Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
The question of the Americaness of our literature arose early in the 19th century when we were full of the ginger of nationalism. It was felt that as a new nation, and one cast in a new mold, we should create a literature significantly different and superior to the literature of the Old World (especially Great Britain). The popularity of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving was partly due to the knowledge that their subjects were distinctively American. But still, were they American enough? It was thought that the treatment of their subjects - the writing style, the attitude to their material - was lacking in some way, was still not American enough.
By the end of the century, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser were pushing our literature in new and distinctly native ways, but it was after World War I when an outburst of new, often experimental writing made observers speak of an American Renaissance. It was then that the idea of the Great American Novel arose, a concept still being talked about in the 1940s. A new novel by Faulkner or Hemingway was looked forward to with anticipation, and young men in garrets were reputedly typing away like mad on the latest entry in the sweepstakes. It was vaguely thought that the Great One had to be an epic, a saga, words which conveyed sweeping narrative historical (Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln would make cameo appearances), geographical (he would range over the country and would Go West), and political (he would fight corruption in high and low places), and sexual (his mate would be a deep-breasted daughter of the soil). There were actually some novels like that published after the war.
So, to a superficial glance, the quest for the Great American Novel: But at bottom, it is a serious business, because consummate art can be the expression of our essence, of what we are as individuals and as a nation. Distracted by mundane details, and in the case of too many conservatives, by politics, we forget that the details and the politics all grow out of our culture, our broad identity as thinking and feeling beings bearing within us the ideas and hopes and fears of a rich American past. We do not consciously know it, but we yearn for explications of ourselves, and it is the supreme task of art to give it to us.
Well, the Renaissance turned out to be a flop, and besides, the Great American Novel had already been written not once but thrice: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady will stand as long as the Republic is remembered as our greatest contribution to world literature in the novel line and, like the Republic itself, they are all about the confrontation of American innocence with the sinful world.
Now, in the face of all my mockery, I am going to tell you about a huge novel published in 1948, a bestseller and obviously a contender for the title, which is yet a fine novel which I can recommend for your reading pleasure: Raintree County by Ross Lockridge.
The first thing to understand is the book's technique, its organization. It chronicles a day, July 4th, 1892, in a village in Indiana, the birthplace and home of the protagonist John Wicklif Shawnessy, whose life, going back to his birth in 1842, is told in a series of flashbacks, so we move back and forth from the July day in 1892 to vivid scenes from the past, the most memorable being from the 1850s and 60s. A list of the flashbacks, in chronological order, is given in the beginning of the book for the reader's convenience, but it is best, I think, to read the book as it is written. Transitions from the present to the past are managed adroitly by merging the last sentence of an episode with the first sentence of the next, thus:
So in the still night he dreamed a fair young dream of going . . .
. . . Westward, the National Road pursued its ways.
The band is playing Yankee Doodle for . . .
. . . A big crowd of people had poured into the Court House Square.
It seems to me that the frequent shifts of time and scene give the story an excitement, a tension that make the long narrative much more interesting than if it were told in a straightforward way. Key events, like what happens to Johnny's first wife, are kept back until late in the book, and the most significant event, Johnny's return from the Civil War and what he found on his return, is not revealed until near the end. That placement gives these events more impact. They have been held back because they are so traumatic to Johnny, and now we realize their full force because we have long known the turns his life has taken because of those shocking events.
Johnny is a classic American hero: clean-cut, ingenuous, naive, shy, intelligent, handsome, humble. At the same time that he fulfills that well-known role, he has a rich inner life, displayed throughout the book. He is writing an epic poem about Raintree County, centering around the legend that Johnny Appleseed planted an exotic tree, the raintree with its yellow flowers, somewhere in the county. There have been two sightings of the tree, once by Johnny when he, drunk with liquor and sexual triumph, is making love to Susannah Drake near Paradise Lake after the famous footrace on July 4th, 1859. Under the circumstances he doesn't realize it until afterwards. The other sighting is by his very young daughter, Eva, who, lost in the swamp around Paradise Lake, falls asleep under the tree, beside two rocks marked with Johnny Appleseed's initials. She wakes, wanders off, and is found by her father, who discovers the yellow flowers in her pinafore pocket.
The myth and its meaning is discussed at length, especially at the end of the day (and the book) with "Professor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles (his initials are the same as Johnny's, indicating that he represents a side of the hero that is sardonically cynical), after Johnny the most interesting character in the book. He first appears when he establishes an "academy" in the town attended by Johnny and Nell Gaither, the predestined, but frustrated lovers. When Stiles tries to run away with the minister's wife, Johnny rescues him from a mob and spirits him away on a train. He later turns up in Johnny's life and is always amusing.
There are a number of walk-on parts but few major characters: Johnny's father, a country doctor, preacher, and herbalist; his mother, the three women in his life - Nell Gaither, Susannah Drake, Esther Root - Garwood Jones, Cassius Carney, Flash Perkins. The last named, a hard-drinking innocent rustic, Johnny's rival in foot racing, serves with him in Sherman's army. Carney, a young man with his eye on the financial main chance, finally becomes a big financier. Garwood, Johnny's rival in love, is a budding politician who becomes by the end of the book, a U.S. Senator.
In the 1850s, Garwood and Johnny are rival columnists for two weekly papers in the county: The Whig/GOP Free Enquirer for which Johnny (anonymously) writes a column signed Will Westward, featuring interviews with a salty rustic Seth Twigs, and the Democratic Freehaven Clarion where the "rising young orator" Garwood writes a column by "Dan Populus." These columns, and other excerpts from imaginary newspapers appear frequently in the book, reminding us of those raucous papers of the day, supply much local color, but also add imaginative and ironic commentary on the events. The first page of the book is an excerpt from the Free Enquirer heralding the day.
Lockridge believes the received truth that post-Civil War America was despoiled by robber barons, so Garwood Jones and Cassius Carney become symbolic figures of political cynicism and financial ruthlessness, but we need not let that spoil the book for us; the stereotypes, after all, are amusing, and although Johnny is condescended to by these illustrious sons of the county, we do not see him that way at all. Although the conventional view of the Gilded Age is grotesquely oversimplified, it is true that the pastoral America of antebellum days was replaced by an industrializing society. The village where Johnny was born in 1842, Danwebster, symbolically named, is now abandoned.
War had discovered in him a simple human being who clung yearningly and without criticism to the most ancient beliefs of the Republic. They made it possible for him to endure. They justified his agony. This agony was so great and terrible that only by infusing it with an ideal quality crudely religious in its fervors could it be endured. Only an intensely sentimental soldier in an intensely sentimental Republic could have fought and endured the Civil War.
Not only do I think those words are true about the Civil War, I think they are an accurate description of antebellum America; they certainly describe the picture Lockridge paints of the era, and that time echoes throughout the book. The courthouse clock in the engraving in the Atlas is indeed stopped, and Johnny still lives, to a degree, in that time which ended when he came back from the war and came upon a tombstone in the
Throughout the book there are arguments and discussions, mostly about weighty matters, among Johnny, Stiles, and Garwood (sometimes) that are thoughtful, intelligent, crass, stupid, reflective of the time and the personalities of the speakers. They are the counterpart to the events of the day and of the past, and the way Lockridge weaves them all together so that everything - happenings as well as discussions and ruminations - works together is one of the book's greatest feats.
Raintree County, of course, has a Meaning about the self and the Republic, and love, but I'll let you discover it for yourself. It is obvious from the start that such a grand (not to say grandiose) project must be an attempt to define America, and so it is. Although the definitive idea is voiced in the final conversation of Johnny and Stiles at the end of the book, it is implicit from the beginning, as on the reverse of the title page.
Raintree County is not the country of the perishable fact. It is the country of the enduring fiction. The clock in the courthouse tower on p. 5 of Raintree County Atlas is always fixed at 9 o'clock, and it is summer and the days are long.
What Ross Lockridge gives us is a moving portrait of a romantic conception of antebellum mid-western American. *
Beginning his third year at Harvard, Richard Dana, of distinguished New England ancestry, contracted measles that affected his eyesight. Facing the tedium of a long convalescence, he chose to embark as a common sailor aboard the brig Pilgrim, sailing to California for trading purposes. Returning to Boston in 1836 after two years, he resumed his studies, graduated and went on to law school, during which he wrote this account of the voyage, published in 1840. Shipboard life had never been described from such a viewpoint. It was a great success, and it is rightfully regarded as an American classic.
