Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Writers for Conservatives 52: Kenneth Roberts and the Art of Historical Fiction
The author was a writer of historical fiction novels that were very popular in the 1930s and '40s, and that are still worth reading. I read them avidly when I was a boy, and I have enjoyed rereading them, with a critical eye, for this essay. Historical fiction is an amorphous genre regarded by literary critics with a dubious eye, if only because it encompasses so many kinds of books of such varying quality: War and Peace, American Westerns, the swashbuckling novels of Rafael Sabatini, The Scarlet Letter, bodice-busting Regency novels whose only claim to historicity is the props - the fashions, quaint language (especially oaths), wigs, swords. Most use history only as background for the fictional plot. Even Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace to demonstrate a theory of history, was more interested in his fictional characters than in Napoleon or Kutuzov, who get only cameo roles.
There is a type of this fiction however, that is intended to be historically accurate, that means to bring to life the past by weaving through its meshes fictional characters in their own plot, and Kenneth Roberts was such a writer. His subject was the American Revolutionary period from the 1760s through the War of 1812. The novels for which he will be remembers are Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Northwest Passage, and Oliver Wiswell. The first two are about Benedict Arnold's march through the Maine wilderness to Quebec in 1775, and his subsequent struggles with Burgoyne's army on Lake Champlain, ending with Arnold's triumph at Saratoga and Burgoyne's subsequent surrender. Northwest Passage is about the career of Major Robert Rogers of the famed Rangers, the scout and Indian fighter. Oliver Wiswell looks at the Revolution from a Loyalist viewpoint.
The center of interest in the first two novels is the dynamic, charismatic figure of Benedict Arnold, who was certainly one of Washington's best generals, a tactical genius on the battlefield and no mean strategist, as his decision to challenge Burgoyne's fleet on Lake Champlain shows. Portraying Arnold in incredibly precarious situations as he guides his men through the wilderness or through the battle of Valcour Island, are the most vivid parts of the two books, those scenes that are remembered long afterwards.
Similarly, in Northwest Passage what holds our attention and lives in our memory is the perilous adventure (the expedition against the St. Francis Indians) and the excruciating tale of hardship in the wilderness stoically endured by Rogers and his men. The latter part of the book, when the narrator seeks out Rogers in debtor's prison in London, showing the once towering figure in ignominious ruin, is a masterful touch.
Oliver Wiswell is an anomaly - a description of the War of Independence from a Loyalist perspective. It is difficult, to be sure, to sympathize with the narrator, but the novel is very well done, and it reminds us what we tend to forget, that the war was also a civil struggle waged with great bitterness and brutality.
The writer of historical fiction must always face the problem of how closely to mesh the historical and fictional characters. Roberts chooses first person narration (by contrast, War and Peace is third person narration), and then he manages the mingling of the two strands, historical and fictional, by making his narrators in Arundel and Rabble in Arms scouts directly responsible to Arnold, a relationship neither too formal nor too intimate, allowing the historical characters to enact their roles as we know they did, while the fictional characters move in and out of the story as the author wishes. So they are always there when Arnold is in action, when Roberts' writing is most skillful.
Roberts was a thorough and scrupulous researcher, and later edited and published The March to Quebec, a compilation of diaries, letters, and accounts of the men who made the arduous journey with Arnold. Accuracy as to facts is one thing, but historical understanding is another, and in that department Roberts was lacking to a degree. So he attributes Arnold's troubles solely to scheming by petty incompetents in the army and ignorant politicians in the Continental Congress, showing a shallow understanding both of Arnold and the Congress at the time. In Robert's defense, however, I should point out that he was writing about what we should call Arnold's heroic years, 1775-77, when he was at his best. But the character of the man who would, in just a couple of years, plot with the British to surrender the fortifications at West Point and capture George Washington, was already implicit. We have to ask ourselves why Arnold was such a stormy petrel, why such dubious characters were so persistent in their calumnies. Other generals, notably Schuyler and Washington, were slandered and plotted against, but it was Arnold who made such an issue of these matters. The truth, I think, is that Benedict Arnold was a shallow man, a first-rate fighter who could see and foresee the ramifications of a course of action (which was why he was such a bold strategist), but who quite lacked depth of feeling about himself and his world. So he seems never to have grasped the enormity of his betrayal and how it would affect the rest of his life.
But this is really a minor complaint. If Roberts' fictional characters are stock figures, they don't get in the way of the historical characters, the ones who really interest us, about whom Roberts wrote so well.
A good biography of Arnold is Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by W. S. Randall (1990). Not very insightful about Arnold's character, but the picture of the radical atmosphere in Philadelphia in 1778-9, when Arnold was military governor, and made the decision to become a traitor, is vivid and suggestive. *
Let us consider Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows (1908), an account of episodes in the lives of Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, with Otter thrown in occasionally, and bit parts given to weasels, ferrets, rabbits, and field mice. Toad, in his adventures in the Wide World, encounters motorists, policemen, judges, a jailer, a barge woman, a jailer's daughter, a washerwoman, a train driver, and a gypsy - but these humans are mere cardboard figures in Toad's eccentric adventures away from the enchanted rural habitat where the animals live. The central contrivance of the book and of other books like it (Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit books began coming out just a few years before this) is the endowment of the animals with a degree of humanity. Thus they dress and speak and behave as humans, but they also retain their animal characteristics. So Mole and Badger agree that underground homes are best, and Rat being a water rat, loves to mess about in a boat. Writers like Grahame and Potter knew just how much human to mix with animal.
The plotting is very clever. The second chapter introduces Toad, but he doesn't reappear until Chapter 6. The three intervening chapters are full of interest: developing the Mole-Rat relationship, introducing Badger at home - frightening Mole (and the reader) in the sinister WildWood. The Toad chapters come thick and fast now: 8, 10, 11, and 12, just as Grahame's conception of Mole and Rat begins to run out of steam. In Chapter 7 is a mawkish tribute to Pan, the only false note in the book, and in Chapter 9 is a overlong recounting of the adventurous life of a seagoing rat. By interspersing the chapters and quickening the pace, the author maintains the reader's interest.
One of the finer points of the book, and this is something Grahame was very good at in all his books, is the way he creates an enduring character with just a few strokes. By the end of the first chapter we know, without being directly told, that Mole is a very happy, sensitive, and timid creature, while Rat is practical, capable, and cheerful, but dreamy, too. Badger is stern, solitary, and homely, but a tower of strength to his friends. Toad, of course, is Grahame's greatest creation, conceited, impulsive, madly daring, fearful, inconstant, condescending, and lovable.
One of our granddaughters (8 years old) was here for a week last summer, and before her father left he said he'd tried Wind but it didn't seem to interest her. He had begun at the beginning, but when I took up the book, I started with Toad and stayed with him. In Chapter 10, when the motorists pick him up, disguised as a washerwoman, where he has collapsed in the road, Alana suddenly exclaimed, "Can't they see she's a toad!" That was my moment of triumph - with the exclamation and the use of "she," my granddaughter showed she was in the grip of the fiction. Note, however, that I gained my end only because I left out everything but Toad's adventures; the rest of the book is not really interesting to children. We'll look into the significance of that in a moment.
Kenneth Grahame wrote two other books that are usually (but mistakenly) thought of as children's books: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). These slim volumes "are studies of childhood in idyllic rural settings where the adult world of reality is sharply contrasted with the fantasy world of the child," as the jacket of one proclaims. It was Grahame's misfortune that his mother died young and his father withdrew his affection from the children, so they were sent to be raised by relatives in the Thames valley (the scene of Wind). A fact in Grahame's life, the absence or indifference of responsible adults, is a recurring theme in much of this literature. In "Prologue: The Olympians" he speaks of those relatives:
They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognize, the result of a certain stupidity) and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal.
There are exceptions. In The Golden Age it is the curate
. . . who would receive, unblenching, the information that the meadow beyond the orchard was a prairie studded with herds of buffalo. . . . He neither laughed nor sneered, as the Olympians would have done. . . .
