Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Writers for Conservatives, 61: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural
The above title is a title within Modern Library Giant, edited by Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser, published in 1944, still in print, and which I, something of a connoisseur in such matters, can recommend as the best such anthology I know. I could wish for a different selection here and there, but no single anthology can please all tastes. This is an excellent collection.
My readers will recognize that once again, as when I wrote about Westerns and detective stories, I am writing about a subject beneath the notice of high-minded lovers of literary culture. Before we’re done, however, I think we’ll find that there’s more of literary interest in the subject than is immediately obvious. When ghost stories (to give them a generic name, though ghosts may not be involved) are occasionally considered by critics they always begin by asking what the attractions are, and then they offer various silly answers. Edmund Wilson, who wrote a couple of essays about these stories, did not really appreciate or understand them, and he recommended works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” psychologically interesting but quite without scariness, which is the essential attractive element in the best of ghost stories. It is not that the reader is afraid, but he is made to feel the fear of the characters, and it must be justified. The writer must be able to make the reader feel that the characters are afraid of something of which they are right to be afraid.
Some tales are about a fear that can exist outside the story, as I shall explain. In Geoffrey Household’s masterly story “Taboo,” which is both a straightforward story about fear and also a story about the psychology of repression, the narrator recounts a story told by Shiravieff. Although nearly every word in the story is Shiravieff’s, the device of the narrator is important because it allows him to comment at crucial points. Shiravieff, vacationing in the Carpathians not long after World War I, met Vaughan, an Englishman, and his American wife Kyra. In a short space of time two local men disappear while travelling in the wooded hills, and then a searcher also disappears. There is general dismay and fear in the area. Vaughan and Shiravieff go searching themselves and, discovering a place where a scuffle has taken place, and decide to set a trap. One man with a rifle will be posted on a high ledge overlooking the spot while the other acts as bait by walking back and forth on the path in the moonlight. We feel the fear of the men, a wholly rational fear given the facts. What’s even more scary is that, to preserve the illusion, they must leave separately, first the bait, later the watcher. After a few suspenseful nights the trap is sprung and the murderer is killed. He is a forester who has sold cuts of “venison” in the village, and the evidence in his cabin shows that the villagers, as well as the characters, have been eating human flesh. Kyra reacts instinctively and is semi-hysterical, thus ridding herself of the shock, but Vaughan, the impeccably repressed Englishman, keeps his feelings under control. Shiravieff meets them some years later and they have dinner together. Vaughan has become a vegetarian, but he couldn’t think why he had “this distaste for meat.”
“I tell you the man was absolutely serious. He could not think why. Shock had lain hidden in him for ten years, and then had claimed its penalty.”
“‘And you,’ asked Banning. ‘How did you get clear of shock? You had to control your emotions at the time.’”
“‘A fair question,’ said Shiravieff. ‘I’ve been living under a suspended sentence. . . . If I could only have got the story out of my system, it would have helped a lot — but I couldn’t bring myself to tell it.’”
“‘You have just told it,’ said Colonel Romero solemnly.”
That Romero is an admirer of English reticence and a scoffer at Shiravieff’s theory of repression in the beginning of the story and the man with the last convinced word gives a very satisfactory ending, is a tribute to the author’s skill. What is so good about it is that the story is mainly about the real rational fears of the characters and then ends with a psychologically sound idea about the effects of fear and shock.
Edmund Wilson had some scornful remarks about the fashion in the early 20th century for ghost stories that relied, not on ghosts but on mysterious entities just outside ordinary reality. H. P. Lovecraft’s writings were so based, and “The Dunwich Horror” in this volume is a typical example, quite unreal, very second rate. Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” is another unconvincing example. These stories are filled with adjective-laden passages like this:
“The most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things, forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken. . . ”
and so on, not only unconvincing but finally laughable.
There are, however, better efforts in this mode, and now let me describe tales in which the characters are afraid of something that the reader, standing outside the story, knows is nonsense, but as we read it the author induces in us that “willing suspension of disbelief” Coleridge spoke of. The fear is justified by the way it is described. It is not so real or acute as in “Taboo” because the situation in that story would have been fearful outside the story. M. R. James is a master of this sort of tale, and two are in this volume. “Casting the Runes” is about a practitioner of witchcraft who conducts fatal vendettas against presumed enemies, making their lives a frightening burden, leading them to an early death. Here is an example of what might be called “induced rational fear.” The character, victim of the “runes,” puts his hand under his pillow:
“What he touched was, according to his own account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”
I have read this story aloud to listeners on several occasions, and that passage makes them gasp every time. It does not matter that outside the story we regard the runes with the smile of incredulity; once the writer has by his skill induced us to believe that a character struck his hand under his pillow into a mouth, we share the character’s fear. A clever author can make us believe anything — while the spell of his words is upon us.
There are 53 stories here in more than 1,000 pages, and while some are not to my taste, most are eminently readable. In fact, I had a difficult time writing this essay because I kept dipping into the book to relish again old favorites. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, here are some other authors and tales I recommend: Balzac, Hardy, Wells, Saki, Dorothy Sayers, “The Most Dangerous Game”, “Leinigen versus the Ants,” Faulkner, Hemingway, John Collier, Bulwer-Lytton, Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton, W. W. Jacobs, “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” Kipling (“The Return of Imray” as well as the superb They), E. L. White’s “Lukundoo,” E. F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood, A. E. Coppard, The Celestial Omnibus, Isak Dinesen’s “The Sailor-Boy’s Tale.”
A word about ghost stories — I have just read three collections, and I can testify that they are dreadful bores. To tell a supernatural story convincingly, as is done in this anthology, you have to be a terrific writer. The best anthology of ghost stories I know is the Oxford anthology. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Varieties of Religious Experience
We’d been living in Cape Breton a couple of years when I asked the storekeeper why no ministers had come to call; in every other country place we had lived ministers were almost the first callers. He smiled. “People living in the Backlands are heathens. You folks are left to the Devil and Jehovah Witnesses.” I don’t know about the Devil, but no Witnesses appeared, and it must have been during seven or eight years because all the children were grown and gone before religion came to the Backlands. I had walked to a neighbor’s to make a phone call and I was on my way back when a man in an old pickup gave me a ride, and when I got out he handed me a piece of stiff paper, saying “Take this along, brother.” It was a homemade religious tract. One side was a typed message — “The Road of Life” — while the reverse was an amateurish drawing of a journey from birth to death, winding from one pitfall to another, the Seven Deadly Sins. I was impressed and so was Jo Ann.
“What an effort! What was he like?”
“Nothing special. I had the feeling that he was a little simple. He had long arms that stuck out of his sleeves.”
Passing out tracts in the country is not like in the city: here you know your man and can follow him up. We were not surprised when the man and his wife — Fred and Betty MacIsaac — turned up on Sunday afternoon. Fred was quiet and shy, a contrast to Betty, short, dark, blunt-featured, with prominent staring eyes, very self-assured. She had conceived the tracts and done the text; Fred did the drawing.
Jo Ann said something about it being a lot of work, and Betty shook her head. “No more. Now we buy them ready-printed. We didn’t know about them when we started — see. Here’s one of the new ones,” she said, pleased and proud.
“Have you been to Calvary?” it asked, and on the bottom in small letters I read, “Pilgrim Tract Society, Inc., Randleman, North Carolina.”
They went to the mall at the Strait on Saturday afternoons and passed out tracts, “Doing the Lord’s work.” They’d been at it for a couple of years.
“What made you start?”
Betty looked at Fred. He had been a silent figure in the background, drinking his tea at the far end of the long kitchen table. Now he sat up straight. “I had a vision,” he began deliberately in his quiet voice.
“It was a terrible hot day, and I was in the hayfield getting in a load of oats I’d cut green for hay. You know how it is with oats; when they’re thick you think they’ll never end. I’d go along for a while pitching, and then I’d climb up to build the load. The sun was burning me up and the sweat was just pouring off me.”
His voice did not seem to change, but we felt an intensity, a current lying just behind the words. We sat quite still, watching his face.
“The sky wasn’t blue, it was hazy, milky, and the heat was all around, pressing me down, and everything was turning like waves, and I looked up and the sky was as brass, and next thing I knew I was down in the stubble on my knees, praying to the almighty God.”
He smiled and sipped his tea. Betty said, “That’s when we took up the Lord’s work.”
We came out of our trance. I said, rather lamely, “That’s some story.” Jo Ann offered more tea, but Betty said they had to be going. At the door I said, “Come again.”
