Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is best known as one of those officers and gentlemen who served in the trenches in World War I and emerged as an antiwar poet, like the better-known Wilfred Owen (killed just before the Armistice). He published sixteen books of poetry, but I think he is more likely to be remembered over the long haul for his semi-fictional autobiography, Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man (1928). That requires some explanation. He wrote a trilogy - the fox-hunting volume as well as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston's Progress - about a character named George Sherston, but when he later wrote his autobiography, also a trilogy, it was seen that the fiction closely followed his life. It seems most sensible (and illuminating) to treat the fox-hunting volume - the best of the lot - as fiction, as Sassoon intended.
This is the opening:
My childhood was a queer and not altogether happy one. Circumstances conspired to make me shy and solitary. My father and mother died before I was capable of remembering them. I was an only child, entrusted to the care of an unmarried aunt who lived quietly in the country.
The rest of the paragraph briefly describes the aunt's sedentary life. Then we quickly move to Mr. Star, George's tutor, and Tom Dixon the groom, the most important character in the boy's life who, not many pages later, induces Aunt Evelyn to buy a pony for George, and who steers him toward fox-hunting. At the end of the fourth paragraph the narrator describes his relationship with Dixon, thereby also describing genteel society in pre-war England, with its marked social distinctions.
But it was Dixon who taught me to ride, and my admiration for him was unqualified. And since he was what I afterwards learned to call "a perfect gentleman's servant," he never allowed me to forget my position as "a little gentlemen": he always knew exactly when to become discreetly respectful. In fact, he "knew his place."
Consider how far we've gone in just two pages: George's circumstances have been defined and the principal actors in his life have been introduced and incisively described, and it has all been done with an easy grace that is scintillating, alerting, and interesting the reader. Probably because of his experience as a poet, Sassoon's style might be called essential; there is nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, and while the narrative moves swiftly, we never feel that it's inadequate. This is a writer who chooses words very carefully, so as to be quietly very effective.
The plot seems simple, but it required clever management on the author's part. Let me briefly describe the first movement, as it were: seven pages from the opening sentence, George gets a pony at age nine; eleven pages and three years later he goes with Dixon to his first hunt. That takes up nine pages, and five pages later he goes to his second hunt, described in four pages. The next chapter opens with his return from boarding school for the summer vacation, going on to describe his triumph in a local cricket match. The transition from winter fox-hunting to summer cricket, with an unremarked hiatus of intervening years is startling at first, but we are soon caught up in George's world. Earlier, Sassoon is frank about his interest and procedure:
Since the continuity of these memoirs is to depend solely on my experiences as a sportsman, I need not waste many words on the winter, spring, summer, and autumn that chronologically followed the last episode. . . .
The next chapter opens with another return of George, now twenty-two, this time from Cambridge, which he has quit in disgust, and again he is involved in cricket. In October, Dixon induces him to buy a hunter, a horse intended for the fox-hunting (he has owned only ponies before), and George begins his real involvement with fox-hunting. The chapter is called "A Fresh Start" and so it is, but the most remarkable aspect of the author's management of the narrative is that the book has been so imbued with the aura of fox-hunting, and we have been so focused on the boy's physical prowess (as in cricket), that it takes an effort of thought to realize that a decade has passed since his last hunt (only his second), and in the intervening years we have been in his company for only six or seven months! Sassoon's writing is masterly in creating the illusion.
I need not go into detail about the rest of the book. In the next six chapters the interest in maintained by having George go to different hunts where he encounters new landscapes and new people, improves his horsemanship enough to win two point to point races, but is nearly as diffident as ever:
I was quite sure that I should make a fool of myself. . . . As I remember and write, I grin, but not unkindly, at my distant and callow self and the absurdities which constitute this chronicle.
Throughout, we are impressed and charmed by George's openness to experience, by his freshness of perception:
As the service proceeded I glanced furtively around me at the prudent Sunday-like faces of the congregation
. . . .
My memory of that summer returns like a bee that comes buzzing into a quiet room where the curtains are drawn on a blazing hot afternoon.
. . . .
[Riding past an old Queen Anne house] "I am riding past the past," I think, never dreaming that I shall one day write that moment down on paper; never dreaming that I shall be clarifying and condensing that chronicle of simple things through which I blundered so diffidently.
Appropriately, the climax of George's fox-hunting experience is his companionship with the Master of a first class hunt in the Midlands in the winter of 1913-14, just a few months before war breaks out. The last two chapters, "In the Army" and "At the Front," inaugurate a new phase of George's experience and definitively end his fox-hunting career. The severing of his ties to that world - and that's the way he thinks of it:
I thought of [it] as the only one worth belonging to. And it was (though a limited one) a clearly defined world. . . .
- is done very adroitly and tellingly. "In The Army" finds George in a cavalry outfit with links to his past because he knows many of the officers from fox-hunting. His horse, requisitioned by the army, is part of the outfit. But he soon manages to shift to a more businesslike unit where he goes to Officer Training, and finally, the front. As he says:
The Yeomanry would have been more comfortable for me if none of the officers had known me before I joined. I now felt strongly in favor of getting right away from my old associations.
Then he learns that a close friend from his hunting days has been killed, and finally Dixon, who had enlisted in the Veterinary Corps, dies of pneumonia. His old fox-hunting world is definitely dead. On leave, George meets an old country friend:
. . . we'd talked about Dixon, who had been such an old friend of his. "Ay; Tom was a good chap; I've never known a better. . . ." He had said good-bye and good-night and set his horse going again. As he turned the corner the past had seemed to go with him.
I chose this book to discuss not only because I think it's a wonderful read, but because I want to point a lesson: too often, in elucidating a book's contents, we ignore the way the contents are presented. I have complained more than once about conservatives praising badly written books because they like the message, pointing out that the message cannot be separated from the medium and that a lousy book does not expand your horizons but narrows them. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man has no message beyond itself; its content would seem to have little interest for any Review reader. What do you or I care about fox-hunting or the genteel life in prewar England? My point is that Sassoon makes you interested in those subjects because the book is brilliantly conceived, arranged, and written, and his style is precise, elegant, and deeply perceptive. I've quoted a lot in this essay, but here's more to make my point:
The umpires are in their places. But it is in the sunshine of my own clarified retrospection that they are wearing their white coats. While I was describing them I had forgotten that they have both of them been dead for many years.
. . . .
Such was the impermanent fabric as it unfolded: memory enchants even the dilatory little train journey which carried my expectant simplicity into the freshness of a country seen for the first time. All the sanguine guesswork of youth is there, and the silliness; all the novelty of being alive and impressed by the urgency of tremendous trivialities.
I want my readers to be sensitive to such writing, and to realize that a book can be read just for the sheer pleasure of the words and how they are put together to create a character and a world.
In the next issue: Robinson Crusoe. *
I'm speaking of the Bible, of course, but note the plural. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are packed with amazing stories, cunningly told. Think of the adventures and wanderings of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Laban, of Jacob and Esau, of Joseph and his brothers, of Jacob's wrestling with the angel, of Saul and the Witch of Endor, of David and Absalom, of Samson and Delilah, and so on and on. As centuries of commentaries have shown, these stories, like all good stories, are full of meanings. What I want to do in this essay is to show you the rewards that careful reading of these wonderful stories, prodigies of compression and implication, can yield to an attentive reader.
I must admit that my thinking owes much to my wife Jo Ann, a garden writer (The Old Fashioned Fruit Garden, Living with Herbs, The Heirloom Garden, Herbs in Bloom, Elegant Silvers, Gardens of Use & Delight) now completing a book about the ways the material life in the land influenced the ancient Hebrews. For instance, the pastoral life (think of the Twenty-Third Psalm), embodied in the careers of the Patriarchs like Abraham, created certain mores, patterns of thought and behavior that we can trace in the religious conceptions and laws. Since Jo Ann has been working on this manuscript for nearly two years and we always discuss our writing together, I have been thinking about this subject and how to introduce it to my readers for some time, and I think the best way to do it is to analyze the Book of Ruth, a short (just four chapters) and simple story, easily summarized: Naomi, a native of Bethlehem, long resident in Moab on the east side of the Jordan, now widowed and bereft of her two sons, returns to Bethlehem with one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth a Moabitess. Since Ruth is poor and a stranger, she is entitled by Jewish law to glean in the grain fields after harvest, which she does in the fields of Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi by marriage, (hence a kinsman of Ruth, too). Boaz instructs the reapers to drop grain for her deliberately, and when she returns home at the end of the day, she has two thirds of a bushel! Naomi sees opportunity and tells Ruth to spruce herself up and go to the threshing floor at night and cuddle up to Boaz, which she does. Next day Boaz goes to the city gate, and after making sure that a nearer kinsman, while willing to redeem Naomi's land, is unwilling to take Ruth, the way is cleared for him to marry her, and so she becomes the grandmother of King David.
Now let's look more closely at the narrative, and remember that these stories were told for generations before they were written down, and a folk audience would be alert to the slightest nuance, so imagine yourself listening to the words. It opens with the migration of Elimelech and Naomi because "there was a famine in the land" (1:1). (All citations from King James Version.) We know that, because the lands on the west side of the Jordan tended to be drier than those on the east side (Moab, present-day Jordan), they were subject to drought, so such migrations, more or less temporary, were common. In other words, the audience knows this is a commonplace event in a world familiar to them. After the deaths of her sons (her husband died some time before), Naomi hears that the famine at home is over ("The Lord had visited his people in giving them bread") (1:6), and determines to return, telling her daughters-in-law to go back to their mothers' homes. They weep and insist on accompanying her, but finally Naomi persuades Orpah to go back, and Ruth makes the extraordinary statement " . . . wither thou goest, I will go . . . thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (1:16). This whole episode is very important in setting the tone of the narrative. Note what Naomi says, charged with feeling, when she first tells them to go home:
The Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice and wept (1:8,9).
