Reading and book signing in Greenwood, SC

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I’m excited to announce an upcoming event. Wednesday, April 3 I’ll be doing a reading and book signing in Greenwood, South Carolina. The main library of Piedmont Tech’s Lex Walters Campus is hosting me. I plan to read a chapter from Griswoldville, my most recent novel, but will have copies of all of my books available. The basic facts:

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Who: Me

What: Reading and book signing

When: 12:45-1:30 Wednesday, April 3

Where: The library at the Piedmont Tech main campus in Greenwood, South Carolina

You can check out each of my books here on my website or on my author page at Amazon. Click here for an excerpt from Griswoldville (I’ll read a different passage when the big day arrives).

I’m grateful to PTC for this opportunity and really looking forward to it. Please join us!

Thomas Sowell on tragedy and blame

From economist Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society:

 
Without some sense of the tragedy of the human condition, it is all too easy to consider anything that goes wrong as being somebody’s fault.
— Thomas Sowell
 

This week I happened to teach the Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Scare, and Weimar Germany, so this line resonated powerfully with me when I ran across it again. Whether it be the kulaks, the anarchists, the Jews, or someone else, it is easy to search for and find someone to blame when complex things go wrong. The truth is hard: bad things happen. Sometimes the causes do not admit of definitive explanation. Who is responsible may never become clear, and may even be a meaningless question if the situation is complex and its origins murky enough. To cave into the desire to scapegoat—and to indulge in the conspiratorial thinking that usually goes along with justifying the blame you have assigned—is to escape into fantasy and, not coincidentally, attempt to play god.

Sowell again:

The risks of making decisions with incomplete knowledge (there being no other kind) are part of the tragedy of the human condition. However, that has not stopped intellectuals [the subject of Sowell’s book] from criticizing the inherent risks that turn out badly in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to military operations—nor does it stop them from helping create a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations in which “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” become a thousand bases for lawsuits.

Compare this line from Isaiah Berlin, which I discovered via Alan Jacobs’s blog: “The sense of infallibility provided by fantasies is more exciting, but generates madness in societies as well as individuals.”

We’ve all seen control freaks lose it when something apparently minor and random upsets their applecart. (Or, if you haven’t seen it, perhaps we’ve been that control freak. I have.) It’s not hard to imagine the effects of that kind of tantrum on a society-sized scale.

Think of technocratic modernity’s general assumption that with enough knowledge and power you can control virtually anything, if not everything. Now consider the ferocity with which the Nazis persecuted the Jews or the Communists royalists, kulaks, or other “traitors.” The threat to their expected order proved so great that persecution was not enough—they sought to destroy them. And it’s worth noting that while both systems—both of which presumed an impossible degree of control over naturally chaotic things, race and the economy—had carefully calculated plans for destroying their enemies, some of the worst outbursts of violence came in the wake of disappointments. Look at the Holodomor, or the final months of the Third Reich.

To conclude with Sowell again, “a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations” would be a pretty good title for a history of the present age.

Remembering my granddad, 21 years on

My maternal grandfather, JL McKay, died 21 years ago this evening. Few people have taught me or helped me as much, and it astonishes me that I have lived more than twice as long without as with him.

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He was a plumber and electrician, good at what he did, and worked with his kids. (He called his business J&L Plumbing & Electric—I can still see it stenciled on the sides of his work ladders—but the initials weren’t just for himself: the J was JL McKay, the L was my aunt Leah, who worked with him for years.) He was a Rabun County native, the second of eight kids born to Percy and Ruby McKay; served in the US Air Force military police in Korea (I remember him telling me about the flash of artillery barrages on the other side of the mountains at night); played basketball for Lakemont High School (long defunct) and was an ardent Braves fan (from at least their Milwaukee days, maybe even since Boston); drove only Fords; subscribed to National Geographic for decades; enjoyed “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “M.A.S.H”; smoked Winstons, which he gave up after surgery in the early 90s (“If I’d known it was going to be my last one,” he said of the cigarette he had before surgery, “I’d have enjoyed it more”); loved fishing and organizing the huge family camping trips to Tugalo, where he’d oversee the camp kitchen and help catch scores of catfish; and was at our small, independent Baptist church for every service.

But the most important thing in his life was clearly his family. After he got back from Korea he married my grandmother, Jewell Dills, raised three kids, and lived to see seven grandchildren. He was always around—I took it for granted that everyone could see their grandparents (both sets) as often as I did. Stories of long, arduous car trips to see grandparents once or twice a year made no sense to me.