What makes the book so interesting is Dana's character: he's intelligent, curious, sensitive, warmhearted, strong-minded, and amazingly adaptable, but what makes his character clear to us is the writing style, which is clear, concise, unambiguous, supple, and sensitive. Nothing is vague or false. Dana's prose is not so subtle as Thoreau's nor so masterful as Teddy Roosevelt's, but it is in that tradition.
Of course he is seasick at first and unused to the labor, but he knows how important it is for him, privileged and educated, to be seen sharing the common burdens, and he soon catches on and becomes inured to the work, and later even volunteers for hazardous tasks. His account of the sailing is exciting, even breathtaking, as when he describes furling a frozen topsail high above the pitching deck, at night in a gale off Cape Horn. To most of us today the names and functions of the sails and rigging must be opaque, but by naming them and describing the sailor's efforts we get a vivid sense of the tasks and the whole voyage.
Beside the voyage itself and the incidents of life aboard ship, the book is fascinating because it is a full account of life in California, then a sparsely settled province of Mexico. The brig is engaged in trade, selling goods from an improvised store set up in the ship.
Our cargo was an assorted one; that is, it consisted of everything under the sun. We had spirits of all kinds (sold by the cask), teas, coffee, sugars, spices, raisins, molasses, hardware, crockery-ware, tinware, cutlery, clothing of all kinds, boots and shoes from Lynn, calicoes and cottons from Lowell, crepes, silks; also shawls, scarfs, necklaces, jewelry, and combs for the ladies; furniture; and in fact, everything that can be imagined, from Chinese fire-works to English cart-wheels - of which we had a dozen pairs with their iron rims on.
The sailors are kept busy freighting customers and their purchases back and forth from ship to shore, but their main activity is collecting cowhides (as well as tallow and horns) for shipment back to Boston. Hides were the main product of California then, and some idea of the commerce will be gained when you know that the ship on which Dana returned home was heavily laden with 40,000 hides. The inland missions were the sellers. There the cattle were slaughtered, the hides were dried, and then they were transported to the shore where ships picked them up to take them to San Diego where they were cleaned, cured and stored in large warehouses. It was the job of the brig (and other ships from other buyers) to sail up and down the coast, trading and collecting hides.
It must be kept in mind that the places where the sailors pick up the hides, the ports so to speak - Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, San Francisco - were insignificant, merely open beaches. The small population lived inland at the mission or presidios. But at San Juan they must toil up a steep hill, 400 feet high, carrying trade goods, and then they have to throw the hides downhill to the shore.
Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far into the air as we could; and they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book. The wind took them and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water, and as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height; the scaling of the hides; and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach! This was the romance of hide-droghing!
Ashore on liberty, the sailors walk inland to San Diego and immediately go to a pulperia, a crude saloon, and here Dana displays his tact. He and his Boston friend want to go horseback riding, but he knows that if they don't follow the drinking customs of their shipmates (paying for a round) they'll be looked at askance as effete snobs. So they pay their dues, as it were, and go riding afterwards.
The fine air of the afternoon; the rapid rate of the animals, who seemed almost to fly over the ground; and the excitement and novelty of the motion to us, who had been so long confined on shipboard, were exhilarating beyond expression, and we felt willing to ride all day long.
Dana is always alert to the life around him on his occasional days of liberty, and when he is put ashore in San Diego for four months to help with the curing of the hides we learn a great deal more. There are six workers: Dana, a Frenchman, and four Kanakas from Hawaii, or as they were called then, the Sandwich Islands; the author explains them (he had great respect for them) as well as the task, thus pleasing this reader at least (I am always vexed when a writer mentions a procedure but doesn't explain it). First they soak the hides in seawater for two days, then they immerse them in vats filled with a very salty brine for another two days. They stake them out to dry, trimming and cleaning them, finally scraping the hides to remove any grease. They are beaten with flails to remove any dust and then are stacked in the warehouse. Each man processed twenty-five hides each day. Having approximately the same amount of work to do every day and leisure afterwards, they worked with a will, finishing early in the afternoon. Dana spent most of his spare time reading, writing, and mending his clothes. They kept a horse that they used to catch others for rides about the country and to the presidio.
He goes back to sea duty at the end of the summer by joining the crew of the Catalina, where he meets new shipmates, men of varied, even amazing, backgrounds, not uncommon at a time when ship's crews were composed of men from all over the world.
When they sail for home down the coast of South America, they reach Cape Horn in the depth of the southern winter, a fearsome time, and Dana's account of their passage is hair-raising.
The final chapter tells of his visit to California in 1859, of course registering the profound changes wrought in those twenty some years.
Dana became a distinguished lawyer, known for his advocacy of seamen's rights, and Lincoln appointed him U.S. District Attorney of Massachusetts. He argued before the Supreme Court the famous "Prize Cases" dealing with the depredations of the Confederate commerce raiders built in Great Britain during the Civil War. He died in 1882, full of honors, but he is best remembered for what he did and wrote about when he was a twenty-year-old sailor. *
When I last wrote about Teddy Roosevelt, #14 in this series, I was interested only in his historical work and his books about ranching in the Dakota Territory, especially in his expository prose, describing it as second only to Thoreau's. I said:
Reading him is like being in the company of a fascinating man of great character and intellect who speaks clearly and gracefully of his experiences.
I was not unacquainted with his writing at the time because I had read The Winning of the West as well as five volumes of his Selected Letters a few years before, but it was not until I recently read a Penguin book, Theodore Roosevelt, an American Mind. Selected Writings, that the full impact of the man in today's context became clear. The politically correct professor, who's obviously scared to death of T.R., has done a good job of selecting and editing the pieces (and writing condescending prefaces), arranging them under convenient headings: The Rough Rider, The Historian, On Politics, On Women, and so on.
By "today's context" I mean the dreadful miasma of political correctness that has spread across the land over the last twenty years or so, censoring speech, wringing apologies from the mildest of offenders, enforcing a regime of lies and hypocrisy, preventing any contrary thoughts and actions. Reading T. R.'s forthright prose in Year Five of Obama is shocking. His views, of course, are anathema: patriotism, strongly differentiated sex roles, motherhood, anti-Greenism (he was a strong conservationist for use), manliness, but it is clear that forceful articulation of his ideas is what is so striking today. He was controversial in his own time; today he is outrageous.
During the past three centuries the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world's waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world's history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its effects and its importance.
It was wholly impossible to avoid conflicts with the weaker race, unless we were willing to see the American continent fall into the hands of some other strong power, and even had we adopted such a ludicrous policy, the Indians themselves would have been upon us.
The worst foe of the poor man is the labor leader, whether philanthropist or politician, who tries to teach him that he is a victim of conspiracy and injustice, when in reality he is merely working out his fate with blood and sweat as the immense majority of men who are worthy of the name always have done and always will have to do.
The patriotism of the village or the belfry is bad, but the lack of all patriotism is even worse.
Those opinions are mildly or wholly controversial, but their expression, so direct, so without qualification or obfuscation is striking; that's what makes people uncomfortable.
Let us not allow the issue of T. R.'s political incorrectness to get in the way of thoughtful consideration of his ideas. Conservatives are very critical of T. R. because of his Progressivism, essentially a preview of F. D. R.'s New Deal, a program displayed in his 1910 speech, "The New Nationalism," which launched his campaign for the GOP nomination in 1912. He called for
. . . a policy of a far more active government interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had . . .
Clearly he meant to aggrandize the power of the government in Washington, and he went even further in his 1912 speech to the Progressive convention:
The betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the National Government.
He was the enemy of "special interests" which he thought were fostered by "over division of government powers," making the national government important in the face of state powers. He believed, naively, that Washington would rout those interests while efficiently promoting the true interests of all the people. Poor man! His simplicity on this score - the more the government grew, the more money it took in and spent, the more lobbyists it attracted, and of course the bloated bureaucracy became a power in itself, more and more inefficient. His naivet here is so staggering as to be pitiable. It was, and is, a common delusion among Progressives. Because all citizens have a potential voice in a democratic government, it is especially prone to corruption - everyone wants a lick at the honey pot - which is why it is so important to keep such a government as small as possible.
