Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
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. *
I tried to imagine a title for this piece, one that would neatly embody the significance of this man whose flow of millions of words had, in the first half of the 20th century, amused and inspired a certain class of Americans, loosely described as sophisticated youth, while annoying and scandalizing their straitlaced elders, but he is too multifarious, too contradictory a figure to be embodied in a phrase. A recent biography is called The Skeptic, and while Mencken was certainly far-famed for his skepticism, it was, to a great extent, an unconscious pose: he was actually very credulous.
He was also a very hardworking, talented newspaperman who developed a brilliant, racy style, a perfect vehicle for his bumptious opinions, a style that gradually took shape in his newspaper columns, the two magazines he edited, and his many books. His purpose, the reason he wrote, as he admitted, was to air his opinions to as wide an audience as possible (a reason that impels a lot of writers, whether they know it or not), and the decade of his greatest prominence was the 1920s, when his iconoclastic opinions - condemning provincialism, the Bible Belt, Rotarians, puritans, evangelists, Prohibition, and Babbitry - matched those of the postwar generation, supposedly disillusioned, our first "adversary culture."
Mencken had only the sketchiest high school education when he went into the newsroom at 18, but, great reader as he was all his life, he had more culture than his confreres, and his convictions about life were substantially settled - unfortunately, because this meant that he had already blocked out of his vision large areas of life: religion, politics, national and international affairs, and much of artistic culture. He wrote about all those subjects, but too often what he wrote was shallow and stupid. His mind was already made up: the people involved were all pious frauds. I do not mean he was not entertaining on these subjects - after all, they are often pious frauds, but that is usually the least important observation to make about them.
You see, as an autodidact he lacked what the educated man has (or used to have), acquaintance, in a systematic way, with at least the surface of the great body of knowledge. Missing that, the autodidact will often be surprised by knowledge, will be astonished by the commonplace. We know that hypocrisy is a universal human failing, hardly confined to Congressmen and the clergy, and are Rotarians really deserving of our scorn?
When he got a job as a reporter on the Baltimore Herald, he was so talented and so diligent, on a mediocre staff, that he was a city editor by the time he was 23. A year later he was managing editor, turning out editorials and unsigned columns. At the age of 25 he wrote the first book published anywhere about George Bernard Shaw's plays. The Herald folded, and he switched to the much better Baltimore Sun, where he remained for the rest of his life. Before long he had his own column on the editorial page where he honed his inimitable style and voiced most of the opinions he would express down the years. He began writing a book review column for a New York monthly, The Smart Set, a magazine he co-edited from 1914-24, when he became the founding editor of The American Mercury for another 10 years.
If I say that many of his books were quarried from his newspaper columns (remember that he was writing a weekly Sun column all this time), I mean that the newspaper would be the first place an idea would be articulated, but then it would be refined in the magazine, and refined again in a book - nothing was bodily lifted from one genre to another. And this was a real refining and expanding exercise, as study of the various forms an argument went through show. Mencken was a remarkably conscientious writer.
His first significant book was A Book of Prefaces (1917), a collection of Smart Set columns on Dreiser, Conrad, "Puritanism as a Literary Force," and so on. As he boasted, it was "the most headlong and uncompromising attack upon the American culture ever made up to that time." Two years later, Knopf brought out Prejudices: The first Series, a collection of his book reviews from the Smart Set, whose effect, gathered in one volume was cumulative, helping to establish him as the champion of new writing. His attacks on the genteel tradition would be his hallmark (there would be six Prejudices in all, now collected in the Library of America).
In 1918 he wrote The American Language, an examination of the uniqueness of our language and how it has evolved from Standard English, a genuine contribution to scholarship and a fascinating book. It went through four revised editions with two Supplements. He also compiled A New Dictionary of Quotations, historically based and organized by subject. In the early 1940s he wrote a series of reminiscent essays for The New Yorker, which finally became books: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, which may be, along with the other books mentioned in this paragraph, his most enduring writings. I cannot recommend the Days books highly enough.
I would have to quote at greater length than I have space to show you the full range of Mencken's style, a style that reflects the joy he took in contemplating what he saw as the circus of American life, but here are a few examples.
I believe that the Old Testament, taught to children, has sent more Americans to hell than even necking or the cigarette.
Have you ever examined carefully the speeches made by candidates in a presidential campaign? If so, you know they are of bilge and blather all compact.
There are whole areas in the South - areas quite as large as most European kingdoms - in which not a single intelligent man is to be found. The politics of the region is vapid and idiotic - a mere whooping of shibboleths. Its literature is that of the finishing school. Its philosophy is the half supernaturalism of the camp meeting, the wind-music of Chautauqua. It has no more art than Liberia.
The delegates, herded about like cattle at the stockyards, show the faces and manners of children on holiday from a home for the feeble-minded. And the so-called leaders, at the highest points of their leading, seldom get beyond the average sense and dignity of the speakers at a luncheon of the Kiwanis Club. Here democracy is making its lowest recorded dip. If it gets any lower it will cease to be human.