In a more important sense, he was not just always around but always there—always there for you, not just his family but for anyone he knew. He was one of the most charitable people I knew, and for all the years since he died I’ve heard stories from people of the favors, kind turns, and simple acts of generosity he performed.

My granddad and I watching TV sometime in the late 1980s

My granddad and I watching TV sometime in the late 1980s

I wrote a year ago, on this same anniversary, about pietas—a mature respect and gratitude to our forefathers. Since then I finished revising and published Griswoldville. That novel is a war story, certainly, but it’s a love letter to a place—Georgia—and especially to a kind of person, the kind of man my granddad was: skilled, hardworking, polite but self-respecting, tough but tender, opinionated but gracious, a steward of the things God gave him, and above all family-oriented. Georgie Wax’s relationship with his grandfather, Fate (a diminutive of Lafayette, my granddad’s middle name) is very much the relationship of me with my grandfathers. I dedicated the book to both of them, my own small act of grateful pietas.

In memory of JL McKay, gone these 21 years, I include a brief episode from Griswoldville. While this novel should only be regarded as fiction, this incident in particular I drew from something my grandfather and I actually did once.

He had an oaken gun cabinet that seemed, when I was a kid, five stories tall, with three or four shotguns, a .22 magnum varmint gun, and a lever-action .30-30 that stretched away up into the darkness at the top of the cabinet. I remember squinting through the glass door many times to try to discern the ends of the barrels up there. One day he took one of his shotguns down and we trooped up the hill behind the house into the junkyard were he kept mountains of spare piping, wire, and fixtures. He wanted to show me the basics of how to hunt squirrels. We spotted and shot one but the shotgun tore up the meat too much to be edible. Then he showed me what Fate teaches 11-year old Georgie in this passage.

* * * * *

We brought in three bales of cotton on our farm and two and a quarter on my uncle Quin’s, all of which we sold through the cotton factor that visited the MacBean place every fall. We picked and bagged the terrible bolls until our hands hung so bloody raw and abraded we could not reach into our pockets without agony. A blind gypsy could have read our fortunes sniffing the blood caked in our lifelines. A team of Negroes arrived and loaded the bales onto wagons and carted them off to the railhead in Athens, from whence they would ride to Savannah. I found out later that the price was a great disappointment, as the Confederate government in Richmond had ended exports of cotton in an vain effort to bring some European power into the war, and we were not to plant it again until years afterward. In between there would be much worry over cash, even for farmers. We brought in good crops of oats and corn and fairly stuffed our hogs—who were already nigh spherical with acorn mast—with the latter. Slaughter approached, and we needed the pork. With harvest ended and hog-killing time not quite upon us, and the frosts arriving and our breath coming like broken glass when we ran or worked outside, my grand­father oiled his rifle and shotgun and took me hunting.

     I had watched him hunt before, and even taken potshots at squirrels and raccoons, but now he let me carry the guns and taught me in earnest how to bring down small game.

     “Your father left you in charge,” he said, “and a man ought to be ready to provide, any time. I’m just here to help.”

     He taught me to clean and skin the game on my own and—when my fifth or sixth squirrel dropped out of the trees too torn up to be good for food—a trick of his that I never forgot.

     We had just left the porch one morning and by accident flushed some squirrels from my mother’s garden patch, where they had been foraging among the stalks and remains of what we had missed in the picking. They scampered to the fields, up the side of the house, behind the muleshed, and into the shade tree.

     My grandfather produced his powder and measured a charge for the rifle. “Let’s get started with these rats here.”

     I grounded the shotgun and brought out my powder and pellets.

     “Not this time, Georgie. I want to show you some­thing.”

     He loaded without looking at the rifle. He regarded the two or three plump squirrels watching us upside down from the shade tree. The tree was a great white oak, older even than the state, five feet wide at the base and better than seventy feet tall. In the high summer we watched the yard like a sundial with the tree as its gnomon.

     My grandfather brought the rifle to half-cock and fastened a percussion cap to the nipple. He nodded toward the tree.

     “See that fat one there, bout halfway up?” One of the squirrels sat, contented with his distance and sanctuary, dead center in the thickest part of the trunk, about twenty feet up.

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Watch, now. My granddaddy taught me this.”

