Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Versed in Country Things — Spring and Summer
There is a special quality about spring in northern New England that makes me value it more than springs I have known in both warmer and cooler climes. Farther south, the season lacks impact; the transition from mild winter seems effortless, almost commonplace, while much farther north there is no spring at all, only a dreary, sodden, shivering interval between snow and haying time. But on our hillside spring was a signal event, a deliverance that seemed almost miraculous after the long, dark, cold months of winter, when the frozen silence gave way to sound, movement, light, color, warmth. Spring’s career, from its first signs in mid-April to the end of May, when maple leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, moved and exhilarated us, and not solely because of the contrast with winter. Its essence was a paradoxical fusion of power and fragility, of swelling force and tenuous delicacy. Looking out our front windows at the woods falling away from us steeply down the hillside, we saw, against the bare gray crowns of beech and maple, and deep green almost black spruce, we saw at first a slight green, yellow-green lighter than chartreuse, the beginning of the leafing-out of the poplars, tall and slender, scattered by twos and threes on the lower reaches of the hill. A haze about the branches, then patches of color, then a growing mass, retarded or quickened by the weather, precarious, tender, but with the strength of a flame burning across the hillside. It was all like that, light colors, evanescent, tentative, every advance stealthy, moving so slowly that each moment was savored, but not so slowly (as farther north) as to be imperceptible. Beneath all phenomena, cold days as well as warm, cautious tendrils and subdued hues, there throbbed the current of life, the driving force of spring.
Corbin’s [the former owner of the farmstead] tiny garden, which I easily spaded up while the children extracted the roots of weeds, was just below the old barn site, and having absorbed the stable drainage for decades, the soil was deep and dark. But that was only a small part of the southward-sloping land, protected on the north by the stone wall of the terrace on which the barn was built. The rest, untouched for years, was heavy sod stiff with clumps of orchard grass. It would have to be plowed, along with a potato plot out in the Big Meadow.
In some way that I can no longer recall, I learned that a man named Eldon, who lived a few miles away on a road as remote as ours, might do the plowing. Somehow I also knew that he was a “little simple,” which could mean anything, and could certainly be applied to myself. So, on a cool gray morning in the first week of May I set off with Seth and Jesse, back on their old school bus route, down the steep hill to the highway, a rollicking trip, scattering the gravel as we ran. After the bus came, I walked along the road past Toonerville, a settlement off the road, a few houses in a field, and then I crossed the highway and turned onto the road to Eldon’s, so little traveled that it was spared the muddy ruts of the season. After more than a mile I came to fields, then a barn, and finally a small, unpainted farmhouse, its warped clapboards weathered to shades of gray. When I turned the corner of the house, there was Eldon tinkering with his tractor, one of those small Fords so popular after the war. After the usual wary greetings and formulaic remarks about the weather, we admired the tractor, a model I knew from my first farm job in New Jersey when I was fourteen. I could see that Eldon was proud of it and pleased with my praise. He was in his thirties, tall and gangling with long arms and large hard hands, a chin receding into a prominent Adam’s apple, pale blue eyes behind rimless glasses, and thick brown hair recently trimmed by the bowl and scissors method. His face and hands looked raw, roughened and chapped by weather, but the general effect was softened by his ready, shy smile, the only visible sign, I suppose, of his simplicity. I may say here that Eldon’s limited intelligence was never a problem in any of my dealings with him over the years — he worked for me, I worked for him, and we both worked together for a local farmer — but his speech, ah, that was another story. Perhaps because he lived in a remote area where he saw few people, he had an extremely thick Vermont accent, the strongest I ever heard. Being practically toothless didn’t help his articulation. And he spoke in short, rapid phrases, so if you weren’t on the qui vive and missed the first words, you were lost, just getting up to speed as the last garbled sounds flashed by. I might understand half of what he said. I was always a little uneasy when I said “yes” to anything; to what was I assenting? Usually I said only “Arr” in a noncommittal, sagacious manner and hoped for the best.
He took fright when I told him what I wanted, shying away, rolling his eyes. It wasn’t much, I said, pacing off an area, plus a potato patch. He mulled it over, looking down at his boots. He said something I couldn’t make out, but the way he said it led me to venture “ten dollars.” Now he scratched his jaw. Then he fired off something else in which I made out “potatoes,” so that must be about the patch out in the field, maybe whether it was included in the ten dollars. “Yes,” I said firmly. He smiled and nodded decisively. He’d be by at the end of the week if it didn’t rain.
If you have never done it, you can have no idea how difficult it can be to do really fine plowing. I didn’t know myself until I began doing it with a team in the 1970s. Assuming the plow is basically all right, the most crucial aspect is the setting, the adjustment of the depth and angle of the plow so that it always turns the sod over evenly at the correct angle. Nothing in farming can be so heartbreaking as bad plowing, especially if you’ve tried everything to make it right, and nothing can be so satisfying when it goes well. Small as the job was, Eldon took some thorough hours over it, positioning the plow precisely for each furrow, anxiously watching the ribbon of dark sod emerging behind the moldboard, turning the tractor carefully in the confined space. The potato patch went faster because the soil was lighter and there was plenty of turning space. Just as conscientious about discing, he went over the ground again and again until it was a fine tilth. I helped him load the plow on top of the disc when he was done, and then I counted ten one dollar bills into his hand. Folding them meticulously, he tucked them into one of those little snap purses that country people of both sexes used to carry. That was a lot to pay in 1963 for a job like that, but he had to travel eight miles all told and he put in five hours of first-rate work. I was well pleased and told him so. Settling himself in the tractor seat, Eldon smiled at me and repeated that rushing jumble of sounds with “potatoes’ in it that he had uttered when we struck the bargain. I caught more this time but not enough. I cupped my hand to my ear. Again, I said. “And once more?” Which is how I learned that I had agreed to go to his place on the morrow to help him plant potatoes. Concealing my astonishment, I acted as if it were an understood thing. Oh yes, yes, of course, see you tomorrow morning. I felt like an ass.
Willie turned up in the evening and we went out to look at the job. The garden was a fine sight, but the potato patch, lying out in the wide expanse of the Big Meadow, surrounded by last year’s weeds, everything dull and grayish in the twilight, the potato patch was startling, a sudden dark wantonness, inviting, suggestive, rich with promise. We walked around the edges, careful not to trample the fine soil; we kicked gingerly at the dirt, we crumbled it in our hands. Willie was impressed. He asked me what I paid, and when I told him he was sharply annoyed. It was greenhorn idiots from downcountry like me, lavishly throwing money around, who drove up local labor costs and made life difficult for real farmers like Willie who were trying to make a living here. Now Eldon and people like him would expect ten dollar bills to be showered on them every time they lifted a finger, etc., etc. By the time he was done exposing the consequences of my feckless behavior I was sheepish, nearly as disgusted with myself as Willie was. Those with more sense than I about worldly matters, and that’s practically the entire human race, always make me feel like a fool. Thank God I hadn’t told him about the potato planting.
The next day, sunny and warm, I walked down the hill and went along to Eldon’s. We sat on the porch steps, a bag of potatoes between us, two empty bushel baskets at our feet, and cut potatoes into pieces, each one with a couple of eyes. It is hard to believe — or at least it was to me — how large a part potatoes play in the diets of old-fashioned country folk. Fred Brown, telling me once of the calamity when his family home burned down, especially bemoaned the loss of their entire potato supply, which seemed odd to me, until he added that it was a hundred and fifty bushels.
Eldon’s mother (a fine lady with all her wits about her) had tied some doughnuts to strings suspended from the porch eaves, and chickadees came and went, hanging upside-down, pecking energetically. Eldon talked to them in a crooning voice, “Snow bird, snow bird.”
We planted in a field that sloped down to the road across from the house, shadowed by bare-branched apple trees along one edge, working steadily up one row and down another, Eldon dropping the potatoes while I followed, pressing them into the soil with my boot, hoeing dirt over them. It was one of those satisfying tasks completed in one movement — when we were done, we were done. The straight rows, evenly spaced along the rising ground, dimpled with the small hills I had made, came as close as reality ever can to the ideal lines of a Grant Wood pastoral scene, and Eldon and I stood in the dust of the road and looked on our work with great contentment. Walking homeward, I thought I might not be such a fool after all.
The half-mile of road from our house out to the road that ran over the hill to the village was impassable from mid-April into May, so bad that the mail driver couldn’t make it in his jeep and we had to put up our mailbox at the end of the road. Even in May, after traffic was resumed, there remained some danger spots, traps for the unwary, and several cars got stuck. Two were memorable. The children had made themselves a playhouse in the woods where they had tea parties (a place they recalled, with great nostalgia, for years), and one Saturday afternoon they came running to report a car stuck in the road with a man asleep in it! And so it was — but he was dead drunk. I got the car out and left it parked farther on, beyond any mud holes. The driver never stirred, but he revived by the end of the afternoon, because I saw the car go rattling by the house and down the hill. Who he was I had no idea, but it was another one of those seemingly trivial encounters with someone, like Otis and Mrs. B, who would later play a significant part in our life.
