Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Intellectual excitement

It is one thing to live in a civilization a thousand years old, where all is known and familiar, but quite another to enter a land where the unknown begins at the end of town; wherein all the plants, birds, animals, and people are strange, and no one knows what he might find over the brow of the next hill. A quality of intellectual excitement was therefore a part of the colonial experience.
John Keats, Eminent Domain: The Louisiana Purchase and the Making of America

When I first read Eminent Domain soon after its publication in 1973, I thought it one of the most interesting history books I had ever read. My opinion hasn't changed much as I read it again more than 40 years later. John Keats, the author of such better known books as The Insolent Chariots and You Might as Well Live, gives us much more than the who, what and where of the Louisiana Purchase. He gives us us the why. Why were the English so much more successful in the New World than the French or the Spanish? They came as settlers, not as treasure hunters or missionaries. Why did the colonies win their revolution when relatively few colonialists even wanted independence? The much more powerful English had more pressing priorities elsewhere.

Then there are the lines quoted above, which provide another reason, besides the quest for land and wealth, for the push west from the original settlements: intellectual excitement, the desire just to find out what was over the next hill and around the next bend in the river.

One need not be an intellectual to experience intellectual excitement or intellectual curiosity. That may be what motivates most of us to do things we don't actually have to do. It may be why people write books and especially why they read them. It is why children play with cardboard boxes and why adults go to garage sales.

Last week while vacationing in Charlevoix, Mich., I encountered a number of creative people surely inspired by intellectual excitement. I met an artist who made miniature guitars in a pottery studio. She said she patterned her first one on her husband's guitar, then went on from there to create guitars in all sorts of shapes and colors. Another artist whose work I found in a gallery was a retired educator who used things like old crutches and tennis racquets, together with pencil stubs, erasers and other objects, mostly left behind by students, to create amazing fish sculptures.

I met a woman who, despite the arthritis in her hands, made beautiful handbags and other objects, each original and cleverly designed. A couple of people were selling scones in what must have been at least two dozen different favors. What but intellectual excitement would explain why someone would put both cranberries and lemon into a scone to see what it would taste like and whether anybody would buy it?

So it makes sense to me that the Louisiana Purchase had a lot to do with simple intellectual excitement. But how many other historians would think to make a point of it?

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