Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Negative Elements
This happened years ago when we lived in Cape Breton. A car drove in the lane and a young couple got out, Helga and David, who had read some of my essays in a country magazine, and wanted to meet me. I’m always pleased on such occasions, but I must admit they’re pretty rare. It was about lunchtime, so we invited them in.
While we were fixing lunch they told us they had moved from British Columbia to Halifax a few months ago to look into farming possibilities. They wanted to find out if it were feasible to live in the countryside and 1) avoid becoming “petty bourgeois,” and 2) “be socially active with other progressives.” I realized then that we were just another stop on their list of “progressive elements.” I was not as appalled as you might think. I had listened to plenty of nonsense like that back in the ’60s when I had been involved in lefty politics in Vermont — but this was the 1990s and Cape Breton, and it was so absurd that it was laughable. But Helga and David were not the kind of people to be jollied along. They were determined and serious, a grim, very grim pair.
They had been taking short courses (introductions to their subjects, not intended for regular students) at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, where one of our daughters graduated, so we were not surprised by his denunciation of the aimless life of the students there. I remarked that what they objected to was, in fact, the life of the rural working class. Given the situation in the poor and backward Maritime provinces, there was nothing surprising about it.
Helga jumped in, claiming that in British Columbia the local papers printed articles and letters protesting American foreign policy, promoting organic gardening and so on, while the Halifax papers were all about things like Billy Graham’s latest crusade. Yes, the Nova Scotia situation looked unpromising, but there were positive elements everywhere if you looked hard enough. I saw that it was useless arguing with them; they didn’t listen — these were obviously old pros.
Then David mentioned, as a positive element, the fisherman’s strike the previous year, and I remarked, with obvious disgust, that their union was led by a Communist. Now there were many things to say about that strike, but the leader’s politics was not the most important thing, and I realized as I said it, that I was testing David, but I did not ruffle his old pro feathers. “So what’s wrong with that?” he said.
Before I could answer, he went on to discuss a book about the strike, one of the worst books I have ever read about a labor struggle, the sort of account in which the workers are romantically sentimentalized, everyone else is villainously sentimentalized, and the whole point is the glorification of the author. Helga remarked, “Of course, the author is a bourgeois journalist, but in its sympathy for the workers it strikes a positive note.”
Sentimentality about the working class is a way of lying. It is practiced by those who regard workers as someone else, a group of people distant from themselves. The social realist shares with everyone the godhead of essential humanity. The sentimentalist denies change to those below him on the social ladder, hence must lie about them: to tell the truth about them and then to deny the chances of change would be too black indeed. The sentimentalist must have a pretty world around him in which to exercise his superiority. When the sentimentalist observes the working class (always from a distance), he comes away more convinced than ever, that “they” are fine where they are and he’s fine where he is, which is what really matters.
Beneath the sticky surface of every sentimentalist there is a hard-hearted mean-spirited son of a bitch.
I thought these things as David spoke, and when I glanced up he said, with a condescending smile, “Don’t internalize your feelings, articulate them.” I turned a thoughtful countenance upon him and said, “There’s nothing to say.” He was taken aback. I suppose he thought I would argue lefty politics with him.
They left soon afterwards, and Helga said bitterly as she passed me, “We thought you were progressives!” *
Writers for Conservatives, 77: Thomas Sowell
This essay is about a book by Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, published in 2005. Those familiar with Sowell’s work will see it as another one of his brilliant expositions on topics that explain social phenomena widely misunderstood by conventional wisdom, especially by those whose interests are invested in the misunderstandings. Sowell is an unsparing foe of conventional wisdom. As he says in the Preface:
“The purpose of this book is to expose some of the more blatant misconceptions poisoning race relations in our time.”
The book is divided into six parts, the first five dealing with specific cases or issues, the last examining the general phenomenon that fosters the misconceptions. The first is the title essay, and if the reader has read an essay in this series I wrote some years ago — about a book by D. H. Fisher called Albion’s Seed — he will understand the “redneck” phenomenon: The bulk of 18th century immigrants from the backlands of Britain, Scotland, and Ulster, areas constantly exposed to destabilizing fighting and quarreling that made these immigrants proud, touchy, unsocial, and so undesirable that they were quickly shunted from their port of debarkation, Philadelphia, westward and southward into the Southern backlands. They were not the Tidewater Southerners, the plantation owners.
Prior to 1900, most northern Negroes were descended from those who had been freed prior to the Civil War. They were used to the norms of white society, acculturated we would say, but when Southerners began moving northwards in significant numbers, the redneck culture they embodied quickly alienated Northern whites as well as blacks, reinforcing segregation. Ironically, it has been white liberals, starting in the ’60s, who have promoted a “black identity” built around a redneck culture. Sowell covers the whole gamut of disastrous ideas and policies that have followed, blaming Negro shortcomings on white culture.
Once we grasp the point about the prevalence of redneck culture and its terrible drawbacks in the present, we can see clearly the ramifications of current liberal policies. By enunciating the subject of redneck culture Sowell has made plain the true dimensions of our social/racial problems.
The next section, “Are Jews Generic?” is about what Sowell calls “middleman minorities,” the roles they play in societies and the persecutions they endure. Since they have been “the intermediaries between producers and consumers, whether in the role of retailers or moneylenders,” the dangers in such situations are easily imagined. What’s so interesting is the ways these minorities succeed, often beginning with nothing. The essential point is their difference from the surrounding culture, making them seem “clannish,” a quality held against them. But they must be clannish: they “cannot afford to have their children carry the values of the society around them.” Sowell shows how the peddlers carried goods from wholesalers into the hinterlands, eventually saving enough to become a town shopkeeper. When we lived on Cape Breton Island we knew a prosperous storekeeper who had started out as a peddler, and we also knew a woman who, as a little girl had known him as a peddler and had been fascinated by the goods he carried in his 75-pound pack.
Sowell enumerates the resentments inspired by the successes of these minorities, and he points out that the more they are needed, the more they are resented. The history of these societies, especially the attitudes of the surrounding societies and their treatment of the minorities, is an ugly story.
In the next section, “The Real History of Slavery,” Sowell exposes the instrumental use of slavery in the claim that slavery grew out of racism. As he points out, “People were enslaved because they were vulnerable, not because of how they looked.” Slavery existed for thousands of years before the first Africans were brought to the Western Hemisphere. “It was not until the late 18th century that there was even an intellectual movement for the abolition of slavery . . . essentially, European imperialism ended slavery” because only then were Western powers strong enough to enforce their will.
