by Emmett R Smith
ONE Of the most agreeable experiences I had in becoming an amateur historian was reading A Stillness At Appomatox in the spring of my 6th-grade year, 1961. I had just started the book when the Easter-break came, and on Friday evening of the Palm Sunday weekend my Uncle Emmett Jacobson pulled up in front of my mother’s house on 40th Avenue, in south Minneapolis, to take me down to my mother’s family’s farm in Eagle Lake, MN, for the week. He had his 1949 Studebaker 1-ton truck loaded down with furniture from the home in Minneapolis of a deceased relative of our Compton farm-neighbors. Gordie Compton, seven years older than I and a tall young man, was riding along–so, I threw up my suitcase and rode in an old rocking-chair right smack dab in the middle of the load!
We made our way home on Minnesota state highways 13 and 99 and came down on my country from the North. The wind was chilly enough to make my ears ache, but I didn’t mind, as I was having a grand ride–and, a great read. And, as we made our way in low gear through all of the then-still-small towns of New Prague and Montgomery and Le Center and Cleveland, Minnesota, I thought that I noticed how very much like Civil War-times all these places still looked, with their blocks of red-brick and white-clapboard nineteenth-century houses.
Lots of farm-places we passed looked to be that old, too. And, adding to my feeling of having been transported bodily to a time exactly one hundred years before was the fact that it was April again–just as it had been when the arcing shells dropped on Fort Sumter.
IN The writing and speaking I have only felt entitled to start to do since the late Autumn of 2002, about history, I have had already occasion to deal quite a bit with the question of the end of the late-modern age and the passing of the Old Atlantic West. These are topics of some salience to not-a-few workers in the field; I am thinking of historians such as Kennedy, Lukacs, Bobbitt and others.
And, yet, all around us it seems to me that the prevailing popular mood is that of a kind of timeless and eternal, dionysian, present. Carpe diem & all of that. So one is not surprised to perceive, beneath it all, an immense profound sadness running throughout these, our American autumnal days; and, now, not just the falling days of us fallen-from-youthful-grace ‘baby-boomers’ now entering on the strangeness of old age:
For I give you my word, that if we do not do ‘better’ somehow in the Presidential-term or two that may still lie within this generation’s grasp, then the burden of history and its decisions shall have already fallen on the bowed not-numerous shoulders of our children, even as you now read these words of mine.
It is a fact, we are bemused; our generation’s mid-life crisis in ‘Iraq is, in every respect, the deadly analog of that rush of anxiety that overwhelmed our parents’ ‘greatest generation’–and, brought them low, in Viet Nam. For if there is one thing that history shows us, surely it is that every generation however ill-conditioned, not-schooled and at odds with itself must try to flounder after some sort of significance in whatever is to be the historical record. And, regardless of whom the writers one day may be. Thus the eternal human nature, with its enduring burdens, of anger, fear, greed and lust; and, perhaps, some only dimly perceived chance at nobility; the one fixed star, perhaps, in relentless time; our common human being.
What a tragedy for understanding, then, that history is so poorly taught; and, that it makes no difference that I, and so many workers like myself, all as amateurs ‘merely’, are not in the academy, with its rigidities and correctitudes and shibboleths. Much good should it do, were we to be….
One supposes, then, that the only real point of the work is to produce our individual writings and conclusions, on the off chance that some of these records, of our dying and our distress, may survive, somehow; and, that they will be of some little passing interest, anyway, to the odd handful of far Asian scholars–at the end of the century-after-next….
ALTOGETHER, It is work in which one finds oneself alone. But, not oddly so nor even particularly painfully. There is all the delight in communicating through the written word, for one thing, with all of those who have gone on before. And, perhaps, their spirits now are waiting somewhere out there beyond ‘the future’ to behold our work, too.
One of those abiding spirits, I find, will be that of old C G Jung (pbuh), the psychologist of dream and myth and–fate. America’s fate, old Jung (pbuh) wrote, would be that of all usurper peoples, to be abducted and absorbed by the grieving spirits of the ruined dispossessed….
I came upon his work at the start of my thirties, nearly twenty years after first reading Bruce Catton. And yet what a blissful convergence for the well-read worker! This privilege of being able to call one’s mind one’s own is, perhaps, the supreme argument in favor of the lover not so much of the history itself, as of the unending tale of the–history-making. And, history indeed is best made by he, or she, who is free above all to correlate, both the sickly post-modern ‘narrative’ and–narratives.
I wish to close therefore with this passage from the writing of Bruce Catton; the discerning reader will hear within it, I think, that famous gong of inevitabily of Baron Bodissey’s, which is the sine qua non of the true art of Clio:
‘…To be sure [the friendly Indians] paid a price. There is a story, probably apocryphal but significant nonetheless, about a United State Senator who was running for re-election a few years ago. According to this story, the Senator got to a small north country [Michigan] town one evening to make a campaign speech, and just before he was led into the hall where the speech was to be delivered the local party chairman gave him a briefing….
‘”You’ll notice, at the back of the hall, quite a few Indians…. It would be helpful if somewhere in your speech you could say that you are fully aware of their problem and that you will do your best to solve it.”
‘The Senator promised that he would do this. Then–moved by simple curiosity–he asked: “By the way, what is their problem?”
‘The local man looked at him wide-eyed.
‘”‘What’s their problem?'” he repeated. ‘”God damn it, they’re Indians!”
‘Yet the Indian was incidental. It was the earth and the fullness thereof that mattered. It passed into [European-] American hands just as the tools to exploit it were being perfected–the tools and the driving urge to use them–and the men who held the tools moved in as if they had to get the job finished before nightfall. They succeeded (at least recognizable nightfall has not yet come) and in about a century the job was done. The trees had gone to build half of America, the copper [of Michigan’s upper Peninsula] had gone to serve the new age of electricity, and if the iron lasted longer it had been moved south by millions of tons, in a process as inexorable as the Sleeping Bear [Lake Michigan sand-dune’s] ponderous drift to eastward, to make railroads and machinery and skyscrapers and weapons; and the land was left bruised and scarred…to indicate that the age of applied technologies advances by geometrical progression.
‘So we live as the Indians of Lewis Cass’s time lived, between cultures, compelled to readjust ourselves to forces that will not wait for us. There is no twentieth century culture…the noise of things collapsing is so loud that we are taking the prodigious step from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first without a moment of calm in which we can saee where we are going. Between nineteenth century and twenty-first there is a gulf as vast as the one the stone-age Indians had to cross. What’s our problem? We’re Indians.’
(Waiting for the Morning Train, Bruce Catton [Doubleday, 1972]–pp 18-19)
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 8 March 2006]