I was working in the garden one afternoon a few days after the plowing when an old acquaintance appeared. He was a traveling salesman, and since he was in the area he thought he’d pay us a call — but his car was stuck down the road. I told him to visit with Jo Ann while I dug out the car. Two hours later I gave up and went home to milk Aster. At least he had towing insurance so he could get the garageman in town to pull him out in the morning, and he had planned to spend the night with us anyway. After a delicious spring supper of dandelion salad — dandelion greens wilted in a pan with chopped boiled eggs, bacon, and potatoes — and after we put the children to bed, Jo Ann and Jack and I walked up to the farm at the top of the hill, where Jack made his arrangement with the garageman over the phone and also called his wife. He had been very anxious about the call, insisting that she’d be distraught if she didn’t hear from him. What he actually said, and he said it many times, was that she’d “go ape.” Now, I thought, as we strolled homeward in the deepening dusk, anxieties are soothed and all will be well. The air was cool, but not too cold to silence the tree frogs, the only sound in the stillness that enveloped the hillside. It was a lovely time for a leisurely walk. But Jack was uneasy. The darkness and silence, which he remarked several times, bothered him so much that he made it seem not merely unusual but amazing and unnatural, perhaps even frightening. We stopped beside the car while Jack touched it here and there, caressing it I might say, and I assured him again and again that the road was rarely used. I didn’t tell him (I wouldn’t be so cruel) that virtually its only patrons were drunks on the way to and from Toonerville. We put out safety reflectors and went back to the house. My plan was to sedate Jack with home brew, and I did my best, but he kept rising from his chair to peer out the windows at the darkness, averring that he couldn’t get over it, that his wife wouldn’t believe him, and so on. Next morning he could hardly sit still enough to eat breakfast, and he was out of the house, pacing up and down the road, a full hour before the tow truck came.
Poor Jack, we said to ourselves as we waved goodbye. How his visit revealed the gap between our present life and the middleclass ways of our old friends! For every daffy sentimentalist who went gaga over our Beautiful Simple Country Life there must be many more who, if they could but catch a glimpse of it, would be as appalled as Jack. And how insensibly we had come to accept this life! A year ago, we, too, would have been intimidated by the absence of bustling human activity, and now we were taken aback by Jack’s reaction, and contemptuous, too: his visit made us smug. We weren’t in love with a car; we didn’t need the comfort of the surrounding herd. This sanctimonious theme runs through all Simple Living books, including Walden, and I can only say that despite the insights given us unwittingly by Willie and the Woodwrights, despite our growing skepticism about the Simple Life, we were still dupes of the myth and the attitudes it engenders. Granted Jack’s foolishness — that didn’t make us morally superior.
I don’t suppose it will be a surprise to my readers to learn that my ignorance about Aster was not confined to the technique of milking. I knew she was not a youngster but her age meant nothing to me even when, as I eventually learned, she was at least thirteen. Cows that old are often hard to breed. They come in heat all right, and they can be inseminated, but they don’t settle (i.e., conceive). Bob Woodwright had paid the breeding fee of three dollars, for which I got two more tries. The long-suffering inseminator came out five times, and on the last occasion in April he said firmly that he wouldn’t come again until we had the vet examine her. But she fooled us; that time she settled. We could look forward to a calf next February.
We took down the sap buckets, pulled the taps, scrubbed everything, boiled the taps in soapy water, dried everything in the sun and stored it all in the barn. The fireplace materials I stacked in the woods for next year. In mid-May I finally hooked up the water to the sink in the house. On May 25 two things told me summer was at hand: we saw Otis’s truck parked at his place, and there was enough grass to put Aster out on a tether.
Although there were still frosts in early June, the garden was planted and thriving in rich soil sheltered by the barn terrace wall. The loamy soil warmed up rapidly, encouraging quick growth from the start, important in the ninety-day season of northern Vermont. I’ve never seen a better garden spot, with handy small conveniences: a shed beside the garden for tools, a cold frame, and attached to the print shop, a tiny greenhouse about five feet square. Kneeling by the door in the shop wall, I could reach in to cultivate my flats of seedlings, started in the house. Heated only by the sun, sufficient in such a small structure, it was covered by a blanket at night, and there I produced healthy, stocky plants that transplanted with no setbacks.
Thinking it would be a treat for the children, I built bunks along one wall in the hayloft, lined them with grain bags stuffed with hay, and there they slept all summer.
After the Christmas jam sale, my next pathetic money-making scheme was to advertise on a bulletin board at Tweedy my services as a tutor for the summer, but the only taker was a former student of mine, Paul Farrar, a frequent weekend visitor during the year. When he drove up in his station wagon in late June, he had with him another student, Morris, known as Momo, a scholarship boy who had ingratiated himself with his rich classmates at Tweedy by playing a variety of knowing roles novel in that preppy milieu — the cool, streetwise guy from New York, the inside dopester, the sardonic comedian. There was an initial pretense that he would be a student on the same footing as Paul, but it soon became clear that he had no money and was only looking for a place to sponge for awhile. We were a little taken aback, but after all he could work for his room and board as Paul was doing and forego the tutoring.
Unfortunately, the Simple Life was only one of my stupidities, and not the worst, either. I discovered in Corbin’s study a miscellaneous collection of the writings of Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin, and a hodgepodge of Lefty periodical literature of the 1930s. It would be nice now to claim that I was corrupted by books, but it was not so — I was already a Lefty of sorts, very unfocussed. What Corbin’s library did was to accelerate and concentrate my development. At that time the very faintest hints of radicalism were just being whispered at Tweedy, and Paul, along with a few others, was infected. We thought of ourselves as anti-Communists, Marxists of the pre-1917 variety, and we read the then scanty Lefty press with what we imagined to be a knowledgeable eye, eagerly following news of the just emerging New Left.
The morning after the boys arrived I took Momo on a tour of the farm, winding up at the top of the Big Meadow, where we stood for a moment, surveying the panorama. Knowing what I’ve just told you, you will understand why I was not flabbergasted, not so flabbergasted as you might have been in June 1963, when Momo announced out of the corner of his mouth that it would be a good place for guerilla training. I have to admit, though, that I was a little startled.
“Yeah. I know some of the top cats in Progressive Labor who’d really dig this joint for maneuvers.”
Only of course he didn’t say “Progressive Labor,” he said “PL,” and of course I understood him. That he knew some of the top cats was a revelation. I might have accepted that and even the possibility of digging fox holes in the garden (If I could swallow Marx, why balk at that?), but Momo’s demeanor during this small scene was too palpably phony: peering warily over the topography, piggy eyes narrowed, jaw set grimly, General Patton surveying the Siegfried Line. He had been flexing his poses for an undiscerning audience of college boys, hence a tendency to over-act. So, instead of resting content with his performance on the hilltop, he staged another, even stagier routine as we were walking back through the woods. Frowning, biting his lip, and staring down at the ground, he told me about his “dilemma”: should he, or should he not, come the imminent revolution, shoot his parents, who were, as he finely phrased it, “petty bourgeois to their fingertips”? I tried to dodge the subject by saying that it was a delicate personal matter, but he was having none of that.
“It’s not personal,’” he pointed out sternly, “It’s a matter of revolutionary justice!”
This haunted Momo for several days, or rather, it haunted us as Momo thoughtfully placed himself in our line of vision, scratching his head, chewing his fingernails, furrowing his brow, staring out the window. The Yiddish theater, reborn in northern Vermont. Finally Jo Ann sensibly told him to go ahead and shoot the old folks and stop agonizing about it. That produced massive sulks, a regular reaction whenever he suspected we weren’t taking his ridiculous routines seriously. Thus we learned, for the sake of peace, to keep our smart aleck remarks to ourselves. *
Writers for Conservatives, 3: Scott Nearing on “Living the Good Life.”
Instead of describing a first rate writer who has enhanced culture, I am going to devote this third essay in the series to a man who wrote over 50 books and innumerable articles but was a mediocre writer; a man to whose home thousands of admirers traveled to express their admiration — but he was a thoroughly bad person; a man whose death, in his 101st year, was solemnly recorded on the front page of The New York Times, yet he was an ardent hard-line Communist who worked all his life against his country. It sounds like a strange subject, but I hope it will shed light on matters that are presently very dark in conservative minds.
