Dried vs. Canned: Which Beans Are More Sustainable?

posted in: Food and Beverage | 0

–“I was determined to know beans.Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Beans are as colorful as they are deliciousMy future wife and I cooked dried beans regularly in our early years together. We would soak them overnight, simmer them on the stove for two or three hours, and enjoy a nutritious, inexpensive meal that yielded plenty of leftovers. Once, I put on a pot of garbanzos and went out to run an errand, knowing I couldn’t overcook them but forgetting that boiling water evaporates. I returned to an apartment full of acrid smoke and chickpeas fused to the bottom of my thin-gauge pot. It took weeks to dispel the odor.


Eventually, Sue and I married, acquired “real” jobs, and took home real paychecks. For the first time, we had more money than time. Canned seemed a perfectly respectable substitute when we had beans, which was, frankly, not so much anymore. Besides, I convinced myself that the energy costs of boiling water for two hours was prohibitive and bad for the planet. Industrially cooked beans were much more efficient. But the cans, my sister-in-law challenged, what about the energy cost of the cans? But the taste, my friend’s foodie next-door neighbor objected, can’t you taste the difference? Clearly, I needed to examine these questions more closely.


Processing, Transportation, Preparation

The first thing to know about bean processing is that all beans, dried or canned, from the humblest pinto to the heirloomiest Flor de Durazno, are first dried. Canned beans are then rehydrated, blanched, and, yes, canned. This process uses much more energy than cleaning and packaging dried beans, usually in plastic bags. Environmentally conscious consumers can avoid plastic by shopping at stores with bulk sections and filling up reusable containers, whether plastic or otherwise. Either way, the transportation cost of dried beans is much lower than that of rehydrated beans floating in water and enclosed in metal. Up to the point of consumption, dried beans get the better part of the argument.


But, it turns out my intuition about the inefficiency of home-cooking beans was correct. University of Bristol researchers showed that home cooking beans can take up to 11 times the energy as processing them industrially, enough to offset the transportation savings of dried beans. Was the dried vs. canned dilemma going to end in a toss-up?


Not All Beans Are Created Equal

Not in my house. In terms of our culinary habits, my wife and were coming down definitively on the side of dried beans. For, a couple of years ago, during the pandemic, that challenging sister-in-law above gave us a collection of Rancho Gordo beans for Christmas. The colorful legumes with evocative names (Alubia Blanca, Ayacote Morado) and, let’s face it, clever marketing, made cooking dried beans fun again. The consistency of texture (firm to the teeth, creamy on the palette) and flavor (mild, in the way of beans, yet subtly assertive) made eating them distinctly pleasurable.


I have discovered I positively like beans. I like the idea of them, the hearty simplicity of them. With beans on my plate, I am connected to the cowboy on the trail and the Languedoc peasant (without the accompanying deprivations and with my preferred seasonings from distant corners of the globe). Nutritionally, I know I am getting a sizeable fraction of my daily fiber requirement (which, in my case, is most certainly a requirement) and a sustainable source of protein, all at a reasonable price, even when they’re heirlooms.


And, because Rancho Gordo beans are fresher than commercial brands–have spent less time dried and bagged–they take less cooking time. (I overcooked my first batch of Alubia Blanca beans because I expected them to take more than forty-five minutes.) They don’t require overnight soaking, either (except perhaps with those pesky [black] garbanzos, which took me three hours and still weren’t quite soft enough). Reduced cooking time means reduced energy costs, perhaps by as much as half. I can save yet more by cooking larger quantities at a time and freezing batches for later use.


Decisions, Decisions

Rancho Gordo beans come at a premium, of course, about three times the price of regular store brands. We’re willing to pay the premium in our household on the assumption that a Royal Corona cassoulet, including the price of smoked sausage, is still cheaper than the typical chicken breast sauté. A more committed environmentalist might rather purchase from a local organic farm, or, better yet, grow her own in the backyard. All these choices involve resources of time and money. All of us face the same choices about how to utilize these resources to maximize both our pleasure and our sustainability. There are no easy answers.


I, for one, do not wish to know beans in the way Thoreau did (and the way Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo now does). I simply wish to enjoy them on my dinner table and heated up again for lunches. Cooking and eating fresher dried beans, such as those from Rancho Gordo, is the way my family has chosen to do that. (We use canned beans in the summer months when simmering a pot for an hour or more is simply unthinkable.) In the end, the question of dried vs. canned is not the crucial one. It is, rather: How can we reduce our consumption of animal protein?  Increasing our consumption of beans, whether canned or dried, is the most readily available answer. And a tasty one, too.

The Rise of Israel, from Joshua to Solomon

posted in: Religious Studies | 0


Moses has chosen Joshua to lead Israel across the Jordan to defeat the Canaanites, and also the Amalakites, Amorites, Kenites, Girgashites, Hittites, Perrizites, and Jebusites. Defeat but not eradicate. The natives, subdued more and less, will live among them in perpetuity.

Joshua is a bloody book. Israel shows no mercy. “On that day Joshua took Makkedah, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword. He utterly destroyed them—all the people who were in it. He let none remain.” (Joshua 10:28) From Makkedah to Libnah, Libnah to Lachish, Lachish to Eglon, Eglon to Hebron, Hebron to Debir, and on and on. But, of course, many did remain.

The twelve tribes of Israel gain their allotments in this book, too. Recall that Israel is Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons (by four “wives”: two sisters, two servants). Two sons are allotted land east of the Jordan, but the other ten gain theirs in what is now the nation of Israel.  The Philistines, who occupy the coast that stretches from Gaza through Ashkelon almost to modern Tel Aviv, are not conquered and figure large in the next book.


Judges tells of the earliest days of Israel’s political control over Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, an idea born in historical imagination and, to a substantial degree, a fact of historical reality: from Dan to Beersheba, from Philistia to the Jordan and the Salt Sea. As we saw above, Israel “put the Canaanites under  tribute, but did not completely drive them out.” (Judges 1:28) Nor did they “drive out the Jebusites who inhabited Jerusalem; so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day.” (Judges 1:21) The land remained “multi-cultural,” we might say, and not at all unified. Sub-polities existed–and would continue to exist through subsequent books–to contend for power.

