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A Summoning of Place


ISSUE:  Summer 2003

Most of the important things about the place of place in fiction have been said before and said better by my betters. And so it is probably outrageous, bad form all around, to write about place again, to try to recapitulate the persuasive arguments so ably advanced that they are by now our unspoken assumptions, matters of faith and belief. Yet, precisely because one so seldom examines or even questions one’s unspoken assumptions, it might be useful to reconsider my own life and work, how my private practice coincides and connects with the public assumptions that I accept and honor without thinking much about them.

For my own good reasons I have tried to avoid too much self-consciousness as a writer, thinking, superstitiously perhaps, that I might somehow inhibit or at least limit myself and my work by too much self-study. That’s a proposition that might well prove to be true; but here I am in my ‘70’s, someone whose past is a good deal longer and stronger than any imaginable (or maybe even desirable) future. From this point of view it would seem to be a more serious inhibition not to be able freely to look back and consider the road behind me, the road already taken. It is not necessary to stake claims or to make claims about that work. The work will simply have to speak for itself.

Over the years I have written novels, short stories, poems, and some other things (plays, movies, biography, essays, criticism, and journalism). Not that it makes that much difference; because, beyond my tacit acceptance of the working rules of the road and safe driving tips for each of these forms, I think of them all, large or small, lighthearted or heavy, as chips off the same block. Which is to say that I think that the writers I most envy and admire and honor leave their signs on all they touch, and that, as Auden says somewhere and I here have to paraphrase: Even a limerick ought to be something a man facing a firing squad or death from cancer could read without contempt.

There is something that, enjoying the pleasures of hindsight, I had not noticed before because I was not looking for it. Looking back now, it seems to me that I took advantage of the variety of work I was doing to play off one form against another. That is, for example, that when I was writing more or less realistic fiction, stories and several early novels, colloquial in style and matter-of-fact in mundane detail, I was, at one and the same time, composing verses that were more or less formal, metrical, and rhymed. Later, when I was deeply engaged, for 30-odd years, creating an Elizabethan Trilogy and searching to understand their language and then to echo and to translate it, a slightly more elevated, even elegant level of speech, all through those days, while not completely abandoning my other habits (in either fiction or poetry), I wrote looser if not “freer” verses focused on less “poetic” subjects and sources. These things seem to have depended on each other.

Just so, one cannot ever escape from the good and bad habits of the age, its customs, conventions, and stereotypes. One acts and reacts within the literary context of a real world with real values, though many of these values, over a lifetime, prove to be as transient and insignificant as hem lines and the length of haircuts.

Places matter greatly in the art and craft of making. I said places plural, because I think now, after stumbling through a large part of the 20th century and into this one, that plurality in and of itself is something that tends to separate us from the world of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Most of us in those days were born in one place, lived out lives in that place, came at last to be buried there. Other places were mostly imaginary, though our imaginations were fueled and sometimes fired by the tall tales of drifters and passing strangers, the reports of some few travelers who had left behind this place only to return later with the good news or bad news of a wider world and all its various and sundry places. And there were always the wars, close by or often very far away, that gathered up our young men and took them off to alien places where many died and from which many, often maimed beyond repair or recovery, hobbled home to take up (gratefully) their old lives in the home place. These veterans could have told us a tale or two, but most often they didn’t. What had happened to them was beyond their power to describe or evoke. Silence was the golden rule. Later, as in, say, the aged veterans of the Civil War or World War II, they mellowed enough to begin to share some of their memories, memories colored and distorted by nostalgia and blessed forgetfulness.

Of course, for me and all Americans there is always the great leap sideways, that long voyage over from old countries to the new found land, a migration that continues, for better and for worse, to this day. But for those of us whose people came here earliest, it was an enormous change of place, beginning with the dangerous passage across the wide sea and, for the lucky survivors of those voyages, arrival at and in bleak, hard scrabble settlements on the edges of a vast, dark, brooding wilderness.