Jo Ann smiled. “They’ll come again, all right. This was just the first installment. Notice how they didn’t dissipate the effect by hanging around. Drop the bomb and go.”
“It was impressive.”
“Oh yes. And now they’ll be back after your soul.”
“You’re in it, too.”
“They don’t care about me; I’m just part of the picture. I saw the way they looked at you. It’s your naiveté, unworldliness.”
“So are you.”
“Yes, but it’s the man of the house they want. Well, they’re your Christian friends, I leave them to you.”
Fred came by nearly every Sunday afternoon for the next few weeks, and we would walk around the farm, discussing things like hay or drainage or fencing, and we’d stop at the stable to look at the pigs, and finally we’d wind up sitting on the porch steps, discussing religion. Sometimes Betty was with him. She wasn’t very sociable.
“She thinks Fred is wasting his time on you.”
“Yes. And I can see she doesn’t like the way I talk about religion with him.”
“She probably thinks you’re undermining his faith.”
“All I do is ask questions trying to make sense of what he says, a mishmash of Bible quotes and odd notions he’s picked up somewhere. I don’t challenge anything.”
“You’re supposed to swallow it whole.”
“Too bad. I like Fred and I enjoy his visits.”
The MacIsaacs didn’t appear one Sunday, but we had another religious visitor. I was working in the garden when a man drove up in a pickup. He looked extraordinary, even at a distance with a pork pie hat set four-square on his head — I hadn’t seen a hat like that since before the war — and a black suit so worn it was shiny. His face was remarkably flat, and his pale brown eyes were very small and slightly slanted, so he looked almost Oriental.
“Good day,” I said.
“Good day. Mr. Gardner? Yes. Well, I’m Angus R. MacDonald. Yes. Folks call me Angus R., don’t you know? Yes. And I came to see you. Yes.”
He had a high voice, with the sing-song rhythm of the old Cape Bretoners raised in Gaelic-speaking households. “What did you want to see me about?”
“Yes. What did I want to see you about? Well, yes, you see I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, don’t you know. Yes. And I go around making calls on folks yes, that’s what I do.”
He smiled and smiled, his little eyes disappearing in the wrinkles, and I thought he was an innocent eccentric, but the impression he made was not unpleasant. “Before you go on, Mr. MacDonald, you should understand I’m an atheist.”
“No!” His smiled broadened.
“Yes,” I answered, smiling too.
Angus R. shook his head and said “No.” again, not, I think, in shock or disbelief but as rejection of the whole notion. He pulled a small Bible from his pocket. “Well now, Mr. Gardner, yes, this is the word of God you know, isn’t it?”
“No. Part of it is Jewish history and mythology, and part is Christian mythology. In other words, I don’t believe it’s the word of God.”
Still smiling, Angus R. shook his head. I waved my hand magnanimously. “Let’s not argue about it. Agree to disagree.” I was very pleased with my definition of the Bible. “Come
on; we’ll have the tea.”
Once in the kitchen, however, he politely refused tea. “Just a cup of warm milk, yes, just a cup of warm milk, don’t you know, if it’s no trouble, Missus.”
He put the pork pike hat on his knee and drank the milk in little sips, smiling all the time. He had been a Witness nearly all his life he said, and when he talked about his past he spoke soberly without nervousness.
“Well, you see, I went with my mother around to all the places when I was just a gaffer, and when I got bigger I carried the gramophone and records.” He smiled. “We had records to play to folks, talking records, you know.”
“What was on them?”
“Talks. Like the stories in the Watchtower, you see. Different ones — Religion and Morality, Is there a God? Immortality — lots and lots of things.” He looked at the clock. “Gosh! It’s time I was leaving, yes, it’s time for me to go, don’t you know?” Standing, he clapped the hat firmly on his head.
“But you haven’t been here long.”
“Well, well, you’re very kind, yes, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome, don’t you know. I’m not welcome every place, you know, no I’m not. But I don’t live far way, just before Jamesville, don’t you know, yes, and I’ll be by again. Yes, yes, I’ll see you.”
When Fred and Betty came by again, the first thing I mentioned was Angus R.’s visit. That was a blunder.
“Jehovah’s Witness,” Betty said with great scorn, making me feel I’d given my patronage to a rival and inferior firm.
Fred was upset. He couldn’t focus his attention on anything — Angus R. kept intruding. How long was he here? What did he talk about? What did I think of him? Finally, he asked portentously, “Did he tell you about our Lord Jesus Christ coming back to Earth in 1914? Did he tell you that?”
“No. He didn’t say much about their doctrine. Of course, I knew that about Christ already.”
He was shaken. “How’d you know that?”
“What’s so strange about it? Anyone who’s talked to a Witness must know it. It’s one of their most distinctive ideas.”
Fred nervously plucked at his sleeves, trying to draw them down over his wrists. I realized I wasn’t supposed to know anything about religion beyond what the MacIsaacs had to offer; no wonder Betty was skeptical of me. I wished I hadn’t mentioned Angus R.
In a gloomy voice Fred said, “I used to go to the Kingdom Hall outside Baddeck.”
“Oh? Why didn’t you stick with them?” We were sitting together on the porch steps and Betty was on a bench behind us. She spoke with great contempt, “Not spiritual enough.”
I turned to look at her. The stern set of her lips, the scowling frown, her narrow heavy-lidded eyes showed a hardness that daunted me. What could she mean by “spiritual?” she stared back at me coldly.
Fred came alone next time, and he couldn’t stay long. It was raining, so we sat in the kitchen and had tea. He kept tugging at his sleeves. As he was leaving, standing in the doorway, he said they wanted to hold a service there at our farm with all their fellow believers — and then he was gone. We were left with our mouths open.
Jo Ann shook herself. “Absolutely not!” she said firmly.
“Why not? It might be interesting.”
“They want to convert us, and I’m not interested. I’m a Jew and that’s that. Christian attempts at conversion are insulting. I won’t have it.”
“OK, OK, take it easy.”
“You’d better write right away. Don’t wait, you might be too late otherwise. That was a deliberately fast exit so we wouldn’t have time to object.”
I wrote as graciously as possible, but I had to say there would be no services at the farm. I knew Jo Ann was right, and beyond curiosity I had no real interest in the gathering. But I was afraid this would drive the MacIsaacs away, and I enjoyed Fred’s visits, just as I always like people who were religious in an unworldly way. I like their simplicity, their lack of pretension, their sharp contrast with the narrow-minded materialism so common in the countryside. The only trouble was that sooner or later you had to join them. I ended the letter, “I hope this will not affect our friendship.”
That was the end of the visits, although I saw them once again, as we shall see. * . . . . Continued in the next issue.
Writers for Conservatives, 61: A Man of the West
Bernard De Voto (1897-1955) was an unusual figure in the literary landscape of the 1930s and 40s. A strong-minded Westerner (born in Utah), he was contemptuous of Eastern snobbishness and the leftist propensities of the literary crowd. He had taught at Northwestern and Harvard, and latterly he edited the Saturday Review of Literature and wrote the “Easy Chair” column at Harper’s (1935-55), a position long held by William Dean Howells, a literary pulpit of some significance in those days. He famously did battle with the reigning intellectuals in Mark Twain’s America (1932) an “essay in correction” as he called it, an answer to Van Wyck Brooks’ Ordeal of Mark Twain (1915), an early salvo in the intellectual’s war against America that reached its first crest in the 1920s. Brooks claimed that Twain was an artist crippled by the barren crudity of his frontier background (Missouri, California, Nevada) and then by the suppressions of Eastern genteel culture. I won’t go into De Voto’s answer at length (the book is too long and confusing) but one point should be stressed: he showed by extensive research that Twain’s humor, always his primary mode of expression, grew directly out of the frontier storytelling tradition revealed in the newspapers of the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s (remember that Twain was a typesetter and then a newspaperman), a rich and pervasive tradition. The Eastern idea of the crudity and barrenness of frontier culture, later extended to an indictment of American culture in general (see H. L. Mencken) is blown away by Mark Twain’s America.
To leftist mandarins of literary culture then, writers for The New Republic and Partisan Review, magazines like Harper’s or Saturday Review were middlebrow venues of little weight, and De Voto was dismissed as a belligerent ignoramus, a conception that colored my perception of him in the 1950s. The books we are about to consider, his historical works, make that notion of the man absurd.
The books are The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), and their subject is the lure of the West in the American imagination. Their publication is in inverse historical order. Year of Decision is about the culmination of the Western drive, the annexation of California and the settlement of the Oregon country; Across the Wide Missouri is about the climax of the fur trade from 1832 to ’38; and The Course of Empire traces the travels of Eastern explorers from the 16th century to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-6. We shall consider them in their proper historical order.
