Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Early Encounters with the Natural World
The encounters I shall describe were not unusual in my time — the 1930s and 40s — but I think they must be unusual today. From what I have seen of young people today, staring fixedly at small screens in their hands or talking on telephones as they walk, oblivious to everything around them, I imagine that what I have to tell would seem to them bizarre, hardly credible. It’s only fair to say that I had an inborn predilection for the natural world, shown by my refusal to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons, as my friends did, unless it was raining and I couldn’t go to the woods where I loved to spend my free hours.
My first conscious contact with the natural world occurred at Benkendorf’s farm, a few miles from our house in a place called Richfield, a farming area where early vegetable crops for the New York City market were grown in acres of cold frames. Benkendorf’s was not an intensive farm like that but a small general farm common then: some milk cows, some workhorses, pigs and chickens, and the reason for my presence — riding horses which were rented to be ridden on the nearby bridle paths. When my brother and sisters wanted to ride and were burdened with me, I was established in a corner of the kitchen to play with blocks. Once I was taken for a brief ride around the yard. But I recall Benkendorf’s for its association with my first named vegetable: Golden Bantam corn. When my father returned from work at the end of the day during the month of August, he would often drive out to Benkendorf’s to buy Golden Bantam corn for supper. Introduced in 1890, it is still grown today, and it is the corn I plant, not wholly because of the past but because it has the “corniest” taste of all varieties.
Incidentally, all the rich land was built over after the war, and in 1951 I lived in an apartment on the land that had been Benkendorf’s farm.
My next memory: I am holding a buttercup under my chin to see if my skin will turn yellow. I have no idea why. My wife has the same inexplicable memory.
The third memory: I pick a dandelion that has gone by and blow on the seed head. If I disperse all the seeds with that one breath, I’ll get my wish. I don’t remember any of my wishes, but I know I’ve blown many a dandelion seed on its way over the years.
The next vegetable I became conscious of was the Rutgers tomato. Developed in the 1930s, I know it because my father planted a Victory garden in our backyard during the war, and the main produce was that tomato. It was a superior tomato, a little late for the Adirondacks where we live now, but I grow half a dozen plants and ripen the green fruit in the greenhouse after frost.
One bit of nature got me in trouble. I liked to chew something we called “onion grass” (probably wild garlic, Allium canadense) and once in shop class I was chewing some when the teacher ordered me to rinse my mouth, which meant I had to walk about 100 yards to another building. I did so, rinsed my mouth, and then bought a package of “Chuckles,” a gumdrop candy of different colors and flavors. Unfortunately, I had the green candy in my mouth when I returned, and the teacher, thinking I was defying him, in a rage ordered me out. As I was going away he came out yelling at me, and at the end of my patience, I told him to go to hell. I was expelled. Eventually the principal was persuaded to allow me to finish out the year. I must say in my defense that the teacher was an obnoxious bully who blatantly favored students who were athletes (I wasn’t), but no one in the school or my family had a word to say in my favor, and to this day I feel the injustice.
My favorite summer fruit was green apples, filched from neighbors’ trees.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the purple beech (Fagus sylvatica var. atropunica), a large handsome hardwood with smooth gray bark and very dark red leaves.
It was planted as an ornamental on two old estates in our neighborhood. I and two of my more imaginative playmates, Tony and Margaret Randazzo, used to roll the leaves into tight cylinders, “cigars” which we would then “smoke” as we pantomimed the gestures of adults. I supposed the color of the leaves lent verisimilitude.
Eventually we graduated to what seemed at the time to be the real thing — well, almost. I discovered that, by cutting dead goldenrod stalks into four-inch lengths and using a long finish nail to poke a hole through the pith, one could, by lighting one end and strenuously puffing on the other, provide a simulacrum of smoking (I marvel at my ingenuity). Because these improvised cigarettes didn’t stay lit for long, we conducted our smoking sessions (there were about five of us) in a kitchen with a gas stove where we could relight our cheroots. Of course, we couldn’t do this when adults were in the vicinity, but once my brother, ten years my senior, walked in on us, and, pretending to choke on the fumes, staggered around the kitchen clutching his throat and exclaiming, “Hafkaff! What’re your smoking, moose hairs?” And that’s how they were known thereafter.
We spent part of our summer in a cabin at a lake in northwest New Jersey, and there I pursued the fauna — toads and frogs and turtles and dead snakes gathered as road kill early in the morning, later to be coiled realistically on paths. Once I caught a bullfrog as large as a small dinner plate and carried him around showing him off at the other cabins. I particularly liked the red efts that seemed to spring from the earth after a shower and then as quickly disappeared. I could catch some and put them in an aquarium, but they always escaped. I became a skilled still fisherman, casting my baited hook in the water to dangle from a bobber, catching sunfish, perch, small mouth bass, and catfish. So I became acquainted with earthworms and grasshoppers as bait.
It would be pretentious to draw large conclusions from my experience, but I know this, that thus I was made familiar with the small aspects of the natural world around me, that located me, placed me in that world. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Grassroots Patriotism
The small towns around here in upstate New York often, in a pathetic attempt at boosterism, hang signs from telephone poles on their main streets with such anodyne messages as “Westport-Yoga and Wellness” (I kid you not) with the name of a local business sponsor, but the nearby town of Willsboro, which attracts us with the only useful library in the area, has been hanging impressively different signs for the last three years: photographs of local veterans of our wars from World War I to the present (this year it is planned to include a photo of a Civil War soldier as well as one from the 1898 war with Spain). It is variously known as Hometown Heroes or the Military Banner Project, and so far as I can discover it seems to have begun spontaneously in different places all across the country.
How it began here may be typical. A young man from Willsboro, a Marine veteran now working in Philadelphia, happened to see such banners in a Pennsylvania town and suggested to his mother, Robin Belzile, that she initiate such a project in Willsboro. Mrs. Belzile looked up references to it on the Internet and set to work. While the town authorities were not hostile to the idea, they could see only difficulties and expense. But Mrs. Belzile persisted and eventually, after working out the particulars, persuaded the American Legion to sponsor the program.
This is the way it works: those Willsboro residents who want a photo of a relative displayed give a photo and check for $200 to the Legion, which then pays a printer to make a sign 2½ feet by 5 feet consisting of an enlargement of the photo with his or her name and branch of service. All the town has to do is assign some men with a lift truck to put up 75 banners in May and take them down in September. Sometimes they are damaged and must be replaced, but the cost is small, and Mrs. Belzile held a successful fundraiser last year to collect money for that purpose. The Legion does nothing but accept the checks and pay the printer; it makes no money from the transaction.
Some towns only put up pictures of those currently serving, others honor only those killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I like Mrs. Belzile’s ecumenical approach. It is certainly interesting to see men in the uniforms of world War I as well as more recent conflicts, and it gives one a small shock of recognition to see the local names — Sayward, Morgan, Drinkwine, Reynolds, Haskin, Lindsay — turning up so frequently.
Of course, a project like this does not happen in a social vacuum. It is particularly appropriate to Willsboro, because it is a working class town (it had a pulp mill until the 1960s). My town of Westport was a resort town now almost entirely populated by genteel retirees. “Yoga and Wellness” is probably the best it has to offer. Essex, another nearby town, has a substrate of people who mow lawns and drive snowplows and manage the town’s petty affairs, has been taken over in the last 30 years by yuppies. A couple of years ago one asked the Town board not to display so many American flags on the main street in summer but to show some foreign flags.
