Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Somerset Maugham, a very popular writer from the1920s through the1950s, presents the critic with a real problem because, although he had undeniable gifts, his achievement was mediocre. The gifts, a lucid, supple style and a born storyteller's ability to move all the elements -- characters, actions, words -- in one direction to a destined end, are admirable and you keep expecting them to produce a masterpiece, but they invariably disappoint. "Why?" is the question the critic must answer.
The first thing he published, in 1898, was a novel, and he continued to write novels and stories, but from 1907 until the 1930s he was mainly known as a writer of witty drawing-room comedies. His semi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage (1915) is of some interest, but the novel as a form was really beyond him. The short story running to about 10,000 words, was his medium; much longer stories are unfocused, and much shorter ones tend to be inconsequential. His aim, as he said, was to tell interesting stories, and he worked to create a style that was clear, simple, and euphonious. No one can read his stories without recognizing these qualities.
Here's the opening of "The Treasure":
Richard Harenger was a happy man. Notwithstanding what the pessimists, from Ecclesiastes onwards, have said, this is not so rare a thing to find in this unhappy world, but Richard Harenger knew it, and that is a very rare thing indeed.
In those two sentences the clarity and simplicity are obvious, and the balance and emphasis of the second sentence is beautifully graceful. There is something else here which Maugham always spoke of when he wrote about his technique: plot. He thought that stories should have a beginning, middle, and end, that they should have a point, and that the material should be so arranged -- the plot -- as to move inexorably to its end. Although we will not know it fully until the last sentence, we are reading a story about the nature of Richard Harenger's happiness, and the announcement here alerts our attention. The clever plotting is furthered, and disguised, by the smooth surface of the story which half-conceals the writer's subtle effects. Note this description of the maid:
. . . she was certainly comely, in another class of life you might almost have said a handsome, woman.
The fastidious, class-based choice of adjectives -- "comely," "handsome" -- tells us how, with the faintest touch of irony, the protagonist's class consciousness pervades his smallest thought, advancing the plot and point of the story.
What happens is that Richard Harenger hires a maid (Pritchard) who turns out to be the treasure of the title, perfect in every way. Then one evening, quite by chance and contrary to their usual behavior, he and Pritchard go to the movies, have supper, go dancing, and wind up in bed together. When he awakes next morning, he's horrified by his behavior: "How idiotic to lose the best parlor maid a man ever had just for an hour's folly. . . . Richard Harenger was a very unhappy man." Then Pritchard comes in as usual, bringing him his letters and the papers, putting out his clothes for the day, selecting a tie and so on, behaving as if nothing had happened.
He knew that never by word nor gesture would she ever refer to the fact that for a moment their relations had been other than those of master and servant. Richard Harenger was a very happy man.
How are we meant to read this story? On the surface -- and remember how smooth it is, giving the impression that surface is everything -- this is an amusing story about how a moment's indiscretion threatens a man's happiness, but it is precisely the harping on happiness/unhappiness that makes us question the surface; we are forced to question the context of the dichotomy. He is unhappy when faced with the consequences of normal human behavior, happy when that is suppressed, replaced by the "master and servant" relationship. In that light, Richard Harenger is a pathetic figure and his characterization as the perfectly appointed gentleman is seen as hollow.
But there are problems with that reading. For one thing, the tone of the whole thing is light and there is no feeling in the story, no emotion at all beyond Harenger's momentary chagrin when he thinks he has spoiled the perfect maid. The absence of feeling is only consistent with the first reading. For another thing, that isn't the way Maugham's mind worked. As he makes clear in The Summing Up, a book about his ideas, and as all his fiction demonstrates, he was an extreme latitudinarian, and he had no strong feelings about anything. He believed, for instance, that people were capable of love, but not for long, and then they might as well move on with no hard feelings. It is very difficult to believe he would have disapproved of Richard Harenger or seen him as a human failure. It remains a light, amusing anecdote neatly finished with some small irony, no more than a shrug of the shoulders.
I've spent a lot of time on "The Treasure" because it tells us, in a small compass, a great deal about the writer. He had a wonderful gift of fluency: he could tell a story beautifully, but then, what kind of story was it? When you finished it, did any residue remain in your mind? He was voluble about the unpredictability of people, about their hidden capacities, but he didn't see very deeply into them, so the characters he created are, like Harenger and Pritchard, very shallow. These are anecdotes, things complete in themselves, finished off with a resounding end. But all good fictions are, like Conrad's Jim, "inscrutable at the heart," and when we finish reading them we are not finished with them at all; they live in our hearts and minds where we turn them over and over again, because good fiction is like life itself -- there is a mystery at its heart.
There are two volumes of his collected stories, The World Over and East and West. The light ones like "The Treasure" are the best. He also wrote some amusing comic satires. When he tried to write weighty stories, the situations he imagines are always melodramatic cliches. He traveled widely, especially in the Pacific and Far East during the 1920s, and many of his stories are set there, with the writer as narrator, staying for a few days with a District Commissioner, say, in a remote station in Borneo, relaxing on the verandah with a cheroot and a gin stengah while the Commissioner tells him a story and the jungle looms in the background. I must say that he manages the role very well, and I'm usually a sucker for it, but sometimes it gets a bit tiresome.
When Maugham defended his writing methods, which ran counter to the canons of the day, his tone was aggrieved, as if he were being persecuted. In The Summing Up, a book about his literary and philosophical ideas, he says again and again that he doesn't care about his critics, an obvious giveaway. Literary people certainly regarded him with contempt, but I doubt if it were for his style; it's much more likely that it was because he made a lot of money writing for magazines and was admired by Philistines. Of course he resented their attitude; in fact resented the whole serious literary world he could never break into, and his insinuations are a little pathetic.
Some people have taken up Maugham as a case of a good writer maligned by fashionable snobs, and I'm sorry to say they're conservatives. The argument is that since the cultural elite, lefties since the 1920s, dislike such a fellow, conservatives must rally round to his support. Unfortunately, no matter how sympathetic we may be, we cannot evade the judgment that he was a second rate writer, and conservatives make themselves look stupid by championing him. Partisanship of this sort is contemptible.
This kind of partisanship is also apparent in the admiration for Flannery O'Connor, a very second-rate writer. Being a devout Catholic and scorning the fashionable literary scene does not, alas, make one a good writer. Her conceptions of the way her characters think, like her plots, are always cliches, and no amount of piety will make her a good writer.
I have not yet answered the question: why, with all his gifts, Maugham is mediocre? He himself attributed his limitations to the absence of love. As he says in The Summing Up:
Though I have been in love a good many times, I have never experienced the bliss of requited love . . . never having felt some of the fundamental emotions of normal men, it is impossible that my work should have the intimacy, the broad human touch and the animal serenity which the greatest writers alone can give.
It is true that homosexual writers often suffer from the limitations he describes, but I don't think it's the whole answer. A clue lies in his remark that he's been in love "a good many times." No one who knows love could say that, and the reason he could never know love, I think, was his point of view, his extreme latitudinarianism. We have considered writers with all kinds of views in this series, and that has never been an issue. Victorians thought a writer had to be moral to be good; Communists that he had to believe in the proletariat; modernists that he couldn't be a conservative; reactionaries that he couldn't be a modernist; postmodernists that he had to be amoral and unintelligible; and so on, but so far we have rejected the idea of an indispensable quality. After studying Somerset Maugham, however, I'm tempted to offer, provisionally, one thing I think a writer must have: a passionate feeling about something. Everything follows from that. *
"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?" --Mark Twain
My subject, country magazines since the 1960s, is probably quite unknown to my readers, but since this series is intended to broaden the horizons of conservatives beyond the immediate confines of politics, and since the subject ultimately has a political bearing of some importance, I think it shall be of interest.
In the late 1960s and on through the 1970s there sprang up a number of magazines with names like Wood Heat Quarterly and Farmstead, cheaply printed on newspaper stock, founded by hippie homesteaders, and some of the editors were surprisingly able. Practical articles (e.g. "How to Build a Hen House") predominated, but there were reflective pieces, too. Here are some of the contributions my wife and I made to a monthly, Rural Delivery, in Nova Scotia: Jo Ann, the garden editor, wrote a monthly column about growing flowers and herbs, and some of the things I wrote about were: my teenage years on a farm, signs of the seasons, cutting and storing ice from a pond, how to make a dill pickle crock, and the significance of material objects in our lives. At the same time another columnist wrote about language, one covered forestry, a couple wrote a column about their sheep farm, a Newfoundlander wrote about his life on an island, and they were all well written. RD was better than most country magazines, but it was not unique.
At the same time, a slick upscale magazine, Country Journal, was published in Vermont, catering to a new population, inspired by the general Greenism of the time, that had been taking over the State since the mid 1960s. I've never thought of a better name than the one I gave them at the time, Country Fakes. They came to Vermont to live a nice, clean country life and, in search of its signs and symbols, they turned to Country Journal. It contained practical articles, but they lacked the earnestness of those in the hippie homesteader magazines. As an editor once explained to Jo Ann, "None of our readers are going to do any of these things, but they're entertained by reading about them." Country Journal was a very sharp production, the most sophisticated country magazine I've ever seen. Everything about it -- layout, typography, its whole appearance -- was tasteful, while it retained an overall impression of rustic Vermont solidity. A friend told me that the two owners had worked at Life magazine.
General interest magazines -- Saturday Evening Post, Life, Colliers -- were popular from the 1920s into the 1960s because they appealed to a large and growing homogenous middleclass market, people who, despite regional variations, listened to the same popular music, watched the same movies, and shared a patriotic faith that carried them through World War II. That much of that culture was superficial; that there were stronger currents under the surface is irrelevant to the argument: general interest magazines collapsed with the dissolution of the middleclass consensus in the 1960s, as the audience fragmented. A similar audience shift happened to the country magazines later. The first hippie homesteaders completely disappeared by 1980, leaving their yurts and communes for jobs in Daddy's bank, killing off the hippie homesteader country magazines. A few tried to adapt by becoming slick and dropping the old country articles for lavish photo spreads about home decor or fancy gardens, hoping to capture the interest of the new audience now dominating the countryside, the hybrid of Country Fakes and yuppies, but those magazines failed, too. The Country Journal owners were smart; they sold out at the top of the market, and the magazine immediately began to deteriorate. Passing through the hands of various publishing conglomerates, getting worse and worse, it finally perished in the early 1990s.