Speaking of modern complaints about the past — e.g. “Why didn’t the Founding Fathers abolish slavery?” — Sowell makes the excellent point: “Moral principles cannot be separated from their consequences in a given context.” Today we look back at the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction with regret that the relations between blacks and whites took a century to straighten out. What Sowell does is to explain much of it. Once we see that racism was the result of slavery, not the other way around, we begin to think clearly about the issues.
The next section, “Germans and History,” examines German history to see whether the Nazi regime (1933-45), specifically the Holocaust, was an inevitable consequence of the German character we can discern in the history of Germans. Since the nation was created only in 1871, Sowell closely examines the history of German settlements all over the world, and while he finds certain salient traits, Nazism is not one of them. It should be noted, however, that German obedience certainly facilitated the success of Nazism. I am thinking of the way Hitler altered the military oath of allegiance from the State to a personal oath to himself as the Fuhrer. As we know, that was a serious constraint on the officers who later considered overthrowing him.
The next section, “Black Education: Achievements, Myths, Tragedies,” begins with a description of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., an all-black school that produced excellent graduates until it was wrecked in the 1950s to comply with desegregation. As Sowell points out, Dunbar was not an elite school. It took the students who applied from all over the city, but what made it so special, so unlike the typical ghetto school it eventually became, was the aspirations of the parents and staff, with their discipline and high standards. He also discusses other outstanding schools, all ignored by the loud-mouthed advocates of “diversity.”
The last section, “History v. Visions,” explains the basic issue that divides Sowell and the point of view he is criticizing, which prefers to blame external causation for problems rather than internal ones which can be solved by the people concerned. Although Sowell always backs up his arguments with specific examples, this section is really a summation of his arguments, a fitting conclusion of this inspiring book, which I cannot recommend highly enough. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: A Bizarre Episode
It could be said (and has been) that our life since 1962, when I left the teaching profession, has been one long bizarre episode, but what I’m writing about now is one of those strange affairs that I seemed to blunder into much too often and recall now with a mixture of wonder, amusement, and self-reproach, for as usual it was my own stupidity and recklessness that got us into these messes. What I’m about to describe is our brief employment as teachers in the fall of 1965 at a prep school in the Berkshires, an area where there were then more than twenty such schools. The Berkshires had been a summer resort from the late 19th century into the 1920s, and large estates, much too expensive to maintain in contemporary society, were snapped up by institutions at bargain prices. Some were reputable, some were on the level of Lee Academy (a throwback to Dotheboys Hall), and one or two were worse. Readers of Nicholas Nickleby will recall that one of Dickens’ targets in that novel was the infamous Yorkshire schools, really places of incarceration, where parents with some money could stash children who inconvenienced them. Run by the brutal Wackford Squeers and his harridan wife, the school’s teaching was bad, the food inadequate, and the routine tyrannous. Lee Academy was not quite so bad as Dotheboys Hall, but it had all the essentials.
Occupying perhaps ten acres at the edge of the town of Lee, it was clearly an estate that had not quite come off. The best feature was the approach through stone pillars, winding up a hill between an avenue of maples, to the main building, Mandalay Hall, a mock Tudor affair, timber and stucco, with small-paned casement windows. It was a sound, commodious place, the best thing there. There was nothing else except a one-storey stone building some distance away, now a dorm, with a scruffy field for athletics. Whether the original owners ran out of money or lost interest, the rest of the grounds were a mess: grown-over excavations and heaps and hummocks, the whole area conveying a sense of aimless degradation.
If you were a parent sounding out Lee Academy, Mandalay Hall would impress you, and you would have to be persistently curious to see that there was really nothing beyond it, but if a parent got as far as the Hall, he was not really curious, and only a few parents were sincerely interested in the education of their sons. Some were naive and unsophisticated and easily duped, but the majority were looking for a place that seemed, on not too close inspection, to be classy (it was a private school, wasn’t it?) where they could dump their offspring and forget about them.
I was hired in September just before school opened (which tells you there was something desperate about it — and about me, too) by the headmaster, Matt Merrit, a failed stock broker in his early 40s, a big bluff Irishman who, after teaching at a prep school for a year or two, had just landed this job. He was a blusterer, loudly self-confident. His second in command, Joe Degrace, was a grizzled veteran of many prep schools with a mordant sense of humor. Although I was obviously a suspect commodity, I looked good, amazingly good, in that milieu, with what must have seemed golden credentials: an AB from a well-known classy college, a Master’s degree, good notices from three colleges where I’d taught. And how I looked the part, with a tweed jacket (leather patches!), gray flannels, and WASPy good looks! In fact, we proved to be a godsend — for a while.
We were summoned to a reception at Merrit’s house to meet the other teachers and Mr. Feltman, the owner, for this was strictly a private business. Merrit lived in a decaying country mansion some miles from Lee, where he and his wife, a rather ravaged beauty, tried to put up a good front. At one point I had to go upstairs to the bathroom, and there was almost no furniture, no rugs, and the walls were scabrous with damp. What they had was used for display downstairs. Matt’s sour mother lived with them, and from her imperious manner I suspected that she was the main source of funds. I felt the tension of uneasiness in the house. When Feltman entered, the manner of it put the seal on the evening. He was not only tall, over six feet, but he was big, and his petite wife was just over five feet. They had worked out a routine in which they came through the door with Mrs. Feltman carrying him on her back, a surefire gag good for laughs and applause.
Since Feltman was the Academy’s demiurge, he must be understood. Although it was said that he started the school so his son (a dunce) could graduate from it, it was a money-making business for him. He told me, in the early days when he was courting me, as it were, that with 300 students he could clear $100,000, but he couldn’t have been making very much then because there were only about 50 or 60 students. He had to have more bodies, and until my advent briefly suggested other means, he got them by press-gang methods. As a professional accountant, he was well acquainted with shady businesses, bankruptcy swindles, and dodgy characters, and he exploited to the hilt the opportunity they presented. When a prep school failed, Feltman was there to pick up the pieces, chiefly the students, who would arrive at Lee in a bewildered bunch. A frequent ploy was to rescue young criminals (whose parents had enough money) from jail sentences by appearing at court and presenting Lee as a reforming alternative. The maintenance man, a bankrupt he had some hold over, was a spy for him on the campus.
