Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/02/2011

In Memoriam Ginger and Vic

"Storm at Sea," by Victor Gugliuzza

"Storm at Sea," by Victor Gugliuzza

Pastor Ginger Georgulas of the Evanglical Lutheran Church in America died Sunday, June 26.
Victor Gugliuzza, my uncle’s partner, died Wednesday, June 29.

My purpose here was to write a heart-felt memory of both of them. I was side-tracked briefly. The “why” is obvious at the end.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry is, if not passé, seldom read by school children or scholars. A search in one academic database for “Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth” yields a scant 130 results (the same search engine yields 1213 results for Walt Whitman).

Poe, Dickinson, Melville, and Whitman are the canonical writers of 19th-century American poetry. We read them in high school. The number of scholarly articles written about Longfellow is merely anecdotal evidence for the lack of interest in his work. That Longfellow was the most prolific and popular American poet in the 19th century creates an odd paradox with his obscurity today.

George Santayana (1863-1962) was a Spanish-born Harvard philosopher, poet, and novelist. His novels and poetry have perhaps passed into dimmer obscurity than Longfellow’s. Santayana’s influence, however, is still far-reaching.

In 1915, Santayana wrote that certain American poetic styles (Longfellow’s chief among them) were

. . . egotistical; directly or indirectly they are anthropocentric, and inspired by the conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the center and pivot of the universe. . . (1).

Some of the well-known lines about which Santayana wrote:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. .
. (2)

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
 (3)

Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing; (4)

Santayana was one of the critics responsible for the disfavor with which scholars view Longfellow. These critics

began constructing an American canon around Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman during the early decades of the twentieth century [and] initiated a long fade into obscurity for a range of authors . . . though it was Longfellow. . . who embodied better than any other poet the “genteel tradition” [they] worked to overthrow. Ultimately [they] accomplished their goal of breaking the “genteel tradition” and. . . broke Longfellow, whose reputation. . .  has never recovered (5).

At the same time Longfellow’s work has passed into obscurity, snippets of his poetry have taken up residence in the spoken metaphorical language of the entire country. “The patter of little feet.” “Music is the universal language of all mankind.” “. . . the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

Phrases from Longfellow we use without knowing their origin often have, in the context of the poems from which they are lifted, an importance lost in their popular use. For example, the pundits who jumped on Sarah Palin’s idiotic interpretation of “Paul Revere’s Ride” were also ignorant of the poem’s intention.

“Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in The Atlantic Monthly . . . on December 20 [1861], the day South Carolina seceded from the Union. The poem was read at the time as a call to arms, rousing northerners to action, against what Charles Sumner called the Slaveocracy—“a warning voice” waking those who would concede to barbarism from what George Sumner called “their precious Sunday slumbers.” But the poem can also be read as concerning, not just the coming war, but slavery itself. “Paul Revere’s Ride” is, in one sense, a fugitive slave narrative (6).

Lepore carefully details the poem in the light of Longfellow’s abolitionist beliefs and his friendships with George and Charles Sumner. She recounts details of the poem long forgotten. For example, Longfellow quotes Paul Revere that the British warship in Boston harbor was the Somerset.

Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war.
(7)

Lepore says that to Longfellow’s abolitionist readers

the name Somerset would have readily called to mind the landmark 1772 Somerset case, which outlawed slavery in Britain. And here the “phantom ship” conjures something more. It is as dark and haunting as a slave ship—a dominant conceit in abolitionist writing—“each mast and spar . . . like a prison bar.”

My purpose is not to praise Longfellow. Rather, I have an oblique analogy to propose.  Yesterday I read “The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth” from Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. I read it to try to find the context of

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

“Ships that pass in the night” is one of those Longfellow utterances that crops up in speech and writing without attribution or understanding (8).