Would we now be witness to the migrations of today, from all directions, from ancient and distant civilizations, if that were the inevitable end of the journey? Who knows? But I kind of doubt it.

Recently I read an account, synoptic to be sure, of the amazing travels and travails of an English sailor, Davy Ingrams, in the middle of the 16th century. Left behind on a beach in Yucatan by Sir John Hawkins (Sir John had some men ashore but had to flee for his life to save his ship and crew from superior Spanish forces that suddenly appeared on the scene), this fellow escaped the clutches of the Spaniards and Indians alike and set off, briskly at first one likes to imagine, in a generally northeast direction, hoping to get to Newfoundland just as soon as possible. He had sailed on fishing vessels to Newfoundland and knew that fishermen and other adventurers congregated there in the high summertime. He had no idea how far away from Yucatan Newfoundland might be. A few years later, walking all the way across the continent, he arrived at Newfoundland, found a vessel that would take him aboard and eventually returned to his home in the west of England. There, after a while, some authorities (in the modern terminology) “debriefed” him. He told them all that he knew and could remember. Basic problem being that anybody tough enough to walk across the whole American continent for several years, all by himself, though he was often given hospitality by Indians. . . and sometimes not, anybody who could do that might not, most probably wouldn’t be a highly sensitive observer. He climbed big mountains, he crossed the wide rivers, he lived through the hard seasons. He came home. It was soon apparent to his official questioners that the fellow had very little to add to their knowledge of the secrets of darkest America. When they began to look sidewise, to shrug to each other, and to yawn in his face, Davy began to make up things that might arouse their interest: multicolored sheep and monstrous rabbits, miracle plants and crops, tribes of two-headed Indians, buckets of silver and great lumps of gold—the usual things. They eagerly copied down his testimony and some people even elected to believe it.

Imaginary places, emerald cities at the end of yellow brick roads, were always part of our sense of place.

Sometimes imaginary history, and at its heart an imaginary sense of place, not only haunts our lives with ghostly voices and echoes, but is, finally, stronger, even more accurate than the cut, shuffled and dealt world of hard facts. Having lived long enough, I have inevitably witnessed things, experienced them, that later, in the hands of others, as past history, were rearranged to suit the pleasure and purposes of “objective” observers, historians who, never deviating from factual “accuracy,” nevertheless have turned the truth completely upside down. It is in this sense that narrative history, even fictional history can be as important as factual history. Born to one place for generations we almost always lived and died there. Our ghosts spoke to us in a common language of presences, with the common logic of poetry. We knew our past, chiefly by word of mouth, in our skin and bones, though our knowledge of the facts might be more than a little sketchy. We could love it or we could hate it or both at once; but we could not easily leave it. Or, if we did manage to move on, as many, though not most, did, we left our hearts behind in the home place, often feeling a little ashamed of ourselves as if we had failed in doing our bounden duty.

All that changes in a mere historical blink of the eye. Huge and complex forces set us Americans off a-wandering to many places. Meantime our home places changed radically before our very eyes—many shriveling and shrinking into a shabby insignificance, others growing, “developing” into huge, crowded, disorderly suburban and city places that share not much more than a name with the original place and its vanished inhabitants.

Among writers the first great generation of American masters— Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.—had to contend with this. Many moved on and about for the rest of their lives. Others, particularly the Southerners, stayed or regularly returned home where, even amidst the shrinking and shriveling, or the lunatic expansion, they could feel at home. That was the last literary generation of Americans that truly enjoyed that choice. We, who followed after, are close enough to them to feel a nostalgia for the lost (or fading) place they once and for all summoned up for us. We tend to be sentimental about it. They were not. Nostalgia and sentiment are not true love. No caritas there. To do their work, Faulkner and Welty and Warner and Foote and Settle and all the rest had to love the place. Deeply.

I doubt seriously that we will again see that kind of love shining through American writing, not exactly in the same form, anyway. We will live to see something else, something different, maybe even some things wonderful, but never that true, unconditional love again.