Mencken's grandparents emigrated from Germany, and his father, a solid bourgeois (as his son characterized him), was a strong influence on the boy, who took so much pride in his ancestry that he looked up to Germany as a superior culture all his life. He carried this opinion so far that he stopped writing for the Sun during both world wars, knowing his opinions - he wished for English defeat in both wars - would be unpublishable. He consistently underrated Hitler, thinking him only a fool, and he defended the Nazi racial laws on the same grounds the Nazis did: Jews were taking over Germany (the "pushy" argument). Like Lindbergh, he warned American Jews not to agitate for war against Hitler, for fear of igniting a wave of anti-semitism. He was an inveterate anti-semite, but that is merely a sign of his ignorance and credulity; his silence about the Holocaust, however, is utterly damning - and also revealing. What is significant is that he could not say a word about it, even in the confines of his diary, sealed for 35 years after his death. He could still bluster (but only a couple of times) about the "dishonorable and ignominious" role of America in the war, but he daren't say more. He, the prolific wordsmith, was struck dumb, traumatized by the horrendous Nazi crime. His stupidity and prejudice and obstinacy had brought him to a cowardly pass, and he knew it. We should be able to read and enjoy Mencken's writing - we shall never encounter such a consummate stylist in the modern idiom - at the same time that we can see how his character created a moral hazard, finally making this fearless challenger of conventional option an abject coward when faced by the great moral challenge of those years.
In addition to the Days books and The American Language, I can recommend The Impossible H. L. Mencken, a selection of his best newspaper work, and A Modern Chrestomathy, his own selection of his choicest writings. The Skeptic, an excellent biography, is by Terry Teachout. *
It is unfortunate that Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is usually thought of in connection with Henry James, as a sort of female imitation, because thereby her unique gifts are obscured. They seem to write about the same upper-class characters in similar milieux, European or American cities and resorts, and they are both said to write novels of manners, a phrase that vaguely suggests sophisticated characters swapping witty repartee. In fact, the characters needn't be sophisticated and the repartee can be almost wordless, because such novels are truly defined as being about a knowing group of people in a very mannered society, and that can be a poor rustic milieu, as in William Faulkner's The Hamlet or As I Lay Dying. I myself have written stories about the highly mannered folk society of Cape Breton. How the characters maneuver among the rituals, how they are (or are not) bound by them, how they interpret the maneuvers of others - these are the elements of a novel of manners. Here's an instance from a novella I wrote about in my essay on Henry James (15 of this series), Daisy Miller:
In the strictly mannered society of upper-class Americans in Rome, Daisy errs by being too familiar with a man, and Winterbourne, an American who has been thoroughly Europeanized, failing to see her act as an innocent mistake, drops her, only to realize his mistake after her death. But the damning point is made that he stays on in Europe, another in the long line of ineffectual dilettantes endemic in the American novel of manners.
So you see that manners and how characters interpret them, are crucial in such novels.
Note that James is making a moral point: Winterbourne is faulted for allowing manners to blind him to innocence, and he is judged a lesser man for it. Manners are always subordinate in James's work to a moral issue, because he was a moralist. Edith Wharton does not have such a strongly moral, masculine outlook; her judgments are subtler, and she is more interested in manners per se. Her experience growing up in the upper-class society of New York in the 1870s, in what seemed to her a rigidly mannered society about to undergo drastic change, seems to have left her with a lifelong fascination with the subject. She was so focused on the class of worthy New York burghers and their thrusting successors, the newly grossly rich, that she saw little else around her, and her imaginative world bears only the faintest of tangential relations to the material New York of the latter 19th and early 20th century. For that, you must go to Frank Norris and Theodore Drieser. What matters, as I never tire of repeating, is that the writer should bring his imaginative world to life for the reader, and to assess her success we must look at her work.
Mrs. Wharton began her writing career with short stories, and continued writing and publishing them until her death. She also published four long stories under the collective title Old New York, and I recommend them all. Some of her stories are among the best written by Americans.
Admirable as her stories are, it is for her novels that she is remembered. She wrote more than a dozen, but only three are really good. She could write convincingly only about the upper-class world as she had known it; she could neither describe nor understand the manners and underlying thoughts and feelings of people in other classes (like the rustics in Ethan Frome and Summer) or contemporary America (Hudson River Bracketed) - she lived in France after 1914. But three novels - The House of Mirth (1905), The Age of Innocence (1920), and The Children (1928) - will be read as long as American books are read.
Her most celebrated novel is The Age of Innocence, for which she won a Pulitzer, the first woman to do so. The most artistically satisfying of her novels, it is written with subtlety and great dramatic power. Until I reread it for this essay, I had not looked at it for over 50 years, but as soon as I picked it up, remembered scenes glowed again in my mind. The scene is high society New York in the 1870s, innocent in a good sense - by contrast to the manners (already looming) that are soon to follow - and a bad: innocence as a consequence of the stifling repression by those same elaborate manners and mores.