As the quotation implies, the fantasy world of children is magical, unfazed by the remorseless realties of time and space and probability. Of course, all children play in that way. Recall your own childhood games, or look into the books of Iona and Peter Opie, especially The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, and Children's Games with Things. The difference between my fantasies and those in these two books is that the latter are much more clever and daring and highly colored, they take place on an estate in the English countryside, and there are governesses and tutors in the classy background.
That's because these books, with their dedication to the cult of childhood, are really aimed at an adult audience. I know that when I read these books to my children: I enjoyed them more than they did. You can see this quite clearly in Grahame's books by the level of diction and assumptions:
After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the others busy working. - The Wind in the Willows
. . . while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. - The Wind in the Willows
. . . he proceeded to play upon the inexperienced Mole as on a harp. - The Wind in the Willows
That was the frank note, the joyous summons of the day; and they could not but jar and seem artificial, these human discussions and pretences, when boon nature, reticent no more, was singing that full-throated song of hers that thrills and claims control of every fibre. - The Golden Age
From worms we passed, naturally enough to frogs, and thence to pigs, aunts, gardeners, rocking horses, and other fellow citizens of our common kingdom. - Dream Days
What I am suggesting is that the whole cult of childhood, so embodied in these books and many others, is an adult fantasy, one that is highly colored with upper middleclass trappings and assumptions. These books are thought of as classics, and sometimes I see essays about children's literature in conservative publications, essays that usually bemoan the present state of the art while they praise these old classics. I believe, however, that they belonged to a moment in time, from the 1890s to the 1950s when middleclass Americans liked to think of themselves as WASPS, with all that the term implied. As an old WASP myself, descended from a man who, in the 1630s was reputed to be the "handsomest man to make foot prints on the Nantucket shore," I have some mild regrets at the passing of that moment, but remember the lesson of this series: superior art has a life of its own, so the Beatrix Potter books will last if only because of her wonderful illustrations, and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, thanks to the incredible character of Toad, will be read long after we are gone. *
This book, The Ungovernable City, John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, published 13 years ago is worth our attention because it reveals the nature of the liberalism, regnant in the 1950s, beginning to falter in the 60s, that was unable to comprehend and cope with the problems of the time, discrediting itself, leading to its present bankruptcy.
The author, Vincent Cannato, tells us briefly of John Lindsay's life and career before he was elected mayor of New York in 1965, but the bulk of the book is about his two terms as mayor, an absorbing tale it is as the author concisely but fully describes the issues and policies, the actions and reactions of the figures involved in the politics of the city. His mastery of such an intricate account, so clearly written, is astonishing. I read every one of its 579 pages with unflagging interest.
The Lindsay family was not wealthy, but John, tall and handsome, looked like a WASP patrician and he followed that path - prep school, Yale, wartime service in the Navy, Yale Law School, a prestigious law firm in New York - until he deviated from the conventional norm to go into politics, supporting Eisenhower, becoming head of the city's Young Republicans in 1952. A friend recommended him to Hebert Brownell, the Attorney General, and Lindsay went to work in the Justice Department, concentrating on civil rights cases. In 1958 he was elected to Congress from the Silk Stocking district of east Manhattan, chiefly populated by the upper class Protestant elite. As a congressman, Lindsay followed a path that would be characteristic of his entire career: ignoring day to day parochial politics, like tending to the needs and wishes of his constituents, he concentrated on national and international issues, often voting with Democrats. He was a well-known Liberal Republican, a national figure, when he ran for mayor in 1965.
Those of my readers who are old enough will recall the almost magical aura that surrounded John Lindsay in those days, but when we read this account we understand how the aura was created and how misleading it was. When the Republicans nominated Goldwater in 1964 for President, a good many liberals were frightened (they are always ready to believe the local Legion post secretly harbors troops of jackbooted Nazis, a fantasy Lindsay himself would entertain), and Lindsay, who refused to support Goldwater, became a liberal hero in the struggle for the soul of the GOP. And because his rhetoric was lofty and earnest, he was thought of as an "idealist," a vulgar error the Vincent Cannato falls for. An idealist is one who believes in principles that transcend immediate material need; it does not mean blindness to material reality. When the word was used to characterize John Lindsay, it was a compliment; essentially it meant that he was high-toned, classy. In fact, the secondary meaning of idealist denotes impracticality and foolishness, and that's what he was. What were thought to be noble ideas were merely empty rhetoric.
He presented himself to voters as a fresh young man of noble intentions running against politics as usual (always an attractive line) who would solve the pressing urban problems of the day, and for awhile, New Yorkers were impressed. Right at the start, however, in fact on his first day in office, the Transit Workers struck for 10 days and chaos ensued. The truth was that Lindsay, who knew nothing about unions or how to deal with them, handled the matter very badly, finally saddling the city with a needlessly costly contract.
Lindsay was not a hands-on day-to-day mayor. He brought in consultants (always a bad sign) and tried to force sweeping changes in the government of the city, as when he amalgamated city departments into super agencies, eventually putting more bureaucrats on the city payroll than all the workers in the docks, the banks, the garment industry. I shall not review Lindsay's entire mayoral career, so well described in the book, but two issues, crime and disorder, must be discussed because they display dramatically the central flaw in Lindsay's (and liberalism's) understanding of American society.
Liberals in general were suspicious of the police, and "police brutality" was a constant theme. Lindsay believed was always distrustful of the police. So when Negroes began making disturbances, he publicly sympathized with them, believing their behavior justified by white racism. He made every effort to restrain the police and placate the rioters. He was very proud of the occasions when he walked the disorderly streets, trying to calm disturbances by his sympathetic presence. He was very anxious that the riots not be called by that name, not wishing New York to be listed along with Newark and Detroit where the riots were much more devastating. They were bad enough, and Lindsay's hobbling of the police made them worse.
Lindsay was a leading figure on the Kerner Commission, tasked to report on the urban riots, a report which reflected the liberal view that white racism caused all the trouble.
The seizure of buildings at Columbia by radial students in 1968 is the perfect example of the failure of liberalism as a theory of contemporary society and its governance. When the students occupied the buildings, Grayson Kirk, the president, wanted to call in the police but he was dissuaded. The faculty was divided, many sympathizing with students, and eventually 100 or so tried to intervene, placing themselves as buffers between police and students (the fatuity of the faculty is still astounding). Eventually the police cleared the buildings, but the damage was done: who were more representative of the liberal establishment, the high priests of its ideology, than college administrators and prominent faculty? And what did they turn out to be but hollow men, headpieces filled with straw spouting words without significance, and so they have remained ever since.
There were two theories of order underlying what was going on in New York: the liberal theory said that order could be attained only by removing the "root causes" of lawlessness; since they were ameliorated, all would be well. The other theory, the conservative one, is that underlying problems and frustrations are never solved by lawlessness - order must be kept, or restored first. The liberals were sympathetic to rioters, whether radical students or Negroes in slums, and John Lindsay epitomized that attitude, an attitude that was tested by the 60s and found wanting. It took Mayor Giuliani, with heightened police patrols and attention to details of disorder to vindicate the conservative view and make New York a safer city.
I think the title of the book is mistaken. The city is not ungovernable, as mayors later proved, and Lindsay cannot really be said to have struggled to "save" New York. That was what he said, and I'm sure he thought that was what he was doing, but in fact he was projecting the gaseous vision in his rhetoric onto New York, and the vision was empty even as Lindsay was mouthing it.
Liberalism never recovered from the 60s. Today it is no more than a ragged series of reflexive gestures waiting to be dispersed. *
The great English novelists of the 19th century - the Victorian Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot - wrote social novels, stories in which the characters were firmly imbedded in a social context and could hardly be understood outside it. The reader will understand me if he considers the great American novels of the time: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn are concerned with individuals to the exclusion of society, even against society as in Huck Finn. But for the English novelists social norms are determinative, and characters are judged as they accommodate themselves to those norms.
Thackeray, a journalist who wrote comic satiric pieces for magazines like Punch, published his first novel, Barry Lyndon, about an Irish scoundrel, in 1844, and his next, Vanity Fair, three years later. Over the next ten years he wrote four more novels (Pendennis, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians), but his reputation rests on Vanity Fair, and well it should for the novel is greatly superior to anything else he wrote. It is a masterpiece, one of the enduring monuments of English prose, a novel that artfully combines comedy, pathos, and irony in a way that only Thackeray could do.