When they still persist, she says she has no more sons for them. "It grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me" (1:13). The first scene, then, is filled with emotion: the love between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, the tearful parting, Ruth's ringing declaration of fidelity, Naomi's implied bitterness at her bereft condition.
When they get to Bethlehem, the town is stirred with curiosity, and when they ask "Is this Naomi?" she is very harsh. "Call me not Naomi [pleasant], call me Mara [bitter]: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me" (1:20), and her grief is insisted on at the end of the chapter.
The first chapter can readily be seen in dramatic terms, and each scene is emotionally charged: Naomi's parting from her daughters-in-law, Ruth's moving declaration, Naomi's bitterness. Climatically, they arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest, a very significant event in Israel's agricultural cycle, celebrated religiously (it is associated with Passover). Looked at from the point of the view of the audience, the scene is momentously set.
The next chapter opens with the news that Boaz, Naomi's kinsman, is a mighty man of wealth, and Ruth asks Naomi's permission to go to glean. Here is where an explanation will help the uninstructed reader. In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy there are laws of gleaning (elaborated in the Talmud), a procedure by which "the stranger, the widow, and the orphan" shall gain some subsistence from the harvest. For instance, the harvester must leave the field's corners unreaped - but how large (or small) must the corners be? Well, there are laws that govern that. Anyway, Ruth goes gleaning "in the field after the reapers" and they are Boaz's fields. The audience of Hebrew villagers listening to the story would immediately know that she was violating the etiquette of gleaning: women were not supposed to follow the reapers or mix with men; they could glean only after men had gleaned, and only in the company of other women. So when Boaz appears, he notices the woman and asks about her. The overseer identifies her as
. . . the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi" (2:6). (Throughout Ruth is so designated, emphasizing her situation as an alien, which is very important in the ultimate meaning of the story.) Boaz notices Ruth because she's out of place, but it soon becomes clear that he knows who she is, and the alert reader will suspect that he is already attracted to her. He tells her to "abide here fast by my maidens," and adds "have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee" (2:8,9).
Ruth's strong reaction:
Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that you shouldst take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger? (2:10)
. . . is explained by the woman's situation: notice that the people of Bethlehem express no warmth toward Naomi on her return, only curiosity, and the fact that gleaning is for the poor and strangers and widows defines their situation, just as Naomi's bitter outburst about her name overshadows their return. And everyone, including Ruth, emphasizes that she is a stranger, a Moabitess.
Boaz's answer is magnificent, the dramatic turning point in the story. He says he knows how loving she has been to Naomi and how she cleaved to her "and art come unto a people which you knowest not heretofore" (2:11). Ruth responds graciously, again stressing her alien status, " . . . thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though I be not like unto one of thine handmaidens" (2:13). Boaz invites her to the house at mealtime where she sits beside the reapers and he gives her food (both signs of favor). Afterwards he tells the reapers to let her glean among the sheaves (another irregularity), and even to let fall some grain deliberately. At the end of the day Ruth winnows out "about one ephah of barley" (2:17). She brings the extraordinary amount home to Naomi, and also gives her the leftovers of parched grain from her meal with Boaz. Naomi, very pleased with Ruth's account of her day, says of Boaz, "Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead" (2:20), stressing the theme of loving kindness. So Ruth continued gleaning and "kept fast by the maidens of Boaz" (2:23) through the barley and wheat harvests, about seven weeks (Shavuot in the Hebrew calendar, Pentecost in the Christian calendar).
Chapter three opens with Naomi's scheme to unite Ruth and Boaz. She tells Ruth to dress up and go surreptitiously to the threshing floor, watch out for Boaz, and when he has done eating and drinking and gone to lie down, then "uncover his feet and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do" (3:4). Naomi's psychology is astute. "And when Boaz had eaten and drank, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down" (3:7). Note "merry." He's a little tipsy. He awakes at midnight, discovers a woman at his feet, and asks "Who art thou?" (3:9), and Ruth's answer is essentially a proposal:
I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman (3:9).
Boaz is grateful, flattered:
. . . thou hast showed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as you followedest not young men . . . (3:10).
They lie together the rest of the night (she leaves before dawn - "let it not be known that a woman came into the floor" (3:14) - with her shawl stuffed with barley), and although the whole scene is sexually charged, I (and most commentators) do not think their union is consummated that night. Boaz explains that a kinsman has a duty to a widow to marry her so her husband's name will not die out of the tribe, but there is a nearer kinsman, so in the last chapter we see the final scene at the city gate when Boaz challenges the other kinsman to buy Naomi's land (from her deceased husband), and when the man says he'll redeem it, thus keeping the land in the tribe, Boaz adds that he must also marry Ruth "the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance" (her offspring will bear the name of her first husband). The man rejects Ruth, perhaps because she's a Moabite ("Lest I mar my own inheritance" 4:6). The people, now warm to Ruth, bless the union with Boaz. And Naomi is fulfilled in the end with the birth of Ruth's son:
And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it (4:16).
The dramatic organization here is intricate and very satisfying. In the beginning Naomi is at the dramatic center, making the decision to return to Bethlehem, sending her daughters-in-law on their way, and her character is strong, infused with loving kindness. Naomi provides the base upon which the rest of the story will rest. Then Ruth makes her amazing declaration and becomes the character to watch, although Naomi is a dramatic presence at the chapter's end with her bitter lament at being bereft.
For the rest of the book, Ruth takes center stage (with Naomi in the background as stage manager), although Boaz is a commanding figure at the city gate. At the end, the trajectory of Naomi's dramatic career comes to rest with Ruth's baby in her arms. So we can say that the whole story is about Naomi, but Ruth is the spirited heroine, the stranger who violates the laws and is rewarded for it! If one of the themes of this book is loving kindness, another might be described in the phrase, "The ethical impulse breaks the ethical law." That's why Ruth's Moabite origin is stressed, to make this theme even stronger.
I hope you've learned that while it is useful to know what the original audience would know, like the laws of gleaning and Levirate marriage (kinsman marrying a childless widow), it is not essential. By paying close attention to the text we not only enjoy a remarkable dramatic story, but we also understand it, and gain new respect for the Bible, and for the people who created these stories and bequeathed them to us.
In the next issue: Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. *
When I began this series I knew I would have to write about Charles Dickens (1812-70), but I kept putting it off, knowing how difficult the task would be. How could I work up the skill to describe such a protean writer? How could I convince the audience of the value of reading Dickens without turning the essay into a mass of quotations?
Although he wrote much else (he was a journalist for all his working life), it is for his fifteen novels, beginning with The Pickwick Papers in 1837 and ending with the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood thirty-three years later, that he will always be celebrated. In them he embodied both himself and the age; reading them you are scanning Dickens as well as the times. Not that he parades himself or writes autobiographical novels (aside from David Copperfield), but his vibrant character, with all his tremendous vitality, pervades everything he wrote. All his experience, transmogrified by his creative imagination, lives in his books.
The outstanding characteristic of Dicken's books is their life. I do not mean liveliness (although they are lively enough); I mean that every page is instinct with life, even when he's writing conventional descriptions (as in some of his early work), life that the reader senses in the language, the pacing, and in the characters, because Dickens himself was extraordinarily alive. We feel this especially in his rich cast of characters (he created some two thousand), his most enduring literary gift; we may forget plot details, but we never forget his characters. I believe that great novels depend on great characters, that the most essential gift of a writer is his ability to create interesting characters. It is characteristic of modern, condescending critics that they should disparage this gift, complaining that they are "flat," stock figures with one or two characteristics which they repeat whenever they appear. They are contrasted to "round" characters, who display the complexity of real people. The first thing to say about this criticism is that Dickens' two dimensional characters are not that flat, as comparison with the deliberate caricatures of Americans in Martin Chuzzlewit will show. Jefferson Brick and Colonel Driver, Lafayette Kettle, General Choke, the Mother of the Modern Gracchi, and so on, make up a glorious company of fools, and knaves brilliantly limned by Dickens as caricatures, clearly distinct from Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp, Vincent Crummles and the Mantalinis, wonderful creations from Chuzzlewit as well as Nicholas Nickleby, who act as they do because they must, it is their nature. Tom Sawyer will illustrate this. In Huck Finn he plays the Mischievous Boy, a cliche. He is a shallow conformist, one who knows how far to go in going too far, and that's all he is. That's why he's kept out of the profound chapters when Huck and Jim are alone on the raft. We have all met people like him. In his '"flatness" he displays his "roundness" -- the character as he plays it is himself in all his dimensions.
Thus it is in life. How many people do we know who are "round"? Most of our acquaintances are "flat" in the sense that they exhibit a limited number of characteristics that we depend on to make our social intercourse possible. If we did not perceive people in simplified terms, if they did not present themselves like that, it would be difficult to maintain relationships. I may think of myself as a fascinatingly complex fellow, but I know very well that I appear to others as a man of a few gestures and attitudes, a garrulous old man.
It must be admitted, however, that Dickens' characters are not deep. We care about them, they touch us, but they do not move us deeply as Huck or Anna Karenina or Lord Jim do. Their great virtue is their vitality.
Let us see how that vitality combined with the writing itself makes a book live. The opening scene of Great Expectations takes place in the church yard beside the marshes where Pip, seven and small for his age, is looking at the graves of his parents and five little brothers, when an escaped convict, Magwitch, seizes him and makes the boy promise to bring him food and a file on the morrow. Magwitch threatens him:
There's a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open. I am keeping that young man from harming of you at the present moment, with great difficulty.
Pip's constant fear is made evident throughout the chapter:
Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young under terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the iron leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted.
