Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Writers for Conservatives, 61: A Man of the West
Bernard De Voto (1897-1955) was an unusual figure in the literary landscape of the 1930s and 40s. A strong-minded Westerner (born in Utah), he was contemptuous of Eastern snobbishness and the leftist propensities of the literary crowd. He had taught at Northwestern and Harvard, and latterly he edited the Saturday Review of Literature and wrote the “Easy Chair” column at Harper’s (1935-55), a position long held by William Dean Howells, a literary pulpit of some significance in those days. He famously did battle with the reigning intellectuals in Mark Twain’s America (1932) an “essay in correction” as he called it, an answer to Van Wyck Brooks’ Ordeal of Mark Twain (1915), an early salvo in the intellectual’s war against America that reached its first crest in the 1920s. Brooks claimed that Twain was an artist crippled by the barren crudity of his frontier background (Missouri, California, Nevada) and then by the suppressions of Eastern genteel culture. I won’t go into De Voto’s answer at length (the book is too long and confusing) but one point should be stressed: he showed by extensive research that Twain’s humor, always his primary mode of expression, grew directly out of the frontier storytelling tradition revealed in the newspapers of the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s (remember that Twain was a typesetter and then a newspaperman), a rich and pervasive tradition. The Eastern idea of the crudity and barrenness of frontier culture, later extended to an indictment of American culture in general (see H. L. Mencken) is blown away by Mark Twain’s America.
To leftist mandarins of literary culture then, writers for The New Republic and Partisan Review, magazines like Harper’s or Saturday Review were middlebrow venues of little weight, and De Voto was dismissed as a belligerent ignoramus, a conception that colored my perception of him in the 1950s. The books we are about to consider, his historical works, make that notion of the man absurd.
The books are The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), and their subject is the lure of the West in the American imagination. Their publication is in inverse historical order. Year of Decision is about the culmination of the Western drive, the annexation of California and the settlement of the Oregon country; Across the Wide Missouri is about the climax of the fur trade from 1832 to ’38; and The Course of Empire traces the travels of Eastern explorers from the 16th century to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-6. We shall consider them in their proper historical order.
In the preface to The Course of Empire De Voto says:
“Nothing in history is more visible than the transformation, in response to the continent, of Europeans into Americans.”
What does that mean? The slightest acquaintance with the early Spanish and French explorers tells us that they regarded the continent as a repository of lootable treasure, as Peru and Mexico had been, and all their travels were based on that premise. For the French (after their abortive Florida adventure) it was furs. After the British conquered Canada they declared the Proclamation Line of 1763 marking all the land beyond the Alleghenies as an Indian preserve just for the fur trade. It was only the colonists who became Americans after living 150 years on the eastern frontier, who pushed into Kentucky and saw the settling and development of the West as their goal — that’s when Europeans became Americans.
The Spanish travelled north from Mexico into what is now the United States in search of seven cities of gold and similar will-o’-the-wisps, and De Voto tells the truly amazing stories of Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, De Soto, and others, along with the delusions about the West which persisted even into the 19th century. Then the narrative shifts northward to the French fur traders who had begun the trade in the early 1500s.
About this De Voto makes this profound point:
“The impact of European goods produced a change in Neolithic America far more concentrated and rapid than anything in the history of white civilization . . . from 1500 on they were cultural prisoners.”
We learn of coureurs de bois, “an Indian with a white man’s mind and he lived free,” and we follow the travels and intrigues of Joliet, Marquette, Frontenac, La Salle, and intrepid traders and adventurers like Radisson and Nicolet. It is one of the book’s virtues that, because it is about the discovery of the West, De Voto tells us about travelers, explorers, and traders we never heard of before, men who were constantly pushing farther into the unknown. A large part of the story, of course, is the struggle between France and Britain. The story of explorations Westward in connection with the fur trade, and efforts to find a river flowing from the interior to the Pacific, are other parts of the continental story the author tells so well.
The last part of the book is a detailed, perhaps too detailed, account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a fitting climax to the book: “For they had crossed the continent and came back, the first of all.”
Across the Wide Missouri had an unusual genesis when a publisher, planning an edition of Alfred Miller’s watercolors painted in the West on an expedition with fur traders, asked De Voto to write about the fur trade as an accompaniment to the pictures. As De Voto saw it:
“I have tried to describe the mountain fur trade as a business and a way of life: what its characteristic experiences were, what conditions governed them, how it helped to shape our heritage, what its relation was to the Western expansion of the United Sates, most of all how the mountain men lived.”
Meanwhile always keeping in mind his conviction
“. . . of the growth among the American people of the feeling that they were properly a single nation between two oceans . . . the continental mind.”
From 1835 to ’38 Sir William Stewart travelled with the traders who brought goods from St. Louis up the Missouri River and on into the Rockies to the annual rendezvous with the trappers who had been in the mountains since the previous fall, and there the furs (mainly beaver) were exchanged for supplies, and in 1837 he took with him a Baltimore artist, Alfred Miller, to record the trip in watercolor sketches to be used later as studies for large oils to be painted at Stewart’s castle in Scotland. The book is illustrated with these sketches and also some by George Catlin and Charles Bodmer. Although the artists are mentioned in the text, De Voto reserves his penetrating analysis of their work for a very interesting Appendix. Most of the text focused on the years from 1832 to ’38, and is about the mountain men and the incredible lives they led.
“They are important historically . . . as a trade group, small and short-lived, who had a maker’s part in extending the national boundaries and the national consciousness to continental completion.”
Telling the stories of the mountain men, he does not neglect other people and forces moving in the area at the time, like the first missionaries to the Western Indians. This volume has more immediate interest than the Course of Empire because it is about just a few years and a more limited, concentrated subject. If you take up the book, be sure to read the Appendix about the painters.
The Year of Decision is about the climax of the westering impulse, and because it weaves together several movements occurring in 1846 it tells a much more complicated story than the other volumes. President James K. Polk is a major figure, Senator Thomas H. Benton plays a role, as does his son-in-law John C Frémont. Francis Parkman, living the experience that will become The Oregon Trail, is present, and so are emigrants heading for Oregon and California, including the ill-fated Donner party. Chester Wilmot of the Proviso is considered, and Stephen W. Kearney, the soldier who secures California with the aid of the Mormon Battalion, is prominent. De Voto’s understanding of the Mormons is profound, and he is very good describing their trek to Utah under the guidance of Brigham Young. Synthesizing all these characters and movements into a coherent, interesting, even exciting narrative was a feat of conception and accomplishment that is very impressive. I advise readers to start with this volume.
At the time of America’s Founding in the 1780s no one thought the new republic would stretch from sea to sea (no one really knew anything about it), and the British, French, and Spanish, along with some American plotters like Aaron Burr, did what they could to prevent it, but by the time of the Louisiana Purchase the West had grown in the American mind to become our destiny. No one has told this story better than Bernard De Voto. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Work
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread . . .” —Genesis 3:19
We were talking about the jobs we had after school when we were boys, and while neither of us delivered newspapers, John mowed lawns and I shoveled snow, a difference accounted for by the fact that he had lived in a suburb while I lived in Passaic, New Jersey, on the banks of the historic Passaic River about which Dr. William Carlos Williams wrote his epic poem “Paterson” (he was incidentally, my doctor when I had polio; in later, more literate years, I was sorry to have missed the opportunity to talk about poetry with him). Passaic was an industrial city of 60,000 souls. My high school adapted to its working class clientele in this way: when I was first there, the girls were courteously let out 10 minutes before the boys, but the order of preference was reversed when it was pointed out that the boys had to hurry to get to their after-school jobs while the girls dawdled along, crowding the hallways. There were three streams in the high school — General, Commercial, and College — and out of a senior class of 210, only 25 were in the College stream. There was a separate vocational high school, too.
My first real after-school job, in my senior year, was in what is now an extinct profession — I was a soda jerk, compounding milk shakes, frosted, malteds, sundaes, banana splits, and sundry other delights I have now forgotten, in the Royal Sweet Shoppe on Broadway, a busy commercial street of stores and apartment houses. Not a drug store but a soda fountain: a long marble counter with stools, a few booths against the opposite wall, a bookcase containing a lending library, a rack of magazines and newspapers, a glass case containing cigars, pipes, tobacco, and cigarettes. Besides the delights that I put together, we sold sandwiches, pastry, coffee, and ice cream. It was a busy place catering to the storekeepers and residents of the neighborhood. Across the street the Broadway Sweet Shoppe served a more youthful crowd, and was more like the soda fountain of song and story. I do not exaggerate: there was even a comic strip called, I think, “The Sugar Bowl,” devoted to youthful intrigues in such a place, but the Royal was the chosen haunt of the older citizens, and there, wearing a snap-on bow tie, I got to know the local worthies. My employers were Muffy and Sara, brother and sister, and by mid-December they decided, quite rightly, that my demeanor was a bit too spritely and irresponsible (working on a farm in the summers with just a few well known country people, I had not yet learned how to comport myself in a more constrained environment), so I was forced to relinquish my bow tie and look for another job.
