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