     He thumbed the hammer to full cock and raised and sighted. The squirrel moved its head minutely, taking in this new intelligence. I heard my grandfather softly breathe out and he fired. The ball struck the trunk of the oak just above the fat squirrel’s head with a sound like a hammer on a loose plank—a miss. And the squirrel flopped backward to the ground anyway.

     My grandfather and I stood wreathed in the sulphurous reek of the rifle. The surviving squirrels skittered up and down the tree; a distant dog com­menced to barking. I looked at the lifeless squirrel in the yard and up at my grandfather, who grounded the rifle and grinned wide, pressing his tongue against the back of his teeth and chuckling.

     At last, he said, “Whew!”

     “How—”

     My mother burst out of the house, black hair loose, apron in hand.

     “God sakes, Daddy!”

     “Fixing to rid your okra patch of squirrels, Mary,” he said.

     I pointed, awed. “He killed it without even shooting it!”

     “If you possess such power why don’t you forebear to shoot at all?”

     My grandfather retrieved the squirrel and handed it to me.

     “Georgie’s got to learn. He needs a teacher.”

     My mother shook her head and strode back into the house. From inside, I heard her declaim to one of my younger brothers about being startled half to death. I laughed and looked at the squirrel. My grandfather grounded the rifle and set to measuring out his powder again.

     I turned the squirrel over in my hands. It was still warm and completely unmarked. I looked at its yellow maloccluded teeth and felt an uncanny prickle of fear—I had seen boys with fingers bitten clean through by squirrels and did not want this creature awaking in a fright in my still-tender cotton-raw hands.

     “You know what concussion is, Georgie?”

     I looked at my grandfather. He stowed the ramrod and waited. “No, sir.”

     He balled a fist and struck the open palm of his other hand. “That’s concussion. Shock—the force of smiting something. It’s the concussion, of a kind, that knocks a man down when you strike him. The concussion of your fist on his skull. Now, you knock a man hard enough, the concussion on his skull knocks his brains into his skull. You can do a most powerful lot of harm to a man, you strike him hard enough. You understand?”

     “Yes, sir. That’s why you don’t want us fighting? That’s why you say men don’t fight?”

     He chuckled. “Naw, men don’t fight each other cause that’s the worse way to go about settling things. But we can talk on that later. Now, what I said about concussing a man’s brains? This bullet—” and he produced one, a .32 caliber lead ball, “—when it strikes a thing, concusses everything around it. You feel a cannonball strike close by, you feel the earth shake. You feel a bullet pass close by your face, you feel it clap the air by your cheek. You hit a tree trunk like that close enough to a squirrel’s skull—not too close, not too far—the concussion knocks its brains and kills it dead just like that. Don’t tear up the meat, don’t hurt the squirrel.”

     I marveled over the squirrel. He took it and handed me the rifle. It seemed suddenly like a more powerful instrument than a mere squirrel gun. My grandfather had ennobled it.

     “Your turn, Georgie.” 

* * * * *

You can read more from Griswoldville here. I hope y’all enjoyed this passage, and will let the memory of my granddad—or men like him—lift and guide you today. We need more people like him.

Tolkien trailer reaction

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

General Erich Ludendorff calls in a favor from Smaug, Spring 1918

A new trailer for Tolkien dropped yesterday. The forthcoming film was directed by FInnish director Dome Karukoski and stars Nicholas Hoult as a young JRR Tolkien and Lily Collins as Edith Bratt, his beloved future wife.

There was an earlier teaser that proved exactly that—a tease. That trailer featured almost nothing of consequence but did offer a taste. I watched it and worried that the movie would be pretty cheap looking. This new trailer has allayed that suspicion, featuring an impressive First World War battle scene on the Somme, some impressive Hobbit- and Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasy visuals—like a dragon in no-man’s-land—and what appears to be location shooting in Oxford.

I don’t have a post per se, but here are a few mostly unstructured thoughts based on the new trailer:

  • It looks like the movie will focus on Tolkien’s school days, his courtship of Edith, and his experiences in the trenches during World War I. I’m guessing the film will end with his demobilization and settlement back into Oxford life in the early 1920s.

  • Maybe we’ll get an Inklings sequel? One can only hope.

  • I’m not sold on Hoult as Tolkien. Hoult has a delicacy about him that I don’t get from seeing photos of or reading about Tolkien. It’s hard to imagine him belly-laughing with CS Lewis and Hugo Dyson over a pint and a pipe. But he is a fine actor—and I wasn’t originally sold on Gary Oldman as Churchill either—so I’m keeping an open mind.