All of those things could be described as the sharp practices of an unscrupulous businessman, but what really animated him was the need to humiliate people, to make those subject to his will cringe and crawl. He was not happy unless he could make his creatures unhappy, unless he could set them at each others’ throats. A small example: our dorm, a house on a street that backed onto the campus, housed most of the seniors, us, and Fred Dotolo, a young teacher. We had a sort of friendly fraternity there. I organized a Shakespeare club that met once a week to read the plays aloud. Feltman, through his spies, was well aware of this, and one day when he heard a boy called Dotolo “Fred” (boys were always supposed to say ‘Mr.’), he ordered Merrit to move Dotolo out at once. For Feltman, the situation was ideal: we were all losers (except Jo Ann, who couldn’t be a loser anywhere) from Merrit on down, or we wouldn’t be there, and Lee was so obviously the end of the line — lose your job here, and where could you go? Into the Army, that’s where. Half the teachers were eligible for the draft. He could do as he wished with us, because he thought no one dared quit. I think he was the deepest dyed villain I’ve ever known.
Jo Ann, who had never done any teaching, was hired to teach remedial reading, something she knew absolutely nothing about, but she resolutely began studying. She was very discouraged. The books were dreadful, full of pompous jargon, empty of meaning. But one of her finest qualities is good sense, undaunted by superficial complexity, so when she chanced on a book about phonics that was clear, concise, and reasonable, she adopted that method and it worked well. Some of her students were 18 or 19, and their reading and writing skills were rudimentary. It was a formidable challenge, but as with any challenge in her life with me (there have been plenty), she rose to it. And the knowledge she was gaining would be a great factor in our future.
Although the boys were certainly a mixed lot, we got along well, partly because they could see we were working very hard to teach them (a rare experience), and partly because we were banded together against Feltman. For instance, on Parents Day a sumptuous meal was served to the guests, and a large centerpiece of fruit, with a pineapple on top, was laid out in an adjoining room. Boys from our dorm stole most of it and we had a feast (including the pineapple) together.
On fine Saturday afternoons we would take boys, along with our young children, on hikes in a nearby state forest, and there’s a sad story in connection with that. A few days after school began, a new boy with his father turned up. The boy was tall and shy and soft spoken, the father dapper and glib. He would be back, oh yes, he would visit, not right away, he was busy now, but he would be back, the boy could count on that. He couldn’t get away fast enough, and the boy was very sad. At the Saturday noon meal when I announced a hike, that boy always told me how sorry he was he couldn’t go, he loved hiking, but his father might come . . . the boy never hiked with us and his father never appeared.
The only teachers we socialized with were Fred Dotolo and Bob Watt, a young man I hired to teach English. Also Ed Logan — at first; I’ll tell you about him in a moment. Of the others I cannot honestly say that they would have seemed reputable under normal circumstances, but certainly the pressurized atmosphere Feltman maintained distorted their behavior, giving it an hysterical quality. We never knew what was going to happen next — a shout, a slap, running feet — as we taught our classes in Mandalay Hall. Rosiello, for instance, was a very excitable young man lacking intelligence and self-control, always having trouble with his students — shouting matches, threats of violence, general pandemonium — and he quarreled with other teachers. The Gold Dust Twins, two smiley young men who lived in the main dorm, taught something and also managed the meager athletic activities, were Feltman spies, always hovering ingratiatingly about, hoping to pick up seditious remarks. Nygaard, a grim, reserved math teacher in his 40s with a spectacularly unattractive wife, taught in the room next to mine, and since these were once bedrooms, there were closets. I kept the book supply in mine, and evidently Nygaard kept his cough medicine in his, because after he told the class that he had to take some, I would hear gurgling sounds on the other side of the wall. In fact he was hitting the sauce, and by the end of the morning his eyes would be glassy and his footwork edgy. One day he staged a drunken rage about something in front of Mandalay Hall, and was dragged away by DeGrace, who passed it off as a fit of indigestion.
Ed Logan, without doubt the prize of the collection, can be viewed in many lights, and I’ll simply tell the tale without judgment. He was in his 40s, and I liked him because he had a dry sense of humor and he was worldly, as the others certainly weren’t. I think he was drawn to me because I would listen to him with some sympathy, realizing right away that he was fragile — when he told me that an “international gang” was after him. He had taught before (Latin and modern languages), and with the small income from a trust fund sometimes he traveled in cheap places, like Portugal. Until the gang got after him, of course. He was broke, waiting for the first paycheck, so he could buy some shirts. Meanwhile, he managed by pinning shirt cuffs inside his jacket sleeves, while his snap-on tie was worn on a sort of dickey, a facsimile of a shirt front. He showed me the shirts he bought because he wasn’t sure of them — what did I think? Fine, Ed, fine. But he exchanged them. What did I think of these? Fine, Ed, fine. Back they went. And so on for several days — God knows what they thought in the store — until he finally settled on the first ones.
His womanizing was on small scale, at first. One afternoon Jo Ann and I were walking with him along Lee’s main street when he suddenly vanished. We looked everywhere, but we didn’t see him until suppertime. A woman had passed us in the street and Logan had turned and pursued her on the instant. As time went on, however, his compulsions became monstrous. One Saturday afternoon when we were out hiking, Logan went up and down the street ringing doorbells, propositioning every woman who came to the door. Someone called the cops, but he managed to elude them. Merritt and DeGrace were terrified of what he would do on Parents Day.
In the early days before he took my measure, Feltman sent me to Boston to a presentation, a sales pitch for an English program that was very stupid, not worth the huge price the outfit would charge to implement it, and so I reported to Feltman, but it made me think, and led to some interesting consequences. I don’t remember how often Feltman came up from New Jersey where his home and business were, but it was too often for the rest of us. Of course, his spies reported regularly. In October he initiated a series of meetings (I think there were three or four) at which teachers would discuss together the grades of students and their problems, ostensibly to help the students, but it was really a way for Feltman to put more pressure on us. The English grades were most important because it was the one subject every boy took, and our reports were the backbone of the meetings. Now one of Feltman’s methods of putting on pressure (and saving money) was to cut down on the food, and the situation in October was so bad that we were eating catsup on bread — until the cook rationed both. So the next time one of these meetings came up, Jo Ann and I and Watt went on strike, spending the afternoon in the Lenox library. Without our reports, the meeting folded. The food supply increased.
Some of the pressure, of course, was inherent in the work. I took teaching very seriously, and to help those poorly educated boys I had to work very hard with them, in and out of class, when I met with each boy to discuss his written work. I was so tired that sometimes I’d catch myself falling asleep in class. Restraint weakened and tempers flared. Merrit took to knocking boys around, Rosiello claimed a student tried to stab him, he and Logan were feuding. Logan was more and more paranoid, and his humor was extinguished. Every evening he would come to our apartment to tell me his troubles, how this or that one was after him, and I would patiently try to dispel his delusions. Fat chance. Here’s a characteristic story: one day he was called out of his classroom. A teacher often places his watch on the table to remind himself of the time, and as Logan turned to go to the door, he put his watch in the textbook and closed it. Coming back after a few minutes and not seeing his watch, he began an inquisition: Who stole it? After many bitter words had passed, he opened the book and saw the watch. What did he say? “All right you bastards — who put it here?”