In the preface to The Course of Empire De Voto says:
“Nothing in history is more visible than the transformation, in response to the continent, of Europeans into Americans.”
What does that mean? The slightest acquaintance with the early Spanish and French explorers tells us that they regarded the continent as a repository of lootable treasure, as Peru and Mexico had been, and all their travels were based on that premise. For the French (after their abortive Florida adventure) it was furs. After the British conquered Canada they declared the Proclamation Line of 1763 marking all the land beyond the Alleghenies as an Indian preserve just for the fur trade. It was only the colonists who became Americans after living 150 years on the eastern frontier, who pushed into Kentucky and saw the settling and development of the West as their goal — that’s when Europeans became Americans.
The Spanish travelled north from Mexico into what is now the United States in search of seven cities of gold and similar will-o’-the-wisps, and De Voto tells the truly amazing stories of Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, De Soto, and others, along with the delusions about the West which persisted even into the 19th century. Then the narrative shifts northward to the French fur traders who had begun the trade in the early 1500s.
About this De Voto makes this profound point:
“The impact of European goods produced a change in Neolithic America far more concentrated and rapid than anything in the history of white civilization . . . from 1500 on they were cultural prisoners.”
We learn of coureurs de bois, “an Indian with a white man’s mind and he lived free,” and we follow the travels and intrigues of Joliet, Marquette, Frontenac, La Salle, and intrepid traders and adventurers like Radisson and Nicolet. It is one of the book’s virtues that, because it is about the discovery of the West, De Voto tells us about travelers, explorers, and traders we never heard of before, men who were constantly pushing farther into the unknown. A large part of the story, of course, is the struggle between France and Britain. The story of explorations Westward in connection with the fur trade, and efforts to find a river flowing from the interior to the Pacific, are other parts of the continental story the author tells so well.
The last part of the book is a detailed, perhaps too detailed, account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a fitting climax to the book: “For they had crossed the continent and came back, the first of all.”
Across the Wide Missouri had an unusual genesis when a publisher, planning an edition of Alfred Miller’s watercolors painted in the West on an expedition with fur traders, asked De Voto to write about the fur trade as an accompaniment to the pictures. As De Voto saw it:
“I have tried to describe the mountain fur trade as a business and a way of life: what its characteristic experiences were, what conditions governed them, how it helped to shape our heritage, what its relation was to the Western expansion of the United Sates, most of all how the mountain men lived.”
Meanwhile always keeping in mind his conviction
“. . . of the growth among the American people of the feeling that they were properly a single nation between two oceans . . . the continental mind.”
From 1835 to ’38 Sir William Stewart travelled with the traders who brought goods from St. Louis up the Missouri River and on into the Rockies to the annual rendezvous with the trappers who had been in the mountains since the previous fall, and there the furs (mainly beaver) were exchanged for supplies, and in 1837 he took with him a Baltimore artist, Alfred Miller, to record the trip in watercolor sketches to be used later as studies for large oils to be painted at Stewart’s castle in Scotland. The book is illustrated with these sketches and also some by George Catlin and Charles Bodmer. Although the artists are mentioned in the text, De Voto reserves his penetrating analysis of their work for a very interesting Appendix. Most of the text focused on the years from 1832 to ’38, and is about the mountain men and the incredible lives they led.
“They are important historically . . . as a trade group, small and short-lived, who had a maker’s part in extending the national boundaries and the national consciousness to continental completion.”
Telling the stories of the mountain men, he does not neglect other people and forces moving in the area at the time, like the first missionaries to the Western Indians. This volume has more immediate interest than the Course of Empire because it is about just a few years and a more limited, concentrated subject. If you take up the book, be sure to read the Appendix about the painters.
The Year of Decision is about the climax of the westering impulse, and because it weaves together several movements occurring in 1846 it tells a much more complicated story than the other volumes. President James K. Polk is a major figure, Senator Thomas H. Benton plays a role, as does his son-in-law John C Frémont. Francis Parkman, living the experience that will become The Oregon Trail, is present, and so are emigrants heading for Oregon and California, including the ill-fated Donner party. Chester Wilmot of the Proviso is considered, and Stephen W. Kearney, the soldier who secures California with the aid of the Mormon Battalion, is prominent. De Voto’s understanding of the Mormons is profound, and he is very good describing their trek to Utah under the guidance of Brigham Young. Synthesizing all these characters and movements into a coherent, interesting, even exciting narrative was a feat of conception and accomplishment that is very impressive. I advise readers to start with this volume.
At the time of America’s Founding in the 1780s no one thought the new republic would stretch from sea to sea (no one really knew anything about it), and the British, French, and Spanish, along with some American plotters like Aaron Burr, did what they could to prevent it, but by the time of the Louisiana Purchase the West had grown in the American mind to become our destiny. No one has told this story better than Bernard De Voto. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Work
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread . . .” —Genesis 3:19
We were talking about the jobs we had after school when we were boys, and while neither of us delivered newspapers, John mowed lawns and I shoveled snow, a difference accounted for by the fact that he had lived in a suburb while I lived in Passaic, New Jersey, on the banks of the historic Passaic River about which Dr. William Carlos Williams wrote his epic poem “Paterson” (he was incidentally, my doctor when I had polio; in later, more literate years, I was sorry to have missed the opportunity to talk about poetry with him). Passaic was an industrial city of 60,000 souls. My high school adapted to its working class clientele in this way: when I was first there, the girls were courteously let out 10 minutes before the boys, but the order of preference was reversed when it was pointed out that the boys had to hurry to get to their after-school jobs while the girls dawdled along, crowding the hallways. There were three streams in the high school — General, Commercial, and College — and out of a senior class of 210, only 25 were in the College stream. There was a separate vocational high school, too.
My first real after-school job, in my senior year, was in what is now an extinct profession — I was a soda jerk, compounding milk shakes, frosted, malteds, sundaes, banana splits, and sundry other delights I have now forgotten, in the Royal Sweet Shoppe on Broadway, a busy commercial street of stores and apartment houses. Not a drug store but a soda fountain: a long marble counter with stools, a few booths against the opposite wall, a bookcase containing a lending library, a rack of magazines and newspapers, a glass case containing cigars, pipes, tobacco, and cigarettes. Besides the delights that I put together, we sold sandwiches, pastry, coffee, and ice cream. It was a busy place catering to the storekeepers and residents of the neighborhood. Across the street the Broadway Sweet Shoppe served a more youthful crowd, and was more like the soda fountain of song and story. I do not exaggerate: there was even a comic strip called, I think, “The Sugar Bowl,” devoted to youthful intrigues in such a place, but the Royal was the chosen haunt of the older citizens, and there, wearing a snap-on bow tie, I got to know the local worthies. My employers were Muffy and Sara, brother and sister, and by mid-December they decided, quite rightly, that my demeanor was a bit too spritely and irresponsible (working on a farm in the summers with just a few well known country people, I had not yet learned how to comport myself in a more constrained environment), so I was forced to relinquish my bow tie and look for another job.
I went to work in the Christmas rush at the Post Office. I doubt if such a phenomenon exists any more. In those days a huge volume of Christmas cards and packages was mailed during the couple of weeks before Christmas, and a veritable army of young men — high school and college boys and casual laborers — were employed to sort and deliver mail. It was desirable work because it paid well, and if you were a postman you rode the buses free. Once, I was the only postman at work during a raging snowstorm, and when I finally got back to the office, soaking wet, the postmaster sent me home to change my clothes and then come back and punch out on the clock. I made my last delivery on Christmas day.
In the new year I got another job at a much larger, more pretentious soda fountain further down Broadway in the heart of the city: Welling’s Lunchroom, which did a very brisk business in breakfasts and lunches. Two of us, I and one of my classmates, were hired from five to nine cleaning the long counter and the serving area behind it, steam table and all, and setting up for the next day. This was a much more laborious job than it sounds because the master of the kitchen (and he was an acknowledged master) wanted everything just right. We had the privilege, when we were done, of having a snack, and we made the most of it. I have a photograph (of which I am a little ashamed) showing us seated in a booth with a mound of sandwiches and couple of milkshakes before us, looking dissolute. It is amazing how much a growing boy, given the opportunity, can eat.