I went to work in the Christmas rush at the Post Office. I doubt if such a phenomenon exists any more. In those days a huge volume of Christmas cards and packages was mailed during the couple of weeks before Christmas, and a veritable army of young men — high school and college boys and casual laborers — were employed to sort and deliver mail. It was desirable work because it paid well, and if you were a postman you rode the buses free. Once, I was the only postman at work during a raging snowstorm, and when I finally got back to the office, soaking wet, the postmaster sent me home to change my clothes and then come back and punch out on the clock. I made my last delivery on Christmas day.
In the new year I got another job at a much larger, more pretentious soda fountain further down Broadway in the heart of the city: Welling’s Lunchroom, which did a very brisk business in breakfasts and lunches. Two of us, I and one of my classmates, were hired from five to nine cleaning the long counter and the serving area behind it, steam table and all, and setting up for the next day. This was a much more laborious job than it sounds because the master of the kitchen (and he was an acknowledged master) wanted everything just right. We had the privilege, when we were done, of having a snack, and we made the most of it. I have a photograph (of which I am a little ashamed) showing us seated in a booth with a mound of sandwiches and couple of milkshakes before us, looking dissolute. It is amazing how much a growing boy, given the opportunity, can eat.
That had its consequences. In the senior play I had the role of a professor, and I wore my new gray flannel suit, an outfit just beginning to be fashionable in circles far beyond the horizon of Passaic High School (here I may be permitted to tell my favorite story. At the after-graduation parties it was then the custom to kiss all the girls in sight, and after I had kissed Lorraine — I shall ever remember her — she said, with great surprise, “Ooo! I thought you’d kiss like a professor!”) Of course my relatives came to see the play. Afterwards they all remarked on the way my fat posterior made the back of my jacket stick out! So I joined the YMCA and worked out regularly that spring. I planned to join the Marines, but my brother said I’d be too muscle-bound to throw grenades.
Another result of the play was that I met girls from other than the College stream, girls who were — how shall I put it? — more worldly, more cosmetically glamorous than the girls I knew. They were dangerous to know too well because they were, not exactly “gun molls,” but girlfriends of older men who wore tight suits and picked up their girls after school in flashy convertibles. Once, riding in a crowded car to a rehearsal, one of the molls, sitting on my lap, leaned close to tell me I was “cute.” I was terrified, picturing my body in the Passaic river wearing cement overshoes.
I quit Welling’s in spring and went back, at the owners’ request, to the Royal. By then I had enough experience to temper my sprightliness, and I could have stayed on for the summer, but a friend got me a job as a Good Humor man. I don’t know if the company still exists, or if my readers will know anything about it. In New Jersey in the ’30s and ’40s it was a highly regarded institution. Small refrigerated trucks painted white, equipped with tinkling bells, plied the streets selling ice cream in the form of ice cream bars: small slabs of ice cream covered with chocolate (or coconut). The Good Humor man used to turn up in our neighborhood after supper, and we would rush to congregate around the truck. Most of the drivers were young (probably college boys) and were greatly admired. I looked forward to this job, and was sadly let down when I learned I would be only a bicycle man, pedaling a bike with a refrigerated chest on the front, covering areas a truck would leave for me, the truck from which I received my supplies. What I was doing, in effect, was extending the truck’s range. I enjoyed the job, pedaling around suburban streets, and I was a good salesman. All went well the first week, but at the end of the second week my accounts didn’t balance. According to Ralph, the truck driver, I had received from him so many boxes of various popsicles, but my cash in hand fell short. So Ralph in the truck, and I in my car, drove to headquarters in Newark to lay the problem before the manager. In the end, the manager took me aside, telling me that in the future I was to make a written record of the supplies Ralph gave me. It took some time for the penny to drop, but before I got home I realized that Ralph had been cheating me, crediting me with ice cream he never gave me so it was charged to me and not to him. Well, I said to myself, I will be more careful but I won’t quit. The manager had told me I was the best bicycle salesman in New Jersey.
The day after settlement was always our day off, so I didn’t go back to my bike until a day later. In all the fuss about the faulty settlement, we had forgotten to load the ice chest with dry ice, so when I opened it that morning all I saw was popsicle sticks floating in a many-hued soup. I walked into the gas station where we stored the bike, turned over my Good Humor cap and my money belt, and drove home. After that I got a job as a greenskeeper on a golf course, my last job before I went to college.
I must say something about my earnings as a soda jerk and what I did with them. At the Royal I was paid 35 cents an hour, and when I went back I got a raise to 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but consider my hours: 4 PM to midnight six days a week, Sundays from 6 AM to noon, 54 hours. I had never had an allowance, so this was a fortune to me, and because my father, bless his soul, was always preaching frugality, I spent it like water. But you are not to think I wasted it entirely. My English teacher (who persuaded me to go to college instead of the Marines) had been recommending books to me, and now I began to buy them, something I had never done before. I had always been something of a reader, but now I was dimly purposeful, and I think it is not too much to say that I became a professor and then a writer because I was first a soda jerk. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Rituals of Hospitality
We commonly think of hospitality as a measure of friendliness, and “hospitality” courses are given to people who work in the tourist business to teach simulated friendliness. That gives us pause — we wonder if our jolly host is really friendly or is merely being commercially astute. Such ambivalence about the truth of hospitality, about whether it’s sincere or not, signals confusion about the meaning and function of social strategies, like politeness in general, of which hospitality is a subset. It has been said that politeness is a way of keeping people apart, or to put it another way, bringing them just within hailing distance. Similarly, hospitality is defined as a way of structuring home encounters between people, friends or strangers, and every society, as well as each distinct group within it, has its own rituals, or tactics, of hospitality.
Modern urbanized people have no trouble with that definition applied to other people in other times, more or less anthropologically, but they think of themselves, with their deliberate informality, lack of restraint, and seeming candor, as quite superior to such constraining conventions, unconscious of the fact that their ways are also tactics designed to maintain relations as a certain distance, adhered to with as much rigid conformity as any practice of the Kwakiutl.
Old country ways, the rituals of encounter, are marked by a formal order which sets them off from the jumbled flow of modern life, and makes their universality and rigidity very obvious: Everyone follows the same rituals in the same way with a sort of mechanical rhythm. When we moved to Cape Breton we learned that, while the rituals were very different from our Vermont experience, the characteristics of formality, universality, and rigidity were the same, and in spades, because change in Cape Breton — newcomers, the impingement of modern life — began much later than in New England and was moving more slowly. But in the 30 years we lived there, the old rites virtually disappeared as the elders, who maintained them, died.
My first experience with these matters occurred soon after we moved there, when I drove down the peninsula one day with our two sons to see a man who had a mower and hayrake for sale. Stopping at a garage, I asked directions to Michael MacNeil’s place. The attendant smiled. “There’s three or four Michael MacNeils right here in the village and some more out and around; which one were you wanting?” That was a poser, but we finally solved it when I described the man. “Oh, that’s Mickey Red,” and he told me where to go. At the farmhouse, Mickey Red, sitting beside the stove in the kitchen, told me where the equipment was, and the boys and I went to the barn to look it over. When we returned to the house to do the bargaining, Mickey, who hadn’t moved from his chair, said merely, “Have your tea,” as his wife put on the table three cups of tea and three small plates each with a piece of buttered bread, a square of oat cake (bannoch), and two boughten cookies. Surprised — this was a novel experience for us — we settled at he table and ate what was put in front of us while we chatted with Mickey Red and eventually got around to bargaining.
Wherever we went the experience was duplicated with the same ingredients: the oatcakes and bread were homemade; the cookies, because Cape Bretoners don’t bake them much, were always boughten. Within a few years, however, the oatcakes disappeared; they were culinary antiques that passed from the scene with the oldest generation. Due to the fact that cookery there was not learned from books but from oral tradition and practical imitation, all Cape Breton baked goods were alike.