  • The Middle Earth visuals imported into the landscapes of the war intrigue me. I’m curious to see how, exactly, they’ll incorporate them.

  • This film could be a good way to bring home the tragedy of the war to people. The group Tolkien is shown joining—”A fellowship,” he says, and one’s heart leaps—was called the TCBS and is seen by many as a schoolboy prototype of the Inklings. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman were the only members of the group to survive the war.

A few hopes and worries:

  • These were certainly formative, crucially important years for Tolkien, and had direct influence on his work (“The Dead Marshes,” he once wrote, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme”), but I hope they don’t overplay it and suggest the kind of simplistic this-inspired-this, this-inspired-this biographical interpretation of his work that some biopics fall into.

  • While he doesn’t appear in the trailer, Colm Meaney is listed on IMDb as playing Father Francis Morgan, the guardian of Tolkien and his brother following their mother’s death. Morgan famously forbade Tolkien any contact with Edith until he was 21 because of a perceived bad influence on his schoolwork and because she wasn’t Catholic, a prohibition Tolkien obeyed. I hope Fr. Francis, whom Tolkien remembered with respect and affection, isn’t situated as a bad guy in the screenplay.

  • That raises two issues in my mind. First, I hope the filmmakers don’t Hollywoodize this romance too much. One of the things I love about the story of Tolkien and Edith is that they were two devout, honorable people who obeyed and waited for each other. Turning them into Romeo and Juliet rebels against the system would be a betrayal. It would also be boring. Who hasn’t seen that movie before?

  • Second, I also—most importantly—hope the filmmakers don’t strip the Christianity out of Tolkien’s story. He was devoutly Catholic in a time when anti-Catholicism was rife through English society, and the religious differences between himself and Edith played a crucial role in their romance.

Like I said, just a few initial thoughts upon watching this new trailer a few times. What do y’all think?

If you’re interested in some of this and don’t think you can wait for the movie, a couple good books covering this ground are Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography; Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth; and A Hobbit, a Wadrobe, and a Great War, by Joseph Loconte, for which you can read my review here.

Tolkien comes out May 10 in the US. I’ll be there. Watch the new trailer here or embedded in this post above.

Diocletian on the City of Man Podcast

The City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Aside series returns with its ninth episode. In this episode, regular host Coyle Neal and I cover Diocletian, the first great emperor after the imperial anarchy of the third century; his administrative reforms, including the creation of the Tetrarchy; his changes to the nature of the imperial office itself; his savage, empire-wide persecution of Christians; and our own crippling allergies.

Visit City of Man on Facebook or the Christian Humanist Radio Network’s flagship website, and listen in via iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting apps. I’ve also embedded the episode in this post for your convenience. Enjoy, and thanks as always for listening!

What's wrong, Chesterton?

February, a whole month of recurrent sickness—for me and my kids—heavy work projects, and terrible weather, has also accidentally turned into GK Chesterton month on my blog. I’ve posted on his attitude toward argument and controversy and the lack of any real controversy in his world—and ours—and I also looked at his enviable ability to laugh at himself. I’ll end the month with a tiny bit of Chesterton detective work.

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

Yesterday, a colleague pointed me toward this post on the most frequently misquoted Christian writers. Chesterton was on there for a number of quotes, misquotes, and apocryphal sayings, perhaps the most famous of which was this:

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

I’ve seen a couple different versions of this story with slight variations—sometimes Chesterton’s answer comes in response to a survey of journalists or something similar, sometimes it’s slightly wordier—but the gist is always the same, and it’s easy to see why it sticks around. It’s been quoted by present day evangelical writers as prominent as Tim Keller. It’s cheeky and succinct, worthy of a man who enjoyed his bon mots as much as his beer. But also not quite true.

If you want to confirm a quotation’s authenticity—and you should—it’s relatively easy, and this was easy to disprove, as there are plenty of places logging it as doubtful or inauthentic. Wikiquote includes it in its “misattributed” section on Chesterton’s page. The American Chesterton Society had a rather noncommittal post on the quotation a few years ago, as did a Chesterton enthusiast’s blog.

But as it happens, the latter blog post included a couple of important tidbits. First, it clarified the actual, correct wording of Chesterton’s reply:

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.

This, helpfully, provides a lot more context and explanation about what exactly Chesterton meant. It’s also a handy passage to plug into Google. But alas, nothing.