One of the many drastic changes in the American 20th century has been the association and affiliation of our writers with our academic institutions. For the first time since the great years of the Monasteries, a large number of serious writers are kept by colleges and universities as teachers and performers. This began just before World War II but accelerated and expanded rapidly in the 1950’s. It follows that the writers followed and went to the places where the jobs were. Some found homes and tenure. Most of the others became academic nomads. Many, myself among them, imagined this to be a kind of temporary condition, one we would shed as soon as possible for careers as full-time writers. Failing that, in fact as well as imagination, I have only recently retired from 40-odd years of full-time teaching, broken occasionally by free or study years here and there. Thus I have lived (never mind considering short or long visits) in Middletown, Connecticut; Rome, Italy; Houston, Texas; Charlottesville, Virginia; Princeton, New Jersey; Roanoke, Virginia; Columbia, South Carolina; York Harbor, Maine; Miami, Florida; Charleston, West Virginia; Lexington, Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan (twice); Charlottesville (again); Tuscaloosa, Alabama, not counting some early times logged in New York City, first in the Village, then on 115th Street. A fairly typical record, I reckon, for a writer of my generation.

And so it is that, here and now and in my lifetime, place in America has become plural for our writers. We have our “places” real and imaginary. We have those places where we have worked well and whose qualities, as we know and understand them, seem to bring out the best in us.

For example, I have not (not yet, to the best of my knowledge) written a single word of fiction set on the coast of Maine. Where I lived year round for several years. Where I still return yearly. Where I wrote more than half of my novels and collections of stories. Wrote them mostly in one particular place—at a zinc-covered table, a work table, set by a couple of small windows in a long, narrow boathouse, itself fixed on a rock and earthen pier, jutting out into the York River. It is a place that has been, first in my wife’s family, now in ours, for five generations. Behind the boathouse, set on a steep little slope, the old house (1780) faces the river too. Tidal, the river is always moving and the boats moored out there, fishing boats, lobstermen, and, in summertime, the yachts and pleasure boats of summer people, move in and out also. Gulls fish, cry out, roost and fly.

And one writer managed to get a good deal of work done there without, until now, writing a word of fiction about it. Others there have worked well too. Mark Twain upriver half a mile, Sidney Lanier, Thomas Nelson Page, William Dean Howells and May Sarton, and now Ann Beattie, among some others, in the area, in the neighborhood.

What I have said, though, needs to be slightly modified. If I have written no fiction about the place, I have in fact done a play (Enchanted Ground) for readers’ theater and for local performance, about the place and some of its history. And, I now have to notice, I have done any number of short poems whose setting, firmly in that place, is as much the subject as anything else.

As, for an obvious example, this little poem, what I would call “a watercolor”:

MAINE MORNING

Where clear air blew off the land,
wind turns around and the sky changes.
Where there was burning blue is pale gray now,
heavy and salty from the cold open sea.
And the long groaning of the foghorn
saying change. . .change. . .change. . .
like a sleeper dreaming and breathing.

Tide turning, too, with the weather.
The lobster boats swing about to pull
against moorings like large dogs on chains.
Gulls cry like hurt children and disappear.
And I think, surely it is a magician,
bitter and clever, who has pulled this trick.

That old magician is laughing in the fog.
and the cries of wounded children fade away
while the bellbuoy sounds farewell. . .farewell. . .
daring the dead to rise up from dreaming,
to hold their lives like water in their hands.

Some years ago, speaking to the North Carolina Historical Society (the talk entitled “Why They Left Home and What They Were Looking For”), I touched on the kinship of the place and my work. I said to them that much of the work, almost all of the writing of my trilogy of Elizabethan novels, was done in that rickety boathouse set on an earth-and-rock pier jutting out into the York River in York, Maine. This place was once (I am told) the site of the first town pier with its warehouse and with the village marketplace conveniently and directly behind it between the boathouse and where my house stands. There I sat in my boathouse on the place of the first pier in the first village that was settled in what was then called the Palatinate of Maine, governed, from a great distance, by Sir Ferdinando Gorges. Who was, as these things happen, a cousin of Sir Walter Ralegh.