The Willsboro banners, viewed as one drives along the main street, seem a cheering, homely gesture, and once the process is understood, it seems very simple — but it required the indefatigable persistence of one patriotic woman to bring it to fruition. May we all be blessed with the presence of such citizens! *
Writers for Conservatives, 65: World War II Again
Recently I wrote about books on World War II by Len Deighton, excellent accounts of the Battle of Britain, the 1940 Blitzkreig, and the last book, an analysis of certain aspects of the conflict, and now I want to call your attention to two books about the war in Europe in 1944-45, Overlord and Armageddon by Max Hastings, the most impressive books on the subject I have ever read. The author maintains a fine balance throughout of enough detail to make us feel the intense reality of what’s going on at the same time that we have a sense of the general movement. This is not just a matter of narrative balance — Hastings makes the point again and again that plans at the top must be carried out by the men at the bottom, that the success or failure of an army depends on its soldiers, especially in battle against the most formidable army in the world. German soldiers by tradition, by culture, by ideology and training were fighters, while British and American soldiers were civilians in uniform. This is not a bad thing in itself, but the fact and its ramifications explain what happened on the Western Front in the last year of the war.
“It seems fruitless to consider whether an Allied plan or maneuver was sound in abstract terms. The critical question, surely, is whether it was capable of being carried out by the available Allied forces, given their limitations and the extraordinary skill of their enemies.”
This is, I think, the unique value of these books. The focus, usually, is on the commanders and their plans. While Hastings does not neglect the elevated prospect, it is always tied closely to details of the battle on the ground, the struggles of individual units, and it is there that we see how the Germans were better at the task.
“Their tactics were masterly: stubborn defense; concentrated local firepower from mortars and machine-guns, quick counter attacks to recover lost ground . . . they were great opportunists. They were prepared to act — always. . . . It is not that the Allied armies were seriously incompetent, merely that the margin of German professional superiority caused them great difficulties.”
Two other points that Hastings stresses are the lack of full cooperation between the air forces and the armies, because the armies, in their vanity about their supposedly superior role as arbiters of destiny (“Bomber” Harris was still claiming in 1945 that our air power alone could win the war), could not see that “the war could only be won by the defeat of the German army upon the battlefield, an enormously difficult task to which all other operations by sea and air must be subordinated.” Of course, the superiority of the Allied air forces over the Luftwaffe, their absolute supremacy over the battlefield, was of great value to the troops on the ground, but they could have done better, as Hastings shows by his account of the success of those airmen who cooperated closely with the troops. The other critical point Hastings makes is the superiority of German weapons, especially of tanks, which could “brew up” Shermans almost at will, while the Sherman’s 75 mm gun couldn’t dent the Tigers and Panthers they faced.
Overlord ends in September when the Allies were in Belgium, pressing toward the German frontier. Armageddon takes up where the earlier book ends, but it also tells the story of the Russian offensives (in lesser detail) in 1944-45. The Russians bore the brunt of the war, and their losses and achievements were much greater than those of the Americans and British. Armageddon is a more somber book, partly because it deals with Allied reverses, like Arnhem and the Bulge, but mostly because it records the ordeal of the East Prussians during that winter as they desperately tried to escape westwards.
“The saga of East Prussia’s winter of blood and ice is one of the most awful of the war. . . . In 1945 the Red Army considered itself to deserve license to behave as savages on the soil of Germany . . . they dispensed retribution for the horrors that had been inflicted upon the Soviet Union.”
Churchill said to his daughter Sarah, in February 1945, “I do not suppose that at any moment of history has the agony of the world been so great or widespread. Tonight the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the world.”
What finally brought victory to the British and American armies was their huge material advantage, and the wearing down of the German armies by attrition, not least from the air.
Hastings’ judgments seem to me to be eminently balanced. Of the Allied troops he says finally, “They fought as bravely and as well as any democracy could ask, if the values of civilization were to be retained in their ranks.” And his conclusion:
“The battle for Germany began as the largest single military event of the 20th century, and ended as its greatest human tragedy. More than half a century later we may be profoundly grateful that its worst consequences have been undone without another war. The men who fought and died for the freedom of Europe received their final reward with the collapse of the Soviet tyranny, two generations after the destruction of its Nazi counterpart.”
Max Hastings wrote another short book about the war, Das Reich, the March of the Second SS Panzer Division Through France. The Germans wanted the division to bolster the troops fighting the Allies in Normandy, 450 miles from their base in southern France, and this book is about the many attempts by the Resistance to delay the division’s progress. The main interest for me was the honest portrayal of the various groups of guerillas, about whom so much romantic nonsense has been written. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Comedies of the ’60s
The destruction of conventional standards of behavior in the ’60s relaxed inhibitions to such a degree that people who in ordinary times would have led dull but blameless lives suddenly strutted forth to do their own thing. Sinister as that was in many cases, in some it was comic relief. Living in Vermont, a Mecca for ’60s people at the time, not far from Goddard, a hippie college, we had plenty of material for observation. The vignettes that follow are absolutely true; only some names have been changed.
Two students were staying with us in the summer of ’63, and one of them, Morris, was my first’60s person. Having known him only superficially when I was teaching at the college, I was taken aback when, after a tour of the farm on his first morning, he said it would be a good place for guerilla training.
“Guerilla training?” I croaked.
“I know some of the top cats in P. L. who’d really dig this joint for maneuvers.”
Speaking out of the corner of his mouth with a touch of weariness, he growled, “Progressive Labor.”
Still wandering in bourgeois darkness, I said, “But I only rent the place.”
Morris shrugged. “You know best whether you want to help the revolution or not.” He spoke coldly and looked away. I was trying to think of a response when he suddenly veered off on another track, frowning and shaking his head. His biggest problem, come the revolution, he said, would be deciding whether or not to shoot his parents who were, as he finely phrased it, “petty bourgeois to their fingertips.” Later, when he was expounding the problem to the other student and Jo Ann, she said we could hardly offer advice in such a delicate personal matter, to which Morris sternly pointed out that it was a “matter of revolutionary justice”! Later, when he kept mooning around about the subject, Jo Ann, exasperated, said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, go ahead and shoot them”! We heard no more about it.
But he was still addicted to great walloping pronouncements. One hot night we were sitting around the kerosene lamp reading and sweating, yearning for cooling drinks or other bourgeois frivolities (we had no refrigeration), when Morris, hitherto absorbed in a deathless pamphlet by Vladimir Ilyitch Ulyanov, slapped it on the table and bellowed,
“What this country needs is a LENIN”!
“Yes,” Jo Ann sourly retorted, ‘A Lenin ice.’”
The trouble with such a response was that it gave Morris the sulks, which were hard to live with, a problem we met when he soon appeared as a Revolutionary Artist, pounding out masterpieces of Proletarian Art on Jo Ann’s typewriter while we toiled outside. How we dreaded the sound of the typewriter as it floated out to us peasants, knowing that soon his demonic energies would present us with another story which we would all, moral cowards, praise extravagantly. To discern any flaws was to provoke massive sulks. I don’t have space to tell about the stories, but here’s a sample of his poetry:
"Yes the people the workers I am with you
black yellow red I am with you yes
the machine guns stuttering stitching red kisses
on the bodies of the ruling class and its running dogs yes . . ."
Morris played his last role — romantic Vagabond — on the day he left. Dressed in faded jeans, a Bull Durham tag hanging from the breast pocket of his chambray shirt, stalk of timothy between his teeth, he looked at the mountains and said feelingly, “When I see those hills, I gotta go.”
Lenny was the most typical ’60s figure, showing just how ordinary such people would have been if the ’60s hadn’t changed their lives. When I first knew him in 1960, he was only a harmless, naïve freshman who wore his red and yellow high school warm-up jacket all the time. On a summer day in 1967, there appeared at our door a rusty bread van, with “LOVE” painted on its sides, plastic flower decals on the hubcaps, out of which stepped sandals, flowing robe, long hair, headband — all attached to Lenny. He had quit grad school (“I split the scene, man, too uptight”); had left a wife in California (“Too many hassles, man. I split the scene on my bike”); had driven across the country on his Honda; and was now looking for organic communal life on the land in Vermont.
Judging from his appearance, we all imagined Lenny would have interesting, or profound, or strange truths for us, but although he was with us for several hours, and various people tried to start conversations with him, his word hoard was limited to the hippie lexicon — “like man,” “y’know,” “far out,” and so on. How could anyone not have one single intelligent thing to say? How could anyone so attired, so groomed, not have anything even mildly interesting to say?