There is no central power in Israel, no king. There are merely “judges,” plural, though only certain ones warrant mention in the book of the same name. Precedent for “judging” extended as far back as Exodus when Moses sat before the multitudes at the foot of Mount Sinai. (“And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening.” [Exodus 18:13]) The judge’s power was as much moral as political.

Though the beginning of this book is a data dump, it soon turns to the quality of storytelling that we grew accustomed to in Genesis. Deborah, Samson, and the Levite’s Concubine are among the highpoints.

Deborah, both judge and prophet, saves Israel when it comes under assault by Jabin, King of Canaan and his army, under the command of Sisera. Judges does not account for the rise of this rival power in Canaan, other than to say it was brought on by Israel’s again doing “evil.” (Israel’s rises and falls, its fortunes and trials, are never the result of impersonal historical or natural forces. They result from the individual and collective actions of the people, for good or evil.) Using her powers of prophecy, Deborah informs her commander when and where to attack. “God has delivered Sisera into your hand,” she says (Judges 4:14). As foreseen, the Canaanite army is slaughtered. Sisera escapes but meets his end at the hands of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. The story emphasizes that strangers of Israel can still be righteous. And brave, too. Jael lures Sisera into her tent and drives a stake through his eye as he sleeps.

Samson is among the most well-known stories in the Bible. He becomes a judge, but it hardly seems a likely outcome as we read of his exploits. His behavior is erratic and not entirely explicable, at least to modern readers. He insists on marrying a Philistine (and later a Philistine harlot, Delilah). He wagers thirty linen garments on the solving of riddles. He gives in to his wife when she nags him for secret information. (And does so again with his second wife.) Samson burns down the Philistines’ grain stores by lighting foxes’ tails and letting them run wild in the standing grain. He kills a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. And yet this man of violence is a man of righteousness. Coming out of nowhere, the final words of the chapter tell us, “And he judged Israel twenty years in the days of the Philistines.” (Judges 15:20)

As with Joseph, the story is at least partly designed to explain how good could come of bad. Samson’s parents cannot understand why he would choose a Timnite to marry when there were plenty of eligible “daughters of your own brethren.” Nor could they fathom that God might be “seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines.” (Judges 14:3-4) Getting Samson in among the Philistines was all part of God’s tortuous plan!

Samson succumbs to Delilah’s nagging, just as he had his Timnite wife’s. When he is captured by the Philistines, the text makes clear God abandoned him at that moment. Yet, perhaps not completely. Samson musters the strength to push over the pillars, collapsing the temple. He dies–his reign as judge ends–but he brings Israel’s enemies down with him. More good coming from bad.

The Levite and his Concubine is among the most controversial stories in the Bible. The first verse reminds us, in case we have forgotten, “There was no king in Israel,” as if to put in proper context the wickedness that will follow (Judges 19:1). A nameless man from Ephraim takes a nameless concubine. She “plays the harlot,” then retreats to her father’s home in Bethlehem in Judah. The man, apparently showing great tolerance, travels to Bethlehem to forgive his concubine and take her back home with him. But not before being properly wined and dined by his “father-in-law,” who strangely keeps insisting that he stay one more night. Three nights this goes on until, on the fourth night, the Levite refuses to be put off any longer. He leaves in haste late in the day and can only reach Gibeah, midway to their destination, before being forced to stop. With no rooms left at the inn, a kindly farmer offers the Ephraimite and his entourage lodging at his house. They are awoken in the night by a rowdy gang of Benjamites demanding that the farmer release the Levite, that they “may know him” in the proverbial Biblical sense (Judges 19:22). The farmer will do no such thing, but he does offer a compromise of sorts. He says, most infamously:

Seeing this man has come into my house, do not commit this outrage. Look, here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine; let me bring them out now. Humble them, and do with them as you please; but to this man do not do such a vile thing!” (Judges 19:23-24)

So the Levite–who has traveled so many miles and spent so long being feted by her father–releases his concubine to the Benjamite gang rapists, who “knew her and abused her all night until morning” (Judges 19:25). What kind of exegesis can we possibly wring from such a disturbing text? Especially when the Levite, after returning home with his concubine’s corpse, cuts her up in pieces to send to the twelve tribes of Israel as a sign of their depravity. All of Israel, he seems to say, is complicit. The people have sinned against the loving god who delivered them from Egypt.

The fallout from the event is civil war. Israel calls for the decimation of Benjamin’s eligible men, presumed guilty by association. Benjamin does not offer “a hundred for every thousand” or even “ten for every hundred,” as requested, but rather “gathered together…to go to battle against the children of Israel” (Judges 20:10,14). (Is Benjamin not also a part of Israel?) The story of the Levite’s concubine may exist as a retroactive explanation for this internecine strife. The extended stay in Bethlehem, the carnal knowing, the twelve pieces of flesh may be primarily literary elements that heighten interest.

Benjamin is defeated at the hands of Israel–and of God–but wives are provided for those who survive. And the text tells us again, as the episode closes, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). We are to understand that, as yet, Israel is decentralized. She awaits strong leadership able to keep the people on God’s path.


It is satisfying that Ruth, an ordinary woman, has been given her own book. While Deborah is a prophetess and judge; Ruth is a merely a wife and mother. She is not even a child of Israel but a Moabite, brought across the Jordan by her widowed mother-in-law. Ruth, the book, mainly concerns Ruth’s courtship, such as it is, and marriage to Boaz, a relative of Ruth’s father-in-law and “a man of great wealth” (Ruth 2:1) Though Boaz holds the power and seals the deal, it is Ruth who pursues. Ruth achieves a rare blend of boldness and deference in this story.

What does it mean when the text tells us the marriage to Boaz “redeems” Ruth (Ruth, book 4 heading)? Certainly, she marries up in the socio-economic sense, but also in the ethno-religious sense. The immigrant, the outsider, has been assimilated into Israel. This is important, because, as the last line of the book tells us, she will be the great-grandmother of David.