Looking back at all those magazines, the most interesting thing about them today is their freedom from ideology. Aside from a generally pro-countryside orientation, they had no axes to grind. A writer could champion "organic" gardening or the use of chemicals, could advocate clear cutting or selective forestry, could preach tractors or workhorses.
The successors to those magazines today are not many, they are all slick, and they are relentlessly ideological. Some are frankly politically left, but all share the same Green ideology and ardently support "organic" farming and all the practices associated with it. While some of the practices are sound, the ideas behind them are not.
Their audience is composed of the spiritual descendants of the first readers of the country magazines of the 1970s, the hippie homesteaders, and like their earlier counterparts, they aspire to the country life but don't do much about it. Satisfaction comes from browsing the pages, soaking up the rays of heartfelt concern for Nature, of a blissful future on the smiling land, etc., etc. It is the old utopian vision, peculiarly American, of the Beautiful Simple Country Life, peddled by gurus since 1790, when J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur published Letters From an American Farmer, to the present day when Wendell Berry is the guru. That has always been the mission of these magazines -- to push a vision of an illusory countryside. That it should take on such a rigid, doctrinaire, militant form now is a consequence of the informal alliance with the Greens, who are intent on gaining power, via legislatures, courts, and administrative fiat over our lives. It is a Cause of Great Import, and while they are not consciously directed, there is a clear feeling in these magazines that a struggle is in progress and it's Us against Them.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of country utopianism is revealed in this anecdote. One of the country magazines we wrote for was the Canadian counterpart of Country Journal published in Ontario, Harrowsmith. An editor commissioned us to write an essay telling how to raise an orphan lamb from birth to chops. Such lambs are not uncommon; a ewe may die or have twins or reject one. The nursery rhyme about Mary and the little lamb is such a one. We knew enough by then (the early 1980s) about the audience of such a slick magazine to know they would not relish a description of slaughtering and butchering, so we wrote to the editor about it and he reassured us. Still leery, I hitched the mare to the express wagon and drove three miles to a phone to call the editor, warning him that there'd be a lot of metaphorical blood in the article, but again he brushed off my fears. We had raised many animals, but never sheep, so I did much research and consulted local sheepmen. Jo Ann did the nice bits about Mary's little lamb, and I handled the practical side: how to house and feed the lamb, how to wean it, how to build a manger, and finally, how to kill and skin and cut up the carcass.
In such an essay I try to be absolutely clear, simple, and cogent, and I was proud of it. Even if you knew nothing, you could read that article and do the job from start to finish. They were aghast at Harrowsmith. First we had to cut out all the horrid bits. When the lamb was ready for, uh, slaughter it should be taken to someone who did that sort of thing, and nothing more should be said about it. Then they suggested places in the rest of the piece where it could be tarted up with cute phrases. The point here is the aversion to reality; the countryside must be presented in a sanitized form.
Now my country writing career is again threatened (when we refused to alter the essay, Harrowsmith dumped us), and for the same reason. We write for a slick country magazine, a piously Green, "organic" quarterly edited by a couple, ardent believers in The Beautiful Simple Country Life, happy with my innocuous vignettes of old-fashioned country life. Unfortunately, I'm running out of that sort of thing, and there have been signs that the editors are uneasy with the realistic tones in my recent work. Now they have rejected my latest piece, on predators, saying readers wouldn't stand for it, and I should submit something more "benevolent." So if I describe the shooting of a wildcat that was killing my chickens, it is the same faux pas I committed when I described the slaughter of a lamb; that is, I have told the truth about something squeamish folks would rather not hear about.
I have gone on about this because it illustrates, in an obvious way, the aversion to realism of the countryside branch of Greenism, itself a movement based on lies and fantasies. If we examine this theme, we see that it is the predominant note of the present moment. It is not an exaggeration to point out that the policies, both foreign and domestic, of the present administration are fantasies. To think that posing as guilty penitents before the rulers of Russia or Iran will advance our interests, or to think that virtually nationalizing our economy will restore prosperity -- what are these notions but fantasies, and like the silly ideas of country magazines and the preposterous ones of Greens, they are peculiarly childish and unserious. This is the keynote of our time, the public voice of yuppieism, expounded by a cohort who never grew up.
Conservatives criticize the administration, but the childish nature of their fantasies and even the fantasies themselves, are not seen for what they are: I mean, to criticize the administration's foreign policy as if it were a debatable strategy is absurd -- it is nothing more than juvenile wishfulness. It is, perhaps, too much to expect conservatives to know anything about countryside utopianism, but their ignorance of the dire significance of Greenism is a calamity. Of course, they have been poorly served by conservative publications, which display astonishing ignorance of the subject; they regularly publish articles that accept the theses of global warming and man-made climate change. I have been trying, for more than 20 years, to interest conservative editors in the subject, and I have gotten nowhere (except in these pages). The point is that fantasy is all-pervasive today, not just in the political administration but also in a major movement, Greenism, destructive of the environment, private property, and prosperity, and is a related utopian movement directed at our agricultural economy. If we can recognize these distinct entities for what they are, and if we can see the thematic link between them, we can generate much more effective criticism, especially because conservatives have one advantage: they are realists. Fantasy is attractive so long as it remains a dream; put into practice it is a disaster. We have a great opportunity before us -- to expose the puerile fantasies so prevalent today by the constant criticism of well-informed realism.
And your first act will be to find a magazine that will publish my country essays! *
"He is a self-made man and worships his creator." --John Bright
Born to a genteel, but broke family, Melville went to sea at the age of 18, but seven years later we find him settling in New York to become a writer. Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) are about his adventures in the South Pacific; Mardi (1849) is an imaginary allegorical quest; Redburn (1849) and Whitejacket (1850) are novels about seafaring. He was a moderately popular novelist, regarded as a writer of "yarns." In 1850 he began The Whale, which was evidently going to be a whaling story, but two things intervened: he reread Shakespeare, and he struck up an intense friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne who lived nearby (Melville had moved to the Berkshires). The two men had long discussions, plumbing the depths of each others' minds on the kind of subjects natural to the author of The Scarlet Letter and to the author of the future Moby Dick: the truth of Christian revelation, the Manichean nature of the struggle between good and evil, the relation of esthetic truth to philosophic truth, the validity of Transcendentalism, and so on. The result was that Melville changed and deepened the book, now called Moby Dick. It remained a terrific sea story, but now it was also a profound meditation on the subjects he and Hawthorne discussed. It is deeply humorous and movingly lyrical, America's greatest and most characteristic novel.
When he changed his mind about the book, he did not discard it and begin again, but incorporated the old material in the new structure. The first fifteen chapters, tracing Ishmael and Queequeg to Nantucket, must be from the original version, while the chapters in Nantucket are mixed, and chapter twenty-three to the end is the new version, with some additions from the original woven in. There are a few trivial anomalies, but the unity of the book is not affected, the principal difference being that the early chapters are lighter in style, marked by the brash tone of the 19th century American humor, that mixture of tall stories, jokes, and folk wisdom we know from Mark Twain. Here's the opening:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Although Melville never entirely drops this style, the writing becomes more lyrical and rhetorical as the book progresses, as in this description of Moby Dick:
A gentle joyousness -- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! Did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.
For a subtler passage, wonderfully evocative and suggestive, on the disposal of a whale's carcass:
The vast tackles have now done their duty. The peeled white body of the beheaded whale flashes like a marble sepulchre; though changed in hue, it has not perceptibly lost anything in bulk. It is still colossal. Slowly it floats more and more away, the water round it torn and splashed by the insatiate sharks, and the air above vexed with rapacious flights of screaming fowls, whose beaks are like so many insulting poniards in the whale. The vast white headless phantom floats further and further from the ship, and every rod that it so floats, what seem square roods of sharks and cubic roods of fowls, augment the murderous din. For hours and hours from the almost stationary ship that hideous sight is seen. Beneath the unclouded and mild azure sky, upon the fair face of the pleasant sea, wafted by the joyous breezes, that great mass of death floats on and on, till lost in infinite perspectives.
As an epic, the novel celebrates the customs, occupations, and types of heroic humanity characteristic of the culture, hence in 19th century America, men who struggle with Nature. So we are treated to the lore of whales and whaling, including detailed descriptions of its tools and methods. And over all, there is the tragic quest of Captain Ahab to wreak revenge on Moby Dick, his solipsistic mania that finally dooms the ship and crew (except Ishmael). This theme, preoccupation with self, is predominant in Emerson's Transcendentalism, and is still with us. That's why I call Melville our keenist critic.
It is possible, I suppose, to be bored by such a capacious narrative, but I have taught it twice and read it five times, and as soon as I picked it up to write this essay, I was caught once again in the net of Melville's words. All I can say is that I hope you'll read it.