Scott Nearing (1883-1983) achieved some éclat on the left when he was fired from a university teaching job during World War I for advocating pacifism, but despite his earnest efforts during the rest of his life that was as much recognition as he would ever wring from the comrades. Monthly Review, the ostensibly socialist (but actually Communist fellow traveling) magazine, acquired his newsletter, World Events, and as part of the deal Nearing had a column with the same name in MR. At one point when the editors solicited readers’ views, they learned that “World Events” was the magazine’s most unpopular feature. Why was such a stalwart comrade so disliked? One major factor was his rigid, outspoken Stalinism. He was a Stalinist almost before Stalin was, in 1925, and after his hero died he transferred his allegiance to Chairman Mao, and when the Great Helmsman was gathered to his fathers, Nearing’s last messiah was Enver Hoxha, the Albanian tyrant. He believed and regurgitated every Communist lie and line. This could only be discomfiting to lefties, who prefer the softly-softly approach on the principle that more flies are caught with honey than vinegar. When he was challenged, in a public debate, on the subject of the Soviet slave labor camps, he coolly defended them on the ground that the inmates were thereby saved from the evils of drink, gambling, whoring, and all the other manifold sins lurking in capitalist societies. You can imagine how lefties liked hearing that. Almost as important, he was unbearably self-righteous. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he and his second wife Helen were absolutely repellent. If you have any sensitivity to language, it is impossible to read anything by them without sensing the presence of mean, smug, sanctimonious, humorless bastards. I shall insert quotations from interviews with the Nearings or from their book, Living the Good Life, to give the reader the flavor of his precious pair.
“He cited Elbert Hubbard’s . . . objective: ‘Do the best you can in the place you are and be kind.’ And Helen Nearing said, ‘I think Scott’s done that in his life, plus.” —Hartford Courant, June 7, 1981
But finally, in the ’60s, the Nearings found their audience, and within a decade Scott was a venerated Wise Man in the mainstream press. This astonishing development came about in this wise: in the 1930s the Nearings moved to Vermont to live the “Simple Life,” but here we must pause to dispel the fog of myth surrounding those words. While it is possible to live a simple life in the country — I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years — very few people have ever done it from choice because you have to enjoy hard labor, few conveniences, and a low income. The capitalized Simple Life, however, is a different breed of cat entirely. Its essence is phoniness. Everything about it is a pose. The main pretense is that one’s income is solely derived from one’s labor, usually the sale of farm products, but in fact there’s always a trust fund or something similar in the background. There follows the pose that one is not materialistic, that one’s life is more elevated, more spiritual, closer to Nature than the lives of all the rest of us Yahoos grubbing greedily in Consumerland. Simple Lifers are always very vain, and the point of their poses is that it empowers them to flaunt their supposed superiority.
“Instead of the hectic mad rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder, and observe. We hoped to replace worry, fear and hate with serenity, purpose and at-one-ness.” — Living the Good Life
“Hence, we fenced, irrigated, terraced, planned, constructed, marking ourselves as odd, queer, over-ambitious and perhaps even a trifle un-neighborly by setting up standards of performance which were far removed from those accepted and followed by the neighborhood.” —Living the Good Life
It was perfect for the Nearings. They collected around themselves a few followers, pretended that their maple sugar business was their “cash crop,” and Scott continued to produce his simple-minded Commie books and articles. In the mid 1950s they wrote together a book about their Simple Life, Living the Good Life, but it had only a modest sale among the nut cutlet and hand-woven place mat crowd until the mid ’60s when the hippy homesteader phenomenon erupted, and then it became the Sacred Book for the movement. There were very good reasons for this. For one thing, the book contains no useful information about how to life simply and self-reliantly in the countryside. Other authors often make the mistake of thinking such instruction is what its readers want, but in fact, the better the information, the less popular the book. Nothing destroys the romance of the Simple Life like realism about practical matters. It is much more profitable to hymn the praises of Simple Living in such a way that the readers feel they are a select band of initiates superior to decadent conventional society.
“. . . where could outcasts from a dying society live frugally and decently, and at the same time have sufficient leisure and energy to assist in the speedy liquidation of the disintegrating society and to help replace it with a more workable social system?” —Living the Good Life
“. . . it was a way of preserving self-respect and of demonstrating to the few who were willing to observe, listen, and participate, that life in a dying acquisitive society can be individually and socially purposeful, creative, constructive and deeply rewarding.” —Living the Good Life
Nearing was a master of sly intimidation:
“It would have been quite possible to live in the Vermont hills as one did in the suburbs of New York or Boston, by going frequently to market in nearby towns, buying to meet all one’s needs in the shops, using fruits and vegetables loaded with poisonous sprays and dusts and far removed from their production source, plus the processed and canned output of the food industry. Such a procedure was followed by several families in the valley, as long as they could afford it. Meanwhile they paid the usual price in lowered vitality and ill health.” —Living the Good Life
The seeming target here are his neighbors, but since the reader has committed the same sins (as who hasn’t?) he is implicated, but precisely because it is by indirection, the reader can escape censure, assuage his guilt by lining up with Nearing, joining him in condemnation of his neighbors.
He worked his greatest appeal by self-serving attitudinizing:
“The foods we chose to live on were those that had the simplest, closest, and most natural relationship to the soil.”
“Raised bread we never baked and seldom bought. We got the same or better nourishment (and far cheaper) from the whole seed grain unprocessed.”
“We often had a one-day exclusive apple diet to revivify and cleanse the system.”
“Most of them were in for a shock. No coffee, no cereal, no bacon, no eggs, no toast, no pancakes, or maple syrup. Just apples, and sunflower seeds, and a black molasses drink. Such a fare sent many a traveler on his way soon enough.” — Living the Good Life
This works by endowing what one would think of as neutral acts with a strongly moralistic tone, so the believer can think he’s superior because he doesn’t eat “raised bread,” or because he’s a vegetarian, or just because he lives in the country, and so on and on.
Finally, there was an identity of temperament between Nearing and the famously indulged baby boomers who became ’60s People and at last Yuppies, a tendency to sanctimony and self-righteousness; no one ever accused them of humility or modesty. Naturally they were drawn to Nearing — they recognized a blood brother.
He and his wife were written about, photographed, and interviewed hundreds of times in all kinds of publications, not just countercultural country magazines but also the conventional middlebrow press (The New York Times, People), and every piece was gushingly reverential. Ads appeared in hippy homesteader rags “Leaving for Nearings on 25th. Have room for 2.” There was a time when money could be made by arranging tours and chartering busses.
For his old tiny audience he kept up the Stalinist ranting, but for the new multitudes he obscured his views, sensing that reporters would happily cooperate with his subterfuge in that blend of ignorance, sentimentality, and liberal irresolution characteristic of journalists when the subject of Communism is broached. All the ghastly realities of Communism were blinked away so as not to dispel the warm glow emanating from the presence of such a venerable Wise Man, a living legend embodying rustic myths at their rosiest as well as uncompromising, unconventional radicalism, a double whammy, each one composed of layer upon layer of sentimental, vicious lies. History and myth, class and character met in the figure of one extraordinary crackpot.
“Nearing said that as one goes from one republic to another inside the USSR, one finds ‘quite different points of view, except that in Russia generally people are collectivist and outside of Russia generally people are individualists.’”
“Scott Nearing has been to Russia 9 times since the revolution of 1917, and the changes there, he says, ‘are fantastic.’ Changes in dress, conduct, transportation. ‘You mention it . . . they’re still making changes.’ —Hartford Courant
I would not be surprised to learn that most if not all of the foregoing is news, and outlandish news at that, to readers who may be thinking it’s past and done, quite irrelevant to today’s concerns. I suspect that the shenanigans of the ’60s were so alien and absurd that conservatives dismissed them without much analysis. And some ignorance is due to lack of strong cultural awareness. But the ’60s, even as they are expiring, still animate yuppies, as in their vanity causes like Greenism (the believer is morally superior to the rest of us Nature destroyers) which conservatives have yet to understand. The National Review recently praised (with a few caveats) a book celebrating “countercultural conservatives” who eat “organic” food, embrace Greenism and home schooling, are wary of capitalism, and are repelled by consumerism. Sound familiar? Not to the reviewer, who obviously knows nothing of the cultural history I’ve been recounting. His strictures are no more than a feeble defense of mainstream conservatism. For instance, when the author claims that capitalism destroys the environment, all the reviewer can say is that “the environmental record of heavily regulated economies isn’t better” Ye Gods! Doesn’t he know anything about the devastation in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? What’s really wrong with the book is that every one of its claims is false and pernicious because the author’s reasoning, his way of judging truth, has been corrupted at the root by the central motive of yuppieism, self-regard. Like the Nearings, like their earlier avatars the ’60s People, everything yuppies do or say is calculated to inflate their self-esteem, to puff up their egos. When a yuppie scorns materialism what he sees in his mind is images of fat slobby proles prowling Walmart aisles contrasted with a vision of himself, trim in his jogging outfit, selecting tasteful items in a classy Vermont boutique. So it goes with all the author’s causes. “Organic” foods, as study after study has shown, are no different from food produced without that imprimatur; if their consumption didn’t make yuppies feel superior (as Nearing did with his whole grain bread), their sales would be negligible. Home schooling, a good idea when it’s real, has become another casualty of yuppie smugness. Instead of actually teaching their children, they get together with other yuppies to conduct content-less classes a couple of times a week. The point is to inculcate yuppie values, and most of the teaching is “enriching” activities akin to what used to be called field trips. They learn nothing except to regard themselves as superior to kids who attend the local schools.
