If you’re interested in Ozarks culture and heritage, and aren’t afraid of some thoughtful analysis to go along with that interest, you should bookmark Hypercommon.com, a multi-media website recently set up by Leland and Crystal Payton. The Paytons are long-time collectors of Ozarks memorabilia, writers and photographers on contemporary and historical Ozarks subjects, and deep analysts of the economic and political decisions that have shaped much of the Ozark landscape. This website engages all their interests, and every post is interesting. Ozarks geeks, check it out. Hypercommon.com.
Excerpted from my talk to the Quincy, IL, Unitarian Church on December 7.
Today is December 7. And for Americans of a certain age, that will always be followed by “a date that will live in infamy.” It’s the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the event that drew the United States into the Second World War. For my parents’ generation, December 7 was the day that changed everything, that shook the world loose from its foundations. Even though war had been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia for two years before that, it’s the attack on Pearl Harbor that dominates our national psyche as the day the war began.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about war lately as I’ve been working on my second novel. Not so much war itself but the aftermath of war, the societal and cultural reverberations of war that echo long after the war ends.
Evidence of the wounds of war is everywhere we look, if we look carefully enough. On the personal level, our friends, relatives, neighbors, fellow church members, and co-workers who have experienced war deal with that experience in their own ways and with their own levels of intensity. In our political life, we deal with the costs of war, both the economic costs that come from a commitment to military spending, honoring promises made to veterans, and maintaining international ties that grew from wartime; and also in the guns-or-butter sense that every decision to enter into conflict or to maintain a certain level of war readiness is also a decision not to spend money on something else, the old one aircraft carrier equals a million school lunches calculation we’re all familiar with from Facebook.
But as a novelist you try not to think in such abstract terms, and try to focus instead on the human side. So I have a few stories to tell you of a semi-personal nature. Some of them may seem beside the point of this talk, so please bear with me.
When the United States entered the war, my mother started a scrapbook. She was 18 years old at the time, a year and a half out of high school, so as you can imagine the coming of the war affected her and her friends greatly. The community she and my father grew up in was called German because of the high number of German immigrants who had settled there in the 1800s, so maybe they overcompensated a bit. But whatever the reason, the German township always overtopped its war bond quota, led the scrap metal drive, and of course sent its boys into the service by the dozen.
Reading her letters and clippings today always gives me a feeling of being transported to an entirely different universe, even though this is my own immediate family I’m talking about. Letters home were subject to military censorship, so there is little mention of movement or fighting. Like good farm boys, they always took note of the weather and the countryside, and the principal phrases of approval or disapproval were “a lot like home” and “not like home.” One theme permeates all those letters and V-mails, and it’s the simple desire to get home.
The same thoughts appear in wartime correspondence from all ages. While working on my books I spent a lot of time with “Missouri’s War,” a compilation of original source documents that details life in Civil War Missouri through letters, newspaper accounts, sermons, speeches, and so forth. And while the letters in the initial rush to war sometimes have a measure of enthusiasm to them, once the war is underway the voices change, and a kind of grim get-me-through-this mentality emerges.
In 1864 a Missouri cavalryman on the Union side named William Kesterson wrote home to his brother in Lafayette County, close to Kansas City. Kesterson had been in the military hospital in Springfield for about nine months at the time of this letter, and was to stay in that hospital a few months more before being discharged. So you can imagine his state of mind. Part of the letter reads:
I take pen in hand to inform you that yore letter of the 12th came to hand this day and I was glad to hear that yore health was some better than when you had wrote before. . . . I have wrote to my wife to stay where she is a while longer if she can stay there in any peace it is better than to move to town. That is the worst place a family can go to. . . . I aught to be well satisfied here but it seems as if I cant and I wish that I was away and then I get so that I don’t care where I am until my time is out then I want to get somewhere where I can live in peace with my wife and children and where I can give them good schooling that will be my main object when I get out of the service is the schooling of them. My wife says they are as fat as pigs and talk about me all the time you can guess whether I want to see them or not. . . . I shall be glad to see the end of our time for serving uncle Sam come to an end. I hope the end of this war is close at hand but I fear it will be a long time yet and if you don’t wach you will loose yore bet on peace being made by the first of May. I hope that I shall see you again but when that will ever be the lord only knows but I hope that through gods mercy it wont be long. Yet life is very uncertain and then the dread of the future hangs heavily on my mind some times and dashes what little worldly pleasure I see away from me.
Mr. Kesterson, you will be happy to know, did indeed return to his family, and lived on in Lafayette County for another twenty years.