As Lenny pulled out in his bread van, I said to Jo Ann, “I’m afraid he’s the same old Lenny.”
“Yes. He traded in his warm-up jacket for a funny robe, that’s all.”
I knew ’60s homesteaders, too, like Brad and Solange, who lived in a VW microbus, flower pots in the windows and all. Not content with what seemed to me a cozy arrangement, however, they yearned for a vine-covered cottage with a garden, and since I had sold them the VW in the first place, there seemed to be a general expectation that I would provide the cottage, etc. I tried, but by the late ’60s, rentals in northern Vermont, especially vine-covered and prettily cultivated, were scarce.
Brad and Solange pestered and pestered us until I told them they could squat on a piece of our backfield. How excited they were! Solange immediately began pacing off the herb garden. Brad, however showed his down-to-earth practicality by pacing off the lines of the cottage first.
When I went out to get them for lunch, they had drawn all their plans with twigs, pebbles, and bunches of grass. Here was the goat pen, there was the loom room, this would be a row of marjoram. . . .
That afternoon we let them plant a garden in a corner of ours, or rather, we let them cover the seeds, or really, we made them cover the seeds. Then they were off to consult a hippie architect friend for cottage plans. We didn’t see Brad and Solange for several days, but the architect’s sketch they showed us, drawn in crayon on a large piece of dirty cardboard, was well worth the waiting. We looked at it for some moments before I asked what it was.
“A yurt! A portable yurt”!
Jo Ann suggested that it looked a bit large for portablility.
“That’s what the ring on top there is for,” Brad, ever the practical one, said. “We just get a helicopter, hitch it to the ring, and we’re off”!
The portable yurt was intensely discussed whenever Brad and Solange turned up — they spent a lot of time consulting with other friends here and there — and many hours were fruitfully spent shifting the twigs around in the back field. Then they disappeared. Where they went or why I never found out. Maybe they were just tired of the whole damned thing.
When Brad and Solange reappeared in September on a motorcycle they were sore at me because the VW had broken down, but I cleverly placated them with the harvest from their garden, which we had tended all summer. I cherish my final memory of this courageous pair of homesteaders: Solange holds out a radish to Brad and says softly, moistly, “From our garden.” Motorcycle fadeout in the sunset.
We knew a couple, Peter and Meg Magwitch, who ran a health food store. Actually, Meg did all the work while Peter looked at nudist magazines in the storeroom. He got away with it because Meg worshipped him as a guru. He looked the part — tall, with lots of curly hair, a reddish beard, and an uninhibited, earnest delivery as he expounded his teaching, of which the bizarre Magwitch folkways were the exemplar.
“Underwear,” Peter would boom out, standing in the middle of the shop, “decreases fertility, so when we come in from outdoors, we hang ours on the hatrack.”
Points to lingerie on hatrack. They had to cut it out, though; fetishists were stealing the undies. Since they were then spawning at the rate of one child every 11 months, I thought they should both wear two pairs of woolen union suits, sewed on, but I kept mum until Peter took me upstairs to show me their bedroom: One large mattress on the floor.
“Where do Dakota, Dawn, and Sundance sleep?”
“Right in there with their Mommy and Daddy.”
“Say, Pete, uh do you think that’s the best idea for little kids”?
“Absolutely! Why, there is a New Guinea tribe in which the whole family sleeps together in one hammock.”
For whatever Peter did, or rather, for whatever he was having Meg do, no matter how absurd it might seem to the uninitiated eye, he had a tribe somewhere to back him up. One of their biggest routines was birth. Meg had all her babies on the family mattress, filmed by friends, and Peter chewed the umbilical cord in two (Baffin Island Eskimos). I know you won’t believe what they did with the afterbirth, but so help me Adelle Davis, Peter froze it, ground it fine, and put it in a blender with tomato juice. For Meg, and anyone else who happened by that week. Full of vitamins, antibodies, etc., etc. I asked him for the tribe on that one, but all he could give me was cows.
I knew many more, but that’s enough for now. *
Our Mission Is to Reawaken the Genuine American Spirit . . .
The Dualism of Donald Trump
Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of The St. Croix Review.
Much has been said or written about Donald Trump, but he is not yet fully understood, as you can tell by the fact that people are still trying to reform him. So Republicans representing conventional wisdom (think of the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal as an example) are very anxious for him to be “presidential,” to stop tweeting at the drop of a provocation, to stop making “outrageous” statements, to be a serious “policy” man. The campaign is over, let’s get down to governing. While this view is astute and appealing, it misses a significant part of Donald Trump. Although he was certainly elected to pursue good policies, he was also elected to ridicule and condemn and outrage the ruling elite, the anointed, and that’s what his crudities do. Political Correctness (here PC) is the shield of the anointed. Nothing that disturbs or casts the smallest doubt on the vision of the anointed can be tolerated, and PC enforces that taboo.
I do not think the full significance of PC is understood. We recognize that it acts outward to suppress dissent and disagreement. So when the president of a woman’s college said “All lives matter” she was overwhelmed by denunciations until she retracted the statement. When North Carolina passed a law requiring people to use bathrooms in accord with their sex at birth, corporate sports bodies withdrew their patronage. We see and understand such outward pressure. What is not generally recognized is that it works inward, too, by denying knowledge of other viewpoints to the anointed, reinforcing their ideas and prejudices. This may not seem important, especially if we think of progressives exclusively as a class of rigid doctrinaires. Of course the anointed, because of their elitist conceit, are especially rigid in their beliefs, but remember: even the German General Staff in World War II had its dissenters, its wobbling believers.
PC is a blight — a pernicious reflex that stifles, distorts, and prevents serious discourse. Although it is used to protect the ideology of the anointed, it does them a disservice by increasing its ignorance. Remember the course of the American Communist Party in the 1920s and ’30s as it consistently misread the American (and world) situation because of the rigid dictates of its ideology.
Donald Trump’s “outrageous” behavior is, by its very crudity, a devastating attack on PC. All the polite intellectual critiques of PC over the years (and I have read plenty) have had no effect, but Trump’s assaults, by their tone of contempt and complete lack of politeness have made it an issue and have given great pleasure to millions of Americans, among whom I count myself. Trump upsets the applecart, and so he should. May he continue to generate both outrage and good policies. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Varieties of Religious Experience, Part II
Next spring Angus R. turned up. I had a question for him.
“Someone told me you once built a sawmill by yourself — is that true?”
“Well, gosh, yes I guess I did, yes.”
“Not quite, no. I bought the pulleys, and maybe one or two other things.”
“How’d you do it?”
“Oh, gosh, that’s a long story, don’t you know, yes, that would take a long time to tell.”
Angus R. was sitting on the chest just inside the kitchen door, pork pie hat held carefully on his knee. He looked thoughtfully at me for a long moment.
“I’m not sure this is quite right, don’t you know, but I’ll make a bargain, yes, a bargain. I’ll make a bargain with you. I’ll tell you about the sawmill for as long as you like, yes, and then you let me give you Bible talk for just as long.”
He smiled broadly, his little eyes disappearing among the wrinkles.
“It’s a deal. Come sit down at the table and have a cup of warm milk. Then tell me all about the sawmill.”
It was not so easy, though. Angus R. couldn’t manage a connected narrative so I had to question him, and that took time.
“One hour and twenty-five minutes, yes, that’s how long it was, yes, and the next time I come I’m going to give you a Bible talk, don’t you know, a Bible talk, for one hour and twenty-five minutes, yes. Don’t you forget!”
He was exultant.