Second, the blogger’s post indicated that Chesterton’s letter came in response to another letter not from the Times, but from the Daily News—a newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, one of Chesterton’s literary heroes—and from a specific issue: August 16, 1905. I don’t know where the blogger dug this info up, but it was enough to go on. It turned out to be correct.

Having turned up nothing via Google, and beginning to suspect that this was either elaborately fabricated or a previously totally unavailable Chesterton essay, I searched for the Daily News itself. The paper merged with another in the 1910s and no longer exists, but a free trial of the British Newspaper Archive allowed me to look at digital scans of its entire archives and the specific issue of the paper noted in the blogger’s post.

And behold:

The  Daily News , August 16, 1905

The Daily News, August 16, 1905

Chesterton’s complete letter to the editor in response to “A Heretic,” and the germ of the oft-repeated misquotation, right there.

As I mentioned, I was flummoxed that this bit of Chesterton lore was unavailable anywhere online, especially since the misquoted version has proved so persistent and vexing. So I’ve transcribed the entire text of the letter and included it below so that the whole thing is available somewhere. I hope having the full text available will prove a good resource for anyone, like me, hunting for the source of that famous story. I’ve included a handful of hyperlinks to things that might clarify some of Chesterton’s allusions or asides.

Like all of Chesterton’s work, it’s amusing and thought-provoking. And despite coming early in his career—three years before his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, five before the book What’s Wrong with the World—and from a lost world—nine years before the First World War!—in many ways as alien to us now as the antebellum South, medieval Britain, or republican Rome, much of his concern is eerily prescient, particularly in an age of religious flabbiness, unease with the status quo, political strife, the squandering of inherited blessings, and increasingly insistent reliance on the State.

This was by no means a difficult bit of detective work—I’m no Father Brown—but I enjoyed the hunt, and I enjoyed reading a new bit of recovered GKC. I hope y’all enjoy and benefit from it as well.

* * * * *

From the Daily News, August 16, 1905

Sir,—I must warmly protest against people mistaking the uneasiness of “A Heretic” for a sort of pessimism. If he were a pessimist he would be sitting in an armchair with a cigar. It is only we optimists who can be angry.

Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground. Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would. Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything. But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government. Men have found the need of other forces. Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom. The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon; the State has only a machinery of punishment. The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime. Abolish religion if you like. Throw everything on secular government if you like. But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace. If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something, as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion, every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens. A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols. A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives. It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties. It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces. Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution. Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that. And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds. Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community. The citizen was not bound to give titles to others, but was bound to refuse titles for himself. The new creed had its saints, like Washington and Hoche; it had its martyrs, it had even its asceticism.

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this: That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation. Instead of taking the Revolution as meaning that democracy is the true doctrine, we have taken it as meaning that any doctrine is the true doctrine. Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broad-mindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance. We have Liberty to be unequal. We have Liberty to be unfraternal. At the last we have Liberty to admire slavery. For this was the just and natural end of our mere “free-thinking”—the Tory Revival. Liberalism was supposed to mean liberty to believe in anything; it soon meant liberty to believe in Toryism. Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,

G. K. Chesterton

Andersonville

The real Andersonville,  photographed  from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

The real Andersonville, photographed from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

This year I set myself a goal of reading fewer but longer books, and to get the year started I decided to tackle a monster: Mackinlay Kantor’s 750-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville. It took me exactly a month.

I first heard of Kantor’s Andersonville in the early 90s, when TNT aired its own Andersonville mini-series. Reviewers in the Civil War magazines I read condemned the mini-series for grossly exaggerating deliberate Confederate brutality, and compared it—unfavorably—to Kantor’s book, which they implied did the same thing. Both accusations, as it happens, are correct—for reasons I’ll get into—but I spent the next twenty-five years assuming Kantor’s book was a straightforward Yankee screed. Only in the last few years, when I discovered that he was also the author of a children’s book on Gettysburg that I had loved as a kid, did I first become mildly curious about, then genuinely interested in, and finally decide to read Andersonville.

I’m glad I did. Andersonville is a good book, if perhaps not a great one, and poses interesting questions for readers and writers of historical fiction.

The story of Camp Sumter

“Andersonville” is the popular name for Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp constructed in southern Georgia in early 1864. (The first prisoners arrived on this day 155 years ago.) Over its year and a half of existence, Andersonville received 45,000 Union POWs, who arrived by train from all theaters of war. 13,000 of them died.