Vanity Fair, in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, was a symbol of worldly society. Thackeray's novel opens with a prefatory note "Before the Curtain":
As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place . . . [Here follows a description of smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing] . . . Yes, this is a Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy . . . the general impression is one more melancholy than mirthful.
He then refers directly to his characters as "the famous little Becky Puppet," "the Amelia Doll," "the Dobbin figure," and so on. The effect of the note is to endow the writer with an air of benevolent, bemused omniscience, and the book and characters with a veneer of irony. "And with this, and with a profound bow to his patrons, the Manager retires, and the curtain rises." What a beginning!
It was not uncommon for Victorian novelists to insert themselves in the text, to comment on the action or the characters, but it was Thackeray's constant practice, so ubiquitous in some of his novels that it becomes tiresome, but here it works because these little editorials (so to speak) constantly remark on behavior in the light of the Vanity Fair metaphor: "That is the way to get on, to be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair." These paragraphs came easy to Thackeray, too easy, because they sometimes seem a lazy writer's indulgence. Nevertheless, there's no question that these remarks are indispensable aspects of the novel; without them, it would be a much-diminished thing, because it gives the actions of the characters added moral significance.
This is not, however, a dull moral tale but a lively story full of unforgettable characters brought to life as soon as we meet them, by the writer's consummate artistry. The first scene of the narrative is the departure of Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp from Miss Pinkerton's "academy for young ladies," and before the first page is read we know Miss Pinkerton, and within a couple of pages we also know Amelia and Becky. Thackeray is not a writer of surprises - how a character first appears, morally and characteristically speaking, is how she shall appear at the end.
Thackeray's plotting is very clever. Beginning with Amelia and Becky together, he ensures, by a combination of Amelia's soft-heartedness and Becky's scheming, that their lives shall be intertwined, to a degree, for the rest of the story. Although she does not know it until the end, when Becky herself reveals it to her, the central fact of Amelia's life has been her husband's infatuation with Becky, while Becky's life has been a series of only intermittently successful intrigues. Becky is reprehensible, heartless, bright, brave, full of spirit and fascinating, while Amelia is a typical Victorian heroine, soft, sweet, and dull. She marries, and worships the rotter George Osborne, who is killed at Waterloo (just after proposing to run away with Becky), and goes on to raise her son in near-poverty, all the while dedicating herself to the memory of George. Meanwhile she has been loved (and unobtrusively helped and supported) by Dobbin, George's comrade in arms, whom she treats as a doormat. Finally, after a quarrel about Becky, Dobbin frees himself from his infatuation, telling Amelia that she is "not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you." It's a great, just, ringing speech, and Amelia is devastated when he leaves.
She didn't wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all.
Becky, eventually taking pity on Amelia, tells her of George's inferiority to Dobbin and his infidelity, shows her the note he gave to Becky the night before Waterloo, and by freeing her of her delusion about George, allows her to accept Dobbin's love. So a reconciliation takes place, they are married, and in time Amelia has a daughter, Jane. On the last page it is remarked that Dobbin is fonder of her
. . . than of anything in the world. "Fonder than he is of me," Emmy thinks, with a sigh. But he never said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle, or thought of a want of hers that he not try to gratify.
The episode is handled in a masterly fashion: the author gives the reader a happy ending but it is qualified. Dobbin gets Amelia, and their love is genuine, but it is not quite what he had hoped for; she does not have his strength of character. Thackeray's irony triumphs, as the last words of the book imply:
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied? - Come, children let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
I began this essay by remarking the social aspect of English Victorian novels, but then I busied myself with the plot. Why? Well, if you think about what you have just read, you'll see that the action is socially driven and controlled. Reflect on Captain Ahab or Huck Finn or Hester Prynne - they are all deviants, defiers of society; their struggles are with themselves, and their triumphs and tragedies are their own. But Becky Sharp is society's creature, always struggling for social esteem, always intriguing for social security, and she is condemned by society because she has violated its norms, just as William Dobbin is esteemed, not merely for his qualities of character, but because he fulfills his social role admirably. *
The question of the Americaness of our literature arose early in the 19th century when we were full of the ginger of nationalism. It was felt that as a new nation, and one cast in a new mold, we should create a literature significantly different and superior to the literature of the Old World (especially Great Britain). The popularity of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving was partly due to the knowledge that their subjects were distinctively American. But still, were they American enough? It was thought that the treatment of their subjects - the writing style, the attitude to their material - was lacking in some way, was still not American enough.
By the end of the century, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser were pushing our literature in new and distinctly native ways, but it was after World War I when an outburst of new, often experimental writing made observers speak of an American Renaissance. It was then that the idea of the Great American Novel arose, a concept still being talked about in the 1940s. A new novel by Faulkner or Hemingway was looked forward to with anticipation, and young men in garrets were reputedly typing away like mad on the latest entry in the sweepstakes. It was vaguely thought that the Great One had to be an epic, a saga, words which conveyed sweeping narrative historical (Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln would make cameo appearances), geographical (he would range over the country and would Go West), and political (he would fight corruption in high and low places), and sexual (his mate would be a deep-breasted daughter of the soil). There were actually some novels like that published after the war.
So, to a superficial glance, the quest for the Great American Novel: But at bottom, it is a serious business, because consummate art can be the expression of our essence, of what we are as individuals and as a nation. Distracted by mundane details, and in the case of too many conservatives, by politics, we forget that the details and the politics all grow out of our culture, our broad identity as thinking and feeling beings bearing within us the ideas and hopes and fears of a rich American past. We do not consciously know it, but we yearn for explications of ourselves, and it is the supreme task of art to give it to us.
Well, the Renaissance turned out to be a flop, and besides, the Great American Novel had already been written not once but thrice: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady will stand as long as the Republic is remembered as our greatest contribution to world literature in the novel line and, like the Republic itself, they are all about the confrontation of American innocence with the sinful world.
Now, in the face of all my mockery, I am going to tell you about a huge novel published in 1948, a bestseller and obviously a contender for the title, which is yet a fine novel which I can recommend for your reading pleasure: Raintree County by Ross Lockridge.
The first thing to understand is the book's technique, its organization. It chronicles a day, July 4th, 1892, in a village in Indiana, the birthplace and home of the protagonist John Wicklif Shawnessy, whose life, going back to his birth in 1842, is told in a series of flashbacks, so we move back and forth from the July day in 1892 to vivid scenes from the past, the most memorable being from the 1850s and 60s. A list of the flashbacks, in chronological order, is given in the beginning of the book for the reader's convenience, but it is best, I think, to read the book as it is written. Transitions from the present to the past are managed adroitly by merging the last sentence of an episode with the first sentence of the next, thus:
So in the still night he dreamed a fair young dream of going . . .
. . . Westward, the National Road pursued its ways.
The band is playing Yankee Doodle for . . .
. . . A big crowd of people had poured into the Court House Square.
It seems to me that the frequent shifts of time and scene give the story an excitement, a tension that make the long narrative much more interesting than if it were told in a straightforward way. Key events, like what happens to Johnny's first wife, are kept back until late in the book, and the most significant event, Johnny's return from the Civil War and what he found on his return, is not revealed until near the end. That placement gives these events more impact. They have been held back because they are so traumatic to Johnny, and now we realize their full force because we have long known the turns his life has taken because of those shocking events.
Johnny is a classic American hero: clean-cut, ingenuous, naive, shy, intelligent, handsome, humble. At the same time that he fulfills that well-known role, he has a rich inner life, displayed throughout the book. He is writing an epic poem about Raintree County, centering around the legend that Johnny Appleseed planted an exotic tree, the raintree with its yellow flowers, somewhere in the county. There have been two sightings of the tree, once by Johnny when he, drunk with liquor and sexual triumph, is making love to Susannah Drake near Paradise Lake after the famous footrace on July 4th, 1859. Under the circumstances he doesn't realize it until afterwards. The other sighting is by his very young daughter, Eva, who, lost in the swamp around Paradise Lake, falls asleep under the tree, beside two rocks marked with Johnny Appleseed's initials. She wakes, wanders off, and is found by her father, who discovers the yellow flowers in her pinafore pocket.
