Iowa Lakes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Okoboji, Iowa
May 29, 2011

In the paper I delivered on Petr Chelčický at the symposium on Czech and Slovak Americans in April 2010 sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (see post below), I drew a parallel between Chelcicky and Henry David Thoreau — several parallels, in fact. I learned about Chelčický in the course of writing Warrior of God and found him to be an intriguing enough figure to pursue as a sidebar topic.

Two of my book’s biggest supporters, my parents-in-law Sara and Robert Koepp, are very active members of the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in the Okoboji area. It occurred to me, given the focus this paper placed on Thoreau and (to a lesser extent) Ralph Waldo Emerson — both prominent writers and thinkers in the annals of Unitarianism — that this group might be interested in hearing something about Chelčický, who like Thoreau and the Unitarians generally, marched to the beat of a different drummer.

The Koepps agreed, and as a result I had the privilege of introducing Chelčický and his historical context to the Iowa Lakes UU Fellowship. Of course, this required some re-tooling: in Lincoln, I was speaking to academics and other specialist steeped in Czech and Slovak history and culture. In Okoboji, by contrast, I spoke to educated laypeople and hence did not presume a familiarity with this field, admittedly somewhat outside the mainstream even for well-educated Americans. So, I de-emphasized that aspect a bit and played up the UU element, bringing in a connection between Russian author Leo Tolstoy (whom I mentioned in Lincoln) and Adin Ballou, a contrarian Universalist Tolstoy admired  and with whom he corresponded. I also touched upon two other historical figures, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, most likely familiar to Unitarians with an interest in American literary and social history.

This essay is available as an e-book on Amazon Direct Publishing for the low price of $.99 — click HERE to purchase.


Center for Great Plains Studies Symposium

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
April 7-9, 2010

“Czech and Slovak Americans: International Perspectives from the Great Plains,” was the theme for the 36th international conference hosted and sponsored by the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The conference examined Czech and Slovak immigrants and their descendants in the North American Great Plains region, their relationships with other Czech- and Slovak-Americans, and with Czechs and Slovaks in Europe and other parts of the world.

I was privileged to participate in this prestigious event, delivering two papers and having the honor of serving as chair of one session. Under the general headings of music and religion, my papers discussed two key figures in Czech culture, one modern and one medieval.


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Jan Žižka’s statue on Vítkov Hill in Prague

Slovo magazine, Winter 2009-10

Espace Sculpture magazine, Fall 2009

Writing Warrior of God was a learning experience in more ways than one. I like to tell people that I could write a book about writing a book. One of the things I discovered is that authors (especially rookies) don’t decide how long a book is going to be — publishers and editors tell them how long it will be. Frontline gave me a very firm word count limit, which compelled me to delete a great deal of interesting material from my original manuscript.

Perhaps what I most regretted having to cut was an “Epilogue” detailing the singular history of the gigantic statue of Jan Žižka by Bohumil Kafka that since 1950 has overlooked Prague from the top of Vítkov Hill. This was the site of the one-eyed general’s first great victory in 1420 over Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and an army of some 80,000 foreign crusaders bent upon burning Prague to the ground and slaughtering every man, woman and child in the city.

The history of this monumental artwork is a story-within-a-story that could easily support a book in its own right. I was convinced that, for obvious reasons, it would certainly make an interesting article for Slovo, the semi-annual magazine of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. When I presented the idea to the editor, Sher Jasperse, she told me that the magazine likes to have general themes and would consider it for an appropriate upcoming issue.

As it turned out, Sher and her staff chose “Monuments and Markers: Expressions of Czech & Slovak Heritage and History” for the theme of their Winter 2009/10 issue. My story was a perfect fit for that category, and it appears on pages 9-11 of that issue under the title “Hussite Hero Rides on Against the Tides of History: The Jan Žižka Statue on Vítkov Hill.”

It also seemed to me that it would be a unique story for an art history magazine. After learned about Espace Sculpture, a quarterly magazine out of Montreal, I approached its editor, Serge Frisette, who accepted a slightly different version of this story for publication. It can be found on pages 45-46 of the Fall ’09 issue under the title “Bohumil KAFKA, Jan Zizka monument.” (read story here [p.45] and here [p.46])

The statue and an adjoining national monument are emblematic of the full range of 20th century Czech history, encompassing anti-Austrian nationalism, Nazi occupation, Soviet totalitarianism, and post-communist capitalism. Although Kafka was no relation to his contemporary, the famed writer Franz, the story of this statue’s creation — a tortuous, 68-year ordeal — could easily serve as material for an absurdist novel of bureaucracy run amok.