By the time of Parents Day I had worked out a plan for special accelerated classes for boys going on to college — I would handle the English and Nygaard the math — which I presented in a speech after the banquet. There were some naive parents there who actually believed in the Academy, and they were enthusiastic, even though it would be an extra charge. Now Feltman would be able to attract students for academic reasons, instead of scouring courtrooms.
Another one of these stupid meetings came up, and this time it was apparent that Feltman meant to get rid of Logan, because as soon as he read one of his reports, Feltman and Merrit attacked it, until Logan was nearly in tears. He was ordered to rewrite them. Afterwards, I helped him do them over again. Of course it didn’t matter what he wrote; they were going to scourge him. Poor Ed! In his final paranoid turn, he decided that my help had betrayed him, and he left Lee thinking I was a member of the “gang,” too.
We didn’t last much longer. Our youngest, Curdie, was suffering bouts of tonsillitis, so we were keeping her in bed and bringing food to her — until the cook told Jo Ann that Feltman had forbidden it. No matter what value we may have been to the school, we were not subservient, and Feltman couldn’t abide that. We left the next day.
A month later we started the Vermont Tutoring School, the program based on what we, especially Jo Ann, had learned at Lee. Although we never made much money, we earned enough to buy a farm in Nova Scotia, where we moved in 1971. So we owe something to our bizarre episode after all.
One final note: the saddest of the boys banished to the Academy was Milner, one of those awkward angular boys with two left feet and a quaky voice and an innocent heart who’s always stumbling into trouble and being disciplined. I can still hear Merrit yelling at Milner to “pick ’em up and put ’em down!” as the poor boy ran punishment laps around the track. He had been there since the school started and was never allowed to go home. A year or two after we left I’m happy to report that he burned down a new building on the campus. *
Writers for Conservatives, 74: The First Western
The Virginian, by Owen Wister, is generally regarded as the first Western. There had been Western stories before, most notably Ned Buntline’s dime novels, but those were largely sub-literate and Wister was a fine writer. The Virginian had the classic combination of the strong silent hero in a lengthy competition with an obvious villain, finally ending in a shootout on a town’s main street. Of course, there is a spirited girl to be won, too. What is so interesting about the book (I have read it four times) is its wide range of subjects and superb writing. The Western aspect of the story is always present, even if only in the background, but foreground is often taken up with subjects that seem only tangentially related to the Western theme, until we realize that Wister is painting the broadest possible Western scene.
In the beginning, the narrator gets off a train in Montana at a small town, Medicine Bow, where his host has declared he will meet him, but instead he has sent one of his ranch hands, the Virginian, and here we see Wister’s skill and sensitivity in the way he manages the relations between the two men. The speaker, an educated Easterner quite unused to the West (he will be known for a long time as “the tenderfoot”), tries to be familiar with the Virginian but soon seeing that such forwardness is unwelcome, subsides into a passive role, guided by the Virginian. They eat in the town and plan to sleep there, and that leads to a comic adventure started by the Virginian, in which we gain some insight into the complexity of the Virginian’s character. In any ordinary Western such a maneuver would be highly unlikely. Even to suggest such complexity in a Western hero is unusual. To see it through the eyes of an innocent newcomer is a masterly stroke.
Although much of the book is written in the third person, much is conveyed in the first person by the tenderfoot who makes periodic visits to the West. The first person narration is tricky, requiring strict discipline on the writer’s part, because there is a temptation to express one’s own thoughts in the words of the fictional speaker, always betrayed by smugness. (Louis L’Amour was especially fond of the practice, as in his dreadful Sackett series). Wister handles it very well, never stepping out of the tenderfoot role.
There’s a great confrontation scene when Trampas, dealing cards, says to the Virginian “Your bet, you son of a bitch.” At once the Virginian puts his pistol on the table and says gently, “When you call me that, smile.” Trampas says nothing, essentially backing down, and life goes on in the saloon, leading Wister, as he looks at the men, to voice his deep feelings about the West. Speaking of the men in the saloon:
“Something about them, and the idea of them, smote my American heart. . . . In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous, but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.”
That’s a major underlying theme of the book, and of any worthy Western.
When they get to the Sunk Creek ranch, the Virginian is delegated to watch over him (he’s always getting lost), not really the most welcome duty, but in this way their acquaintance grows. Meanwhile, the Virginian, coming upon a stage stuck precariously in a river crossing, rescues Miss Molly Wood, the woman hired to teach the Bear Creek school, and sets her on land, keeping her handkerchief in the confusion. Their first meeting, it has a lasting effect on both.
Attention shifts to the Virginian, who has taken two trainloads of cattle to Chicago, and is returning on the train with the crew. The narrator joins him along the way and witnesses the triumph of the Virginian when he manages to best his men (who, rather than returning to the ranch, want to go to a gold rush town), by telling the tallest, most elaborate and funniest of tall tales, beautifully related by the narrator.
Molly, on a horseback ride, discovers the Virginian lying on the ground, wounded by Indians, and with much difficulty she gets him to her cabin, where, with Mrs. Taylor and the doctor, she ministers to his needs. He is a long time recovering his strength, and at one point he receives the long-delayed letter she had written him before he was wounded, refusing his courtship. He determines to give her up, but she won’t let him now, so they are secretly engaged.
Meanwhile the narrative continues. The Virginian is sent to deal with an epidemic of cattle rustling, which results in the lynching of two men, one being the Virginian’s old friend Steve, prominent in that first meeting at Medicine Bow. The Virginian is very upset, and it hangs over him as he and the narrator leave the area. They come upon a track, one horse and two men. They are part of the rustler gang, Trampas and Shorty, and to facilitate his getaway on the horse, Trampas shoots Shorty and rides away.
The final confrontation scene between Trampas and the Virginian is excellently managed. Molly and the Virginian are riding to the town where they will be married when Trampas passes them, and when they reach town, three of his friends warn him. They go to a saloon for a farewell drink and Trampas enters, slanders the Virginian and warns him to be out of town by sundown. The Virginian must face the threat, he cannot run away even as Molly swears she will forsake him. He goes out and of course wins the battle, but Wister again proves his power: here is the whole description:
A wind seemed to blow his sleeve off his arm, and he replied to it, and saw Trampas pitch forward. He saw Trampas raise his aim from the ground and fall again, and lie there this time, still. A little smoke was rising from the pistol on the ground, and he looked at his own, and saw the smoke rising upward
out of it.