David’s rise from shepherd to king is told in the next book, 1 Samuel, but before that the book relates the ascensions of


Samuel and Saul. Samuel is Israel’s last judge; Saul its first king. It is fascinating to read Samuel describe the historical changes that would occur (were occurring) at the time, the rise of taxation and the accumulation of capital by an absolute ruler as if in a single generation:

And [Samuel] said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen,  … He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

The people discount Samuel’s warnings. They want a king to rule over them “that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19). Samuel’s warning is prospective; the text’s is retrospective. Martial and political success brought growth, which required centralization and the elevation of an earthly power. Why wasn’t God’s enough? Samuel almost taunts the people at the anointing of Saul: “But you have today rejected your God, who Himself saved you from all your adversities and your tribulations; and you have said to Him, ‘No, set a king over us!’” (1 Samuel 10:19)

Saul saves the day against Jabesh Gilead, then flouts God’s commandments by making a burnt offering. (This ritual was reserved for Levites alone.) More transgressions follow, and God “regret(s) that He had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:35). He seeks a future successor and finds him in David, Jesse’s son, a shepherd with a talent for the harp. He then conspires (can I say that about God?) to get David taken into Saul’s court as armor bearer.

It’s only a matter of time before David upstages his master. The taking down Goliath of itself does not suffice. Saul is grateful to be rid of the giant. But when ordinary people begin singing of the armor bearer’s glories, his envy is stoked:

Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his ten thousands (1 Samuel 18:7).

Saul becomes an unsympathetic character from this point on. A Biblical Wile E. Coyote, Saul continually plots against an otherwise harmless adversary and ends up getting the worst of the exchange. He sics the Philistines on David, but the David eludes them. He hunts the upstart himself and kills dozens of priests in a fit of pique, “because their hand also is with David” (1 Samuel 22:17).

By luck and God’s grace, David and his supporters stay out of Saul’s reach. Then, in a fluke, David gets his a chance to turn the tables. Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, the very cave in which David is hiding with his men. But, instead of cutting out Saul’s heart, David cuts a corner off his robe. Even so, David feels guilty: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord” (1 Samuel 24:6). Come again? Hasn’t the vindictive king abdicated his anointed status? For this reader, David’s inhuman magnanimity is repellent. It is offensive:

Look, this day your eyes have seen that the Lord delivered you today into my hand in the cave, and someone urged me to kill you. But my eye spared you, and I said, “I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.”(1 Samuel 24:10)

Saul appears to repent, as would seem only fitting, morally and literarily: “You are more righteous than I; for you have rewarded me with good, whereas I have rewarded you with evil” (1 Samuel 24:17). These are the words we have been waiting to hear. Two chapters later, David spares Saul a second time, and Saul, for the second time, repents. The repetition (here and elsewhere in the Bible) must have been included for emphasis. It is also likely product of editorship by committee. Would a professional editor allow chapter 26 to end with David and Saul parting in peace and chapter 27 to begin with David predicting Saul’s perfidy?

The plot may be clunky, but it serves to account for David’s subsequent escape to Philistia. It places him, as history did, with the Philistines, Israel’s arch-enemy, against the still-unredeemed Saul. Abandoned by God, Israel’s first king dies in battle, nobly, by falling on his sword. Yet, the next chapter (the first of 2 Samuel) gives a very different account. The Amalekite messenger reports that the wounded king asked to be put out of his misery and that he, the Amalekite, obliged. In response, David trots out the old “Lord’s anointed” trope, then executes the Amalekite on the spot (2 Samuel 1:14-16). This is the sinister side of David’s righteousness.

But at least he is righteous. The narrative uses David’s fealty to Saul, who is so patently unworthy of it, as Exhibit A for that righteousness. Besides, David is favored by God. The new book, 2 Samuel, begins with the reign of a new king over Israel, the first king worthy of the title: David.


David’s reign is told in 2 Samuel, as is his evolution from selfless paragon to fully human character. Shades of Saul tarnish the halo that glittered atop the David of 1 Samuel.

But first, David must put down resistance from the remnants of the house of Saul. David plans to negotiate with Abner, but his own commander, Joaz, murders the Saulish monarch. David defends himself, implausibly, professing “My kingdom and I are guiltless before the Lord” (2 Samuel 3:28). (Methinks he protests too much.) With courage, skill, and God’s support, David succeeds in unifying the kingdom, more or less, centralizing control, and defeating the  Philistines, to boot. (Later, the Moabites, Ammonites, Amalekite, and Syrians fall before his sword.)

Following the victory and the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, David celebrates in style and perhaps with too much abandon. He is denounced for shamelessly “uncovering” himself on the dancefloor before the innocent eyes of maidservants. David is unabashed. To his accuser, he taunts,

It was before the Lord, who chose me instead of your father and all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel. Therefore I will play music before the Lord. And I will be even more undignified than this, and will be humble in my own sight. But as for the maidservants of whom you have spoken, by them I will be held in honor. (2 Samuel 6:21-22)

The scene is premonition, for David’s sex drive becomes central by the middle of this book. By then, David has taken many concubines (2 Samuel 5:13), but when, from his rooftop, he spies Bathsheba bathing, he becomes helplessly smitten for the first time. As Saul once conspired to get David killed by the Philistines, David now conspires to get Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. He succeeds, and many loyal soldiers are collateral damage in the rash attack. David justifies the deaths, Saul-like, with uncharacteristic callousness: “Do not let this thing displease you, for the sword devours one as well as another.” (2 Samuel 11:25)

The much-lesss-than-righteousness doesn’t end there.

When his son Absalom rebels, wreaking havoc on the land, David shows himself as partial as any parent and distinctly lacking in good judgment: “O my son Absalom—my son, my son Absalom—if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). Joab, his commander, will have none of it:

“Today you have disgraced all your servants who today have saved your life, the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives and the lives of your concubines…. For today I perceive that if Absalom had lived and all of us had died today, then it would have pleased you well.” (2 Samuel 19:5-6)

The sheen is wearing off David’s halo as he reaches the end of his reign at the end of 2 Samuel.