So we are immediately drawn into the book, not just by characters and events, but by the writing, by the way everything is presented. There are three mentalities, three forms of consciousness operating here. The first is Pip's, shown by his terror in the passage just quoted. The essence of a child's fear is its absoluteness, undiluted by other thoughts and anxieties, as it would be in an adult's mind. Thus are we made fully aware of the child's consciousness. At the same time, we know that a grownup Pip is telling the story and looking back at his childish self. Note the first sentence in that last quotation, where this is explicit. Now we are aware of a second consciousness, mitigating our fears about Pip; we know he will survive and surmount his difficulties. There is a third consciousness there, the reader's. Magwitch's bloodthirsty description of the "young man" in the first quote has shown us that he is putting on an act, easing our concern before the older Pip does. Our reading of Magwitch's speech does it. So we are aware of the seven-year-old's feelings and of his consciousness of the people and events around him; we have the adult Pip's consciousness of the same things, showing them in another light, but unobtrusively so as not to override for us young Pip's perceptions. Finally, we have our own consciousness of everything, including Pip the boy and the man.
What this does is create, in a restricted space -- churchyard, home, marsh -- with a limited cast (four main characters), and in a short time (twenty-four hours), a thick narrative, rich in feeling, and awareness, that pulls us into the novel. Understand that Dickens did not carefully construct it. We know from his manuscripts that he usually did little emendation and revision. His creative process seemed to work like this: with the rudiments of a story and theme in mind, he went about his incredibly energetic life, absorbing scenes and experiences, and when he began to write everything flowed out of him, now fitted to the story, vivid experiences as he lived them in words.
Ages ago when I was a "Perfesser," I was listening to a colleague bloviate about the exalted qualities of literature when another interrupted him to say:
Dickens' morality is sentimentality, his plots are melodramas, his characters are two-dimensional, his language is journalistic, but he's the greatest English novelist!
I think he exaggerated Dickens' faults, but it is certainly true that Dickens has those faults -- not all at once and not all the time, but there are pages, even chapters in his novels, including the best ones, you will want to skip. Recently I reread Our Mutual Friend and found some of the last chapters unbearably cloying. Nevertheless, he is the greatest English novelist. Playing the ranking game can be silly, but it can also be illuminating. You have to consider the qualities you value, and you have to justify your valuation, and then you have to show how the writer exhibits those qualities. People with class pretensions have always tried to put him down, preferring dull writers like George Eliot, because they think he's vulgar. And so he is, thank God!
I have ranked the novels, not to play a judge's part, but as a helpful guide, hoping my readers will be encouraged to take them up. I read them twice to my family over a period of years. The best ones are built around a well-thought-out story with a strong theme embodied in a varied cast of interesting characters, and these are David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Great Expectations with Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend close behind, followed by Dombey and Son. I visualize these books as great dark mansions with large halls and cozy little corners, winding staircases, high-ceilinged chambers and sunny parlors, attics filled with old trunks, musty cellars, and jolly kitchens, all echoing with the voices of numberless fascinating people. Enjoyable as the early novels are, they fall short of the top class because, lacking strong story lines, they are episodic, their themes are immature, and some of the vivid characters run away with the story. Nevertheless, they are very enjoyable. The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzelwit, and Oliver Twist fall into this category. The Old Curiosity Shop has some merit, but its central sentimentality is hard for modern readers to take. Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities seem to me the least characteristic and rewarding of his works. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is very interesting, and its tight, ironic style marks a startling departure for Dickens, but it was unfinished at his death. You could start with Pickwick and the early novels and then go on to Copperfield and the rest, or you could start with the best ones of his maturity and then go on to Pickwick and so on. But start somewhere!
Dickens' novels differ widely, and his total output presents the most varied aspect of any novelist I can think of, but one quality they all share -- vitality. *
"To say that the United States should be answerable for twenty-five millions of dollars without knowing whether the ways and means can be provided, and without knowing whether those who are to succeed us will think with us on the subject, would be rash and unjustifiable. Sir, in my opinion, it would be hazarding the public faith in a manner contrary to every idea of prudence." --James Madison
It is unusual to find a book written about life in the countryside, here or elsewhere, now or in the past, that is both objective and sympathetic, by which I mean that the book is unswervingly honest at the same time that the writer shows he or she understands and cares about what he sees. Too often, countryside books are falsified by sentimentality, or else ignorance spoils it all. I have an excellent book in mind that I think my readers would find enjoyable and illuminating. Lark Rise to Candleford is well known -- there's a Penguin Modern Classics edition -- but mainly by those interested in the history of the English countryside. In fact, it has a much wider appeal.
The book comprises a trilogy -- Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941), and Candleford Green (1943) -- written by Flora Thompson (1876-1947) about her childhood and adolescence. It gives a close account of working class life in a hamlet, and later a village, from 1880 to 1900, with shadowy glimpses of a past reaching back to the early 1800s, with hints of further changes already at work there. Its great value derives from the author's character as an observer; when she came to write about that life she understood its significance, that it represented an immemorial way of living and thinking that would soon vanish. One of the finest qualities of the book is that while the author is present as a character (called Laura), she is not thrust forward, she does not obscure what she sees. That is very rare.
The hamlet (Lark Rise) in which she is born is only a few scattered humble cottages, plus an inn, in the midst of plowed fields, but it has a history traceable in a few of the cottages and oldest inhabitants. At the beginning of the 19th century those fields were an unplowed commons where the country people had commoner's rights to graze animals and use various wild products. Laura becomes friends with Sally, an 80-year-old who can just recall the commons and whose present circumstances, a bit more prosperous than her neighbors', are ultimately due to that former life because her parents had been able, thanks to their use of the commons, to keep a cow, geese, poultry, pigs, and a donkey cart to carry produce to the market town. Sally and her husband raised all their own food, just as the other cottagers did, but the difference was the money earned and saved by her parents. Laura's friendships create a context for the present, showing the evolution of country life: a semi-independent peasantry has become a dependent working class.
Her description of Lark Rise is thorough, exact, lively, and fascinating even to one who, like myself, has known that kind of life. Inevitably, there's much discussion of food. Tea, the one hot meal of the day, consisted of a bit of bacon from their own pig, garden vegetables, and a roly-poly pudding made from flour ground from gleanings of the manor farm's wheat fields, as in Biblical times (cf. The Book of Ruth). Other meals were usually bread spread with lard and any greens from the garden (in summer) or homemade jam. After a couple of pages about poverty in the hamlet and how they struggled to make ends meet, she ends the chapter:
But for that generation there was still a small picking left to supplement the weekly wage. They had their home-cured bacon, their "bit o' leazings," their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet.
The first chapters of the next volume, Over to Candleford, quickly go back over the earlier ground, but with a different emphasis, paying more attention to her parents. The scene soon shifts to Candleford, a small town where Laura has two uncles and aunts and several cousins. Her favorite, the one she spends some weeks with in the following summers, is Uncle Tom, a shoemaker, an independent craftsman whose life is described as a "halfway house between the gorgeous establishment of their other uncle and their own humble home." Laura loves to read, and Tom engages her to read to him while he works in his shop, an enlightening experience in itself, but there she also meets his eccentric friends. The interesting thing about these details is that she merely records them, sympathetically as always, but she does not push herself forward, explaining the effect of these people on herself, which is one of the reasons we trust her.
She has this very telling observation about the difference between the hamlet and Candleford:
What impressed Laura most about Candleford, on that first holiday there, was that, every day, there was something new to see or do or find out and new people to see and talk to and new places to visit, and this gave a colour and richness to life to which she was unaccustomed.
Candleford is a country town, but there is a village a couple of miles away called Candleford Green, and the postmistress there, a friend of Laura's mother, hires her as a sort of apprentice, and there she goes at the age of fourteen. Laura's descriptive powers bring to vivid life the quiet country post office, the house and its inmates, and the village, which she neatly differentiates from Lark Rise:
In the hamlet there lived only one class of people; all did similar work, all were poor and all equal. The population of Candleford Green was more varied. It had a clergyman of its own and doctor and independent gentlewomen who lived in superior cottages with stabling attached, and artisans and labourers who lived in smaller and poorer ones, though none so small and poor as those of the hamlet. Then there were shopkeepers and the schoolmaster and a master builder and the villa people who lived on the new building estate outside the village, most of whom worked in Candleford town, a couple of miles away. The village was a little world in itself; the hamlet was but a settlement.
The rest of the book is her description of this "little world" until she leaves it a few years later.
Although the book's reputation is chiefly due to the observations of English country life at that time and place, its greatest virtue is the character of the author herself, implicit in what and how she sees. Every book, no matter its subject, is a picture of its author. I have mentioned her unusual combination of objectivity and sympathy. Read this:
Every day throughout the summer, she sat there "watching the bees." She was combining duty and pleasure, for, if they swarmed, she was making sure of not losing the swarm; and if they did not, it was still, as she said, "a trate" to sit there, feeling the warmth of the sun, smelling the flowers, and watching "the craturs" go in and out of the hives.
That's a true picture, certainly, but notice how the quotes -- "trate," "the craturs" -- give it not only color but feeling, conveying the warmth and simplicity of the woman. Here's another description of the same woman on the day her husband dies:
On the evening of the day he died, Edmund was round at the back of the end house banking up his rabbit-hutches with straw for the night, when he saw Queenie come out of her door and go towards her beehives. For some reason or other, Edmund followed her. She tapped on the roof of each hive in turn, like knocking at a door, and said, "Bees, bees, your master's dead, an' now you must work for your missis." Then, seeing the little boy, she explained: "I 'ad to tell 'em, you know or they'd all've died, poor craturs." So Edmund really heard bees seriously told of a death.
This is an ancient practice, whose present rarity is emphasized by the wording of the last sentence, and again, it is the deliberate quotation of Queenie's remarks, especially the one to Edmund, that gives the description its feeling for the woman.
In these remarks about herself:
After that well-merited reproof, Laura tried to be more sociable with the neighbours, but she was young and foolish, and for several years she held herself aloof from all but a few loved old friends when visiting her home. It took time and sorrow and experience of the world to teach her the true worth of the old homely virtues.
We see her judge herself without affectation or pretensions, and we recognize the qualities of honesty and sincerity that makes this such a superior account. Lark Rise to Candleford is not a great book, but it's a very good one, and I recommend it to cleanse your mind of trivia and to refresh your spirit.