Kantor sets out to tell the whole story of Camp Sumter. He begins with the land itself, exploring the woods and fields through Ira Claffey, a local planter whose three sons have all died in the Confederate army and whose plantation teeters on the edge of collapse through lack of manpower and cash. Ira meets a Confederate surveying crew looking for land for a new prison camp. They settle on a valley on the banks of Sweetwater Creek and construction begins. By the time the camp is finished and the prisoners have begun to arrive, we still have a good 600 pages to go.

andersonville cover.jpg

The novel excels in its narrowly focused sketches of incidental characters and the world in which they move. While Ira Claffey and his family’s losses frame the whole narrative, other characters flit in and out of the story—a white trash boy who joins the Georgia Reserves (just like Georgie in my novel Griswoldville) and becomes a guard; Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commander of the stockade; a local Presbyterian minister who tries to organize charitable donations for the prisoners; one of the camp surgeons; and many, many of the Union prisoners.

The prisoners’ chapters are particularly poignant, as they often give a prisoner’s entire life story up to his time in the camp. One harbors intense homesickness to get back to the German immigrant girl he fell in love with; another, having fled his intensely religious father, has become a prodigal son and falls in with the stockade’s villains; another has become deranged since his capture at Chickamauga and has turned informer for the Confederates, a status he comes to abhor; another is an Irish immigrant sailor trying desperately to dote on his underage boy lover; another, who learned criminality and murder at a young age in the immigrant slums of New York, gathers similarly cutthroat survivors to himself to form a gang; another, the scion of a privileged and worldly Jewish family, retreats inward, losing himself in prolonged reminiscences of his travels. Still others form pairs or trios, sometimes merely on the basis of having the same home state, to try to help each other survive. A few try to tunnel their way out, with tragic results.

And many historical figures—from the obvious Confederate officers like Wirz or his superior, General John Winder; to prisoners like Red Cap, a drummer boy who did clerical work for Wirz; diarists John Ransom and John McElroy; violent “Raider” William Collins; and Boston Corbett, a religious fanatic who, after his release, would become the man who killed John Wilkes Booth—wander in and out of the story. Even those characters that only appear for a single chapter are finely drawn, their life stories familiar, their fates worth worrying over.

The novel unfolds in an elephantine mid-century modernist style, a style that reminded me quite a bit of both Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead and any number of William Faulkner’s books, if you can imagine that combination. Kantor is also interested in typically mid-twentieth century issues—nihilism, the meaninglessness of suffering, whether religion does or does not have anything to offer, and weird sex. He does not use quotation marks and his studies of the characters often freewheel into pure stream-of-conscious remembering.

It’s dense, it’s heavy, but the sheer accumulation of detail adds steadily to the book’s power. One comes to feel the world in which the novel takes place and to sense the immense variety of the people who live in it, of all the fully lived lives coming together in this particular place in southern Georgia. It’s powerful.

Unfortunately, it can also be punishing, something Kantor surely intended but that wears on the reader after a while. When one particularly prominent character is—apparently—shot at random by a guard, Kantor diverts us from his fate for a good twenty pages before revealing that, yes, he was killed instantly. Many of the deaths in the book, of young men wasted away to nothing by starvation, exposure, and diarrhea, moved me; that one felt like a cruel trick.

After the Raiders

Kantor also never entirely overcomes one particular narrative hurdle: What happened while all those prisoners were in Andersonville? Not much, honestly, and so large parts of the book depict people simply existing. Life in the camp was a continuous struggle, so there’s narrative meat there, but it drags in places, particularly once Kantor has finished with the most notorious incident in the camp: the trial and execution of the Raiders.

The Raiders were Union prisoners, many from New York City, who recreated the predatory gang environment of their urban slums and lived off of their fellow soldiers and prisoners through theft and murder. In response, a band of prisoners calling themselves Regulators tried to create a system of mutual protection and law enforcement and ultimately fought a battle with the Raiders. Having received permission from the Confederate authorities at the camp, a jury of recent arrivals—theoretically less biased—tried the Raiders’ ringleaders and their most violent enforcers and sentenced six to hang.

A true story, and a gripping one—right? Kantor capably dramatizes the incident with a steady drip of violence from the Raiders, futile resistance by the other prisoners, and a gradual increase in tension that finally explodes in the prisoner-on-prisoner war and the hangings. But the first batches of prisoners arrived in the late winter and early spring of 1864, and the Raiders were tried in July, making the Raiders’ run of the prison dramatic but short. With this out of the way, we’re still less than halfway through the camp’s history and only halfway through the book. The rest is good, but it never quite regains the narrative momentum of this solid third of the story.