A similar trajectory is recounted for Solomon in 1 Kings: inspiring rise followed by all-too human fall. Samuel was the prophet, the apotheosis of the judges. But Israel wanted a king, so Samuel anointed Saul. Saul provided strong leadership, he kept the Philistines at bay (with David’s help), but he fell prey to envy and resentment. David brought moral and military leadership but fell short in uniting the entire kingdom. He left room for his successor to build on his accomplishments. Build Solomon most certainly did.

We have all heard of the Wisdom of Solomon. The wisest thing Solomon did was choose wisdom when God offered him a gift.

Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart… (1 Kings 3:11-12).

Thus armed, Solomon could famously pronounce from the bench, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to one and half to the other,” provoking the real mother to give up her half and thus resolve the dispute (1 Kings 3:25).

Because Solomon has not been greedy by asking for wealth or fame, God will give him…wealth and fame. In the second version of the tale in 2 Chronicles, God says, “I will grant you riches and wealth and honor, such as none of the kings have had who were before you, nor shall any after you have the like” (2 Chronicles 1:11-12). Is it true that one can have it all? Discernment and glory, justice and gold?

It seems so, at least for a while, not just for Solomon but for all of Israel, South and North. “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing” (1 Kings 4:20). “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan as far as Beersheba, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:25).

Extended peace allows Solomon to finally build God a temple in Jerusalem. Recounting the preparations, specifications, and actually construction takes two chapters, replete with descriptions of the opulence. Employing a labor force of 30,000 men, Solomon has cedar logs imported from Lebanon and giant stones quarried for the foundation. He has his workers overlay the frame of the sanctuary, the altar, and the entire temple with gold. It takes seven years to complete.

The building spree continues with a Hall of Pillars, Hall of Judgment, large sea (basin), ten carts, and ten lavers (more basins), plus furnishings. Solomon does not neglect to build a grand mansion for himself. Nor does he fail to implement urban renewal projects in selected cities: Gezer, Lower Beth Horon, Baalath, Tadmor, and more. Solomon even has a fleet of ships built. Israel’s first navy, or, at least, merchant marine. All this capital investment brings to mind the construction of the tabernacle and ark in Moses’ time, only on a much grander scale. Here is capital formation to the highest degree.

1 Chronicles takes a different slant on the same events. In the later book, Solomon’s Temple might as well be David’s. Father tells the son that “it was in my mind” to build God’s house, but God would not have it. “You have shed much blood and have made great wars,” He had told David. “You shall not build a house in My name, because you have shed much blood on earth in My sight… ” (1 Chronicles 22:7-8). It feels a lot like the Moses story all over again.

The question of where all the wealth came from is only partially answered. It had a lot to do with exploitation: “All the people who were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, who were not of the children of Israel…from these Solomon raised forced labor, as it is to this day” (1 Kings 9:20-21). The people whose God freed them from the Pharaoh’s whip in Moses’ time, have become the subjugators. What goes around, comes around. There is something a little sinister in that last clause, “as it is to this day;” also in the next when it says, “of the children of Israel Solomon made no forced laborers, because they were men of war and his servants: his officers, his captains, commanders of his chariots, and his cavalry” (1 Kings 9:22). A class structure by “race” has been established.

More building. More extravagance. Even the Queen of Sheba is impressed. “King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom. …[He] made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedar trees as abundant as the sycamores which are in the lowland.” (1 Kings 10:23, 27)

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Solomon was set for a hard fall. His tragic flaw is–what else?–his sex drive. He “loved many foreign women.” (1 Kings 11:1) The Bible tell us exactly how many: seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Worse, “his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God.” (1 Kings 11:4) He sounds no better than the fickle Israelites of Numbers. I mean, how wise could he have been, really?

The halcyon days of Israel under Solomon come to a more or less abrupt end. God sees to that. But, as usual, He pulls his punches. God says he will “afflict” the descendants of David because of Solomon’s transgressions…”but not forever” (1 Kings 11:39). How’s that for splitting the baby down the middle?


Like the Wheel of Fortune of medieval times, Israel’s fate rises and falls throughout the books of the Bible. In Solomon’s time, it’s fortune reaches its highest peak: the land is united, peace reigns, wealth accumulates, the temple is built. But it does not last. With the death of Solomon, half way through 1 Kings and a quarter of the way through 2 Chronicles, the Biblical reader senses Israel’s best days are behind it. The Wheel will rotate at a lower amplitude. Struggle will follow.

https://www.biblegateway.com/ (New King James Version)

Torah: A People Finds a God (and Vice-Versa)

posted in: Religious Studies | 0

Reading the Bible this fall, from Genesis forward, I finally appreciate its meaning as a chronicle of a people living in relation to God, a people living in history.

Genesis is a kind of prologue. There isn’t a people yet. It is all about projecting back to account for Israel and the other nations. Cain kills his brother and his descendants will bear the mark of Cain through the ages. What this mark is is not clearly stated, so the notion has lent itself to abuse through the ages: an excuse to persecute the Other. Esau sells his birthright, Ham “sees his father’s nakedness,” Lot is guilty by association with the depravity of Sodom, Ishmael is born of Sarah’s (Serai’s) maidservant, Hagar. All these and their descendants are more or less cast out. They no longer belong to the people of Israel. They become Egyptians, Canaanites, what-have-you. The rest of the innumerable peoples of the world are accounted for in the very brief story of Babel and the many tongues whose origin it explains.

Genesis is a book with some of the most memorable and retold stories in the Bible: Eden and the Fall, Noah’s flood, Abraham and Isaac, and, of course, Joseph. God is very active, if not quite ever-present. He speaks to Adam and Eve, makes a covenant with Abraham, wrestles with Jacob, and so on. (The story of Jacob wrestling “a Man” who turns out to be God and who sets his hip socket out of joint, is nigh on inscrutable. The skinny: God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “Wrestles-with-God,” and the rest is history.)