The book opens with an emblematic scene at the opera where Newland Archer observes his fiancee, May Welland, in a box with her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has fled form her husband in Europe, and at that point Archer's conventionality is stressed, uniting him with his fellow club members in their box, who think it daring of Ellen's relatives to show her thus in public. But as Archer sees more of her, he gradually becomes infatuated, and at one point after his marriage to May he decides to run off with her. When he begins to tell his wife, she interrupts to say she's pregnant - she has already told Ellen, who has left for Europe - and of course he gives up his dream of escape. Twenty-six years later, after May's death, he goes on a trip to Paris with his elder son. They are to have tea with Ellen, but when they get to the apartment house, Archer tells his son to go on alone. The son doesn't know what to tell Ellen, so Archer says "Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough."
The immediate and obvious theme is the struggle of the nonconformists - Ellen and Archer - to free themselves from the rules of their repressive society, a theme that is managed with great art. We feel the weight of repression almost physically, a force pressing in from all sides, while the feelings of the two would-be rebels burn intensely in terse, powerful scenes, the ones I remembered after 50 years. Conventional society wins, and Archer is so cowed by it that even when he is free he cannot take up with Ellen; he is indeed old-fashioned, trained to the rules of New York society in the 1870s.
That reading, however, is a little shallow. There is a counter-theme associated with May, the unadventurous, culturally dull, conformist wife who gently but remorselessly prevents her husband from wrecking their marriage. While Archer and his son are in Paris, the latter reveals that May, on her death bed, had told the son that "once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted." The asking, of course, was metaphorical, but in that revelation we see May clearly for the first time as a woman of great courage, sense, and art - the strongest character in the novel. This gives the story a richness, a complexity, and a depth that a simple paean to nonconformity would never have, and now we see Archer's "old-fashioned" self-characterization as not wholly negative. Mrs. Wharton's accomplishment with this novel is beyond praise.
Her first successful novel, The House of Mirth, follows the doomed career of a social butterfly for two years until her death. Although she is only "fashioned to adorn and delight," Lily Bart is a very sympathetic character, more so than anyone in Age of Innocence. As she says herself, she is poor, she is extravagant, and she must marry money, but she has a history of muffing her chances, mainly because of scruples. Lily has one disinterested friend, Lawrence Selden, who can stand outside society and judge it, and he is the confidante of her hopes and fears, but like nearly all the men in Mrs. Wharton's novels, he is a dilettante, weak when he is tested. The reader is carried through the novel by interest in Lily's stalwart, decent character, for this is a novel of character, and it is a tribute to the author's skill that she could create such an interesting figure out of such limited material.
Artistically, House of Mirth is not nearly so well wrought as Age of Innocence; Mrs. Wharton did not have the control of her material in 1905 as she did 15 years later. The book, a third longer than Age of Innocence, is too long and poorly focused, and there is no thematic clarity. Obviously, we are meant to contrast Lily with her social set - the title is ironic, the set is shallow and cruel, and Selden's detachment is clearly praiseworthy - but even as we acknowledge such a theme, we brush it aside because our interest is so taken up with Lily, and her surroundings and associates are not painted with strength and color. Just because of the character of Lily Bart this novel remains a favorite with many readers.
The Children, not nearly so well known as the novels already discussed, is about an engineer in his forties who becomes interested in a group of seven children, some related and some not, who keep being pushed around and redistributed and neglected as their parents divorce, remarry, and live the high dissolute life at various European watering places. Martin Boyne comes to the aid of the children, helping them to stay together (what they desperately want), later becoming a sort of guardian to them for some time in Italy, all this at the expense of his relationship with the woman he's going to marry, Rose Sellars, who takes an unsentimental view of the children and wants him to leave them. The oldest child, their leader, Judith, just turned sixteen, is very appealing. Unknowingly (he keeps saying she's just a child) Boyne is falling in love with her, and near the end of the book, when it seems as if the band of children will be broken up, he suggests to Judith that he marry her and she laughs, thinking he's joking, because she's far from those sort of thoughts yet. Mrs. Wharton's handling of the scene is superb.
"If things went wrong, and you were very lonely, and a fellow asked you to marry him . . ."
"Who asked me?"
He laughed. "If I did."
For a moment she looked at him perplexedly; then her eyes cleared, and for the first time she joined in his laugh. Hers seemed to bubble up, fresh and limpid, from the very depth of her little girlhood.
"Well. That would be funny," she said.
There was a bottomless silence.
"Yes - wouldn't it?"
Boyne grinned. He stared at her without speaking; then, like a blind man, feeling his way, he picked up his hat and mackintosh, said:
"Where's my umbrella? Oh, outside"
- and walked out stiffly into the passage. On the doorstep, still aware of her nearness, he added a little dizzily:
"No, please - I want a long tramp alone first . . . . I'll come in again this afternoon to settle what we'd better do about Paris . . ."