“I expect that’s all,” he said aloud.
He returns to the hotel, tells Molly he has killed Trampas (thinking she has renounced him), and she embraces him, saying “Thank God!”
The tension has been maintained to the end. There’s a lot more in the book I haven’t discussed, and I leave you to it. *
Letters from a Conservative Farmer: A Government Favor (for Once)
When we moved to Cape Breton in 1971 it was economically depressed, and it only got worse over the years. The federal government proposed various money-making schemes to put us on our feet, and I heard their proponents on the radio proclaim that if we did this (or that) we would see the end of welfare expenditure on the island. I actually heard that with these two little ears. Now I could tell you all about those schemes, what happened and how they came to naught, and depending on how I told them, the stories would be funny or sad, but I’d rather tell you about a plan that failed, but became a wonderful gift to us.
People whose land ran down to the water often had oyster leases, but we knew a place where there were no leases, and probing the shallow water with garden rakes, we got quite a few large oysters (a shell on my desk is seven inches long). There was an oysterman down at the end of the lake who made a desultory living, but there wasn’t much interest in oysters in the early ’70s. Then the government decided we should all become oyster entrepreneurs.
Like most government schemes, it seemed logical. Rafts consisting of 12-foot spruce saplings laid a foot apart across a metal frame resting on four foam-filled plastic floats, with coated wires suspended from the saplings, scallop shells a foot apart on the wires, would be anchored in the lake to catch oyster spat as it settled on the shells, and in three years the larvae would grow into salable oysters. Cape Bretoners had a jolly time in the preliminary stage that winter and spring, because all the unemployed, men and women, were well paid to construct the rafts. By June they were afloat, anchored about the lake.
There were several fallacies behind the project, but its doom was simple and obvious: to make it succeed required canny management, work which would not be remunerated until the oysters were sold. Simply anchoring a raft in the lake was not enough. It would have to be moved, first to a place where there would be plentiful spat, then to an area rich in nutrients, and sometimes it would have to be anchored near where a freshwater stream flowed into the lake, to flush off weeds growing on the oysters. Not a lot of work, but it had to be done, it had to be done right, and it wasn’t what people on the dole wanted to do.
Some people did their best, but at the end of three years the oysters were disappointingly small (as any oysterman could have told them at the start), and they had difficulty separating them from the scallop shells. Then catastrophe: the government wanted $5,000 for each raft! At once all interest was extinguished, no one would even look at a raft, and the government was stuck with hundreds of them moored around the lakeshores. A couple of years passed, until the rich summer people with yachts complained about impediments to navigation, so then the government hired a launch to haul all the rafts to remote places around the lake. There was a labyrinth of coves and uninhabited islands a mile or two from our farm, and a lot of rafts were anchored there.
Regarding the whole thing as a fiasco, I doubt if I would ever have recognized my great opportunity if I hadn’t met a neighbor at the shore unloading oysters from his skiff. Where’d he get them? “Off’n them rafts,” pointing across the cove. That afternoon found me paddling our canoe down another more remote cove. Tying up at a raft, I knelt on the poles, holding my breath, and hauled up a wire to see scallop shells crowded with oysters. By then, they been growing for seven or eight years, and it took only ten minutes to fill a bushel. There was an unexpected bonus: mussels clung to the floats, and I got those, too. Half an hour after landing at the raft, I was paddling home with two bushels of oysters and a big bucket of mussels.
I made that trip several times over the next few years. Late in the fall, I’d put a bushel or two down in the cold cellar, covered with wet seaweed, and we’d have oysters into the winter. But eventually the bonanza played out and the rafts finally sank to the bottom. I shall long remember those years as the only time in my life I’ve had enough oysters! *
My Harvey Weinstein Moment
There was a time, as a senior in high school, when my career might’ve taken a turn toward fame and fortune, but alas! It was not to be. I was the ordinary horny 17-year-old, not very bold, in fact, not bold at all, but with a jaunty façade. One morning as classes were changing, I walked into the room where my history class was to be held, and in the crush of students leaving and students arriving, I found myself next to Faye Stein, a very attractive girl. We smiled and nodded, and I saw that she was wearing a tight blouse that seemed to thrust her classic bust toward me. Without a thought in my head I reached out and cupped one of those beautiful breasts in my hand. Faye reacted instantly, slapping my face so hard I was staggered. The whole thing was over in an instant, and I don’t think anyone noticed, but in that moment the career that might have been vanished. Had Faye equivocated, I might have gone on to fame and fortune, Hollywood, the Senate, who knows what heights I might have scaled. *
Writers for Conservatives, 71: The Wolf by the Ears — Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, by J. C. Miller
The title, an image used by Jefferson to express the dilemma of Southerners who wanted to abolish slavery but couldn’t find ways to do it, is an apt summary of this book, a thorough account of Jefferson’s thinking on the subject from the 1780s until his death in 1826. The history of the period, before slavery (thanks to Calhoun) was regarded as a positive good, makes for very sad reading because abolition had more support then than it had later, and prominent men, like Washington, were known to despise it.
Jefferson’s role in the arguments of the time begins with his “Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), publication of which may have led to his being picked to write the Declaration of Independence. In the “Summary View” he claimed that slavery had been forced on Americans by George III. His belaboring of the issue in the first draft of the Declaration was cut out by his collaborators. Later, his draft of a constitution for Virginia, advocating gradual abolition, was rejected, and so was the same project in his contemplated revision of the laws of Virginia. The Continental Congress’s Ordinance of 1784, prohibiting slavery in the territories ceded to the government by the states, was lost by one vote (the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 banned slavery north of the Ohio River in the territories).
After peace was established and stringencies of wartime were relaxed, Jefferson was dismayed to see that the ostentation and self-indulgence he had deplored before the war, and which he had attributed to the “demoralizing influence of monarchial government and slavery,” had returned, and he preached “frugality, temperance, and the simple life of the American farmer.” He blamed the credit advanced by British merchants. His thinking on this point — he maintained his prejudice against Great Britain and “Monarchism” to the end — was not merely simple-minded but almost hallucinatory.
From 1785 to 1790 he lived in Paris as the minister to France, and he wrote Notes on Virginia in which he had his full say in print, for the first and last time, on slavery. At first the book was circulated in manuscript because it was intended only for the eyes of French savants. It was only when a pirated edition was published that he agreed to its publication, and then only anonymously with limited circulation. In it he condemned the Virginia constitution of 1776, expressed his abhorrence of slavery, and asserted the inferiority of Negroes’ intelligence. He feared that his condemnation of slavery would be premature and would strengthen resistance to its abolition. This was to be a constant theme throughout his life.