We know that for one reason and another Europeans had been coming to the coast of Maine, most often to the off-shore islands but sometimes inland as well, for a much longer time than anyone has yet reckoned. Certainly the English were coming here in the early years of the 16th century for the sake of the seasonal fishing and to set up fishing camps, some of them quite elaborate and as solid as little settlements; for exploring also and for some modest trading with the local Indians. Sir Ferdinando, owner of the Palatinate, decided on what became York as the appropriate site for the first permanent, year-round settlement in Maine. It had already been cleared and somewhat tamed. There had, not long before, been a village there inhabited by some agricultural Indians. Sometime around the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, more or less coincident with the end of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, they simply vanished. It was speculated that they had died from disease or during one of the innumerable and unquenchable tribal wars.

It was a likely place then, clear and empty of its people when, in the early years of the 17th century, Captain Christopher Levett sailed the York Bonaventure through the tricky, rocky mouth and safely into the calm harbor of the York River (in those days called the Agamenticas) looking for an appropriate place to plant a settlement. He recommended this one: “There I think a good plantation may be settled, for there is a good harbor for ships, good ground and much already cleared, fit for the planting of corn and other fruits, having heretofore been planted by the Savages who are all dead. There is good timber and likely to be good fishing.”

And so they came here and have been here ever since, the original families—the Bragdons and Blaisdells and Moultons and Sewalls and Stovers and so forth. My boathouse is insured by Bob Bragdon, himself directly descended from Arthur Bragdon who came to York in his middle age from the English town of Stratford-on-Avon where it is quite implausible to imagine that he did not have at least some memories of that place’s second most honored and famous citizen.

The history of York is not entirely uneventful. On the day after Candlemas in 1692 a large band of Abenaki warriors attacked the village at dawn, killed many men, women, and children and carried off more than half the inhabitants. Two garrison houses withstood the attack. One of them, Captain Alcocks’, was located roughly 100 yards down river from my boathouse. Captain Alcocks reported as follows to Captain John Floyd who brought some troops (too late) to the rescue from nearby Portsmouth: “All gone. Everything we built and planted, every mark we made on this place is gone. There is nothing left but bloody corpses and cold ashes.”

For the next decade or so the survivors all slept for safety in the garrison houses. And they planted crops and rebuilt their village. And a lot of it stands there to this day.

By the way, the first encounter with the Abenaki war party occurred at first light when a young boy, checking a line of traps, came upon a great pile of their snowshoes. He was shortly captured but lived to tell about it. He was the third Arthur Bragdon of York, Maine.

Also an aside. I remember that the old women of my family, keepers of our tribal love, sometimes spoke of ancestors of ours who came in the 17th century to live in Portland (Maine) just up the coast a ways from York Harbor. These people, they said, were seamen and their families. One of them, captain of a vessel, drowned at sea when the ship was lost. Sometime in the 18th century they moved away, to the South as it happens. I do not know the name of my Portland forefathers. The women who could tell me are long gone. But I think that they were named Holmes. In any case, the memory that some of my family had been here in Maine from earliest days helped to make Maine a kind of home place for me.

I mention these things to make the point that after all my reading and research, all my travels and sightseeing in England and Scotland, I ended up writing the Elizabethan novels in as good a place as any I can think of for the summoning up of old ghosts. It was not, is not a haunted place, really; but it surely is a kind of enchanted ground. And there were bright moments for me when I felt the bristling energy of that enchantment, moments when I felt the presence of others as close as my elbow, ghostly presences as palpable as any shadow including my own, moments when, out of the shadows I seemed to hear their voices speaking to me.