Although the novel got as many good as bad reviews, and some were perceptive, no one saw the magnitude of the achievement, and it didn't sell well. A year later he published Pierre, a semi-Gothic novel so strange and obscure that it defies description. A fire at his publisher's destroyed the plates of his books, and most of the unsold copies. He published an undistinguished novel, Israel Potter, in 1855, a year later a book of stories. The Confidence Man (1857) is the last prose work published in his lifetime. A curious book, it describes the adventures of a con man on a Mississippi steamboat, and while the first half of the book is entertaining, as the con man changes roles and works his clever wiles on the varied passengers, the rest drags as the con man engages in convoluted monologues. None of the issues raised -- Nature, Charity, Christian Providence -- is explored more than superficially, and the tone is very light. Billy Budd, a novella written shortly before his death, was published in 1924, after the Melville revival that followed his centennial. It is highly regarded, but it does not show any thematic development since Moby Dick, and the style is stiff and creaky, the work of an old man. From 1866 to 1886 he supported his family as a customs inspector on the New York docks. What is so marked about his career is not its arc of rise and decline, but the suddenness and completeness of its collapse. From the heights of Moby Dick his work plunges to a nadir and never recovers. The subjects that had inspired and energized him when he was writing his great novel now bedeviled him. He saw Hawthorne in Liverpool in 1856 and talked endlessly of the dilemmas of truth and belief but could neither believe "nor be comfortable in his disbelief." He could not find any philosophical or religious synthesis to believe in. We may say that when he was writing his first five books he was a conventional writer (but with hints of other tendencies), but in the midst of writing Moby Dick he was transformed: the conventions fell away, his deepest thoughts and feelings found expression in a long book that combined folk humor, lyric poetry, scientific reporting, drama, philosophic speculation, and novelistic narrative. So where could he go from there? Moby Dick, in the exuberance of its artistry, is probably as close as he could get to an answer to the insoluble questions of life, but it wasn't close enough for Melville. With the publication of Moby Dick, Melville's career was essentially over. He could not go back to being a conventional novelist, and he could not go forward: Moby Dick was as far as he could go, and it was much too far for his contemporaries.
I used to feel sad about Melville's later obscurity, about his humdrum employment, but when you consider the fates of other writers who ran out of steam in mid-career, there is a steadiness and solidity about him that is impressive. So Faulkner and Hemingway, both steeped in alcohol, spending their last decades writing parodies of themselves; Sinclair Lewis, after the promise of Babbit and Main Street, churning out self-infatuated lifeless novels year after year; Fitzgerald, writing insipid stories and a second-rate novel after The Great Gatsby, finally winding up pathetically as a reformed soul in Hollywood.
And we must not forget Melville's poetry, which he wrote all his life. Although his best poetic effects were achieved in prose (as in the whale's carcass passage, quoted earlier), some of his poems are very powerful.
"The Portent" (1859)
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war. *
"There never was a bad man that had ability for good service." --Edmund Burke
I don't know what the fashion is today, but in my youth it was widely supposed that a writer, to be any good, had to have "experience," and lots of it, usually of a proletarian nature, so book jackets claimed that the author had been a field hand, roustabout, gandy dancer, cowboy, bartender, fireman, used car salesman, smuggler, and so on. What would the composers of such fanciful biographies have made of Jane Austen?
One of eight children of a clergyman of gentle lineage and no fortune, living in the countryside with few diversions aside from family theatricals and reading, largely educated at home, she began to write in her early teens, and before she was twenty-five had completed three novels, unpublished for a dozen years. After the success, in 1811, of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice was published two years later, and then followed Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. It is an amazing career, especially considering the wit and sophistication of her work.
Her stories are romances in the sense that at their conclusion the hero and heroine, after grievous misunderstandings, finally come to terms and marry, but they are both more serious than the term suggests and more lighthearted, the former because Austen is a moralist of character, the latter because her vision of people is comic, and nothing is so fatal to romance as humor. As the characters converse and react to each other, they reveal themselves, and in the case of secondary characters the revelations are soon made obvious. For instance, on the first page of Pride and Prejudice, after the famous opening sentence:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
There follow two pages of colloquy between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about Mr. Bingley, a well-off young man who has just moved into the neighborhood. She wants her husband to call on him, but he, fending her off with bland irony, pretends not to understand. We soon realize that Mrs. Bennet is silly, and her husband amuses himself at her expense. The last paragraph makes these judgments explicitly.
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
For the rest of the book, these and other characters will enact and reenact their traits to comic and dramatic effect. But because Austen is a moralist of character and everyone's behavior has consequences, all will be judged by the end, even though our feelings about them will always be tempered by laughter. So the technique of the book, movement of plot and revelation of character by conversation, is clear at once, and the book's theme -- the nature of a happy marriage -- is hinted at. And, although it seems a joke at first, Mrs. Bennet is proved right: by the end of the book, three of her daughters are married, one to Mr. Bingley and one to his best friend.
Austen's handling of characters is brilliant. The physical scenes, the houses and grounds are hardly described, they are marked and varied by the characters in each place: the Bennets at Longburn, the Bingleys at Nethersfield, Darcy at Pemberly, and so on, and a change of place means a change of characters, hence progression in the plot. We are always looking forward to exchanges of gossip and comic displays of character. Our appreciation is enhanced by complicity. For instance, after reading Mr. Collins' letter of introduction, Elizabeth asks her father, "Can he be a sensible man, sir?" Which he answers:
No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.
The only inferior novel Austen wrote was Sense and Sensibility, and by looking at it we can better see the excellence of Pride and Prejudice. In Sense she does not vary the characters enough, so when the scene shifts it does not change sufficiently to excite our interest -- the characters are too similar. And too many of them are disagreeable. Their speeches are often too long and too formal, so there is a stiltedness about them never felt in Pride, where rapid, often witty, exchanges are the rule. Finally, the good characters, the ones who achieve happiness in the end are uninteresting; no one has the liveliness of Elizabeth Bennet or the power of Darcy. Austen's improvement from one novel to the next is extraordinary, as her prose became smoother, surer, more pointed, and more economical. Nevertheless, Pride remains the favorite of most readers because she never again created such an appealing hero and heroine or assembled such an entertaining cast of characters.
If my readers will take up the June issue of the Review and look again at my essay on Henry James, I think we might learn something from a comparison of the two writers. Consider the passage I quoted from the novella Daisy Miller, Randolph's remarks and Winterbourne's revealing interpretation. It is realistic in a plausible sense -- people speak like that -- and it subtly tells us something important about Winterbourne. Now Austen has her subtleties, chiefly in nuances of personality, but her presentation of characters and appraisals of conduct are not subtle in the Jamesian sense, and the dialogue is hardly realistic. We accept them as real, just as we accept other fictions as real, but we know that no one quite talked like that, even in Jane Austen's drawing room. We can see, then, that genteel fiction in the course of the 19th century became more realistic, but what it became more realistic about was techniques of representation, imparting to that fiction the illusion of gravity, of substance. James was concerned with fine distinctions of conscience and consciousness, and these are not inconsequential, as we see in Daisy Miller: Winterbourne's fastidiousness leads him to misunderstand Daisy and so to remain a figure of futility. Austen, on the other hand, writes about broader questions that go beyond individuals, questions about how to live a useful, happy life, about the nature of marriage, and qualifications for a happy one, about the moral life and its obligations. Jane Austen is really a child of the tough-minded 18th century, a descendant of the same sturdy stock as Swift, Fielding, and Smollett, who looked at life in her restricted circle with their steady realism. You never feel, when you read her books, the Victorian missishness you often feel in James' work. What genteel fiction gained in technique it lost in substance, which is one reason it was pushed aside by the coarse naturalism of Norris and Dreiser. But that's a story from another opera.
Probably what most impresses a reader encountering a Jane Austen novel for the first time is the difference in manners, which must seem very distant and punctilious compared to ours. I have heard students express scorn for the "artificiality" of the characters' manners, implicitly contrasting them with their own "sincere" directness. But this is to misunderstand manners entirely. Politeness is way of keeping people apart or, to put it another way, bringing them just within hailing distance. It structures, provides a code for, encounters, and every society has its own tactics of politeness. We think of our own deliberate informality and seeming frankness as more honest than the constraining conventions depicted in Austen's novels, but in fact our ways are also rituals designed to maintain relations at a certain distance, and we adhere to them with strict conformity.
One of the benefits of reading a book like Pride and Prejudice is that it presents us with a culture different from our own so that we have to exercise our minds to interpret its codes. This is one of the justifications for the course of reading I have been proposing in this series of essays: that by meeting different minds at their most articulate (which is what good writers are), we expand our own minds and sympathies. We realize, long before the novel is done, that Austen is concerned with the same moral issues that confront us, and that the rituals of manners, fascinating in themselves, are only different expressions of the same humanity. *
"He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has." --Epictetus
We would like to thank the following people for their generous contributions to this journal (from 11/13/2008 to 1/14/2009): Reid S. Barker, George D. Barrett, Carol & Bud Belz, Charles Benscheidt, C. W. Borklund, Jan F. Branthaver, William G. Buckner, Terry Cahill, Mark T. Cenac, Betty G. Davis, Peter R. DeMarco, Edwin J. Feulner, The Andersen Foundation, John B. Gardner, Robert C. Gerken, Gary D. Gillespie, Lee E. Goewey, Hollis J. Griffin, Alene D. Haines, Violet H. Hall, Anthony Harrigan, Bernhard Heersink, Richard L. Herreid, David Ihle, Burleigh Jacobs, Marilyn P. Jaeger, Robert R. Johnson, Michael Kaye, Margaret Kearney, John S. Kundrat, Allyn M. Lay, Alan Lee, Herbert London, Cary M. Maguire, Will K. McLain, Eugene F. Meenagh, Edwin Meese, Delbert H. Meyer, Robert P. Miller, John Nickolaus, King Odell, Michas M. Ohnstad, Harold Olson, Arthur J. Perry, Gregory J. Pulles, Richard O. Ranheim, Harry Richard Schumache, John M. Segal, Dave Smith, Carl G. Stevenson, Clifford W. Stone, Frank T. Street, Elizabeth E. Torrance, Jack E. Turner, Thomas Warth, Thomas H. Webster, James J. Whelan, Gaylord T. Willett.