Boyne and Rose Sellars part, and he leaves for a job in South America, but he returns on a short leave three years later and happens to observe Judith at a dance. Entranced, he watches her for awhile and then leaves.
It's another of Mrs. Wharton's tales of renunciation, but not because of the man's weakness.
Boyne, after all, is a strong character. A marriage to Judith would have been impossible, and giving up the very controlled (and controlling) Rose is no mistake. He is, as the last sentence says, "a lonely man," but that's the result of his strength, not weakness. What makes the book so enjoyable (it's my favorite) is the mastery with which the author portrays the wonderful children (especially Judith) and the forthright but sensitive character of Boyne, as well as her deadly accurate picture of the often-divorced parents and their "set" carousing on the Lido.
I have tried, inadequately I fear, to show the qualities that made Edith Wharton the fine artist she was. The best thing I can do is to point you to her work - the stories and the three excellent novels - and hope you will discover for yourselves this marvelous American writer. *
Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them. By Steve Milloy. 2009, 235 pp., Regnery, $27.95.
This is not a book review column, but I've just read the best book I've ever seen on the effects and aims of Greenism, and since this menace is close to my life (we live in the Adirondack Park, millions of acres zealously administered by Greens) the problem may be clearer to me than to many of my readers, so I want to introduce this book to my audience. There are many books that examine Green claims, exposing their fallacies, and the author lists 18 excellent books (as well as some films) in an appendix so that readers can judge the basis on which Milloy mounts his attack. Given the fraudulence of Green arguments, he may then devote all his attention to the consequences of their policies and goals. By thus framing his argument, Milloy is able to concentrate his narrative, making it extremely effective. That his writing is clear, concise, and straightforward is a great help. There is not an empty paragraph in the book.
Each chapter describes a different aspect of the Green assault on our lives. Chapter One, "The Rationing Rationale," opens with an account of the cheery public face of Greenism advocating "sustainable" living, propaganda which he exposes by citing a 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine with the theme: "The Folly of Growth: How to stop the economic killing of the planet," in which various professors and prominent Greens advocate de-development because they regard wealth as destructive of the environment. The rest of the chapter develops this theme, covering issues like the "carbon footprint," carbon rationing, proposals to meter (and control) individual electricity use, "smart growth" - forcing people into high density urban areas, Zero Population Growth. This is done comprehensively, so that we learn exactly what the Greens are up to and why, as well as their disguises. The next chapter, "Power is Power," shows how Greens fight the development of every source of energy, despite paying lip service to "renewable energy." As Milloy points out,
Greens don't really want to increase our energy supply . . . because that would undermine virtually all of the Green's ultimate goals: zero population growth, limiting the development of physical infrastructure, impeding economic growth, and redistributing wealth.
Chapter Three is about anti-car activism and all the measures Greens promote to make it expensive and inconvenient to drive. Milloy documents the folly of hybrid cars, shows Green opposition to new roads, and the pressure to raise fuel economy standards - which means lighter, more dangerous cars. The new standards will cost more than $35 million a day to save $1 million in gas. It is close, documented analysis like this which gives the book such a strong impact.
In other chapters, the author shows the fatuity of other Green concerns, like the fake water "crisis," meateating, "slow flood" ("locavores"), biotechnology, and modern agriculture. Milloy's thoroughness is demonstrated in the chapter "Kiss Your Health and Safety Goodbye," when he shows Green attacks on chlorine, asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, pesticides, incandescent light bulbs, flame retardants, forestry (by preventing logging, Greens have ensured the overgrowth of forests, filled with debris and dead trees, leading to devastating fires), vaccines, mercury (emitted by coal-fired electricity plants). In a brilliant chapter, "The New Social Order," Milloy points out that wealthy Greens will be able to avoid the Spartan lives they have helped to force on the rest of us, showing the hypocrisy of the World Wildlife Fund whose website promotes a self-denying life at the same time that it offers its donors an around the world trip by a luxurious private jet, seeing "top wild life" while enjoying "gourmet meals, chilled champagne, and your own chef" at a cost of nearly $65,000. Milloy calls it "luxury eco-tourism." As the author shows, this sort of behavior is common among the wealthy attracted to Greenism.
Milloy's describes deals of the Nature Conservancy, buying land supposedly to preserve it and then selling it to wealthy friends and donors, as well as performing legerdemain with properties, tax donations, and in-house sales.
The chapter on Green coercion of corporations, whose leadership is nearly always spineless, is chilling, as Milloy shows how one corporation after another has given in to Green pressure, forced to back Green policies - like refusing loans for energy development - as part of the movement for "corporate social responsibility." He thinks that Greenism has become so powerful in recent years because Greens have intimidated big business, which is "increasingly lobbying for greenhouse gas regulation."
There's a chapter on Obama, "The First Green President," which includes this telling quote from The Daily Telegraph after Obama's election:
For 300 years science helped to turn Western civilization into the richest and most comfortable the world has ever seen. Now it seems we have suddenly been plunged into a new age of superstition, where scientific evidence no longer counts for anything. The fact that America will soon be ruled by a man wholly under the spell of this post-scientific hysteria may leave us in wondering despair.