The myth and its meaning is discussed at length, especially at the end of the day (and the book) with "Professor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles (his initials are the same as Johnny's, indicating that he represents a side of the hero that is sardonically cynical), after Johnny the most interesting character in the book. He first appears when he establishes an "academy" in the town attended by Johnny and Nell Gaither, the predestined, but frustrated lovers. When Stiles tries to run away with the minister's wife, Johnny rescues him from a mob and spirits him away on a train. He later turns up in Johnny's life and is always amusing.
There are a number of walk-on parts but few major characters: Johnny's father, a country doctor, preacher, and herbalist; his mother, the three women in his life - Nell Gaither, Susannah Drake, Esther Root - Garwood Jones, Cassius Carney, Flash Perkins. The last named, a hard-drinking innocent rustic, Johnny's rival in foot racing, serves with him in Sherman's army. Carney, a young man with his eye on the financial main chance, finally becomes a big financier. Garwood, Johnny's rival in love, is a budding politician who becomes by the end of the book, a U.S. Senator.
In the 1850s, Garwood and Johnny are rival columnists for two weekly papers in the county: The Whig/GOP Free Enquirer for which Johnny (anonymously) writes a column signed Will Westward, featuring interviews with a salty rustic Seth Twigs, and the Democratic Freehaven Clarion where the "rising young orator" Garwood writes a column by "Dan Populus." These columns, and other excerpts from imaginary newspapers appear frequently in the book, reminding us of those raucous papers of the day, supply much local color, but also add imaginative and ironic commentary on the events. The first page of the book is an excerpt from the Free Enquirer heralding the day.
Lockridge believes the received truth that post-Civil War America was despoiled by robber barons, so Garwood Jones and Cassius Carney become symbolic figures of political cynicism and financial ruthlessness, but we need not let that spoil the book for us; the stereotypes, after all, are amusing, and although Johnny is condescended to by these illustrious sons of the county, we do not see him that way at all. Although the conventional view of the Gilded Age is grotesquely oversimplified, it is true that the pastoral America of antebellum days was replaced by an industrializing society. The village where Johnny was born in 1842, Danwebster, symbolically named, is now abandoned.
War had discovered in him a simple human being who clung yearningly and without criticism to the most ancient beliefs of the Republic. They made it possible for him to endure. They justified his agony. This agony was so great and terrible that only by infusing it with an ideal quality crudely religious in its fervors could it be endured. Only an intensely sentimental soldier in an intensely sentimental Republic could have fought and endured the Civil War.
Not only do I think those words are true about the Civil War, I think they are an accurate description of antebellum America; they certainly describe the picture Lockridge paints of the era, and that time echoes throughout the book. The courthouse clock in the engraving in the Atlas is indeed stopped, and Johnny still lives, to a degree, in that time which ended when he came back from the war and came upon a tombstone in the
Throughout the book there are arguments and discussions, mostly about weighty matters, among Johnny, Stiles, and Garwood (sometimes) that are thoughtful, intelligent, crass, stupid, reflective of the time and the personalities of the speakers. They are the counterpart to the events of the day and of the past, and the way Lockridge weaves them all together so that everything - happenings as well as discussions and ruminations - works together is one of the book's greatest feats.
Raintree County, of course, has a Meaning about the self and the Republic, and love, but I'll let you discover it for yourself. It is obvious from the start that such a grand (not to say grandiose) project must be an attempt to define America, and so it is. Although the definitive idea is voiced in the final conversation of Johnny and Stiles at the end of the book, it is implicit from the beginning, as on the reverse of the title page.
Raintree County is not the country of the perishable fact. It is the country of the enduring fiction. The clock in the courthouse tower on p. 5 of Raintree County Atlas is always fixed at 9 o'clock, and it is summer and the days are long.
What Ross Lockridge gives us is a moving portrait of a romantic conception of antebellum mid-western American. *
Beginning his third year at Harvard, Richard Dana, of distinguished New England ancestry, contracted measles that affected his eyesight. Facing the tedium of a long convalescence, he chose to embark as a common sailor aboard the brig Pilgrim, sailing to California for trading purposes. Returning to Boston in 1836 after two years, he resumed his studies, graduated and went on to law school, during which he wrote this account of the voyage, published in 1840. Shipboard life had never been described from such a viewpoint. It was a great success, and it is rightfully regarded as an American classic.
What makes the book so interesting is Dana's character: he's intelligent, curious, sensitive, warmhearted, strong-minded, and amazingly adaptable, but what makes his character clear to us is the writing style, which is clear, concise, unambiguous, supple, and sensitive. Nothing is vague or false. Dana's prose is not so subtle as Thoreau's nor so masterful as Teddy Roosevelt's, but it is in that tradition.
Of course he is seasick at first and unused to the labor, but he knows how important it is for him, privileged and educated, to be seen sharing the common burdens, and he soon catches on and becomes inured to the work, and later even volunteers for hazardous tasks. His account of the sailing is exciting, even breathtaking, as when he describes furling a frozen topsail high above the pitching deck, at night in a gale off Cape Horn. To most of us today the names and functions of the sails and rigging must be opaque, but by naming them and describing the sailor's efforts we get a vivid sense of the tasks and the whole voyage.
Beside the voyage itself and the incidents of life aboard ship, the book is fascinating because it is a full account of life in California, then a sparsely settled province of Mexico. The brig is engaged in trade, selling goods from an improvised store set up in the ship.
Our cargo was an assorted one; that is, it consisted of everything under the sun. We had spirits of all kinds (sold by the cask), teas, coffee, sugars, spices, raisins, molasses, hardware, crockery-ware, tinware, cutlery, clothing of all kinds, boots and shoes from Lynn, calicoes and cottons from Lowell, crepes, silks; also shawls, scarfs, necklaces, jewelry, and combs for the ladies; furniture; and in fact, everything that can be imagined, from Chinese fire-works to English cart-wheels - of which we had a dozen pairs with their iron rims on.
The sailors are kept busy freighting customers and their purchases back and forth from ship to shore, but their main activity is collecting cowhides (as well as tallow and horns) for shipment back to Boston. Hides were the main product of California then, and some idea of the commerce will be gained when you know that the ship on which Dana returned home was heavily laden with 40,000 hides. The inland missions were the sellers. There the cattle were slaughtered, the hides were dried, and then they were transported to the shore where ships picked them up to take them to San Diego where they were cleaned, cured and stored in large warehouses. It was the job of the brig (and other ships from other buyers) to sail up and down the coast, trading and collecting hides.
It must be kept in mind that the places where the sailors pick up the hides, the ports so to speak - Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, San Francisco - were insignificant, merely open beaches. The small population lived inland at the mission or presidios. But at San Juan they must toil up a steep hill, 400 feet high, carrying trade goods, and then they have to throw the hides downhill to the shore.
Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far into the air as we could; and they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book. The wind took them and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water, and as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height; the scaling of the hides; and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach! This was the romance of hide-droghing!
Ashore on liberty, the sailors walk inland to San Diego and immediately go to a pulperia, a crude saloon, and here Dana displays his tact. He and his Boston friend want to go horseback riding, but he knows that if they don't follow the drinking customs of their shipmates (paying for a round) they'll be looked at askance as effete snobs. So they pay their dues, as it were, and go riding afterwards.
The fine air of the afternoon; the rapid rate of the animals, who seemed almost to fly over the ground; and the excitement and novelty of the motion to us, who had been so long confined on shipboard, were exhilarating beyond expression, and we felt willing to ride all day long.