Next issue: "The Incomparable Dickens" *
"When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground." --Thomas Jefferson
Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer, is the most interesting and revealing book about American culture and history that I have ever read, and I guarantee that anyone who reads it will gain a new understanding of our country. The purpose is stated in the Introduction:
Our society is dynamic, changing profoundly in every period of American history; but it is also remarkably stable. The search for the origins of this system is the central problem in American history.
The argument is enunciated a few pages later, after the four British folkways that originally settled here are named: the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borderers:
. . . the legacy of four British folkways in early America remains the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States today.
Folkways are the "normative structure of values, customs, and meanings that exist in any culture," and Fischer lists twenty-four which he will use to describe each culture, including Speech, Marriage, Child-rearing, Naming, Religious ways, Learning, Food, Dress, Work, Order, and Freedom ways. These sound dauntingly sociological but in the author's deft prose they are fascinating.
The book is organized by the different migrations: first the story of the 20,000 Puritans who came to Massachusetts from East Anglia from 1629 to 1641, then the Cavaliers who settled in Virginia and Maryland from 1642 to 1775, next the Quakers in Pennsylvania and in West Jersey from 1675 to 1725, and last the Borderers (erroneously known as Scots-Irish) who settled the southern backcountry from 1717 to 1775.
The first thing that impresses the reader is the continuity of culture between East Anglia and Massachusetts. The austere cuisine of the Puritans (e.g., baked beans) came from their anti-sensuous religious principles and from East Anglia, where baking was a major cooking way. Similarly, the well known Yankee twang is the "Norfolk whine" in a New World guise, and the saltbox house came from England, too. In the distribution of land, Puritans generally followed patterns among freeholders in East Anglian villages, except that the American distribution, in keeping with the leveling principle embedded in its founding, was more equal. Fischer is careful to show how each culture did not simply duplicate Old World ways but creatively adapted them to a new environment.
The author's discussion of the Puritan's freedom ways or ordered liberty is full and nuanced as he demonstrates its manifold meanings. In one sense it was collective as in the "liberty of Boston," where public liberty meant that they could impose restraints on themselves in their own ways (by town ordinance, for example) but would fiercely resist outside interference. A second meaning was "liberties" extended to individuals or classes but not to all. Soul liberty was freedom to serve God in the world (in a Calvinist way, of course, and no other). There was also freedom from the tyranny of circumstance -- poor laws, for instance, guaranteeing freedom from want. This Puritan conception of ordered liberty was very important in the history of America as it interacted with different conceptions of the other colonial cultures.
To move from Puritan Massachusetts to Cavalier Virginia is a very real shock, because Sir William Berkeley, royal governor for more than thirty years, deliberately shaped the colony in a royalist, hierarchical way by encouraging emigration by Royalist refugees during the English Civil War, granting them large estates, and making them the ruling class in the colony. They came from another part of England, the southwest, marked by deep inequalities and powerful oligarchies of large landowners. The immigration pattern was very different from New England, where families had predominated; in Virginia males predominated by four to one and seventy-five percent were indentured servants. This was a colony for a small elite and a large underclass.
As in the description of Puritan folkways, the reader is surprised and amused by some of the information, for example that the well known southern accent, pronunciation, and dialect came originally from southwest England where these speech ways predominate: lick for beat, bide for stay, howdy, shuck for husk, woebegone, grit for courage, flapjack, moonshine, get shut of for get rid of, jeans, chitterlings or chitlins for entrails, holler, no-count for worthless. And so the account continues, tracing the roots of vernacular architecture, family ways, predatory attitudes to women (which predated slavery and were not caused by it). Let me quote the book on cooking:
. . . highly seasoned, with much roasting, simmering, and frying . . . methods of [English] preparation called "Dorset fashion" or "Dorset cooked."
Virginia's ruling elite . . . required an underclass that would remain firmly fixed in its condition of subordination. The culture of the English countryside could not be reproduced in the New World without this rural proletariat. . . . The South was not founded to create slavery; slavery was recruited to perpetuate the South.
As for liberty, the Virginia idea was hegemonic -- control of oneself, the power to rule and not be overruled by others. Fisher explains how this is only explicable in a society that conceives relations in hierarchical terms. Applied to the self -- a "truly free man must be the master of his thoughts and acts" -- hegemonic liberty was a noble ideal, and although the hierarchical elite is long gone, "the idea of an autonomous individual, securely in command of self, is alive and flourishing."
We think of Pennsylvania and West Jersey as Quaker settlements, not only because of William Penn's foundational role and the numerical preponderance of Quakers there, but because their ideas and principles guided the colony long after their control lapsed. In fact, the area was something of a melting pot, with Welsh, Irish, German, and Dutch settlers recruited by Penn for their compatibility with Quakerism. Like the other colonists, the Quakers came from a distinct part of England, the North Midlands, where the culture made a virtue of simplicity and plain speech, and the values of both a region and a class affected the Quaker emigration. The author works through the folkways, describing Penn's background and purposes, the nature of the Quaker family, marriage and the equality of women, child raising, diet, work attitudes, wealth ways, and so on. When he tells of their dialect, I hear the speech of my childhood, for we lived in New Jersey although we are largely of Puritan descent. The culture, especially what might be called thrifty business ways, is familiar.
The Quaker way of order is particularly interesting, based as it was on mutual forbearance, social peace in which each individual was restrained from intruding on the peace of others. They were the only American colonists who believed in, and practiced, freedom of conscience. The great Liberty Bell, which we associate today with the War of Independence, was actually installed in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Penn's Charter of Privileges which guaranteed their liberty, reciprocal liberty that embraced all humanity: every liberty demanded for oneself should also be given to others.
The last and largest (one quarter million in 60 years) colonial immigration was that of the Borderers, and it was the only one launched without a consciously articulated purpose. Driven by material need from their home grounds -- England's northern borders, the Scottish lowland borders, Ulster across the Irish Sea -- in an area that had been fought over for 700 years. There was a very small elite, but most were farmers, farm laborers, and semiskilled craftsmen, a group humbler in rank than any of the other colonists, but they were remarkable for their fierce pride, an important characteristic they would carry into the backcountry -- western Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah and East Virginia, the frontiers of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. They were tough, belligerent people, as they had to be in the Border country, united for protection in clans, and their ethos served them well in the backcountry where they had to face fierce Indian antagonists, like the Cherokees. The American frontier did not shape the Borderers' culture, but it reinforced it. The archetypal frontiersman of our literature and iconography is actually a Borderer.
Fischer makes this astute observation about their childrearing ways:
Its primary purpose was to foster fierce pride, stubborn independence, and a warrior's courage in the young [male]. An unintended effect was to create a society of autonomous individuals who were unable to endure external control and incapable of restraining their rage against anyone who stood in their way.
Anyone who has lived in the backcountry knows about that. Girls, of course, were raised to be self-denying, consorts and helpmeets to their warrior husbands.
Anti-clerical but religious (Presbyterian) in a way, derived from practices on the borders, that favored camp meetings and an emotional, personal, evangelical faith. Their cuisine, modified by back country conditions (changed mutton for pork and corn for oats), was in the old tradition. So clabbered milk, potatoes, griddlecakes (unleavened dough, baked on a griddle on the open hearth) were staples. Whiskey was also an import. Another surprising revelation is that what we think of as "country western" dress style -- shirts with a yoke, tight pants, etc. -- also came from the borders, as the "dress ways of backcountry were designed to magnify sexual differences." Backcountry farming, derived from the old country, was mainly herding, but they substituted pigs for sheep and developed what became the Texas longhorn from border progenitors. It was extensive farming, herding animals in woodlands, eventually driving them long distances to lowland markets, the kind of work that's intense for short periods and then slack, which led to their much-noted "indolence." The image of the hillbilly sprawled on a cabin porch with a jug of moonshine expresses this. For all their self-reliance, land distribution was very unequal, the most extreme of all the colonies, just as it had been in the old country. As recently as the 1980s, two-thirds of the land in Appalachia was owned by five percent of the population.
There was a large rural underclass of tenants or squatters called by names -- hoosier, redneck, cracker -- derived from old border usage (surprise!), terms that meant the same mixture of poverty and pride. The question of liberty, a central concept of each colony, among such men meant "natural" liberty: minimal government, light taxes, the right of armed resistance to authority when it infringes liberty, but intolerant of dissent or disagreement.
The Conclusion, just as fascinating as what has gone before, moves forward into our history after the Revolution and so on up until the 1980s (when the book was published), demonstrating the persistence of the regional cultures by analyzing events like the Whiskey Rebellion, the Constitutional Convention, and presidential elections. Fischer adds a new dimension to our politics. And he shows how they moved out from their original settlements to spread across the continent (Borderers to the Southwest, Puritans settling the old and new NorthWest, etc.), and how later immigrants assimilated to the regional cultures where they settled. Fischer has some very interesting things to say about how cultures persist:
[It] is not the same as stasis. Many things must happen if a culture is to be transmitted from one generation to the next. . . . [It] has to be recreated anew in each generation.
Which is why we should be trying hard to restore the teaching of American history in our schools.
Let us end this essay on a note befitting the real achievement of this wonderful book.
The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another . . . [creating] a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be . . . the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be [our] most enduring legacy to the world.
In the next issue: Lark Rise to Candleford. *
It is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson
In this essay I shall discuss two writers, celebrated in their limited genres, who would never be thought of as major figures. E. F. Benson (1867-1940), one of those English men of letters who could turn his hand to any writing task, is known today for the Lucia books, six very funny novels about the rivalries and contentions among a small group of well-off citizens in a small English village. Our other author, Dornford Yates (1885-1960), wrote more than thirty novels of two types, lighthearted farces and adventure stories. We shall be concerned with the latter because they are remarkable for qualities that make them unusual in that genre.
I also want to investigate suspension of disbelief: how does a writer make us believe in, or accept, his world? That is, after all, the first task of any writer, because if the reader doesn't believe, the show's over before it has begun.