But the god of Genesis is not so sympathetic to anyone with a modern disposition. He is too righteous, proud, unbending. A little fatherly advice less cryptically given might have avoided all that trouble in Eden. Already in chapter 6, God is so disgusted with his creation he determines to destroy it all, “both man and beast,” save for Noah, his family, and a pair, male and female, of each of said beasts. (Genesis 6:7) Though He vows never again to “curse the ground for man’s sake,” he can’t restrain himself from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah for their iniquity eleven books later. (Genesis 8:21)

God shows a sadistic streak, too, when he asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son on a stone tablet. The last-minute reprieve hardly makes up for the psychological abuse:

And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” [Genesis 22:12]

Abraham’s relationship with God is to be built on fear? If Abraham didn’t fear before, he certainly does now–and the rest of us do, too.

Even submissive Abraham chides his Lord for vengefulness–and gives him a lesson on accounting, too: “Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it?” (Genesis 18:24) What about five less than fifty? Or five less than that? Continuing his mathematical rhetoric, Abraham convinces God, who agrees not to “destroy it for the sake of ten.” (Genesis 18:32)

God is not always the main focus in Genesis. Much of the text regards earthly matters. What are we to make of Abraham twice denying his wife to save his own skin? “You are a woman of beautiful countenance,” he tells Serai as they enter Egypt: “Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.” (Genesis 12:11-12) The story repeats itself eight chapters later when husband and  wife travel into Abimelech’s kingdom (Genesis 20:1-12) The repetition suggests significance, but what it is, I cannot discern. Later, famine strikes the land. Isaac digs wells and fights over wells until there is but one that stands uncontested at Rehoboth. In another sequence, Jacob marries Rachel, but also her sister Leah, and his father-in-law Laban tricks him into impregnating Leah, but Rachel is barren anyway, so he also lies with two maidservants until Rachel finally succeeds in giving Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, bringing his total to a numerically significant twelve, plus one daughter, Dinah. Throughout, Laban treats Jacob less than fairly, and Jacob retaliates in kind: a family feud.  Fertility and lineage are hardly the only issues plaguing this Biblical family. Theological elements are merely intimated in these stories; they are primarily anthropological.

Joseph takes up the most space of any of the Genesis stories, and his is a good one. In its denouement we get the strongest statement yet of the mysteries of the workings of God. Joseph tells his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:7) In essence: Don’t feel guilty about putting my in the  pit and selling me into slavery. If you hadn’t been such shits, we  would all be back in Canaan, starving, and I wouldn’t be such a big shot.  Later, he makes the point more broadly, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” (Genesis 50:19) Who can call the brothers’ actions evil when they led to a higher good, the creation of a people chosen by God?

Joseph’s words are of a piece with Shirley Temple Wong’s epiphany in Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. After getting two black eyes while making a best friend in the bargain, Shirley understands the moral of her grandfather’s tale of Wispy Whiskers: “Things are not what they seem. Good can be bad. Bad can be good. Sadness can be happiness. Joy, sorrow.” ( Lord 1984) Personally, I prefer the Chinese philosophical narrative to the theistic Biblical one. It avoids the teleological emphasis of the latter. Where Genesis 37-50 applies to a single people; Wispy Wiskers speaks to all of us.

For readers of the Bible, Joseph’s initial adversity is understood as leading to ultimate triumph, not just for him but for an entire people. The stage is set for the watershed event that will bind Israel and God throughout history. Joseph has brought Israel–and the descendants of Jacob/Israel–to Egypt, and he has made them favored by Pharaoh. But what of Pharaoh’s descendants? Will they hold Israel in the same esteem?

End of prologue.


Exodus is the story of the birth of a people, born of trauma–first, living under Pharaoh’s yoke, but also of a narrow escape and survival, with God’s help, for years in “the wilderness.”

The story picks up long after Joseph, when the current Pharaoh has forgotten contributions of the Hebrew Dream-Teller. We can see the seeds of antisemitism already sown more than three thousand years ago:

And [Pharaoh] said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” [Exodus 1:9-10]

Exodus tells of Moses in the bullrushes, the Hebrews suffering under the slave drivers, and the Ten Plagues. The tenth is set up to be the most dastardly of all: the death of all first-born sons. But, if you were the first born and still alive after watching the rest of your family fall to bloody waters, frogs, plagues, locusts, etc., wouldn’t you rather be dead in any case? For the rest, wouldn’t you already be numb to tragedy. Literarily, the ten repetitions of plague try patience and stretch credulity beyond the breaking point. Still, the Angel of Death passing over the homes of the children of Israel makes for dramatic reading, and has been enshrined in the Passover ritual ever since.

God helps Moses help Israel every step in their flight: parting the waters (Moses separates his arms), bitter waters made sweet (Moses throws a log in the pool), manna from heaven (God shows the grousing Israelites who is boss), drawing water from a rock (Moses strikes it with his staff), defeating the Amelikites (Moses holds a rock in the air above his head).

The struggle for survival notwithstanding, the trial-worn Israelites somehow meet God’s specifications for building the sanctuary, tabernacle, and ark after Moses has descended Sinai (twice) with the tablets. “Then Moses called…every gifted artisan in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom, everyone whose heart was stirred, to come and do the work.” (Exodus 36:2) Work they do, crafting each devotional object of gold and acacia wood…and yet more gold. Silver, bronze, and woven linens of blue, purple, and scarlet supplement the ornamentation. Unmentioned behind all this industry is the artisanal infrastructure that would have been required. Whence the mining? Whence the plundering from other peoples? Whence the furnaces and the crafting tools? Whence, for that matter, the craftsmanship, the artisanal skills? Weren’t they mere laborers under Pharaoh? If Genesis is history, it leaves wide gaps and large questions in the account.


Leviticus enumerates the laws. Most famously–or infamously– are the “Foods Permitted and Forbidden”: “Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat. Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you. …” (Leviticus 11:3-4) Compare this with Ian Frazier’s “Lamentations of the Father” from 1997: “Of the juices and other beverages, yes, even of those in sippy-cups, you may drink, but not in the living room, neither may you carry such therein.” Think of all the humor we would be denied without these hyper-specific proscriptions of Leviticus.