The book contains more than politics because T. R. was much more than a politician, so the reader can sample, for instance, specimens of his historical writing - The Winning of the West, The Naval War of 1812, The Formation of the National Constitution, and an especially interesting speech he gave to the American Historical Association in 1912 (when he was president of the organization), "History as Literature" - accounts of ranch life, of hunting here and in Africa, as well as his ideas, expressed in speeches and essays, on conservation, on the sexes, on national defense, on race. About that last category there are two pieces on the black, disappointing because T.R., with the best will in the world, could not get beyond Booker Washington's stance that the black could best further his cause by hard work, patience, and good behavior. The radicalism of W. E. DuBois and the newly founded NAACP was beyond him. But it must be remembered that he got into a lot of trouble when he had Washington to dinner at the White House (he would have been horrified by the condition of blacks in city slums now and the racial politics of today's Progressives).
The most interesting entry in the race section is a 1901 review of a book, Racial Death, about declining birth rates, mainly in Europe, but T. R. takes it as a warning to us. This was a fixation of his, one that has proven prophetic, since our reproduction rate has now fallen below the replacement rate of 2.5 children. T. R. wanted women to have four children.
In that connection, I should comment on the selections about women. The first, an address to the National Council of Mothers [!] in 1905 contains this sentiment:
In the last analysis the welfare of the State depends absolutely upon whether or not the average family, the average man and woman and their children, represent the kind of citizenship fit for the foundation of a great nation; and if we fail to appreciate this we fail to appreciate the root morality upon which all healthy civilization is based.
Conservatives would endorse that, I think, but when he goes on to say that "the greatest duty of womanhood" is to be a homemaker, bringing up children "sound in body, mind, and character, and numerous enough so that the race shall increase," I will only commit myself to agree. His essay on "True Americanism," which preaches assimilation of immigrants, says something that casts light on the latest round of sexual fanaticism.
It may be, that in ages so remote that we cannot now understand any of the feelings of those who will dwell in them, patriotism will no longer be regarded as a virtue, exactly as it may be that in those remote ages people will look down upon and disregard monogamic marriage. . .
Well, 109 years have passed, not eons, and "monogamic marriage" is being destroyed in the name of same-sex "marriage," another step in the long campaign against conventional morality of which the nuclear family is a great bulwark. And another consequence is a fall in the birthrate.
The last section, "Critic or Arts and Letters," contains a fine 1911 essay on Dante, as well as a review of the 1913 Armory Show, far famed in the circles of High Modernism. The review, described by the condescending professor as "delightfully reactionary," gave me great pleasure. He refers to the "European 'moderns'" as extremists and says "very little" of their work
. . . seems to be good in and of itself, nevertheless, it has certainly helped any number of American artists to do work that is original and serious.
He could not see ahead, could not see that the European influence would finally overwhelm all but the strongest Americans.
What an amazing man! There is not another president in the twentieth century who could have written such a variety of pieces so intelligently. *
Emphasis on the adjective because when Mr. Furst shifted his narratives from the present (he had written four spy novels taking place in present time) to the past, to the period from 1933-1946, he gave his books an intellectual and emotional weight they would not have had otherwise, creating for himself a very profitable niche which he exploited with a dozen novels over the following years. These were, after all, the crucial years, the white-hot time, of the last century. A contemporary spy novel, a plot with wholly imaginary consequences, could not engage our feelings as much as those ominous years could, presented contemporaneously.
Of course, to someone who grew up with that history (I was born in 1933) in a politically engaged family, the background is full of life: say "Munich" or "purge" or "Danzig" and my mind is filled with images and phrases, the tag lines of old thoughts, the echoes of old emotions. To those without the advantages of age, and that must be most of the reading public today, the author limns the history of the time as it is happening with a sure touch. Reviewers have praised the author for displaying the details of the life of those times: the trains, the cars, the color of the trams in Belgrade in 1938, and so on, but that sort of documentation in the service of illusion is as nothing beside Mr. Furst's familiarity with the thinking of the time: his convincing insights into the thinking of Germans, Nazis and otherwise, of Communists, Russian and otherwise, of Frenchmen, Englishmen, of petty Balkan officials, and of ordinary and extraordinary citizens of Europe in that time. That we know what's going to happen does not lessen our suspense and anxiety because we see everything contemporaneously; the author's skill imprisons us in time, preventing escape to the future. All the paraphernalia of illusion, the period details of daily life, help to keep us in that time.
The author's first historical spy novel, Night Soldiers (1988), is panoramic in time and space, following its protagonist from 1934 to 1945 and from Bulgaria to Moscow to Spain to Paris to Prague to Washington to southern France to Rumania and finally, to New York City, with a correspondingly large cast of characters centering around a Bulgarian, Khristos Stoianev, who is recruited to a Soviet espionage school in Moscow. That serves as a unifying device because several characters from the school keep turning up in the story, showing in their changing lives and ideas the twists and turns of the complex history of the time.
The only other panoramic novel in the series is Dark Star, the third one, which is mainly about the complex (and fraught) relations between Russian Communists and German Nazis, culminating in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 which freed Hitler to attack Poland. The sympathetic protagonist is a Russian writer, a Pravda correspondent forced to serve the NKVD. Mr. Furst's technique here is very clever: he creates a wide cast of characters with confusing allegiances, so that through much of the book we are as unsure of our bearings as the protagonist, an ambiguity that mimics the Nazi-Soviet relations. It is only at the end, when Stalin and Hitler metaphorically embrace over the body of Poland, that everything becomes clear.
The rest of Mr. Furst's historical novels are about subsets of the panorama: attempts to keep Hungary out of the Nazi orbit (Kingdom of Shadows), an attempt to sink barges in the Danube to impede the shipment of oil from Rumania to Germany (Blood of Victory), smuggling Jews out of Germany to Greece (Spies of the Balkans), the Italian migr resistance to Mussolini (The Foreign Correspondent), a Hollywood actor's involvement in the plots and counterplots of the time (Mission to Paris), the involvement of a French movie producer in the war and later, espionage (The World at Night), French counterespionage against Germany in Poland just before the war (The Spies of Warsaw), the captain of a Dutch freighter working for the Allies (Dark Voyage). Characters appear and reappear throughout the series, making us familiars although they may be playing different roles. Count Polanyi, for instance, is a major figure in Kingdom of Shadows, plays small but significant roles in both Mission to Paris and Blood of Victory.
So far, I have discussed everything but the writing, which is, after all, crucial. This was brought home to me when I read one of his early, pre-historical spy novels, Shadow Trade, and noticed how slack the writing was. That's the last thing one would say of the historical novels. Here's the opening paragraph of Blood Victory:
On 24 November, 1940, the first light of dawn found the Bulgarian ore freighter Svistov pounding through the Black Sea swells, a long night's journey from Odessa and bound for Istanbul. The writer I. A. Serebin, sleepless as always, left his cabin and stood at the rail, searched the horizon for a sign of the Turkish coast, found only a blood red streak in the Eastern sky. Like the old saying, he realized -red sky at morning, sailor take warning. But, a private smile for that. So many ways, he thought, to drown in autumn. The Svistov creaked and groaned, spray burst over the bow as she fought the sea. With cupped hands, Serebin lit a Sobranie cigarette, then watched the dark water churning past the hull until the wind drove him back to the cabin.
Serebin is established immediately as sophisticated, ironic - the "private smile" and italicized thought. Then he lights an expensive cigarette and contemplates the water, hinting of a strong character in an ominous situation. He is not without wit: "A candidate, Serebin thought, for the oiliest man in Bucharest, which was no small distinction." Here's a hotel in Istanbul:
Home to commercial travelers and midday lovers, with twelve-foot ceilings, blue walls, the requisite oleograph of Mustafa Kemal, oil-printed in lurid colors, hung high above the bed, and, in the bathroom, a huge zinc tub on three claw feet and a brick.
The telling detail is the brick. Here's an encounter between the always demanding "Mr. Brown" of British intelligence and Count Polanyi about a proposed action:
"I will lose people."
"Yes, but I try not to."
"Try what you like, but you can't let it interfere."
Polanyi looked at him a certain way: I've been doing this all my life.
"We are losing the war, Count Polanyi, do you know that?"