In the last chapter, "Fighting Back," the author shows how we will all be harmed by Green success, pointing out that:
No matter what your particular political outlook . . . there are ways in which your own concerns will be pushed aside by the Green juggernaut.
He goes on to analyze Green rhetoric, revealing its fallacies, encouraging readers to see through it, an important lesson because that smooth rhetoric (think of "sustainability") tends to put us on the defensive, always fatal to opposition. He advocates activism in various ways, paying special attention to corporate shareholder's meetings, devoting several informative pages to showing how this works. Finally, Milloy ends on an eminently sensible and bracing note:
While there's no "vast green conspiracy" that meets regularly to plot and plan, the disparate groups that comprise the green movement are all working toward a common goal - increasing government control of your life.
Our goal is to make sure that day never comes - and we have our work cut out for us.
A wonderful book, written with great intelligence, force, and clarity, recommended to all my readers. *
He is, I think our greatest historian, producing a monumental multi-volume work, France and England in North America, a prodigy of research at a time when the documents had, for the most part, not been published and had to be ferreted out in archives and private collections in France, England, and America, and Canada, a work written as a literary narrative, instinct with the life described. As the author says in his introduction to the first volume, Pioneers of France in the New World:
The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time . . . he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or spectator of the action he describes.
Insofar as was possible for one describing actions of 200 and more years before, he did make it seem as if he were a spectator of the action, as in this passage telling of Champlain's first ascension of the Ottawa river:
On the brink of the rocky basin where the plunging torrent boiled like a cauldron, and puffs of spray sprang out from its concussion like smoke from the throat of a cannon, Champlain's two Indians took their stand, and, with a loud invocation, threw tobacco into the foam, an offering to the local spirit, the Manitou of the cataract.
His ability to make his narrative life-like was due not only to the fact that he visited most of the scenes he wrote about, but also to his discriminating eye for landscape - he was a prominent member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and he wrote a book on roses. Reading his prose is a rich experience in itself.
Reading in the first volume about the early Spanish explorations of Florida and the later abortive French adventures there, the reader begins to get a sense of the significance of the continent to those who first encountered it, a significance that shifted in time and with the viewer. Thanks perhaps to the spectacular treasures gained from their Mexican and Incan conquests, the Spanish seem arrested in the treasure hunting mode, to which we owe the epic journeys of Coronado and DeSoto, and that seems also to have been the impulse behind the French expeditions to Florida. The pattern everywhere is the same: land on shore, parley with natives ("where's the gold?"), hastily build a stockade, head into the bush in search of the cities of gold and silver, followed by starvation, mutiny, repression, massacre, or abandonment of the enterprise. They did not grasp the idea of a continent at all; it was no more than a location for heaps of gold.
Meanwhile, practical men saw that it was a mine of humbler treasures: Breton and Basque fishermen were catching cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in Columbus' time, and there was a nascent fur trading station, Tadoussac, near the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Amazingly, buffalo hides were brought down the Potomac by Indians and thence in canoes along the Atlantic coast to be traded at Tadoussac. This was in the 1560s. But it was not until the appearance of Champlain and his associates in the early 17th century (Champlain founded Quebec city in 1608) that men began to see the fringes where they landed as the shores of a momentous fact that would in time become an idea.
The British colonies, beginning to be founded about this time, were neither exploitative (in the Spanish sense) nor nationalistic, as the French would soon prove to be: all founded under commercial auspices, they sent back to England dried fish and furs while they pursued the ways of life for which they had emigrated, the Puritans trying to erect a Godly commonwealth, the Virginians creating an aristocratic colony, the Pennsylvanians a Quaker society. Although the Virginians would later look beyond the Blue Ridge to the Ohio valley with an eye to land speculations, the continent did not begin to mean much to Americans until after the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was only the most remarkable French explorers like Champlain and later LaSalle, who had a continental vision.
The defining feature of the French effort was the rigid control from Versailles, a royal commission, and the French king's role in the 17th and 18th centuries was absolute. The plan rested on a triumvirate: Jesuit missionaries were to convert and pacify the Indians; soldiers were to protect them from their enemies (mainly the Iroquois) and the colony from the English; and traders would get furs, which would pay for all the outlay, from the Indians. Not exactly a continental vision, but at least it looked westward, believing that the western tribes bringing their furs to the Hurons would be converted and pacified in their turn. The first fallacy was that New France could be managed, without corruption and internal conflict, from Versailles, and the second fallacy was the projected conversion and pacification of the Indians. But the policy was pursued to the end, and it enabled LaSalle to lay before the king his plan and a description of the lands south and west of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi valley.
It is nearly all so beautiful and fertile; so free from forests, and so full of meadows, brooks, and rivers; so abounding in fish, game, and venison, that one can find there in plenty, and with little trouble, all that is needful for the support of flourishing colonies. The soil will produce everything that is raised in France.