Tales of a Wayside Inn is a long and complex poem. The lines in question come in the fourth section of the third part of a work of many pages. The lines are part of the love story of Elizabeth and John Estaugh. The narrative ends with their marriage. “Ships that pass in the night” is about something other than human beings ignoring each other or not connecting.  It is ultimately about the mystery of our coming together.  The first line is meaningless without the second, “Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness.” “Ships that pass in the night” is not, contrary to common usage, a statement of isolation.

"The Passion," by Victor Gugliuzza

"The Passion," by Victor Gugliuzza

What, I ask myself, does this have to Ginger and Vic. Why did I purpose to write about them beginning with “ships that pass in the night?”

Pastor Ginger Georgulas was, as a mutual friend pointed out, a person who “Did justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with her God” (Amos 6:8). Ginger’s son died of AIDS in the ‘80s. She took up the cause of LGBT persons, especially in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She not only worked for gay rights, she also ministered to the LGBT community of North Texas. I know.

Victor Gugliuzza was the partner of my uncle for 59 years. I cannot begin to say how important he was in my life. We saw each other perhaps once a year, but he showed me the dignity and joy in which a gay man can live. He was an artist. I have on my wall his painting of a ship—a ship alone on a stormy sea, passing other ships in the night.

Ginger and Vic were “ships that pass in the night.” They never met, yet their lives had a bond that was greater than the necessity of their knowing one another. Do I have to spell it out?  I was going to write a sentimental piece about “ships that pass in the night.” However, sentimentality is not apropos of their connection. Do justice and love kindness. Analogies. Longfellow and abolitionism. Ginger and Vic and LGBT rights.

Ships pass in the night. Ultimately darkness again and a silence, but not before a look and a voice, no matter how fleeting or distant.
_______________
(1) Santayana, George. “Genteel American Poetry.” Rpt from New Republic HI: 30 (29 May 1915). In: Wilson, Douglas L., ed. The Genteel Traditioin: Nine Essays by George Santayana. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998. Quoted in Willis, Lloyd. “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, United States National Literature, and the Canonical Erasure of Material Nature.” ATQ 20.4 (2006): 629-646.
(2) Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” 1863.
(3) Longfellow, “Song of Hiawatha,” 1855.
(4) Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn. Part iii.The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth.” Section iv.
(5) Willis 629.
(6) Lepore, Jill. “How Longfellow Woke the Dead.” American Scholar 80.2 (2011): 33-46.
(7)  Longfelolw, op. cit.
(8) See the Editor’s Note, “Passing Images,” by Jules Rothstein in Physical Therapy 82.4 (April 2002): p318, in which he accuses caregivers who do not connect with their patients of being “ships that pass in the night.”

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Responses

  1. I hope you won’t consider this an intrusion, but I googled Vic’s name and got your blog. He and your uncle have been friends of mine for nearly 20 years and I wanted to tell you how respected and loved they are by their circle of friends. It’s obvious that their families are the same. Please accept my sympathies for your loss.

    Sincerely,
    Elaine

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    • Thank you for your kind thoughts.
      I am grateful that my uncle has so many friends to rely on at this time.
      Sincerely,
      Harold

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  2. I too found your blog while googling Vic’s name. I’m a friend of both your uncle and Vic Gugliuzza. Many of us in the Italian Folk Art Federation of America know of their many contributions to the preservation of Italian folk dances and music. We’ve often referred to them a “the Victors” — as one body and soul, which they were. It is very sad now that only one Victor remains, so we will continue to cherish your uncle for the treasure that he is.

    Sincerely,
    Jackie Capurro

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  3. […] Victor Gugliuzza (December 22, 1921 – June 29, 2011) was 89 when he died. He was a painter of enormous talent that was never realized because he became a “commercial” artist (design and advertising work for Western Auto for decades) before computers made it possible for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to get famous for his desk-top publishing. He was my Uncle Victor’s partner of 69. (My uncle is still with us at age 82.) Vic was not “skinny,” but he was healthy. The two Victors folk-danced several times a week for many, many years until he was about 80. […]

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