"Hope you do."
Mr. Brown's chair squeaked as he moved back. He rose in order to leave, dismissed the food with a glance, then began to relight his pipe. He met Polanyi's eyes for an instant and, through teeth clenched on the stem, said "Mmm" and strolled toward the door.
The writing is clear and sharp without being so sparse as to be affected.
The author's frequent descriptions of weather and scenery, precise and evocative, help to make the scenes seem real, the outstanding quality of Mr. Furst's work:
The rain stopped at dawn, and the sun hung just below the horizon and set the sky on fire, rainclouds lit like dying embers, vast red streaks above the river" (Blood of Victory).
So the many descriptions of food:
. . . a large plate of steamed leeks, followed by rognons de veau, morsels of veal kidney, sauted with mushrooms in a brown sauce, and a mound of crisp pommes frites. . .Weiz finished most of his carafe of red wine, mopping up the veal sauce with a piece of bread, then decided to have the cheese, a vacherin (The Foreign Correspondent).
[They] were drinking Amalfis - the choice of tout Bucharest - vermouth and Tsuica, the national plum brandy."
I have one major complaint: most (not all) of his protagonists are sex-obsessed, so we get a lot of what I call SIB, sex in books, which is always fantasy, quite unlike sex in life. I think this is pornographic and objectionable in itself, but its falseness weakens the illusion of reality so carefully built up by the scrupulous descriptions of the details of daily life.
Historical novels of Alan Furst: Night Soldiers, The Polish Officer, Dark Star, Shadow Trade, The World at Night, Red Gold, Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Dark Voyage, Spies of Warsaw, Spies of the Balkans, Mission to Paris, and The Foreign Correspondent. *
When I began this series some years ago, I had never written a literary essay. I had taught English, I had done lots of writing - stories, country essays, Marxist polemics - but I had never tried to write a considered estimate of a writer and I'm afraid I said many stupid things, things I would like to revise and rewrite. Failing that, I can write an essay like this to make amends. I shall concern myself with only two writers, Ernest Hemingway and Rudyard Kipling, not that I did them any injustice, but because I didn't say enough about either writer. In fact, I wrote about Hemingway as only a bit player in my essay about Mark Twain, "Huck Finn and Friends" the seventh essay in this series. What I said then was good so far as it went, but it didn't go far enough.
I said, in my recent essay on The Red Badge of Courage, that I would soon write more about the way Hemingway's style brought our literature back to life after its long spell in the doldrums. Expository prose was still thriving after Thoreau; think of the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, of Parkman's great history of the British and French in North America, of Teddy Roosevelt's ranching and hunting essays - or for that matter, think of the speeches of Lincoln. But after the great decade of the 1850s there had been only two literary works of any note Huckleberry Finn (1876) and Red Badge of Courage (1895). Henry James, was an outlier, with almost no influence on the writing of his time. Read some of the novels and stories published between 1870 and 1920, and while you may feel some life in the works of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, the overriding impression will be of the exhaustion of language. The writing was literary, a made up language of cliches and well-worn devices, smokescreens of insincerity. That's why changing the subjects, a la Dreiser and Norris, didn't do much. What had to be changed was not what one saw, but how one saw - in a word style. That's exactly what Hemingway did when his first stories appeared in 1923-4. He utterly changed the style, and then the whole literary landscape was changed.
Read aloud the first paragraph from "In Another Country":
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
We feel the cold of that late fall afternoon in Milan as we have never felt anything like it in our literature for decades. To understand how that paragraph works its magic, read it again, omitting the first sentence. See? That sentence is the key; it establishes a vague feeling of menace ("always there") that lurks behind the vivid enumeration of detail that follows, sharpening our perception of those details making them stand out as the paragraph moves toward its end, becoming almost lyrical ("hung stiff and heavy and empty") in its foreboding rhythms. There is nothing "literary" about those simple declarative phrases; they fall like solid shot upon the page. Hemingway's achievement was to make what he wrote seem real, not "literary" at all. But of course it was - in a new way, a new style. It is only the best writing that can give you the illusion of reality far deeper and more lasting than mere suspension of disbelief. For a generation writers imitated Hemingway.
Unfortunately, Hemingway also imitated Hemingway, especially in his embarrassing novels, the best of which is The Sun Also Rises. But we should remember him for his great contribution to our literature when we needed it.
Kipling had an astonishing range, not only in his subjects but in the way he handled them. Just So Stories, intended for very young children, is a series of short silly stories about how the camel got his hump, the rhinoceros his skin, and so on, in a style reminiscent of the nursery:
In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackerel and the pickerel and the really truly twirly-whirly eel.
The stories are imaginative, perfect for reading to small children, and they are handsomely illustrated by the author.
I said in my earlier essay that Puck of Pooks Hill and Rewards and Fairies are historical tales for children, but I don't suppose any of my readers will be surprised when I say I enjoy them myself. Quite by accident, a brother and sister invoke Puck, the ancient elfin figure we know from A Midsummer Night's Dream, who tells stories to the children about the past, calling up people therefrom to tell their own stories. It is imaginative and carefully constructed, as Puck chooses the people and relates them to a theme. It seems simple as the tales follow one another, but Kipling endows it all with an air of magic and mystery. At the end of each episode, for instance, Puck insists that the children chew leaves of oak, ash, and thorn, so they will forget about what they have been doing and not reveal it to their parents. A small touch, but it makes each episode into a magical interlude.
Kim is sometimes described as a novel, but Kipling denied it, saying, accurately, it was only a picaresque tale. The name comes form the Spanish picarro, a rogue, and such a tale is an episodic one tracing the travels (and travails) of a footloose adventurer. I suppose we could say the Odyssey is the first one. Fielding's Joseph Andrews and Dickens' Pickwick Papers are in the tradition, as is the great central portion of Huck Finn when Jim and Huck float down the river on the raft. Kim, the orphan boy hero, son of an Irish soldier, is living almost as a native boy of the streets, but in the opening pages he meets an old Tibetan holy man on a quest for the River of the Arrow, whose waters wash away all taint of sin, freeing one from the Wheel of Life, and Kim becomes his ever-resourceful disciple, travelling with him all over northern India. At the same time, Kim, brought into the English orbit, is trained as a spy (for which he has a natural aptitude), so his travels with the lama eventually combine with his espionage career, culminating in the frustration of a Russian scheme (the "Great Game" to aficionados of Middle Eastern intrigue) and the end of the lama's quest. The tale is really an excuse for Kipling to indulge in what I call his "Indianism':
"Eye of Beauty, forsooth! Who am I that thou shouldst fling beggar-endearments at me?" And yet she laughed at the long-forgotten word. "Forty years ago that might have been said, and not without truth. Ay, thirty years ago. But it is the fault of this gadding up and down Hind that a king's widow must jostle all the scum of the land, and be made a mock by beggars."
That's a tame example. This is not to everyone's taste, but if you go along for the ride, you'll be amused and impressed. Kim is an engaging character, the description of the land, especially in the Himalayas, are as vivid as only Kipling can make them, and altogether it's an enjoyable read, but the author is only idling here.
The Jungle Books come in two volumes. I said in my earlier essay, "Animal stories. The best, half the total, are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves," and that's all I said. Here Kipling is working on a deeper level than in Kim. Superficially a simpler world, the feelings and thoughts, the relations between the characters (all animals, except for Mowgli, remember) are more profound than in Kim. Kim himself is too young and lama is too old, and their activities seem superficial compared to Mowgli's, so they cannot move us as Kipling's portrayal of Mowgli's world does. Mowgli's world is elemental, his relationships and feelings are direct. Animal stories are an ancient genre, and their significance is largely unconscious to be teased out by anthropologists and ethnographers, while modern ones are charming and trivial (Kenneth Grahame) or melodramatic (Jack London), but Kipling has managed, with unsurpassed skill of craft and imagination to create animal stories that are intelligent and moving, a great pleasure to read.