Understand that these were not shared snacks — they were for visitors only. I was always disconcerted by this, eating away while my host looked on, but at the last of it, after living there twenty years or so, I would sometimes be joined by the man of the house (never by his wife) who would say, “Och! I believe I’ll have a bit o’ somethin’, too.”
Nowadays only the tea remains. An astounding product, it could be the subject of an essay by itself, tracing its ancestry in the British Isles and its worldwide provenance wherever the cuisine — English working class — has penetrated. George Orwell describes it in The Road to WiganPier, and the tea bag tea served in roadside diners across America in my youth was a distant, weaker relative. Begin with a low quality tea and put lots of it into a tea pot, which is then filled with boiling water and left to stand on the back of the stove, the longer the better. You may even boil it a bit for added zest. It should be poured when it’s a deep mahogany color. One cup contains enough tannin to preserve a calf skin, three cups will do a cowhide. Unless you’ve been carefully raised on the stuff, it can deliver a stunning wallop to your system, but there is an antidote: just add plenty of milk. We went one day with a visitor from New York to see someone down the peninsula, and when the tea was served I signaled to our friend to take milk. She ignored me, so at last I said, “Here, have some milk,” reaching over with the pitcher, but she was having none of that. Shielding her cup, she frowned at me, “You know I don’t take milk in my tea!” The host said, “Leave the lady drink her tea in peace, why don’t you?” What will be will be, I thought, as I watched her toss down the black brew. On the way home she had to stop the car so she could be sick.
I have always thought that the reticence of country people (and this is especially true of Cape Bretoners) ultimately stemmed from the fact that their relations with their fellows in the old-fashioned, relatively changeless countryside were likely to be affairs of long, often life-long, duration; to maintain such relations without unbearable friction, circumspection was required, and these rituals served the purpose of establishing country wariness in an acceptable social form. The light, gossipy conversation that went with the familiar routine of teacups and plates kept the participants at a certain distance, and helped to hide the substance of the visit behind the pretense of a social call. In truth, a purely social visit was a rarity in the old-fashioned countryside, where everyone worked hard from before dawn til after dark. Everyone knew that the visitor had an object and that it would be revealed only circuitously, just as the host’s response would be made known in an equally roundabout way, the asking and giving of commitment to be accomplished tentatively, gradually, cagily. The host does not ask why the visitor has come, and the visitor does not boldly state his business. A neighbor told me, shaking his head in disapproval, that when he knocked on the door of an American who lived in the area for a while, the woman’s first words were, “What do you want?” He thought she was unpardonably rude and offensive.
Of course, some are more reticent than others. One of our neighbors was so shy that he would drop only the slightest of hints about his purpose, and then just before he left (after sitting over tea for half an hour, chatting about nothing in particular). There would be only one obscure hint, and if we missed it, as we sometimes did, we would go over and over the conversation for days afterwards, trying to figure out what he wanted.
With visitors not our neighbors, callers who came to buy something, I would go out to greet them on the porch, exchange remarks on the weather, the state of the roads, prospects for the hunting season, etc., and then we would go in the kitchen where we would serve tea and Jo Ann’s cookies, and then the visitor’s business would be revealed. “I’m after thinkin maybe you’d have a bit of bacon, eh?” And when that had been attended to, he might ask for butter or sour cream, and so on, until his wants were satisfied, he had drunk his tea, the bill was paid, and we parted on the porch.
We try to use the same method here in the Champlain Valley, but modern people do not want to submit to the ritual, so I have learned to modify my technique. First get them into the house — no easygoing palaver outside now, they don’t respond to it — then I don’t ask if they want tea but simply serve it, because if I ask they wonder if they want it (no), whether they have time (no), and nine times out of ten they will turn it down, not realizing that it’s a social strategy, not a question of taste. They won’t reject it when it’s poured, and they must sit down to drink it, they can’t remain standing, ready to do their business and go. Once they’re sitting down, we can all be more social. And that, I think, is more important than the dispatch of business.
The old country-bred rituals, whatever their origins, were fine in themselves, and now they grant us a respite, a few relaxed moments set aside from the modern rush of busy-ness. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Reputation
Understand me: we did not seek it, for some years we did not know we had it, and in the end, as you shall see, we had to pay for it.
This occurred to me as I was looking through some old files, seeing essays I had published in the hippie-homesteader magazines of the 1970s and ’80s. I was surprised by the editorial introductions — they were almost gushing. How did that happen?
Hippie-homesteaders were people in their early twenties who wanted to “go back to the land” (in the popular phrase of the day), an illusion, though I’m sure most of them didn’t know it. They were satisfied with the appearance, and many people encouraged them. In those days it seemed as if every newspaper and magazine in the country published stories about courageous couples charging off into the “wilderness” (I have seen a Massachusetts college town so described!) to build a cabin, plant a garden, and begin a life of “self sufficiency.”
Such people appeared in northern Vermont, where we lived, in the mid-1960s, but some of their forerunners had turned up on our doorstep a little earlier because the farmhouse we rented belonged to a bush league version of Scott Nearing, guru of the “back to the land” movement, and they came to see us, as I realized much later, because they thought that I, living in the master’s house, might be a sage, too, with words of wisdom for them. If I had realized that I might have tried to put on a show, but I couldn’t make them out, and like any disciples, they were inarticulate. I always asked them what they wanted, how could I help them, but I got nowhere so they went away disappointed.
But they saw what they took to be the rudiments of the Beautiful Simple Country Life (BSCL) — we milked a cow, we had a flock of hens, we were raising a pig and working a horse, there were two large gardens. So, unbeknown to us, the myth of the self-sufficient Gardners was born. We knew nothing about it because we had nothing to do with hippie-homesteaders or their supporters and admirers. These were people who, despite pretensions to the contrary, had trust funds or other sources of plenty of cash. They were quite out of our class.
Nevertheless, they came to our door, all those people who admired the BSCL, and they kept coming (or writing) over the years. Nothing came of their appearances because they could never explain what they wanted, not clearly knowing themselves. I always asked them but they didn’t give me a straight-forward answer because, I think, farm life really baffled them. They had fantasies about it — they told us they were going to grow grain and weave their own wool and milk goats and build yurts — but since they didn’t really know anything they didn’t ask questions. They didn’t ask me what my forage crops were, or if corn could be grown so far north, or what was our calf mortality, or how many cows we could winter, or were four horses enough for a 100-acre farm? They looked at things, they avidly told us what they were going to do, and they went away. And still our reputation spread.
We never impressed Cape Bretoners that way, probably because they had given up what we were doing a generation ago, and the BSCL had no attractions for them. They thought we were just eccentric rich Americans. Or maybe we were drug dealers, a pervasive theme in the credulous countryside. Responding to the gossip, two policemen disguised as hippies, came to our farm to investigate. I was up in the woods so Jo Ann dealt with them. Understand that she is even more naïve than I am in such matters, so when the “hippies” asked to busy some “grass,” she sold them a selection of herbs.
A few hippie-homesteaders turned up in the 1970s, but the Cape Breton environment was so unforgiving that most of them soon went back to the States. We encountered them again, however, when we ran a youth hostel for a few years, and by then they had become very knowing. They subjected us to such remorseless grilling that I finally posted this notice in the kitchen:
We do not keep goats. We do not weave. We eat white sugar and white bread. We are not vegetarians. We do not eat sprouts. We’re not self-sufficient.
Although we didn’t come up to their standards, there we were year after year persisting in our ways. The following story, I think, will show something of the feeling about us. There was a hippie-homesteader couple from New Zealand living nearby who were forever planning to live the BSCL, and finally one spring declared they were going to travel around the island visiting other hippie-homesteaders to get the definitive lowdown. Returning in the fall, they were disgusted: as they scornfully announced, “You’re the only ones on the island doing what you say you do, but you do it for MONEY!”
How many hippie-homesteader magazines there were at the height of their flourishing I cannot say, but there were four prominent ones in the Northeast — in Nova Scotia, Maine, Vermont, and Ontario — that printed our work, and they were a godsend because they paid very well. Our involvement with them was a little delicate, as you can imagine, and this story illustrates the dilemma our reputation finally created. One of the magazines commissioned us to write an essay about raising an orphan lamb from birth to its final disposition.