Dana is always alert to the life around him on his occasional days of liberty, and when he is put ashore in San Diego for four months to help with the curing of the hides we learn a great deal more. There are six workers: Dana, a Frenchman, and four Kanakas from Hawaii, or as they were called then, the Sandwich Islands; the author explains them (he had great respect for them) as well as the task, thus pleasing this reader at least (I am always vexed when a writer mentions a procedure but doesn't explain it). First they soak the hides in seawater for two days, then they immerse them in vats filled with a very salty brine for another two days. They stake them out to dry, trimming and cleaning them, finally scraping the hides to remove any grease. They are beaten with flails to remove any dust and then are stacked in the warehouse. Each man processed twenty-five hides each day. Having approximately the same amount of work to do every day and leisure afterwards, they worked with a will, finishing early in the afternoon. Dana spent most of his spare time reading, writing, and mending his clothes. They kept a horse that they used to catch others for rides about the country and to the presidio.
He goes back to sea duty at the end of the summer by joining the crew of the Catalina, where he meets new shipmates, men of varied, even amazing, backgrounds, not uncommon at a time when ship's crews were composed of men from all over the world.
When they sail for home down the coast of South America, they reach Cape Horn in the depth of the southern winter, a fearsome time, and Dana's account of their passage is hair-raising.
The final chapter tells of his visit to California in 1859, of course registering the profound changes wrought in those twenty some years.
Dana became a distinguished lawyer, known for his advocacy of seamen's rights, and Lincoln appointed him U.S. District Attorney of Massachusetts. He argued before the Supreme Court the famous "Prize Cases" dealing with the depredations of the Confederate commerce raiders built in Great Britain during the Civil War. He died in 1882, full of honors, but he is best remembered for what he did and wrote about when he was a twenty-year-old sailor. *
When I last wrote about Teddy Roosevelt, #14 in this series, I was interested only in his historical work and his books about ranching in the Dakota Territory, especially in his expository prose, describing it as second only to Thoreau's. I said:
Reading him is like being in the company of a fascinating man of great character and intellect who speaks clearly and gracefully of his experiences.
I was not unacquainted with his writing at the time because I had read The Winning of the West as well as five volumes of his Selected Letters a few years before, but it was not until I recently read a Penguin book, Theodore Roosevelt, an American Mind. Selected Writings, that the full impact of the man in today's context became clear. The politically correct professor, who's obviously scared to death of T.R., has done a good job of selecting and editing the pieces (and writing condescending prefaces), arranging them under convenient headings: The Rough Rider, The Historian, On Politics, On Women, and so on.
By "today's context" I mean the dreadful miasma of political correctness that has spread across the land over the last twenty years or so, censoring speech, wringing apologies from the mildest of offenders, enforcing a regime of lies and hypocrisy, preventing any contrary thoughts and actions. Reading T. R.'s forthright prose in Year Five of Obama is shocking. His views, of course, are anathema: patriotism, strongly differentiated sex roles, motherhood, anti-Greenism (he was a strong conservationist for use), manliness, but it is clear that forceful articulation of his ideas is what is so striking today. He was controversial in his own time; today he is outrageous.
During the past three centuries the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world's waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world's history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its effects and its importance.
It was wholly impossible to avoid conflicts with the weaker race, unless we were willing to see the American continent fall into the hands of some other strong power, and even had we adopted such a ludicrous policy, the Indians themselves would have been upon us.
The worst foe of the poor man is the labor leader, whether philanthropist or politician, who tries to teach him that he is a victim of conspiracy and injustice, when in reality he is merely working out his fate with blood and sweat as the immense majority of men who are worthy of the name always have done and always will have to do.
The patriotism of the village or the belfry is bad, but the lack of all patriotism is even worse.
Those opinions are mildly or wholly controversial, but their expression, so direct, so without qualification or obfuscation is striking; that's what makes people uncomfortable.
Let us not allow the issue of T. R.'s political incorrectness to get in the way of thoughtful consideration of his ideas. Conservatives are very critical of T. R. because of his Progressivism, essentially a preview of F. D. R.'s New Deal, a program displayed in his 1910 speech, "The New Nationalism," which launched his campaign for the GOP nomination in 1912. He called for
. . . a policy of a far more active government interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had . . .
Clearly he meant to aggrandize the power of the government in Washington, and he went even further in his 1912 speech to the Progressive convention:
The betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the National Government.
He was the enemy of "special interests" which he thought were fostered by "over division of government powers," making the national government important in the face of state powers. He believed, naively, that Washington would rout those interests while efficiently promoting the true interests of all the people. Poor man! His simplicity on this score - the more the government grew, the more money it took in and spent, the more lobbyists it attracted, and of course the bloated bureaucracy became a power in itself, more and more inefficient. His naivet here is so staggering as to be pitiable. It was, and is, a common delusion among Progressives. Because all citizens have a potential voice in a democratic government, it is especially prone to corruption - everyone wants a lick at the honey pot - which is why it is so important to keep such a government as small as possible.
The book contains more than politics because T. R. was much more than a politician, so the reader can sample, for instance, specimens of his historical writing - The Winning of the West, The Naval War of 1812, The Formation of the National Constitution, and an especially interesting speech he gave to the American Historical Association in 1912 (when he was president of the organization), "History as Literature" - accounts of ranch life, of hunting here and in Africa, as well as his ideas, expressed in speeches and essays, on conservation, on the sexes, on national defense, on race. About that last category there are two pieces on the black, disappointing because T.R., with the best will in the world, could not get beyond Booker Washington's stance that the black could best further his cause by hard work, patience, and good behavior. The radicalism of W. E. DuBois and the newly founded NAACP was beyond him. But it must be remembered that he got into a lot of trouble when he had Washington to dinner at the White House (he would have been horrified by the condition of blacks in city slums now and the racial politics of today's Progressives).
The most interesting entry in the race section is a 1901 review of a book, Racial Death, about declining birth rates, mainly in Europe, but T. R. takes it as a warning to us. This was a fixation of his, one that has proven prophetic, since our reproduction rate has now fallen below the replacement rate of 2.5 children. T. R. wanted women to have four children.
In that connection, I should comment on the selections about women. The first, an address to the National Council of Mothers [!] in 1905 contains this sentiment:
In the last analysis the welfare of the State depends absolutely upon whether or not the average family, the average man and woman and their children, represent the kind of citizenship fit for the foundation of a great nation; and if we fail to appreciate this we fail to appreciate the root morality upon which all healthy civilization is based.
Conservatives would endorse that, I think, but when he goes on to say that "the greatest duty of womanhood" is to be a homemaker, bringing up children "sound in body, mind, and character, and numerous enough so that the race shall increase," I will only commit myself to agree. His essay on "True Americanism," which preaches assimilation of immigrants, says something that casts light on the latest round of sexual fanaticism.
It may be, that in ages so remote that we cannot now understand any of the feelings of those who will dwell in them, patriotism will no longer be regarded as a virtue, exactly as it may be that in those remote ages people will look down upon and disregard monogamic marriage. . .
Well, 109 years have passed, not eons, and "monogamic marriage" is being destroyed in the name of same-sex "marriage," another step in the long campaign against conventional morality of which the nuclear family is a great bulwark. And another consequence is a fall in the birthrate.
The last section, "Critic or Arts and Letters," contains a fine 1911 essay on Dante, as well as a review of the 1913 Armory Show, far famed in the circles of High Modernism. The review, described by the condescending professor as "delightfully reactionary," gave me great pleasure. He refers to the "European 'moderns'" as extremists and says "very little" of their work
. . . seems to be good in and of itself, nevertheless, it has certainly helped any number of American artists to do work that is original and serious.
He could not see ahead, could not see that the European influence would finally overwhelm all but the strongest Americans.
What an amazing man! There is not another president in the twentieth century who could have written such a variety of pieces so intelligently. *
Emphasis on the adjective because when Mr. Furst shifted his narratives from the present (he had written four spy novels taking place in present time) to the past, to the period from 1933-1946, he gave his books an intellectual and emotional weight they would not have had otherwise, creating for himself a very profitable niche which he exploited with a dozen novels over the following years. These were, after all, the crucial years, the white-hot time, of the last century. A contemporary spy novel, a plot with wholly imaginary consequences, could not engage our feelings as much as those ominous years could, presented contemporaneously.