In the end, relief finally comes for the addled, dropsical, hopeless prisoners when a large number are transferred to other camps in order to reduce overcrowding. General Winder, the general in charge of Confederate POW camps and the obvious villain of the piece, dies in South Carolina. The war nears its end. From here the story becomes somewhat unfocused, seldom revisiting Camp Sumter’s stockade and giving only the vaguest sense of how things end for a number of characters, finally concluding with the surviving Claffeys—defeated, returned to the United States once more—hiring on their former slaves as sharecroppers and watching the empty prison overgrow and crumble.

Character assassination?

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Andersonville was published in 1955, just ten years after the end of the Second World War. That conflict, in which Kantor worked as a war correspondent, looms over this novel in obvious ways. An overpopulated prison camp in which a third of the inmates, who arrived by rail, died of disease, starvation, and at the hands of guards—and commanded by a German-speaking officer in a gray uniform? At the end of the novel, when Union cavalry officers arrive to arrest Wirz at his home, a more or less explicit discussion of the Nuremberg defense occupies the conversation. Camp Sumter will always look a little different since Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz joined it in the rearview mirror.

Kantor does depart from many of the immediate post-Civil War accounts of the prison by humanizing Henry Wirz—somewhat. He is a wildly exaggerated, hysterical, aggrieved man impotently trying to work out his frustrations, especially with a wounded arm that refuses to heal and a chain of command that gives him very limited real authority in his own camp. The result is his mismanagement of the prison, especially in times of prisoner unrest. Wirz’s immediate superiors, on the other hand, especially General Winder, are depicted as sadists intentionally trying to turn Andersonville into a charnel house and starve the Yankees—all propagandistic mischaracterizations originating immediately after the war.

The broader South, as seen through the Claffeys, is complicit as well. Their grief and bitterness at their terrible losses have seeded a deep desire to kill northerners at every opportunity. And though Ira Claffey in particular feels intense discomfort with the camp and the way honorably surrendered enemies are being treated, he and the others of his class are ultimately frozen into inaction by their ambivalence. And so the Yankees starve and waste away. Kantor explains Andersonville as the result of dark, archetypal resentments that somehow bring the cruelty of the camp into existence.

That makes for compelling literature but it doesn’t reflect reality and, thanks to the much wider readership awarded this Pulitzer Prize winner than any of the primary sources it was based upon, it has permanently skewed perceptions of Wirz, Andersonville, and what happened there. Subsequent dramatizations, including the TNT miniseries, have gone further. It is very difficult to watch that film version of Wirz without thinking of an unhinged Nazi commandant, a far cry from the pathetic figure in Kantor and the real person buried several layers down.

Good reading

So I finished reading Andersonville deeply conflicted. It is certainly a powerhouse of a novel, a modernist monument to what the written word can do in spinning whole lost and forgotten worlds into existence through an act of imagination, and its depiction of conditions in the camp, especially as the helpless prisoners weaken and die, is moving throughout—manifested as dread at the beginning of the novel, horror in the middle, and resignation and grief at the end. But it is also clearly a product of its time, obsessed with the things that preoccupied the post-World War II literary elite, and has only reinforced century-old myths and slanders about many of the people involved in the camp. As I wrote on Goodreads, “Four stars seems too low, but five is certainly too high.”

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

It’s a good book, but if you don’t want to invest the time and effort (literally—this book is a doorstop), check out William Marvel’s Andersonville: The Last Depot, an award-winning history published by Chapel Hill. Marvel includes all the major incidents dramatized in the novel, with special attention given to the Raiders, and assesses the charges eventually brought against Wirz at his trial, where he was convicted and hanged. It’s a well-researched, fair history of the camp from beginning to end.

Finally, nothing can substitute for a visit to the camp itself. I made the trek several years ago and have not forgotten it. Even the remoteness, a good forty minutes away from the nearest interstate, made an impression, and then there was the camp itself, with a few sections of recreated fenceline, the postbellum monuments, and the cemetery. If you’re interested in this topic, by all means read Kantor’s Andersonville, but make time to see the real place with your own eyes.