Another ominous sign is the author’s praise of Wendell Berry, a figure similar in significant ways to Scott Nearing. I should explain that most of the hippy homesteader magazines of the ’60s and ’70s, small country monthlies for the most part which were essentially harmless (I wrote for several), died when their readers left their yurts in the woods, but some survived to become today radically reactionary rags, filled with paeans of praise for “organic” farming and the rest of the causes, and hysterically vicious denunciations of modern agriculture, capitalism, and U.S. foreign policy. Berry, posed in the mainstream press as a folksy countryman (remember Nearing) concerned with the “excesses” of modern farming (a phony subject lately fashionable among ignoramuses), and he is one of the loudest voices in this reactionary chorus.
The point of this essay has been to show how analysis of prose and the ideas it embodies can shed light on current issues. The Nearings sleep in Abraham’s bosom and the so-called back to the land movement (phony from the start) they supposedly inspired is long gone, but the vanity, the desperate need to constantly assert one’s superiority to other Americans, a cardinal motive in the lives of the Nearings and their followers, so obvious once we look closely at the prose, continues to animate yuppies (Jonah Goldberg, in an article subsequent to the review mentioned above, correctly identifies the countercultural conservative cause as “narcissism”). Think, for instance, of the insufferable smugness of National Public Radio. That’s why it is impossible to argue reasonably with them about their causes. The impulses behind their attachments are irrational, and fewer motives are stronger than self-regard.
The essays in this series serve these purposes: to inform conservatives about writers and books that will give them pleasure; to broaden and deepen the culture of conservatives by acquainting them with diverse points of view largely undefiled by contemporary decadence; to demonstrate, by literary analysis, how to read more carefully. Here the first two purposes have been set aside, but I think I have demonstrated the value of literary analysis. You will not soon forget the obnoxiousness of the Nearings, nor, I hope, what it tells us about yuppies and their causes. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Negative Elements
This happened years ago when we lived in Cape Breton. A car drove in the lane and a young couple got out, Helga and David, who had read some of my essays in a country magazine, and wanted to meet me. I’m always pleased on such occasions, but I must admit they’re pretty rare. It was about lunchtime, so we invited them in.
While we were fixing lunch they told us they had moved from British Columbia to Halifax a few months ago to look into farming possibilities. They wanted to find out if it were feasible to live in the countryside and 1) avoid becoming “petty bourgeois,” and 2) “be socially active with other progressives.” I realized then that we were just another stop on their list of “progressive elements.” I was not as appalled as you might think. I had listened to plenty of nonsense like that back in the ’60s when I had been involved in lefty politics in Vermont — but this was the 1990s and Cape Breton, and it was so absurd that it was laughable. But Helga and David were not the kind of people to be jollied along. They were determined and serious, a grim, very grim pair.
They had been taking short courses (introductions to their subjects, not intended for regular students) at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, where one of our daughters graduated, so we were not surprised by his denunciation of the aimless life of the students there. I remarked that what they objected to was, in fact, the life of the rural working class. Given the situation in the poor and backward Maritime provinces, there was nothing surprising about it.
Helga jumped in, claiming that in British Columbia the local papers printed articles and letters protesting American foreign policy, promoting organic gardening and so on, while the Halifax papers were all about things like Billy Graham’s latest crusade. Yes, the Nova Scotia situation looked unpromising, but there were positive elements everywhere if you looked hard enough. I saw that it was useless arguing with them; they didn’t listen — these were obviously old pros.
Then David mentioned, as a positive element, the fisherman’s strike the previous year, and I remarked, with obvious disgust, that their union was led by a Communist. Now there were many things to say about that strike, but the leader’s politics was not the most important thing, and I realized as I said it, that I was testing David, but I did not ruffle his old pro feathers. “So what’s wrong with that?” he said.
Before I could answer, he went on to discuss a book about the strike, one of the worst books I have ever read about a labor struggle, the sort of account in which the workers are romantically sentimentalized, everyone else is villainously sentimentalized, and the whole point is the glorification of the author. Helga remarked, “Of course, the author is a bourgeois journalist, but in its sympathy for the workers it strikes a positive note.”
Sentimentality about the working class is a way of lying. It is practiced by those who regard workers as someone else, a group of people distant from themselves. The social realist shares with everyone the godhead of essential humanity. The sentimentalist denies change to those below him on the social ladder, hence must lie about them: to tell the truth about them and then to deny the chances of change would be too black indeed. The sentimentalist must have a pretty world around him in which to exercise his superiority. When the sentimentalist observes the working class (always from a distance), he comes away more convinced than ever, that “they” are fine where they are and he’s fine where he is, which is what really matters.
Beneath the sticky surface of every sentimentalist there is a hard-hearted mean-spirited son of a bitch.
I thought these things as David spoke, and when I glanced up he said, with a condescending smile, “Don’t internalize your feelings, articulate them.” I turned a thoughtful countenance upon him and said, “There’s nothing to say.” He was taken aback. I suppose he thought I would argue lefty politics with him.
They left soon afterwards, and Helga said bitterly as she passed me, “We thought you were progressives!” *
Writers for Conservatives, 77: Thomas Sowell
This essay is about a book by Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, published in 2005. Those familiar with Sowell’s work will see it as another one of his brilliant expositions on topics that explain social phenomena widely misunderstood by conventional wisdom, especially by those whose interests are invested in the misunderstandings. Sowell is an unsparing foe of conventional wisdom. As he says in the Preface:
“The purpose of this book is to expose some of the more blatant misconceptions poisoning race relations in our time.”
The book is divided into six parts, the first five dealing with specific cases or issues, the last examining the general phenomenon that fosters the misconceptions. The first is the title essay, and if the reader has read an essay in this series I wrote some years ago — about a book by D. H. Fisher called Albion’s Seed — he will understand the “redneck” phenomenon: The bulk of 18th century immigrants from the backlands of Britain, Scotland, and Ulster, areas constantly exposed to destabilizing fighting and quarreling that made these immigrants proud, touchy, unsocial, and so undesirable that they were quickly shunted from their port of debarkation, Philadelphia, westward and southward into the Southern backlands. They were not the Tidewater Southerners, the plantation owners.
Prior to 1900, most northern Negroes were descended from those who had been freed prior to the Civil War. They were used to the norms of white society, acculturated we would say, but when Southerners began moving northwards in significant numbers, the redneck culture they embodied quickly alienated Northern whites as well as blacks, reinforcing segregation. Ironically, it has been white liberals, starting in the ’60s, who have promoted a “black identity” built around a redneck culture. Sowell covers the whole gamut of disastrous ideas and policies that have followed, blaming Negro shortcomings on white culture.
Once we grasp the point about the prevalence of redneck culture and its terrible drawbacks in the present, we can see clearly the ramifications of current liberal policies. By enunciating the subject of redneck culture Sowell has made plain the true dimensions of our social/racial problems.
The next section, “Are Jews Generic?” is about what Sowell calls “middleman minorities,” the roles they play in societies and the persecutions they endure. Since they have been “the intermediaries between producers and consumers, whether in the role of retailers or moneylenders,” the dangers in such situations are easily imagined. What’s so interesting is the ways these minorities succeed, often beginning with nothing. The essential point is their difference from the surrounding culture, making them seem “clannish,” a quality held against them. But they must be clannish: they “cannot afford to have their children carry the values of the society around them.” Sowell shows how the peddlers carried goods from wholesalers into the hinterlands, eventually saving enough to become a town shopkeeper. When we lived on Cape Breton Island we knew a prosperous storekeeper who had started out as a peddler, and we also knew a woman who, as a little girl had known him as a peddler and had been fascinated by the goods he carried in his 75-pound pack.
Sowell enumerates the resentments inspired by the successes of these minorities, and he points out that the more they are needed, the more they are resented. The history of these societies, especially the attitudes of the surrounding societies and their treatment of the minorities, is an ugly story.
In the next section, “The Real History of Slavery,” Sowell exposes the instrumental use of slavery in the claim that slavery grew out of racism. As he points out, “People were enslaved because they were vulnerable, not because of how they looked.” Slavery existed for thousands of years before the first Africans were brought to the Western Hemisphere. “It was not until the late 18th century that there was even an intellectual movement for the abolition of slavery . . . essentially, European imperialism ended slavery” because only then were Western powers strong enough to enforce their will.
Speaking of modern complaints about the past — e.g. “Why didn’t the Founding Fathers abolish slavery?” — Sowell makes the excellent point: “Moral principles cannot be separated from their consequences in a given context.” Today we look back at the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction with regret that the relations between blacks and whites took a century to straighten out. What Sowell does is to explain much of it. Once we see that racism was the result of slavery, not the other way around, we begin to think clearly about the issues.