In a perceptive introduction to the Harper and Row collected edition of the Lucia books, Nancy Mitford notes a characteristic that helps to establish their reality -- their sexlessness. If you think about it, you must realize that through even the most staid novels there runs a thread of sexual interest because it cannot be avoided: the species is divided into two sexes, and nearly everything else flows from that fact. Remove all traces of sexuality and replace it with intense interest in quirks of personality, and you create a world that mimics ours, minus its one essential quality. The characters are not nullified by the absence of sex, but all their thoughts and actions are redirected, energized by their concern for trivialities as they move in a toy world. They play out their lives as caricatures where they must obey the conventions of that sort of world. They must never stand back to observe or judge it, but must relentlessly act out their allotted roles, no matter how often they repeat their lines or actions. So Irene must always be outspokenly sarcastic, Major Benjy on the lookout for a drink, Susan must always wear her sables and the Order of the British empire, and we never tire of the repetitions because we know them as puppets in a toy theater.
The central figure, the animator, in that world is Lucia, a cultural pretender who manages, by her energy and cleverness, to dominate her circle. The others often resent her, but they know that without her life would lose its savor. The readers' pleasure lies in observing her maneuvers and her pretensions. Whenever music is being played, for instance, she "puts on her Beethoven face," and she makes up Italian phrases to show fluency in the language, wholly spurious. The first book, Queen Lucia, establishes her and her set, but the second, Lucia in London, is not so successful because her magic works best in a limited provincial setting. Miss Mapp, the next volume, shifts to another village and another protagonist, the title character, a schemer like Lucia but without her good nature. This again treats the trivial happenings among a small group of middle-aged persons, but the readers feels that Benson is really setting up Mapp for conflict with Lucia, which takes place in the next book, Mapp and Lucia, continuing in the last two volumes, The Worshipful Lucia and Trouble for Lucia. These three are the best of the series, thanks to the duel between Lucia and Mapp, antagonists with "Napoleonic brains."
"Things are beginning to move, Georgie," said she . . . "Night marches, Georgie, maneuvers. Elizabeth [Mapp], of course. I'm sure I was right; she wants to run me, and if she can't (if!) she'll try to fight me. I can see glimpses of hatred and malice in her."
"And you'll fight her?" asked Georgie eagerly.
"Nothing of the kind, my dear," said Lucia. "What do you take me for? Every now and then, when necessary, I shall just give her two or three hard slaps . . ." --Mapp and Lucia
What Lucia does is to "render the trivialities of life intense for others," and so it is for the reader, who follows her Machiavellian moves with delight. "Never before had Tilling known so exciting a season."
Benson cleverly introduces two realistic characters, stand-ins for the readers, Olga Bracely, an opera singer, and Contessa, sister of one of the toy characters, and both are greatly amused by the characters' antics, impatient to hear the news on their occasional visits. Their amusement assures us of the fictional reality of Lucia et al., at the same time that it reinforces the mimic quality of the scene. Significantly, the characters are puzzled by their amusement, because it is one of the conditions of this society that they can never stand outside it, never see themselves as puppets. It is a measure of our suspension of disbelief that we never tire of the limited repertoire of the characters because we do not expect them to be of any depth. We accept them because they fit so well in their stage world. Benson achieves this by plunging us immediately into its petty intricacies which the characters never see as petty.
Tastes will differ widely over such unusual books. My wife watches me reading, laughing until the tears run, and she shakes her head sadly. But try them. If you don't begin with Queen Lucia, start with Mapp and Lucia.
Dornford Yates's novels have their flaws -- the endgame is often spun out to unconscionable length, some plot devices are overused, the involvement of women is sometimes cloying -- but, like Benson, he certainly creates a fictionally believable world, despite its essential unreality, and he does it by establishing its tone. The adventurers are Jonathan Mansel, the leader, Richard Chandos, who does the heavy lifting, and George Hanbury, supernumerary, plus their manservants Carson, Bell, and Rowley who can handle a pistol or drive a Rolls nearly as well as their masters. Upperclass gentlemen of leisure, their manners are impeccable and their behavior towards women chivalrous. Their wives, sometimes involved, are paragons of beauty, gentility, and sensitivity. The small touches of class are never ostentatious, but are part of the casually elegant tone.
And then at table one evening, after the cloth had been drawn, he bade us fill up our glasses and listen to what he said. --(An Eye for a Tooth)
"But I don't want to lie low for the next three months. Neither do you, William -- cubhunting's coming on." --(Were Death Denied)
The servants are great creations -- loyal, unobtrusive, super competent, essential parts of an upper class world.
Bell was a splendid servant. Whenever I wanted something, he always seemed to be there. --(An Eye for a Tooth)
Bell deserved his name, for he was the soundest man with whom I have had to do. In times of stress he was my rod and staff . . . he set my life above his, because, perhaps, he knew that I set his above mine . . . But Carson had caught from his master the precious trick of foresight . . . Working together, the two were incomparable: indeed, without their service, Mansel and I would never have taken the field. --(Cost Price)
A conspicuous and endearing feature is the use of cars. Sometimes there's a race across southern France as the rogues try to escape their pursuers or the reverse, a race that involves one or more Rolls Royces and perhaps a Lowland or Vane, for the novels take place in the 1920s and 1930s, the golden age of exotic cars.
Mansel rounded a bend at eighty, passed a car which was passing a charabanc, cut in between two waggons of six wheels each, and put the Rolls at a hill at 96.
The cars are always in use, quartering the countryside as they close in on the rogue's lair. They tend them lovingly, and notice the fastidious tone.
While . . . Carson set out some sandwiches, Bell . . . began to wash the Rolls; for the way had been long and, at times, the dust had been thick, and no one of us four could endure that a car which was travel-stained should await attention.
The most remarkable feature of the novels is the air of self-assured calm, bolstered by the details I have mentioned, that pervades them and radiates from the characters, especially Mansel. This is the self-assurance of a ruling class, of gentlemen who, although they can drop Latin tags, wear their sophisticated knowledge and mores lightly, never insisting on their superiority but showing it in everything they do. Correspondingly, the villains are usually coarse. Our heroes respect their cleverness and do not underrate them as adversaries, but they are contemptuous of them. The villains, on the other hand, hate the heroes with great intensity, as inferiors to superiors.
Once we accept the assured tone of a Yates novel the rest follows, and we believe in that world and its values.
It was, I remember, in the summer of 1930 -- that Jenny (my wife) and I had taken a villa at Freilles and that Jonathan Mansel was spending some days with us. Freilles was a little resort some thirty miles north of Bayonne on the Bay of Biscay. It was simple and quite unspoiled, but its sands were the finest for bathing I ever knew: they were broad and firm and they sloped very gently seaward without any "steps," thus making smooth the path of the great Atlantic rollers, that came prepared to do battle and played a pageant, instead.
How we three came to be there, I need not say; but Mansel and I were both tired and were glad to take it easy and, so to speak, put up our feet. Carson and Bell, our servants, were taking their ease with us, and indeed, our quiet establishment was more like a rest-camp in warfare than anything else.
And then, one summer everything, without the slightest warning, we found ourselves involved in a matter of life and death. This was the way of it.
That last sentence is perfect -- a gentleman reasonably explaining things.
The mistake of many writers of adventure stories is to try to make them too dully realistic. There's very little pleasure for the reader; far better to be swept up in a Rolls and borne away with some sterling gentlemen and their respectful manservants.
What have we learned about the suspension of disbelief? You will note that I chose two unlikely prospects, books that are, on the face of it, inherently unbelievable. But in literature nothing is unbelievable if the author can make you acquiesce, can make you temporarily suspend your disbelief. Furthermore, nothing is believable unless the author can somehow work his magic.
Realism in itself is no guarantee of success. We can all think of realist novels and stories that are unbelievable. First, the author must believe -- and you may sure that Benson and Yates, while they were writing, believed in their characters -- and then he must find the ways to make you believe. In fiction there is no truth until the author makes you believe it, and the ways he can do that are more than I can name.
These columns are not book reviews, but my attention was recently called to a book, Save the Males by R. F. Doyle (Poor Richard's Press, Forest Lake, Minn.) that deserves mention. Like all the privately published books I've ever seen, it has an amateurish tone, especially in the beginning, but once past the various prefaces, Save the Males is a thorough, sound, enlightening account of the concerted attack on masculinity (and corresponding promotion of feminism) that has been going on since the 1960s.
In the next issue: Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer. *
"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them." --Thomas Jefferson
In the fifth essay in this series, writing about the crime novelist Michael Gilbert, I discussed the triumph of right over wrong in such fiction, as well as in Westerns, remarking that those moral judgments are more simplistic than the ones we make in life, or than are portrayed in great imaginative fiction. Speaking just about Westerns, such moral expectations are one of the characteristics that attracts readers -- and repels those who like to think of themselves as too sophisticated for such "naivete." We suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy (among other qualities) certainties that we know we cannot expect in life. Unfortunately, modern writers striving to seem sophisticated, try to make Westerns morally complex, thus contributing their mite to the destruction of a fine genre, because a Western by definition cannot be morally complex -- it is a romance.
Before we get into an argument about that, it would be sensible to understand the shape of the subject. The West begins to grow in the American mind with the Lewis and Clarke expedition of 1804-06. Within a year, trappers were on the scene. A first rate account of the heyday of the trapping business in the 1830s is Bernard DeVoto's Across the Wide Missouri (1947), beautifully illustrated with contemporary paintings of Western Indians. This is an unforgettable description of the life and skills of the mountain men and their significance in the history of the West (the matter of skills will come up again). The 1840s and 50s are the decades of emigrants and gold seekers. All of these figures have left traces in our history and culture, but when you saw the title of this essay you thought immediately of cowboys and Indians and cattle and mustangs, and that story didn't start until after the Civil War, when Texas veterans returned to find a ruined economy and the brush full of cattle, multiplied and gone wild during the four years of neglect. They conceived the idea of driving cattle to market at the steadily advancing railheads -- Kansas City, Dodge, Abilene. That era lasted barely thirty-five years, but it was the one that produced, and keeps producing, countless thousands of books we think of as Westerns.
