Patriotic Songs – 3

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I missed posting this for Veterans Day, but want to catch up a little bit. “God Bless America” was introduced on Armistice Day in 1938, although it had been written twenty years earlier. The composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin, thought of it as a “peace song,” which makes more sense when you read the intro lyrics, generally omitted today but which Kate Smith always insisted on including:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,

Let us all be grateful for a land so far, as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer…

“God Bless America” used to irritate me, when it got appropriated by Christian conservatives as a sort of alt-National Anthem, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. The lyrics, always Berlin’s weakest side, are still corny and trite; the tired trotting out of mountains-prairies-oceans is lazy, and since when are oceans “white with foam”? Only when there’s been an environmental disaster, I suppose. But you have to give the song credit for great singability and the masterful pop-song flow that rises to a high note and forte on that last “God.” It’s a well-built tune.

The only thing that irritates me nowadays about “God Bless America” is the air of faux piety with which people sing it. It’s a song that I wish could be put in a vault for a couple of decades, and then brought out again when it could be experienced fresh, without the layers of sanctimonious muck that have accreted on it over the years.

For more of my thoughts on patriotic songs, check here and here.

A New Cross-Missouri Trail?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe recent legal move by the Ameren Corporation to “abandon” a 145-mile stretch of rail line opens the way for a second cross-Missouri hiking and biking trail to be created. There’s a long way to go, but this is exciting news for anyone who loves the outdoors, especially in the Midwest.

The line, which was once part of the Rock Island Line (which as we all know, is a mighty good road), skirts the northern edge of the Ozarks, from Windsor southwest of Sedalia to Beaufort in western Franklin County. The Katy Trail also goes through Windsor, so the two trails would connect there.

I spent a while with my topographical maps today checking out the route of the rail line. It runs through some very wild country, nothing with special grandeur, but oh my goodness some of the vistas along this trail will be outstanding! There are crossings over the Osage River (above) and the Gasconade, and the line follows the Osage for several miles. These sections in themselves would be enough to make me celebrate. But I also think of the wild sections between so many quiet Ozark villages – Gerald, Rosebud, Owensville, Bland, Belle, Freeburg, Meta, Eugene, Eldon, Versailles, Cole Camp, Ionia – even the names are like a roll call of fascination. I don’t know this part of the country well, hardly at all really, but am excited to learn it.

Would this trail ever develop into the kind of serial B&B-and-winery trail that the Katy has become? I doubt it. It’s more remote, farther from urban centers, and the countryside is less hospitable to the casual visitor. But I think it will develop a character of its own, one that will appeal to a different sort of traveler, and will become a valued destination for people wanting to discover an overlooked part of the Ozarks.

Old rail map Rock Island

Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither

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Rocky Comfort

News arrives of the passing of Wayne Holmes. When I started my “Favorite Ozarks People” thread a couple of years ago, he was the first person I wrote about.

Wayne was salty, opinionated, rough-edged, and devoted to the things he held dear, which included his countryside, his stories, his family, Shakespeare, and good writing. I quote from Lear above, but his great passion was Othello – he had an alternative theory about the interpretation of the character of Desdemona that he was still working on at the time of his death.

Wayne Holmes was an example to us all of how to live an authentic life. If Wayne didn’t like you, you would know it. And if he liked you, he would go to great lengths to help you out. He valued determination over brilliance, actions over intentions, and honesty over charm.

If you want to read about growing up in the Ozarks, skip the misty-eyed nostalgia pieces, true to their experience as they may be. Read Wayne Holmes’ Rocky Comfort instead.

Genre

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I had an interesting e-mail exchange this week. A gentleman who is writing a biography of John Williams, the author of Stoner (among other works), contacted me because he had found a folder in Williams’ papers with my name on it.

I had written to Mr. Williams back in the 1980s, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, with some questions about Stoner. He answered courteously, and to my surprise I now find that he rarely talked about his own work. So my letter from John Williams was of some worth to his biographer.

One of the things I asked him about was his thoughts on genre. Stoner was published in 1965, when the “academic novel” was in its first heyday, and I had wondered whether he had gone out of his way to flout the conventions of that subgenre. He replied that he was aware of the academic novels, disliked them intensely, but wasn’t consciously setting out to “correct” them. As with all statements of author intention, I took his opinions with a dose of skepticism.

Nowadays, I find myself in a similar situation. I write “historical novels.” But the phrase “historical novel” is all too often a pigeonhole. Calling something a “historical novel” automatically sets up certain expectations in people’s minds, for better and for worse. The challenge for the writer is to use the conventions of a genre without becoming trapped by them — something that Williams did marvelously in many books, but especially well in Butcher’s Crossing, which in my opinion has always been underappreciated.

On Twitter

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I am on Twitter, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not mastered the art of communicating on that particular social medium. I’m instinctively reticent about my own life, which a lot of people broadcast on Twitter, and I have a hard time compressing my thoughts into manageable form.

Some of the people I follow on Twitter junk up my feed with random links that don’t add anything, and some engage in continuous self-display that just annoys. Probably my favorite Twitter feed is my friend and fellow Columbia resident Daniel Green, a highly engaged literary critic. He reads widely, thinks a lot about what he has read and written, and posts comments and links that create a great sense of continuing conversation. If you’re at all interested in the state of contemporary literature, you should follow Dan Green.