In the sexual realm, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality are all clearly “an abomination.” Then, in chapter 19, the “laws” become more appealingly modern, less didactically arcane:

“‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
“‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.
“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
“‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
“‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.'” [Leviticus 19:13-18]

Much of the rest–the offerings, the rituals–is fodder only for today’s Orthodox Jews. Except that tidbit about the year of Jubilee in chapter 25:

That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. [Leviticus 25:11-12]

This, by contrast, is fodder for today’s left-leaning economists and activists who would see in these verses a way through our current debt crisis (as well as the one that will emerge fifty yearshence). David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is the most comprehensive argument for reconsidering the issue more along the lines of this Biblical passage.


Numbers begins appropriately enough with a census, tribe by tribe. The Reubenites come in at a respectably specific 46,500. There are eleven more tribes to go. These Israelites are significantly more populous than today’s city of Cincinnati. Do they live together? In a city? Obviously not. In what sense do they live as a people worshiping in God’s sanctuary? In what sense do they live “in the wilderness” with such a population?

Such questions are elided. The narrative is more concerned with a larger theme: the ingratitude and unfaithfulness of the children of Israel. It is almost comical how often and repeatedly the children of Israel backslide, deny their own God:

And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” [Numbers 14:2-3]

How does God react to all this grousing? He is both vengeful and forgiving; hard-ass and softie. He sends the people quail meat to sate their hunger…followed by a plague to teach them a lesson. Either way, he makes his power manifest, while demanding their devotion. Israel is an anti-hero in this book, hardly worthy of God’s attention, and yet he can’t help but give it to them. For all his bluster, God is a pushover.

But not with Moses at the end of the book. He will not retract His punishment for Moses’ transgression at Meribah, his alleged lack of faith. God told him to speak to the rock, and it would provide the water the people needed. Moses struck it with his staff, instead. We don’t really know why. The text doesn’t tell us his thought process. We do know this: In Exodus, faced with a similar threat of dehydration, a rock, and God’s guidance, Moses struck the rock to release its liquid. God didn’t object then. Why the difference? Ostensibly, it was Moses’ lack of faith, his disobedience. But God’s justice seems uncomfortably arbitrary.

On the other hand, the authors of Numbers knew how to squeeze all the drama they could out of their narrative. Moses has delivered his people out of Egypt, led them through forty years of trials in the wilderness, reassured naysayers, put down potential rebellions, defeated enemies, seen the Promised Land from atop Mount Pisgah, only to be denied entrance himself. What could be more dramatic? It also allows Moses to make a grand sermon in the last book of his five books.


Deuteronomy is also review of the previous books. It is a good synopsis–a kind of Cliff’s Notes–for slow learners like me, those who had trouble keeping all those names and places straight.



What do we take away from the first five books of the Bible, the Books of Moses, the Torah. First, and most obviously, that God–the idea of a people’s God–is a powerful force in history. Without God these people would be unnamed, unknown, unaffiliated pastorals, eking out a living. History would not care a fig-leaf for them, if they had not their relationship to God as recorded in this book. Even before the book, the stories gave these people a narrative, the narrative gave them meaning, meaning would give them power.

Does Israel deserve their God? The Torah avoids taking a stance.  The people have God. And God has a people. They are in this thing called history together. For the long haul.


“New King James Version.” Bible, https://www.biblegateway.com/, Accessed November 2022.

The Genius of Buster Keaton

The Three Keatons

Buster Keaton was only twenty-two years-old but already a seventeen-year veteran of the stage when he walked out on the family vaudeville act. What had begun as knockabout comedy with father, Joe, throwing son, Buster, around the stage had become a few-holds-barred onstage battle between an increasingly angry-drunk father and full-grown, conflicted son. Buster had lost the joy of performing, but he had no idea how to extricate himself from the situation. Enter Myra, the third, saxophone-playing member of The Three Keatons, Buster’s mother, and Joe’s at-wit’s-end wife. She grabbed Buster, boarded a train, and left Joe at a Los Angeles stage door without so much as a goodbye. Myra went to Michigan to live with family. Buster continued on to New York to try his luck as a solo act.

Years later, his memory tinged with nostalgia, Buster recalled only the good years performing with his father: “But sweet Jesus, our act! What a beautiful thing it had been. That beautiful timing we had–beautiful to see, beautiful to do. The sound of the laughs, solid, right where you knew they would be…but look what happened, standing up and bopping each other like a cheap film. It couldn’t last that way.” [Stevens 59]

It couldn’t last that way. Nothing gold can stay.

Joe Keaton didn’t have to become an angry drunk, but their run as The Three Keatons would have ended eventually, right? How many years could audiences warm to such naked violence? In what new direction were they prepared to take their act? Vaudeville itself was fast becoming moribund.

After vaudeville, after abandoning his pa, Buster Keaton “cast his lot with the pictures,” as he said. His second act in show business, both behind and in front of the camera, was even more celebrated than his first, yet it too “couldn’t last.” It, too, ended abruptly, unhappily, and after about the same number of years.

“The Butcher Boy”


In the standard telling, it was chance that led Buster to Roscoe Arbuckle’s East 48th Street studio in the spring of 1917. On the other hand, everything in Buster’s life seemed to lead to that moment. Everything in the entertainment industry was undoubtedly tilting toward the movies. On the fateful April day, Roscoe was shooting scenes for his latest two-reeler, The Butcher Boy. He put Buster in overalls and placed him in front of the camera–then sent him sprawling to the floor with a sack of flour to the face. After the shoot, Roscoe showed him how to take apart the camera and examine how it worked.

Buster was hooked.