As for those Elizabethan novels and the old country, the story is fairly simple. Except for a look at the white cliffs of Dover from the crowded deck of a troop ship and later a few days’ holiday, I was never in England (in fact) until after I had brought out the first book of the trilogy—Death of the Fox. For The Succession that followed, I spent a good deal of time, by car and on foot, following in the footsteps of my characters looking not so much at the surviving houses and buildings and artifacts, though I certainly looked at them where I could, as feeling the ground under my feet, walking and wondering how this may have felt for those for whom (the times as well as the places) it was home. It was a foreign place, to be sure, but it was my foreign place.

I was stationed in Trieste, courtesy of the U.S. Army, and I have lived in Italy, once for more than a year in Rome, and have visited there a number of times whenever I could, logging more time and mileage than I ever have in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Out of the Italian experience have come one novel, Which Ones Are the Enemy (1961), an Army story set in Trieste (written in Middletown, Connecticut), a couple or three short stories, and a scattering of poems. While living in Rome, courtesy of the American Academy in Rome, I wrote my first novel, The Finished Man, set in central Florida, my home and birthplace. Like many other contemporary writers, I had to leave home for Rome (or somewhere) to begin to rediscover my original place. I had to go elsewhere to find out where I had already been.

Here is a “Roman” poem from that time, a quick sketch or candid snapshot of the overwhelming impact on a visiting (American) stranger:

NIGHT POEM: ROME

When the great gray European dark
settles on the city like a spell,
the streetlights haloed, the old people
huddled in doorways, eyes alert,
and my heart sags in a net of veins
like a rock in a sling (for History
is the giant here, stretches and straddles
the dark continent), and I walk home
and would go on tiptoe if I could
so as not to break anything,
not to kiss dust from anybody’s lips
or change anything from stone to flesh,

then, by God, I see the lovers,
the Roman lovers on the walk,
leaning together, he whispering,
she listening, laughing, so close
you can’t separate their shadows.
O Noah’s pairs of all creation
couldn’t please me more! I hurl
my heart against the night
and hear the astounded giant fall.
And I rejoice. I fumble with a key
and open doors. I lass my wife
and hold my children hostage in my arms.

As for Trieste, that beautiful port city of the Adriatic, I was a soldier there, stationed near the village of Padricano up on the Yugoslav border (in those days). My place was the U.S. Army. But there were, and not to be denied or suppressed, now remembered, powerful literary vibrations.

You could not go down into the city to the main PX without passing the Berlitz school where Joyce taught for years and worked on Ulysses and other things. His brother, Stanislaus Joyce, was teaching at the University in Trieste while I was there. You could not leave the city, going along the coast, without passing by Duino Castle where Rilke listened for angels. Two of my favorite Italian/Triestine writers, the poet Umberto Saba and the novelist “Italo Svevo” (Ettore Schmitz) had lived there and had written in the local Italian dialect which was the first Italian I learned.

In one sense the real subject here is memory, though memory and place are hopelessly entangled. Memory exposed to hard-edged facts that sometimes directly contradict memory. It seems to me that there are at least three kinds of memory—one that is private, your own secret word-hoard of facts and fiction, and public memory, and somewhere in between, but perhaps in the end more powerful than both, lies family memory, what we can recall from the experience of kinfolk we know and have touched, those we have witnessed.

Thus, for example: as a baby I was held up high by one of my great-grandmothers for a family photograph. She lived as a girl and as a young bride on a very large, remote and isolated plantation near Appalachicola, Florida, before the Civil War. She well remembered looking out of her window over the wide flat fields at dawn and seeing the scattered tree stumps begin to move around. The stumps were, in fact, Indians, not up to any harm or mischief, just checking out the lay of the land.

That was the Florida frontier six generations ago.

Another example. In my childhood we had a maid who often brought her mother, a very old woman it seemed to me then, with her. This old woman had been born in slavery and set free by the Civil War. She told me stories out of her own memory about those slavery days and she taught me, though I have long since forgotten most of them, some songs and games and skip-rope rhymes from that gone time.

All these stories, and others, became a part of my memory.