When we moved to the farm, there was an ancient lilac bush by the kitchen door, a rhubarb plant stranded in the weeds, and a clump of daylilies near the porch — not much to begin with, but we went to work, and within two years there were flower and vegetable gardens, shrubs, fruit trees, and bushes all around the house. Among the flowers, Jo Ann planted herbs, and before long she was selling herbs, and herb teas, and as she grew more, she learned more, and soon she was writing articles for an herb magazine back in the States, and that led to more curiosity, more study, and greater knowledge. One day, reading a compilation of old herbals, she chanced on the remark that on one knew what the bitter herbs of Passover were. She was astonished. She knew what they were, and so must everyone who had ever taken part in a Seder — they were, or rather it was, horseradish. As soon as she said it to herself, she knew that something was wrong beyond the plural-singular problem, because horseradish lacked the essential quality of bitterness. She had never thought about it before. Now began a quest to identify the bitter herbs, and because of her remote situation, it took her more than a year, studying Middle Eastern flora, Jewish ritual, folklore and history, even the Talmud, and she corresponded with herbalists and rabbis, and finally with botanists in Israel. It fascinated her, and when she and I worked together in the woods, or spread manure on the snowy fields, or milked the cows in the lantern-lit stable, she told me what she was learning. Of course I was interested, but I was a little uneasy, too. I asked her, in a puzzled way, “Does this mean you’re going to be Jewish?”
She smiled. “I’m already Jewish.”
“Yes, but I mean religious Jewish.”
She kissed me and said, “Don’t worry, dear; we’ll still have ham and bacon.”
That spring we celebrated Passover with a Seder, the first since Jo Ann was a girl. Although it was a dark and huddled affair — not enough candles, the Maxwell House Haggadah was unfamiliar, and I was impatient throughout (“When do we eat?”) — she began to think, as soon as it was over, of how she would do a better job next year.
Angus R’s religious talk, when he finally came to collect his time on a rainy Sunday morning, turned out, despite a nearly disastrous beginning, to be an occasion of great enlightenment. He began well, but as with the sawmill story, he was soon lost in a jumble of unrelated sentences, straining with desire to impart the knowledge he felt but could only incoherently speak. I tactfully relieved him the same way as before: I asked questions. It was much more difficult to find out what Angus R. knew about the Privilege of Holiness (“For we which have believed do enter into rest.” Hebrews 4:3) than sawmills because both of us were used to the language of the material world, and neither of us knew much about holiness. But we worked at it together; Angus R. relaxed and in the end he was rather pleased with himself.
It was noon, and Angus R. stayed for lunch. As I was reaching for my glass of milk, Angus R. said, with his broadest smile, “Should I say the grace?”
“You say grace?” I asked holding my glass.
“Well, I’m no animal!” he exclaimed. Bowing his head, clasping his hands on the table, he said, “Let us now give thanks for the food we are about to receive, in the name of the Creator.”
I watched him in silence. Jo Ann said, “Amen.” Angus R. smiled.
After he left, Jo Ann said, “Jews have a name for holiness — ‘kidusha,’ the Law of Sanctity.” She went to her desk. “Look at this. I thought of it when he said ‘I’m no animal!’” She pointed to a passage:
“Judaism attempts to elevate to the God-like those activities that people and animals do alike. The more we share an act with animals, the more laws there are in Judaism to sanctify it, elevate it, to the God-like. . . . Eating should be an act of kidusha. . . . Does an animal thank God . . . before eating?”
I sat down and read the whole article, and when I gave it back, said, “Very interesting. I learned more from it than from that hour and a half with Angus R.”
One evening a couple of weeks later, when we were milking, Jo Ann announced that she thought she’d go to the Yom Kippur services at the temple in Sydney.
I was astonished. “Why?”
“It’s the holiest day of the year for Jews, the Day of Atonement, and I haven’t been to a service since before we were married. I’d just like to go.”
I felt my heart beating, chest tightening, blood mounting to my head. Relax. Relax. I took deep breaths. Speaking slowly, casually, I said:
“We’ll have to make arrangements for a ride, or maybe you can take the train the night before.”
We discussed, canvassing possibilities, and there it ended. But not for me. I wondered about myself, about the jealousy and self-pity that had almost overwhelmed me. Didn’t I admire and respect religious people? Didn’t I admire Jo Ann’s interest in Jewishness, and didn’t I recognize that she had thereby enriched my own life? Yes, yes, and I liked her independence of mind, too, the way she had mulled over Yom Kippur and made up her mind about it. I could not oppose her; I knew it meant too much to her, and then where would I be? I might lose her love. Reasoning with myself took me only so far — I was still upset, uneasy at the unsettling of the old dispensation.
Jo Ann got a ride back with an old man she’d met in the synagogue who, back in the 1920s and ’30s, had been a peddler with a horse and wagon, and he’d slept in this house more than once.
“It’s vild now,” he said sadly, waving inclusively at the woods. Completely gone to vild. They was farms all along the Backlands road. Now nothing but forest. Not brush in the fields, forest.”
“Just since we’ve been here the Backlands have emptied. The bootlegger at the Cove was the last to go, and now there’s hardly any traffic at all, just what comes here.”
The man smiled. “There was a bootlegger at the Cove fifty years ago, too.” He talked about the vanished farms, enumerating each one with a vivid sketch of the people, and he hadn’t finished when Jo Ann called us in for tea and cake.
When the old man sat down, he looked reflectively at the table for a moment. “You know something? Wherever I went in those days, all over the island, around the Trail, over in Richmond Country, wherever I went people invited me in for a meal. You know Cape Bretoners never turn away a hungry man. And every place I ate, the people said grace. Everywhere! It was unheard of not to say grace in those days. Now — a thing of the past. People were different then,” he finished wistfully.
I looked at Jo Ann. “We say grace,” I said. Jo Ann’s eyes widened. I bowed my head and clasped my hands on the table. “Let us now give thanks for the food we are about to receive, in the name of the Creator.” Both Jo Ann and the old man said “Amen.”
Time moves swiftly for modern man in briefer and briefer units firmly marked by unambiguous signals in a precise procession of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. The deep rhythms are there but overlain by so many counter-rhythms, so many more obvious and clamorous noises, that they are ignored. We, too, had our minutes and hours, but embedded as they were in the deliberate wheel of nature’s round, they lost most of their imperious character. Time moved just as swiftly for us as for townsmen but we thought of it in longer and vaguer units, and within those spans, conducive to a reflective life, all manner of possibilities could come to pass, could ripen into conviction from surmise, could be pondered and rejected or set aside or, finally, accepted as part of a natural continuum. Events, remarks, incidents dwelt in our minds to be thought about, turned this way and that until they became part of us or faded away like the last reverberations of a sound.
One Sunday afternoon in the following July, I was hauling a wagon load of sawdust from the mill on the other side of town, and as I entered the deserted winding street I heard a strange, booming voice echoing unintelligibly over the housetops. What could it be? When the horses swept around the last curve, I saw someone standing at a microphone in front of the post office. The team slowed to a walk on the grade, and now I could distinguish the words.
“ . . . sun was burning me up. It was hazy, and the sky was milky, and I looked up — the sky was as brass, and I fell on my knees . . .”
Fred was standing in front of the mike, Betty was by his side. Two men from the old folks’ home were sitting on a bench next to the post office. A sign was propped against the curb: “GOD IS LOVE.” As I slowly passed, I raised my cap and smiled at the MacIsaacs, but they looked through me. One of the old men raised his hand and faintly waved. The voice bloomed on over the still and lifeless town.
We were looking forward to a quiet day, but there were customers in the afternoon, and then Angus R. appeared. We hadn’t seen him for a long time, and we were worried: We had heard that he was no longer a Witness; he had quit or been expelled — something like that.
We were relieved to find him the same as ever, sitting squarely on the chest beside the door in his shiny black suit, pork pie hat on his knee, smiling, talking in his nervous way.
Jo Ann, who had had this on her mind for years, said, “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but there’s a problem with your tie.”
“Well, gosh, I. . . .”
“There’s a moth hole in the middle of the knot, so it looks like you spilled milk there.”
“Oh, my,” he said, unsnapping the ready-made tie and looking at it with surprise.
“Here: I can fix it.” She got a bottle of indelible ink and made the hole invisible.