The first Westerns, what we should call proto-Westerns, published in the 1850s, were the crude dime novels of Ned Buntline (a pseudonym) who wrote about Buffalo Bill Cody, giving him his start to fame and fortune, but the first real Western, a classic, published in 1902, was The Virginian by Owen Wister, a prominent Philadelphian who summered for twenty years from 1885 in Wyoming and published some good Western stories in Harper's before he wrote his novel. What makes The Virginian the first real Western is its romantic quality, something that has nothing to do with the hero getting the girl in the end. Westerns are romances in the first place because Good always triumphs over Evil, and those caps are justified: as soon as a character is introduced, you know where he stands (rare equivocal characters are always killed). In the second place, the story unfolds in a natural landscape that molds and reflects the lives of the characters and helps to make them understood by the reader, the same role that Nature plays in Wordsworth's poetry. Finally, the characters are exalted, or debased, beyond customary norms; they are made heroes and villains.
Although mediocre writers sometimes turn out a good Western novel or story, the perusal of any anthology of Western stories will show how rare that is. I will say, intrepidly, that there have been only four good Western writers: Wister, Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and one step down, Luke Short. These are men who not only write well, but write with feeling, a quality too often lacking in Westerns. There is no point in analyzing the work of any of these men; if you're a Western reader, my analysis would be superfluous, and if you aren't, nothing I can say will mean much.
But I want to introduce you to a nonfiction Western which I think you'll enjoy and from which we can learn much about Westerns. The Log of a Cowboy (1903) is the factual narrative of a trail drive from Mexico to Montana in 1882, written by Andy Adams, a young Texan who was on the five month-long drive. It is regarded by historians as the most authentic account of cowboy life on such a drive, but it is more than that: it is the most basic quintessence of the romantic Western. If The Virginian, still on the bestseller list when The Log was published, represents the highly colored Western, Adam's book is the prototype of the plainest version.
That should not surprise us, because the Western idiom at its best is terse and straight forward. Note this self-description:
. . . I took to the range as a preacher's son takes to vice. By the time I was twenty there was no better cow-hand in the entire country. I could, besides, speak Spanish, and play the fiddle, and thought nothing of riding thirty miles to a dance. The vagabond temperament of the range I easily assimilated.
The keynote is self-deprecating irony, giving an impression of forthright lightheartedness, but notice how it is done in such a low key: Adams impresses by not trying to do so.
There are often trail scenes in Westerns, but because fiction tells a story, they can be only scenes. Here, however, the trail and everything about it is the story, and it must be made as interesting and compelling as fiction. One way he deals with the problem is to say, when nothing interesting is going on, "There was no incident worth mentioning" and pass on, a good device to move the narrative along without faking something to create factitious interest. In a small way it increases our respect for the narrator. Similarly, he fills in the narrative by sketching the atmosphere around the campfire when the cowboys swap all kinds of stories, the favorites of imaginative but unlettered men on every American frontier, told in every key but never far from self-deprecating irony, the tone we remember from Huck Finn. Adam's work, on the trail and in the book, thus becomes part of the American saga, again raising our estimate of him.
Another factor that maintains the reader's interest is the demonstration of expert knowledge -- about cattle, horses, weather, men, and the landscape -- not in tedious detail, but enough to know we are in the presence of men who know their craft thoroughly. So when Adams talks about choosing horses out of the remuda, we are aware of his knowledge, but he is not showing off; we feel that he is unselfconscious about it because he does not realize its extent.
At one point a rear wheel breaks and the foreman uses a sapling to make a sort of crutch, enabling them to drive the wagon to a town where a new wheel is made. This instance of frontier hardihood and ingenuity reminds me that during General Sherman's march through the Carolinas in the late winter of 1865, his army had to cross several rivers in flood and march through drowned lands. Companies of axe-men were formed from Michigan regiments, lumbering being a main activity there then, to fell trees for bridges and corduroying roads. I have always been impressed by that (just as Bernard DeVoto impresses us with the skills of the mountain men), by the great skills of ordinary Americans, which persist today, especially in the rural working class. It was all in a day's work for a cowboy.
We also see much more of the vagaries of cattle than in a fictional Western. The stampedes, for instance, are more complicated and lengthy than the ones in novels, which are usually straight runs soon turned by the herders. Here the herd splits up and its parts go every which way, resisting repeated attempts to turn them. It is not until the afternoon of the next day that the herd is gathered -- and that's only the first stampede. The problems the cowboys have to deal with when it comes to crossing rivers with cattle will be astounding to anyone not familiar with cattle. On one occasion they, with another crew from a nearby herd, actually build a bridge to cross the cattle, and then the ornery critters won't even step on the bridge! Patiently, every device is tried unsuccessfully over a couple of days until finally a cowboy suggests lassoing a calf and leading it onto the bridge where the mother will follow -- and the rest of the herd. It works, and we are greatly relieved because the narrator, in his quiet way, has made us feel the galling frustration. Then there are quicksands and bogged cattle, and the efforts which must be made to get them out astonish us by the expertise required, again, all in a day's work for the cowboys.
They cross a river with their herd and another, swimming the cattle, and the foreman of the other crew drowns. There is a quietly moving scene at the funeral, when the man is buried on the plain by a preacher from a nearby emigrant train. Two of his granddaughters sing a hymn.
I had heard the old hymn sung often before, but the impression of the last verse rang in my ears for days afterward.
"When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress."
Then at the end:
After the discourse was ended and a brief and earnest prayer was offered, the two young girls sang the hymn, "Shall we meet beyond the river?" The services being at an end, the coffin was lowered into the grave.
In between the hymns Adams summarizes the discourse, the standard Christian response to death, made more impressive by the cowboy's plain description and the two hymns which enclose it.
Adam's writing is so subtly effective that we are not sure if he achieves his effects by intuition or design. The funeral description is an example, and another occurs in the second chapter when he makes some summary comments about his side partner Paul Priest, also known as The Rebel.
He was fifteen years my senior at this time, a wonderfully complex nature, hardened by unusual experiences into a character the gamut of whose moods ran from that of a
good-natured fellow to a man of unrelenting severity in anger.
Then, a paragraph later, he quotes a funny story Priest tells him when they return from a spell as night guards on the herd. The curious humor of the story puts the seal on Priest's character, confirming the narrator's summary judgment.
At the end, after the herd is delivered, the remuda is sold to a ranch and the cowboys must part with their horses. There is page of description of what the men have been through with the horses, how much they mean to them, and it closes thus:
Their bones may be bleaching in some coulee by now, but the men who knew them then can never forget them or the part they played in that long drive.
We have lived five months in the company of men we have learned to respect for their skill, knowledge, patience, hard work, and good fellowship; we have seen them struggling with natural forces, in the rain and sun and wind, and in the end their sentiments go out to their horses, just as Wordsworth's went out to a flower.
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
These are romantic heroes indeed, denizens of the American imagination, along with Leatherstocking, Huck, Ishmael and Ahab.
This essay owes much to that ardent student of the Old West, H. Leonidas Bass, who gave me The Log of a Cowboy on the centennial of the trail drive twenty-eight years ago, and who made a map of the drive, identifying all the rivers, which I'll send to any reader who asks.
In the next issue: Devices of Belief: E. F. Benson and Dornford Yates. *
"Work as if you were to live 100 Years, Pray as if you were to die To-morrow." --Benjamin Franklin
My readers will recall, I hope, an essay in this series, "Joseph Conrad and the Quest for Truth," in which I wrote of a new movement in art lasting from the 1890s into the 1930s, a movement which took art very seriously, almost religiously. I also discussed a critical technique (New Criticism) allied to it that offered a way to analyze and understand this art. Problems arise, however, when it is used indiscriminately to analyze work that does not belong to the modern school. There's nothing wrong with close textual analysis per se, the main method of New Criticism, but it will yield less when applied to Wordsworth than to T. S. Eliot, and the animating idea behind the analysis, that the text will reveal profound and subtle ideas about life, can be greatly exaggerated, leading to very fanciful readings.
I have written that little preface to a consideration of the work of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) because he was not a modern writer in the sense that Conrad was, although they were contemporaries. In fact, Hardy gave up novel-writing just a couple of years after Conrad began, and went on to write and publish only poetry -- but I'm getting ahead of my story. Born in humble rural circumstances in the county of Devon, an area rich in folklore that would greatly influence his work, Hardy became an architectural draughtsman, with a yearning to write poetry. Recognizing that he couldn't make a living at that, he tried writing fiction, unsuccessfully at first, but his second novel earned some money, as did the next, and his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) was quite successful. Now he was able to give up his architectural job and get married.
Writing novels was a way to make a living, and he was very deferential, especially in the early years, to editorial opinion. Beginning with his fourth novel, his works were serialized, and editors insisted on bowdlerizing them before they appeared in magazines (Hardy would restore the cuts in the book edition), but after all, editors controlled access to his audience. He was always scrupulously professional, delivering copy on schedule, fulfilling promises, doing his best.
The original vein that he worked so well in his best novels was the life of the Dorset countryside, which he immortalized as "Wessex," taking the name from the ancient post-Roman kingdom. Farm laborers are omnipresent as a chorus, while the central figures are somewhat higher in the social scale, e.g., farmers or merchants. The country life and work is not background but is woven into the life of the characters. Hardy was intensely interested in the old customs and folk tales, and they contribute to the density of his work, making the reader feel that the characters are embedded in history, that we see them moving against a tapestry of which they are a part. Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and Far from the Madding Crowd are his only novels with happy endings. The first is slight, a pastoral idyl, but the second is more complex and interesting. The protagonist, Gabriel Oak, naive and impetuous in the beginning, suffers trials that endow him with great patience and good-humored gravity, growing him into a very attractive figure, both to the reader and to the spirited and willful Bathsheba Everdene, who Gabriel eventually wins in a wonderful scene at the end.