The conflict and corruption in the colony, involving everyone, was caused by the blind authoritarianism of the distant government. For instance, officials were banned (vainly) from the fur trade, and monopolies abounded, granted to influential merchants in France who had their agents (corrupt) in New France. As a consequence, very little of the enormous profits of the fur trade got back to Versailles. Parkman points out one advantage of absolutism: it meant that the colonial governor could assemble and direct martial forces expeditiously without the delays of democratic debate and dissent, so prevalent in the British colonies. But in the long run, the absence of a thriving colonial base, precluded by the priority of the fur trade, meant that New France could not rally after military defeat.
Parkman's account, from its beginnings in the 1530s to its end in the 1760s, is minutely detailed, but is never boring or trivial, even when we are taken to France to explore the politics behind various royal decisions. There is one fault, and that is the overemphasis on the ideas and conscious motives of the actors, or the blind ferocity of the Indians, without considering underlying material causes. For example, when the Iroquois destroy the Hurons, Parkman ascribes it to their better organization and especially ferocious nature, when the truth is that, as a result of their trade with the Dutch (and later the English) at Albany, they had become dependent on the white man's tools and utensils, but their hunting area in New York was trapped out. They had to have access to the furs coming through the Huron's territory, and they made that claim explicitly to the French, who failed to understand them. Parkman alludes to this later, but he doesn't see its importance. He over emphasizes the savagery and inconstancy of the Indians, failing to see that they were not stupid and they had good reasons for their actions. For instance, many of the Indian allies of the French defected to the English simply because their trade goods were better and cheaper.
Many writers have tried to catch the spirit of America, that elusive concept, but only when I read Parkman do I really get a sense of the continent looming beyond the innocuous shore, unknown, full of promise and implacable menace, and then I see the men, tiny figures, pushing forward, making trails, spanning rivers, building cities, creating an idea of America, a web of thoughts and dreams woven from, in part, the visions of those first adventurers.
France and England in North America consists of these volumes: Pioneers of France in the New World, The Jesuits in North America in the 17th century, LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West, The Old Regime in Canada, Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman also wrote The Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac, both recommended, the first for its vivid picture of the western frontier in 1846, the second for another fine historical portrait of the wiliest Indian leader. *
It is the genius of culture to use beauty . . . to carry and transmit the most profound truths about our human lives. These truths . . . not only describe what we are; they describe what we should be. They are . . . the highest values - of knowledge of good and evil, of liberty and discipline, of joy and sorrow, of righteousness, work, understanding, courage, loyalty, friendship, pity, love - values that we recognize and try to live . . . Culture, by enduring, can make us comprehend that life - not the lives of men, but the life of man - endures; because the life of culture embodies the value of life, it can teach us all that our lives are worth living. -Samuel Lipman
Recently, two fathers asked me to send them reading lists for their growing children, and while I did what I could, I knew that it should really be the subject of an essay - a serious essay. Hence the epigraph. I see now that that quotation should have been at the head of my first column in this series. As my bemused readers must know by now, I do not write these columns only to entertain (although I hope they do); I want to enrich minds, to show how the beauty of words skillfully combined can "transmit the most profound truths about our human lives." Every generation must be taught anew our cultural heritage, and we cannot begin soon enough. Today the situation is especially perilous, inundated as we are by the salacious trash of what is, with unconscious irony, called "popular culture."
The following list contains titles that are obviously not "the best that has been thought and known" (Matthew Arnold), but these humbler books have their uses, they make their contribution to our knowledge and entertainment. The books are not graded by the age of readers because real readers, no matter their ages, will enjoy all kinds of books, easy or difficult. To my mind, they are suitable for youngsters between the ages of 7 and 16.
Grimm's Children's and Household Tales. Be sure to get one of the older unexpurgated editions. Busybodies are periodically horrified to discover brutality and mayhem in these stories, betraying their naivete. Children, whose lively imaginations are full of brutality and mayhem, love these obviously imaginary tales. My second grade reader was called East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and how I loved that name and the fantasies it promised!
Kenneth Grahame: Wind in the Willows, The Golden Age, Dream Days. Since I have a column on Grahame in the works, I will only say here that the best one is the first-named, a tale in which animals are quasi-human. In Mr. Toad the author created one of the great comic figures in our literature. Get the edition illustrated by Ernest Shepard.
The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder may be known to readers from a TV serial, but the books themselves are greatly superior and are popular with readers of all ages. True, artfully told stories of a family settling in the West after the Civil War.
The Peterkin Papers by Lucretia Hale, published in 1886, is a very funny book about a silly family, always rescued from their follies by "the lady from Philadelphia."