When he wrote about soldiers, as in Soldiers Three and The Light That Failed, I think he was the star-struck, nearsighted outsider, and losing his balance, he wrote mawkishly. Nor do I care much for In Black and White, the stories told by Indian narrators as if to an Englishman, full of circumlocutions, very tedious. But the best of the later stories, collected in two Penguin volumes, A Sahib's War, and Friendly Brook, selected by Andrew Rutherford, are as good, in their more elaborate, mature way, as the best stories in Plain Tales from the Hills. In the previous essay I wrote at length about "Mrs Bathurst," one of the finest stories ever written in English, but now I want to say something about "They," a story about an English estate where dead children live. Stated like that it sounds preposterous, but the reader learns the truth so gradually (not fully until the end) and the speaker's relations to the estate and to the blind woman who owns it are so mixed up with mundane considerations that the whole thing seems quite natural, and in the end, when the speaker realizes the presence of his own dead child, it is very moving. I have mentioned "They" because it seems to me to epitomize Kipling's genius: he had an extraordinary capacity to imagine, to make real to his readers, stories of great meaning and feeling derived from the most disparate and fantastic elements. I know of no modern writer remotely comparable.
Redux: Latin. Brought back, returned. *
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
The epitaph of Yeats should be an admonitory motto for historians. It is very difficult to be so objective, as I know in my own case. Of course, I make no claim to be an historian, but I try to be objective about the Civil War, even as I am aware of my predispositions, not to speak of prejudices. In my college chapel on the wall behind the altar in gold letters on a white ground were listed the names of graduates who had died in the Civil War with the dates and places of their deaths. Every Sunday evening I read those typically homely American names - Shiloh, Bull Run, Gaines Mill, Kenesaw Mountain, Brandy Station - names that resonate in my mind, echoing the passions of those terrible four years. Lincoln said it: "We cannot escape history." And we cannot escape trying to understand it, despite the burden of our feelings. Yeats was right, of course, but when I recall those humble names, picked out in golden letters, I knew how difficult it is, for me, anyway. What I intend to do in this essay is to examine some books about the Civil War and the South in the light of Yeats' epitaph.
The Civil War has fascinated me from my earliest years - I have told in another place how, at the age of seven, I memorized the Gettysburg Address as well as "O Captain, My Captain" (and never told anyone!) - just as it has fascinated so many other Americans. As Whitman said, it is our Trojan War, but he was mistaken when he thought American Homers would arise to celebrate it. There is Whitman's "Lilacs" and "O Captain" and the short poems in Drum Taps, Melville wrote some characteristically somber poems about it, and there is Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Crane's Red Badge, but otherwise not much. Not that writers haven't tried. Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is regarded with respect, but not by me. No, the major Civil War literature has come, not from our imaginative writers but from historians and memoirists.
My own interests have developed over the course of more than 70 years as I have read and reread those memoirs and histories. I am always going back to Bruce Catton's volumes, which seem to me the best of the general histories because he is always alert to the significance of what he chronicles; he makes explicit the larger issues behind the battles and personalities. Too many histories are merely accounts of battles and maneuvers. Not that that isn't interesting in itself, just as the story of evolving tactics, logistics, and strategy is absorbing. For instance, my conception of Grant's military genius has grown greatly as I have studied and restudied his campaigns, just as I have come to see Lee's brilliance as largely irrelevant. (I can hear already my readers' protests, but they must possess their souls in patience: I'll discuss everything before I'm done.)
What stirred me to write this essay were some books by Brady MacWhiney: Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Cracker Culture, Confederate Crackers and Cavaliers, Southerners and Other Americans. Only the first two were conceived as books, the others are essay collections. He felt that Southern historians betrayed - what? their craft or their region? - when they seemed, in his eyes, to embrace what he thought of as the Northern version of Southern history. The ambiguity - craft or region? - is significant, and I'll discuss it in a minute, but one way of getting at it is to consider the history he writes. A convenient place to start is his essay on Jefferson Davis, which is very sympathetic, praising Davis for retaining his faith in secession until his death. I should think an historian sympathetic to the South would recognize that secession was a disaster for the region, an utterly stupid idea. Historians have often pointed out the material odds against the South in terms of population and resources, but few have pointed out what a lunatic idea it was in itself. Even if the Federal Government had done nothing, the Confederacy would not have lasted long: the world price of cotton was falling as new sources of supply were being developed, investors were not interested in agricultural speculation, and the Southerners had mixed feelings about resource and manufacturing development. Serious economic decline would have ensued, exacerbating the fissiparous tendencies in the Confederate States, defeating Davis's national project. Even under the pressure of war, state's rights were a growing problem for the Richmond government. Of course, historians have to explain the reasoning of the actors of the time, have to assess sympathetically their ideas and assumptions, but to express admiration for Davis's lifelong delusion seems to me a betrayal of the historian's role in favor of regional solidarity.
MacWhiney is guilty of a much greater lapse in Cracker Culture. Readers will recall my essay on D. H. Fisher's Albion's Seed, that sweeping historical synthesis that describes the four great waves of migration from the British Isles to the New World: Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and the Borderers, Fisher's name for those from the English-Scottish borderlands and Ulster across the Irish Sea. These were the poor whites of the Southern backcountry, MacWhiney's Crackers, who he describes very well in chapters devoted to specific subjects, like Violence, Hospitality, and Pleasures, and so on. But his account lacks the breadth and precision of Fisher's. It is a big mistake, for instance, to assume that Crackers comprised the whole Southern populace when in fact Cavaliers, fostered by Governor Berkeley in Virginia in the 17th century, dominated the tidewater South. Thanks to his regional loyalties, MacWhiney winds up defending some of the worst aspects of Cracker culture. The chapter on education, for instance, accurately describes the absence of adequate schooling, the illiteracy and general indifference, if not hostility, to learning, but by the end of the chapter he implicitly excuses these conditions and attitudes:
Most Crackers seemed reasonably content with their place in this world. . . . Unburdened by a work ethic and unhurried by driving ambition, they treasured the ways of their forefathers and were satisfied to live out their lives innocent of different skills.
MacWhiney consistently sets up a caricature of a relentlessly workaholic joyless "Yankee" as the Cracker's opposite. It is fine for a Cracker to prefer the skills of the "hunter, fisher, fighter, and fiddler" to those of the "scribbler, reader, and figurer," but MacWhiney forgets that these roles are not mutually exclusive, and by saying so he is condemning Crackers to a life of ignorance of the wider world.
Negro slavery is never mentioned. Surely a chapter should have been devoted to the Cracker's complex attitudes toward the institution. Perhaps Cracker culture wouldn't have seemed so cheerfully lackadaisical then. I have focused on MacWhiney because he is obviously a good historian who is able to see things as they are - Cracker Culture is beautifully written and argued (I recommend it highly) - but even he cannot escape the fatal conceit that the South, despite all its flaws, was somehow superior to the materialistic North and was, by brute force, made its victim. MacWhiney conflates defense of the region with historical integrity.
I have been reconsidering another writer on the Civil War: Edmund Wilson, about whom I have written before, when I concentrated on his anti-American, pro-Communist views, mentioning them in the introduction to his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War, an embarrassing assertion of his belief that nations are no more than entities of power projection, animals like voracious sea slugs, but now I want to focus on the text itself, on the chapters about the memoirs of Grant and Sherman in particular (which I recommend highly). Wilson was not a historian, but instead of that making him cautious about his sources, it seems to have given him license to roam at will. So he repeats the long-discredited account by Sylvanus Cadwallader of Grant's drunken binges at various times during the Vicksburg campaign. A more serious lapse is his failure to understand the motivations of men like Grant and Sherman. He thinks they "were inspired by the political ideal which Walt Whitman and others called 'Unionism,'" a condescending way to put it, and he says specifically of Sherman:
. . . we feel that he is constantly sustained by a genuine indignation against the "disloyalty" of the rebels. . . .
(Wilson's scare quotes). It is not well understood that the "Unionism" of which Wilson speaks so slightingly was an almost mystical faith in the Union, especially fostered in the North before the Civil War by the westward movement; Northerners thought of the Union, Southerners thought of their region.