I did most of the extensive research, reading books and government pamphlets, interviewing sheepmen, and so on, while Jo Ann wrote the introduction about the nature and occurrence of orphan lambs, citing the rhyme “Mary had a little lamb.” Since there was slaughtering and butchering involved, and we knew neither hippie-homesteaders nor their magazines were realistic about such matters, we wrote to the editor to tell him the essay mentioned blood and his readers might not like it, but he dismissed our concerns. When the piece was finally done (we were rather proud of it), we were still worried, so I hitched the mare to the express wagon and drove three miles to a phone to speak directly to the editor, who was again reassuring.
Of course, when he read the essay he was horrified, insisting that we cut out all the slaughtering and butchering, which we could easily do, but what was much worse was that he directed us to insert cutesy bits throughout, making the whole thing a travesty. A serious, helpful essay about how to perform successfully and efficiently a task of animal husbandry was to be turned into a silly entertainment. What I had written implicitly respected the readers; the editor’s version was contemptuous of them.
We didn’t reply at once — $1500 was a lot of money to us, and we hated to turn it down. It was the cutesy bits that stuck in our craw. We had not thought much about our reputation (although we knew by then we had one) but we knew it was comprised of forthright honesty and integrity. To write what the editor wanted would be a repudiation, not just of our writing but of ourselves. So we turned it down.
We went on writing for other such magazines, but not for long, because as soon as the hippie-homesteaders tired of their pretensions and became yuppies in the late 1980s, the magazines were doomed — the audience vanished and the magazines died. It was an interesting, instructive period, those fifteen or so years, and we learned much about writing, about ourselves, and about our relation to the times. Without all that experience we would not be the individuals or the writers we are today. *
Writers for Conservatives 57: The Scarlet Letter
When Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) published his first novel, The Scarlet Letter, in 1850, he was known only as a writer of odd, grim tales of obsessions, guilt, and witchcraft, most of them taking place against a somber Puritan background, a characterization which also fits the novel, although that's not the way it begins. The first chapter - "Introductory-The Customs House" - is a prosy account of his observations during the time he worked there in the 1840s. Salem, once a bustling port, was now an idle backwater, and Hawthorne's account of the aging idle employees is gently humorous. His purpose here is to establish the historical authenticity of the novel by his claim that in an attic he discovered a bundle of old documents as well as a remnant of the scarlet letter itself, a not uncommon literary device. That, however, is much less important than the effect produced when this chapter is succeeded in the second chapter by the story itself. Not only does the scene change to the Boston of 200 years before, but the prose itself, sportively ironic, gives way to straightforward grimness describing a stern reality. The transition is a shock (as it is meant to be) and from now until the end we shall be in this foreboding world.
The three significant characters are present in the first scene when Hester Prynne, the adulteress, with her babe in arms is led out from the jail to the scaffold where she is to be exhibited as a shameful warning. There she is exhorted to name her partner in sin by the saintly, reverent preacher, Dimmesdale, and it is covertly observed by her long lost (and presumed dead) husband, Roger Chillingworth. Although we are not told that Dimmesdale is her lover, alert readers will begin to suspect. Chillingworth's part in the story is soon revealed when he has an interview with her in the jail. He, a much older, scholarly man, married her in order to provide a comfortable home for his old age, and she had innocently acquiesced. Planning to emigrate to Boston from England, he had sent her on ahead, but when he followed he had been shipwrecked and held captive by Indians. In the jail interview he pledges her to silence about himself and swears to discover her lover.
The plot is easily outlined. Hester, shunned, lives in a cabin on the town's outskirts, becomes a nurse and purveyor of small charities to the poor (even as they scorn her), supporting herself by doing fine needlework for the town gentry. She fills the role of a martyr, but is a strong, stalwart character. Chillingworth, respected as a learned man and physician, becomes intimate with Dimmesdale and works to pry out his secret. Late in the book, Hester and Pearl (her child) and Dimmesdale meet by accident in the woods where Hester persuades him to flee with her to England on a ship that's leaving in a few days. Removing the scarlet letter, she lets down her luxuriant hair, an obvious clue to her strongly sensual nature. Pearl, an imp of perversity, clearly meant by the author to be not only the physical but also the symbolic fruit of their unlawful union, forces her mother to pin up her hair and replace the letter on her breast. Soon thereafter, Hester and Pearl are standing outside the meetinghouse where the minister is preaching his most eloquent sermon on the ceremonial day of the installation of the governor. She has already taken passage on the ship and learns now that Chillingworth has also done so. She sees him in the crowd looking triumphant as the dignitaries leave the meetinghouse in a procession and Dimmesdale pauses beside Hester and Pearl and, full of guilt and remorse, bids them stand with him on the scaffold where he publicly confesses his sin (to the chagrin of Chillingworth who tries to prevent the confession which will save the minister's soul) and dies.
Hawthorne's writings, even those dealing with his contemporary world, like The Blithedale Romance, are romances rather than realistic novels or stories. A romance does not try to chronicle the details of our quotidian lives, so, for instance, we never learn what Hester's cabin is like, nor do we ever see the ordinary street life of the town. The prose, therefore, dwells almost exclusively on the three main characters, on their thoughts and acts, so the book moves right along. My edition is nearly 400 pages long, bit it didn't seem so to me. Problems of circumstances, very important in novels, are managed perfunctorily in romances. So the marriage of Chillingworth and Hester, like the adulterous act between Dimmesdale and Hester, we accept as part of the conventional machinery of the story even if both seem highly unlikely. In a romance only character and atmosphere count, and while both may have melodramatic touches, they must be both powerful and believable. Hawthorne sometimes suggests that the scarlet letter glows with an unearthly light, and the minister, when he bares his breast at the end may seem to reveal the letter burnt into his breast, and Chillingworth may seem not unlike Bela Lugosi in "Dracula," but we never doubt for a moment Hester's corporeality, Dimmesdale's guilt and weakness, or Chillingworth's sadistic malevolence.
It is possible to write historically accurate fiction (as Kenneth Roberts did), but Hawthorne's past is conceived in terms of romance. The past 200 years that he sketchily outlines in dark hues enables him to surround the characters and events with the drama of the stern rigors of Puritan Calvinism, thus giving the situation of Hester and Dimmesdale a plausible and portentous background. And he can get away with such melodramatic touches as having the governor's sister suggest to Hester a witch's coven in the woods. The book is permeated by darkness: the dark woods, the black clothing of the dignitaries, the night scenes. One of the most striking scenes occurs when the minister, agitated by guilt and remorse, stands alone on the scaffold and gives one unheeded shriek into the darkness. Soon thereafter, returning from a vigil at a sick bed, Hester and Pearl appear and Dimmesdale invites them to stand beside him. Pearl asks him to repeat that in broad daylight, but he promises to so only on the Judgment Day. A brilliant light from a meteor illumines the scene, and what does the minister see?
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own mind and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter - the letter A - marked out in the lines of dull red light
He also sees:
Roger Chillingworth . . . standing there with a smile and scowl, to claim his own.
In the space of moments in time and half a page of prose, Hawthorne brings his characters again together in their destined roles, the whole scene obviously one of romance.
Hawthorne's meaning - that unexpiated sin cuts us off from our fellows and dooms us - is difficult for modern sensibilities to accept, and that the sin in this case is adultery offends the contemporary mind in which unbridled sexuality has joined life, liberty, and happiness as another one of our inalienable rights. So a movie of the book was made a few years ago with a "happy ending." I'll bet that most readers of the scene in the woods where Hester lets her hair down are ardently on her side when she persuades him to run off with her. But the moral of the story is not what the discerning reader (and all my readers are discerning) carries away with him when he reads the book. What he vividly remembers is the clash of brilliantly limned passionate characters portrayed against a darkly ominous background. That is Hawthorne's great achievement. We do not forget it, just as we do not forget other passionate American characters like Captain Ahab. This is a triumph, the first truly American work of fiction.
His stories are Twice-Told Tales and Mosses From an Old Manse, and The Show Image. A novel with the setting of the Brook Farm utopian experiment (in which Hawthorne played a small part) is The Blithedale Romance. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: My Days as a Hedge Vet
The word "hedge" before the name of an occupation, as hedge carpenter, hedge mechanic, means that the practitioner, while he may be able, is outside professional lines; he has no official status, and in these dreadfully officious times, the name is disparaging. Not so in the past, especially in the countryside. In the Cape Breton countryside, for instance, where there were no vets at all until well after the war, the doctoring of animals, such as it was, was done by amateurs, men who had some knowledge of and affinity with animals, men who were known over a wide area for their skills. They performed a useful service in a time of need.