We do not realize how much we, individually and collectively, are shaped by the history of our country. The ways we think and behave, how our actions as community members, our social and political expectations, all grow out of our past. We did not know this until we went to live in Canada, where our efforts to understand the habits and thinking of our neighbors made us see, in action as it were, how our differences were determined by our contrasting histories. The elements that went into the making of Americans began to appear even before the Pilgrims landed, when they drew up the Mayflower Compact aboard ship, but it is a mistake to think that the deepest currents of history are always to be found in treaties and covenants and compacts; that the frontier, with all that it implied, was but a few day's distance from tidewater until after the Revolution, was one of the greatest formative influences. My point is not an analysis of the origins of American character, but an assertion that the shaping forces were at work from the beginning. If we would perpetuate American character and culture, each rising generation must be taught anew the old lessons, but we know that since the 1970s this task has been so neglected that historical illiteracy is rife. Another development has been the success of radical historians in taking over the curriculum. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a favored text, read now by countless numbers of high school students. That at least one generation of Americans have had their minds poisoned against their own history is a disaster; that they have also been deprived of some of the most moving and profound stories in any national history is a tragedy.
It may seem hard to believe today, but until the l950s there was not a lot of interest in the Civil War, and its historiography was dominated by Southerners. After 1865, Northerners turned to the tasks of getting on with their lives in a dynamically developing society; they had won the war, settled its issues, and that was that. Reconstruction did not attract their attention for very long, and by 1876 that was over, too. For Southerners, however, who faced a devastated land, a ruined economy, and a drastic social upheaval, the war was a trauma not to be forgotten, and for the rest of the century and a good part of the 20th they brooded over it (witness the obsessive novels of William Faulkner). Inevitably, the Southern point of view colored these histories, especially of Reconstruction, which didn't begin to be adequately treated until the end of the l950s. The first significant general histories written from a Northern point of view were by Bruce Catton (1899-1978), the story of the Army of the Potomac in three volumes -- Mr. Lincoln's Army (1951), Glory Road (1952), A Stillness at Appomattox (1953). He followed that with the Centennial History of the entire war -- The Coming Fury (1961), Terrible Swift Sword (1963), and Never Call Retreat (1965). This is inferior to the Army of the Potomac volumes, because it lacks their incisiveness.
Bruce Catton's, of course, are not the only popular general histories. The Army of the Potomac series was followed in a few years by Shelby Steele's The Civil War, A Narrative, and its success may be due in part to the cynicism and ignorance so widespread today, because it is essentially ahistorical, the War Between the States in three volumes. Approaching the subject from a Southern point of view, he does not discuss causes and does not see the salient points; it is no more than a well-described military scrimmage. There are plenty of readers (so-called Civil War buffs) for that sort of book.
Another, much more interesting history that started coming out in the 1950s, was Kenneth Williams' Lincoln Finds a General, five volumes of a projected seven, uncompleted at the author's death. Williams concentrates on the military aspects, especially on Grant's career, and he describes all the movements from First Bull Run to Chickamauga, doing so in unusual detail, quoting the official records at great length. The footnotes are fascinating. If you want to know what was involved in maintaining armies in the field, and what qualities were needed to make a successful commander, these are the volumes to read.
For a general history, however, Catton is the choice. His Centennial history, of course, covers more ground than the Army of the Potomac volumes, but the latter makes all the essential points about the war, and it is much better written. He is superlative on the war's causes, and after a long discussion of the Northern and Southern arguments about slavery, he says this:
Perhaps the essential fact about slavery was that it could neither be kept alive nor done to death rationally. Its foundations went far down into the pit, down to blackest wrong and violence, and when the foundations were torn out, wrong and violence would surely be loosed for a season. (The Coming Fury, p. 244)
This is the truest and most succinct explanation of why the decades-long debate about slavery ended in civil war, and it is the answer to those who say that it wasn't really a problem at all, that it would have faded away by itself in a few years. All the rational people with rational solutions. But Catton sees the truth and says it, and there is no more to be said. That's what is meant by grasping a salient point.
Catton is also excellent on McClellan's failings (though not so severe as Williams, who closely analyzes his performances in the field), especially in dealing with his civilian superiors. As he puts it, "A capacity for getting along with civilian authorities is just as essential a part of [a commander's] equipment as his ability to plan campaigns and win battles."
The most striking passage occurs at the end of Glory Road. It is November 1863, and the cemetery at Gettysburg is being dedicated with a long, long speech by Edward Everett and a short one by Lincoln. While Everett is speaking, Catton mentions a few wounded veterans present who adjourn to Cemetery Ridge and talk "quietly about what they had seen and done there." A paragraph follows not in the soldiers' words, but about the things they might have spoken ("The veterans by the trees looked about them and saw again the fury and the smoke and the killing."). Then there's a paragraph, with a reference to Ezekiel 37, beginning "this was the valley of dry bones, waiting for the word, which might or might not come [in Everett's speech]." He writes about the bones and what the men had been like and their motives:
They had come here because of angry words and hot passions in which they had not shared. They had come, too, because the drums had rolled and the bands had blared the swinging deceitful tunes that piped men off to battle . . . three cheers for the red white and blue, here's a long look back at the girl I left behind me, John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave but we go marching on, and Yankee Doodle on his spotted pony rides off in the eternal smoky mist of war.
The next paragraph voices puzzlement at the meaning of war:
Back of these men were innumerable long dusty roads reaching to the main streets of a thousand youthful towns and villages where there had been bright flags overhead and people on the board sidewalks cheering and crying and waving a last good-by. It had seemed once that there was some compelling reason to bring these men here -- something so broad that it would encompass all of the terrible contradictory manifestations of the country's pain and bewilderment, the riots and lynchings, the hysterical conspiracies with their oaths written in blood, the hard hand that had been laid upon the countryside, the scramble for riches and the scheming for high place, and the burdens carried by quiet folk who wanted only to live at peace by the faith they used to have.
The penultimate paragraph expresses the hope that "the word," the meaning of it all, will be revealed here.
Perhaps there was a meaning to all of it somewhere. Perhaps everything that the nation was and meant to be had come to a focus here, beyond the graves and the remembered echoes of the guns and the wreckage of lives that were gone forever. Perhaps the whole of it somehow was greater than the sum of its tragic parts, and perhaps here on this wind-swept hill the thing could be said at last, so that the dry bones of the country's dreams could take on flesh.
And then the last paragraph of the book:
The orator finished, and after the applause had died away the tall man in the black frock coat got to his feet, with two little sheets of paper in his hand, and he looked out over the valley and began to speak.
That Catton does not here print Lincoln's address, because we know it or should know it, is a master stroke because he sends us back to it, makes it stand out more sharply as the answer to the quest for meaning in these paragraphs. By making it seem a meditation by the veterans, at the same time that the language transcends their articulation, he gives these passages of meditation physical grounding, the lives and experiences of actual soldiers, and simultaneously gives the thoughts a breadth and depth they could not themselves express. In these two pages Catton encapsulates the significance of the Civil War, and he does it so cleverly, so beautifully, so eloquently that once read it is not easily forgotten. No other Civil War history that I know of has done this so well.
The Civil War is a Northern story because the victory of the Federal government meant that from then on the development of the United States would be a national not a sectional story. The latter had been fostered by slavery, which made the South a backward-looking, a stratified agricultural economy peopled by slaves, a depressed class of ignorant poor whites, a ruling class of plantation owners and their business collaborators. The outcome of the war meant, as Lincoln prophesied, that the Declaration would finally be nationally fulfilled.
To read the story of the Civil War as he tells it is to know again what Americans have done to build "a new birth of freedom -- that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," -- and to rededicate our lives to it.
Catton also wrote the two excellent concluding volumes -- Grant Moves South (1960) and Grant Takes Command (1968) -- of a trilogy by Lloyd Lewis, who wrote only the first volume, Captain Sam Grant (1950), before his death. *
"Christmas in Bethlehem. The ancient dream... the incarnation of perfect love." --Lucinda Franks
Fifty and more years ago, when I was a downy-cheeked undergraduate, certain names always turned up in essays or critical articles which showed the writer's gravity, that the discussion was being conducted on the highest level. The usual number was four, and they came from this list: Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Conrad, Mann, Kafka, James. They were regarded as high priests of Art, which was the standard bearer of the cause of the Humanities, and their invocation signaled that the writer was no trifler. Only recently, in the course of writing these essays, have I realized that my own conception of literature was shaped by that high seriousness. But what exactly am I talking about?
When it began I do not know, but both Henry James and Joseph Conrad were apostles by the mid-1890s. In America it began to appear among serious critics in the 1930s, but it really spread after the war when the New Criticism movement became dogma in English departments across the land. The New Criticism was a method of understanding literature (embodied in a book, Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks and Austin Warren, 1938) that paid close attention to the text, to the words and their denotations and connotations, to their tone, to their emotional implications, and so on. It ignored, so far as possible, historical or biographical information. What it replaced was a moribund system which my older readers may recall, of meaningless sentimental gushing over "pretty" verses, or deadly biographical readings: Keats wrote the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" because he was dying of tuberculosis and missed Fanny Brawne.
The methods introduced by the New Criticism were exciting, especially compared with the old regime; they made poetry, for instance, seem vital, and they swept away its sissy associations. To those of us affected by it (not everyone was) it was exhilarating to see how close analysis of a seemingly simple poem could reveal depths of meaning and feeling. You can see how this would reinforce the ideal of high Art, of which the New Critics were advocates. Reading, whatever its pleasures, was an endeavor of great seriousness, and from it we learned lessons of life. I do not mean that the critics or our teachers preached or even suggested that we draw such lessons; they were inherent in the act. Conrad's protagonists are not always heroic, but the books about them are. For instance, Jim (in Lord Jim) commits a cowardly act which dogs him throughout the book, but we're never exactly sure of how he sees it. In fact, as we are presented with different views of the affair, our own view changes and develops. When he regains his self-respect in Patusan, we realize (as Stein, who sent him there, recognized) that Jim's self-conception is not merely heroic but romantic, so his death is appropriately a dramatic act of expiation. Here is what Marlow, the narrator, says of him at the end:
But we can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied -- quite, how I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us -- and have I not stood up once, like an evoked ghost, to answer for his eternal constancy? Was I so very wrong after all? Now he is no more, there are days when the reality of his existence comes to me with an immense, with an overwhelming force; and yet upon my honour there are moments, too, when he passes from my eyes like a disembodied spirit astray amongst the passions of this earth, ready to surrender himself faithfully to the claim of his own world of shades. Who knows? He is gone, inscrutable at heart. . . .