Wilson describes Sherman's March as a "Grand Guignol horror" ("a demon possesses him . . . to abuse and lay waste the Confederacy") and is appalled by Sherman's blunt remarks about the war (to the Atlanta mayor: "You cannot qualify the war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it"). Wilson sees it through the lens of his introduction, as an animal voracity, the aggression which he claims was manifest in post-bellum America, the Gilded Age, which Wilson all his life condemned as an orgy of materialism which, he claimed, thrust aside genteel Americans (like Wilson's forebears) in favor of "robber barons." Wilson does not see, as Sherman clearly did, that the delusions of the Southerners were so deeply ingrained that they had to be made to feel all the horrors of war directly in their lives, they had to see his army burning a path of destruction right through the vitals of the Confederacy before they would admit defeat. It is well to recall Mrs. Chesnut's Diary From Dixie in which, soon after Sumter, she vehemently declares that every Southerner, including women, will fight to the death, with broomsticks if necessary. Sherman's March takes Mrs. Chesnut at her word (Wilson discusses the Diary, but not this passage).
Wilson really has no interest in the military aspect of the War, and he completely misses Grant's strategic genius and the significance of the partnership of Grant and Sherman. Of course, Grant's memoir is, like the man, understated and undramatic, so to appreciate the story it tells one needs to be familiar with the course of the war and the behavior of other generals. Now we can see the pattern of Grant's generalship (the most discerning book about this is the five volume Lincoln Finds a General, by Kenneth Williams): after taking Fort Henry he quickly moved on Fort Donelson despite Halleck's caution. He thought of battles as part of a campaign, and he believed, as all great generals do, in his success (think of George Patton in World War II). His masterly Vicksburg campaign, in which he crossed the Mississippi with only five day's rations and ammunition wagons, showed his ability to fight dashing battles of maneuver until he had Pemberton besieged. Sherman was against it, but Grant believed, correctly, that he could live off the country, thus showing Sherman the way for his March the next year.
It was the war in Virginia that received the most attention, then and thereafter, for obvious reasons: both capitals were there, the clashes were frequent and dramatic, and General Lee commanded the scene with his brilliant tactical maneuvers and repeated defeats of the Army of the Potomac. Until 1864 the war in Virginia was fought as it had been from the beginning, a matter of thrust and parry, of sharply defined battles and rest periods. It's a wonderful war to read about. But the Civil War was really won in the West, and when its strategy was brought to bear in Virginia when Grant crossed the Rapidan in May 1864, Lee and his type of warfare was finished. Discrete battles became parts of a campaign, and when Lee was pinned behind Richmond's defenses, it was only a matter of time, as the grand strategy of the two Western generals was set on its relentless course: Grant held Lee in place while Sherman demonstrated the Confederacy's impotence by marching unimpeded through its heartland. Grant's relentlessness was shown at the very end: Meade intended to pursue Lee when he left Petersburg, but Grant insisted Sheridan go on to get ahead of Lee, which he did at Appomattox Station.
Well, I did not start out to re-fight the Civil War, but all the while I have been thinking of objectivity. I think MacWhiney was unconscious of his fault, and Wilson was in the grip of a fixed idea mixed up with his anti-Americanism. MacWhiney is worth reading and Wilson is not. The reason I got to discussing strategy is that I think the history of the war has been distorted by overemphasis on the Virginia battles. Lee had to be opposed, of course, and battles had to be fought, but when the Western idea of a campaign came East, Lee was doomed. Fascinating as Lee's tactics were (although no one seems to see that his orders to Pickett on July 3 were incredibly stupid), the real war was elsewhere, and objectivity would be fostered if we recognized that. *
This is the fourth volume in a projected five volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, and since we are unlikely ever to see the last volume - Caro is 80; it took him ten years to write this volume - this is a good occasion to assess the whole enterprise. Each book was widely proclaimed on publication and won awards, and they were certainly fascinating. The first one, The Path to Power, about his upbringing in the poor country of West Texas, about his humiliation, as the Johnsons sank into poverty, and about his compensatory drive for power, was meticulously researched and carefully written, in fact beautifully written, and after its publication Johnson's widow stopped cooperating and tried to prevent anyone else from talking to Caro: the portrait of the man was too candid and it was backed by too much proof. In fact, Johnson was emerging as a monster of sorts: crude, coarse, driven by an outsize ego, relentless in his drive for power.
The second volume, Means of Ascent, about his early career in Washington as a congressional aide and later a congressman, continued the grisly theme of his blatant drive for power. The third volume, Master of the Senate, showed how he wielded that power as majority leader of the Senate. Through the end of that volume (1040 pages of text), Caro's writing, his careful attention to detail, still holds our attention, because as Johnson steps into each new role he reveals new aspects of his generally repulsive character. The fourth volume, however, has no surprises for us, and much of the detail seems irrelevant, so the reader find himself skimming, even though this is only 640 pages.
This volume is about Johnson's bid for the presidential nomination in 1960, abortive because he procrastinated, fearing failure. But Kennedy needed him on the ticket for the sake of the South's electoral votes, hence the unlikely partnership of the liberal Kennedy with the Southerner Johnson, intensely disliked by liberals and labor leaders. There was a basic incompatibility between the Ivy League sophisticates around Kennedy and the good ol' Texas boys around Johnson (the former referred to Johnson as "Cornpone"), and it was quite clear that he was an outsider in the administration. A vice president, of course, really has nothing to do, and Johnson, whose whole life was consumed by the need to exercise power, found the situation hard to endure. Every attempt to exert some influence, to exercise some power, was thwarted. In addition, there was deep antipathy between him and the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, an instinctive dislike that had begun years before when Kennedy was counsel to McCarthy's committee.
This volume takes us up to the end of the transition period when Johnson took over after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. Caro shows how Johnson changed completely, dropping the awkward mannerisms that had marked him in the Vice Presidency, staying in the background as Jacqueline Kennedy went through the obsequies during the period of national mourning. Then, taking charge and with great determination and efficiency, he pushed through Kennedy's legislation that was going nowhere, demonstrating his mastery of the legislative process. The book ends after the State of the Union address in January 1964 when Johnson announces the War on Poverty. The last volume is to be devoted, one surmises, to the rivalry with Robert Kennedy and Johnson's role in the prosecution of the Vietnam War which, Caro says, wrecked his War on Poverty.
The big problem with the book is point of view. Caro is a 1960s liberal whose mind stopped functioning after November 23, 1963, so he has preserved those years like a fly in amber. Hence he can present the War on Poverty as a straightforward idea, and he can use the phrase "social justice" without irony. Camelot lives again. Whatever else it might be, this is no way to write history. For one thing, it diminishes the characters, reduces them to cardboard figures. We know they were real characters much more interesting than Caro's caricatures, but the book resolutely shuts out such perceptions. In this strange context, only Johnson is real because he really was the monster Caro portrays. Resolutely pursuing his researches, Caro documents Johnson's efforts to strong-arm the proprietors of a couple of small Texas papers to suppress reporters and stories he doesn't like, this after he had become President.
Robert Caro's achievement - researching and writing such an exhaustive account, and doing it so well - would be capped, of course, if he finished the final volume but what he has done so far is enough for us to judge this a great political biography. If you plan to read it, begin with the first volume and read them in order. *
This extraordinary book, Letters from an American Farmer, which posed the question, "What is an American" in 1782, and answered it in a way to win the enthusiastic assent of any modern Tea Partyer, was written by a man who lived the sort of adventurous life so common in America at that time - but he was a Frenchman.
J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) was well educated at a Jesuit school, and at the age of 19 went to visit relatives in England, where, symbolizing his attachment to things English, he became engaged to a local girl. There was no marriage, however, because the girl died, and the next year he sailed as a soldier to New France, where he was mentioned in dispatches to Luis XVI as a skilled cartographer. By 1759 he was a lieutenant. He was wounded in the battle on the Plains of Abraham that settled the French and Indian war and ceded Canada to Great Britain. When Crevecoeur recovered he sold his commission and traveled to New York City where he became a salesman, cartographer, and surveyor, traveling the length and breadth of the colonies and even beyond the Appalachians to St. Louis and up the Mississippi to the Great Lakes.
In 1765 he became a naturalized subject of Great Britain in the colony of New York. Four years later he married the daughter of a prominent Tory family and bought land in Orange County, where he made a farm and wrote the Letters (in English). These were the happiest years of his life, farming, writing, consorting with a circle of cultivated acquaintances. The War of Independence, the bitter struggle between loyalists and patriots, brought an end to Crevecoeur's idyll. Caught in the middle, he left his wife and three children in the hands of friends and fled to the city, where the British imprisoned him as a spy. Freed, he suffered a nervous breakdown. It was only in 1780 that he was allowed to sail to England, where he sold the manuscript of Letters to a London publisher.