The next section, “Germans and History,” examines German history to see whether the Nazi regime (1933-45), specifically the Holocaust, was an inevitable consequence of the German character we can discern in the history of Germans. Since the nation was created only in 1871, Sowell closely examines the history of German settlements all over the world, and while he finds certain salient traits, Nazism is not one of them. It should be noted, however, that German obedience certainly facilitated the success of Nazism. I am thinking of the way Hitler altered the military oath of allegiance from the State to a personal oath to himself as the Fuhrer. As we know, that was a serious constraint on the officers who later considered overthrowing him.
The next section, “Black Education: Achievements, Myths, Tragedies,” begins with a description of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., an all-black school that produced excellent graduates until it was wrecked in the 1950s to comply with desegregation. As Sowell points out, Dunbar was not an elite school. It took the students who applied from all over the city, but what made it so special, so unlike the typical ghetto school it eventually became, was the aspirations of the parents and staff, with their discipline and high standards. He also discusses other outstanding schools, all ignored by the loud-mouthed advocates of “diversity.”
The last section, “History v. Visions,” explains the basic issue that divides Sowell and the point of view he is criticizing, which prefers to blame external causation for problems rather than internal ones which can be solved by the people concerned. Although Sowell always backs up his arguments with specific examples, this section is really a summation of his arguments, a fitting conclusion of this inspiring book, which I cannot recommend highly enough. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: A Bizarre Episode
It could be said (and has been) that our life since 1962, when I left the teaching profession, has been one long bizarre episode, but what I’m writing about now is one of those strange affairs that I seemed to blunder into much too often and recall now with a mixture of wonder, amusement, and self-reproach, for as usual it was my own stupidity and recklessness that got us into these messes. What I’m about to describe is our brief employment as teachers in the fall of 1965 at a prep school in the Berkshires, an area where there were then more than twenty such schools. The Berkshires had been a summer resort from the late 19th century into the 1920s, and large estates, much too expensive to maintain in contemporary society, were snapped up by institutions at bargain prices. Some were reputable, some were on the level of Lee Academy (a throwback to Dotheboys Hall), and one or two were worse. Readers of Nicholas Nickleby will recall that one of Dickens’ targets in that novel was the infamous Yorkshire schools, really places of incarceration, where parents with some money could stash children who inconvenienced them. Run by the brutal Wackford Squeers and his harridan wife, the school’s teaching was bad, the food inadequate, and the routine tyrannous. Lee Academy was not quite so bad as Dotheboys Hall, but it had all the essentials.
Occupying perhaps ten acres at the edge of the town of Lee, it was clearly an estate that had not quite come off. The best feature was the approach through stone pillars, winding up a hill between an avenue of maples, to the main building, Mandalay Hall, a mock Tudor affair, timber and stucco, with small-paned casement windows. It was a sound, commodious place, the best thing there. There was nothing else except a one-storey stone building some distance away, now a dorm, with a scruffy field for athletics. Whether the original owners ran out of money or lost interest, the rest of the grounds were a mess: grown-over excavations and heaps and hummocks, the whole area conveying a sense of aimless degradation.
If you were a parent sounding out Lee Academy, Mandalay Hall would impress you, and you would have to be persistently curious to see that there was really nothing beyond it, but if a parent got as far as the Hall, he was not really curious, and only a few parents were sincerely interested in the education of their sons. Some were naive and unsophisticated and easily duped, but the majority were looking for a place that seemed, on not too close inspection, to be classy (it was a private school, wasn’t it?) where they could dump their offspring and forget about them.
I was hired in September just before school opened (which tells you there was something desperate about it — and about me, too) by the headmaster, Matt Merrit, a failed stock broker in his early 40s, a big bluff Irishman who, after teaching at a prep school for a year or two, had just landed this job. He was a blusterer, loudly self-confident. His second in command, Joe Degrace, was a grizzled veteran of many prep schools with a mordant sense of humor. Although I was obviously a suspect commodity, I looked good, amazingly good, in that milieu, with what must have seemed golden credentials: an AB from a well-known classy college, a Master’s degree, good notices from three colleges where I’d taught. And how I looked the part, with a tweed jacket (leather patches!), gray flannels, and WASPy good looks! In fact, we proved to be a godsend — for a while.
We were summoned to a reception at Merrit’s house to meet the other teachers and Mr. Feltman, the owner, for this was strictly a private business. Merrit lived in a decaying country mansion some miles from Lee, where he and his wife, a rather ravaged beauty, tried to put up a good front. At one point I had to go upstairs to the bathroom, and there was almost no furniture, no rugs, and the walls were scabrous with damp. What they had was used for display downstairs. Matt’s sour mother lived with them, and from her imperious manner I suspected that she was the main source of funds. I felt the tension of uneasiness in the house. When Feltman entered, the manner of it put the seal on the evening. He was not only tall, over six feet, but he was big, and his petite wife was just over five feet. They had worked out a routine in which they came through the door with Mrs. Feltman carrying him on her back, a surefire gag good for laughs and applause.
Since Feltman was the Academy’s demiurge, he must be understood. Although it was said that he started the school so his son (a dunce) could graduate from it, it was a money-making business for him. He told me, in the early days when he was courting me, as it were, that with 300 students he could clear $100,000, but he couldn’t have been making very much then because there were only about 50 or 60 students. He had to have more bodies, and until my advent briefly suggested other means, he got them by press-gang methods. As a professional accountant, he was well acquainted with shady businesses, bankruptcy swindles, and dodgy characters, and he exploited to the hilt the opportunity they presented. When a prep school failed, Feltman was there to pick up the pieces, chiefly the students, who would arrive at Lee in a bewildered bunch. A frequent ploy was to rescue young criminals (whose parents had enough money) from jail sentences by appearing at court and presenting Lee as a reforming alternative. The maintenance man, a bankrupt he had some hold over, was a spy for him on the campus.
All of those things could be described as the sharp practices of an unscrupulous businessman, but what really animated him was the need to humiliate people, to make those subject to his will cringe and crawl. He was not happy unless he could make his creatures unhappy, unless he could set them at each others’ throats. A small example: our dorm, a house on a street that backed onto the campus, housed most of the seniors, us, and Fred Dotolo, a young teacher. We had a sort of friendly fraternity there. I organized a Shakespeare club that met once a week to read the plays aloud. Feltman, through his spies, was well aware of this, and one day when he heard a boy called Dotolo “Fred” (boys were always supposed to say ‘Mr.’), he ordered Merrit to move Dotolo out at once. For Feltman, the situation was ideal: we were all losers (except Jo Ann, who couldn’t be a loser anywhere) from Merrit on down, or we wouldn’t be there, and Lee was so obviously the end of the line — lose your job here, and where could you go? Into the Army, that’s where. Half the teachers were eligible for the draft. He could do as he wished with us, because he thought no one dared quit. I think he was the deepest dyed villain I’ve ever known.
Jo Ann, who had never done any teaching, was hired to teach remedial reading, something she knew absolutely nothing about, but she resolutely began studying. She was very discouraged. The books were dreadful, full of pompous jargon, empty of meaning. But one of her finest qualities is good sense, undaunted by superficial complexity, so when she chanced on a book about phonics that was clear, concise, and reasonable, she adopted that method and it worked well. Some of her students were 18 or 19, and their reading and writing skills were rudimentary. It was a formidable challenge, but as with any challenge in her life with me (there have been plenty), she rose to it. And the knowledge she was gaining would be a great factor in our future.
Although the boys were certainly a mixed lot, we got along well, partly because they could see we were working very hard to teach them (a rare experience), and partly because we were banded together against Feltman. For instance, on Parents Day a sumptuous meal was served to the guests, and a large centerpiece of fruit, with a pineapple on top, was laid out in an adjoining room. Boys from our dorm stole most of it and we had a feast (including the pineapple) together.
On fine Saturday afternoons we would take boys, along with our young children, on hikes in a nearby state forest, and there’s a sad story in connection with that. A few days after school began, a new boy with his father turned up. The boy was tall and shy and soft spoken, the father dapper and glib. He would be back, oh yes, he would visit, not right away, he was busy now, but he would be back, the boy could count on that. He couldn’t get away fast enough, and the boy was very sad. At the Saturday noon meal when I announced a hike, that boy always told me how sorry he was he couldn’t go, he loved hiking, but his father might come . . . the boy never hiked with us and his father never appeared.