Angus R was so amazed and delighted — he kept peering at the tie in the mirror — that he was persuaded to stay for supper. As we sat down, I said, “I’ll say the grace. It’s yours, Angus. We like it so much we took it over.”
When the “Amens” had been said, Angus R. tucked his napkin into his collar and said, “Well, yes, isn’t this nice, don’t you know. We have a Jew (nodding to Jo Ann) a Christian (tapping the napkin) and, and Mr. Gardner.” We laughed and laughed, and Angus R. beamed, scrunching up his eyes in a mass of wrinkles.
“Whatever we are, we believe in one God, yes. As the Lord God said to Jacob — Genesis 28:14 — ‘and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth; and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of earth be blessed.’”
When, as she was going to bed, Jo Ann kissed me, I asked her if she’d had enough of Christianity lately?
“How could I ever object to Angus R.? Especially after his performance tonight. That was perfect!” she kissed me again and left me to my pipe.
I sat on at the kitchen table, my feet propped on a chair, thinking about the day. After a few minutes, I fetched the large Bible, kept now on a shelf over the flour barrel. Genesis 28:14. Oh, the Jacob’s Ladder incident. I read the chapter, and then another, and then some more before I knocked the ashes from my pipe into the stove and went outside. A beautiful night, I thought, watching the moon rising, just clearing the trees, as I walked out to the compost heap behind the privy. Peering at the brush along the pasture fence, I wished I’d brought the flashlight; two nights ago I had seen a wildcat, its eyes shining fiercely red in the beam before its ghostly gray form vanished in the woods. There were always wildcats in the woods, but I had never seen one near the buildings before. The next day I moved the turkeys from their open pen into the shed.
The place was going back to the “vild,” as the old man had said. I had seen moose tracks by the pond a few weeks ago; a bear had been shot at the cove. I couldn’t see the Backlands road from the porch anymore, not even the train, only the reflection of its headlight above the trees. Much was made of tropical jungles inexorably obliterating the works of man, like those Mayan cities, but the North has its jungles, too — not so dramatic, but no less certain.
Walking back, looking up at the stars, I thought of Jacob’s Ladder, and then of God, the stars, Leviathan, and the love spoken only in the heart.
The moon shone down on the farm. There was the farmhouse, its tin roof shining, and there was the dog lying on a grain bag on the porch, his head on his paws. The cows were lying under the old apple trees in the pasture, their methodical chewing stirring only an occasional tinkle from their bells. The horses stood full in the light in their pasture, heads bent, tirelessly cropping the grass. A silvery mist lay on the pond. Beyond the small fields of the farm the dark woods extended for miles in every direction, the moon moved across the sky, the vague shadows shifted, a barred owl hooted across the valley, and we lay beside each other in our bed in the small farmhouse and slept. *
Writers for Conservatives, 61: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural
The above title is a title within Modern Library Giant, edited by Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser, published in 1944, still in print, and which I, something of a connoisseur in such matters, can recommend as the best such anthology I know. I could wish for a different selection here and there, but no single anthology can please all tastes. This is an excellent collection.
My readers will recognize that once again, as when I wrote about Westerns and detective stories, I am writing about a subject beneath the notice of high-minded lovers of literary culture. Before we’re done, however, I think we’ll find that there’s more of literary interest in the subject than is immediately obvious. When ghost stories (to give them a generic name, though ghosts may not be involved) are occasionally considered by critics they always begin by asking what the attractions are, and then they offer various silly answers. Edmund Wilson, who wrote a couple of essays about these stories, did not really appreciate or understand them, and he recommended works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” psychologically interesting but quite without scariness, which is the essential attractive element in the best of ghost stories. It is not that the reader is afraid, but he is made to feel the fear of the characters, and it must be justified. The writer must be able to make the reader feel that the characters are afraid of something of which they are right to be afraid.
Some tales are about a fear that can exist outside the story, as I shall explain. In Geoffrey Household’s masterly story “Taboo,” which is both a straightforward story about fear and also a story about the psychology of repression, the narrator recounts a story told by Shiravieff. Although nearly every word in the story is Shiravieff’s, the device of the narrator is important because it allows him to comment at crucial points. Shiravieff, vacationing in the Carpathians not long after World War I, met Vaughan, an Englishman, and his American wife Kyra. In a short space of time two local men disappear while travelling in the wooded hills, and then a searcher also disappears. There is general dismay and fear in the area. Vaughan and Shiravieff go searching themselves and, discovering a place where a scuffle has taken place, and decide to set a trap. One man with a rifle will be posted on a high ledge overlooking the spot while the other acts as bait by walking back and forth on the path in the moonlight. We feel the fear of the men, a wholly rational fear given the facts. What’s even more scary is that, to preserve the illusion, they must leave separately, first the bait, later the watcher. After a few suspenseful nights the trap is sprung and the murderer is killed. He is a forester who has sold cuts of “venison” in the village, and the evidence in his cabin shows that the villagers, as well as the characters, have been eating human flesh. Kyra reacts instinctively and is semi-hysterical, thus ridding herself of the shock, but Vaughan, the impeccably repressed Englishman, keeps his feelings under control. Shiravieff meets them some years later and they have dinner together. Vaughan has become a vegetarian, but he couldn’t think why he had “this distaste for meat.”
“I tell you the man was absolutely serious. He could not think why. Shock had lain hidden in him for ten years, and then had claimed its penalty.”
“‘And you,’ asked Banning. ‘How did you get clear of shock? You had to control your emotions at the time.’”
“‘A fair question,’ said Shiravieff. ‘I’ve been living under a suspended sentence. . . . If I could only have got the story out of my system, it would have helped a lot — but I couldn’t bring myself to tell it.’”
“‘You have just told it,’ said Colonel Romero solemnly.”
That Romero is an admirer of English reticence and a scoffer at Shiravieff’s theory of repression in the beginning of the story and the man with the last convinced word gives a very satisfactory ending, is a tribute to the author’s skill. What is so good about it is that the story is mainly about the real rational fears of the characters and then ends with a psychologically sound idea about the effects of fear and shock.
Edmund Wilson had some scornful remarks about the fashion in the early 20th century for ghost stories that relied, not on ghosts but on mysterious entities just outside ordinary reality. H. P. Lovecraft’s writings were so based, and “The Dunwich Horror” in this volume is a typical example, quite unreal, very second rate. Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” is another unconvincing example. These stories are filled with adjective-laden passages like this:
“The most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things, forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken. . . ”
and so on, not only unconvincing but finally laughable.
There are, however, better efforts in this mode, and now let me describe tales in which the characters are afraid of something that the reader, standing outside the story, knows is nonsense, but as we read it the author induces in us that “willing suspension of disbelief” Coleridge spoke of. The fear is justified by the way it is described. It is not so real or acute as in “Taboo” because the situation in that story would have been fearful outside the story. M. R. James is a master of this sort of tale, and two are in this volume. “Casting the Runes” is about a practitioner of witchcraft who conducts fatal vendettas against presumed enemies, making their lives a frightening burden, leading them to an early death. Here is an example of what might be called “induced rational fear.” The character, victim of the “runes,” puts his hand under his pillow:
“What he touched was, according to his own account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”
I have read this story aloud to listeners on several occasions, and that passage makes them gasp every time. It does not matter that outside the story we regard the runes with the smile of incredulity; once the writer has by his skill induced us to believe that a character struck his hand under his pillow into a mouth, we share the character’s fear. A clever author can make us believe anything — while the spell of his words is upon us.
There are 53 stories here in more than 1,000 pages, and while some are not to my taste, most are eminently readable. In fact, I had a difficult time writing this essay because I kept dipping into the book to relish again old favorites. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, here are some other authors and tales I recommend: Balzac, Hardy, Wells, Saki, Dorothy Sayers, “The Most Dangerous Game”, “Leinigen versus the Ants,” Faulkner, Hemingway, John Collier, Bulwer-Lytton, Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton, W. W. Jacobs, “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” Kipling (“The Return of Imray” as well as the superb They), E. L. White’s “Lukundoo,” E. F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood, A. E. Coppard, The Celestial Omnibus, Isak Dinesen’s “The Sailor-Boy’s Tale.”