R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island and Kidnapped need no introduction from me, nor do the several volumes of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
Rudyard Kipling: The two Jungle Books. We think of these as the story of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, but only three of the seven tales in volume one concern him. The others are animal stories, including the wonderful account of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose. The second volume is all about Mowgli and his friends: Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and so on. Kipling has the great ability to give life to all his creations, at the same time that he casts their acts and thoughts in a moral context, which may be why so many writers have disliked him. I think envy was involved, too. Kim is the story of an English boy who becomes an intelligence agent for the British in India and at the same time the guide and disciple of a Tibetan holy man. Exotic, imaginative, and amusing. In Puck of Pook's Hill, two English children accidentally enact a magic that summons Puck, an ancient spirit of the land, who, in successive chapters, introduces them to various figures from the past. Some innocuous history lessons.
When I was 10 or 11 I went through a phase of reading Western pulp magazines, still plentiful then. Alas! they no longer exist, but a good collection of Western stories is Great Tales of the West, compiled by Pronzini and Greenberg. The Arbor House Treasury of Great Western Stories is also good. Or you can seek out the really superior Westerns of Ernest Haycox. Bugles in the Afternoon is an excellent book about Custer. The Virginian by Owen Wister was the first and is still one of the best. Andy Adams' The Log of a Cowboy tells the true story of a 3000-mile cattle drive from Mexico almost to the Canadian border in 1882.
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi. The value of Twain's writing is that it presents a world free of today's inhibiting restraints in lively, racy prose. Huck Finn is one of the great first person narratives that makes the reader a confidant but preserves a distance; Huck's dignity is never compromised, and the reader preserves his faculty of judgment.
Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is the archetypal account of solitary life on a "desert island," but an easier read is Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, featuring the fabulous Captain Nemo and his submarine, the Nautilus, of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, another recommended title.
Francis Parkman's Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac bring the early West and Indians to life in prose that, more elevated than Twain's, is still direct and forceful. When I read The Oregon Trail at the age of 10, it had a great effect on my life. Teddy Roosevelt's Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail describes, in wonderfully sinewy prose, his life on his cattle ranch in the same area Parkman rode over with the Sioux 40 ears earlier, demonstrating dramatically the changes in Western society in those years. Readers interested in the history of the West can read Bernard De Voto's The Year of Decision: 1846 and Across the Wide Missouri, exciting and thrilling books. On the Civil War, I recommend Bruce Catton's trilogy about the Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, and Stillness at Appomattox. The great value of Catton's books is the way he makes the reader understand the war's meaning to its participants, hence to all succeeding generations of Americans. Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is a deceptively simple account of one soldier's first experience of battle, a book that should always be borne in mind when reading the histories. The best short, uncomplicated life of Lincoln is by Benjamin Thomas, simply and clearly written, but it covers all the issues honestly and fairly. Nothing is better than Lincoln's own words, and an alert youngster can easily memorize the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. R. H. Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, an account of life aboard a sailing ship collecting hides along the California coast in the 1830s, before its settlement by Americans, is another one of those solidly expressive books, simply and strongly written, that we seemed able to turn out, almost effortlessly, in the 19th century.
I read, and loved, Herman Melville's Moby Dick when I was 14, the same year I read the Odyssey (in translation), and while the one is our greatest novel and a typically American product, soberly practical and down to earth as well as soaringly idealistic, it also has affinities with the Greek tale of a voyage of adventure, hardihood, and peril.
Of Thomas Hardy's novels I would recommend The Woodlanders, Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd, and The Return of the Native. I would leave The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess until later. What we get in Hardy is a lively, knotty description of a brooding English countryside and its rural inhabitants. Lower class rustics appear as figures in a chorus.
You can start almost anywhere with Dickens, but The Pickwick Papers, a picaresque tale of comic adventures, is an easy way to begin. Then the reader can go on to Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and the rest. I began with David Copperfield. Dickens' novels are alive with fascinating characters as well as intense descriptions of things and scenes that we cannot forget. I still recall Tellson's bank in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, first read some 60 years ago.
Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford, which I wrote about in a previous column, recounts the life of a poor country girl in England at the turn of the last century, a beautifully written memoir, simple, clear, and honest. A more fantastic, because primitive, life is revealed in Maurice O'Sullivan's account of life on the Blasket Islands off the Irish coast. I shall consider Twenty Years A-Growing in a future column, but I will say here that it is the most penetrating, beautiful description of life in a folk culture I have ever read.
For thrills and chills, I recommend a Modern Library Giant volume, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, the best such collection I know.
Finally, I recommend Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels to acquaint young readers with the greatest satire in the language, an absorbing read in Swift's brilliant prose.
Reading these books will be entertaining as well as enlightening, and it would not hurt my adult readers to look at them, too.
In the next issue: Green Hell. *
This unusual book, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, written by Michael Burlingame, whose two volume life of Lincoln was recently published, will be richly rewarding to readers curious about the character of President Lincoln, because it probes and analyzes, clearly in a straightforward manner, issues and problems that most books on Lincoln gloss over, mainly because the data are lacking. Burlingame has an answer for that:
For nearly a decade I have steeped myself in Lincoln sources and offer . . . what I hope are informed guesses about my subject's inner life.