The only teachers we socialized with were Fred Dotolo and Bob Watt, a young man I hired to teach English. Also Ed Logan — at first; I’ll tell you about him in a moment. Of the others I cannot honestly say that they would have seemed reputable under normal circumstances, but certainly the pressurized atmosphere Feltman maintained distorted their behavior, giving it an hysterical quality. We never knew what was going to happen next — a shout, a slap, running feet — as we taught our classes in Mandalay Hall. Rosiello, for instance, was a very excitable young man lacking intelligence and self-control, always having trouble with his students — shouting matches, threats of violence, general pandemonium — and he quarreled with other teachers. The Gold Dust Twins, two smiley young men who lived in the main dorm, taught something and also managed the meager athletic activities, were Feltman spies, always hovering ingratiatingly about, hoping to pick up seditious remarks. Nygaard, a grim, reserved math teacher in his 40s with a spectacularly unattractive wife, taught in the room next to mine, and since these were once bedrooms, there were closets. I kept the book supply in mine, and evidently Nygaard kept his cough medicine in his, because after he told the class that he had to take some, I would hear gurgling sounds on the other side of the wall. In fact he was hitting the sauce, and by the end of the morning his eyes would be glassy and his footwork edgy. One day he staged a drunken rage about something in front of Mandalay Hall, and was dragged away by DeGrace, who passed it off as a fit of indigestion.
Ed Logan, without doubt the prize of the collection, can be viewed in many lights, and I’ll simply tell the tale without judgment. He was in his 40s, and I liked him because he had a dry sense of humor and he was worldly, as the others certainly weren’t. I think he was drawn to me because I would listen to him with some sympathy, realizing right away that he was fragile — when he told me that an “international gang” was after him. He had taught before (Latin and modern languages), and with the small income from a trust fund sometimes he traveled in cheap places, like Portugal. Until the gang got after him, of course. He was broke, waiting for the first paycheck, so he could buy some shirts. Meanwhile, he managed by pinning shirt cuffs inside his jacket sleeves, while his snap-on tie was worn on a sort of dickey, a facsimile of a shirt front. He showed me the shirts he bought because he wasn’t sure of them — what did I think? Fine, Ed, fine. But he exchanged them. What did I think of these? Fine, Ed, fine. Back they went. And so on for several days — God knows what they thought in the store — until he finally settled on the first ones.
His womanizing was on small scale, at first. One afternoon Jo Ann and I were walking with him along Lee’s main street when he suddenly vanished. We looked everywhere, but we didn’t see him until suppertime. A woman had passed us in the street and Logan had turned and pursued her on the instant. As time went on, however, his compulsions became monstrous. One Saturday afternoon when we were out hiking, Logan went up and down the street ringing doorbells, propositioning every woman who came to the door. Someone called the cops, but he managed to elude them. Merritt and DeGrace were terrified of what he would do on Parents Day.
In the early days before he took my measure, Feltman sent me to Boston to a presentation, a sales pitch for an English program that was very stupid, not worth the huge price the outfit would charge to implement it, and so I reported to Feltman, but it made me think, and led to some interesting consequences. I don’t remember how often Feltman came up from New Jersey where his home and business were, but it was too often for the rest of us. Of course, his spies reported regularly. In October he initiated a series of meetings (I think there were three or four) at which teachers would discuss together the grades of students and their problems, ostensibly to help the students, but it was really a way for Feltman to put more pressure on us. The English grades were most important because it was the one subject every boy took, and our reports were the backbone of the meetings. Now one of Feltman’s methods of putting on pressure (and saving money) was to cut down on the food, and the situation in October was so bad that we were eating catsup on bread — until the cook rationed both. So the next time one of these meetings came up, Jo Ann and I and Watt went on strike, spending the afternoon in the Lenox library. Without our reports, the meeting folded. The food supply increased.
Some of the pressure, of course, was inherent in the work. I took teaching very seriously, and to help those poorly educated boys I had to work very hard with them, in and out of class, when I met with each boy to discuss his written work. I was so tired that sometimes I’d catch myself falling asleep in class. Restraint weakened and tempers flared. Merrit took to knocking boys around, Rosiello claimed a student tried to stab him, he and Logan were feuding. Logan was more and more paranoid, and his humor was extinguished. Every evening he would come to our apartment to tell me his troubles, how this or that one was after him, and I would patiently try to dispel his delusions. Fat chance. Here’s a characteristic story: one day he was called out of his classroom. A teacher often places his watch on the table to remind himself of the time, and as Logan turned to go to the door, he put his watch in the textbook and closed it. Coming back after a few minutes and not seeing his watch, he began an inquisition: Who stole it? After many bitter words had passed, he opened the book and saw the watch. What did he say? “All right you bastards — who put it here?”
By the time of Parents Day I had worked out a plan for special accelerated classes for boys going on to college — I would handle the English and Nygaard the math — which I presented in a speech after the banquet. There were some naive parents there who actually believed in the Academy, and they were enthusiastic, even though it would be an extra charge. Now Feltman would be able to attract students for academic reasons, instead of scouring courtrooms.
Another one of these stupid meetings came up, and this time it was apparent that Feltman meant to get rid of Logan, because as soon as he read one of his reports, Feltman and Merrit attacked it, until Logan was nearly in tears. He was ordered to rewrite them. Afterwards, I helped him do them over again. Of course it didn’t matter what he wrote; they were going to scourge him. Poor Ed! In his final paranoid turn, he decided that my help had betrayed him, and he left Lee thinking I was a member of the “gang,” too.
We didn’t last much longer. Our youngest, Curdie, was suffering bouts of tonsillitis, so we were keeping her in bed and bringing food to her — until the cook told Jo Ann that Feltman had forbidden it. No matter what value we may have been to the school, we were not subservient, and Feltman couldn’t abide that. We left the next day.
A month later we started the Vermont Tutoring School, the program based on what we, especially Jo Ann, had learned at Lee. Although we never made much money, we earned enough to buy a farm in Nova Scotia, where we moved in 1971. So we owe something to our bizarre episode after all.
One final note: the saddest of the boys banished to the Academy was Milner, one of those awkward angular boys with two left feet and a quaky voice and an innocent heart who’s always stumbling into trouble and being disciplined. I can still hear Merrit yelling at Milner to “pick ’em up and put ’em down!” as the poor boy ran punishment laps around the track. He had been there since the school started and was never allowed to go home. A year or two after we left I’m happy to report that he burned down a new building on the campus. *
Writers for Conservatives, 74: The First Western
The Virginian, by Owen Wister, is generally regarded as the first Western. There had been Western stories before, most notably Ned Buntline’s dime novels, but those were largely sub-literate and Wister was a fine writer. The Virginian had the classic combination of the strong silent hero in a lengthy competition with an obvious villain, finally ending in a shootout on a town’s main street. Of course, there is a spirited girl to be won, too. What is so interesting about the book (I have read it four times) is its wide range of subjects and superb writing. The Western aspect of the story is always present, even if only in the background, but foreground is often taken up with subjects that seem only tangentially related to the Western theme, until we realize that Wister is painting the broadest possible Western scene.
In the beginning, the narrator gets off a train in Montana at a small town, Medicine Bow, where his host has declared he will meet him, but instead he has sent one of his ranch hands, the Virginian, and here we see Wister’s skill and sensitivity in the way he manages the relations between the two men. The speaker, an educated Easterner quite unused to the West (he will be known for a long time as “the tenderfoot”), tries to be familiar with the Virginian but soon seeing that such forwardness is unwelcome, subsides into a passive role, guided by the Virginian. They eat in the town and plan to sleep there, and that leads to a comic adventure started by the Virginian, in which we gain some insight into the complexity of the Virginian’s character. In any ordinary Western such a maneuver would be highly unlikely. Even to suggest such complexity in a Western hero is unusual. To see it through the eyes of an innocent newcomer is a masterly stroke.
Although much of the book is written in the third person, much is conveyed in the first person by the tenderfoot who makes periodic visits to the West. The first person narration is tricky, requiring strict discipline on the writer’s part, because there is a temptation to express one’s own thoughts in the words of the fictional speaker, always betrayed by smugness. (Louis L’Amour was especially fond of the practice, as in his dreadful Sackett series). Wister handles it very well, never stepping out of the tenderfoot role.
There’s a great confrontation scene when Trampas, dealing cards, says to the Virginian “Your bet, you son of a bitch.” At once the Virginian puts his pistol on the table and says gently, “When you call me that, smile.” Trampas says nothing, essentially backing down, and life goes on in the saloon, leading Wister, as he looks at the men, to voice his deep feelings about the West. Speaking of the men in the saloon:
“Something about them, and the idea of them, smote my American heart. . . . In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous, but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.”
That’s a major underlying theme of the book, and of any worthy Western.
When they get to the Sunk Creek ranch, the Virginian is delegated to watch over him (he’s always getting lost), not really the most welcome duty, but in this way their acquaintance grows. Meanwhile, the Virginian, coming upon a stage stuck precariously in a river crossing, rescues Miss Molly Wood, the woman hired to teach the Bear Creek school, and sets her on land, keeping her handkerchief in the confusion. Their first meeting, it has a lasting effect on both.
Attention shifts to the Virginian, who has taken two trainloads of cattle to Chicago, and is returning on the train with the crew. The narrator joins him along the way and witnesses the triumph of the Virginian when he manages to best his men (who, rather than returning to the ranch, want to go to a gold rush town), by telling the tallest, most elaborate and funniest of tall tales, beautifully related by the narrator.