The next Wessex novel, The Return of the Native (1878), brings up what I shall call Hardy's metaphysical problem. He had a dour outlook, and he rejected the Christian God, substituting a vague force indifferent to humanity and its concerns. But he had an unfortunate habit, especially in his later novels, of dropping remarks ("'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess") that suggested that he thought the force was not merely indifferent but malign. The notion that the gods are cruelly playing with our lives deprives a novelist's characters of integrity, making them hapless victims. He denied this, claiming that such remarks were only his fanciful way of expressing himself, but that's absurd: an author cannot say things in his own voice in a novel and then dismiss them. In Return, the many crucial coincidences that help to wreck the lives of the characters make them seem like puppets. Some of the characters and scenes are vivid, but everything -- plot, people, conversations -- is heavily melodramatic, as if Hardy's skill as a writer was distorted when the metaphysical pressure was too great. His last novels, Tess of the d'urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1897), suffer from the feeling of supernatural doom, and while the plot of Tess is improbably melodramatic, Jude's is absurd and repellent. Hardy had an unhappy marriage, and this is an anti-marriage tract (anti-Christian, to boot), grim and desolate. He was so annoyed by the harsh critical response that he gave up writing novels and turned to his first love, poetry. Over the next thirty years until his death he published eight volumes of poetry as well as the three-volume verse drama, The Dynasts. He is that unusual case (Sir Walter Scott is the only other I can think of) of a writer equally famous as a novelist and a poet.
The next Wessex novel after Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), is Hardy's masterpiece, a tragedy caused by the character of its protagonist, Michael Henchard. The first scene (as in classic tragedy) contains the seeds of future calamity, and its coarse brutality and underlying sensitivity shadows the book, lurking behind a gesture or a word, building a sense of uneasiness in the reader. Henchard, a skilled farm laborer in search of work, with his wife and very young child, appears at an annual country fair. We know already from their description as they approach the fair, that he is taciturn and she is submissive. They stop at a refreshment tent where he proceeds to get drunk and put up his wife at auction. The scene, fantastic in itself, is made grimly real by Hardy's descriptions of the reactions of the witnesses, who take it as a joke at first, but when a passing sailor makes a bid and actually puts down the cash, ". . . the jovial frivolity of the scene departed. A lurid color seemed to fill the tent, and change the aspect of all therein." Susan throws her wedding ring in Henchard's face and leaves with the sailor, "sobbing bitterly." A sense of shock is apparent in the subdued remarks of the spectators standing at the door wondering about the sailor. Henchard returns "doggedly to his seat," declaring he won't go after her.
The guilty regret just hinted here is enough to endow the scene with tragic foreboding, which unalloyed brutality would never have done. The combination of hasty anger followed by sore guilt is the master motif of Henchards' character, and Hardy's subtle portrayal of it in this initial scene shows his artistry. The others leave and Henchard falls asleep. The next chapter opens with the dawn when Henchard awakens, remembers what he has done, and determines to find Susan and the child. First he goes into an empty church and swears a vow on a Bible not to drink liquor for twenty years. His fruitless search goes on for months, and eventually he gives up and heads for Casterbridge. The next chapter takes place eighteen years later at the same place and time of year and once again Susan and her daughter are approaching the fair. The sailor, Newson, has died (it is supposed) in a shipwreck off Newfoundland, and Susan is seeking Henchard, telling Elizabeth only that he's a "relative by marriage." She speaks to the woman who ran the refreshment tent and learns that Henchard left word with her that he went to Casterbridge. Thither they go in the next chapter to discover Henchard, mayor of the town, at a banquet. They learn that he's a prosperous merchant, a hay and grain dealer. I won't tell more of the plot, but the reader can see that Henchard's initial brutal act is bound to have momentous consequences for a man in his position, especially because he is the same man with the same character: impulsive, uncalculating, fierce in his loyalties and repulsions. The rest of the book is the story of his downfall, brought on entirely by himself, by his greed for love that makes him alienate everyone even as love is within his grasp. When he dies, rejected and broken in spirit, he leaves this statement:
Michael Henchard's Will
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. & that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground. & that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me. To this I put my name. --Michael Henchard.
It is a characteristic act, defiant but an implicit admission of guilt, and it is very moving.
The Mayor of Casterbridge would not be a tragedy if it were marred by the supernatural determinism of his later novels, nor would it be so impressive if Hardy had not portrayed, with unerring insight, not only Henchard but all the other major characters by showing them in thought and action in and around the town, peopled by the kind of Wessex characters we know so well from other Hardy novels. The town, closely surrounded and permeated by the countryside, pulsates with life, a vibrant milieu in which the characters move and mingle. Hardy is not subtle like Henry James, nor a truth-seeker like Conrad, but he wrote a tragedy which has no equal in English literature since Shakespeare.
I don't know how far my message reaches, but it is not far enough, because I still see conservatives committing assault and battery on literary culture, as in a recent National Review, where "Ten Great Conservative Novels" are considered, and all are lousy for reasons that regular readers of this column should understand: they are admired for their message, not their writing. I haven't read all ten, but I've read, or tried to read, most of them.
Midcentury, by John Dos Passos. The author made his name with the USA trilogy, but even at his best (in the first volume, The Forty-Second Parallel, when he's drawing on childhood memories) he's not a very good writer. His characters are cardboard because he was more interested in ideas than people. Midcentury is absolutely inert. When Dos Passos was a lefty in the 1920s, and 1930s, his faith burned bright and gave USA whatever life the trilogy had, but no matter how conservatism stimulated his mind, it could not give life to his fiction. I have always admired Dos Passos. When he saw in Spain what the Communists were up to, he repudiated them, taking a lot of flak from the Left (including Hemingway), and wrote a pretty good novel about his disillusion, Adventures of a Young Man. He was a good man, and his memoir, The Best Times, is worth reading. But he was not a first-rate writer, and Midcentury is one of the deadest books I've ever tried to read.
Another one of these prize novels is Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. He wrote only one good novel, a picaresque affair called The Adventures of Augie March. The rest of his novels suffer from the author's preoccupation with ideas at the expense of characters. It's very simple: if the characters do not live, what they supposedly think is of no interest. Bellow was fascinated by himself and his thoughts, a fatal fixation for any writer.
Walker Percy, another conservative writer revered for his message, is praised here for The Thanatos Syndrome, another novel I tried to read but couldn't because I was immediately put off by what I call conceptual cliches, platitudes, not of language but thought. One, beloved by second-rate writers, is the reversal of expectations. So the character who's conventionally disreputable will turn out to be the hero, the character who seems liberal and sophisticated will wind up a bigot, and the one who seems a bigot will finally be the one with a big heart, etc. Percy was another writer ruined by ideas, because he considered characters only means to an end.
Cormac McCarthy's crudities and vulgarities overwhelm his books. I don't know about his ideas in No Country for Old Men because I couldn't stay with him long enough to find any.
Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities is the "conservative" book I most detest because it is so trashily written, because it revels in the excrement that two generations of wretched writers have made of our fiction. Every description is a cliche and a sour one, and every occurrence and character is a cliche, mostly disgusting. To read the book is to feel dirty. It directly inspired the creation of this column a few years ago when I saw conservatives falling all over themselves to praise it. Not only is this another case of a writer concerned more with ideas than characters, but Wolfe is a writer who's joined the ranks of the destroyers of culture. *
"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy." --Thomas Jefferson
I've written a bit about American history and historiography in this series, mainly in number 18 about Bruce Catton's Civil War books, but to get to the root of things, to the first consciousness of Americanness, we have to go back to the War of Independence, to the year 1776 and two books published in 2004, David McCullough's 1776 and David Hackett Fisher's Washington's Crossing.
The action begins in March with the end of the siege of Boston when the British took to their ships and sailed away to Halifax, while Washington started his troops for Manhattan. Without a navy, without command of the waters around New York, defense of the island was really not feasible, but Washington determined to try, for reasons that are very interesting. Of course, there were the strictly military reasons: resisting the invader, refusing to abandon an important strategic location; but there were significant political reasons: the Continental Congress didn't want the city abandoned, and Washington felt that to surrender New York without a fight would strike a heavy blow against American morale. One of the difficulties American commanders had to cope with from the beginning was the interference of politicians in the details of military affairs. They withheld militias, wanting to keep them for home defense, and they wanted Washington to mount an all-round defense of everywhere, an impossible task. In the last week of December 1776 this problem would be tackled in a way that became characteristically American when the Congress passed a resolution giving Washington absolute command of military affairs for six months, but ultimately accountable to Congress, a solution that became the model for civil/military relations in America. An implicit corollary is that commanding generals, if they are to retain the confidence of their political masters, must be sensitive to the political context of the time. General George MacClellan ignored the pressures on President Lincoln, which is why, after 1862, he sat out the war in Trenton. And General George Patton was superseded in World War II by the second-rate Omar Bradley because he ignored public sensitivities.
Although Washington had some military experience in the French and Indian war, he was facing seasoned professionals in Generals Howe, Clinton, and Cornwallis, and by comparison he came off very badly in the New York campaign, from late August to the end of November. His best move was the overnight withdrawal of his army, after the battle of Long Island, from Brooklyn across the East River to Manhattan, but wars are not won by retreats. After nearly having his army bottled up in Manhattan, he managed to escape Howe's clutches and cross to New Jersey, although he lost nearly 3,000 men as prisoners of war when Fort Washington was captured, another blunder. Washington was curiously indecisive at this time, letting General Nathanael Greene persuade him, against his qualms, to garrison the fort when it no longer served any purpose. Losing so many men was a terrible blow at a time when enlistments were expiring and his army was melting away. Another factor was the lack of military intelligence. The New York area was a loyalist stronghold, and the British were better informed about his movements than he was about theirs. But I think the root of his problem was his inexperience at maneuvering large bodies of troops (there were nearly 30,000 troops in the area during the summer), especially these troops. David Hackett Fisher, in Washington's Crossing, is very good on the difficulty Washington had in dealing with an army of free men who came from colonies where their conception of the Cause were so diverse -- and so different from his.