Doesn't such prose make life seem heroic, or at least terribly serious? What reading like this did was not just to make me switch from a History major to English, but it strengthened what must already have been my bent -- it made me an idealist. I was not alone. That kind of literature and the reverential approach to it appealed to budding intellectuals who, instead of business careers, went on to grad school and teaching, or tried to be writers themselves.
The evidence that Conrad believed in an exalted idea of art shows in the preface to his third novel (and the first good one) The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897).
And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.
This is a man who takes his writing seriously and expects his readers to take it seriously, too. It isn't mere entertainment, it's about Truth, with a capital T. Of course, he would not have been read at all if his work wasn't entertaining, and at this point we should look at his great novella Heart of Darkness (1902) to see how he creates a work of art that is both entertaining and inspiring.
Marlow, who also narrates Lord Jim and Youth, tells the story to four men who share "the bond of the sea" on board a yacht waiting in the Thames for the turning of the tide. He prefaces his narrative by the ominous remark, "And this also has been one of the dark places on the earth." By "dark" he means uncivilized, and he goes on to speak of the Roman conquest of Britain as "robbery with violence," but:
. . . what redeems it is the idea only, an idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
There we have the whole theme of Marlow's experience as he tells the story of his trip, as captain of a steamer, up the Congo River to his fateful meeting with the company agent, Kurtz. In just a few pages, before the trip even begins, Marlow has laid out the main lines of his narrative, but what is most important, he has made the reader feel that the story is momentous and ominous, charged with brooding feeling. You see how the reader is drawn in, how his interest is aroused, how he is made to feel that the theme and its working out is of the highest importance.
I won't analyze the whole story. The point is that Kurtz, who started out as an apostle of civilization and progress (in his case a "sentimental pretense"), gave in to the darkness, collaborated with the natives in various abominations, and in a final revelation before his death, said "The horror! The horror!" Marlow says:
He was a remarkable man. After all, this was an expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth. . . . It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory!
Then there is a final great scene where Marlow goes to see Kurtz's fiancee, and while she carries on, full of illusions, Marlow keeps seeing and hearing the last scenes of Kurtz:
"Repeat them," [his last words] she murmured in a heart-broken tone. "I want -- I want-something-something-to-live with." I was on the point of crying at her, "Don't you hear them?" The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. -- "The horror! The horror!" "His last word -- to live with," she insisted. "Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!" I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. "The last word he pronounced was -- your name.". . . It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark -- too dark altogether. . . .
The last sentence of the story:
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost end of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky -- seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
What a final note: the reader feels that the tale has been an immensely significant experience, more than a moment of truth. Is it any wonder that stories like this make quotidian existence seem very small beer indeed?
As befits a man who could write like that, Joseph Conrad (1857-1926) had an extraordinary career. Born and raised in Poland, at the age of 20 he signed on a British freighter bound for Constantinople with a cargo of coal, thus beginning his 16-year career as a seaman and eventually a master mariner. About a dozen years later he began writing a novel, and when it was published in 1895, he finally gave up seafaring. Amazingly, he wrote in English. His first two novels are not very good, but from 1897 to 1903 he published what I think are his finest works: The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Youth, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Typhoon. Other notable works are Nostromo (1904), Victory (1915), The Shadow Line (1917) and The Rover (1923). Two novels about revolutionaries -- The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911) -- are of some interest, the first for its persistent ironic tone and portrait of Mrs. Verloc, wife of the would-be revolutionary, the second for Conrad's conception of European revolutionaries. It must be said that while his ideas are not as absurd as those of Henry James (in Princess Cassimassima), they are not very realistic. Recommended stories are "An Outpost of Progress," "The End of the Tether," and "The Secret Sharer."
But what of the subject with which I began, the question of high Art? As a creative phenomenon it lasted from the 1890s into the 1920s, and as a critical conception it was still the reigning orthodoxy as late as the early 1960s, (when I was teaching), but it must have been swept away in the general wave of destruction we know as "the 1960s." I see no trace of it now, but of course there is no literature and no criticism of the sort we associate with the heyday of that practice -- Leavis, Tate, Wilson, Winters, et al. It seems strange that literature should reach an apogee of self-consciousness and then quickly dwindle to nothing, but after all, literature is not separate from its culture. Perhaps when an activity, like literature, becomes fully self-conscious it has reached the end of its present incarnation and then must descend into decadence and nullity so long as destructive social forces remain dominant, arising in new forms only when society itself is reborn.
Think for a moment of writers before the advent of high Art -- did Dickens, for example, think about his writing in that way? Or Thackeray? Or Fielding? The great artists of the culture's noontide may be self-conscious about technique, but that is quite a different matter from thinking consciously about one's dedication to a sacred task. I cannot say why, and of course my observations may be quite wrong, but it seems to me that when art is seen in almost a religious light, and when the artist becomes self-consciously an instrument of Truth, it's a sign that the lights are about to be dimmed. *
"I don't pass the buck, nor do I alibi out of any decision I make." --Harry S. Truman
Samuel Lyman Abbot Marshall (1900-77), known as "Slam," is regarded as our foremost military historian, and while he did write histories (World War I, the Korean war, for instance), the designation is not quite right; it misses what was unique about his work. To understand that, we have to know something about his life and career. From his memoir, Bringing up the Rear, we learn that his father was an expert bricklayer (and itinerant preacher) which is why he moved frequently as job opportunities turned up, so Slam's childhood was spent in different states until the family settled in El Paso. It was a typical working class boyhood of the time: without consciously knowing it, he was raised within the moral framework created by his parents and the society around him, and within those boundaries he had plenty of unsupervised freedom to develop. Compared with youth today, boys like Slam were both more innocent and more mature, more responsible. In El Paso, he got to know soldiers at nearby Camp Cotton, so when we entered the war it seemed the natural thing to join the army. He went through the Soissons, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne campaigns, and when he became at seventeen a lieutenant, he was the youngest officer ever commissioned from the ranks.
He worked at various jobs for a few years until he became a reporter and sports writer on an El Paso paper, which led to a lifelong job on the Detroit News. In his spare time and for no other purpose than its innate interest awakened by his war experience, he pursued military studies by reading books (he mentions J. F. C. Fuller and B. L. Hart, two eminent British military theorists) noting his disagreements in the margins, and then writing a thesis (for his eyes only) justifying his disagreements. Think about that for a moment, think about the man's determination and self-discipline. He makes the point in his memoir that he valued intellect less than the power of concentration, "whereby all that one knows about a given problem may be brought to bear in a given moment," and the course of his career certainly bears him out. In the late 1930s he began writing articles for the Infantry Journal, and when Germany invaded Poland, he did a daily 15-minute broadcast on local radio, analyzing developments, as well as a daily column for the News. Blizkreig, his book about the Nazi campaigns through the fall of France, was published in 1940, and a year later Armies on Wheels, covering events up to and including the invasion of the USSR. But his greatest work was yet to come.
After Pearl Harbor he was called to Washington to serve as a Lt. Colonel in the General Staff, which meant a number of miscellaneous assignments until he was told to write pamphlets describing U.S. battles so far in the war. He answered that it was impossible because there was no information to give body to the narratives. His superior was appalled and didn't want to face the Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, who'd given the order, so Slam did it (this was typical; when others shied away from responsibility, he would shoulder it), explaining to Marshall that the army's Historical Section was still studying WW I. Shortly thereafter, he and two colleagues were told to do the job-plan for the writing of the history of the army in WW II. Understand that they were doing it from scratch, with no guidance. Although he did not know how he was going to do the job, Slam knew they had to have access to command decisions as well as the combat zone, and they had to fight the Pentagon for that.
Preliminary planning done, but still with no idea how to penetrate the fog of war to get the real history of battle, Slam joined the 27th Infantry Division in its assault on Makin Island in the Gilberts. For awhile he tried questioning individuals:
Nothing I heard helped me a bit. Not only were these people extremely vague about what they had seen and what the unit had done; much that they reported was clearly hallucinatory.
Then one night, he was caught in a battalion perimeter by a series of Japanese attacks, stemmed at the end by one machine gunner. Next morning he said to the commander:
If I can find out what happened to us last night, I'll know the way to clear up confusion in battle.
Joe said: "I agree; I haven't any notion what my own troops did."
When we reached the tip of Makin just before noon, I sent for the standout machine gunner and his lieutenant. Their stories clashed head-on. I collected all survivors from the platoon, and questioning them as a group, made them start at the beginning -- that is, when they moved into the position. Piece by piece we put it together. The story of the night's experience came clear as crystal. It was like completing the picture of a jigsaw puzzle. At last I knew that, quite by accident, I had found what I had sailed west seeking.
After that, he went back to Hawaii to interview the companies that had fought at Makin, perfecting the technique. He went on to Kwajalein (Island Victory is his account) and confirmed the method.
A large part of my field work was done during the return voyage to Oahu. We held company assemblies on the open deck every day. By the time we saw land I had sufficient proof that the new method could be applied as readily to the actions of one whole division in battle as to the fighting of one platoon.
Sent to Europe after D-Day to set up a theater-wide organization (eventually employing 350 men trained in his methods), he and his aides waded into the Battle of the Bulge, conducting interviews on the spot at the time, and when he was done, he said, "From there on out, no one would be able to stop us." Much of his success was due to his determination, good humor, and commonsensical ability to evade red tape.