He said later that he was smitten with the movies from the start, “with the cameras, with the rushes, the action, the slam-bang–with all of it.” [Curtis 90] He ripped up the stage contract he had just signed (taking a two hundred dollar a week pay cut, or $250 if you count what he had been making as part of the Three Keatons) and joined Roscoe’s team. Within a few months, Buster became Roscoe’s de facto assistant. A few years later, when Roscoe was hired to make feature films (at a million dollars a year), he left Buster in charge of what became Buster Keaton Studio. Over the next seven years, the former vaudevillian would direct and act in eighteen comedy shorts (two-reelers) and ten features (five to seven reels). “My god,” Buster said many years later, “when we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamed them.” [Sweeney 161]

Buster Keaton Studio

By 1920, movie-making was entering its adolescence. The make-it-up-as-you-go style was giving  way to institutionalized predictability. Once skeptical audiences were becoming greedy for ever more celluloid entertainment. Into this environment, Buster Keaton, not much older than an adolescent himself, kept Hollywood’s youthful spirit alive. He and the team he assembled worked hard and played hard. Under pressure to crank out a new comedy short every six weeks, each one filled with upward of a hundred gags, they found ways to keep the work light-hearted and fun. Buster played gags of screen almost as much as he did on. He made everyone–actors, productions staff, cameramen–fell part of a team. Said Clyde Bruckman, one of his writers, “Buster was a guy you worked with–not for. …With Bus you belonged.” [Stevens 202]

For an entertainer raised on live performance, nothing mattered to Buster as much as keeping the performance fresh. He accomplished that by something he called “un-rehearsing.” If the cues started to be picked up “too sharp” and the flow became too “mechanical,” Buster knew it was time to un-rehearse: “We generally did that by going out and playing a coupla innings of baseball or somethin’. Come back in and someone’d say, ‘Now what did I do then?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know. Do what you think best and then go ahead and shoot.’ That’s un-rehearsing a scene.” [Curtis 157]

Scripts were loose agglomerations of ideas, works constantly in progress, the product of a gaggle of gagmen, more suggestive than directive. The story might be headed in one directions “as written,” but take a sharp turn in another as a result of events in the filming. “That’s the interesting thing about comedies,” Buster said. “You can never tell how they are going to turn out.” [Curtis 331]

“The Three Ages”

This make-it-up-as-you-go style could take some getting used to for someone new to the team. Three Ages leading lady Margaret Leahy described how they had planned a dramatic scene in advance. Keaton would walk out  the door, turn and wave goodbye, while Leahy would look away, indignant. As it happened, Buster changed his mind in the middle of filming. Instead of leaving, he turned back, threw his hat on the floor, took Margaret in his arms, and gave her a big kiss. She had no need to act indignant then! Released from his embrace, she took up a vase from the table and smashed it on the floor. “The director shouted: ‘Good girl–hold it–hold it. Get out, Buster, quick….” Nothing could have been more believable to the audience than her exasperation at that moment.  [Curtis 226]

For all his improvising and un-rehearsing, Buster was actually a perfectionist and —–ly exacting in his expectations. He would retake scenes as many times as it took to get them right. By his account, he kept only twenty percent of the film he shot in the final picture. [Curtis 156] In one scene in Three Ages, in which a caveman hurls a papier-mache boulder at Buster who bats it back to bean the caveman on the head, Buster insisted it be done with one camera in one take: no trickery. It took seventy-six takes to capture the one scene to his satisfaction. [Curtis 227] Several years later, in The General, he filmed a night scene under rain and wind machines, six hours a night for three weeks until they finally got it right. His leading lady, Marion Mack, recalled how “each night we got soaked to the skin. It’s a wonder we didn’t catch pneumonia.” [305]

“My Wife’s Relations”

Buster took a beating performing the very physical comedy in his films. Cutaways, he felt, would undermine the magic of his storytelling. Whether it was riding a log down a raging river (Our Hospitality), swinging from torn awnings to descend from a third story window (My Wife’s Relations), or, most hair-raising of all, having an entire house’s façade crash around him (Steamboat Bill, Jr.), Buster performed his own stunts. (Except the scene that involved pole vaulting  into a second story window, a feat that would have required weeks of training.) Buster had years of experience taking a beating on the vaudeville stage. He knew better than anyone how to take a fall. Yet, so hazardous was his brand of comedy that he suffered many scrapes, bruises, and even broken bones.

Buster “loved the process of making films, the mechanics, and the problem-solving.” [Curtis 169] By 1924, the complexity of his films was demanding much problem-solving, indeed. That year he built a story for The Navigator around a 220-pound diver’s suit and a 370-foot ocean liner he and his team had rented. The next year, he ran a couple hundred head of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles for the climactic scenes of Go West. For The General in 1926, he had a Civil War-era railroad bridge constructed just so he could film it being blown up as a locomotive crossed over. (At $40,000 it was the most expensive scene shot to date.)


Buster embraced the technology of modern cinema, and he did much to advance the technical art of filmmaking. Yet, his personal style of leadership was becoming outdated. Hollywood was institutionalizing, systematizing, consolidating, and Buster had been too focused on his own niche to notice the seachange. So, he was taken by surprise when his boss and benefactor, Joe Schenk (pronounced /skenk/), informed him that Buster Keaton Studio would be dismantled, and Buster’s contract was being sold to the newly formed behemoth of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At M-G-M, Joe’s brother Nick offered him a significant pay rise, three thousand dollars a week, but could not guarantee him artistic control. The days of the Buster Keaton method of movie making were over.

“The Cameraman”

Buster called the move to M-G-M the worst decision of his life. Indeed, both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Hollywood’s other comedic stars, had warned him against the move. Unlike them, he didn’t own his own studio; he had no obvious way to hold on to his independence. The money at M-G-M was attractive; the security it promised was appealing. But, in the end, Buster made the move to M-G-M mostly for lack of a better option. He trusted that Joe Schenk knew best in sending him to work for his brother. Unfortunately, Nick lived up to his nickname, “Skunk.”

Buster unwittingly ruffled feathers in his new studio. His first director resented his knowledgable input. Company executives decried his improvisational style: “How can we budget the picture if you don’t follow the script?” [Curtis 356] Buster didn’t realize it at first, but M-G-M was stripping him of his identity as a filmmaker and reducing him to a mere actor. Even so, on his first film there, his directorial input was not insignificant. Due to his influence, the final version of The Cameraman included a whopping three hundred and ninety-five added (unscripted) scenes, including some of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Buster would never again make a picture as genuinely funny. So many executives and writers were pumping him with ideas, he said, he began to question his own abilities. Worse, the joy of artistic creation drain away. [Keaton 208] This was a new experience for the thirty-three-year-old who had known nothing but success and a steadily rising star for twenty-eight years. Unequipped by temperament to deal with this adversity, Buster turned his anger inward. He turned bitter. Like his father before him, he turned to the bottle.