Restoration

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Restoration

Here’s an image of the shape-note hymn that is the basis for “This Old World,” the hymn from which I took the title to my new book.

Like many shape-note hymns, it’s drenched in the helpless state of humanity and the abject dependence of the human on God. Shape-note lyrics make me think of Jonathan Edwards, although they typically were written after Edwards’ time. But they have the same bracing theological feeling. You have the sensation of standing on a precipice, with the void below you and the wind blowing hard.

Sorry that the image I reproduced is somewhat blurry. Here are the lyrics, if you can’t make them out:

Mercy, O thou Son of David! Thus blind Bartimeos pray’d;

Others by thy grade are savéd, O vouchsafe to me thine aid.

(Accent added for clarification of rhythm.)

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Favorite Ozarks Books – 5

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Potosi

The image above is the frontispiece to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Scenes and Adventures in the Semi-Alpine Region of the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas, published in 1853 and taken from Schoolcraft’s earlier journals from 1818 and 1819. People generally count Schoolcraft’s journals as the first piece of descriptive writing about the Ozarks.

As an explorer, Schoolcraft comes off as a klutz in his journals. His horse is constantly getting away from him, tumbling down a bank or trying to swim a river in a bad place. He and his companion employ local hunters to guide them or bring them provisions, but their guides regularly disappear with their goods or meat. He consistently chooses the wrong stream fork and has to backtrack.

But he’s not really a klutz – he’s a twenty-five-year-old Easterner with a fine education, a keen eye for geology, and a good deal to learn about the frontier. He and his companion spend the three months of their expedition in near-constant fear of the Osage Indians who roamed the Ozarks at the time, and their fear is justifiable. Had they met a band of Osage warriors that deep in their countryside, they would likely have been robbed at the least.

You can read Schoolcraft’s journal at Project Gutenberg, but a better experience is the 1996 edition published by the University of Arkansas Press. The dedicated Ozark geographer Milton D. Rafferty edited this version, and it’s nicely annotated, with Schoolcraft’s route mapped out as best Rafferty could decipher. My friend Steve Yates has written about Schoolcraft here.

Schoolcrafts journal

Here’s the cover image of the Rafferty-edited version of Schoolcraft’s journal.

 

The Utopian and the Dystopian

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The question often comes to me when I’m speaking at libraries and civic groups around the state: “Why are there no utopian novels nowadays?”

I believe the utopian impulse still exists, only in a fashion so modified as to be nearly unrecognizable, but it is true that utopian novels in the vein of Herland or A Traveler from Altruria don’t come out these days. Instead, the dominant literary fashion is dystopian – especially, oddly enough, in books aimed at teenage readers.

The classic utopian novels were designed to present a critique of existing society and an alternative to the ills of that society. Today’s dystopian novels, to some extent, engage in that same critique, but instead of an alternative, they predict the dire future that awaits us if our current ills are not addressed.

The utopian novel arises from faith in human progress; the dystopian novel from its lack.

The utopian novel imagines that our better natures are held down by a faulty social structure; the dystopian novel imagines that the faulty social structure arises from our inner faults.

The absence of utopian novels shouldn’t be construed, though, as a complete absence of faith in human nature. We should remember that the utopian novel also existed as an intellectual argument, and the novel today is much less about argument and more about action. It’s intrinsically more exciting to read about a society in ruins, and the independent survivors who live in its ashes, than about a harmonious society that has solved its problems.

The utopian impulse still exists, though, and I think it has turned inward. What’s one of the largest sections of the bookstore? “Self-help.” We are bombarded with solutions . . . not for the ills of our society, but for those of ourselves. We can, the authors promise us, make ourselves perfect. Or at least darn close.

The Persistence of the Utopian Impulse

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The utopian idea continues to fascinate even today. Two interesting items:

Fox Entertainment is starting a new “reality” series, Utopia, this fall, based on a Dutch series that was a big hit in that country. The premise of the show is that fifteen people are placed in a remote location with instructions to remake society. It’s not truly a social experiment, of course, but rather a bit of entertainment along utopian themes. I may watch an episode or two just to see how they present the utopian ideal, but it sounds a lot like Survivor without the intentional privation. I notice that the TV networks no longer even employ the fig leaf of “reality,” but prefer “unscripted” instead. But who knows, maybe the personalities will pull me in and I’ll become a viewer.

Closer to home, the Missouri Germans Consortium is scheduling activities in connection with an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that will commemorate the activities of the German emigration societies in the U.S., and more specifically the Giessen Emigration Society that led a group of around 500 colonists to the Missouri River valley in Missouri in the 1830s. The exhibition will open at the History Museum in late November, and I’m definitely putting it on my calendar!

Ellen Gray Massey

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I’ve written about Ellen Massey before, in a “Favorite Ozarks People” entry. She was a gentle and thoughtful soul who never stopped writing. In fact, this year she won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America in the Juvenile Fiction category for her book Papa’s Gold.

Ellen died at the age of 92 last month. She was a lifetime member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild and a former president. Truly a life well lived.

Here’s a nice news story about Ellen.

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