That had its consequences. In the senior play I had the role of a professor, and I wore my new gray flannel suit, an outfit just beginning to be fashionable in circles far beyond the horizon of Passaic High School (here I may be permitted to tell my favorite story. At the after-graduation parties it was then the custom to kiss all the girls in sight, and after I had kissed Lorraine — I shall ever remember her — she said, with great surprise, “Ooo! I thought you’d kiss like a professor!”) Of course my relatives came to see the play. Afterwards they all remarked on the way my fat posterior made the back of my jacket stick out! So I joined the YMCA and worked out regularly that spring. I planned to join the Marines, but my brother said I’d be too muscle-bound to throw grenades.
Another result of the play was that I met girls from other than the College stream, girls who were — how shall I put it? — more worldly, more cosmetically glamorous than the girls I knew. They were dangerous to know too well because they were, not exactly “gun molls,” but girlfriends of older men who wore tight suits and picked up their girls after school in flashy convertibles. Once, riding in a crowded car to a rehearsal, one of the molls, sitting on my lap, leaned close to tell me I was “cute.” I was terrified, picturing my body in the Passaic river wearing cement overshoes.
I quit Welling’s in spring and went back, at the owners’ request, to the Royal. By then I had enough experience to temper my sprightliness, and I could have stayed on for the summer, but a friend got me a job as a Good Humor man. I don’t know if the company still exists, or if my readers will know anything about it. In New Jersey in the ’30s and ’40s it was a highly regarded institution. Small refrigerated trucks painted white, equipped with tinkling bells, plied the streets selling ice cream in the form of ice cream bars: small slabs of ice cream covered with chocolate (or coconut). The Good Humor man used to turn up in our neighborhood after supper, and we would rush to congregate around the truck. Most of the drivers were young (probably college boys) and were greatly admired. I looked forward to this job, and was sadly let down when I learned I would be only a bicycle man, pedaling a bike with a refrigerated chest on the front, covering areas a truck would leave for me, the truck from which I received my supplies. What I was doing, in effect, was extending the truck’s range. I enjoyed the job, pedaling around suburban streets, and I was a good salesman. All went well the first week, but at the end of the second week my accounts didn’t balance. According to Ralph, the truck driver, I had received from him so many boxes of various popsicles, but my cash in hand fell short. So Ralph in the truck, and I in my car, drove to headquarters in Newark to lay the problem before the manager. In the end, the manager took me aside, telling me that in the future I was to make a written record of the supplies Ralph gave me. It took some time for the penny to drop, but before I got home I realized that Ralph had been cheating me, crediting me with ice cream he never gave me so it was charged to me and not to him. Well, I said to myself, I will be more careful but I won’t quit. The manager had told me I was the best bicycle salesman in New Jersey.
The day after settlement was always our day off, so I didn’t go back to my bike until a day later. In all the fuss about the faulty settlement, we had forgotten to load the ice chest with dry ice, so when I opened it that morning all I saw was popsicle sticks floating in a many-hued soup. I walked into the gas station where we stored the bike, turned over my Good Humor cap and my money belt, and drove home. After that I got a job as a greenskeeper on a golf course, my last job before I went to college.
I must say something about my earnings as a soda jerk and what I did with them. At the Royal I was paid 35 cents an hour, and when I went back I got a raise to 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but consider my hours: 4 PM to midnight six days a week, Sundays from 6 AM to noon, 54 hours. I had never had an allowance, so this was a fortune to me, and because my father, bless his soul, was always preaching frugality, I spent it like water. But you are not to think I wasted it entirely. My English teacher (who persuaded me to go to college instead of the Marines) had been recommending books to me, and now I began to buy them, something I had never done before. I had always been something of a reader, but now I was dimly purposeful, and I think it is not too much to say that I became a professor and then a writer because I was first a soda jerk. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Rituals of Hospitality
We commonly think of hospitality as a measure of friendliness, and “hospitality” courses are given to people who work in the tourist business to teach simulated friendliness. That gives us pause — we wonder if our jolly host is really friendly or is merely being commercially astute. Such ambivalence about the truth of hospitality, about whether it’s sincere or not, signals confusion about the meaning and function of social strategies, like politeness in general, of which hospitality is a subset. It has been said that politeness is a way of keeping people apart, or to put it another way, bringing them just within hailing distance. Similarly, hospitality is defined as a way of structuring home encounters between people, friends or strangers, and every society, as well as each distinct group within it, has its own rituals, or tactics, of hospitality.
Modern urbanized people have no trouble with that definition applied to other people in other times, more or less anthropologically, but they think of themselves, with their deliberate informality, lack of restraint, and seeming candor, as quite superior to such constraining conventions, unconscious of the fact that their ways are also tactics designed to maintain relations as a certain distance, adhered to with as much rigid conformity as any practice of the Kwakiutl.
Old country ways, the rituals of encounter, are marked by a formal order which sets them off from the jumbled flow of modern life, and makes their universality and rigidity very obvious: Everyone follows the same rituals in the same way with a sort of mechanical rhythm. When we moved to Cape Breton we learned that, while the rituals were very different from our Vermont experience, the characteristics of formality, universality, and rigidity were the same, and in spades, because change in Cape Breton — newcomers, the impingement of modern life — began much later than in New England and was moving more slowly. But in the 30 years we lived there, the old rites virtually disappeared as the elders, who maintained them, died.
My first experience with these matters occurred soon after we moved there, when I drove down the peninsula one day with our two sons to see a man who had a mower and hayrake for sale. Stopping at a garage, I asked directions to Michael MacNeil’s place. The attendant smiled. “There’s three or four Michael MacNeils right here in the village and some more out and around; which one were you wanting?” That was a poser, but we finally solved it when I described the man. “Oh, that’s Mickey Red,” and he told me where to go. At the farmhouse, Mickey Red, sitting beside the stove in the kitchen, told me where the equipment was, and the boys and I went to the barn to look it over. When we returned to the house to do the bargaining, Mickey, who hadn’t moved from his chair, said merely, “Have your tea,” as his wife put on the table three cups of tea and three small plates each with a piece of buttered bread, a square of oat cake (bannoch), and two boughten cookies. Surprised — this was a novel experience for us — we settled at he table and ate what was put in front of us while we chatted with Mickey Red and eventually got around to bargaining.
Wherever we went the experience was duplicated with the same ingredients: the oatcakes and bread were homemade; the cookies, because Cape Bretoners don’t bake them much, were always boughten. Within a few years, however, the oatcakes disappeared; they were culinary antiques that passed from the scene with the oldest generation. Due to the fact that cookery there was not learned from books but from oral tradition and practical imitation, all Cape Breton baked goods were alike.
Understand that these were not shared snacks — they were for visitors only. I was always disconcerted by this, eating away while my host looked on, but at the last of it, after living there twenty years or so, I would sometimes be joined by the man of the house (never by his wife) who would say, “Och! I believe I’ll have a bit o’ somethin’, too.”
Nowadays only the tea remains. An astounding product, it could be the subject of an essay by itself, tracing its ancestry in the British Isles and its worldwide provenance wherever the cuisine — English working class — has penetrated. George Orwell describes it in The Road to WiganPier, and the tea bag tea served in roadside diners across America in my youth was a distant, weaker relative. Begin with a low quality tea and put lots of it into a tea pot, which is then filled with boiling water and left to stand on the back of the stove, the longer the better. You may even boil it a bit for added zest. It should be poured when it’s a deep mahogany color. One cup contains enough tannin to preserve a calf skin, three cups will do a cowhide. Unless you’ve been carefully raised on the stuff, it can deliver a stunning wallop to your system, but there is an antidote: just add plenty of milk. We went one day with a visitor from New York to see someone down the peninsula, and when the tea was served I signaled to our friend to take milk. She ignored me, so at last I said, “Here, have some milk,” reaching over with the pitcher, but she was having none of that. Shielding her cup, she frowned at me, “You know I don’t take milk in my tea!” The host said, “Leave the lady drink her tea in peace, why don’t you?” What will be will be, I thought, as I watched her toss down the black brew. On the way home she had to stop the car so she could be sick.
I have always thought that the reticence of country people (and this is especially true of Cape Bretoners) ultimately stemmed from the fact that their relations with their fellows in the old-fashioned, relatively changeless countryside were likely to be affairs of long, often life-long, duration; to maintain such relations without unbearable friction, circumspection was required, and these rituals served the purpose of establishing country wariness in an acceptable social form. The light, gossipy conversation that went with the familiar routine of teacups and plates kept the participants at a certain distance, and helped to hide the substance of the visit behind the pretense of a social call. In truth, a purely social visit was a rarity in the old-fashioned countryside, where everyone worked hard from before dawn til after dark. Everyone knew that the visitor had an object and that it would be revealed only circuitously, just as the host’s response would be made known in an equally roundabout way, the asking and giving of commitment to be accomplished tentatively, gradually, cagily. The host does not ask why the visitor has come, and the visitor does not boldly state his business. A neighbor told me, shaking his head in disapproval, that when he knocked on the door of an American who lived in the area for a while, the woman’s first words were, “What do you want?” He thought she was unpardonably rude and offensive.