This is not to say that the book is all speculation - far from it. Each chapter displays all the facts obtainable about its particular subject, not the inner life itself but something that grows out of it. For example, the first chapter "Lincoln's Midlife Crisis: From Party Hack to Statesman," lays out the evidence for Lincoln's early undistinguished career, and then shows that after his withdrawal from politics from 1849-54 he emerged, determined to shape a legacy, as distinctly himself. As an observer in 1859 said:
. . . what he does and says is all his own. What Seward and others do you feel that you have read in books or speeches . . . but what Lincoln does you feel to be something newly mined-out - something above the ordinary.
It is Burlingame's contention that Lincoln, in those five years of political retirement, consciously and unconsciously confronted himself and shaped anew his purpose. This is a "mid-life crisis," and the author uses psychological insights to delineate its features. As he says in the last chapter, he is "militantly eclectic" in using theories, meaning that he doesn't adhere dogmatically to any one school of thought - he uses them where he thinks their theories are appropriate.
I may say here that I find much of the psychology plausible but irrelevant, for this reason: to say, as theorists do, that early loss of one's mother is traumatic is obvious, but to say that Lincoln's loss of his mother when he was nine is the source of his lifelong fits of depression or his awkwardness with women (or anything else) is presumptuous. For our sins we once ran a small school for disturbed boys, and what was a trauma that marked one boy for life, scarcely touched another. How we react to the buffets of life depends almost entirely on our character, and that is always a mystery. So, while the theories advanced here are mildly interesting, what will really matter to readers are the accumulated facts. Much of his material Burlingame acquired by researching the notes of previous biographers, material they didn't use but stored away in their papers, usually deposited in some library. These yielded many very interesting first-hand observations of Lincoln.
The chapter on Lincoln's attitude to slavery is very impressive, because most historians take a somewhat equivocal stance on this issue, confusing his prudent public stance with his personal feelings. He always hated slavery, and when he reentered politics in 1854 he had worked out a reasoned argument against the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the spread of slavery, an argument he would use again and again in the coming years. Burlingame traces his attitude to alienation from his father, an unsympathetic figure who hired out his son to neighbors for his own gain. In his own way, he was a "slave driver," and his son had nothing to do with him after leaving home.
Burlingame tackles Lincoln's antipathy to women, as well as his strange marriage to an utterly incompatible woman, in two memorable chapters. His inability to trust women and to get along easily with them the author traces to the loss of his mother, but the origin of the problem is less important than the fact that it set him up for his disastrous marriage. That painful story, told in full here, is significant because, as one biographer wrote:
. . . over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.
Or, as another put it more simply:
. . . but for the domestic discipline which Mr. Lincoln underwent living with his wife, he would not have succeeded as President.
It also could be said that if he had had a happy home life, he would have been satisfied with his country lawyer's practice and not gone into politics at all. Lincoln was ambitious (there's a chapter on that), but his wife goaded him on, because she was ambitious, too. So, as the author concludes, the "marriage was a fountain of misery, yet from it flowed incalculable good for the nation."
In the Epilogue, the author concludes:
In most areas, he was a model of psychological maturity, a fully individuated man who attained a level of consciousness unrivaled in the history of American public life. Most politicians, indeed most people, are dominated by their own petty egos. They take things personally, try to dominate one another, waste time and energy on feuds and vendettas. . . . A dramatic exception to this pattern, Lincoln achieved a kind of balance and wholeness. . . . What stands out about Lincoln's inner life is not his psychological weakness but his remarkable strength.
During his first years in the White House, Lincoln was mocked and reviled, condescended to and despised, but as the war ground on, he began to be seen in a more favorable light; in the eyes of the common people he assumed a patriarchal quality ("We Are Coming Father Abraham Three Hundred Thousand Strong"), and even the genteel revised their earlier opinions, but the outpouring of grief after his assassination was, and is, astonishing. Overnight, as it were, people realized the profundity of character of their late President, and it is a tribute to those Americans, and to all Americans since who have felt the same, that they recognized Lincoln's character. When we think of both his inaugural speeches, or the Gettysburg Address, or the last paragraph of his Second Annual Message to Congress:
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation . . .
we know that they are sublime utterances and we are moved beyond reckoning. What Burlingame's book does is to show us, to a considerable degree, the elements that made up the man who could steer the nation through its great trial and ruminate on it in passing (as it were) with such eloquence.
When I was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, Lincoln was a familiar figure. We celebrated his birthday and honored his memory. When I was seven, I read a book, Abraham Lincoln, The Boy and the Man, and afterwards I memorized Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" as well as the Gettysburg Address, not for recitation (I never revealed this accomplishment to anyone) but because, even at that age, they stirred me. It is a matter of great sadness and disgust to me that young (and not so young) people today know nothing about Lincoln but derisive lies, thanks to the efforts of the 1960s generation. A nation that degrades its past has no future.
In the next issue: Children's Reading. *