Of course, to someone who grew up with that history (I was born in 1933) in a politically engaged family, the background is full of life: say "Munich" or "purge" or "Danzig" and my mind is filled with images and phrases, the tag lines of old thoughts, the echoes of old emotions. To those without the advantages of age, and that must be most of the reading public today, the author limns the history of the time as it is happening with a sure touch. Reviewers have praised the author for displaying the details of the life of those times: the trains, the cars, the color of the trams in Belgrade in 1938, and so on, but that sort of documentation in the service of illusion is as nothing beside Mr. Furst's familiarity with the thinking of the time: his convincing insights into the thinking of Germans, Nazis and otherwise, of Communists, Russian and otherwise, of Frenchmen, Englishmen, of petty Balkan officials, and of ordinary and extraordinary citizens of Europe in that time. That we know what's going to happen does not lessen our suspense and anxiety because we see everything contemporaneously; the author's skill imprisons us in time, preventing escape to the future. All the paraphernalia of illusion, the period details of daily life, help to keep us in that time.
The author's first historical spy novel, Night Soldiers (1988), is panoramic in time and space, following its protagonist from 1934 to 1945 and from Bulgaria to Moscow to Spain to Paris to Prague to Washington to southern France to Rumania and finally, to New York City, with a correspondingly large cast of characters centering around a Bulgarian, Khristos Stoianev, who is recruited to a Soviet espionage school in Moscow. That serves as a unifying device because several characters from the school keep turning up in the story, showing in their changing lives and ideas the twists and turns of the complex history of the time.
The only other panoramic novel in the series is Dark Star, the third one, which is mainly about the complex (and fraught) relations between Russian Communists and German Nazis, culminating in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 which freed Hitler to attack Poland. The sympathetic protagonist is a Russian writer, a Pravda correspondent forced to serve the NKVD. Mr. Furst's technique here is very clever: he creates a wide cast of characters with confusing allegiances, so that through much of the book we are as unsure of our bearings as the protagonist, an ambiguity that mimics the Nazi-Soviet relations. It is only at the end, when Stalin and Hitler metaphorically embrace over the body of Poland, that everything becomes clear.
The rest of Mr. Furst's historical novels are about subsets of the panorama: attempts to keep Hungary out of the Nazi orbit (Kingdom of Shadows), an attempt to sink barges in the Danube to impede the shipment of oil from Rumania to Germany (Blood of Victory), smuggling Jews out of Germany to Greece (Spies of the Balkans), the Italian migr resistance to Mussolini (The Foreign Correspondent), a Hollywood actor's involvement in the plots and counterplots of the time (Mission to Paris), the involvement of a French movie producer in the war and later, espionage (The World at Night), French counterespionage against Germany in Poland just before the war (The Spies of Warsaw), the captain of a Dutch freighter working for the Allies (Dark Voyage). Characters appear and reappear throughout the series, making us familiars although they may be playing different roles. Count Polanyi, for instance, is a major figure in Kingdom of Shadows, plays small but significant roles in both Mission to Paris and Blood of Victory.
So far, I have discussed everything but the writing, which is, after all, crucial. This was brought home to me when I read one of his early, pre-historical spy novels, Shadow Trade, and noticed how slack the writing was. That's the last thing one would say of the historical novels. Here's the opening paragraph of Blood Victory:
On 24 November, 1940, the first light of dawn found the Bulgarian ore freighter Svistov pounding through the Black Sea swells, a long night's journey from Odessa and bound for Istanbul. The writer I. A. Serebin, sleepless as always, left his cabin and stood at the rail, searched the horizon for a sign of the Turkish coast, found only a blood red streak in the Eastern sky. Like the old saying, he realized -red sky at morning, sailor take warning. But, a private smile for that. So many ways, he thought, to drown in autumn. The Svistov creaked and groaned, spray burst over the bow as she fought the sea. With cupped hands, Serebin lit a Sobranie cigarette, then watched the dark water churning past the hull until the wind drove him back to the cabin.
Serebin is established immediately as sophisticated, ironic - the "private smile" and italicized thought. Then he lights an expensive cigarette and contemplates the water, hinting of a strong character in an ominous situation. He is not without wit: "A candidate, Serebin thought, for the oiliest man in Bucharest, which was no small distinction." Here's a hotel in Istanbul:
Home to commercial travelers and midday lovers, with twelve-foot ceilings, blue walls, the requisite oleograph of Mustafa Kemal, oil-printed in lurid colors, hung high above the bed, and, in the bathroom, a huge zinc tub on three claw feet and a brick.
The telling detail is the brick. Here's an encounter between the always demanding "Mr. Brown" of British intelligence and Count Polanyi about a proposed action:
"I will lose people."
"Yes, but I try not to."
"Try what you like, but you can't let it interfere."
Polanyi looked at him a certain way: I've been doing this all my life.
"We are losing the war, Count Polanyi, do you know that?"
"Hope you do."
Mr. Brown's chair squeaked as he moved back. He rose in order to leave, dismissed the food with a glance, then began to relight his pipe. He met Polanyi's eyes for an instant and, through teeth clenched on the stem, said "Mmm" and strolled toward the door.
The writing is clear and sharp without being so sparse as to be affected.
The author's frequent descriptions of weather and scenery, precise and evocative, help to make the scenes seem real, the outstanding quality of Mr. Furst's work:
The rain stopped at dawn, and the sun hung just below the horizon and set the sky on fire, rainclouds lit like dying embers, vast red streaks above the river" (Blood of Victory).
So the many descriptions of food:
. . . a large plate of steamed leeks, followed by rognons de veau, morsels of veal kidney, sauted with mushrooms in a brown sauce, and a mound of crisp pommes frites. . .Weiz finished most of his carafe of red wine, mopping up the veal sauce with a piece of bread, then decided to have the cheese, a vacherin (The Foreign Correspondent).
[They] were drinking Amalfis - the choice of tout Bucharest - vermouth and Tsuica, the national plum brandy."
I have one major complaint: most (not all) of his protagonists are sex-obsessed, so we get a lot of what I call SIB, sex in books, which is always fantasy, quite unlike sex in life. I think this is pornographic and objectionable in itself, but its falseness weakens the illusion of reality so carefully built up by the scrupulous descriptions of the details of daily life.
Historical novels of Alan Furst: Night Soldiers, The Polish Officer, Dark Star, Shadow Trade, The World at Night, Red Gold, Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Dark Voyage, Spies of Warsaw, Spies of the Balkans, Mission to Paris, and The Foreign Correspondent. *
When I began this series some years ago, I had never written a literary essay. I had taught English, I had done lots of writing - stories, country essays, Marxist polemics - but I had never tried to write a considered estimate of a writer and I'm afraid I said many stupid things, things I would like to revise and rewrite. Failing that, I can write an essay like this to make amends. I shall concern myself with only two writers, Ernest Hemingway and Rudyard Kipling, not that I did them any injustice, but because I didn't say enough about either writer. In fact, I wrote about Hemingway as only a bit player in my essay about Mark Twain, "Huck Finn and Friends" the seventh essay in this series. What I said then was good so far as it went, but it didn't go far enough.
I said, in my recent essay on The Red Badge of Courage, that I would soon write more about the way Hemingway's style brought our literature back to life after its long spell in the doldrums. Expository prose was still thriving after Thoreau; think of the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, of Parkman's great history of the British and French in North America, of Teddy Roosevelt's ranching and hunting essays - or for that matter, think of the speeches of Lincoln. But after the great decade of the 1850s there had been only two literary works of any note Huckleberry Finn (1876) and Red Badge of Courage (1895). Henry James, was an outlier, with almost no influence on the writing of his time. Read some of the novels and stories published between 1870 and 1920, and while you may feel some life in the works of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, the overriding impression will be of the exhaustion of language. The writing was literary, a made up language of cliches and well-worn devices, smokescreens of insincerity. That's why changing the subjects, a la Dreiser and Norris, didn't do much. What had to be changed was not what one saw, but how one saw - in a word style. That's exactly what Hemingway did when his first stories appeared in 1923-4. He utterly changed the style, and then the whole literary landscape was changed.