He traveled to France, and as the fame of his book spread, he joined a circle of intellectuals in Paris that included Buffon and Ben Franklin. He wrote a comprehensive report on the American colonies for the French government, and as a result was made the French consul in New York City, where he returned in 1783. Indians had burned his farm buildings, his wife had died, and his three children had vanished. Eventually he learned that they had been taken to Boston, and that's a story in itself: in 1781, just returned to France, he met and succored five seamen from Boston, cast on the shore. When they returned home, they got a fellow townsman to make the trip to Crevecoeur's farm, where he rescued the children (one of the daughters, named America-France, had Thomas Jefferson as a guest at her wedding).
As a consul, Crevecoeur was very successful, establishing a packet line to France, encouraging French imports, writing newspaper articles on agriculture, founding botanical gardens, and furthering the cultivation of alfalfa. After seven years he went back to France where he wrote more sketches, going over some of the same ground as the Letters, but these were not discovered and published until the 1920s.
The book consists of twelve letters: the first three are general, four through eight are about the maritime settlements, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, nine purports to describe Southern agriculture, but is largely a diatribe against slavery, ten is about odd and fantastic phenomena in Nature, eleven is an interesting account of a visit to George Bartrams's botanic garden outside Philadelphia, and the last letter, "Stresses of a Frontier Man," is a long lament about his situation during the Revolution.
From our point of view, the book suffers from two defects: written in the style of the 18th century, we are apt to think it rather prolix, much of it is irrelevant to our interests. The first three letters, directly concerned with the theme of Americanness, are the ones to read. The letters about Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are factually interesting about whaling and the cod fishery, and the visit to Bartram's is valuable for his description of dike farming, but that's about it.
Letter one is an introduction which settles the fictional terms of the work: an Englishman from Cambridge, "Mr. F. B.," once a visitor at the farm of the speaker, James, has asked him to describe "our American modes of farming, our manners and our peculiar customs." James' wife mocks the idea: " . . . wouldst thee pretend to send epistles to a great European man who hath lived abundance of time in that big house called Cambridge . . . ?" but the minister intervenes to persuade James to undertake the task, advising him to write as if he were speaking to the man. Since the speaker is going to be anything but deferential to Europeans, we see right away a vein of that ironic humor so common in American writing - think of Twain, Melville, and Lardner.
The second letter, "On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer," begins to delineate the subject, and we learn that the sine qua non of the American situation is private property:
The instant I enter on my own land, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence, exalts my mind . . . on it is founded our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens, our importance as inhabitants of such a district . . . this is what may be called the true and the only philosophy of an American farmer.
These passages are interspersed with warm descriptions of the speaker's work on the farm as well as of natural phenomena, some quite fabulous in the ironic mode, as when, telling about the depredations among his honeybees caused by kingbirds, he kills one and finds 171 bees in its craw, 54 of which shake themselves and fly off! I can testify that most of his accounts of farm life are authentic. I was particularly interested in his description of the way he hunts for wild bee trees, having done it just the same way myself.
Letter three, "What Is an American?" enumerates the conditions of American felicity: "The rich and poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe." He goes on to speak of "the poor of Europe" coming to our shores:
Everything has tended to regenerate them: new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men. . . . By what invisible power that this surprising metamorphosis been performed? By that of the laws and that of their industry. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men . . . the American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to the toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American.
Contrasting Europe with America is a constant theme, dramatizing the significance of our exceptionalism. Nor is it hyperbole. In this letter Crevecoeur cites as an example (which I can verify) of Nova Scotia: "there the crown has done all . . . the power of the crown . . . in conjunction with the musketos has prevented men from setting there." Two centuries later it was still true.
Although he limned a very attractive picture of his life on the farm, Crevecoeur was quite explicit about the labor involved in that endeavor. One example of his realism is his treatment of the waves of settlement. The first wave, the frontiersmen, are rude and coarse, corrupters of Indians (his conception of Indians, despite his close knowledge of them, seems to have been tinged by Rousseau's Noble Savage), and lawless, but they are succeeded by the next wave: "The true American freeholders, the most respectable set of people." Well, that's a libel on frontiersmen, but certainly life at the sharp end was no picnic. And he is definite about what is required for success here:
It is not every emigrant who succeeds; no, it is only the sober, the honest, and industrious.
I was amused by a note of realism in the midst of a paean to the American "scene of happiness, interrupted only by the folly of individuals, by our spirit of litigiousness . . . " I hadn't realized that problem was of such an ancient date!
Crevecoeur is no de Tocqueville, but from his point of view, that of an educated, intelligent farmer, he was very observant, and he certainly grasped the essence of the American promise. It is heartening to read these pages in these parlous times. *
Once I had a relative - call him Jack - who was trying to write a novel about the Civil War, making heavy weather of it, and to be helpful I suggested he read Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. That book, I said, will tell you how the army and battle seemed to a raw recruit. He was scornful - he had read it years ago and it had nothing to teach him. I shouldn't have bothered; Jack was not about to learn anything from anyone. Amateur writers, serene in their egotism, know everything. I have known the noxious breed for nearly 60 years, first because I was one at the start, later because I was an English teacher, finally because I was a published writer and editor. Their every word, they think is golden, and all they want is praise. Even as I write these words a manuscript from another relative has arrived. Spare me!
Jack sent me his manuscript to show me what a real Civil War novel was like, and then I saw why he learned so little from Crane. Jack knew everything there was about Civil War uniforms, weapons, medals, titles, regulations, etc., etc., and when you are done you thought you had joined a Civil War Round Table. There is none of that in Crane. You don't even know the name of the battle that is the central event of the book. Crane was not interested in the war itself, only in the reactions of one soldier to the vicissitudes of battle. It is not a history but a novel. Of course a novel can contain history - War and Peace is an example, and so is Vanity Fair - but we must be clear about the subject here. Jack was trying to write a novel with an authentic historical background, while Crane was writing a novel that used the war as an instigator of action. It cannot be criticized on the basis of its fidelity (or not) to the war, just as Kipling's stories cannot be faulted for giving an inaccurate picture of India. Kipling's India is his creation, and it is true to the extent that he makes us believe it. So Crane's novel is successful if he makes us believe in Henry Fleming and his situation.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness of the noise of rumors.
So the opening sentences. Note the way the army is described as an organic entity with a life of its own. Then a soldier, Jim Conklin, hears a rumor of imminent action and spreads the news. The regiment is untried, and much speculation and argument is stirred up by the rumor. The narration then shifts to Henry Fleming, a hut mate of Conklin and Wilson, the three soldiers prominent in the book. Henry is lying on his bunk thinking about the coming battle, his part in it, and how he enlisted, and wound up in this camp, but everything comes down to the point that "as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself." Bluntly, he's afraid he might run away. Conklin and Wilson come in, arguing about the rumor, and Fleming questions Conklin, in a roundabout way, about the probable fortitude of the regiment and the chances of men running away. So the problem of the book, Henry Fleming's courage under fire, is quickly developed and the main characters are established.
The army gets moving in the next chapter, and the picture of the army we were given at the very beginning of the book is amplified and emphasized.
[The army] was now like one of those moving monsters wending with many feet. The air was heavy and cold with dew. A mass of wet grass, marched upon, rustled like silk. There was an occasional flash and glimmer of steel from the heads of all these huge crawling reptiles. From the road came creakings and grumblings as some surly guns were dragged away. . . .
When the sun rays as last struck full and mellowingly upon the earth, the youth saw that the landscape was streaked with two long, thin, black columns which
disappeared on the brow of a hill in front and rearward vanished in a wood. They were like two serpents crawling from the cavern of the night.
What is achieved by describing the army is such a way is its depersonalization. To the men in the ranks it is an impersonal organization that must seem to them like a blindly griping animal. Crane has to make us believe his picture of the army and the action. Anyone who has read first-hand accounts of camp life and battle in the Civil War will feel the verisimilitude, and the way actions develop and characters suddenly appear out of the mass and then vanish is wholly realistic. The individuals then stand out in the foreground of a broad canvas full of anonymous moving, gesticulating figures. It is a striking way to emphasize thus the massed force of the army and at the same time, contrastingly, the individuality of the characters whose story we follow.