Of course, some are more reticent than others. One of our neighbors was so shy that he would drop only the slightest of hints about his purpose, and then just before he left (after sitting over tea for half an hour, chatting about nothing in particular). There would be only one obscure hint, and if we missed it, as we sometimes did, we would go over and over the conversation for days afterwards, trying to figure out what he wanted.
With visitors not our neighbors, callers who came to buy something, I would go out to greet them on the porch, exchange remarks on the weather, the state of the roads, prospects for the hunting season, etc., and then we would go in the kitchen where we would serve tea and Jo Ann’s cookies, and then the visitor’s business would be revealed. “I’m after thinkin maybe you’d have a bit of bacon, eh?” And when that had been attended to, he might ask for butter or sour cream, and so on, until his wants were satisfied, he had drunk his tea, the bill was paid, and we parted on the porch.
We try to use the same method here in the Champlain Valley, but modern people do not want to submit to the ritual, so I have learned to modify my technique. First get them into the house — no easygoing palaver outside now, they don’t respond to it — then I don’t ask if they want tea but simply serve it, because if I ask they wonder if they want it (no), whether they have time (no), and nine times out of ten they will turn it down, not realizing that it’s a social strategy, not a question of taste. They won’t reject it when it’s poured, and they must sit down to drink it, they can’t remain standing, ready to do their business and go. Once they’re sitting down, we can all be more social. And that, I think, is more important than the dispatch of business.
The old country-bred rituals, whatever their origins, were fine in themselves, and now they grant us a respite, a few relaxed moments set aside from the modern rush of busy-ness. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Reputation
Understand me: we did not seek it, for some years we did not know we had it, and in the end, as you shall see, we had to pay for it.
This occurred to me as I was looking through some old files, seeing essays I had published in the hippie-homesteader magazines of the 1970s and ’80s. I was surprised by the editorial introductions — they were almost gushing. How did that happen?
Hippie-homesteaders were people in their early twenties who wanted to “go back to the land” (in the popular phrase of the day), an illusion, though I’m sure most of them didn’t know it. They were satisfied with the appearance, and many people encouraged them. In those days it seemed as if every newspaper and magazine in the country published stories about courageous couples charging off into the “wilderness” (I have seen a Massachusetts college town so described!) to build a cabin, plant a garden, and begin a life of “self sufficiency.”
Such people appeared in northern Vermont, where we lived, in the mid-1960s, but some of their forerunners had turned up on our doorstep a little earlier because the farmhouse we rented belonged to a bush league version of Scott Nearing, guru of the “back to the land” movement, and they came to see us, as I realized much later, because they thought that I, living in the master’s house, might be a sage, too, with words of wisdom for them. If I had realized that I might have tried to put on a show, but I couldn’t make them out, and like any disciples, they were inarticulate. I always asked them what they wanted, how could I help them, but I got nowhere so they went away disappointed.
But they saw what they took to be the rudiments of the Beautiful Simple Country Life (BSCL) — we milked a cow, we had a flock of hens, we were raising a pig and working a horse, there were two large gardens. So, unbeknown to us, the myth of the self-sufficient Gardners was born. We knew nothing about it because we had nothing to do with hippie-homesteaders or their supporters and admirers. These were people who, despite pretensions to the contrary, had trust funds or other sources of plenty of cash. They were quite out of our class.
Nevertheless, they came to our door, all those people who admired the BSCL, and they kept coming (or writing) over the years. Nothing came of their appearances because they could never explain what they wanted, not clearly knowing themselves. I always asked them but they didn’t give me a straight-forward answer because, I think, farm life really baffled them. They had fantasies about it — they told us they were going to grow grain and weave their own wool and milk goats and build yurts — but since they didn’t really know anything they didn’t ask questions. They didn’t ask me what my forage crops were, or if corn could be grown so far north, or what was our calf mortality, or how many cows we could winter, or were four horses enough for a 100-acre farm? They looked at things, they avidly told us what they were going to do, and they went away. And still our reputation spread.
We never impressed Cape Bretoners that way, probably because they had given up what we were doing a generation ago, and the BSCL had no attractions for them. They thought we were just eccentric rich Americans. Or maybe we were drug dealers, a pervasive theme in the credulous countryside. Responding to the gossip, two policemen disguised as hippies, came to our farm to investigate. I was up in the woods so Jo Ann dealt with them. Understand that she is even more naïve than I am in such matters, so when the “hippies” asked to busy some “grass,” she sold them a selection of herbs.
A few hippie-homesteaders turned up in the 1970s, but the Cape Breton environment was so unforgiving that most of them soon went back to the States. We encountered them again, however, when we ran a youth hostel for a few years, and by then they had become very knowing. They subjected us to such remorseless grilling that I finally posted this notice in the kitchen:
We do not keep goats. We do not weave. We eat white sugar and white bread. We are not vegetarians. We do not eat sprouts. We’re not self-sufficient.
Although we didn’t come up to their standards, there we were year after year persisting in our ways. The following story, I think, will show something of the feeling about us. There was a hippie-homesteader couple from New Zealand living nearby who were forever planning to live the BSCL, and finally one spring declared they were going to travel around the island visiting other hippie-homesteaders to get the definitive lowdown. Returning in the fall, they were disgusted: as they scornfully announced, “You’re the only ones on the island doing what you say you do, but you do it for MONEY!”
How many hippie-homesteader magazines there were at the height of their flourishing I cannot say, but there were four prominent ones in the Northeast — in Nova Scotia, Maine, Vermont, and Ontario — that printed our work, and they were a godsend because they paid very well. Our involvement with them was a little delicate, as you can imagine, and this story illustrates the dilemma our reputation finally created. One of the magazines commissioned us to write an essay about raising an orphan lamb from birth to its final disposition.
I did most of the extensive research, reading books and government pamphlets, interviewing sheepmen, and so on, while Jo Ann wrote the introduction about the nature and occurrence of orphan lambs, citing the rhyme “Mary had a little lamb.” Since there was slaughtering and butchering involved, and we knew neither hippie-homesteaders nor their magazines were realistic about such matters, we wrote to the editor to tell him the essay mentioned blood and his readers might not like it, but he dismissed our concerns. When the piece was finally done (we were rather proud of it), we were still worried, so I hitched the mare to the express wagon and drove three miles to a phone to speak directly to the editor, who was again reassuring.
Of course, when he read the essay he was horrified, insisting that we cut out all the slaughtering and butchering, which we could easily do, but what was much worse was that he directed us to insert cutesy bits throughout, making the whole thing a travesty. A serious, helpful essay about how to perform successfully and efficiently a task of animal husbandry was to be turned into a silly entertainment. What I had written implicitly respected the readers; the editor’s version was contemptuous of them.
We didn’t reply at once — $1500 was a lot of money to us, and we hated to turn it down. It was the cutesy bits that stuck in our craw. We had not thought much about our reputation (although we knew by then we had one) but we knew it was comprised of forthright honesty and integrity. To write what the editor wanted would be a repudiation, not just of our writing but of ourselves. So we turned it down.
We went on writing for other such magazines, but not for long, because as soon as the hippie-homesteaders tired of their pretensions and became yuppies in the late 1980s, the magazines were doomed — the audience vanished and the magazines died. It was an interesting, instructive period, those fifteen or so years, and we learned much about writing, about ourselves, and about our relation to the times. Without all that experience we would not be the individuals or the writers we are today. *
Writers for Conservatives 57: The Scarlet Letter
When Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) published his first novel, The Scarlet Letter, in 1850, he was known only as a writer of odd, grim tales of obsessions, guilt, and witchcraft, most of them taking place against a somber Puritan background, a characterization which also fits the novel, although that's not the way it begins. The first chapter - "Introductory-The Customs House" - is a prosy account of his observations during the time he worked there in the 1840s. Salem, once a bustling port, was now an idle backwater, and Hawthorne's account of the aging idle employees is gently humorous. His purpose here is to establish the historical authenticity of the novel by his claim that in an attic he discovered a bundle of old documents as well as a remnant of the scarlet letter itself, a not uncommon literary device. That, however, is much less important than the effect produced when this chapter is succeeded in the second chapter by the story itself. Not only does the scene change to the Boston of 200 years before, but the prose itself, sportively ironic, gives way to straightforward grimness describing a stern reality. The transition is a shock (as it is meant to be) and from now until the end we shall be in this foreboding world.