A word about ghost stories — I have just read three collections, and I can testify that they are dreadful bores. To tell a supernatural story convincingly, as is done in this anthology, you have to be a terrific writer. The best anthology of ghost stories I know is the Oxford anthology. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Varieties of Religious Experience
We’d been living in Cape Breton a couple of years when I asked the storekeeper why no ministers had come to call; in every other country place we had lived ministers were almost the first callers. He smiled. “People living in the Backlands are heathens. You folks are left to the Devil and Jehovah Witnesses.” I don’t know about the Devil, but no Witnesses appeared, and it must have been during seven or eight years because all the children were grown and gone before religion came to the Backlands. I had walked to a neighbor’s to make a phone call and I was on my way back when a man in an old pickup gave me a ride, and when I got out he handed me a piece of stiff paper, saying “Take this along, brother.” It was a homemade religious tract. One side was a typed message — “The Road of Life” — while the reverse was an amateurish drawing of a journey from birth to death, winding from one pitfall to another, the Seven Deadly Sins. I was impressed and so was Jo Ann.
“What an effort! What was he like?”
“Nothing special. I had the feeling that he was a little simple. He had long arms that stuck out of his sleeves.”
Passing out tracts in the country is not like in the city: here you know your man and can follow him up. We were not surprised when the man and his wife — Fred and Betty MacIsaac — turned up on Sunday afternoon. Fred was quiet and shy, a contrast to Betty, short, dark, blunt-featured, with prominent staring eyes, very self-assured. She had conceived the tracts and done the text; Fred did the drawing.
Jo Ann said something about it being a lot of work, and Betty shook her head. “No more. Now we buy them ready-printed. We didn’t know about them when we started — see. Here’s one of the new ones,” she said, pleased and proud.
“Have you been to Calvary?” it asked, and on the bottom in small letters I read, “Pilgrim Tract Society, Inc., Randleman, North Carolina.”
They went to the mall at the Strait on Saturday afternoons and passed out tracts, “Doing the Lord’s work.” They’d been at it for a couple of years.
“What made you start?”
Betty looked at Fred. He had been a silent figure in the background, drinking his tea at the far end of the long kitchen table. Now he sat up straight. “I had a vision,” he began deliberately in his quiet voice.
“It was a terrible hot day, and I was in the hayfield getting in a load of oats I’d cut green for hay. You know how it is with oats; when they’re thick you think they’ll never end. I’d go along for a while pitching, and then I’d climb up to build the load. The sun was burning me up and the sweat was just pouring off me.”
His voice did not seem to change, but we felt an intensity, a current lying just behind the words. We sat quite still, watching his face.
“The sky wasn’t blue, it was hazy, milky, and the heat was all around, pressing me down, and everything was turning like waves, and I looked up and the sky was as brass, and next thing I knew I was down in the stubble on my knees, praying to the almighty God.”
He smiled and sipped his tea. Betty said, “That’s when we took up the Lord’s work.”
We came out of our trance. I said, rather lamely, “That’s some story.” Jo Ann offered more tea, but Betty said they had to be going. At the door I said, “Come again.”
Jo Ann smiled. “They’ll come again, all right. This was just the first installment. Notice how they didn’t dissipate the effect by hanging around. Drop the bomb and go.”
“It was impressive.”
“Oh yes. And now they’ll be back after your soul.”
“You’re in it, too.”
“They don’t care about me; I’m just part of the picture. I saw the way they looked at you. It’s your naiveté, unworldliness.”
“So are you.”
“Yes, but it’s the man of the house they want. Well, they’re your Christian friends, I leave them to you.”
Fred came by nearly every Sunday afternoon for the next few weeks, and we would walk around the farm, discussing things like hay or drainage or fencing, and we’d stop at the stable to look at the pigs, and finally we’d wind up sitting on the porch steps, discussing religion. Sometimes Betty was with him. She wasn’t very sociable.
“She thinks Fred is wasting his time on you.”
“Yes. And I can see she doesn’t like the way I talk about religion with him.”
“She probably thinks you’re undermining his faith.”
“All I do is ask questions trying to make sense of what he says, a mishmash of Bible quotes and odd notions he’s picked up somewhere. I don’t challenge anything.”
“You’re supposed to swallow it whole.”
“Too bad. I like Fred and I enjoy his visits.”
The MacIsaacs didn’t appear one Sunday, but we had another religious visitor. I was working in the garden when a man drove up in a pickup. He looked extraordinary, even at a distance with a pork pie hat set four-square on his head — I hadn’t seen a hat like that since before the war — and a black suit so worn it was shiny. His face was remarkably flat, and his pale brown eyes were very small and slightly slanted, so he looked almost Oriental.
“Good day,” I said.
“Good day. Mr. Gardner? Yes. Well, I’m Angus R. MacDonald. Yes. Folks call me Angus R., don’t you know? Yes. And I came to see you. Yes.”
He had a high voice, with the sing-song rhythm of the old Cape Bretoners raised in Gaelic-speaking households. “What did you want to see me about?”
“Yes. What did I want to see you about? Well, yes, you see I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, don’t you know. Yes. And I go around making calls on folks yes, that’s what I do.”
He smiled and smiled, his little eyes disappearing in the wrinkles, and I thought he was an innocent eccentric, but the impression he made was not unpleasant. “Before you go on, Mr. MacDonald, you should understand I’m an atheist.”
“No!” His smiled broadened.
“Yes,” I answered, smiling too.
Angus R. shook his head and said “No.” again, not, I think, in shock or disbelief but as rejection of the whole notion. He pulled a small Bible from his pocket. “Well now, Mr. Gardner, yes, this is the word of God you know, isn’t it?”
“No. Part of it is Jewish history and mythology, and part is Christian mythology. In other words, I don’t believe it’s the word of God.”
Still smiling, Angus R. shook his head. I waved my hand magnanimously. “Let’s not argue about it. Agree to disagree.” I was very pleased with my definition of the Bible. “Come
on; we’ll have the tea.”
Once in the kitchen, however, he politely refused tea. “Just a cup of warm milk, yes, just a cup of warm milk, don’t you know, if it’s no trouble, Missus.”
He put the pork pike hat on his knee and drank the milk in little sips, smiling all the time. He had been a Witness nearly all his life he said, and when he talked about his past he spoke soberly without nervousness.
“Well, you see, I went with my mother around to all the places when I was just a gaffer, and when I got bigger I carried the gramophone and records.” He smiled. “We had records to play to folks, talking records, you know.”
“What was on them?”
“Talks. Like the stories in the Watchtower, you see. Different ones — Religion and Morality, Is there a God? Immortality — lots and lots of things.” He looked at the clock. “Gosh! It’s time I was leaving, yes, it’s time for me to go, don’t you know?” Standing, he clapped the hat firmly on his head.
“But you haven’t been here long.”
“Well, well, you’re very kind, yes, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome, don’t you know. I’m not welcome every place, you know, no I’m not. But I don’t live far way, just before Jamesville, don’t you know, yes, and I’ll be by again. Yes, yes, I’ll see you.”
When Fred and Betty came by again, the first thing I mentioned was Angus R.’s visit. That was a blunder.
“Jehovah’s Witness,” Betty said with great scorn, making me feel I’d given my patronage to a rival and inferior firm.
Fred was upset. He couldn’t focus his attention on anything — Angus R. kept intruding. How long was he here? What did he talk about? What did I think of him? Finally, he asked portentously, “Did he tell you about our Lord Jesus Christ coming back to Earth in 1914? Did he tell you that?”
“No. He didn’t say much about their doctrine. Of course, I knew that about Christ already.”
He was shaken. “How’d you know that?”
“What’s so strange about it? Anyone who’s talked to a Witness must know it. It’s one of their most distinctive ideas.”