Read aloud the first paragraph from "In Another Country":
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
We feel the cold of that late fall afternoon in Milan as we have never felt anything like it in our literature for decades. To understand how that paragraph works its magic, read it again, omitting the first sentence. See? That sentence is the key; it establishes a vague feeling of menace ("always there") that lurks behind the vivid enumeration of detail that follows, sharpening our perception of those details making them stand out as the paragraph moves toward its end, becoming almost lyrical ("hung stiff and heavy and empty") in its foreboding rhythms. There is nothing "literary" about those simple declarative phrases; they fall like solid shot upon the page. Hemingway's achievement was to make what he wrote seem real, not "literary" at all. But of course it was - in a new way, a new style. It is only the best writing that can give you the illusion of reality far deeper and more lasting than mere suspension of disbelief. For a generation writers imitated Hemingway.
Unfortunately, Hemingway also imitated Hemingway, especially in his embarrassing novels, the best of which is The Sun Also Rises. But we should remember him for his great contribution to our literature when we needed it.
Kipling had an astonishing range, not only in his subjects but in the way he handled them. Just So Stories, intended for very young children, is a series of short silly stories about how the camel got his hump, the rhinoceros his skin, and so on, in a style reminiscent of the nursery:
In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackerel and the pickerel and the really truly twirly-whirly eel.
The stories are imaginative, perfect for reading to small children, and they are handsomely illustrated by the author.
I said in my earlier essay that Puck of Pooks Hill and Rewards and Fairies are historical tales for children, but I don't suppose any of my readers will be surprised when I say I enjoy them myself. Quite by accident, a brother and sister invoke Puck, the ancient elfin figure we know from A Midsummer Night's Dream, who tells stories to the children about the past, calling up people therefrom to tell their own stories. It is imaginative and carefully constructed, as Puck chooses the people and relates them to a theme. It seems simple as the tales follow one another, but Kipling endows it all with an air of magic and mystery. At the end of each episode, for instance, Puck insists that the children chew leaves of oak, ash, and thorn, so they will forget about what they have been doing and not reveal it to their parents. A small touch, but it makes each episode into a magical interlude.
Kim is sometimes described as a novel, but Kipling denied it, saying, accurately, it was only a picaresque tale. The name comes form the Spanish picarro, a rogue, and such a tale is an episodic one tracing the travels (and travails) of a footloose adventurer. I suppose we could say the Odyssey is the first one. Fielding's Joseph Andrews and Dickens' Pickwick Papers are in the tradition, as is the great central portion of Huck Finn when Jim and Huck float down the river on the raft. Kim, the orphan boy hero, son of an Irish soldier, is living almost as a native boy of the streets, but in the opening pages he meets an old Tibetan holy man on a quest for the River of the Arrow, whose waters wash away all taint of sin, freeing one from the Wheel of Life, and Kim becomes his ever-resourceful disciple, travelling with him all over northern India. At the same time, Kim, brought into the English orbit, is trained as a spy (for which he has a natural aptitude), so his travels with the lama eventually combine with his espionage career, culminating in the frustration of a Russian scheme (the "Great Game" to aficionados of Middle Eastern intrigue) and the end of the lama's quest. The tale is really an excuse for Kipling to indulge in what I call his "Indianism':
"Eye of Beauty, forsooth! Who am I that thou shouldst fling beggar-endearments at me?" And yet she laughed at the long-forgotten word. "Forty years ago that might have been said, and not without truth. Ay, thirty years ago. But it is the fault of this gadding up and down Hind that a king's widow must jostle all the scum of the land, and be made a mock by beggars."
That's a tame example. This is not to everyone's taste, but if you go along for the ride, you'll be amused and impressed. Kim is an engaging character, the description of the land, especially in the Himalayas, are as vivid as only Kipling can make them, and altogether it's an enjoyable read, but the author is only idling here.
The Jungle Books come in two volumes. I said in my earlier essay, "Animal stories. The best, half the total, are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves," and that's all I said. Here Kipling is working on a deeper level than in Kim. Superficially a simpler world, the feelings and thoughts, the relations between the characters (all animals, except for Mowgli, remember) are more profound than in Kim. Kim himself is too young and lama is too old, and their activities seem superficial compared to Mowgli's, so they cannot move us as Kipling's portrayal of Mowgli's world does. Mowgli's world is elemental, his relationships and feelings are direct. Animal stories are an ancient genre, and their significance is largely unconscious to be teased out by anthropologists and ethnographers, while modern ones are charming and trivial (Kenneth Grahame) or melodramatic (Jack London), but Kipling has managed, with unsurpassed skill of craft and imagination to create animal stories that are intelligent and moving, a great pleasure to read.
When he wrote about soldiers, as in Soldiers Three and The Light That Failed, I think he was the star-struck, nearsighted outsider, and losing his balance, he wrote mawkishly. Nor do I care much for In Black and White, the stories told by Indian narrators as if to an Englishman, full of circumlocutions, very tedious. But the best of the later stories, collected in two Penguin volumes, A Sahib's War, and Friendly Brook, selected by Andrew Rutherford, are as good, in their more elaborate, mature way, as the best stories in Plain Tales from the Hills. In the previous essay I wrote at length about "Mrs Bathurst," one of the finest stories ever written in English, but now I want to say something about "They," a story about an English estate where dead children live. Stated like that it sounds preposterous, but the reader learns the truth so gradually (not fully until the end) and the speaker's relations to the estate and to the blind woman who owns it are so mixed up with mundane considerations that the whole thing seems quite natural, and in the end, when the speaker realizes the presence of his own dead child, it is very moving. I have mentioned "They" because it seems to me to epitomize Kipling's genius: he had an extraordinary capacity to imagine, to make real to his readers, stories of great meaning and feeling derived from the most disparate and fantastic elements. I know of no modern writer remotely comparable.
Redux: Latin. Brought back, returned. *
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
The epitaph of Yeats should be an admonitory motto for historians. It is very difficult to be so objective, as I know in my own case. Of course, I make no claim to be an historian, but I try to be objective about the Civil War, even as I am aware of my predispositions, not to speak of prejudices. In my college chapel on the wall behind the altar in gold letters on a white ground were listed the names of graduates who had died in the Civil War with the dates and places of their deaths. Every Sunday evening I read those typically homely American names - Shiloh, Bull Run, Gaines Mill, Kenesaw Mountain, Brandy Station - names that resonate in my mind, echoing the passions of those terrible four years. Lincoln said it: "We cannot escape history." And we cannot escape trying to understand it, despite the burden of our feelings. Yeats was right, of course, but when I recall those humble names, picked out in golden letters, I knew how difficult it is, for me, anyway. What I intend to do in this essay is to examine some books about the Civil War and the South in the light of Yeats' epitaph.
The Civil War has fascinated me from my earliest years - I have told in another place how, at the age of seven, I memorized the Gettysburg Address as well as "O Captain, My Captain" (and never told anyone!) - just as it has fascinated so many other Americans. As Whitman said, it is our Trojan War, but he was mistaken when he thought American Homers would arise to celebrate it. There is Whitman's "Lilacs" and "O Captain" and the short poems in Drum Taps, Melville wrote some characteristically somber poems about it, and there is Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Crane's Red Badge, but otherwise not much. Not that writers haven't tried. Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is regarded with respect, but not by me. No, the major Civil War literature has come, not from our imaginative writers but from historians and memoirists.
My own interests have developed over the course of more than 70 years as I have read and reread those memoirs and histories. I am always going back to Bruce Catton's volumes, which seem to me the best of the general histories because he is always alert to the significance of what he chronicles; he makes explicit the larger issues behind the battles and personalities. Too many histories are merely accounts of battles and maneuvers. Not that that isn't interesting in itself, just as the story of evolving tactics, logistics, and strategy is absorbing. For instance, my conception of Grant's military genius has grown greatly as I have studied and restudied his campaigns, just as I have come to see Lee's brilliance as largely irrelevant. (I can hear already my readers' protests, but they must possess their souls in patience: I'll discuss everything before I'm done.)