Molly, on a horseback ride, discovers the Virginian lying on the ground, wounded by Indians, and with much difficulty she gets him to her cabin, where, with Mrs. Taylor and the doctor, she ministers to his needs. He is a long time recovering his strength, and at one point he receives the long-delayed letter she had written him before he was wounded, refusing his courtship. He determines to give her up, but she won’t let him now, so they are secretly engaged.
Meanwhile the narrative continues. The Virginian is sent to deal with an epidemic of cattle rustling, which results in the lynching of two men, one being the Virginian’s old friend Steve, prominent in that first meeting at Medicine Bow. The Virginian is very upset, and it hangs over him as he and the narrator leave the area. They come upon a track, one horse and two men. They are part of the rustler gang, Trampas and Shorty, and to facilitate his getaway on the horse, Trampas shoots Shorty and rides away.
The final confrontation scene between Trampas and the Virginian is excellently managed. Molly and the Virginian are riding to the town where they will be married when Trampas passes them, and when they reach town, three of his friends warn him. They go to a saloon for a farewell drink and Trampas enters, slanders the Virginian and warns him to be out of town by sundown. The Virginian must face the threat, he cannot run away even as Molly swears she will forsake him. He goes out and of course wins the battle, but Wister again proves his power: here is the whole description:
A wind seemed to blow his sleeve off his arm, and he replied to it, and saw Trampas pitch forward. He saw Trampas raise his aim from the ground and fall again, and lie there this time, still. A little smoke was rising from the pistol on the ground, and he looked at his own, and saw the smoke rising upward
out of it.
“I expect that’s all,” he said aloud.
He returns to the hotel, tells Molly he has killed Trampas (thinking she has renounced him), and she embraces him, saying “Thank God!”
The tension has been maintained to the end. There’s a lot more in the book I haven’t discussed, and I leave you to it. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: A Government Favor (for Once)
When we moved to Cape Breton in 1971 it was economically depressed, and it only got worse over the years. The federal government proposed various money-making schemes to put us on our feet, and I heard their proponents on the radio proclaim that if we did this (or that) we would see the end of welfare expenditure on the island. I actually heard that with these two little ears. Now I could tell you all about those schemes, what happened and how they came to naught, and depending on how I told them, the stories would be funny or sad, but I’d rather tell you about a plan that failed, but became a wonderful gift to us.
People whose land ran down to the water often had oyster leases, but we knew a place where there were no leases, and probing the shallow water with garden rakes, we got quite a few large oysters (a shell on my desk is seven inches long). There was an oysterman down at the end of the lake who made a desultory living, but there wasn’t much interest in oysters in the early ’70s. Then the government decided we should all become oyster entrepreneurs.
Like most government schemes, it seemed logical. Rafts consisting of 12-foot spruce saplings laid a foot apart across a metal frame resting on four foam-filled plastic floats, with coated wires suspended from the saplings, scallop shells a foot apart on the wires, would be anchored in the lake to catch oyster spat as it settled on the shells, and in three years the larvae would grow into salable oysters. Cape Bretoners had a jolly time in the preliminary stage that winter and spring, because all the unemployed, men and women, were well paid to construct the rafts. By June they were afloat, anchored about the lake.
There were several fallacies behind the project, but its doom was simple and obvious: to make it succeed required canny management, work which would not be remunerated until the oysters were sold. Simply anchoring a raft in the lake was not enough. It would have to be moved, first to a place where there would be plentiful spat, then to an area rich in nutrients, and sometimes it would have to be anchored near where a freshwater stream flowed into the lake, to flush off weeds growing on the oysters. Not a lot of work, but it had to be done, it had to be done right, and it wasn’t what people on the dole wanted to do.
Some people did their best, but at the end of three years the oysters were disappointingly small (as any oysterman could have told them at the start), and they had difficulty separating them from the scallop shells. Then catastrophe: the government wanted $5,000 for each raft! At once all interest was extinguished, no one would even look at a raft, and the government was stuck with hundreds of them moored around the lakeshores. A couple of years passed, until the rich summer people with yachts complained about impediments to navigation, so then the government hired a launch to haul all the rafts to remote places around the lake. There was a labyrinth of coves and uninhabited islands a mile or two from our farm, and a lot of rafts were anchored there.
Regarding the whole thing as a fiasco, I doubt if I would ever have recognized my great opportunity if I hadn’t met a neighbor at the shore unloading oysters from his skiff. Where’d he get them? “Off’n them rafts,” pointing across the cove. That afternoon found me paddling our canoe down another more remote cove. Tying up at a raft, I knelt on the poles, holding my breath, and hauled up a wire to see scallop shells crowded with oysters. By then, they been growing for seven or eight years, and it took only ten minutes to fill a bushel. There was an unexpected bonus: mussels clung to the floats, and I got those, too. Half an hour after landing at the raft, I was paddling home with two bushels of oysters and a big bucket of mussels.
I made that trip several times over the next few years. Late in the fall, I’d put a bushel or two down in the cold cellar, covered with wet seaweed, and we’d have oysters into the winter. But eventually the bonanza played out and the rafts finally sank to the bottom. I shall long remember those years as the only time in my life I’ve had enough oysters! *
My Harvey Weinstein Moment
There was a time, as a senior in high school, when my career might’ve taken a turn toward fame and fortune, but alas! It was not to be. I was the ordinary horny 17-year-old, not very bold, in fact, not bold at all, but with a jaunty façade. One morning as classes were changing, I walked into the room where my history class was to be held, and in the crush of students leaving and students arriving, I found myself next to Faye Stein, a very attractive girl. We smiled and nodded, and I saw that she was wearing a tight blouse that seemed to thrust her classic bust toward me. Without a thought in my head I reached out and cupped one of those beautiful breasts in my hand. Faye reacted instantly, slapping my face so hard I was staggered. The whole thing was over in an instant, and I don’t think anyone noticed, but in that moment the career that might have been vanished. Had Faye equivocated, I might have gone on to fame and fortune, Hollywood, the Senate, who knows what heights I might have scaled. *
Writers for Conservatives, 71: The Wolf by the Ears — Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, by J. C. Miller
The title, an image used by Jefferson to express the dilemma of Southerners who wanted to abolish slavery but couldn’t find ways to do it, is an apt summary of this book, a thorough account of Jefferson’s thinking on the subject from the 1780s until his death in 1826. The history of the period, before slavery (thanks to Calhoun) was regarded as a positive good, makes for very sad reading because abolition had more support then than it had later, and prominent men, like Washington, were known to despise it.
Jefferson’s role in the arguments of the time begins with his “Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), publication of which may have led to his being picked to write the Declaration of Independence. In the “Summary View” he claimed that slavery had been forced on Americans by George III. His belaboring of the issue in the first draft of the Declaration was cut out by his collaborators. Later, his draft of a constitution for Virginia, advocating gradual abolition, was rejected, and so was the same project in his contemplated revision of the laws of Virginia. The Continental Congress’s Ordinance of 1784, prohibiting slavery in the territories ceded to the government by the states, was lost by one vote (the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 banned slavery north of the Ohio River in the territories).
After peace was established and stringencies of wartime were relaxed, Jefferson was dismayed to see that the ostentation and self-indulgence he had deplored before the war, and which he had attributed to the “demoralizing influence of monarchial government and slavery,” had returned, and he preached “frugality, temperance, and the simple life of the American farmer.” He blamed the credit advanced by British merchants. His thinking on this point — he maintained his prejudice against Great Britain and “Monarchism” to the end — was not merely simple-minded but almost hallucinatory.
From 1785 to 1790 he lived in Paris as the minister to France, and he wrote Notes on Virginia in which he had his full say in print, for the first and last time, on slavery. At first the book was circulated in manuscript because it was intended only for the eyes of French savants. It was only when a pirated edition was published that he agreed to its publication, and then only anonymously with limited circulation. In it he condemned the Virginia constitution of 1776, expressed his abhorrence of slavery, and asserted the inferiority of Negroes’ intelligence. He feared that his condemnation of slavery would be premature and would strengthen resistance to its abolition. This was to be a constant theme throughout his life.
The point should be made that Jefferson was mainly concerned, not so much with the slaves, but with the effect of slavery on the white masters, insisting that it debased them. He thought Negroes were inferior and when they were freed should be banished from America, because he feared race war and miscegenation.