Office Space on the Sectarian Review

Stephen Root as Milton WADDAMS in  Office Space

Stephen Root as Milton WADDAMS in Office Space

Workplace comedy classic Office Space arrived in (a few) theaters twenty years ago this week. To celebrate, Sectarian Review host Danny Anderson asked me to join him and Jeffrey Carter for a quick discussion of the movie: what’s so great about it, why it flopped, why it’s funny, and why it’s real—so horribly, uncomfortably real—even after twenty years. Along the way we discuss our favorite characters, compare the film to “Dilbert” and “The Office,” examine what it is about Mike Judge’s comedy that works so well, and talk about our own experiences roaming with the herd in cubicle farms. We also try, with only partial success, to resist quoting the entire movie.

You can listen in by downloading the episode or subscribing to the Sectarian Review Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other such fine podcasting apps, or via the embedded Stitcher player in this post. Thanks as always to Danny for having me on, and thanks to y’all for listening. Enjoy!

Chesterton's enormous chivalry

I ran across this anecdote, headlined “A ‘Bus Story,” some years ago and unfortunately don’t have the original source written down. It sounds enough like Chesterton to count as what one of my college professors defined as an apocryphal story—“A story that probably isn’t true… but should be.”

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It is always said that no one enjoys a joke more than Chesterton, and, even when the jokes tells against himself, he never fails to be heard laughing above the whole company. It is related that a certain man told of an act of politeness he had witnessed. He had seen a man give up his seat in a tram-car to a lady. “That’s nothing,” said one of the company. “What about old Chesterton here? I saw him get up and give his seat to three ladies.” The company roared, but louder than the others was heard the jovial laughter of Chesterton. It is in more respects than one that Chesterton lays claims to “greatness.”

As evidenced by the many, many stories of Chesterton poking fun at his own size, he had an enviable ability to laugh at himself and see his own absurdity. Indeed, not thinking too much of oneself, being able to see one’s own absurdity, and to enjoy it, is a recurring theme through all of his work. From Orthodoxy:

Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

And, from the same passage: “a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

It’s telling that the theme of the joke in the above anecdote was chivalry; I don’t think, given Chesterton’s emphasis on not minding a joke at one’s own expense, that that is accidental. Chivalry, after all, is a code of deference, which means thinking of oneself less, cultivating an instinct to think of others first. Which is something I think all of us could stand a little more of. Because, as he noted in 1907, “there is no limit to the lunacy of men when they think themselves superior both to humility and laughter.” Which I think has been abundantly illustrated by now.

Food for thought. I know I struggle not to take myself so seriously and to put others ahead of myself. Both would be good habits to cultivate, and if it means I get to enjoy a good laugh—even at myself—more often, all the better.

Chesterton on controversy

…or the lack thereof. Alan Jacobs, in a post called “insincere controversialists” at his blog Snakes and Ladders, brought this passage from What’s Wrong With the World back to my attention this morning:

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Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare. For the sincere controversialist is above all things a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements. But if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion. You will have no answer except slanging or silence. A modern editor must not have that eager ear that goes with the honest tongue. He may be deaf and silent; and that is called dignity. Or he may be deaf and noisy; and that is called slashing journalism. In neither case is there any controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

I’ve quoted a selection from this passage here before, in “Chesterton on arguing,” about his more charitable approach to arguing, back last summer. Chesterton published What’s Wrong With the World in 1910—four years before the First World War, in a different world entirely—but the situation has only deteriorated in the eleven intervening decades.

Without being too topical, and trying not to pick on any one person or group (for there is none righteous), I intentionally ignored the State of the Union Address last night. I had more important and meaningful things to do—children to feed and take care of, an old friend to meet up with, a wife to talk to, books to read. But I couldn’t help noticing that, all afternoon, the News app on my phone desperately wanted me to read some selections from Stacey Abrams’s forthcoming rebuttal to the forthcoming State of the Union. With assertions and responses already thus prearranged, with the “party combatants” thus arrayed for battle, would anyone actually be listening to the speech? Or to the other side at all?

I don’t think I have to provide an answer. Don’t bother listening to your opponents—which would actually be engaging with them—but valiantly attack into the safe space of your ideological bubble and give bold speeches about your side’s bravery and the enemy’s duplicity. I can’t improve on Chesterton’s wonderful phrase above:

 
there [is no] controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.
 

Despite everything you see on the news—and, God help us, social media—we don’t actually have much controversy any more, but it’s not for lack of noise and strife. Our politics and combat are noisy because we’ve lost the ability to listen.