What stirred me to write this essay were some books by Brady MacWhiney: Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Cracker Culture, Confederate Crackers and Cavaliers, Southerners and Other Americans. Only the first two were conceived as books, the others are essay collections. He felt that Southern historians betrayed - what? their craft or their region? - when they seemed, in his eyes, to embrace what he thought of as the Northern version of Southern history. The ambiguity - craft or region? - is significant, and I'll discuss it in a minute, but one way of getting at it is to consider the history he writes. A convenient place to start is his essay on Jefferson Davis, which is very sympathetic, praising Davis for retaining his faith in secession until his death. I should think an historian sympathetic to the South would recognize that secession was a disaster for the region, an utterly stupid idea. Historians have often pointed out the material odds against the South in terms of population and resources, but few have pointed out what a lunatic idea it was in itself. Even if the Federal Government had done nothing, the Confederacy would not have lasted long: the world price of cotton was falling as new sources of supply were being developed, investors were not interested in agricultural speculation, and the Southerners had mixed feelings about resource and manufacturing development. Serious economic decline would have ensued, exacerbating the fissiparous tendencies in the Confederate States, defeating Davis's national project. Even under the pressure of war, state's rights were a growing problem for the Richmond government. Of course, historians have to explain the reasoning of the actors of the time, have to assess sympathetically their ideas and assumptions, but to express admiration for Davis's lifelong delusion seems to me a betrayal of the historian's role in favor of regional solidarity.
MacWhiney is guilty of a much greater lapse in Cracker Culture. Readers will recall my essay on D. H. Fisher's Albion's Seed, that sweeping historical synthesis that describes the four great waves of migration from the British Isles to the New World: Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and the Borderers, Fisher's name for those from the English-Scottish borderlands and Ulster across the Irish Sea. These were the poor whites of the Southern backcountry, MacWhiney's Crackers, who he describes very well in chapters devoted to specific subjects, like Violence, Hospitality, and Pleasures, and so on. But his account lacks the breadth and precision of Fisher's. It is a big mistake, for instance, to assume that Crackers comprised the whole Southern populace when in fact Cavaliers, fostered by Governor Berkeley in Virginia in the 17th century, dominated the tidewater South. Thanks to his regional loyalties, MacWhiney winds up defending some of the worst aspects of Cracker culture. The chapter on education, for instance, accurately describes the absence of adequate schooling, the illiteracy and general indifference, if not hostility, to learning, but by the end of the chapter he implicitly excuses these conditions and attitudes:
Most Crackers seemed reasonably content with their place in this world. . . . Unburdened by a work ethic and unhurried by driving ambition, they treasured the ways of their forefathers and were satisfied to live out their lives innocent of different skills.
MacWhiney consistently sets up a caricature of a relentlessly workaholic joyless "Yankee" as the Cracker's opposite. It is fine for a Cracker to prefer the skills of the "hunter, fisher, fighter, and fiddler" to those of the "scribbler, reader, and figurer," but MacWhiney forgets that these roles are not mutually exclusive, and by saying so he is condemning Crackers to a life of ignorance of the wider world.
Negro slavery is never mentioned. Surely a chapter should have been devoted to the Cracker's complex attitudes toward the institution. Perhaps Cracker culture wouldn't have seemed so cheerfully lackadaisical then. I have focused on MacWhiney because he is obviously a good historian who is able to see things as they are - Cracker Culture is beautifully written and argued (I recommend it highly) - but even he cannot escape the fatal conceit that the South, despite all its flaws, was somehow superior to the materialistic North and was, by brute force, made its victim. MacWhiney conflates defense of the region with historical integrity.
I have been reconsidering another writer on the Civil War: Edmund Wilson, about whom I have written before, when I concentrated on his anti-American, pro-Communist views, mentioning them in the introduction to his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War, an embarrassing assertion of his belief that nations are no more than entities of power projection, animals like voracious sea slugs, but now I want to focus on the text itself, on the chapters about the memoirs of Grant and Sherman in particular (which I recommend highly). Wilson was not a historian, but instead of that making him cautious about his sources, it seems to have given him license to roam at will. So he repeats the long-discredited account by Sylvanus Cadwallader of Grant's drunken binges at various times during the Vicksburg campaign. A more serious lapse is his failure to understand the motivations of men like Grant and Sherman. He thinks they "were inspired by the political ideal which Walt Whitman and others called 'Unionism,'" a condescending way to put it, and he says specifically of Sherman:
. . . we feel that he is constantly sustained by a genuine indignation against the "disloyalty" of the rebels. . . .
(Wilson's scare quotes). It is not well understood that the "Unionism" of which Wilson speaks so slightingly was an almost mystical faith in the Union, especially fostered in the North before the Civil War by the westward movement; Northerners thought of the Union, Southerners thought of their region.
Wilson describes Sherman's March as a "Grand Guignol horror" ("a demon possesses him . . . to abuse and lay waste the Confederacy") and is appalled by Sherman's blunt remarks about the war (to the Atlanta mayor: "You cannot qualify the war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it"). Wilson sees it through the lens of his introduction, as an animal voracity, the aggression which he claims was manifest in post-bellum America, the Gilded Age, which Wilson all his life condemned as an orgy of materialism which, he claimed, thrust aside genteel Americans (like Wilson's forebears) in favor of "robber barons." Wilson does not see, as Sherman clearly did, that the delusions of the Southerners were so deeply ingrained that they had to be made to feel all the horrors of war directly in their lives, they had to see his army burning a path of destruction right through the vitals of the Confederacy before they would admit defeat. It is well to recall Mrs. Chesnut's Diary From Dixie in which, soon after Sumter, she vehemently declares that every Southerner, including women, will fight to the death, with broomsticks if necessary. Sherman's March takes Mrs. Chesnut at her word (Wilson discusses the Diary, but not this passage).
Wilson really has no interest in the military aspect of the War, and he completely misses Grant's strategic genius and the significance of the partnership of Grant and Sherman. Of course, Grant's memoir is, like the man, understated and undramatic, so to appreciate the story it tells one needs to be familiar with the course of the war and the behavior of other generals. Now we can see the pattern of Grant's generalship (the most discerning book about this is the five volume Lincoln Finds a General, by Kenneth Williams): after taking Fort Henry he quickly moved on Fort Donelson despite Halleck's caution. He thought of battles as part of a campaign, and he believed, as all great generals do, in his success (think of George Patton in World War II). His masterly Vicksburg campaign, in which he crossed the Mississippi with only five day's rations and ammunition wagons, showed his ability to fight dashing battles of maneuver until he had Pemberton besieged. Sherman was against it, but Grant believed, correctly, that he could live off the country, thus showing Sherman the way for his March the next year.
It was the war in Virginia that received the most attention, then and thereafter, for obvious reasons: both capitals were there, the clashes were frequent and dramatic, and General Lee commanded the scene with his brilliant tactical maneuvers and repeated defeats of the Army of the Potomac. Until 1864 the war in Virginia was fought as it had been from the beginning, a matter of thrust and parry, of sharply defined battles and rest periods. It's a wonderful war to read about. But the Civil War was really won in the West, and when its strategy was brought to bear in Virginia when Grant crossed the Rapidan in May 1864, Lee and his type of warfare was finished. Discrete battles became parts of a campaign, and when Lee was pinned behind Richmond's defenses, it was only a matter of time, as the grand strategy of the two Western generals was set on its relentless course: Grant held Lee in place while Sherman demonstrated the Confederacy's impotence by marching unimpeded through its heartland. Grant's relentlessness was shown at the very end: Meade intended to pursue Lee when he left Petersburg, but Grant insisted Sheridan go on to get ahead of Lee, which he did at Appomattox Station.
Well, I did not start out to re-fight the Civil War, but all the while I have been thinking of objectivity. I think MacWhiney was unconscious of his fault, and Wilson was in the grip of a fixed idea mixed up with his anti-Americanism. MacWhiney is worth reading and Wilson is not. The reason I got to discussing strategy is that I think the history of the war has been distorted by overemphasis on the Virginia battles. Lee had to be opposed, of course, and battles had to be fought, but when the Western idea of a campaign came East, Lee was doomed. Fascinating as Lee's tactics were (although no one seems to see that his orders to Pickett on July 3 were incredibly stupid), the real war was elsewhere, and objectivity would be fostered if we recognized that. *