My career as a hedge vet was not cast in the heroic mould of the recent past, because, for one thing, there was a regular vet who could be called upon. In the first dozen years, while there were still farms and animals in the area, my usual role was the follow-up to the vet when he gave instructions for further treatment which the local people were reluctant to do - because, as I explained in a piece on plowing in these pages, Cape Bretoners were reluctant farmers, uncomfortable with animals. Tell such a man that he has to stick a large needle in the rump of his 1300-pound horse everyday for a week, and you can be sure it will be Jigs Gardner who does it. I was also in demand for castrating calves and piglets. It was not that I was especially gifted or courageous, but I had naturally learned how, within limits, to take care of our animals. You can't be calling the vet every time there's a problem. I had a vet book, and I had medicines, I had implements. We called on the vet now and then, and he would drop in for a cup of tea when he was in the area, so over the years we had become friends. I don't think money ever changed hands; he would take his fee in bacon or smoked fish, especially mackerel. He had worked on the island since the 1950s, and he had some rare stories.
By the late '80s the countryside had finally emptied out, and there was only one farm left, besides ours, in the whole of the Backlands, and that place was a source of tribulations for the vet. Into the early '80s it had been a typical subsistence farm of the area where the family lived, sparely, off the land and the sea: salt cod and herring, potatoes and turnips and cabbage, milk and butter and curds from a herd of animals that looked as unlike cows as possible and could still be cows, rough, fierce, horned beasts. But when the grandfather died, the family fell apart, and only one son, Alex, was left with his mother, Mary. He had been crippled in a bad accident, and I think there was some brain damage, too. With great fortitude he had taught himself to walk again, and he was determined to keep the farm running, to milk the cows and mow the hay and keep up with the plowing.
Admirable, even courageous, and you may be sure we helped him when we could, but I warn you: do not sentimentalize Alex. His cattle, half wild at best, were always getting into desperate straits from which the vet would have to extract them, but since Mary begrudged money spent on the vet, Alex would put off calling him until the last extremity. Then Alex always failed to follow the vet's instructions about continuing care, so the animal would relapse, the vet would be called again, Mary would scream and yell, and the vet would wish he'd gone into dentistry.
All this was going on three miles away beyond my ken, but at last I was drawn in simply because Mary put her foot down and refused to pay for follow-up calls. Our first mutual case seemed unremarkable but it established a pattern. Browncow (Alex called all his animals by their color) had foot rot, easily treated: cut away rotted tissue on the bottom of the hoof, scrub with a wire brush dipped in disinfectant like hydrogen peroxide, smear on sulfa ointment, bandage. After a couple of days, remove bandage, put her out to pasture, and keep her away from muck or manure. The vet had done his job; all Alex had to do was keep Browncow in the stable. Now the cow had had a relapse - would I come and give her a treatment?
As he drove me to his farm, I questioned him closely, and it was as I had feared: he had turned Browncow out in the barnyard for water. Picture the barnyard scene: junked cars, old tires, manure heaps, stagnant pools, broken glass. So I treated the cow - not easy, because the animals weren't handled much, which makes for wildness - and told Alex to pick me up in the morning so I could check on Browncow. I did that for two days, thus making sure Alex didn't turn her into the barnyard. Then we turned her out into a dry pasture. I retired, patting myself on the back.
That was in June. One morning in August Alex came barreling up the drive. Quick! An emergency! Whitecow this time. According to him, a few days ago Whitecow had turned up at the barn with a dead branch sticking through her brisket. But, as the vet later told me, it wasn't that straightforward. Quite evidently the stick had been in there for a few days before Alex had noticed it, and the wound was badly infected. How it had happened, the Lord only knows, but the vet had extracted the sharp stub, cleaned the wound, and told Alex how to care for it: he was to run a thin rod, wrapped 'round with gauze soaked in iodine, through the hole twice a day until the wound stopped discharging and began to dry up. He administered a large shot of antibiotics. Of course, Alex was too frightened to do as he was told, and now the wound was a suppurating mess. I did the job all right and gave Whitecow my last shot of antibiotics. I went back for three days until the wound healed.
The vet came by a week later for some bacon, and I asked for antibiotics and iodine. He raised his eyebrows. "What are you doing with the stuff? You use more medicine than farmers with barnsful of cows!" "Ah, but they don't have Alex to take care of," and I told him what I had been doing.
"Look: I'm doing your work, saving you the trouble and annoyance of dealing with his troubles. If you don't want to put me on the payroll, the least you could do is give me some medicine."
Next May, Alex came rushing up the lane with another emergency: his two-year-old bull, not quite as big as a cow, could no longer be contained in his stall and was rampaging around in the cow stable - would I come and deal with it? He had neither a collar nor a halter on it, and he didn't know what to do. He was quite frantic, and I didn't blame him - a bull running around loose in a cow stable! Thinking carefully about what might be required, I brought along a number of tools.
Let me set the scene: the stable is dirty and dark with a low ceiling and no windows, only shutters. The first thing I did was hit my head on a roof beam on my way to open the shutters, which disclosed the bull closely wedged between Browncow and Whitecow. I asked Alex for the halter. Nothing. I turned around to see him huddled in a corner with his arms wrapped around his head. I went out to the truck, got my halter, and by reaching around a cow, managed to get the halter on the bull and by a steady pull, with much cajolery, backed out the bull and got him into his narrow stall at the end of the stable. Standing there in the corner with the bull, I had to talk Alex up on his feet and out the door, around to the feed hatch in front of the bull. When he opened the hatch, I gave him the halter rope: "Don't let it go!"
Fitting a light chain around the bull's neck, I closed it with one of those chain repair links that screws together. With a brace and bit I drilled a hole though the corner post, shoved through a ringbolt, and screwed the nut tight. Securing snaps to another, larger piece of light chain, I snapped it to the bull's collar and then to the ringbolt. Before I removed the halter rope I showed Alex the chain collar and told him that as the bull grew, the chain would tighten and bite into his neck - I had seen that happen with one of our steers - so I had left enough extra length on the chain so he could move the repair link, thus expanding the collar. I emphasized this point several times. And I gave him the halter, which had a long lead rope; I had seen his with its foot-long lead. You can imagine the leverage he had with that.
Knowing Alex by how, you know what happened: he forgot to lengthen the chain and by September it was thoroughly embedded in the poor bull's neck. Of course, that's when he came to me. We managed to get it off, but it took much care with iodine and a wide soft bandage and lots of antibiotics before we could get a leather halter on him.
My last job for Alex wasn't exactly in the vet line. I had a Jersey bull, and he wanted to breed it to Redcow (by then he had sold his bull). He was afraid to take her in his pickup, fearing (probably correctly) that she'd manage to jump out, so he devised this scheme: his mother would walk Redcow the first mile, Alex would walk it the second mile, and I would take over for the home stretch. Sure, I said, anytime. You think I was out of my mind, but you must understand that Alex was always coming up with cockamamie schemes that never amounted to anything. He kept muttering about it all summer, but I paid no attention.
One September day a friend, Willie, drove in with a cattle box on his pickup, bringing with him a heifer for my bull to breed. We went to the barn, did the job, and were about to load the heifer back on the truck when Alex drove in, excited: the day had arrived! Mary was all ready to start walking Redcow as soon as I gave the word. I looked at Willie. It was Providential. We put the heifer in the stable, loaded the bull in the truck, and set off.
We parked about ten yards from Alex's stable and unloaded the bull. Meanwhile, Alex went in the stable. Long silence. Then banging and crashing. More silence. Then I made a big mistake: I asked Willie if he'd go in and give Alex a hand. Knowing Alex's ways, I should have gone; I never would have let him pass off that short halter on me. Willie disappeared in the stable. More noises. Suddenly the door flew open and Redcow shot out with Willie beside her holding, not my halter with the long lead rope, but that wretched thing of Alex's. Redcow charged around the lovely barnyard, dragging Willie through muck heaps and around junked cars before he had to let go. Redcow crashed through a fence, flew across a field and headed for the woods, tail in the air. Alex was in dogged pursuit.
It was the last time I saw him. The snows were heavy that year, and our lane was blocked until May tenth, when we moved back to the States, where, incidentally, I'm still a hedge vet. *
Writers for Conservatives 56: Reveille in Washington, D.C.
Margaret Leech wrote two notable histories, this one and an excellent biography of William McKinley. Reveille is an account of Washington from 1800 to 1865 and, so far as I know, it has never been equaled. A study of the bibliography shows that nearly all her sources were written at the time or shortly after the war by participants in the life she describes. Insofar as possible, she has described the city as it appeared to a wide range of the city's permanent and temporary inhabitants at the time.