The point should be made that Jefferson was mainly concerned, not so much with the slaves, but with the effect of slavery on the white masters, insisting that it debased them. He thought Negroes were inferior and when they were freed should be banished from America, because he feared race war and miscegenation.
I should say something about the Sally Heming story, presuming that my readers will know about it, or at least Fawn Brodie’s version of it. In fact, the story was started by James Callender, an amazingly scurrilous writer (he can hardly be called a journalist) who had fled from Great Britain after publishing a diatribe against his country, a book which confirmed Jefferson’s worst prejudices and inspired him to call Callender a “man of genius.” He gave the rogue money and promised to further his publishing career. Jefferson was then Vice President in Adams’ Federalist administration. Callender published a book attacking the Federalists. Jefferson bought fifteen copies. Then Callender wrote The Prospect Before Us, blacking the reputations of Hamilton, Washington, and Adams, a book which Jefferson read in proof. After Jefferson became President in 1800, Callender, for reasons too involved to explain here, turned against him, made a Richmond paper into an anti-Jefferson scandal sheet, and invented the Sally Heming story. Miller devotes a chapter to it and to my mind, convinces me of its falsity (and the falsity of Fawn Brodie’s account as well). Incidentally, we are mistaken if we think the bitterly partisan tenor of the media today is unprecedented, as even a cursory glimpse of the newspapers of Jefferson’s time will show. The Sally Heming story (complete with a “dusky harem”) was printed in a Richmond paper. Talk about “fake news”!
Controversy erupted in 1819 over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. Southerners wanted it because it affected the balance of power in the Senate, but a group of Northern Jeffersonian Republicans broke away from the domination of the Virginian dynasty to sponsor the Tallmadge amendment forbidding slavery there. After all, Missouri was north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Amendment passed the House, but lost in the Senate. What interests us is Jefferson’s reaction. He saw the Amendment as an attempt by Northerners to use the federal government to crush the South, and he went so far as to advocate legalizing slavery in all the territories, arguing that by diffusing the ownership of slavery over such a vast area (he thought, for some reason that they would be small farms) in small groups, abolition would be easier. He was violent in his denunciations of what he thought of as Northern aggrandizement.
This account of Jefferson’s thinking about slavery, politics, and American prospects is depressing, but we should think of him and his choices in the context of his time. It is not generally realized how constrained Southerners, especially Virginians, were then, but once we know how Virginia was molded in the 17th century by the royal governor Berkeley (who ruled from 1641 to 1670) who was determined to make it a royalist colony by encouraging the immigration of royalists (willing to leave Great Britain at the time of their Civil War and Cromwell’s Commonwealth), the vigor and persistence of slavery is explained.
These royalists were granted extensive parcels of land for tobacco plantations, and of course, they were worked by slaves. Indentured servants, common then, soon gained their freedom and went off to small farms of their own, but slavery created a stable working class; they were going nowhere. Slavery was created to perpetuate the Southern system and it could not be abolished without destroying that system.
People, even historians as shrewd as Allan Nevins, often express the wish for an inspired leader who, in the decades before the Civil War, could have solved the great issue, but that could never be. It took 600,000 lives to begin the job and another century to finish it. *
Writers for Conservatives, 71: Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White
Over the years I have led my readers into some odd corners of the world of books, but this may be the oddest. It is a scholarly book on what would seem to be obscure subjects — the origin of the stirrup and its relation to feudalism; the plow and agriculture in the early Middle Ages — The Medieval Exploration of Mechanical Power and Devices. Furthermore, while I enjoy footnotes, you may not, especially when they take up half the page and are in German, Latin, French, and sometimes Italian, and sometimes, when the author is pressing the material evidence hard, you get sentences like this:
“Linden Schmidt, who published the Budenheim stirrup, was reluctant to date it more exactly than ‘Frankish,’ and there is no adequate reason for altering his judgment.”
But that’s when he is on a hunt for the origins of things, like the stirrup; his ideas and conclusions are written in strong, concise prose. This could be, in fact, the model of a scholarly book suitable for intellectually curious readers — as I hope can be said of my audience.
The preface should not be neglected, because it succinctly explains the book’s purpose. He begins by pointing out the illusion that written records give us “a reasonably accurate facsimile of past human activity.” He goes on:
“If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments . . . which have had the habit of scribbling, they must . . . use all the resources of archaeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings.”
In the first chapter he explains the classic theory of feudalism: “a type of social organization designed to produce and support cavalry,” and he lays out the evidence. As late as 733 Charles Martel’s army that defeated the Saracens at Poitiers were composed of infantry, but in 758 Pepin the Short changed the Saxon tribute from cattle to horses, and in 755 the Marchfield, the traditional muster of the Frankish army, was moved to May so there would be enough forage for a large number of horses. Charles Martel’s vast confiscations of Church lands, begun in the 730s, were used to support an “. . . enlarged body of followers on condition that they serve him on horseback . . . the ancient custom of swearing allegiance (vassalage) was fused with the granting of an estate (benefice) and the result was feudalism.” But why did they suddenly create this mounted force?
The answer lies in the use of stirrups. White then discusses what we know of the stirrup’s origins, a complicated, ambiguous, and confusing story. Finally the author decides that the stirrup first appeared in Western Europe in the early 8th century. When Frankish weapons changed; infantry weapons are replaced by a heavy lance with “spurs below the blade to prevent too deep penetration . . . which might result in difficulty in withdrawing the weapon,” something which makes sense only if we are contemplating mounted shock combat, made possible by the stirrup, which keeps the warrior firmly in the saddle as he charges with his lance under his arm. He is no longer a man on a horse, swinging a sword, but a unit, horse and man together, directing their combined mass and force against the target. White then goes on to show how the spread of the Frankish innovation feudalized Europe, with special attention to the Norman conquest of England. He concludes:
“Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history . . . antiquity imagined the centaur; the early Middle Ages made him
master of Europe.”
The author begins the next chapter on the agricultural revolution of the early Middle Ages by pointing out that scholars have largely ignored illiterate peasants despite the centrality of agriculture to all societies until about two centuries ago, thus preparing us for revelations from archaeology and iconography. He begins with the plow, distinguishing between what was essentially a large digging stick, a scratch plow, used in the light Mediterranean soil, and the moldboard plow used in the heavier, moister, northern soils that yielded far better returns. This heavier plow, with its colter, share, and moldboard:
“. . . offered much greater resistance to the soil so it required not just one yoke of oxen but four (eight animals), which meant that the peasants would have to pool their resources — all the lands of a village had to be reorganized into vast, fenceless open fields.”