In the first engagement Fleming performs well:
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. . . . He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. . . . There was a consciousness always of the presence of his comrades about him. He felt a subtle battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.
Just as the men are congratulating themselves on standing fast, however, the enemy charges. Others run and so does Fleming. The next thirty pages describe his wanderings in the rear and his exaggerated shifts of mood, at one moment object, at another absurdly puffed up with visions of his superiority. He comes upon the wounded Jim Conklin and witnesses his horrific death. Then a panicky soldier hits him in the head with a rifle, giving Fleming a "wound" which ensures his easy acceptance back in the regiment later.
Restored to the regiment that evening, he performs more than creditably in some sharp engagements the next day, and finally finds his balance:
He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death and was for others. He was a man.
Aside from some memorable stories and a crude early novel (Maggie, A Girl of the Streets), The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895 when he was 24, was Crane's only contribution to beautiful letters (as Mencken used to put it). He lived in a sort of Bohemian poverty as an underpaid journalist and died young of TB. He was not a great writer, and his masterpiece does not rank with War and Peace or even Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune, but as a keen description of a young recruits' thoughts and feelings as he undergoes his first testing under fire, it is unsurpassed.
It is a harbinger, too. American literature, except for Huck Finn in 1876, had been in a genteel decline from the great decade of the 1850s (Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau), and while Dreiser and Frank Norris were trying to revive it with heavy doses of so-called realism, it was Ernest Hemingway who would finally, in the early 1920s arouse our literature to life by virtue of his style. In that way, Crane was a forerunner, because it is his plain style, by starkly presenting the contrasting images of the army and the main characters that creates the book's success. I shall more to say bout this soon. *
We lived on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia from 1971 to 2001, and thus were privileged to learn about a folk culture just as it was expiring. When we moved to our remote farm there were about a dozen inhabited places within two or three miles, typically a small farm peopled by an old couple with a cow or two, a horse, a pig, and a few hens, but by the time we left there was only one place left; everyone else had died or moved to the city, and the countryside was empty, its culture only a fading memory. Folk cultures have been anachronisms for a long time; they survive only in isolated corners. Cape Breton had been settled in the early years of the 19th century largely by fishermen and crofters from the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland, members of a fiercely self-contained folk culture, who doggedly clung to the old ways until the 1890s when a steel mill was established on the island, drawing the more enterprising young men from the subsistence farms, at the same time that the burgeoning economy in New England drew the men to factories and the women to domestic work in around Boston. Most of our neighbors, born between 1900 and 1910, were those who had been left behind, and they still bore traces of the old culture in nuances of thought and behavior and speech. To live among them, to work beside them in the fields and woods, even as they were passing, was a rare experience. My point here is not to describe Cape Breton culture, but to assert that it existed and that I knew it, because the book we are considering this time is the only account I know of a folk culture written from inside.
The place is Great Blasket Island, about three miles off the southwest coast of Ireland, the time is from the early 1900s to 1927, when the author left the island. The population, slowly declining since the mid 19th century, was about 200 when the author was a boy, but was less than 150 by the 1920s. Fishing, their only trade, was failing, and the young were emigrating to America. The author, Maurice O'Sullivan, wrote the account in Irish for his own pleasure and for that of his friends on the island. It was published in an excellent English translation in 1933.
Much has been written from the outside about the Irish peasantry, mostly notably by J. M. Synge in his plays, and wonderful as they are, there is an inevitable staginess about them. To understand this issue, consider the second sentence of Twenty Years A-Growing.
I am a boy who was born and bred in the Great Blasket, a small truly Gaelic island which lies north-west of the coast of Kerry, where the storms of the sky and the wild sea beat without ceasing from end to end of the year and from generation to generation against the wrinkled rocks which stand above the waves that wash in and out of the coves where the seals make their homes.
Unaccustomed to such writing, the reader will be struck by their lilt and rhythm of the language, its poetry, but rereading it, he will see that the prose is simple and clear, and the rhythm is underlain by frank realism. I think the writings of Synge and others, like Lady Gregory, are a little false because they emphasize the poetry at the expense of the realism. Here's a description of the end of a day of fishing after they set sail for home.
We were seated at our ease without a trouble or a care in the world, though there is seldom such a thing on a man of the sea. It was a comfortable time - the boat down to gunwale with fine pollock, not a touch of stress on us as we made for home, but the curragh moving east and ploughing the sea before her, we pulling at our pipes and talking and discussing the affairs of the world.
The first thing to notice is the qualification in the first sentence, the notice that absence from care is a rare thing for a fisherman, made not in a dramatic way but matter-of-factly. There follows a description of the essential conditions of the voyage, the catch and the smooth sailing, concluding with a masterstroke of realism and self-deprecatory humor - "discussing the affairs of the world" - making the scene vividly clear. Here's the boy going on his first lobstering expedition.
When June came, it was very fine. It would gladden your heart to look out to sea, the sea-raven standing on the rock with his wings outspread, the ring-plover and sea-pie foraging among the stones, the sea-gulls picking the limpets, the limpet itself relaxing its grip and the periwinkle the same, the crab and the rock-pool trout coming out of their holes in the stillness of the sea to take a draught of the sweet-smelling air. So that it was no wonder for the sinner to feel a happiness of heart as he travelled the road.
When we had the pots ready we turned our faces west to Inish-na-Bro - my father, my uncle, and myself. It was a great change of life for me, doing a man's hunting now. We laid a pot in every crack in the rocks along the north coast of Inish-na-Bro. It was a wild backward place, great dizzy cliffs above my head in which hundreds and thousands of birds were nesting, the guillemot, whippeen, common puffin, red puffin, black-backed gull, petrel, sea-raven, breeding together in the wild cliffs; seals in couples here and there sunning themselves on the rocks, each bird with its own cry and the seals with their moan, a dead calm on the sea but for the little ripples moving in and making a glug-glag up through the crevices of the rocks.
We feel his excitement and pleasure in exuberant life, and the joy is reflected in the lilting language that at the same time is exactly descriptive: "The little ripples moving in and making a glug-glag up through the crevices of the rocks." But after a month of it, everything changes.
. . . But one day when we were out as usual, I noted a difference. The fine view was not to be seen, there was no gladness in my Heart, the birds were not singing nor the seal sunning himself on the ledge, no heron, ring-plover, nor sea-pie was at the water's edge picking the limpets, no path of gold in the Bay of Dingle, nor ripples glittering in the sunshine, no sultry haze in the bosom of the hills, no rabbits to be seen seated with ears coked on the clumps of thrift. A gale was blowing from the south, and where the water lapped before, the waves were now hurling themselves with a roar against the rocks, not a bird's cry to be heard but all of them cowering in their holes, big clouds sweeping across the sky ready to burst with the weight of the rain, the wind howling through the coves, The bright flowers above me twisted together in the storm, and no Delight in my heart but cold and distress.
When he gets home there is this:
It is little desire I had to be telling my grandfather of the beauty of the place that night.
Well, Mirrisheen, you have had your first day of the struggle of the world.
I think, daddo, there is nothing so bad as fishing.
You may be sure of it, my bright love.
These passages are very revealing, not only of the obvious - that the author is not suited for the only life open to him on the island - but of the way his mind, conditioned by his folk culture, works. He does not say he is disillusioned, he does not draw and state a logical conclusion; instead, he describes the same things he saw a month before, but now they are absent or changed by the bad weather, and there was "no gladness in my heart," "no delight in my heart but cold and distress." His feelings and thoughts are not expressed as abstract deductions but in material terms; he sees ideas as aspects of the things of his world. This is very important to grasp because it is the key to the poetry of the prose. The translators rework "the rich highly colored" range of the Irish language with its "ancient poetical tradition," but I would assert that it owes a great deal to the fact that it must use the obdurate facts of its material world to express everything. It must be highly colored, it must bring to vivid life its world in order to convey a complex of thoughts and feelings. In a modern culture we can express ideas as ideas, we have names and phrases for all kinds of emotional and mental states, but Maurice O'Sullivan can tell his story only through the nuances of his perceptions of the physical world around him (including his fellow islanders), because abstract language means nothing in a folk culture.
That's why Twenty Years A-Growing is such an enchanting book - I have never met disappointed reader - and that's what makes it unique. *