I should say something about the Sally Heming story, presuming that my readers will know about it, or at least Fawn Brodie’s version of it. In fact, the story was started by James Callender, an amazingly scurrilous writer (he can hardly be called a journalist) who had fled from Great Britain after publishing a diatribe against his country, a book which confirmed Jefferson’s worst prejudices and inspired him to call Callender a “man of genius.” He gave the rogue money and promised to further his publishing career. Jefferson was then Vice President in Adams’ Federalist administration. Callender published a book attacking the Federalists. Jefferson bought fifteen copies. Then Callender wrote The Prospect Before Us, blacking the reputations of Hamilton, Washington, and Adams, a book which Jefferson read in proof. After Jefferson became President in 1800, Callender, for reasons too involved to explain here, turned against him, made a Richmond paper into an anti-Jefferson scandal sheet, and invented the Sally Heming story. Miller devotes a chapter to it and to my mind, convinces me of its falsity (and the falsity of Fawn Brodie’s account as well). Incidentally, we are mistaken if we think the bitterly partisan tenor of the media today is unprecedented, as even a cursory glimpse of the newspapers of Jefferson’s time will show. The Sally Heming story (complete with a “dusky harem”) was printed in a Richmond paper. Talk about “fake news”!
Controversy erupted in 1819 over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. Southerners wanted it because it affected the balance of power in the Senate, but a group of Northern Jeffersonian Republicans broke away from the domination of the Virginian dynasty to sponsor the Tallmadge amendment forbidding slavery there. After all, Missouri was north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Amendment passed the House, but lost in the Senate. What interests us is Jefferson’s reaction. He saw the Amendment as an attempt by Northerners to use the federal government to crush the South, and he went so far as to advocate legalizing slavery in all the territories, arguing that by diffusing the ownership of slavery over such a vast area (he thought, for some reason that they would be small farms) in small groups, abolition would be easier. He was violent in his denunciations of what he thought of as Northern aggrandizement.
This account of Jefferson’s thinking about slavery, politics, and American prospects is depressing, but we should think of him and his choices in the context of his time. It is not generally realized how constrained Southerners, especially Virginians, were then, but once we know how Virginia was molded in the 17th century by the royal governor Berkeley (who ruled from 1641 to 1670) who was determined to make it a royalist colony by encouraging the immigration of royalists (willing to leave Great Britain at the time of their Civil War and Cromwell’s Commonwealth), the vigor and persistence of slavery is explained.
These royalists were granted extensive parcels of land for tobacco plantations, and of course, they were worked by slaves. Indentured servants, common then, soon gained their freedom and went off to small farms of their own, but slavery created a stable working class; they were going nowhere. Slavery was created to perpetuate the Southern system and it could not be abolished without destroying that system.
People, even historians as shrewd as Allan Nevins, often express the wish for an inspired leader who, in the decades before the Civil War, could have solved the great issue, but that could never be. It took 600,000 lives to begin the job and another century to finish it. *
Writers for Conservatives, 71: Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White
Over the years I have led my readers into some odd corners of the world of books, but this may be the oddest. It is a scholarly book on what would seem to be obscure subjects — the origin of the stirrup and its relation to feudalism; the plow and agriculture in the early Middle Ages — The Medieval Exploration of Mechanical Power and Devices. Furthermore, while I enjoy footnotes, you may not, especially when they take up half the page and are in German, Latin, French, and sometimes Italian, and sometimes, when the author is pressing the material evidence hard, you get sentences like this:
“Linden Schmidt, who published the Budenheim stirrup, was reluctant to date it more exactly than ‘Frankish,’ and there is no adequate reason for altering his judgment.”
But that’s when he is on a hunt for the origins of things, like the stirrup; his ideas and conclusions are written in strong, concise prose. This could be, in fact, the model of a scholarly book suitable for intellectually curious readers — as I hope can be said of my audience.
The preface should not be neglected, because it succinctly explains the book’s purpose. He begins by pointing out the illusion that written records give us “a reasonably accurate facsimile of past human activity.” He goes on:
“If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments . . . which have had the habit of scribbling, they must . . . use all the resources of archaeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings.”
In the first chapter he explains the classic theory of feudalism: “a type of social organization designed to produce and support cavalry,” and he lays out the evidence. As late as 733 Charles Martel’s army that defeated the Saracens at Poitiers were composed of infantry, but in 758 Pepin the Short changed the Saxon tribute from cattle to horses, and in 755 the Marchfield, the traditional muster of the Frankish army, was moved to May so there would be enough forage for a large number of horses. Charles Martel’s vast confiscations of Church lands, begun in the 730s, were used to support an “. . . enlarged body of followers on condition that they serve him on horseback . . . the ancient custom of swearing allegiance (vassalage) was fused with the granting of an estate (benefice) and the result was feudalism.” But why did they suddenly create this mounted force?
The answer lies in the use of stirrups. White then discusses what we know of the stirrup’s origins, a complicated, ambiguous, and confusing story. Finally the author decides that the stirrup first appeared in Western Europe in the early 8th century. When Frankish weapons changed; infantry weapons are replaced by a heavy lance with “spurs below the blade to prevent too deep penetration . . . which might result in difficulty in withdrawing the weapon,” something which makes sense only if we are contemplating mounted shock combat, made possible by the stirrup, which keeps the warrior firmly in the saddle as he charges with his lance under his arm. He is no longer a man on a horse, swinging a sword, but a unit, horse and man together, directing their combined mass and force against the target. White then goes on to show how the spread of the Frankish innovation feudalized Europe, with special attention to the Norman conquest of England. He concludes:
“Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history . . . antiquity imagined the centaur; the early Middle Ages made him
master of Europe.”
The author begins the next chapter on the agricultural revolution of the early Middle Ages by pointing out that scholars have largely ignored illiterate peasants despite the centrality of agriculture to all societies until about two centuries ago, thus preparing us for revelations from archaeology and iconography. He begins with the plow, distinguishing between what was essentially a large digging stick, a scratch plow, used in the light Mediterranean soil, and the moldboard plow used in the heavier, moister, northern soils that yielded far better returns. This heavier plow, with its colter, share, and moldboard:
“. . . offered much greater resistance to the soil so it required not just one yoke of oxen but four (eight animals), which meant that the peasants would have to pool their resources — all the lands of a village had to be reorganized into vast, fenceless open fields.”
As a consequence, peasants had to join together to decide how the “total lands of the community should be managed” — “the essence of the manorial economy in northern Europe.” There follows a discussion of variations in field types (which we can see today with aerial photography) and plows, because this was a phenomenon that occurred from the Slavic lands in the 5th century all the way to Britain in the 9th century.
The next step in the revolution was the development of efficient harness and the nailed horseshoe, which would make the horse “an economic as well as military asset.” The ubiquity of horseshoes is evident by the 11th century, useful harness somewhat earlier. The advantage of the horse over the ox is that while they both exert the same pull, the horse moves much faster and has more endurance. This led to another significant change, the abandonment of small settlements for larger villages, because peasants could now, with horses, go to and from their field work at a greater distance.
The next section is about the development of a more productive farming regime, the three-field rotation and its accompanying improvement in nutrition. The first thing to understand is that the Mediterranean system (which prevailed also in Europe in lighter soils) was a two-field rotation: half the fields were planted and half fallowed to restore fertility. The cultivated fields were planted with grains in the fall and in the spring with relatively trivial crops. The next year the two fields exchanged functions. The three-field system, developed in the 8th century (especially in Charlemagne’s imperial manors) worked like this:
“. . . the arable soil was divided into thirds. One section was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye. The following spring the second field was planted with oats, barely, peas, chickpeas, lentil, or broad beans (summer crops). The third field was left fallow. The next year the first field was planted with summer crops; the second field was left
fallow; the third field was put into winter grains.”
I won’t go into more detail, but White shows that the system was more productive because more crops were grown with less plowing and more efficiency; the spring planting, the essence of the new rotation, greatly increased production of certain crops: oats, prime food for horses, and legumes with enriched the soil, maintaining its fertility under more intensive use. The autumn planting was mainly carbohydrates while the spring planting was rich in vegetable proteins, peas and beans. It was not just the quantity of food produced by the three-field system, but also its quality that led to the great leap in population, the growth in cities and commerce — indeed the foundation for the modern world.
The book is very satisfying because of its great explanatory power. The ideas it advances about the origin and nature of feudalism, about the significance of material changes in technology and about their widespread effects on society are fascinating in themselves and in their implications for the way we think about social change at any time and place. The chapter about agriculture is especially interesting to me, a farmer always faced with the problem of how to squeeze more production from grudging land.
There is much more to the book than I have told here, for instance the last chapter about “the Medieval exploration of mechanical power and devices,” as well as many details about the three-field system and the evolution of the use of horse power.
Finally I should mention a flaw that was to have large consequences in White’s later career. He argues that because of the shift from subsistence farming to farming for more and wider production, man was no longer part of nature: “. . . now he became her exploiter. . . . Man and nature are now two things, and man is master.” Not only is this absurd in itself — men have always exploited nature and they have never been its master — but it led him, a few years later (this book was published in 1962), to write a book indicting Christianity as the driving force behind our so-called destruction of the environment: Charlemagne, after all, was the Holy Roman Emperor.
But I shall always be grateful for this book for the intelligent way it was conceived and written. And it confirms my conviction that the hand feeds the mind, or as Karl Marx put it, conditions create consciousness. *