Wednesday, May 29, 2013

JUST SHOW: The Library of America's THE CIVIL WAR

                                     NECESSARY PREFACE   
            I have never had my own copy of Jay Leyda’s THE MELVILLE LOG though I have dipped into it over the years in libraries  and have always held it in mind when reading history and biographies. 
            So, finally I now have my own copy of a book that Leyda writes in the wish “to make this book and experience rather than a chore for the student.”  A book such as: “I have tried to hold to one main aim: to give each reader the opportunity to be his own biographer of Herman Melville, by providing him with the largest possible quantity of materials to build his own approach to this complex figure.” 
            What Leyda does is simply collect every published reference to the actual life of Melville from the moment of the public announcement of his birth to the funeral notice. Nothing could be simpler, more daring, more demanding of the reader, more suggestive… wouldn’t anyone want such a book for the life of Joyce, Tolstoy…
            Again, as in the inspiration for this blog, the ABC OF READING by Ezra Pound:::::  show do not tell.. do not explain too much--- rather show, reveal and trust the reader, of course this drives critics to distraction, drives nuts the propagandists of theory, those who seek to browbeat into belief future acolytes who will turn will do the same to their acolytes…  is there no figure more desrving of scorn and a public spitting upon than a disciple of a disciple of say  Derrida or Foucault or __________ (name your favorite tenured crank)

            The fundamental appeal of the Library of America’s series of books on the American Civil War of which Year Three has just been published is the decision of  editors to trust their readers.  I am old enough to remember that when the 100th anniversary of the Civil War was celebrated it was portrayed as the triumph of the North via the books of Bruce Catton--- though always  somewhere was the great Civil War history from a more or less southern point of view by Shelby Foote---  but Catton was the most publicised historian and LIFE magazine made sure his triumphalist voice was the only popular voice.
            So as this is being written at the end of May, 2013.  Here is what we find when turning to the months of May and June 1863.
            150 years ago George Richard Browder, a Methodist minister, a slave owning farmer and secession sympathizer in Logan County, a Kentucky then occupied by the Union army reported that on May 26: 
 I went to town and took the oath of (allegiance to the United States) & as for me, I shall give no one an opportunity to convict me of violating it.  The dictates of humanity I cannot disregard. I never did & will not now encourage the rebellion but as a Christian I must be humane even if I have to feed an enemy when hungry.  Most of my old friends in town seemed very glad to see me & treated me most cordially.  For several days past the papers  have been rejoicing over the great Federal victories & the capture of great numbers of prisoners & cannon & military stores & it is believed that Vicksburg has fallen or must fall & also the greater part of the rebel army.  If this is true it is a severe blow to the rebellion & they have probably lost most more at Vicksburg than they gained at Frederickburg.  I feel like withdrawing my thoughts from all public matters & trying more to be a humble Christian & get safely out of this wicked world”
Note THE MELVILLE LOG is dedicated:  

            The advantage of reading the Library of America version of the Civil War is in the reality being shown.  A letter from Robert Gould Shaw, a 25 year old captain in a Massachusetts unit who has been sent to an island in South Carolina: 
            About noon we came in sight of Darien, a beautiful little town.  Our artillery peppered it a little, as we came up, and then our three boats made fast to the wharves, and we landed the troops,  The town was deserted, with the exception of two white women and two negroes.  (Colonel) Montgomery ordered all the furniture and movable property to be taken on board the boats.  This occupied some time; ad after the town was pretty thoroughly disemboweled, he said to me, I shall burn this town.”  He speaks always in a very low tone, and has quite a sweet smile when addressing you,  I told him, “I did not want the responsibility of it,” and he was only too happy to take it all on his shoulders; so the pretty little place was burnt to the ground, and not a shed remains standing; Montgomery firing the last buildings with his own hand… You must bear in mind, that not a shot had been fired at us from this place, and that there were evidently very few men left in it… The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews, of old.  In theory it might seem right to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, I myself don’t like it…
YET YET toward the end of the letter: 
            Today I rode to Pierce Butler’s plantation.  It is so an immense place and part of it very beautiful.  The house is small and badly built, like almost all I have seen here.  There are about ten of his slaves left there, all of them sixty or seventy years old.  He sold three hundred slaves about three years ago.  I talked with some, whose children and grandchildren were sold then, and though they said that was “a weeping day” they maintained that “mass Butler was a good massa,” and they would give anything to see him again… They said all the house servants had been taken in land by the overseers at the beginning of the war and they asked if we couldn’t get their children back to the island again.  They were all born and bred on the place and even selling away their families could not entirely efface their love for their master.  Isn’t it horrible to think of a man being able to treat such faithful creatures in such a manner?

