of color. My father’s shop was exceptional in that he actually employed one African-American assistant editor. Furthermore, during the post-McCarthy period in which I entered the union as a cutting room assistant, the union excluded anyone who was at any time a Communist and required an explicit statement that one was indeed not a Communist.
Even before I worked my last high school summer at my father’s business, I was on my way to becoming a member of the film editor’s union—Local 771 of the IATSE. (The initials stand for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, founded in 1893.) It seemed to me that my future was indeed cast by circumstance, and it did not include the hated prospect of more schooling. I would learn my trade on-the-job.
But Vietnam changed all that…
DAD: So where are you thinking of going to college?
HENRY: Uh Dad… I was thinking of not going to college… I don’t think it’s necessary…
DAD: Oh… So you’re planning to go to Vietnam?
HENRY: Well… Not necessarily…
DAD: If you do go to Vietnam, don’t tell the Army your good with a camera. I know you’re fine with an Ariflex—but they’ll put you in a plane over Hanoi. You’re better off telling them you’re a film editor. Maybe they’ll set you up in a quonset hut behind the lines…
So I wrestled (not very much) with the issue of college and came to the conclusion that a higher education would do me no permanent harm. Besides, Dad said he would pay for college, and I could keep my New York State Regents Scholarship money for “beer expenses.” (Not the best idea as it turned out.) The plan also offered me total flexility in choosing an academic major (also not really a good thing), and it would make me one of the first film-industry “brats” to sport a college diploma.
This was a plan, and the next step was to actually select a college, which needed to be done in a hurry. It was a process rather like throwing a dart at a map, as I had relatively little interest in which college I would be attending. I quickly asked around, and then I remembered that one of my dear high school buds was already in Olean, New York. (I had no idea where that was.) That made it easy. Saint Bonaventure University would serve. A Catholic school was fine. Although my mother had quietly prayed to her patron saint (Saint Lucie) that I would go to Notre Dame and become a Catholic cardinal, this was almost as good.
I was not exactly illiterate when I arrived at St. Bonnie’s. Even in my high school years I had been an avid reader, delving into books (often the classics) that struck my fancy. My one criterion for selecting a book was that it be my own choice, not something that had been picked for me or assigned. I preferred to pick up a book because… the spirit moved me. That went for Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, and Caesar’s “Civil Wars.”
I would have to say that I was pretty much adrift that first year at St Bonnie’s. In large part I was paying the price for being ill prepared for the college experience, for having selected a college on the basis of… well, almost nothing. One major wake up call was my discovery that ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) was required (of men) for the first two years! That was news I had not bargained for, nor were the requirements of one year of Latin and one year of religion! Yikes! Another serious issue (for me) was that I was surrounded almost exclusively by men! The school had only recently turned co-educational, and a great many of the male students, predominantly from all-male Catholic high schools, were actually resentful of the fresh “intrusion” of women students. My dormitory seemed like a giant misogynistic frat house on a long, gray, rural stretch of Route 17. I certainly had not done my “homework.” Although the list of ills goes on, I think I should end it here, adding in fairness that I had only myself to blame.
I do not want to give the impression that my experience at Saint Bonnies’ was an entirely negative one. One minor solace was the unimaginable number of bars (little else) within walking distance of the campus, and, the drinking age being eighteen in New York State in that day, I set to work to exhaust my scholarship money. But more critically, there was an academic “shining light” waiting for me, one that I did not expect—a warm harbor amid “the winter of [my] discontent.” It was the course in Shakespeare taught by an exceptional professor, Dr. Stephen Gray-Lewis (c.1931-2006), a class normally reserved for upperclassmen. At this distance in time I do not remember how I managed to get a seat in it. I believe it was in my third semester at school, and I had already determined that I would become an English major and that I would be transferring to another college. In that third semester I had also decided that I would not be showing up for anymore ROTC classes, parades, drills, what have you. If it meant an “F due to absence”—so be it.