That was Slam's great contribution to military history, the way to learn what actually happened on the battlefield. It had other benefits, too, because it revealed strengths and weaknesses on both sides, teaching tactical lessons. It was learned, for instance, that Japanese soldiers followed certain patterns of action that were stereotyped, so could be learned and countered. This was even more striking during the Korean War when the Chinese suddenly erupted on the battlefield in November 1950 with tactics that were baffling, frightening, and very successful until they were understood, an effort in which Slam played a large part. An example:
As the fight began, or even before it started, when the presence of the Communist Chinese maneuver body was still unsuspected, there would come a blaring of trumpets, a piping of shepherd's horns, or the trilling of fifes and flutes. The blowing of bugles would persist throughout the battle. The other musical effects were used not unlike overtures. However used, the instruments were getting to the American nerve, and the troops felt spooked.
The group interviews told him the flutes and horns were intended to demoralize defenders, but the bugle calls were tactical signals. He had to find a solider who could remember the calls accurately, and then he had to scale the calls and reproduce the instruments. A factory in Seoul did so, and soon Americans were using the Chinese calls to confuse the enemy.
Slam's exploits in the field are fascinating, and I recommend his memoir for that reason alone. What I want to focus on are the books he wrote that embody his group interview method. They are listed at the end, but I shall discuss one as an example of the rest. The River and the Gaunlet is his account of the rout by the Chinese of the Eighth Army in the last days of November 1950, and he tells the story exactly, comprehensively, and dramatically:
Such then, were the doubts and problems that pressed upon this headquarters during the early days of November while the army was gathering itself along the Chongchon. It would be inaccurate to say that all saw the storm signals clearly and cried warning. But there was a sense of impending change and a realization that the army must replenish toward it. China's intentions remained the great riddle and the key was still missing. There were three interpretations of the object sought by this new enemy on Eighth Army's immediate front: a) a limited assist to help the North Koreans hold a defensive base within their own country; b) a show of force to bluff Eighth Army away from the Manchurian frontier, and c) a screening movement to cover the advance of armies from behind the Yalu.
According to the knowledge then present in Eighth Army, each of these was a reasonable estimate. But all were equally wrong. The enemy armies were already there. . . .
By then X Corps, with 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division in the van, already had penetrated deep into enemy country. There, as in the west, the Chinese counteroffensive would strike suddenly and with full power, following by three days the collision with Eighth Army. But these were two battles and quite separate, each from the other. All that happened on the eastern field for good or evil influenced the fortunes of Eighth Army scarcely at all. Another epic story, it someday must be told.
Here we look only at the unequal struggle along the Chongchon between one army which, through attacking, had no expectation that it would be strongly resisted, and a second host which, hidden, watched and waited the hour opportune to its own offensive design.
The other didn't.
So to begin.
The essence of the book is Slam's careful recounting of the small actions-squad, platoon, company -- which made up the whole as the army, unit by unit, retreated over a period of five days, and this gives the actions and the individuals such immediacy that we cannot escape the appalling knowledge of what that combat was like:
While the force on the rearward knoll was being pinned and then. . . . Second and Third Platoons had taken no part. Out along their open flanks, they could hear voices yelling: "Don't shoot! GIs! Don't shoot! GIs!" M/S William G. Long thought the cries were on the level, and that the other platoons were breaking and coming into his lines. But he was doubly perplexed because he thought he could hear men speaking Chinese out somewhere beyond his front. He called to his men: "Don't fire yet!" The fact was that though they had heard fire all around, they had seen no targets.
Then Long heard a bugle blown from rearward -- four sharp notes, twice repeated. That was the enemy call from the other hill, signaling that the point was won and that heavy weapons should come up.
Right afterward, whistles shrilled from many points, and bullets thickened around Long. Cpl. Henry Miller yelled: "Here they come! I can see them!"
By then Long could see them also. Perhaps a score of dark forms stood out clear against the starlight within a hand toss of his foxhole. They were stooped over, looking like hunchbacks, and they moved in perfect silence. Long and several others fired. The figures hit the ground and returned fire. Several grenades exposed near the position. . . . A grenade exploded next them, and he heard them cry out. Then a dozen forms shining silver in the moonlight broke from the underbrush and came over the rise. Pfc. Navarro met them with machine-gun fire but got off only one short burst. They went straight for the gun. Navarro and his assistant, Pfc. Beverly, were shot to death by a Chinese with a tommy gun, standing directly over them. A grenade landed hard against Sergeant Hawkins, lying in the shadow beside Burch. The explosion lifted him bodily and blew him across Burch; his leg was shattered. Pfc. Brinkman, already wounded in the skirmish on the right, was struck by a second bullet. Corporal Barry, who had been trying to dress his wound, was also shot down. Someone yelled: "The BAR's jammed!"
These things happened as fast as the next second. Burch shook loose form Hawkins and jumped to his feet. Now he could see from seventy-five to a hundred Chinese in a wide semicircle so close upon him that he could have dented any part of the line with a well-thrown rock.
Slam was not an elegant writer, but it was in his nature and his self-training to be one who sees with absolute clarity the things of this world, especially the actions and reactions of men in extreme situations. My hunch is that only he could have discovered the historical method because only he could know it when he saw it -- then he could teach it to others. But he remains supreme. No other writer will give you a truer sense of what battle was like in that place at that time.
A final note of interest to conservatives: Marshall was contemptuous of most (not all) war correspondents, and he had this to say to a press conference at the time of the Eighth Army defeat:
I didn't talk to the press gallery; I gave it hell. I said it had been writing irresponsible copy about a bugout army based on rumors and spook stuff from malingerers. I reminded them that the Eighth Army was in retreat, with our national affairs in crisis, and that an American wasn't divested of all moral responsibility to his nation just because he held a news job.
World War II: Island Victory, Battle at Best, Night Drop, Bastogne: The First Eight Days, Makin.
Korea: Pork Chop Hill, Hill 440.
Vietnam: Battle in the Monsoon, Bird: The Chistmastide Battle, West to Cambodia, The Fields of Bamboo.
Sinai Victory: Analysis of the Israeli Army's performance in 1956.
S. L. A. Marshall wrote many other books, historical as well as technical.
Hopkins, William B.: One Bugle, No Drums. An account by a participant of the situation of the 1st Marine Division at Chosin Reservoir across the peninsula from the Eighth Army, an account which shows the superior skills, training, morale, and tactics which saved the Marines from the Eighth Army's fate, with an appendix by Marshall. *
"While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader." --Samuel Adams
Henry James (1843-1916) presents the curious case of a writer who has been avoided because of his critical reputation, the mirage which mistily shows distorted images of the writer, now hugely imposing, now pettily trivial, but always solemnly forbidding. There are two critical schools, the Europhiles and the Europhobes, and if the latter are foolish, the former have done much more harm. The "phobes," first on the ground, dismissed him because, eventually settling in England, he located most of his books in Europe and usually wrote about the leisure class. Literary nationalists accused him of a lack of patriotism, writing about effete nobs when he should have been hymning the praises of virile American heroes and heroines. I'm exaggerating (but not by much), and you can see what a silly argument it is, but it scared away readers, who thought of him as a literary old maid, simpering and gossiping over the teacups in Lady Whoozis's drawing room. The "philes," who have dominated the field since the 1920s, are uncritical admirers, worshipers at the shrine, who tend to regard all other American writers as clumsy bumpkins. They even refer to him as "the Master." They especially admire his late writing, when his scrupulous distinctions and subtle shading were pushed to syntactical extremes that baffle readers. James' cultists make readers who don't appreciate this sort of thing feel like ignorant louts, driving them away. What I purpose to do is to present the man without the mirage, a writer like any other, who has virtues and faults which we can appraise without intimidation.
From 1865 when his first story was published until his death in 1916, James wrote over 100 stories, 10 novellas, 20 novels, several books of travel and criticism, and a couple of memoirs, but I shall concentrate on four of his novellas because I think it was in that form, more consequential than a story, more condensed than a novel, that he did his best work. He seemed to need the economy of the form to maintain his focus; lack of that mars some of his novels.
In Daisy Miller (1879), his first big success, he created a heroine who would be regarded for a generation as the type of American young womanhood: outspoken, charming, fresh, daring, willful, and innocent. She is seen through the eyes of Winterbourne, an American who has lived long in Europe and is attracted to her but puzzled by her indiscretions. For most of the story he thinks she's innocent, but finally he loses faith: "She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect." Daisy comes down with Roman fever and dies, but not before sending him a message showing her innocence and that she cares for him. When Winterbourne understands her message, he recognizes the truth of a remark spoken early in the story that he has "lived too long in foreign parts"; by looking at Daisy through European eyes he has misjudged her, and lost her. At the end, Winterbourne is still in Europe, which tells us of his futility, the real point of the story. This is a reiterated theme in James, the confrontation between Americans and Europeans, with their different values and attitudes.
Such a summary tells us nothing of how the story is created, and that's what is most interesting. Conrad called him a "historian of fine consciences," and as one critic put it, "with shadings and niceties he delineates complex situations of moral choice." His writing is always subtle, never blatant. Here's an example. Randolph, Daisy's brash nine-year old brother, is talking to Winterbourne:
"My father ain't in Europe; my father's in a better place than Europe." Winterbourne imagined for a moment that this was the manner in which the child had been taught to intimate that Mr. Miller had been removed to the sphere of celestial rewards. But Randolph immediately added, "My father's in Schenectady. He's got a big business. My father's rich, you bet!"
The second sentence is clearly ironic, but it is Winterbourne's irony, and it tells us that he's a sophisticated young man who's enjoying Randolph as something of a joke; it also a hint that he condescends to the Millers, which turns out to be the crux of the story. James knows that we show ourselves in our slightest as well as our largest acts, and he builds a story by accumulating these moments of insight, to which we must be sensitive. In nearly all his fiction there is a character through whose eyes we see everything, but we must never confuse such a character with the author -- he, too, must be tested and evaluated. The beauty of the story is the creation of the characters, so that by the end we understand them all, and the pleasure we have in that understanding is that we have gleaned it ourselves from seeing them in action and hearing them speak; James has not told us about them in some didactic fashion.