The three significant characters are present in the first scene when Hester Prynne, the adulteress, with her babe in arms is led out from the jail to the scaffold where she is to be exhibited as a shameful warning. There she is exhorted to name her partner in sin by the saintly, reverent preacher, Dimmesdale, and it is covertly observed by her long lost (and presumed dead) husband, Roger Chillingworth. Although we are not told that Dimmesdale is her lover, alert readers will begin to suspect. Chillingworth's part in the story is soon revealed when he has an interview with her in the jail. He, a much older, scholarly man, married her in order to provide a comfortable home for his old age, and she had innocently acquiesced. Planning to emigrate to Boston from England, he had sent her on ahead, but when he followed he had been shipwrecked and held captive by Indians. In the jail interview he pledges her to silence about himself and swears to discover her lover.
The plot is easily outlined. Hester, shunned, lives in a cabin on the town's outskirts, becomes a nurse and purveyor of small charities to the poor (even as they scorn her), supporting herself by doing fine needlework for the town gentry. She fills the role of a martyr, but is a strong, stalwart character. Chillingworth, respected as a learned man and physician, becomes intimate with Dimmesdale and works to pry out his secret. Late in the book, Hester and Pearl (her child) and Dimmesdale meet by accident in the woods where Hester persuades him to flee with her to England on a ship that's leaving in a few days. Removing the scarlet letter, she lets down her luxuriant hair, an obvious clue to her strongly sensual nature. Pearl, an imp of perversity, clearly meant by the author to be not only the physical but also the symbolic fruit of their unlawful union, forces her mother to pin up her hair and replace the letter on her breast. Soon thereafter, Hester and Pearl are standing outside the meetinghouse where the minister is preaching his most eloquent sermon on the ceremonial day of the installation of the governor. She has already taken passage on the ship and learns now that Chillingworth has also done so. She sees him in the crowd looking triumphant as the dignitaries leave the meetinghouse in a procession and Dimmesdale pauses beside Hester and Pearl and, full of guilt and remorse, bids them stand with him on the scaffold where he publicly confesses his sin (to the chagrin of Chillingworth who tries to prevent the confession which will save the minister's soul) and dies.
Hawthorne's writings, even those dealing with his contemporary world, like The Blithedale Romance, are romances rather than realistic novels or stories. A romance does not try to chronicle the details of our quotidian lives, so, for instance, we never learn what Hester's cabin is like, nor do we ever see the ordinary street life of the town. The prose, therefore, dwells almost exclusively on the three main characters, on their thoughts and acts, so the book moves right along. My edition is nearly 400 pages long, bit it didn't seem so to me. Problems of circumstances, very important in novels, are managed perfunctorily in romances. So the marriage of Chillingworth and Hester, like the adulterous act between Dimmesdale and Hester, we accept as part of the conventional machinery of the story even if both seem highly unlikely. In a romance only character and atmosphere count, and while both may have melodramatic touches, they must be both powerful and believable. Hawthorne sometimes suggests that the scarlet letter glows with an unearthly light, and the minister, when he bares his breast at the end may seem to reveal the letter burnt into his breast, and Chillingworth may seem not unlike Bela Lugosi in "Dracula," but we never doubt for a moment Hester's corporeality, Dimmesdale's guilt and weakness, or Chillingworth's sadistic malevolence.
It is possible to write historically accurate fiction (as Kenneth Roberts did), but Hawthorne's past is conceived in terms of romance. The past 200 years that he sketchily outlines in dark hues enables him to surround the characters and events with the drama of the stern rigors of Puritan Calvinism, thus giving the situation of Hester and Dimmesdale a plausible and portentous background. And he can get away with such melodramatic touches as having the governor's sister suggest to Hester a witch's coven in the woods. The book is permeated by darkness: the dark woods, the black clothing of the dignitaries, the night scenes. One of the most striking scenes occurs when the minister, agitated by guilt and remorse, stands alone on the scaffold and gives one unheeded shriek into the darkness. Soon thereafter, returning from a vigil at a sick bed, Hester and Pearl appear and Dimmesdale invites them to stand beside him. Pearl asks him to repeat that in broad daylight, but he promises to so only on the Judgment Day. A brilliant light from a meteor illumines the scene, and what does the minister see?
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own mind and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter - the letter A - marked out in the lines of dull red light
He also sees:
Roger Chillingworth . . . standing there with a smile and scowl, to claim his own.
In the space of moments in time and half a page of prose, Hawthorne brings his characters again together in their destined roles, the whole scene obviously one of romance.
Hawthorne's meaning - that unexpiated sin cuts us off from our fellows and dooms us - is difficult for modern sensibilities to accept, and that the sin in this case is adultery offends the contemporary mind in which unbridled sexuality has joined life, liberty, and happiness as another one of our inalienable rights. So a movie of the book was made a few years ago with a "happy ending." I'll bet that most readers of the scene in the woods where Hester lets her hair down are ardently on her side when she persuades him to run off with her. But the moral of the story is not what the discerning reader (and all my readers are discerning) carries away with him when he reads the book. What he vividly remembers is the clash of brilliantly limned passionate characters portrayed against a darkly ominous background. That is Hawthorne's great achievement. We do not forget it, just as we do not forget other passionate American characters like Captain Ahab. This is a triumph, the first truly American work of fiction.
His stories are Twice-Told Tales and Mosses From an Old Manse, and The Show Image. A novel with the setting of the Brook Farm utopian experiment (in which Hawthorne played a small part) is The Blithedale Romance. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: My Days as a Hedge Vet
The word "hedge" before the name of an occupation, as hedge carpenter, hedge mechanic, means that the practitioner, while he may be able, is outside professional lines; he has no official status, and in these dreadfully officious times, the name is disparaging. Not so in the past, especially in the countryside. In the Cape Breton countryside, for instance, where there were no vets at all until well after the war, the doctoring of animals, such as it was, was done by amateurs, men who had some knowledge of and affinity with animals, men who were known over a wide area for their skills. They performed a useful service in a time of need.
My career as a hedge vet was not cast in the heroic mould of the recent past, because, for one thing, there was a regular vet who could be called upon. In the first dozen years, while there were still farms and animals in the area, my usual role was the follow-up to the vet when he gave instructions for further treatment which the local people were reluctant to do - because, as I explained in a piece on plowing in these pages, Cape Bretoners were reluctant farmers, uncomfortable with animals. Tell such a man that he has to stick a large needle in the rump of his 1300-pound horse everyday for a week, and you can be sure it will be Jigs Gardner who does it. I was also in demand for castrating calves and piglets. It was not that I was especially gifted or courageous, but I had naturally learned how, within limits, to take care of our animals. You can't be calling the vet every time there's a problem. I had a vet book, and I had medicines, I had implements. We called on the vet now and then, and he would drop in for a cup of tea when he was in the area, so over the years we had become friends. I don't think money ever changed hands; he would take his fee in bacon or smoked fish, especially mackerel. He had worked on the island since the 1950s, and he had some rare stories.
By the late '80s the countryside had finally emptied out, and there was only one farm left, besides ours, in the whole of the Backlands, and that place was a source of tribulations for the vet. Into the early '80s it had been a typical subsistence farm of the area where the family lived, sparely, off the land and the sea: salt cod and herring, potatoes and turnips and cabbage, milk and butter and curds from a herd of animals that looked as unlike cows as possible and could still be cows, rough, fierce, horned beasts. But when the grandfather died, the family fell apart, and only one son, Alex, was left with his mother, Mary. He had been crippled in a bad accident, and I think there was some brain damage, too. With great fortitude he had taught himself to walk again, and he was determined to keep the farm running, to milk the cows and mow the hay and keep up with the plowing.
Admirable, even courageous, and you may be sure we helped him when we could, but I warn you: do not sentimentalize Alex. His cattle, half wild at best, were always getting into desperate straits from which the vet would have to extract them, but since Mary begrudged money spent on the vet, Alex would put off calling him until the last extremity. Then Alex always failed to follow the vet's instructions about continuing care, so the animal would relapse, the vet would be called again, Mary would scream and yell, and the vet would wish he'd gone into dentistry.