As a consequence, peasants had to join together to decide how the “total lands of the community should be managed” — “the essence of the manorial economy in northern Europe.” There follows a discussion of variations in field types (which we can see today with aerial photography) and plows, because this was a phenomenon that occurred from the Slavic lands in the 5th century all the way to Britain in the 9th century.
The next step in the revolution was the development of efficient harness and the nailed horseshoe, which would make the horse “an economic as well as military asset.” The ubiquity of horseshoes is evident by the 11th century, useful harness somewhat earlier. The advantage of the horse over the ox is that while they both exert the same pull, the horse moves much faster and has more endurance. This led to another significant change, the abandonment of small settlements for larger villages, because peasants could now, with horses, go to and from their field work at a greater distance.
The next section is about the development of a more productive farming regime, the three-field rotation and its accompanying improvement in nutrition. The first thing to understand is that the Mediterranean system (which prevailed also in Europe in lighter soils) was a two-field rotation: half the fields were planted and half fallowed to restore fertility. The cultivated fields were planted with grains in the fall and in the spring with relatively trivial crops. The next year the two fields exchanged functions. The three-field system, developed in the 8th century (especially in Charlemagne’s imperial manors) worked like this:
“. . . the arable soil was divided into thirds. One section was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye. The following spring the second field was planted with oats, barely, peas, chickpeas, lentil, or broad beans (summer crops). The third field was left fallow. The next year the first field was planted with summer crops; the second field was left
fallow; the third field was put into winter grains.”
I won’t go into more detail, but White shows that the system was more productive because more crops were grown with less plowing and more efficiency; the spring planting, the essence of the new rotation, greatly increased production of certain crops: oats, prime food for horses, and legumes with enriched the soil, maintaining its fertility under more intensive use. The autumn planting was mainly carbohydrates while the spring planting was rich in vegetable proteins, peas and beans. It was not just the quantity of food produced by the three-field system, but also its quality that led to the great leap in population, the growth in cities and commerce — indeed the foundation for the modern world.
The book is very satisfying because of its great explanatory power. The ideas it advances about the origin and nature of feudalism, about the significance of material changes in technology and about their widespread effects on society are fascinating in themselves and in their implications for the way we think about social change at any time and place. The chapter about agriculture is especially interesting to me, a farmer always faced with the problem of how to squeeze more production from grudging land.
There is much more to the book than I have told here, for instance the last chapter about “the Medieval exploration of mechanical power and devices,” as well as many details about the three-field system and the evolution of the use of horse power.
Finally I should mention a flaw that was to have large consequences in White’s later career. He argues that because of the shift from subsistence farming to farming for more and wider production, man was no longer part of nature: “. . . now he became her exploiter. . . . Man and nature are now two things, and man is master.” Not only is this absurd in itself — men have always exploited nature and they have never been its master — but it led him, a few years later (this book was published in 1962), to write a book indicting Christianity as the driving force behind our so-called destruction of the environment: Charlemagne, after all, was the Holy Roman Emperor.
But I shall always be grateful for this book for the intelligent way it was conceived and written. And it confirms my conviction that the hand feeds the mind, or as Karl Marx put it, conditions create consciousness. *
Writers for Conservatives, 69: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
That’s the subtitle of the book under discussion, Retribution, another of Max Hastings’ magnificent books about World War II, akin to Armageddon, about the final throes of Nazi Germany, a book I wrote about not long ago. I cannot praise his work enough. Although this is not about the course of the war in 1942 and ’43, he refers to it often, and we know it as the preliminary to the actions that follow in the last two years of the war. When the Japanese were swiftly overrunning Southeast Asia — Indonesia, Burma, Malaya, Borneo, Indo-China, the Philippines — they seemed invincible, but the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal, severely tested them, and thereafter, their weaknesses began to show, as, for instance, their seeming inability to learn from experience and improve their weapons. The Zero, a superior fighter plane in 1941, was soon outclassed by American planes, like the Grumman Hellcat, and the tactical skill shown by the Japanese navy in the battles around Guadalcanal gave way to clumsiness in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Although chronology is not ignored, and the book moves inexorably forward, the book is really organized around subjects like “The British in Burma” or “Blockade: War Under Water,” because in that way we can better grasp the larger outlines and issues of the war. For example, instead of proceeding from island to island, as a conventional account would do, the only island campaigns Hastings describes in detail are Iwo Jima and Okinawa. As he points out, battles in the Pacific were short and intense, quite unlike the European battles, and important as they were, they were not so essential as submarine warfare. As the U.S. strategic Bombing Survey put it,
“The war against shipping was the most decisive single factor in the collapse of the Japanese economy and logistic support of Japanese military and naval power. Submarines accounted for the majority of vessel sinkings.”
For nearly everything Japan depended on imports, and once the subs stopped focusing on warships and saw the significance of tankers and freighters, they strangled the Japanese economy. As Hastings says,
“No other combatant force as small as the U.S. Navy’s submarine flotillas and their 16,000 men achieved a comparable impact upon the war anywhere in the world.”
The B-29 campaign, led by Curtis LeMay, which burned out Japanese cities, while it was certainly destructive (far more so than the A-bombs), was mainly psychological in effect. It reminds me of Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas: it exposed the impotence of the government and the power of the U.S. And men like LeMay are “indispensable to those who fight wars on behalf of any nation.”
The value of the book is enhanced by its scope — it covers the British campaign in Burma as well as the war in China and the Russian campaign in Manchuria — and the balanced judgments he brings to bear on those conflicts. The question raised by the Japanese defeat of the colonial powers — Britain, France, and Holland — are most apparent in Burma (the troubles in Indo China and the Dutch East Indies only became pressing after the war), but it is only an undercurrent. The Burmese troops the Japanese raised melted away in the heat of battle. Hastings admires General Slim, whom he regards as the best British general of the war, and his Burma campaign was masterly (although he was never appreciated by his government).
The Chinese situation was complex, and the Americans never mastered it. We mainly supported Chiang, but there were some supporters of Mao. What no one saw was that each side, far from wishing to fight the Japanese, were only preparing for their own struggle for mastery after the war. Hastings’ account of different characters, their ideas, and their consequences, is wonderfully illuminating. I have never read such a clarifying account of the Chinese mess.