Washington Square (1881) is a darker story because the characters are not only somber, but they have a great moral weight; this story is not of a romance aborted at its inception, but of a moral triumph where love itself has been crushed. The fascination of the story is the development of the four main characters whose personalities grow from their remarks and gestures until each stands out boldly against the quietly genteel New York of the antebellum years. His greatest feat is the portrait of the heroine, at the beginning a rather dull, charmless young woman who finally becomes, by the pressure of the other characters, the moral center of the story. Here she is at the beginning:
A dull plain girl she was called by rigorous critics -- a quiet, lady-like girl, by those of the more imaginative sort, but by neither class was she very elaborately discussed.
Many years later, after her lover has proven to be the mercenary scoundrel her father prophesied, he asks her to promise not to marry the lover after he, the father, dies:
All her feelings were merged in the sense that he was trying to treat her as he had treated her years before. She had suffered from it then; and now all her experience, all her acquired tranquility and rigidity protested. She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this request, in her father's thinking himself so free to make it, that seemed an injury to her dignity. Poor Catherine's dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.
"I can't promise," she simply repeated.
"You are very obstinate," said the doctor.
"I don't think you understand."
"Please explain, then."
"I can't explain," said Catherine "and I can't promise."
"Upon my word," her father explained, "I had no idea how obstinate you are!"
She knew herself that she was obstinate, and it gave her a certain joy. She was now a middle-aged woman.
In the last scene the lover turns up again, trying to worm his way into her good graces, and Catherine handles him with firmness, her honesty a striking contrast to his slick speciousness. We realize that she has, in character, triumphed over all the others.
The Aspern Papers (1888) is narrated by a collector on the trail of a long-dead author's letters to one of his mistresses, and the story is about his nefarious pursuit while playing the part of a lodger in the old lady's house in Venice. Cultivating her niece, he plans to use her to get the papers, but in the end, when he realizes she'll give them to her only if he marries her, he is defeated. The niece, portrayed as rather dim and unworldly in his eyes, becomes the moral center while the narrator is finally seen as a scheming fool. Our interest lies in his scheming, his self-justifications, and his self-deception, which are all funny and finally sad.
The Turn of the Screw (1895) is probably his most well-known work, a ghost story (a favored genre) raised to a terrific pitch of gravity. A young woman is hired as governess to a boy and girl living with servants at a country estate. Before long, she realizes that the place is haunted by the ghosts of a former governess and valet who, when alive, evidently (but vaguely) involved the children in dubious acts. Now they are trying to get in touch with the children again, and the governess, the only person on the spot who sees the ghosts and understands what they want, is duty bound to defeat the ghosts and save the children. Unfortunately, but inevitably (given the situation) she gets caught up in the hysteria as events work to a climax. The creation and development of the situation, told from the governess's point of view is a masterpiece.
These novellas are an excellent introduction to James. From them the interested reader may go on to other works.
The conventional notion (the cultists's view) is that James's work steadily progressed until its glorious fulfillment in his last novels (The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl). My view is that he was a very uneven writer whose work varied in quality all over the lot at any time, with an excellent book preceding a mediocre one to be succeeded by another good one. For instance, his second novel, Roderick Hudson (1876) is poor, but the next year he published the first rate The American. In 1878, however, he published The Europeans which is laughable because, except in Washington Square, he had trouble placing Americans in their native scene. The New Englanders here are absurd. But the next year he published Daisy Miller. The decade of the 1880s, I think, saw him at the height of his powers. He published three excellent books (Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Aspern Papers) and one very good one The Bostonians. After that, although he can still turn out fine work (The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton) his books drastically deteriorate until they become, for anyone but a cultist, unreadable. Studying for this essay, I read What Maisie Knew (1897) twice, and I have no idea what it's about, nor do I think James knew -- or cared.
Because by then he took himself too seriously. Art became sacred, he was its High Priest, and his works from about the mid-1890s are intensely subtle and precious invocations of it as his style becomes ever more devious and obscure. In his absorption with the finest points of form, of technique, he lost interest in the story. In fact, the stories became more and more melodramatic and the characters more and more bizarre. But that's the writer's first job, to tell a story, because writers are successors to bards, the tellers of tales, and that's why we read in the first place. Art must entertain. One of the purposes of this series is to broaden and deepen your concept of entertainment. But there is a limit, and Henry James proves it.
Works recommended: In addition to the novellas discussed, you should try The Pupil, An International Episode, and The Siege of London. There are a number of his stories out in collections, and since most of his stories are very good, you can't go wrong in trying the collections. Novels: The American: ingenuous American meets sophisticated Europeans. The Portrait of a Lady, his finest novel, badly flawed at the end because we cannot believe in the heroine's marriage and subsequent fate. The Bostonians: satire on feminism and dessicated Transcendentalism in Boston. Structurally sprawling. The Spoils of Poynton: a seemingly absurd contretemps that becomes a moving story about the heroine's loss and possession. *
"It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution." --Oscar Wilde
Recently I chanced to read a favorable review of a history book in which the author describes frontier realities as "myth-making," and remarks that the standard "narrative" nowadays is that Indians were peace-loving folks persecuted by evil white settlers. This is only one small sample, of course, and I'm sure my readers know that denigration of the American past is conventional behavior among academics, not to speak of Hollywood and the media. These are the thoughts provoked by that notice.
Before I began this series I wrote a short essay, "The Culture of Conservatives," for the Review, criticizing the way conservative magazines focused exclusively on politics, arguing that what was needed was a deeper appreciation of culture -- the politics would follow. The obvious meaning is that, as the subsequent series tries to show, reading good literature deepens our consciousness by exposing us to other points of view. There is a broader meaning of culture which I want to invoke: the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns and beliefs (that's why my essays have not been about contemporary writers; their culture is mean and negative). Writers do not announce their cultural attitudes; they are just there, largely unconscious, communicated by language, gestures, assumptions.
The cultural climate is far more important than we think, affecting all our thoughts and acts. The cultural elite has been contemptuous of America since the 1920s and in the last 40 years that attitude has spread to all levels of society, witness the book I noted at the beginning. We are living in a poisonous cultural atmosphere, and what is the answer of politics? The stupid extension of presidential campaigning has rendered politics even more incredibly shallow than usual. I would like to think that if we resolutely mocked and denounced every manifestation of anti-Americanism, we would soon improve our politics and politicians. Politics follows culture.
Reading the review of that contemptible history book made me remember a fine writer and patriot who wrote an excellent history of the frontier: Teddy Roosevelt. We do not think of him as a writer because his political career obscures everything else. He is one of our best prose stylists, second only to Thoreau, with a style that is muscular, sinewy, and direct. His sentences are always absolutely clear. He has none of Thoreau's sly humor or subtle grace, but you are never in any doubt about his meaning.
The Winning of the West (1889-96) was originally planned to cover not only the trans-Appalachian West (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the old Northwest) but the entire southwest up to 1850, a project curtailed by the pressures of his political life. What we have are two volumes beginning in the 1760s, extending to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. We have become so used to finely drawn, complex histories that we may lose sight of the basic outlines of the past. In fact, sophisticated moderns deny such outlines entirely, rejecting them as simpleminded. To maintain that pose, however, they have to ignore facts or explain them away. Roosevelt's history doesn't stint on detail, but his account of the conquering of the old West makes the basic outlines unmistakably clear.
Although there were many points of contention between Britain and the Colonies, the one thing that rendered conflict inevitable was the British intention to maintain the territory beyond the Alleghenies in a wild state where Indians could hunt and trap for the benefit of British traders and the Crown. The Proclamation Line of 1763 specifically barred settlement there -- but men like Daniel Boone were already exploring the Kentucky wilderness. The tide of settlement was inexorable. Roosevelt manages his narrative by treating specific areas (the French of the Ohio Valley, 1763-1775) or events (Lord Dunmore's War) in short chapters, painting a picture, stroke by stroke, detail by detail, of the vast wilderness gradually being transformed into a settled land by the efforts of hunters, explorers, surveyors, and frontier settlers, all of whom played their essential parts in the struggle before, during, and after the Revolution. He emphasizes two aspects (aside from their hardihood) of the frontiersmen: their rugged individualism and their instinct for coming together to form self-governing communities.
Roosevelt was a man of the 19th century. He owned a cattle ranch in the wild country of North Dakota and he knew, better than any of us can know, something of what frontier life could be like. He had no illusions about frontiersmen; he knew that they committed outrages against the Indians just as the Indians did against the whites, but:
Unless we are willing that the whole continent west of the Alleghenies should remain an unpeopled waste, a hunting-ground of savages, war was inevitable.
Only the frontiersmen were tough enough to do it, and in doing so, they laid the foundations of our national greatness. Let me quote some more from the book for the pleasure of my patriotic readers:
It has often been said that we owe all our success to our surroundings; that any race with our opportunities could have done as well. . . . Undoubtedly our opportunities have been great; undoubtedly we have often and lamentably failed in taking advantage of them. But what nation ever has done all that was possible with the chances offered it? . . . The truth is, that in starting a new nation in a new country, as we have done, while there are exceptional chances to be taken advantage of, there are also exceptional dangers and difficulties to be overcome. . . . Looked at absolutely, we must frankly acknowledge that we have fallen very far short indeed of the high ideal we should have reached. Looked at relatively, it must also be said that we have done better than any other nation or race working under our conditions.
No other conquering and colonizing nation has ever treated the original savage owners of the soil with such generosity as the United States.
Americans need to keep in mind the fact that as a nation they have erred far more often in not being willing enough to fight than in being too willing. . . . The educated classes, in particular, need to be perpetually reminded that, although it is an evil thing to brave a conflict needlessly, or to bully and bluster, it is an even worse thing to flinch from a fight for which there is legitimate provocation, or to live in supine, slothful, unprepared ease, helpless to avenge an injury.
Roosevelt wrote four hunting books: Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), The Wilderness Hunter (1895), and Hunting the Grizzly (1905). I like them all, but I think my favorite is Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail because it is a varied mixture of subjects. It was written as a series of articles, profusely illustrated by the great Western artist, Frederic Remington, for the Century magazine. The first chapters are about life on his ranch, which he relished. You can sense the attraction in this passage:
The whole existence is patriarchal in character: it is the life of men who live in the open, who tend their herds on horseback, who go armed and ready to guard their lives by their own prowess, whose wants are very simple, and who call no man master.