The first chapter opens with a description of the aged Winfield Scott, general of the army, and goes on to place him in the context of the city: "It was a Southern town, without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder, and the want of sanitation" at the end of a recital of the primitive conditions she says, "It was a mere ambitious beginner, a baby among capitals. Its defects were those of youth and energy and inexperience." The second chapter deals with the secession crisis as it appeared in Washington during the waning days of the Buchanan administration, followed by Lincoln's arrival in late February and the ensuing inauguration. True to her method of reporting the mundane, she quotes only two sentences of the speech, framing it in a reminiscence by Thurlow Weed, the New York politician, of his encounter with Generals Scott and Weed, ancient veterans of the 1812 War in which Weed had been a drummer boy.
Effulgent with that sentimentality to which the corrupt are prone, he gazed with veneration on the heroes of his boyhood, and failed to see in the antique tableau . . . a presentation of the Union's unpreparedness for long and bloody war.
Much attention is given to the street life of the city, describing in detail the flagrant disorders brought on by harlotry, drinking, and gambling uncontrolled by the inadequate police force. In northern cities, madams closed their brothels, moving to Washington to take advantage of a burgeoning city full of men absent from home. In 1862 there were 450 registered houses there, and next year 5,000 prostitutes were claimed to be in the city. We hear of
. . . summary roundups of criminals and vagrants who showed their faces in the capital. Handcuffed and labeled with large red placards bearing words, "pickpocket and thief," they were paraded on the avenue . . . followed by a fife and drum corps playing "The Rogues" March.
A whole chapter is devoted to the care of the wounded, and the tribulations of the female nurses, received at first with hostility, are sympathetically told. There is also a perceptive chapter on the complex, unhappy character of Mrs. Lincoln. Part of the illusion of contemporaneousness, the information we receive about battles is just what the people of Washington received at the time, fragmentary and distorted, only straightened out after several days. The battles themselves, momentous as they seem to us now, are "noises off" from Washington.
We know that the war shaped those lives in ways that the actors could not perceive, so there is an underlying irony in the book. I do not mean the blatant irony of Thurlow Weed admiring the old generals, nor do I mean the obvious irony that shows between our conscious goals and the results. I mean something more subtle: the Civil War, the most stupendous and defining event in our history, has called all these actors onto the stage, something only vaguely known to most of the actors and fully understood by no one. They go on eating (naturally a lot of attention is paid to food), drinking, fornicating, fighting, scheming, being brave and craven, and the war, with its 700,000 dead, grinds on to the end - off stage.
Not simply a chronicle of the streets, the book deals with the higher echelons of the war effort, with the generals and politicians, with McClellan and Burnside and Hooker, with Lincoln and Stanton. Her treatment of the latter two is not only shallow but reflects the received opinions of the time (the book was written in the 1930s), so Lincoln is a saint, at war with the vengeful Radical Republicans, and Stanton is a power-mad despot. This was the history taught in the schools in the '40s. It must be remembered that once the war was over, Northerners, secure in their righteous victory, turned to the settling of the West and the business of business, finally shedding any lingering responsibility for the freedmen with the election of Hayes in 1876. Southerners lost not only the war, but also their land was devastated and their economy ruined, and their former slaves were, for a time, prominent in Reconstruction governments. Their situation was psychologically disastrous, so they created the myth of the romantic Lost Cause of state sovereignty dressed in the poses of cavaliers and highborn ladies and happy slaves. Slavery as an issue, as the issue that caused the war, simply vanished. Southerners, therefore, as the only people interested in the subject, were the ones who wrote the histories, right up until the '50s and '60s when much less biased histories were written. I remember asking one of my colleagues in the history department in the 1960s what he thought of one of the new books on Reconstruction, and he was exasperated. "Next thing you know, they'll deny the whole era!"
The Southern myths still exist, but they no longer dominate the field, and there have been so many excellent studies of the war, as well as of the antebellum South and Reconstruction, that we now have a much deeper, more comprehensive knowledge of the era than we had jut 25 years ago. It is apparent, for instance, that although many Radical Republicans mistrusted Lincoln and thought him too moderate, he used them for his own purposes. Far from being a saint, he was a master politician. It is also clear now that he was being cautious in his first tentative steps toward Reconstruction, and he would never have tolerated Southern attempts to reestablish the old regime, as with the Black Codes.
Those aspects of the book can easily be discounted. We know better now and can ignore the historical prejudices while we enjoy the ever-moving panorama of the city. Upon reflection, this brings up some more thoughts about history. When we read the best books about the Civil War today we get a synoptic view, by which I mean that though it contains many details, they only fill out the picture, give it life - the main lines are already drawn, as we know even before Yorktown that McClellan is already afraid to face what he imagines to be overwhelming numbers, that he will never fully commit his troops to battle, neither before Richmond nor at Antietam; we know that the Emancipation Proclamation will change the nature of the war. We read about the events again and again because we get fresh ideas, detect nuances we had not seen, we learn more. We can never learn enough about any historical event to understand it thoroughly, but with the reliable synoptic histories we get the illusions that we know it all. What this book about Washington does is to make us see that immediate knowledge, for instance, the news about the battles that trickles back to the city in distorted fragments, is what the actors know at the time. No one at the time has synoptic knowledge, although Lincoln had a tentative vision of it when he entrusted everything to Grant. As he told him, he didn't want to know his plans; he trusted him to pursue the war to its end.
What I am trying to say is that modern synoptic histories (like Bruce Catton's) may be true to us now, but they would not be true to those living at the time; for them, the immediate details (as in Miss Leech's book) are in the front of their minds, and if we want to understand history we must have not only as well-informed a synoptic view as possible, but we must try to take account of what is in the minds of the actors at the time.
I wrote an essay in this series called "Historians, the South, and the Civil War," and I should like now in the light of subsequent knowledge (like Miss Leech's book), to modify my judgment of Grady McWhiney for failing to see how stupid Jefferson Davis was because he didn't see the obvious futility of secession. We must remember that since the 1830s, when Britain outlawed slavery in Jamaica and began the suppression of the slave trade, and abolitionism began growing in the North, that Southern guilt and consequent denial of the evils of slavery became ever more vehement (only the guilty would feel the need to ban abolitionist papers from the mails). Under those conditions, the prospect of secession would not seem so insane. Viewed from the contemporary perspective, it has some logic. Southerners were suffering from longstanding delusionary thinking, and eventually they would pay dearly for it. That Davis never understood that is a mark of his mediocrity.
It is also delusionary to think, as historians sometimes do, that there were times of discouragement when, with a little more pressure, the North might have given up the struggle. The North, looking west, had become a national culture unlike the regional, provincial South, and the Union was an almost mystical concept; it would never be given up. The actions of Grant and Sherman in the last year of the war show that.
I can recommend an excellent short (121 pages) book by a Southern historian, Bell Irvin Wiley, on the reasons for the South's defeat: The Road to Appomattox (1956). Look it up in your library. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Memorabilia
I am looking at a small shallow box, three inches by four inches by three quarters of an inch made, so a note inside says, out of a shingle from the house of my father's grandmother, taken when the house was razed in 1927 to make way for a road. Beside the box on my desk are two copper plates used for printing photos in a newspaper, one showing four shadowy images of my father and comrades on an Italian airfield where he served as a pilot in World War I. The other is a large image of my parents and their four children posed in front of our fireplace, a publicity photo for his 1936 campaign for state senator. I am sitting on my mother's lap, a very cute three-year old. Holding down a chaotic heap of papers at the back of my desk is a cedar box containing two silver-backed hairbrushes, military brushes I think they're called, that belonged to my father. Heaven knows when they were last used; judging from the publicity photo, he didn't have much hair to brush in 1936.
As people die, their treasured possessions are passed on to other family members, and since I am now the last surviving member of my generation in the family, all manner of things have been coming my way from my nephews and nieces - papers, photos, documents, and objects like the ones I have just described. Feeling an obligation as the last surviving, etc., I have conscientiously sorted through everything, consigning to the flames most of the papers, obviously of no significance, such as the tabulation of votes for mayor in the 1946 election in my hometown, or a very bad 1937 newspaper photo of Mother on the telephone, illustrating the story of how she had been threatened with the kidnapping of her children if my father didn't stop pushing a drugs law he was sponsoring in the state senate.