Although it was first conceived in 1882, thirty-one years passed before any serious action was even begun, and then it took yet another twenty years—and four successive competitions—to decide upon the final design. It then took Kafka five years to make a life-size plaster model and another four to complete the casting mold. However, the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the subsequent Soviet takeover in 1948 delayed the statue’s final casting and erection by eleven more years.

The statue was dismantled for badly needed repairs, part of sweeping renovations that added a museum and café to the site. The Vítkov memorial building now houses a theme exhibition of twentieth-century national history, “Crossroads of Czech and Czechoslovak Statehood”; the café sits on the roof of what was formerly a macabre Soviet-style mausoleum housing the poorly embalmed remains of three communist Czech presidents (since moved elsewhere). That a café, a symbol of bourgeois life, will be placed atop this structure is a testament to the sweeping changes seen in Prague during the turn of the century. Refurbished and swept of all traces of the Soviet occupation, the Vítkov memorial is now to function as a cultural center that will attract visitors, not repel them.

The transition of Vítkov was marked by an opening ceremony on October 29, 2009, the ninety-first anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s independence from Austria-Hungary. Kafka’s statue of the one-eyed medieval general is a frontispiece to the capstone of an envisioned “Museum Mile” to include the Czech National Museum, a proposed Railway Museum, and the Czech Military Museum located under Vítkov Hill. Once again, Jan Žižka’s legacy will be reintegrated into the larger context of Czech history—this time, as freely constructed by the Czechs themselves.

[I am indebted to Dr. Vít Vlnas of the Czech National Gallery for first acquainting me with the background to this story and providing me with relevant historical sources. I am also obliged to Prof. Mila Šašková-Pierce of the University of Nebraska/Lincoln; Steven Stastny of the Omaha Czech Cultural Club; and Emil Viklický, “The Patriarch of Czech Jazz,” for their assistance with translations.]
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Tolstoy’s combat experiences as a young Russian army officer

Military History magazine

January 2007

A mid-length piece of mine, recounting Leo Tolstoy’s combat experiences as a young Russian army artillery officer in Chechnya, was published in the January/February ’07 issue of Military History magazine. After a sordid adolescence playing the part of a dissolute young nobleman careening head-long towards an ignominious fate, Tolstoy joined the army and was by all accounts a reasonably conscientious soldier. He spent his spare time writing, and returned from the Crimean War not a military, but a literary hero. The rest, as they say, is (literary) history. [read story HERE]

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Lord Byron in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks

Military History magazine

December 2006

Military History magazine accepted one other mid-length articles of mine on the involvement of Lord Byron (George Gordon) in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks, published in the December ’06 issue. Like that of Tolstoy after him and numerous others before and since, Byron’s military stint served to draw a decadent aristocrat into a cause larger than himself and both enlarge his humanity and toughen his moral fiber. Unlike Tolstoy, however, Byron’s self-imposed martial cure for soul-sickness proved fatal.

This article is available as an e-book on Amazon Direct Publishing for the low price of $.99 — click HERE to purchase.

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review of Olivier Todd’s Malraux: A Life

Military History magazine

December 2005

Military History magazine ran a book review of mine in its December ’05 issue. On page 70, you can find my brief critique of Olivier Todd’s biography Malraux: A Life. [read my review here]

During my adolescence and early twenties, I read Malraux’s novels (Man’s Fate, Man’s Hope, The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, the Temptation of the West, the Royal Way, Anti-Memoirs) with practically no knowledge of his biographical background, which as I learned much later, is quite problematic.

Like his countryman Jean-Paul Sartre, his military record and conduct during the Nazi occupation, as well as his subsequent relationship with Stalinism are troubling; moreover, he was a opportunist who fabricated an audacious self-mythology and was a shameless sycophant to Trotsky, Kennedy and DeGaulle when it served his purposes.

However, some of his books still stand up to scrutiny even if he doesn’t, demonstrating once again that outstanding personal integrity is not a prerequisite for writing great novels.