It should be noted that Buster was not a failure in standard, objective terms. At M-G-M, he made more money, personally, than he ever had. His movies–talkies, no longer silent–made more money for M-G-M than his silents had for Joe Schenk. (The entirely forgettable Doughboys made a profit of $160,000, several times more than The General. [Curtis 401]) Neither money nor fame could buy happiness in this case. As James Curtis explains in perhaps the central sentence of his entire book, “Keaton needed to work for reasons entirely apart from the matter of income–the filmmaking for him had become as necessary as breathing and that he couldn’t imagine life without it.” [Curtis 345]


It is tempting to blame the studio system for Buster’s demise, to make him out as a victim of America’s burgeoning corporatism. The accusation is not false. Neither is it fully explanatory. Buster had spent almost thirty years working in unfettered artistic independence: in the family vaudeville business, alongside the collaborative Roscoe Arbuckle, and under the hands-off guardianship of Joe Schenk. This left him vulnerable to a rude awakening when confronted with the rapid changes of 1920s America. Buster’s near-tragic downfall was in many ways just a mid-life crisis (thirty-five for him being fifty for the rest of us), albeit a more extreme and public one than the rest of ours. The difficulty Buster and the rest of us face is living in history, where life presents us with an ever-shifting target: Just when we think we have it figured out, the world has changed–and, we realize, we, ourselves, have changed, too.

For Buster, when the world changed beyond what he was prepared to cope with, it nearly ended tragically. But he survived his descent into alcoholism just as his father had before him. (Where Joe had used religion to pull himself out, Buster relied on will power and, eventually, the support of a truly loving third wife.) His third act in show business, his longest and least intense, gave him new satisfactions. Though he fell off the wagon a few times, Buster Keaton found real happiness in the final decades of his life.

“The Twilight Zone”

It is tempting, too, to ask “what if.” What if Buster Keaton had had another twenty or thirty years as a filmmaker? How many more comic gems would we now have to enjoy? It is a temptation we should resist. Dana Stevens tells us of Chaplin’s own difficulties adapting to “modern times,” as it were. In the thirties, he made just two movies and neither used the sound technology that was already years old in its adoption.  One of those movies, Modern Times, and another one early in the forties, The Great Dictator, were praised but also criticized for their didacticism. His final movie, about a music hall comedian’s passage to irrelevance, was Chaplin’s naked professional lament. As Stevens puts it, “Limelight seems at once so confessional and so equivocatingly self-serving that it’s hard to get past its autobiographical elements and judge it purely as a work of art.” [Stevens 334] Meanwhile, Harold Lloyd made the transition to sound smoothly, but was out of the laugh business by 1938 (though he did act in one more film in 1947). For his part, Buster went on to appear in dozens of film cameos, commercials, and TV shows, from Ed Sullivan to The Twilight Zone. He mentored Lucille Ball and toured in European circuses.

Asking “what if” is pointless.

James Agee, “Life”

In 1949, twenty years after the advent of the talkies, Life magazine’s hard-living critic, James Agee wrote a paean to the comedies of his youth. These silent pictures were by then entering obscurity, moldering in studio vaults, unseen by anyone born after 1930. Agee’s article, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” reminded an older generation of a time of innocence they had all but forgotten; it sparked the imagination of a younger generation who yearned to know first-hand what they had missed. In the article Agee dubbed Buster The Great Stone Face, adding with poetic grandiosity “Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny.” [Agee] It is hard to overstate the influence of Agee’s words on the reach of Keaton’s legacy into the twenty-first century.

Of three great silent comedians from this era, Keaton is held in the highest regard among the hipster set, domestically and around the world. In France, he is known affectionately as Malec, in Poland, Zbysco; Iceland, Glo-Glo, Spain, ——-. [Curtis 5] The stoic melancholy with which his onscreen character accepts life’s absurdity give his movies a modernist edge. Stevens asks us to compare Keaton with Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane: “Like them he was formally innovative, inclined to puncture social pretension, and given to making art that was, in a uniquely 1920s way, sardonic and romantic at once.” [Stevens 137] His movies were downright Keatonesque.

The Great Stone Face

Keaton himself would have had  none of this talk. The man who benefitted from but one day (or there about) of formal education understood nothing of modernism as an artistic movement, nor did he have any artistic intentions when he created his films. He aimed simply to entertain. When critic Robert Sherwood claimed his films (along with Chaplin’s and Lloyd’s) “approximate art,” Buster demurred. “I never realized that I was doing anything but trying to make people laugh….  I never took extravagant praise seriously because neither I, my director, nor my gag men were writers in any literary sense.” [Dardis]

In the end, it is hardly more apt to call Buster Keaton a comic genius than it is to call him a tragic victim of the studio system. Reading about the entirety of his life in Curtis and Stephens this summer left me with the impression most of all of Keaton’s humanity, that he was just a man.

He was born, it is true, with innate talents that were nurtured from the earliest age by hands-on (and by his father’s hand-upside-the-head) experience. He developed his own brand of deadpan physical comedy and went on to produce films of high originality, seven of which have been entered into the National Film Registry. But what really set, and sets, Keaton apart in my mind was his exceptional ability to find and maintain joy in his work. That work–in essence, creating ways to make people laugh–was of the most grueling, all-consuming kind. Yet, Keaton loved it, thrived on it. He continually strove for excellence yet never abandoned the playfulness on which his ingenuity was built. Passion and fulfillment are what we all (many of us) say we want in our careers. So few of us actually attain it.

It takes more than grit or smarts. It takes the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time (in history) and being able to take advantage of it. For seven inimitable years, Keaton found the sweet spot where he made hard work and hard play go hand in hand, not just for him but for his entire team. In my mind, that was Keaton’s true genius.


Curtis, James. Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.

Stevens, Dana. Camera Man: Buster  Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. New York: Atria Books, 2022.

Dardis, Tom. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. Brisbane, Australia: Limelight, 2004.

Keaton, Buster (with Charles Samuels). My Wonderful World of Slapstick. Lebanon, Indiana: Da Capo Press, 1982.

Sweeney, Kevin W. Buster Keaton: Interviews. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.