To a Virginia gentleman like Washington, liberty was a hierarchal concept: men of independent means had it, but smaller property owners had less and so on down the line to slaves, who had no liberty at all. Assuming command at Boston, he was disgusted by the "leveling spirit" he met in New Englanders, whose conception of liberty was free men in a community of equally free men. And it took him a while to accept the presence of free Negroes in the ranks of the Marblehead contingent. Fisher shows how Washington learned to accommodate these conflicting ideas and put together an effective army, but it took time and patience. When a court martial convicted some backwoods riflemen from Pennsylvania of mutiny, Washington did not have them shot (as would be done in the British army) -- Americans, especially these borderers whose idea of liberty was intensely individual, would not stand for that -- but instead fined them and appealed to their "honor, reason, pride, and conscience." They apologized and promised to reform.
Howe sent Cornwallis across New Jersey in pursuit of Washington, but he did not press too hard, and all the American troops collected on the west side of the Delaware by December 20. Taking most of his army back to New York, but leaving a handful of garrisons in place, Howe offered amnesty to those taking a loyalty oath, and many did. To New Jerseyans, the War of Independence brought civil war plus the uncertain brutalities of occupation, because the troops, despite strenuous efforts by commanders to prevent it, plundered and raped and murdered civilians, alienating supporters and outraging everyone else. Inevitably, bands of militia staged harassing attacks against the garrisons and their foraging parties, wearing down the troops, especially around Trenton. Washington was already thinking of an attack across the river when his adjutant, Joseph Reed, wrote to urge a bold stroke to revive American spirits and credit, suggesting Trenton as the target.
Washington immediately (December 22) called a council of war, and the rest is history: on the night of Christmas day, three columns of Americans tried to cross the river, but only one, led by Washington, was able to get through the ice, and the next morning, with 2,400 men, he routed 1,400 Hessians, capturing nearly one thousand. After escorting the prisoners across the river to Pennsylvania, he went back to reoccupy Trenton, where on January 2 he fought Cornwallis to a standstill at a fortified position, and then stole away at night to defeat a British force at Princeton, returning afterwards to safety in the mountains of the northwest. The crossing alone was an amazing feat.
To understand the great effect those eight days had on Americans, bear in mind the context: independence had been declared in July and within a few weeks Washington's army suffered one defeat after another, and was finally driven across New Jersey to Pennsylvania, when the Congress hurriedly decamped to Baltimore. The Declaration looked pretty hollow then. As if to herald the turn about to come, Thomas Paine published The American Crisis ("These are the times that try men's souls") on December 19 to instant, tonic effect. There followed the miraculous eight days of marching and fighting, and a tide of the whole year was turned. Whatever happened after that, America would be independent.
David McCullough is a skillful writer of popular books on discrete subjects -- the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, Teddy Roosevelt's early years. He tells the story accurately, honestly, and fluently, and he grasps the importance of that great year in our history, eloquently captured in this quotation from the English historian G. O. Trevelyan:
It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.
To understand in depth what that year tells us about the complex nature of nascent Americanness, however, Fisher's book is the one to read. An historian with a wide breadth of visions, he probes deeply into the problems of the actors, elucidating their thoughts and feelings and motives. Like McCullough, he covers the year from the siege of Boston to the battle of Princeton, but he carries the story forward into the spring of 1777, describing the so-called Forage War, militia raids by New Jersey militia (aided by Washington) against enemy garrisons. The main emphasis, however, is on the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and the book opens with a description and analysis of the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is a brilliant beginning, and the text (well-illustrated) that follows fulfills its promise in depth and breadth.
The events of 1776 are not the beginning of American Exceptionalism, but its fruition. It began with the desire of the Pilgrims and Puritans to separate themselves from those they thought ungodly, and it was strengthened by the Mayflower compact, the agreement for self-governance signed before they landed. They did not know it, but they were already a people apart from the mother country, and subsequent colonial history drove them further and further apart. Great Britain's needs, expressed in orders from the king and his ministers, did not mesh with the needs of those living on the edge of wilderness, and it became harder and harder to bridge the gap, to reconcile opposing desires. Before 1776, very few of the colonists thought of themselves as Americans, but they had been in the process of becoming so for more than 150 years, and in 1776 they suddenly knew who they were, a new people, a new nation, and when they ratified the Constitution in 1787, establishing a radically new form of government, they set the seal on our unique identity.
In these days we need to fortify our sense of the specialness of our country, and these books will do it. *
"There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily." --George Washington
The premise of this series of essays is that conservatives can expand their mental horizons, enrich their lives, by reading the kind of books that are rarely written or published today. The goal of life is consciousness and literature is an excellent way to increase it. These essays are not reading lists; they are extended analyses intended to arouse your interest in books. I enjoy writing them because they are a challenge, and I increase my own consciousness by learning more about writers and writing. In this case, for instance, I thought I'd reread a couple of Willa Cather's (1870-1947) books to see if they'd be suitable for the series. I'd read them decades ago and wasn't impressed, but now I'd try one I hadn't read, My Antonia. When I was done I was bowled over, and I saw how unusual her writing was. So I reread her novels, and this is the result, which I hope will inspire my readers to appreciate this fine writer.
Consider American imaginative writers. In the first rank: Melville, Twain, James, Hemingway. In the second rank: Hawthorne, Faulkner, Dreiser, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Norris, Crane, Howells. If you think about their work, they are all dramatic writers. They come to us bearing urgent messages about sensational matters, soul-searching quests, struggles between good and evil, stirring revelations, stories of profound and wrenching truth, tales of the darkest shades and brightest lights. Howells, least dramatic of them all, would have been dramatic if he could, but his imagination was dim. Willa Cather is the great exception. Although there is some drama in her novels, it is the subtle working-out of man's relation to the overpowering presence of place, of the land, that is the theme of her fiction. What "happens" in her books is not very important in itself, and she was not very good at writing a story in the conventional sense. Critics consistently underrated her because they could not really grasp what she was dong; they could only see that by their usual standards she failed.
Now let me tell you what she could do. No other writer has such an acute perception of landscape. Think back for a moment to the seventh essay, "Huck Finn and Friends" in which I discussed Hemingway's great story, Big Two-Hearted River.
The river was there. It swirled against the log spikes of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.
His descriptions of the natural world as perceived by a character are instinct with life, unsurpassed, beyond praise, but they are not, nor are they intended to be, portraits of a landscape, of the essence of a whole region. They are artifacts of the character's consciousness, just as Huck's description of the Mississippi at dawn tells us more about Huck than it does about the river. In Cather's best work the landscape is present in itself. What she does is to bring landscape and character together in a moving, satisfactory way with a quiet intensity that gives her books great emotional power.
Her progress can be chartered by the gradual jettisoning of conventional plotting. Her first novel of any distinction, O Pioneers! (1913), is about the lives of immigrants who settled the Nebraska prairies in the last decades of the 19th century, and the beginning, describing the early struggles of Alexandra Bergson with her stupidly conventional brothers and with the land and climate, is good, but then the book jumps ahead to a time when the struggle is over, Alexandra is prosperous, and the prairie becomes nothing more than a backdrop for an absurd plot. Although the book put her on the literary map, it must be judged a failure. Her next novel, The Song of the Lark (1915), is much better, although it, too, is marred in its later part by intrusive plotting. It is the story of Thea Kronborg, a child of Swedish immigrants raised in semi-desert Colorado, who becomes a great opera singer. The book centers on Thea and her development, by no means easy, and the Colorado landscape influences the girl all her life. The early years are the best part of the book, but Thea's artistic struggles are fascinating throughout the book. Cather was an idealist about art, as these quotations show.
. . . what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself -- life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? . . . Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist the great artist, knows how difficult it is.
My Antonia (1918) followed, and this is a triumph, the novel which a first-time reader of Cather should start with, the story of a Czech farm girl growing up on the Nebraskan prairie. Look at this description:
All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death -- heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of the day.
The first sentence announces the subject plainly, but the last clause suggests something striking. The next two sentences vividly describe the simple elements of the scene, grass, cornfields, haystacks, a colorful description that begins to stir the reader's feelings. The fourth sentence, with its Biblical reference to the appearance of God to Moses, endows the scene with momentous significance, and the last two sentences with their rich language complete the intimation that the physical world is a manifestation of meaning beyond itself. It looks simple, but it takes great artistry to write so effectively.
At the end of the book the narrator explicitly defines Antonia's significance.
She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. . . . She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
There is a key phrase there whose significance may be missed: "the meaning in common things." That was one of Cather's great gifts, to see those meanings and express them, as in the previous passage about fall afternoons. It is a rare gift for any artist, and it is not appreciated enough.
Five undistinguished books followed, and then in 1927 Death Comes For the Archbishop, her masterpiece, was published. A fictionalized account of the career of Archbishop Lamy, who from 1851-1889 ran the diocese, centered in Santa Fe, that covered the whole southwest, it is essentially plotless. It tells of the trials of the Archbishop and his vicar, traveling hundreds of miles on horseback, dealing with refractory priests, building a cathedral, planting fruit trees, civilizing the area, but as much space is given to the Archbishop's observations of the Indians, to his retelling of miracles observed by Junipero Serra, to his memories of his youth in France, and his friendship with the man who became his vicar, and permeating everything is the presence of the desert landscape of the southwest. Cather's skill is so developed by this time that she does not really describe the scene -- there are no set pieces -- but she creates an unforgettable impression of the landscape by little touches here and there, so you are always aware of where you are: you feel the heat, you note the ever-changing colors of the rocks, you breathe the clear air, you feel the sand as it is blown against you. This is a book in which nothing "happens," but when you are done you know you have been privileged to be in the presence of a man's life, an uncommon man, one of those who have made life sweeter by their presence. The book is very moving.
Willa Cather was a writer with an unusual gift, a quiet voice full of passionate intensity. *
"Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a State than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters." --Samuel Adams