Fred nervously plucked at his sleeves, trying to draw them down over his wrists. I realized I wasn’t supposed to know anything about religion beyond what the MacIsaacs had to offer; no wonder Betty was skeptical of me. I wished I hadn’t mentioned Angus R.
In a gloomy voice Fred said, “I used to go to the Kingdom Hall outside Baddeck.”
“Oh? Why didn’t you stick with them?” We were sitting together on the porch steps and Betty was on a bench behind us. She spoke with great contempt, “Not spiritual enough.”
I turned to look at her. The stern set of her lips, the scowling frown, her narrow heavy-lidded eyes showed a hardness that daunted me. What could she mean by “spiritual?” she stared back at me coldly.
Fred came alone next time, and he couldn’t stay long. It was raining, so we sat in the kitchen and had tea. He kept tugging at his sleeves. As he was leaving, standing in the doorway, he said they wanted to hold a service there at our farm with all their fellow believers — and then he was gone. We were left with our mouths open.
Jo Ann shook herself. “Absolutely not!” she said firmly.
“Why not? It might be interesting.”
“They want to convert us, and I’m not interested. I’m a Jew and that’s that. Christian attempts at conversion are insulting. I won’t have it.”
“OK, OK, take it easy.”
“You’d better write right away. Don’t wait, you might be too late otherwise. That was a deliberately fast exit so we wouldn’t have time to object.”
I wrote as graciously as possible, but I had to say there would be no services at the farm. I knew Jo Ann was right, and beyond curiosity I had no real interest in the gathering. But I was afraid this would drive the MacIsaacs away, and I enjoyed Fred’s visits, just as I always like people who were religious in an unworldly way. I like their simplicity, their lack of pretension, their sharp contrast with the narrow-minded materialism so common in the countryside. The only trouble was that sooner or later you had to join them. I ended the letter, “I hope this will not affect our friendship.”
That was the end of the visits, although I saw them once again, as we shall see. * . . . . Continued in the next issue.
Writers for Conservatives, 61: A Man of the West
Bernard De Voto (1897-1955) was an unusual figure in the literary landscape of the 1930s and 40s. A strong-minded Westerner (born in Utah), he was contemptuous of Eastern snobbishness and the leftist propensities of the literary crowd. He had taught at Northwestern and Harvard, and latterly he edited the Saturday Review of Literature and wrote the “Easy Chair” column at Harper’s (1935-55), a position long held by William Dean Howells, a literary pulpit of some significance in those days. He famously did battle with the reigning intellectuals in Mark Twain’s America (1932) an “essay in correction” as he called it, an answer to Van Wyck Brooks’ Ordeal of Mark Twain (1915), an early salvo in the intellectual’s war against America that reached its first crest in the 1920s. Brooks claimed that Twain was an artist crippled by the barren crudity of his frontier background (Missouri, California, Nevada) and then by the suppressions of Eastern genteel culture. I won’t go into De Voto’s answer at length (the book is too long and confusing) but one point should be stressed: he showed by extensive research that Twain’s humor, always his primary mode of expression, grew directly out of the frontier storytelling tradition revealed in the newspapers of the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s (remember that Twain was a typesetter and then a newspaperman), a rich and pervasive tradition. The Eastern idea of the crudity and barrenness of frontier culture, later extended to an indictment of American culture in general (see H. L. Mencken) is blown away by Mark Twain’s America.
To leftist mandarins of literary culture then, writers for The New Republic and Partisan Review, magazines like Harper’s or Saturday Review were middlebrow venues of little weight, and De Voto was dismissed as a belligerent ignoramus, a conception that colored my perception of him in the 1950s. The books we are about to consider, his historical works, make that notion of the man absurd.
The books are The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), and their subject is the lure of the West in the American imagination. Their publication is in inverse historical order. Year of Decision is about the culmination of the Western drive, the annexation of California and the settlement of the Oregon country; Across the Wide Missouri is about the climax of the fur trade from 1832 to ’38; and The Course of Empire traces the travels of Eastern explorers from the 16th century to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-6. We shall consider them in their proper historical order.
In the preface to The Course of Empire De Voto says:
“Nothing in history is more visible than the transformation, in response to the continent, of Europeans into Americans.”
What does that mean? The slightest acquaintance with the early Spanish and French explorers tells us that they regarded the continent as a repository of lootable treasure, as Peru and Mexico had been, and all their travels were based on that premise. For the French (after their abortive Florida adventure) it was furs. After the British conquered Canada they declared the Proclamation Line of 1763 marking all the land beyond the Alleghenies as an Indian preserve just for the fur trade. It was only the colonists who became Americans after living 150 years on the eastern frontier, who pushed into Kentucky and saw the settling and development of the West as their goal — that’s when Europeans became Americans.
The Spanish travelled north from Mexico into what is now the United States in search of seven cities of gold and similar will-o’-the-wisps, and De Voto tells the truly amazing stories of Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, De Soto, and others, along with the delusions about the West which persisted even into the 19th century. Then the narrative shifts northward to the French fur traders who had begun the trade in the early 1500s.
About this De Voto makes this profound point:
“The impact of European goods produced a change in Neolithic America far more concentrated and rapid than anything in the history of white civilization . . . from 1500 on they were cultural prisoners.”
We learn of coureurs de bois, “an Indian with a white man’s mind and he lived free,” and we follow the travels and intrigues of Joliet, Marquette, Frontenac, La Salle, and intrepid traders and adventurers like Radisson and Nicolet. It is one of the book’s virtues that, because it is about the discovery of the West, De Voto tells us about travelers, explorers, and traders we never heard of before, men who were constantly pushing farther into the unknown. A large part of the story, of course, is the struggle between France and Britain. The story of explorations Westward in connection with the fur trade, and efforts to find a river flowing from the interior to the Pacific, are other parts of the continental story the author tells so well.
The last part of the book is a detailed, perhaps too detailed, account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a fitting climax to the book: “For they had crossed the continent and came back, the first of all.”
Across the Wide Missouri had an unusual genesis when a publisher, planning an edition of Alfred Miller’s watercolors painted in the West on an expedition with fur traders, asked De Voto to write about the fur trade as an accompaniment to the pictures. As De Voto saw it:
“I have tried to describe the mountain fur trade as a business and a way of life: what its characteristic experiences were, what conditions governed them, how it helped to shape our heritage, what its relation was to the Western expansion of the United Sates, most of all how the mountain men lived.”
Meanwhile always keeping in mind his conviction
“. . . of the growth among the American people of the feeling that they were properly a single nation between two oceans . . . the continental mind.”
From 1835 to ’38 Sir William Stewart travelled with the traders who brought goods from St. Louis up the Missouri River and on into the Rockies to the annual rendezvous with the trappers who had been in the mountains since the previous fall, and there the furs (mainly beaver) were exchanged for supplies, and in 1837 he took with him a Baltimore artist, Alfred Miller, to record the trip in watercolor sketches to be used later as studies for large oils to be painted at Stewart’s castle in Scotland. The book is illustrated with these sketches and also some by George Catlin and Charles Bodmer. Although the artists are mentioned in the text, De Voto reserves his penetrating analysis of their work for a very interesting Appendix. Most of the text focused on the years from 1832 to ’38, and is about the mountain men and the incredible lives they led.
“They are important historically . . . as a trade group, small and short-lived, who had a maker’s part in extending the national boundaries and the national consciousness to continental completion.”
Telling the stories of the mountain men, he does not neglect other people and forces moving in the area at the time, like the first missionaries to the Western Indians. This volume has more immediate interest than the Course of Empire because it is about just a few years and a more limited, concentrated subject. If you take up the book, be sure to read the Appendix about the painters.