            YET  YET  war finally is about killing and being killed.
            Later in the month from a letter dated 11 June 1863, a 28 year old Major in Pennsylvania cavalry, Henry C Whelan writes home about what came to be seen as the largest cavalry battle of the war.  Notice the word cut.
            …we dashed on, driving the Rebels into and through the woods, our men fighting with the sabre alone, whilst they used principally pistols.  Our brave fellows cut them out of the saddle and fought like tigers, until I discovered they were on both flanks, pouring a cross fire of carbines and pistols on us, and then tried to rally my men and make them return the fire with their carbines…

            …one officer rode close up on my right side and leveled his pistol, I stooped under his arm on “Lancer’s” neck as he fired, and gave him a hissing cut with my sabre as I flew by--- I then dropped my sabre on my wrist and drew my pistol and fired at all who came to close--- I passed a dismounted Rebel officer so close I could have cut his head off.  An Irishman, of Company K who was splendidly mounted stuck to me like a leech and called out from behind:  Major, there’s an officer--- shall I cut him down?”  I saw his horse was killed and he himself stood defenseless, so I told the man to let him alone.  That Irishman cried out, when I cut the rebel who has fired his pistol at me:  “Good for you, Major’, and gave a regular Irish whoop.

            Whelan’s horse Lancer is shot out from under him. 

            In a moment my orderly, Ward, of Company C, rode up to me, sprung to the ground and said, “Major take my horse—I have a carbine and can get back safely on foot.”  I mounted and rode back whilst Ward turned and shot a Rebel who was robbing “Lancer” of his saddle blanket.  Lieut. Lennig was lost at that place, whether killed, wounded or taken prisoner, we don’t know.  How I escaped through all I can’t imagine.  I was only grazed on the left wrist and didn’t know it till I saw my wrist bathed in blood.  The shot which killed “Lancer” passed close by my thigh through the saddle bag piercing Bulwer’s “What will he do with it”, which was strapped to the saddle bag.  I will send this book to you by mail.  It has some of Lancer’s blood on it.

            Of course next month, July, 150 years ago, Gettysburg. 
            I took my wife, Anna Saar and daughter, Elizabeth, to Gettysburg ten years ago toward the end of July and we talked the field across which Pickett’s charge marched… in the heat… the Library of America version of the Civil War is like that experience via words read, one never forgets the visceral feeling of the heat and with a little imagination… supplied by words read