All this was going on three miles away beyond my ken, but at last I was drawn in simply because Mary put her foot down and refused to pay for follow-up calls. Our first mutual case seemed unremarkable but it established a pattern. Browncow (Alex called all his animals by their color) had foot rot, easily treated: cut away rotted tissue on the bottom of the hoof, scrub with a wire brush dipped in disinfectant like hydrogen peroxide, smear on sulfa ointment, bandage. After a couple of days, remove bandage, put her out to pasture, and keep her away from muck or manure. The vet had done his job; all Alex had to do was keep Browncow in the stable. Now the cow had had a relapse - would I come and give her a treatment?
As he drove me to his farm, I questioned him closely, and it was as I had feared: he had turned Browncow out in the barnyard for water. Picture the barnyard scene: junked cars, old tires, manure heaps, stagnant pools, broken glass. So I treated the cow - not easy, because the animals weren't handled much, which makes for wildness - and told Alex to pick me up in the morning so I could check on Browncow. I did that for two days, thus making sure Alex didn't turn her into the barnyard. Then we turned her out into a dry pasture. I retired, patting myself on the back.
That was in June. One morning in August Alex came barreling up the drive. Quick! An emergency! Whitecow this time. According to him, a few days ago Whitecow had turned up at the barn with a dead branch sticking through her brisket. But, as the vet later told me, it wasn't that straightforward. Quite evidently the stick had been in there for a few days before Alex had noticed it, and the wound was badly infected. How it had happened, the Lord only knows, but the vet had extracted the sharp stub, cleaned the wound, and told Alex how to care for it: he was to run a thin rod, wrapped 'round with gauze soaked in iodine, through the hole twice a day until the wound stopped discharging and began to dry up. He administered a large shot of antibiotics. Of course, Alex was too frightened to do as he was told, and now the wound was a suppurating mess. I did the job all right and gave Whitecow my last shot of antibiotics. I went back for three days until the wound healed.
The vet came by a week later for some bacon, and I asked for antibiotics and iodine. He raised his eyebrows. "What are you doing with the stuff? You use more medicine than farmers with barnsful of cows!" "Ah, but they don't have Alex to take care of," and I told him what I had been doing.
"Look: I'm doing your work, saving you the trouble and annoyance of dealing with his troubles. If you don't want to put me on the payroll, the least you could do is give me some medicine."
Next May, Alex came rushing up the lane with another emergency: his two-year-old bull, not quite as big as a cow, could no longer be contained in his stall and was rampaging around in the cow stable - would I come and deal with it? He had neither a collar nor a halter on it, and he didn't know what to do. He was quite frantic, and I didn't blame him - a bull running around loose in a cow stable! Thinking carefully about what might be required, I brought along a number of tools.
Let me set the scene: the stable is dirty and dark with a low ceiling and no windows, only shutters. The first thing I did was hit my head on a roof beam on my way to open the shutters, which disclosed the bull closely wedged between Browncow and Whitecow. I asked Alex for the halter. Nothing. I turned around to see him huddled in a corner with his arms wrapped around his head. I went out to the truck, got my halter, and by reaching around a cow, managed to get the halter on the bull and by a steady pull, with much cajolery, backed out the bull and got him into his narrow stall at the end of the stable. Standing there in the corner with the bull, I had to talk Alex up on his feet and out the door, around to the feed hatch in front of the bull. When he opened the hatch, I gave him the halter rope: "Don't let it go!"
Fitting a light chain around the bull's neck, I closed it with one of those chain repair links that screws together. With a brace and bit I drilled a hole though the corner post, shoved through a ringbolt, and screwed the nut tight. Securing snaps to another, larger piece of light chain, I snapped it to the bull's collar and then to the ringbolt. Before I removed the halter rope I showed Alex the chain collar and told him that as the bull grew, the chain would tighten and bite into his neck - I had seen that happen with one of our steers - so I had left enough extra length on the chain so he could move the repair link, thus expanding the collar. I emphasized this point several times. And I gave him the halter, which had a long lead rope; I had seen his with its foot-long lead. You can imagine the leverage he had with that.
Knowing Alex by how, you know what happened: he forgot to lengthen the chain and by September it was thoroughly embedded in the poor bull's neck. Of course, that's when he came to me. We managed to get it off, but it took much care with iodine and a wide soft bandage and lots of antibiotics before we could get a leather halter on him.
My last job for Alex wasn't exactly in the vet line. I had a Jersey bull, and he wanted to breed it to Redcow (by then he had sold his bull). He was afraid to take her in his pickup, fearing (probably correctly) that she'd manage to jump out, so he devised this scheme: his mother would walk Redcow the first mile, Alex would walk it the second mile, and I would take over for the home stretch. Sure, I said, anytime. You think I was out of my mind, but you must understand that Alex was always coming up with cockamamie schemes that never amounted to anything. He kept muttering about it all summer, but I paid no attention.
One September day a friend, Willie, drove in with a cattle box on his pickup, bringing with him a heifer for my bull to breed. We went to the barn, did the job, and were about to load the heifer back on the truck when Alex drove in, excited: the day had arrived! Mary was all ready to start walking Redcow as soon as I gave the word. I looked at Willie. It was Providential. We put the heifer in the stable, loaded the bull in the truck, and set off.
We parked about ten yards from Alex's stable and unloaded the bull. Meanwhile, Alex went in the stable. Long silence. Then banging and crashing. More silence. Then I made a big mistake: I asked Willie if he'd go in and give Alex a hand. Knowing Alex's ways, I should have gone; I never would have let him pass off that short halter on me. Willie disappeared in the stable. More noises. Suddenly the door flew open and Redcow shot out with Willie beside her holding, not my halter with the long lead rope, but that wretched thing of Alex's. Redcow charged around the lovely barnyard, dragging Willie through muck heaps and around junked cars before he had to let go. Redcow crashed through a fence, flew across a field and headed for the woods, tail in the air. Alex was in dogged pursuit.
It was the last time I saw him. The snows were heavy that year, and our lane was blocked until May tenth, when we moved back to the States, where, incidentally, I'm still a hedge vet. *
Writers for Conservatives 56: Reveille in Washington, D.C.
Margaret Leech wrote two notable histories, this one and an excellent biography of William McKinley. Reveille is an account of Washington from 1800 to 1865 and, so far as I know, it has never been equaled. A study of the bibliography shows that nearly all her sources were written at the time or shortly after the war by participants in the life she describes. Insofar as possible, she has described the city as it appeared to a wide range of the city's permanent and temporary inhabitants at the time.
The first chapter opens with a description of the aged Winfield Scott, general of the army, and goes on to place him in the context of the city: "It was a Southern town, without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder, and the want of sanitation" at the end of a recital of the primitive conditions she says, "It was a mere ambitious beginner, a baby among capitals. Its defects were those of youth and energy and inexperience." The second chapter deals with the secession crisis as it appeared in Washington during the waning days of the Buchanan administration, followed by Lincoln's arrival in late February and the ensuing inauguration. True to her method of reporting the mundane, she quotes only two sentences of the speech, framing it in a reminiscence by Thurlow Weed, the New York politician, of his encounter with Generals Scott and Weed, ancient veterans of the 1812 War in which Weed had been a drummer boy.
Effulgent with that sentimentality to which the corrupt are prone, he gazed with veneration on the heroes of his boyhood, and failed to see in the antique tableau . . . a presentation of the Union's unpreparedness for long and bloody war.
Much attention is given to the street life of the city, describing in detail the flagrant disorders brought on by harlotry, drinking, and gambling uncontrolled by the inadequate police force. In northern cities, madams closed their brothels, moving to Washington to take advantage of a burgeoning city full of men absent from home. In 1862 there were 450 registered houses there, and next year 5,000 prostitutes were claimed to be in the city. We hear of
. . . summary roundups of criminals and vagrants who showed their faces in the capital. Handcuffed and labeled with large red placards bearing words, "pickpocket and thief," they were paraded on the avenue . . . followed by a fife and drum corps playing "The Rogues" March.
A whole chapter is devoted to the care of the wounded, and the tribulations of the female nurses, received at first with hostility, are sympathetically told. There is also a perceptive chapter on the complex, unhappy character of Mrs. Lincoln. Part of the illusion of contemporaneousness, the information we receive about battles is just what the people of Washington received at the time, fragmentary and distorted, only straightened out after several days. The battles themselves, momentous as they seem to us now, are "noises off" from Washington.
We know that the war shaped those lives in ways that the actors could not perceive, so there is an underlying irony in the book. I do not mean the blatant irony of Thurlow Weed admiring the old generals, nor do I mean the obvious irony that shows between our conscious goals and the results. I mean something more subtle: the Civil War, the most stupendous and defining event in our history, has called all these actors onto the stage, something only vaguely known to most of the actors and fully understood by no one. They go on eating (naturally a lot of attention is paid to food), drinking, fornicating, fighting, scheming, being brave and craven, and the war, with its 700,000 dead, grinds on to the end - off stage.