I have saved documents: Father's diploma from Fordham Law School in 1922, his diploma from the same high school where I graduated 38 years later, his honorable discharge from the Army Signal Corps (to which airmen then belonged) in 1918, an account of the first Gardner on these shores in 1630, who owned Gardiner's Island in Long Island Sound (our motto: praesto pro patria, "I stand for my country"). And plenty of photographs, but too few I can identify. They have family names - Ingraham, Durlin, Folger, Copland - but beyond that I can say nothing. There are two snapshots of Mother's father, Grampa Wynne, with his father-in-law, a well-known minister in Wisconsin, still remembered there today. He was friendly with the local Indians, the Menominees, who used to visit him in the rectory where they would speak in the Indian tongue. As a result of that connection, the Indians allowed Grampa to fish on their reservation up north, and he would drive up in his '31 Chevy coupe (which I later owned) and catch so many trout that he would pack them in a barrel of ice and send them by train to his friends in Madison.
All this delving and saving and throwing away has reminded me that I am well up in years, and that soon enough my children will be faced by my artifacts, so I determined to do the winnowing myself right now. I was ruthless, stuffing pages clipped from magazines, pieces I had read and enjoyed 30 and 40 years ago, into the stove, watching the yellowed pages shrink and blacken and burn. I saved copies of my published writings, but burned the unpublished things, the essays that I could never get right, the stories that started well but died. At last I came upon a folder that presented me with a question that lay in wait for me as soon as I took up my pen to write "Memorabilia": Why do we save what we do? That folder contains page after page of the Greek text of Homer's Iliad, neatly copied into two notebooks with my notes about grammatical points written above the words, testimony to the years when I studied Greek. It also contains all the papers I wrote in graduate school.
Today all the Greek I remember are the first dozen lines of the Iliad, and if I thought the Review's printer had a Greek typeface, I would, as a bit of swank, recite those lines. Of what possible use are these pages, which I cannot bear to destroy, to my children? How about my paper on Chaucer? Or on Walt Whitman? Will they want to read my ideas about the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels? Why can't I throw them away? They remind me of a past long buried under my farming life, a past I cannot forget and that still bends my words to its will. Without those desires, without that learning and training I could not think nor write as I do - and I would not be who I am. At the heart of our memorabilia, the things we cannot bear to part with are ourselves as we remember ourselves. I am still the young man who wanted to learn Greek, still the young man who was fascinated by the study of literature, and I am also the old man who recalls all that as well as the 40 years of farming performed by that same man . . . Memorabilia. *
Anthony Trollope was a successful Victorian writer, publishing 47 novels from the early 1850s until his death, but after the posthumous publication of his autobiography, which gave a prosaic description of his working routine - assiduously writing so many words per day every day, seeming to treat writing as a mundane business - cheapened him in the eyes of his readers, violating their romantic conceptions, after that his reputation fell sharply, not to revive until the 1940s when Britons, spending long hours in air raid shelters, immersed themselves in his long, leisurely novels, and today, his work is more highly regarded than at any time since his heyday in the 1860s.
Beginning in the 1970s, considerable critical attention has been paid to Trollope, and the interesting thing about it is that it's all over the place; there's very little agreement about what he was doing and how he did it. Just as interesting is the fact that, judging from contemporary reviews, it's clear that his work was not deeply understood at the time. Readers enjoyed his books, but they weren't sure why. Of course, the inability of readers to explain why they like or dislike an author is not uncommon, but usually literary critics, people whose business it is to be sensitive to such things, are able to enlighten us. So Trollope was elusive from the start, and he remains so. Let us see what we can make of him.
Trollope is best known for the Barsetshire novels (listed at the end of this essay), which begin as a series about clerical life in a cathedral town but go beyond that to encompass the lives of the squirearchy and nobs living in the area. There is much comedy in these novels, both of character - Mrs. Proudie, the archbishop's wife, is one of the great comic figures in English fiction - and of outlook; Trollope regards his characters with an unobtrusive irony reminiscent of Chaucer's. The plots of these novels tend to be stereotypical, centering around star-crossed lovers who finally overcome all obstacles to marry at last, but Trollope was quite conscious of what he was doing; that sort of plot was a requirement of the three-volume novel. beloved of the circulating libraries, which were so important in the trade, but he hoped readers would see beyond that:
Nay, take the last chapter if you please - learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
There is another notable series, the Palliser novels, ostensibly about political life, but as with his other novels, they are really about the characters and their interactions.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter to his publisher, had this to say about Trollope's novels:
They precisely suit my taste; solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going
about their daily business, not suspecting that they are made a show of.
That final clause is especially perceptive. Think for a moment about the characters of Dickens and Thackeray: they are vivid, dramatic, known by us almost in an instant. By the time the few pages of the first chapter of Vanity Fair are done, we know a great deal about Becky Sharp - her scornful attitude toward the headmistress, the way she flings Johnson's dictionary out of the coach window - just as the first pages of Great Expectations - Pips's encounter with Magwitch in the churchyard - impress us with Pip's ingenuous nature. Thackeray and Dickens see heir characters dramatically and so present them. As the books open I always think of a curtain rising in a darkened theater, revealing a brightly lit stage full of moving and declaiming people. That is not Trollope's way. He can and does write dramatic scenes that reveal character, but they are embedded in a narrative that describes the lives of the characters in cumulative detail, painting them, stroke by stroke, in solitary moments, in soliloquies, in letters, in conversations, turning them this way and that, showing them in different lights until we know them as thoroughly as their creator does.
This is the key to Trollope, the reason he is and was read with pleasure: he creates characters of a breadth and depth unusual in fiction, and we are pleased to follow them through the novel to learn more and more about them. The novel, after all, is preeminently about characters. There is solemn talk about the "novel of ideas," but we care far more about Pierre and Natasha than we do about Tolstoy's theory of history, just as Melville's Manichean ideas about God and evil interest us much less than the characters aboard the Pequod.
To show how this works, I shall discuss an excellent later novel, Ralph The Heir. The movements of the characters, which at first seem stereotypical, turn out quite otherwise, and the irony, always present in Trollope, is here very strong.
We first meet Ralph, the heir, the unheroic hero of the novel, when he drops in at the Underwood's house where he does a little flirting with Clarissa Underwood, harmless in his eyes but not in hers.
She knew that he was idle, extravagant, fond of pleasure, and - unsteady, as she in her vocabulary would be disposed to describe the character which she believed to be his. But in her heart of hearts she liked unsteadiness, in men, if it were not carried too far.
Having been her father's ward, he is understandably familiar with her, so when, just as he is leaving:
"Dear, dear Clary - you know I love you." Then he put his right arm around her waist . . . and kissed her.
Of course, as a well brought up Victorian lady, she resents the kiss even as she cherishes the man, and she will carry away from this scene a wholly unwarranted devotion to Ralph for far too long.
Meanwhile Ralph, who has wasted his fortune and is in debt, is tantalized by a scheme initiated by a breeches-maker (for men who ride to hounds), Mr. Neefit: if Ralph will marry Neefit's daughter Polly, he will give him 20,000 pounds. Polly is a fine girl far superior to Ralph (as it turns out), but her father wants to make her a lady. When the idea is first hinted to Ralph this is his reaction:
. . . the girl herself is so pretty, that upon my honour I don't know which is prettier - she or Clary. But fancy old Neefit for one's father-in-law! Everybody is doing it now; but I don't think I'd do it for ten times the money. . . . One has to get used to these things, and I am not used to it yet. I soon shall be - or to something worse.
But then Trollope shows him in a different light:
Ralph Newton passed hardly a day of his life without a certain amount of remorse in that he had not managed himself better than he had done, and was now doing.
. . . as for changing altogether the mode of his life - that was more than he had vitality left to perform. Such was the measure which he took of himself, and in taking it he despised himself thoroughly.
He tries to go through with the Polly bargain, much against his inclination, but she rejects him, pointing out that by marrying him she would be cut off from her family - she has her pride and it is stronger than Ralph's. Neefit, however, keeps pursuing his cause, persecuting and embarrassing Ralph. This is both comic and grotesque and we feel some sympathy with Ralph. Then he inherits Newton Priory, a considerable estate, and decides to propose to Mary Bonner, Clarissa's cousin. As he begins his attack, Trollope remarks:
There was an ease and grace always present in his intercourse with women, and a power of saying that which he desired to say - which perhaps arose from the slightness of his purposes and the want of reality in his character.
This is a sharp insight that makes us look back to recognize Ralph's smoothness throughout the book - he was certainly graceful in his dealings with Polly - to see the shallowness from which it arises.