Another subject that Hastings handles skillfully is MacArthur, who largely escapes critical scrutiny in most accounts of the war. I am not thinking of his blunders in the Philippines in 1941 and ’42 (bad as they were, he was in a hopeless situation), but his strategic decision to invade the Philippines. The problem was that he had been built into such a hero in the dark days of 1942 that his wishes couldn’t be ignored. It was not until 1951 that Truman brought him down. It would have been better, certainly for the Philippines, if MacArthur had invaded the Philippines only to seize a couple of air fields. As it was, he exposed civilians in Manila to slaughter, and he wasted troops liberating every corner of the archipelago.
No book that I know of treats the Russian invasion of Manchuria, and Retribution is valuable for that alone.
Throughout, Hastings describes the brutality exercised by the Japanese on civilians and prisoners, and at the end he speaks of the Japanese denial of their past:
“As long as such denial persists, it will remain impossible for the world to believe that Japan has come to terms with the horrors which it inflicted upon Asia two-thirds of a century ago.”
Reading this book not only informs the reader of the Pacific war, it educates him in the fine art of balanced judgment of historical facts. *
Writers for Conservatives, 67: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Angus Wilson (1913-1991), who emerged as a leading British novelist after the war, was an admirer of Victorian literature (he wrote books about both Dickens and Kipling), and it shows in his wonderful second novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), which is crowded with colorful characters closely observed and intricately connected. There’s a happy ending and what’s more, a moral one, completely believable. It is a remarkable novel, ingeniously plotted, filled with memorable scenes and characters.
The book opens with a newspaper account from 1912 of the discovery of a Saxon bishop’s tomb from the 7th century in which a pagan fertility figure anomalously turns up. This is the central incident of the story to which all the later incidents are related. The hoax (for it is a hoax) perpetrated there starts a trail of falsity that runs throughout the book. The protagonist, Gerald Middleton, must expose the lie in order to confront and conquer his own moral weakness. Nor is this only his own problem; moral weakness and dishonesty is manifest in other characters.
The theme of moral weakness is sounded at once at the beginning of the first chapter as Gerald reads the newspaper column of his son John who, unwittingly, is championing a man whose father-in-law was involved in the original hoax and whose wife blackmailed one of the people involved. Gerald does not know this at the time, but he dislikes his son’s “histrionic, self-deceiving temperament,” and there follows this sentence: “Never, after all, had he himself been prepared to face the truth in life, either in his family or in his profession.” He knows himself as a
“. . . family man who had had neither the courage to walk out of the marriage he hated, nor the resolution to sustain the role of father decently. An ex-professor of medieval history who had not even fulfilled the scholarly promise of studies whose general value he now doubted.”
On the evening of that day there is to be a meeting of the association of medieval scholars, and all the chapter’s incidents are pointed in that direction. Gerald reads a letter from the head of the association, Sir Edgar Iffley, about the editorship of the new medieval history (a multi-volume work) which nearly everyone wants Gerald to assume, but which he is determined to avoid. The narrative then shifts to a luncheon meeting of an eccentric scholar, Rose Lorimer, with a third-rate novelist, Clarissa Crane, who, planning to write a historical novel, has induced Dr. Lorimer to bring her as a guest to the evening meeting. The scholar is batty on the subject of the influence of paganism on the early Church (the Melpham “discovery” would be a key piece of evidence), and the luncheon is pervaded by misunderstanding as each character pursues her own thoughts in a comic contretemps that neither understands, another instance of self-deception. This is followed by a brief scene between Professor Clun, a nasty narrow-minded scholar, an antagonist of Gerald Middleton, and his browbeaten wife, as he sets out for the meeting. Next is a scene between two younger scholars discussing how to persuade Gerald to take the editor’s job. Finally we get to the meeting to be addressed by a German scholar, Professor Pforzheim. This is the annual Stokesay lecture named after the well-known historian who supervised the Melpham excavation. Hints that Stokesay went off the rails in the 1930s introduces another aspect of the theme of dishonesty: the men of Munich, the appeasers of Nazis, of which Stokesay was one. As the lecture is about to begin, Gerald whispers to Sir Edgar “There’s not a chance in a hundred that I’ll take the editorship.” So ends the first chapter.
I have described this chapter at length because I want to show how cleverly the book is plotted, each piece fitting together to advance the themes. I also want to show how the author advances the plot by showing the connections between the characters at the same time that our interest in them grows. I shall not continue in such detail, but I must show how the novel works.
The scene in chapter 4, Christmas celebrations at the home of Gerald’s wife, Ingeborg, is crucial because in it we learn about the past. Ingeborg is horribly sentimental, encroaching on everyone, but at the same time ensuring that her children, three sons and a daughter, fall under her sway. Gerald reflects, as he observes them:
“It recalled too vividly the whole pattern of his family life: a world of indulgent sweetness and syrupy intimacy. He had done nothing to reform it all these years: he could do nothing now. Nevertheless, the failure of his family life added to his preoccupation with his professional death and closed him round in a dense fog of self-disgust. It seemed to him that his whole life had grown pale and futile because it was rooted in evasion.”
Then he drowses in his armchair and hears phrases from the others in the room (who are arguing about some of the issues in the book) and what he overhears kindles memories, and in a series of flashbacks we observe revealing scenes which tell us more and more about the relations of the characters and the moral problems they raised in the past and are still raising. Gerald recalls the vivid scene when Gilbert Stokesay, the nasty son of the scholar, told him that he filched the fertility figure from a nearby pagan site and planted it in the bishop’s tomb. Because Gilbert is offensively drunk it’s easy for Gerald (and for the reader) to believe it’s “another of Gilbert’s aggressive drunken jokes.” The last flashback is about Gerald’s visit to Melpham on the day of the discovery, and the result is to invigorate him to face the truth. In fact, the others in the room have been discussing the nature of the truth, and when Gerald gets up from the chair, Ingeborg says:
“‘You know all about the truth, don’t you, Gerald?’ ‘Yes, my dear, I think I do,’ he answered, ‘but I’m going off to bed.’”
“When he got upstairs to his room, he sat down and wrote to Sir Edgar, accepting the editorship of the History.”
That chapter concludes the first half of the book, the elucidation of the past events that have led to the present; the rest of the narrative is about Gerald’s efforts as he works to discover the truth about Melpham, urged on by some of the characters. Working out the intricacies of the characters’ relations to him, to each other, and to the truth is fascinating. To symbolize Gerald’s personal triumph, at the end he accepts Sir Edgar’s proposal that he become chairman of the Historical Association.
I cannot praise this book enough. I’ve probably read it three or four times, and as I was writing this, looking up passages, I became so absorbed in my reading that I stopped writing altogether! *