Not simply a chronicle of the streets, the book deals with the higher echelons of the war effort, with the generals and politicians, with McClellan and Burnside and Hooker, with Lincoln and Stanton. Her treatment of the latter two is not only shallow but reflects the received opinions of the time (the book was written in the 1930s), so Lincoln is a saint, at war with the vengeful Radical Republicans, and Stanton is a power-mad despot. This was the history taught in the schools in the '40s. It must be remembered that once the war was over, Northerners, secure in their righteous victory, turned to the settling of the West and the business of business, finally shedding any lingering responsibility for the freedmen with the election of Hayes in 1876. Southerners lost not only the war, but also their land was devastated and their economy ruined, and their former slaves were, for a time, prominent in Reconstruction governments. Their situation was psychologically disastrous, so they created the myth of the romantic Lost Cause of state sovereignty dressed in the poses of cavaliers and highborn ladies and happy slaves. Slavery as an issue, as the issue that caused the war, simply vanished. Southerners, therefore, as the only people interested in the subject, were the ones who wrote the histories, right up until the '50s and '60s when much less biased histories were written. I remember asking one of my colleagues in the history department in the 1960s what he thought of one of the new books on Reconstruction, and he was exasperated. "Next thing you know, they'll deny the whole era!"
The Southern myths still exist, but they no longer dominate the field, and there have been so many excellent studies of the war, as well as of the antebellum South and Reconstruction, that we now have a much deeper, more comprehensive knowledge of the era than we had jut 25 years ago. It is apparent, for instance, that although many Radical Republicans mistrusted Lincoln and thought him too moderate, he used them for his own purposes. Far from being a saint, he was a master politician. It is also clear now that he was being cautious in his first tentative steps toward Reconstruction, and he would never have tolerated Southern attempts to reestablish the old regime, as with the Black Codes.
Those aspects of the book can easily be discounted. We know better now and can ignore the historical prejudices while we enjoy the ever-moving panorama of the city. Upon reflection, this brings up some more thoughts about history. When we read the best books about the Civil War today we get a synoptic view, by which I mean that though it contains many details, they only fill out the picture, give it life - the main lines are already drawn, as we know even before Yorktown that McClellan is already afraid to face what he imagines to be overwhelming numbers, that he will never fully commit his troops to battle, neither before Richmond nor at Antietam; we know that the Emancipation Proclamation will change the nature of the war. We read about the events again and again because we get fresh ideas, detect nuances we had not seen, we learn more. We can never learn enough about any historical event to understand it thoroughly, but with the reliable synoptic histories we get the illusions that we know it all. What this book about Washington does is to make us see that immediate knowledge, for instance, the news about the battles that trickles back to the city in distorted fragments, is what the actors know at the time. No one at the time has synoptic knowledge, although Lincoln had a tentative vision of it when he entrusted everything to Grant. As he told him, he didn't want to know his plans; he trusted him to pursue the war to its end.
What I am trying to say is that modern synoptic histories (like Bruce Catton's) may be true to us now, but they would not be true to those living at the time; for them, the immediate details (as in Miss Leech's book) are in the front of their minds, and if we want to understand history we must have not only as well-informed a synoptic view as possible, but we must try to take account of what is in the minds of the actors at the time.
I wrote an essay in this series called "Historians, the South, and the Civil War," and I should like now in the light of subsequent knowledge (like Miss Leech's book), to modify my judgment of Grady McWhiney for failing to see how stupid Jefferson Davis was because he didn't see the obvious futility of secession. We must remember that since the 1830s, when Britain outlawed slavery in Jamaica and began the suppression of the slave trade, and abolitionism began growing in the North, that Southern guilt and consequent denial of the evils of slavery became ever more vehement (only the guilty would feel the need to ban abolitionist papers from the mails). Under those conditions, the prospect of secession would not seem so insane. Viewed from the contemporary perspective, it has some logic. Southerners were suffering from longstanding delusionary thinking, and eventually they would pay dearly for it. That Davis never understood that is a mark of his mediocrity.
It is also delusionary to think, as historians sometimes do, that there were times of discouragement when, with a little more pressure, the North might have given up the struggle. The North, looking west, had become a national culture unlike the regional, provincial South, and the Union was an almost mystical concept; it would never be given up. The actions of Grant and Sherman in the last year of the war show that.
I can recommend an excellent short (121 pages) book by a Southern historian, Bell Irvin Wiley, on the reasons for the South's defeat: The Road to Appomattox (1956). Look it up in your library. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Memorabilia
I am looking at a small shallow box, three inches by four inches by three quarters of an inch made, so a note inside says, out of a shingle from the house of my father's grandmother, taken when the house was razed in 1927 to make way for a road. Beside the box on my desk are two copper plates used for printing photos in a newspaper, one showing four shadowy images of my father and comrades on an Italian airfield where he served as a pilot in World War I. The other is a large image of my parents and their four children posed in front of our fireplace, a publicity photo for his 1936 campaign for state senator. I am sitting on my mother's lap, a very cute three-year old. Holding down a chaotic heap of papers at the back of my desk is a cedar box containing two silver-backed hairbrushes, military brushes I think they're called, that belonged to my father. Heaven knows when they were last used; judging from the publicity photo, he didn't have much hair to brush in 1936.
As people die, their treasured possessions are passed on to other family members, and since I am now the last surviving member of my generation in the family, all manner of things have been coming my way from my nephews and nieces - papers, photos, documents, and objects like the ones I have just described. Feeling an obligation as the last surviving, etc., I have conscientiously sorted through everything, consigning to the flames most of the papers, obviously of no significance, such as the tabulation of votes for mayor in the 1946 election in my hometown, or a very bad 1937 newspaper photo of Mother on the telephone, illustrating the story of how she had been threatened with the kidnapping of her children if my father didn't stop pushing a drugs law he was sponsoring in the state senate.
I have saved documents: Father's diploma from Fordham Law School in 1922, his diploma from the same high school where I graduated 38 years later, his honorable discharge from the Army Signal Corps (to which airmen then belonged) in 1918, an account of the first Gardner on these shores in 1630, who owned Gardiner's Island in Long Island Sound (our motto: praesto pro patria, "I stand for my country"). And plenty of photographs, but too few I can identify. They have family names - Ingraham, Durlin, Folger, Copland - but beyond that I can say nothing. There are two snapshots of Mother's father, Grampa Wynne, with his father-in-law, a well-known minister in Wisconsin, still remembered there today. He was friendly with the local Indians, the Menominees, who used to visit him in the rectory where they would speak in the Indian tongue. As a result of that connection, the Indians allowed Grampa to fish on their reservation up north, and he would drive up in his '31 Chevy coupe (which I later owned) and catch so many trout that he would pack them in a barrel of ice and send them by train to his friends in Madison.
All this delving and saving and throwing away has reminded me that I am well up in years, and that soon enough my children will be faced by my artifacts, so I determined to do the winnowing myself right now. I was ruthless, stuffing pages clipped from magazines, pieces I had read and enjoyed 30 and 40 years ago, into the stove, watching the yellowed pages shrink and blacken and burn. I saved copies of my published writings, but burned the unpublished things, the essays that I could never get right, the stories that started well but died. At last I came upon a folder that presented me with a question that lay in wait for me as soon as I took up my pen to write "Memorabilia": Why do we save what we do? That folder contains page after page of the Greek text of Homer's Iliad, neatly copied into two notebooks with my notes about grammatical points written above the words, testimony to the years when I studied Greek. It also contains all the papers I wrote in graduate school.
Today all the Greek I remember are the first dozen lines of the Iliad, and if I thought the Review's printer had a Greek typeface, I would, as a bit of swank, recite those lines. Of what possible use are these pages, which I cannot bear to destroy, to my children? How about my paper on Chaucer? Or on Walt Whitman? Will they want to read my ideas about the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels? Why can't I throw them away? They remind me of a past long buried under my farming life, a past I cannot forget and that still bends my words to its will. Without those desires, without that learning and training I could not think nor write as I do - and I would not be who I am. At the heart of our memorabilia, the things we cannot bear to part with are ourselves as we remember ourselves. I am still the young man who wanted to learn Greek, still the young man who was fascinated by the study of literature, and I am also the old man who recalls all that as well as the 40 years of farming performed by that same man . . . Memorabilia. *