Saturday, May 4, 2013


This apology of decay      
The nastiness of history. 
            The nightmare always associated with Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
            So of course the schools now avoid all the bad news by packaging history up as problems, pro and con, possible solutions… sometimes they call in over-looked voices, witnesses but always contaminated with the myth of critical thinking and the so-called uncovering the secret suppressed history and the inevitable conspiracy of some sort is urged into being so as to  nudge nudge their students into the know
            An absence of any sense of chronological history sticks young people and most people in a constant present so that they can be  shaped by whatever is the current powers-to-be… to be set in a present moment when to have any thoughts of the past is to be forbidden under the pain of being thought old-fashioned, out of touch… so yes it was boring for teachers to listen to students reciting the list of presidents, the monarchs of England, the wars of the various countries…  but not boring for a young person as he or she would always be aware that whoever is the current rascal in charge is just that… the current one, no better and no worse than what has gone before… and so the inevitable hesitation before responding to the well crafted campaigns to sway, to give up thinking, to give up memory…
            Now, the sad reality constant disillusion to be replaced by a fake revival of some recent fashion while waiting for the next “new” enthusiasm
            Which might all be throat clearing for the pleasures of reading the new Library of America:  THE WAR OF 1812  Writings from America’s Second War of Independence.  You might know which one:  the Battle of New Orleans and Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British after the treaty of peace had been signed… yeah, the writing of the Star Spangled Banner… some naval battles… and as Bob Dylan sings in his song “Narrow Way”  on his latest CD: Ever since the British burned the White House down…
            Of course the Library of America has been doing some strategic planning of its own:  the really complex wars, the nastiest with still unsettled consequences:  the Mexican American War, the Spanish American War, the Korean War and the First World War…
            Just reciting the list:  I leave out the more than a hundred years war against the Indians…  allow me the old-fashioned word… that war which could never be resolved as to being either a simple war of conquest or of extermination.. but a hundred years war… that was something that happened in Europe…yet it continues on today, of course
            Such are the thoughts and why these LOA books are so important..
           But the nightmare…  Hannah Green in her singularly visionary book THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE has a theme: the history of Ohio and while she is now herself long gone I can imagine sharing with her this description of the aftermath of a battle between the Americans, the English and their Indian allies.  A sixteen year old Englishman John Richardson  reporting later in life on what he saw in an Indian village:             …were to be seen the scalps of the slain drying in the sun, stained on the fleshy side with vermilion dyes, and dangling in air they hung suspended from the poles to which they were attached together with hoops of various sizes, on which were stretched portions of human skin taken from various parts of the body, principally the hand and foot, and yet covered with the nails of those parts, while scattered along the ground were visible the members from which they had been separated and serving as nutriment to the wolf-dogs by which the savages are accompanied… stopping at the entrance of a tent occupied by a part of the Minoumini tribe we observed them seated round a large fire, over which was suspended a kettle containing their meal.  Each warrior had a piece of string hanging over the edge of the vessel and to this was suspended a food, which it will be presumed we heard not without loathing, consisted of part of an American… Any expression of our feelings as we declined the invitation they gave us to join in their repast, would have been resented by the Indians without much ceremony.
          Later in that year the same Richardson saw:  A tall powerful man--- a chief whom I  well knew… when within  twelve or fifteen paces  of the rifleman, he raised and threw his tomahawk, and with such precision and force that it immediately opened the skull, and extended him motionless on the earth.  Laying down his rifle, he drew forth his knife, and after having removed the hatchet from the brain, proceeded to make a circular incision throughout the scalp.  This done, he grasped the bloody instrument between his teeth and placing his knees on the back of the victim, while at the same times he fastened his fingers in the hair, the scalp was torn off without much apparent difficulty and thrust, still bleeding, into his bosom.  The warrior then arose, and after having wiped his knife on the clothes of the unhappy man returned it to its sheath, grasping at the same time the arms he had abandoned, and hastening to rejoin his comrades.  All this was the work of a few minutes.
        And here is Shadrach Byfield--- what a wonderful Biblical name---Shadrach-- how few are the names now available in the current moment of this blog… describes the result of being wounded at the age 25:  After a few days our doctor informed me that my arm must be taken off, as mortification had taken place. I consented and asked one of my comrades who has lately gone through a like operation: “Bill, how is to have an arm taken off?”  He replied, “Thee woo’t know, when it’s done.”  They prepared to blind me, and had men to hold me, but I told them there was no need of that.  The operation was tedious and painful, but I was enabled to bear it pretty well.  I had it dressed, and went to bed.  They brought me some mulled wine and I drank it.  I was then informed that the orderly had thrown my hand to the dung heap.  I arose, went to him and felt a disposition to strike him., My hand was taken up and a few boards nailed together for a coffin, my hand was put into it and buried on the ramparts.  The stump of my arm soon healed and three days after I was able to play a game of fives for a quart of rum.
           But that sort of glib comment of Stephen’s.. a comment I have known, chewed upon, used and heard used:  John Lukacs writes about Gyula Krudy,   He knew something that the psychiatrists of this century do not yet know, which is that on our dreams we really don’t think differently, we merely remember differently.
             And the last selection in the book is a memoir of the life of an American prisoner in Dartmoor.  It is said 20,000 Americans were held as prisoners.  Of course there were incidents and Lewis Peter Clover recounts the result of one of those incidents when their English guards turned on the prisoners:            On the floor opposite where I messed lay a handsome youth, of about fifteen years of age stiff, and sold as marble, pierced through the heart by a bayonet.  A few yards farther on, lay another: a ball had entered his forehead, and passed out at the back of his head.  I examined the spot the next morning and saw part of his brains which had been dashed against the wall nearly opposite the prison door. Among the wounded… another had a most miraculous escape with his life; a musket ball had passed through his mouth from side to side, taking out nearly the whole of his teeth.  I saw him after he had go well: he could take no food except with a spoon.

                                                  A PROPOSAL

From ABC OF READING by Ezra Pound:  Teaching. The problem of education.  If I could acquire a PhD, a fancy sober sounding name for a corporation, the ability to say what follows in say 200 pages I’d be a millionaire, as now:  
       The teacher or lecturer is a danger.  He very seldom recognizes his nature or his position.  The lecturer is a man who must talk for an hour.
       France may possibly have acquired the intellectual leadership of Europe when their academic period was cut down to forty minutes.
       I also have lectured.   The lecturer’s first problem is to have enough words to fill forty or sixty minutes.  The professor is paid for his time, his results are almost impossible to estimate.
       The man who really knows can tell all that is transmissible in a very few words.  The economic problem of the teacher (of violin or of language or anything else) is how to string it out so as to be paid for more lessons.

This apology of decay is from Gottfried Benn… that the prose books of Gottfried Benn are not available in English is a constant proof of the sheer incompetence of all these presses devoted to translation and the same goes for their failure to translate the famous three pamphlets of Celine… which remain un-translated for entirely different reasons as does the continued failure to translate the Diaries of Ernst Junger and his various collections of essays…