Of course, there are always some documents as well. Such as the “autobiographical notes” of Hardy Greeley Garrett, my grandfather’s brother on my father’s side, who came to central Florida in the 1880’s to make his way in the booming real estate business: “People came from all parts of the United States and a great many from England to buy property in Florida. It was so easy for them to believe that they could make money raising oranges that it became a kind of craze. . . . Many people were afraid to wait until tomorrow to buy for fear that nothing would be left or that they would have to pay a higher price. There was another side to this picture. The natives had lived lives of seclusion and seriously resented any and all invasions. It was their country, and they did not welcome outsiders. Judge Spear, who lived about six miles west of Orlando on the south end of Lake Apopka, told me that when he first lived there his nearest neighbor lived six miles away. He met this neighbor one day and found him so overcast with gloom that he asked him what the trouble was. “I’ll have to leave this country. They’re crowding me out.” It turned out that another family had settled where Orlando is now, about six miles from both Judge Spear and his neighbor.”

Another time and place, speaking to the Florida Historical Society in Orlando, I described myself as “someone for whom the Orlando of the 1930’s and ‘40’s is more vividly present than this bright and shiny hotel ballroom and the bright and shiny outside just beyond the windows where massive towering bank buildings, vaguely brutal and Babylonian, brood over this city by day and by night . . . . There was a time, lasting a decade from the end of the 1920’s to the beginning of World War II, when it would have been distinctly disadvantageous to flaunt such prosperity around these parts, when even the (secretly) rich professed and pretended to be members in good standing of the genteel poor. It was a time I hiked and biked and hunted and fished all over what is now this large city and most of Orange County. I would have sworn that I knew every inch of it, but I got lost today trying to find my way to this hotel.”

World War II was a time of great change for central Florida. Thousands and thousands of men from the Army and the Army Air Force came to train to fight in the war they later won. (See James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor.) It was a very exciting time for a teenager. I now remember the very young R.A.F. pilots, veterans of the Battle of Britain, coming to our house on Phillips Place for Christmas dinner 1941. They smoked all the time, drank and laughed a lot. Their eyes had the old 1000-yard stare that I had so far only seen in the eyes of uncles who had fought in the First World War. They were daredevils, those young British pilots, and a surprising number of them crashed and were killed hereabouts just when it seemed that their most dangerous days were behind them.

Here is another sign of the turn of the tide during World War II, the beginning of the end of sleepy old, shady Orlando: my mother was standing at a corner on Orange Avenue, the corner next to Ivey’s department store, waiting quietly for the traffic light to change. Next to her, also waiting for the light, was an officer of the Army Air Force. Suddenly, loudly and directly overhead and very low, an airplane, clouds of smoke pouring out of it, sputtering and staggering (if a plane can be said to stagger).

“Lord have mercy!” my mother exclaimed. “Is that plane going to crash?”

The officer standing beside her had already spoken his reply before she realized he was Clark Gable. “I don’t know, ma’m,” he said in his famous, expensive, and throaty voice. “But I sure am glad I’m not on it.”

I elect to date the time of the great change in central Florida from the arrival, on the scene and in the flesh, of Clark Gable. First came the War, then Gable, then air-conditioning.

Florida has (so far) been the explicit setting of two of my novels—The Finished Man (1959) and The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You (1996) written in Charlottesville, Virginia and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, maybe a dozen or two dozen short stories and a few poems.

Explicit setting? More and more in the interchangeable contemporary landscape our writers are rooting their fictions in an indefinite, one might say implicit setting. Partly this is an attempt to avoid the pejorative label of being “a regional writer,” as if, at this stage of our wildly changing culture, that meant anything or made any difference at all. Do these fictions take root, bloom, and flourish? Time will tell, one supposes.

I do believe that the summoning up of place from memory is likely to be different from inspection and scrutiny of the place where one is, in fact, standing and looking. Each point of view has its strengths and weaknesses. Memory is all-too-often flawed and untrustworthy. Just so, close familiarity breeds not contempt, but frequently takes too much for granted.