The Year of Decision is about the climax of the westering impulse, and because it weaves together several movements occurring in 1846 it tells a much more complicated story than the other volumes. President James K. Polk is a major figure, Senator Thomas H. Benton plays a role, as does his son-in-law John C Frémont. Francis Parkman, living the experience that will become The Oregon Trail, is present, and so are emigrants heading for Oregon and California, including the ill-fated Donner party. Chester Wilmot of the Proviso is considered, and Stephen W. Kearney, the soldier who secures California with the aid of the Mormon Battalion, is prominent. De Voto’s understanding of the Mormons is profound, and he is very good describing their trek to Utah under the guidance of Brigham Young. Synthesizing all these characters and movements into a coherent, interesting, even exciting narrative was a feat of conception and accomplishment that is very impressive. I advise readers to start with this volume.
At the time of America’s Founding in the 1780s no one thought the new republic would stretch from sea to sea (no one really knew anything about it), and the British, French, and Spanish, along with some American plotters like Aaron Burr, did what they could to prevent it, but by the time of the Louisiana Purchase the West had grown in the American mind to become our destiny. No one has told this story better than Bernard De Voto. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Work
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread . . .” —Genesis 3:19
We were talking about the jobs we had after school when we were boys, and while neither of us delivered newspapers, John mowed lawns and I shoveled snow, a difference accounted for by the fact that he had lived in a suburb while I lived in Passaic, New Jersey, on the banks of the historic Passaic River about which Dr. William Carlos Williams wrote his epic poem “Paterson” (he was incidentally, my doctor when I had polio; in later, more literate years, I was sorry to have missed the opportunity to talk about poetry with him). Passaic was an industrial city of 60,000 souls. My high school adapted to its working class clientele in this way: when I was first there, the girls were courteously let out 10 minutes before the boys, but the order of preference was reversed when it was pointed out that the boys had to hurry to get to their after-school jobs while the girls dawdled along, crowding the hallways. There were three streams in the high school — General, Commercial, and College — and out of a senior class of 210, only 25 were in the College stream. There was a separate vocational high school, too.
My first real after-school job, in my senior year, was in what is now an extinct profession — I was a soda jerk, compounding milk shakes, frosted, malteds, sundaes, banana splits, and sundry other delights I have now forgotten, in the Royal Sweet Shoppe on Broadway, a busy commercial street of stores and apartment houses. Not a drug store but a soda fountain: a long marble counter with stools, a few booths against the opposite wall, a bookcase containing a lending library, a rack of magazines and newspapers, a glass case containing cigars, pipes, tobacco, and cigarettes. Besides the delights that I put together, we sold sandwiches, pastry, coffee, and ice cream. It was a busy place catering to the storekeepers and residents of the neighborhood. Across the street the Broadway Sweet Shoppe served a more youthful crowd, and was more like the soda fountain of song and story. I do not exaggerate: there was even a comic strip called, I think, “The Sugar Bowl,” devoted to youthful intrigues in such a place, but the Royal was the chosen haunt of the older citizens, and there, wearing a snap-on bow tie, I got to know the local worthies. My employers were Muffy and Sara, brother and sister, and by mid-December they decided, quite rightly, that my demeanor was a bit too spritely and irresponsible (working on a farm in the summers with just a few well known country people, I had not yet learned how to comport myself in a more constrained environment), so I was forced to relinquish my bow tie and look for another job.
I went to work in the Christmas rush at the Post Office. I doubt if such a phenomenon exists any more. In those days a huge volume of Christmas cards and packages was mailed during the couple of weeks before Christmas, and a veritable army of young men — high school and college boys and casual laborers — were employed to sort and deliver mail. It was desirable work because it paid well, and if you were a postman you rode the buses free. Once, I was the only postman at work during a raging snowstorm, and when I finally got back to the office, soaking wet, the postmaster sent me home to change my clothes and then come back and punch out on the clock. I made my last delivery on Christmas day.
In the new year I got another job at a much larger, more pretentious soda fountain further down Broadway in the heart of the city: Welling’s Lunchroom, which did a very brisk business in breakfasts and lunches. Two of us, I and one of my classmates, were hired from five to nine cleaning the long counter and the serving area behind it, steam table and all, and setting up for the next day. This was a much more laborious job than it sounds because the master of the kitchen (and he was an acknowledged master) wanted everything just right. We had the privilege, when we were done, of having a snack, and we made the most of it. I have a photograph (of which I am a little ashamed) showing us seated in a booth with a mound of sandwiches and couple of milkshakes before us, looking dissolute. It is amazing how much a growing boy, given the opportunity, can eat.
That had its consequences. In the senior play I had the role of a professor, and I wore my new gray flannel suit, an outfit just beginning to be fashionable in circles far beyond the horizon of Passaic High School (here I may be permitted to tell my favorite story. At the after-graduation parties it was then the custom to kiss all the girls in sight, and after I had kissed Lorraine — I shall ever remember her — she said, with great surprise, “Ooo! I thought you’d kiss like a professor!”) Of course my relatives came to see the play. Afterwards they all remarked on the way my fat posterior made the back of my jacket stick out! So I joined the YMCA and worked out regularly that spring. I planned to join the Marines, but my brother said I’d be too muscle-bound to throw grenades.
Another result of the play was that I met girls from other than the College stream, girls who were — how shall I put it? — more worldly, more cosmetically glamorous than the girls I knew. They were dangerous to know too well because they were, not exactly “gun molls,” but girlfriends of older men who wore tight suits and picked up their girls after school in flashy convertibles. Once, riding in a crowded car to a rehearsal, one of the molls, sitting on my lap, leaned close to tell me I was “cute.” I was terrified, picturing my body in the Passaic river wearing cement overshoes.
I quit Welling’s in spring and went back, at the owners’ request, to the Royal. By then I had enough experience to temper my sprightliness, and I could have stayed on for the summer, but a friend got me a job as a Good Humor man. I don’t know if the company still exists, or if my readers will know anything about it. In New Jersey in the ’30s and ’40s it was a highly regarded institution. Small refrigerated trucks painted white, equipped with tinkling bells, plied the streets selling ice cream in the form of ice cream bars: small slabs of ice cream covered with chocolate (or coconut). The Good Humor man used to turn up in our neighborhood after supper, and we would rush to congregate around the truck. Most of the drivers were young (probably college boys) and were greatly admired. I looked forward to this job, and was sadly let down when I learned I would be only a bicycle man, pedaling a bike with a refrigerated chest on the front, covering areas a truck would leave for me, the truck from which I received my supplies. What I was doing, in effect, was extending the truck’s range. I enjoyed the job, pedaling around suburban streets, and I was a good salesman. All went well the first week, but at the end of the second week my accounts didn’t balance. According to Ralph, the truck driver, I had received from him so many boxes of various popsicles, but my cash in hand fell short. So Ralph in the truck, and I in my car, drove to headquarters in Newark to lay the problem before the manager. In the end, the manager took me aside, telling me that in the future I was to make a written record of the supplies Ralph gave me. It took some time for the penny to drop, but before I got home I realized that Ralph had been cheating me, crediting me with ice cream he never gave me so it was charged to me and not to him. Well, I said to myself, I will be more careful but I won’t quit. The manager had told me I was the best bicycle salesman in New Jersey.
The day after settlement was always our day off, so I didn’t go back to my bike until a day later. In all the fuss about the faulty settlement, we had forgotten to load the ice chest with dry ice, so when I opened it that morning all I saw was popsicle sticks floating in a many-hued soup. I walked into the gas station where we stored the bike, turned over my Good Humor cap and my money belt, and drove home. After that I got a job as a greenskeeper on a golf course, my last job before I went to college.
I must say something about my earnings as a soda jerk and what I did with them. At the Royal I was paid 35 cents an hour, and when I went back I got a raise to 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but consider my hours: 4 PM to midnight six days a week, Sundays from 6 AM to noon, 54 hours. I had never had an allowance, so this was a fortune to me, and because my father, bless his soul, was always preaching frugality, I spent it like water. But you are not to think I wasted it entirely. My English teacher (who persuaded me to go to college instead of the Marines) had been recommending books to me, and now I began to buy them, something I had never done before. I had always been something of a reader, but now I was dimly purposeful, and I think it is not too much to say that I became a professor and then a writer because I was first a soda jerk. *