Note, however, that feeling does not cloud his judgment:
In its present form stock-raising on the plains is doomed, and can hardly outlast the century. The great free ranches, with their barbarous, picturesque, and curiously fascinating surroundings, mark a primitive stage of existence as surely as do the great tracts of primeval forests, and like the latter must pass away before the onward march of our people; and we who have felt the charm of the life, and have exulted in its abounding vigor and its bold, restless freedom, will not only regret its passing for our own sakes, but must also feel real sorrow that those who come after us are not to see, as we have seen, what is perhaps the pleasantest, healthiest, and most exciting phase of American existence.
There is a realism and a sensitivity about that paragraph that is characteristic. The first sentence is stark, flat, uncompromising, all that needs to be said from a factual point of view. The rest of the paragraph, the long second sentence with its accumulative force, makes us understand the intellectual and emotional significance of the first sentence, coloring the picture with richly evocative adjectives.
The hunting chapters (and the hunting books in general) are based on Roosevelt's experience, vividly described, but they also contain lively descriptions of flora and fauna; he was a many-sided man with an eye for beauty and much else besides:
Even in the waste places the cactuses are blooming; and one kind in particular, a dwarfish, globular plant, with its mass of splendid crimson flowers glows against the sides of the gray buttes like a splash of flame.
Reading him is like being in the company of a fascinating man of great character and intellect who speaks clearly and gracefully of his experiences. He wrote more than I have mentioned, but those are the titles I recommend. Try libraries and second hand stores, although occasionally a small press will do a reprint. My 1995 copy of Ranch Life and The Hunting Trail was done by Gramercy Books (a Random House imprint) and contains this note:
[This book] reflects the culture and attitudes of late 19th century America, which are not necessarily those of the publisher of this Gramercy edition.
Such are the lengths to which the craven will go to satisfy political correctness. *
"Vote for the man who promises least; he'll be the least disappointing." --Bernard Baruch
Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is one of those writers attractive to ideologues and eccentrics whose enthusiasms distort understanding of the writer, obscuring his real significance as a writer. He created the first authentically American style, that clear, uncluttered, supple prose that seems so straightforward and transparent but which is capable of the subtlest nuances, especially ironic humor. Before we get to that, however, the ground must be cleared.
Thoreau was the most faithful disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), an embodiment of the Master's Transcendentalist philosophy. Back in my salad days when I was a Professor teaching American literature, I took Transcendentalism seriously, boring my students with long lectures on its intricacies, but now wordy transports about Nature and the Over-Soul do not move me. It contains some useful ideas, but as a philosophy, as a theory of the universe and man's place in it, it's a bag of wind. What Emerson did was to take German Idealism, strained through the mind of Thomas Carlyle, add a dash of Oriental mysticism, and produce an optimistic rationale for individual and national self-fulfillment, combining enthusiasm, uplift, and cultural nationalism at an opportune time, just as the westward surge was gathering steam. The American fuel tank was filled with Transcendentalism until the end of the century.
Walden, or Life in the Woods, the book we shall consider in a moment, is built on three Transcendentalist tenets, the first being self-reliance, exemplified by Thoreau's life at Walden Pond. The whole book is testimony to it and needs no more elaboration. The second idea, announced in Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1837, "The American Scholar," is the identity of the scholar with "Man Thinking," thus denying special status for the scholar (or intellectual) set apart from ordinary men. The farmer, the mechanic, the storekeeper are all potentially capable of filling the role, just as Thoreau did, as Walden abundantly shows. How far we have degenerated from that ideal, when we have a caste of academics calling themselves "public intellectuals"! Finally, Nature and man's relation to it, the "correspondence" between the two, was a major Transcendentalist theme that turns up on nearly every page of the book. This is a persistent theme in American thought, antedating Emerson, turning up again and again in our literature and elsewhere. "Getting right with Nature" is an American preoccupation from the Declaration of Independence to the maniacal Greens; we seem unable to accept Nature's implacable indifference.
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 1845 to September 1847 in a cabin he built himself (on Emerson's land). He was not a hermit, nor was he playing at the Simple Life. He had visitors, and he often went to Concord (A friend from there tells me that many of the old families still have plates from which he ate his dinner). This is the reason he gave for his sojourn:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Like many an ancient philosopher, he believed that it was only by living simply, shedding all superfluities and encumbrances, that one can gain wisdom. And by living at the Pond he was in constant touch with the natural world, vital to him for personal as well as philosophical reasons. Wherever he happened to be, Thoreau was a close observer of Nature, and at the Pond he was in his element. There was also a mundane reason. He had lived with Emerson and his family and then, at the urging of the Master, had gone to New York City for a year to further his nascent writing career. But nothing had come of that so he returned to Concord to work in the family business, manufacturing pencils. The move to the Pond and its subsequent economy would enable him to live without a regular job (occasionally he undertook surveying commissions), would remove him from what he felt was an ignominious situation, and would give him time to write. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was composed there.
Walden, published in 1854, was written seven years after the event. His writing career had not advanced much in the interim: magazines like Atlantic Monthly printed some of his essays, but A Week, published at his expense, sold less than 300 copies and left him in debt. He lectured at the Concord Lyceum and farther afield, but he wasn't going to make a living at that either. He was back at the pencil factory. What may have weighed most heavily on his mind was his declining vigor; the TB that was to kill him may have begun then. The writing of the book, then, was a deliberate attempt to recapture the spirit of those two years when he was bursting with life and enthusiasm, when he felt he was master of his fate in the morning of the world, and the book's structure was carefully crafted to that end.
He composed his books and essays and lectures in the same way, by mining his daily journals. In the case of Walden, he reworked the lectures he had already given on the subject at the Lyceum, revising them in the light of his over-arching purpose. So he compressed the events of two years into one, linked events to the seasonal cycle, and emphasized the morning and springtime aspects of his life there. Compared to A Week, Walden is dynamic. The former reads like mystical meditations occasionally interrupted by material facts, but Walden moves right along, the meditations are more vigorous and usually grow directly out of material observations. To put it another way, Walden is the most synthesized of Thoreau's works (speaking of writings published during his lifetime; later essays were cobbled together from his journals by other hands). Nevertheless, it is not as synthesized as it should be, and the fault lies in his method. Generally, the daily entries in his journals are laconic: some natural observations and a few sentences embodying a thought. When he turned to the journals to compose a manuscript, he selected related thoughts, elaborated them, and then strung them together. Too often it is as if the sentences in a paragraph were separate pieces of shot collected in a bag to be fired off at the reader, Thoreau in his pulpit assailing the audience with sentence after sentence of condemnation. This can be tiresome.
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases, he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand, instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom, and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary, eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
It is an old story that moralists who tell us how to live often show an appalling ignorance of and lack of sympathy with their fellows, and Thoreau is no exception. He meets John Field, an Irish laborer, to whom he sings the praises of his simple life, contrasting it with the Field's hardworking one. Condescending, even snide, to the man and his wife, he thinks they cannot choose his way of life because they're Irish clods. It does not occur to his sophisticated mind that he was able to make that choice because he was, relative to the Fields, privileged. His father owned a good business, and Thoreau was highly educated. In order for a man to choose a materially spare life, he has to have the resources behind him which will allow him to make a choice; he has to be so free of want that he can contemplate surrendering some of his privileges with equanimity, and he has to be educated enough to appreciate the appeal of simplicity. Simplicity is always preceded by complexity. Thoreau comes off very badly here, but it is characteristic of the philosophy; most Transcendentalists were childishly egotistical, wrapped up in themselves and their theories.
Finally we come to Thoreau's great gift, his prose. Look at the first paragraph of Walden:
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Read it aloud and note how the short phrases of the first sentence build energy for its emphatic release in the long last phrase, while the two following matter-of-fact sentences act as a denouement, a scaling-down of the tension built up and released in the first sentence. What this arrangement does is to endow the prosaic statement with power out of proportion to its factual content, thus making the facts significant in the reader's mind: this shall be no humdrum account. And note the immediacy of the prose; there is no veil of language between you and the writer. We feel his liveliness. Those three sentences announce an authoritative voice in American writing.
Here's a passage from the "Bean Field" chapter.
When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to this my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now to-night my flute has waked the echoes over that very water. The pines still stand here older than l; or if some have fallen, I have cooked my supper with their stumps, and a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes.
What this does is to assert an organic continuity between Thoreau and the pond, among past, present, and future, and between man and Nature. The way it works is to stress the specificity of places and presence of time. In four simple sentences he moves from the past to the future through the medium of a very definite place seen through the eyes of a man in the present, looking backward and forward, but always in terms of the material facts of the scene. The repeated pronouns and adverbs heighten the reader's attention, just as the emphatic second sentence does, and the light touches of elegance, "waked the echoes," "another aspect for new infant eyes,"also italicize the scene. Once again we are reading what seems to be a casual statement, but by the end we have been caught up in the exultation.
Here's a beautiful example of his ability to move from a specific material observation outward, in this case to a discovery of the fabulous in the mundane, ice fishing in the Pond. The paragraph is anchored at beginning and end with material facts about fish, but it contains within it an assertion of transcendent beauty, which his cumulative prose makes you believe.
. . . They, [pickerel] of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom, Waldenses. It is surprising that they are caught here, -- that in this deep and capacious spring, far beneath the rattling teams and chaises and tinkling sleighs that travel the Walden road, this great gold and emerald fish swims. I never chanced to see its kind in any market; it would be the cynosure of all eyes there. Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven.
Conservatives should read Walden, not for its ideas (the first chapter will suffice for that) but for its spirit. Here is a live man, and it is the matchless prose that gives him life. *
"Contentment is as rare among men as it is natural among animals, and no form of government has ever satisfied its subjects." --Will Durant