By the this time, Clarissa has finally seen enough of Ralph and his facile proposals (she has turned him down after her cousin did):
This young man to whom she had devoted herself possessed no power of love for an individual - no capacity of so joining himself to another human being so as to feel . . . that one should be esteemed by him superior to all others - because of his love.
Finally, Ralph is maneuvered into proposing to another woman:
. . . previous to his offer he had been aware that Lady Eardham had been angling for him as a fish, that he had been as a prey to her and her daughter, and that it behooved him to amuse himself without taking the hook. . . . He had taken the hook, and now had totally forgotten all those former notions of his in regard to a prey, and a fish, and a mercenary old harridan of a mother . . . he thought he had exercised a sound judgment, and had with true wisdom arranged to ally himself with just the woman most fit to be his wife and the future mistress of Newton Priory.
My point is to show you how Trollope interests the reader in character, and we are interested in Ralph's course even as he arouses our contempt, but that only grows slowly. Remember: I have selected key revelatory passages scattered over more than 400 pages. And we have been interested in other characters and their development. We have been following other plots, too. So it is only upon reflection that we realize we have been absorbing, almost without thinking about it, a complete picture of his character. And that is true, too of all the major characters, even poor frustrated Mr. Neefit. This is Trollope's great skill, to create characters we gradually get to know so subtly that it is only at the end, when we look back at the whole novel that we see how we have grown to know them, just as we learn about people in our daily lives. With Thackeray and Dickens we learn everything (or nearly so) at once - the interest lies in seeing how the characters will carry out their lives. Trollope seems very plain and open; as he himself said, "Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other." But in fact his method is very subtle, which is why readers can enjoy his novels without exactly knowing why.
The Barsetshire novels:
The Small House at Allington
The Last Chronicle of Barset
The Palliser Novels:
Can You Forgive Her?
The Prime Minister
The Duke's Children *
Although he wrote novels, plays, travel books, and underwent in his forties a conversion from radicalism to conservatism, so that his latter years were taken up with writings that reflected that change, Dos Passos is best known for his USA trilogy: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money (1937, although the first two were published a few years earlier). I read it for the first time when I was twenty and thought it was the cat's pajamas, speaking as it did to my growing radicalism. When a Canadian friend in the 1980s asked me to recommend a book on America in the 20th century, I suggested USA and then, to check my recollections, reread it. Having recently shed my radicalism, that aspect of the book no longer held me in thrall, and now what I noticed was the inadequacy of the characters as fictive creations. At that time, however I was not a practicing literary critic so I put USA back on the shelf and thought no more about it.
Recently, writing about the novel . . . And Ladies of the Club, I got to thinking about Dos Passos and all the hoopla in the 1920s and 30s about the "American Renaissance," so I decided to read USA again, this time with close critical attention.
Henceforth I will treat the trilogy as one book. First I must describe the book's organization and its innovations that so impressed readers at the time. The book opens with a two or three page section called "Newsreel," consisting of headlines, news excerpts, snatches of popular songs.
BRITISH BEATEN AT MAFEKING
Mr. McKinley is hard at work when the new year begins
For there's been many a man been murdered in Luzon and Mindanao
"In responding to the toast, 'the 20th century,' Sen. Albert J. Beveridge said in part: 'The 20th century will be American' . . ."
This feature, opening each chapter, is intended to do three things: establish the time (in the above 1900) as well as the public tone, and, by the blatant stupidity of the press, to mock it and what it reports. As the book moves along, the reader is increasingly bored by its superficiality, and the satiric intent is so obvious that the effect is finally weakened. If you are writing a trilogy that is meant to be a serious indictment of the social and economic system of America, working it by quoting the vacuities of newspapers is shallow and frivolous.
"Newsreel" is followed by a page or two called "The Camera Eye," an impressionistic glimpse of the author's consciousness at the time:
I couldn't learn to skate and kept falling down look out for the muckers everybody said Bohunk and Polak kids put stones in your snowballs write dirty words on walls do dirty things up alleys their folks work in the mills
Unfortunately they become more and more opaque as the years pass (Where is he? What is he doing?), and it must be said that this is the least effective device of the book, even less interesting than "Newsreel."
Another innovation is the insertion of condensed biographies of prominent figures of the time: Theodore Debs, Luther Burbank, Edison Ford, Thorsten Veblen, Isadora Duncan, the Wright brothers, William Randolph Hearst, et al. The author's partisanship is particularly unfortunate in these portraits, but still these sections are the most interesting parts of the book because they are written in a sharp, brisk style about consequential people.
While these three devices are not the exciting avant garde gestures they were considered at the time, they do leaven the narrative lump of the book, which needs considerable leavening. It proceeds like this: a character, introduced in his or her childhood, is followed for a few pages before being interrupted by the "Newsreel" and "Camera Eye." Then it is resumed as the character grows up, is interrupted again, and so on. In this way the illusion of rapid growth and development is created, which is very important for the overall movement of the book. We are meant to feel that these characters (as one succeeds another) are rushing in a generally forward direction. In this way five characters are introduced in The 42nd Parallel, three become involved with each other, and other characters who will appear in the other volumes are mentioned or encountered briefly. All these characters reappear in the next two books, with the exception of the most attractive figure in the whole trilogy, Mac, a footloose printer with an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) card who finally settles in Mexico. New characters are introduced in 1919 and The Big Money, mingling with the others we have already met.
When he begins with each character, we trustingly go along in a "Once Upon a Time" moment, but as they grow up we become restive, expecting more of them, but they seem largely buffeted about by chance and do not really develop but only become more fatuous, more corrupt, more dissolute, or in the case of extreme radicals, more futile. Relations between characters are only chance combinations with no lasting bonds. They do not develop with or against each other, and are too unreal to bear the burden of presenting America. Because Captain Ahab is a fully realized character we believe in the voyage of the Pequod, but USA never becomes the USA in our minds because the characters never embody more than their own futility.
Dos Passos may have felt that his innovative devices freed him from some basic literary conventions: to make all of his middleclass characters despicable is foolish, but to make all of them weakly despicable is disastrous. Nearly everyone is a drunk (the endless drinking and whoring scenes featuring the working class characters soon become a deadly bore). It is no less a mistake to make all the working class characters radical.
A word about Dos Passos' radicalism: he was an old-fashioned radical, never more than a Communist sympathizer, and in USA he was critical of the Party's regimentation, its inflexible Party line, and Party discipline. During the Spanish Civil war, one of his radical Spanish friends was secretly murdered by order of the Communists (Hemingway condoned it), and Dos Passos began his sojourn to the Right (an interesting novel he wrote about this period is Adventures of a Young Man). Although he was to go on to write conservative novels as well as books about Thomas Jefferson, the novels are lifeless (except his charming memoir of his early life, The Best Times, 1966). Radicalism was what animated him, and when that died so did his creative energy. I think USA is a failure, but I would never say it lacks energy. His radicalism in USA reaches its apogee when the real-life Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed for murder.
The streets belong to the beaten nation all the way to the cemetery where the bodies of immigrants are to be buried we line the curbs in the drizzling rain we crowd the wet sidewalks elbow to elbow silent pale looking with seared eyes at the coffins we stand defeated America
That was the great radical cause then, and it still lies in radical legend, although Sacco was certainly guilty (ballistics showed that one of the fatal bullets came from his pistol) and Vanzetti probably was, too.
USA was one of the main exhibits in the ongoing story of the "American Renaissance" ballyhooed by the literary crowd that flourished in the 1920s and early '30s, led by H. L. Mencken in the Smart Set and Edmund Wilson in The New Republic, a myth that was still extant when I was in college in the early '50s. But myth it was. What did the flood of books and all the excited journalism amount to? Who now reads Dos Passos or Sinclair Lewis or Carl Van Vechten? Six writers - Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, and Edmund Wilson - remained when all the shouting died and only the last three named were associated with the myth. The artistic freedom that emerged from the breakdown of the genteel tradition gave license to a horde of mediocre talents to flourish for a time in a hothouse aura of excitement. The Depression and the Popular Front policy of the Communist Party, which recruited so many gullible liberals and radicals, did it in. Radicalism was its (and Dos Passos's) inspiration, USA is its literary embodiment, and it just wasn't good enough. Its picture of American life from 1900 to 1930 suffers not only from its relentless bias, but much more important, it lacks literary strength because the characters are not brought to life. They represent nothing, not even themselves. The illustrations by Reginald Marsh for the 1946 edition (also in the Sentry 1963 reprint) are much better than the text. *