Another place I have written about in poems and stories, and in one novel, Do, Lord, Remember Me (1965) written in Houston Texas, is the mountain county of western North Carolina. This is the home turf of any number of “Appalachian” writers. One thinks of Fred Chappell, Wilma Dykeman, Robert Morgan, and, just over the border in Virginia people like David Huddle, Lee Smith, Alyson Hagy and R.H.W. Dillard.

Always a visitor, an outsider there, I spent some of my life, especially my youth, in various seasons and for various years, at grandfather’s farm there. It was then and there, under the tutelage of a tall mountain man I always called Uncle Tom, though I have no good reason to think he was any blood kin, that I learned to milk a cow and how to plow a field behind two horses or one mule, what were weeds to hoe and plants to cherish and protect in the kitchen garden, how to kill chickens, with ruthless efficiency and dispatch, for dinner, and where to find the best wild blackberries, where the pigs went and could be found when they escaped to a temporary freedom. All those things and more. Now, chances are, I could not again perform even these rudimentary chores. Was proud of myself in those days. That childish pride became part of the place. What was up early and soon sweating became in memory, and thus in the camouflage of art, a little glimpse of Eden. Lost and gone. Near the end of his long life, that grandfather sold off the farm place and moved down to the low country of South Carolina to the village of McClellanville where he had been born and raised (briefly “raised”— for, like so many others in Reconstruction days, he went to work before he was 12). In his old age, his ‘90’s, he was inspired by his own rage and by the stylish speeches of Adlai Stevenson to go forth and to campaign (a Lost Cause if there ever was one) for him across South Carolina, in person (as they say) and on the radio.

All of the above, the whole story, flickers through a single poem I wrote at that time and place, like a reel of movie film running out of control in an empty projection booth:

MAIN CURRENTS OF AMERICAN POLITICAL THOUGHT

Gone then the chipped demitasse cups
at dawn, rich with fresh cream and coffee,
a fire on the hearth, winter and summer,
a silk dandy’s bathrobe, the black Havana cigar.

Gone the pet turkey gobbler, the dogs and geese,
a yard full of chickens feeling the shadow of a hawk,
the tall barn with cows and a plough horse, with corn,
with hay spilling out of the loft, festooning the dead Pierce
 Arrow.

Gone the chipped oak sideboards and table,
heavy with plenty of dented, dusty silverware.
Gone the service pistol and the elephant rifle
and the great bland moosehead on the wall.

“Two things,” you told me once, “will keep
the democratic spirit of this country alive—
the free public schools and the petit jury.”
Both of these things are going, too, now, Grandfather.

You had five sons and three daughters,
and they are all dead or dying slow and sure.
Even the grandchildren are riddled with casualties.
You would not believe these bitter, shiny times.

What became of all our energy and swagger?
At ninety you went out and campaigned for Adlai Stevenson
in South Carolina. And at my age I have to force
myself to vote, choosing among scoundrels.

Most Southern writers that I know of, at least the last several generations of them, going back to the days before the Civil War, have been townspeople, not farmers. But the society was, for a long time, predominantly agricultural, and almost always the family farm stood as a real place and a place that stood for something. From before Jefferson until here and now, we have looked on the great cities with a farmer’s frisson of illicit awe, contempt, desire, scorn, and humility. Remember how Jefferson (somewhere in the letters) calls the Yellow Fever a blessing in disguise in that it purges the population of the cities. Many of us, at least in my generation, Agrarians and not, gratefully include the family farm as part, if only a ghostly one, of our full sense of a home place. Some of us—I think at once of Madison Jones and Wendell Berry—have returned to farming and to writing directly out of the experience. Others, the poets Henry Taylor and Fred Chappell for example, growing up on farms have kept the place and the rich experience alive for all of us. That many of the Agrarians of the 1930’s didn’t know (in the old rural definition) “which end of a horse to feed sugar to” is not strictly relevant. Many of their points and arguments were, still are, well taken, if seldom seriously discussed or debated.