The Shakespeare class was a marvel. Professor Gray-Lewis took it at a gallop. The coursework and reading load was crushing, but it was worth it. Our professor had an awesome facility with his subject, picking extended quotes out of the air and explaining with clarity and precision what the “Bard” was doing, thinking, and achieving. In particular, the history plays of Shakespeare were thoroughly discussed, including the sources that the playwright had employed. I remember digging through the reference stacks at the campus library, searching for Holinshed’s Chronicles, the actual source for so many of Shakespeare’s history plays. I unexpectedly found an ancient volume of the work and sat there reverently and blissfully pawing the pages of the tome. It told of King Lear, the War of the Roses, and many a king of England. I felt as though I had been given a magical key “into something rich and strange.” When the course was done, I was on my way to becoming a college student by choice, rather than by circumstance.
The Book of Herodotus
That brings us to Herodotus. I like to revisit him from time to time. He tells the dramatic story of how a band of little Greek city-states had to abandon their infernal warring, bickering, and economic competition in order to resist the overwhelming threat posed by the Persian Empire. Persia sent a military juggernaught to enslave the Greek city-states because… well, that’s what empires do. The Greeks miraculously united and succeeded in repulsing the Persians, leaving themselves free to return to their deeply cherished tradition of warring, bickering, and competing. What a story! This is the “old testament” of American democracy, the Eurocentric seeds of our political inception. In The Histories we read about the steady rise of Persian superpower. It’s easy for an emperor to get a swollen head, so, later, we find the Persian emperor, Xerxes, petulantly ordering the waters of the Hellespont to be chastised (by flogging) as his forces prepare to descend on the defiant Greek states. In due course follows the courageous Greek holding action at Thermopylae and the miracle of the Greek victories at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.
Herodotus was said to be “the father of history.” His epic story of the rise of Persia and its conflict with the Greek city-states, is a story—were it not for Herodotus— that might easily have been lost to us. He appears to use a kind of early historical method, taking care to offer his readers a record as complete as possible, recommending the version of events he deems most accurate. I am obliged to admit that he also offers up oracles, prophesies, and dreams as though they had some bearing on the outcomes of historic events. But his use of these “wonders” is not as egregious and distracting as one might expect. I find it relatively easy to separate them from the rest of the historical account, as the historian seems most willing to “firewall” them off.
The Histories of Herodotus are rich with story, the story of human events and the anomalies of human behavior. He will begin a story and suddenly introduce another story within that story. He shows us marvels of human conduct, a range of behaviors that greatly exceeds the kinds of acts that we, in our time, have come to expect from people. Its is a pageant of follies and undiluted, primitive impulses. Impulses that may yet smolder beneath our human hides. Within these pages is demonstrated, time and again, the unexpected outcomes of human life. We might consider ourselves well versed in the major events of the Greek world, but in Herodotus there is more to be told. We knew for instance that, in Greek proto-history, Queen Helen was abducted by Paris from the court of Menelaus, igniting the Trojan War. But we did not know that her abduction (or seduction?) was only the last in a series of kidnappings and counter-kidnappings of princesses in the Aegean basin. So, it may not be safe to assume that the Trojans actually began the Trojan War. Marvelous! And we have Herodotus to thank for opening our eyes to this “angle” on the past.
It is in the pages of The Histories that we learn of Croesus, the wealthy and powerful King of Lydia. He tempted the gods by smugly deeming himself the man with the happiest of lives. He even urged the philosopher, Solon, to validate his status as the happiest of men. But wise Solon demurred, stating that the happiness of a man’s life could only be tallied after his death, for until that occurs—anything can happen. We then travel with Croesus as he learns his painful lesson.
Herodotus the historian shows us that, we do not necessarily find the best stories in the newest books. Certainly the branch of Western history that begins with him demonstrates that for us time and again. Did I mention that he lived more than 400 years before the Christian Age? I’m grateful that my eyes were opened early to Herodotus and to the other ancient historians that succeeded him. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I was drawn to these ancient writers and started my journey with them when I was still young. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, they are “familiars” not as remote as they may sound. You might say they were local historians too.
[Copyright © 2018 Henry John Steiner]