One of the most treasured documents in my family is the recollections of my great-grandfather, Christopher Wiegenstein, who immigrated from Germany to the United States in 1848, found his way to Madison County, Missouri, and established a farm there. His memoir was composed later in his life, at the entreating of his children, who wanted him to get down on paper the events of his early years in the United States. Like most German immigrants to Missouri in that time, he was a devoted Unionist, an anti-slavery man, and a supporter of the North during the Civil War.
He recalls one harrowing incident in which his brother-in-law, a man named George Canisius, was shot down in cold blood by a bushwhacker. Our family’s oral history was that George was killed because, as a recent immigrant, he didn’t speak English well enough to explain himself to the marauders. The bushwhacker’s story, recorded in a memoir written after the war, was that George had informed on him to the authorities and was killed in retaliation. Either story is plausible and both may have elements of truth.
What I had never noticed, reading this account in earlier times, was a comment that Great-Grandpa Chris made at the end of his memoir. Retired, comfortable, having spent a few terms as a justice of the peace and county judge, he writes, “In politics I am Democrat.” Just this year, I read that and thought, “Wait a minute. Why would an immigrant German, a supporter of the Union, a man who had lost a close relation to a guerrilla, why would that man be a Democrat? When in the last half of the Nineteenth Century, the Democratic Party in Missouri was to a considerable extent the party of ex-Confederates?”
The short answer is that I don’t know. But what I think happened is that Missouri had been a Democratic state before the war, in the frontier expansion Andrew Jackson sort of mode, and once the war was over there was such a longing to return to the way things had been that people were willing to join with their former enemies, victors and vanquished, in the efforts at rebuilding the state. Some of them did it for political advantage. Some of them did it because they felt more sympathetic to the Southern cause than they had been able to show during the war. But for whatever reason, by the early 1870s most Missourians had found a way to put the war into the past and move ahead.
But some did not. In Missouri, disaffected former rebels, men like Jesse James, made war by other means, attacking the visible symbols of the powers that had defeated them – banks, railroads, and government officials. Farther south, where the disruption to the social order caused by the end of slavery was greater, the defeated regained the reins of power and gradually restored a structure that was nearly as oppressive as slavery itself. The distortions in people’s lives caused by slavery, like any wound that has never fully healed, break open again and again, cause pain, and reinfect us. Just this week, marchers going from St. Louis to Jefferson City to protest the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case were met in one rural Missouri town by counter-protesters waving that familiar and predictable symbol of racial hatred and intimidation, the Confederate flag. When I read of events in Ferguson and New York City, the gulf of distrust and misunderstanding that continues to exist between white and black in this country, even the continued insistence that we must identify as white or black, I see a wound of war that has never gone away. And I remember Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic words in his second annual message to Congress: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
My mother’s scrapbook begins with enlistments and deployments, but by the second page the inevitable other stories start to appear. Charles Clark, dead in a Philippine prison camp. John Disher, shot down over the English Channel, in the hospital with an injured foot, returned to service, and killed. Audry Clark, killed in France. And most personal to me, Michael Wiegenstein, lost with all his shipmates when his submarine was sunk in the Pacific.
This year was the 70th anniversary of my Uncle Mike’s death, so my cousin Joe organized a memorial service this October. Mike’s loss was devastating to my father’s family. So much so, in fact, that none of them liked to talk about Mike, so all I ever knew of him were a few scattered stories about childhood shenanigans – nothing about his young adult years, or what led him into the submarine service in the first place. So when we looked through the boxes and folders that had been collecting in various closets, it was like catching a glimpse of someone familiar and yet not familiar either. In one letter home, he told his brother – my dad – that there was nothing he would rather be doing at that moment than following the plow behind the family mule. We laid a wreath at the courthouse memorial, we visited the cemetery, and except for one elderly aunt and uncle none of us had ever met the man we were memorializing. My cousin remarked that this was part of our loss – that not only had his parents and brothers and sisters lost the young man who went off to war, but we too had lost the grown man we might have known, the older uncle whom we might have visited with and come to appreciate, the man who would have been a help to his parents in their later years, a friend and companion to our parents and us – an entire stream of life that had been cut off at its source. Although this loss is hypothetical and I suppose imaginary in some ways, to my mind it’s just as real as the more visible ones.
That’s the lesson I have learned this year about the wounds of war. For every visible one, there is an invisible one. They’re slow to heal and require deliberate effort, because when we are mired in a pattern of destruction and hatred, the natural tendency is to stay in that pattern. What it takes first is consideration of our losses, a counting up of the cost and a reflection upon it. I never knew my Uncle Mike, but only this year did I realize how much I missed him.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.