Would we really call the U.S. Army a place? An institution, yes, but place? Why not? Millions and millions of us, Americans of the 20th century, spent years as a part of it. I spent eight years in the Active Reserve, two years on active duty overseas with the 12th Field Artillery Battery (Separate), part of the 351st Regimental Combat Team (TRUST), stationed in the Free Territory of Trieste, then later up on the Danube at Linz, Austria where the 12th Field was attached to a Reconaissance battalion whose name and number, and even the shoulder patch, I have mercifully forgotten, having only the memory that at their Battalion headquarters this unit, originally a cavalry outfit, had battle flags from the Civil War and trophies from the Indian wars in the West.

The Army, one learns soon enough, is the same place wherever it goes and is located though it is, or is said to be, a professional army now (read: mercenary) and was a citizens’ army from the beginning until the end of the Vietnam War, it was, is, always will be the same place.

I remember that they often tried to explain things to us in terms of our place in “The Big Picture.” Some of my fellow sergeants, good men and true to be sure, believed there really was somewhere an enormous Big Picture, a TV screen as big as the Pentagon or even bigger, where, like crowds of people in a D. W. Griffith movie (Intolerance?), we were all to be seen and observed. Someone somewhere out there was in charge and in control, looking out for our interests, health, and welfare. There was a place (Eden) where the Big Picture was and where everything made perfect sense.

Taking the Army as a place (the West Virginia of the American psyche? the Mississippi of the soul?), one also assumed a past. Up close and personal the men of the 12th Field in Trieste were sometimes fired on (and sometimes returned fire) by various kinds of terrorists and Yugoslavs. A goodly number had served in Korea. Some of the older sergeants had good clear memories of World War II. One of them was captured at Kassarene Pass, recovered, then later wounded and overrun in the Battle of the Bulge. Their past became your past if you listened and learned.

And there was the much larger, longer past, all the way back to the Iliad. All of a piece throughout.

For Southerners the Army was always a place to be, once in our own Army, not for long but long enough to kill or maim one of us in four and a good many of them too. You might safely say then and even now with all its cultivated diversity that the Army is a Southern place. It is not a Tom Hanks/Spielberg/Tom Brokaw kind of place, full of mellow old men with their weepy memories and neat graveyards.

We have our family memories in the middle, between our own and the sad end of Hector, Tamer of Horses. For instance, my Uncle Oliver (my father’s side) not himself a Southerner, though we incorporated him when he wrote the final shooting script version of Gone With the Wind. He went early to World War I and spent Christmas of 1917 in the trenches. With what outfit I do not know, only that his unit went into action very early in our part of that war and stayed late; and when, at the end they were pulled out of the line, they were each and all carefully searched for the possession of any cartridges, lest someone should take a notion to shoot General “Black Jack” Pershing when they passed in review in a big parade in his honor. Oliver H. P. Garrett had some good stories to tell and even wrote and published some of them. And wrote the screenplay for the first talking film version of A Farewell to Arms, the one with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes and maybe the best film adaptation ever of a Hemingway novel. Oliver’s stories were, I know now, though I wouldn’t have without the experience of the Army as my place for a time, authentic veteran talk. They were always oblique, jokey, usually funny stories never dealing directly with the inexpressible and inexplicable experience of mortal combat, just the context of it. He was once asked why he didn’t write a “war novel.” “What is a war novel?” he answered. “Is that like a life novel? The Great War was my whole life.”

We served and fought in all the American wars—the earliest soldier of the family that I can find so far was one Gershom Palmer of Stonington, Connecticut, who was lieutenant of a Stonington company during King Philip’s War in 1675. They/we have been at it ever since. The Army was, as yapping and barking sergeants were continually reminding us, like our home away from home.

Of course, the Civil War, which killed more of us than all the other American wars taken together (so far), was the worst and the one that mattered most. I had four great-grandfathers and one grandfather who walked (or rode) across those killing fields and experienced the slaughterhouse directly. None of them ever said more than a few words about it. Except for one. As irony would have it, the only one who put words on a page—a private diary and journal for his own family—was the one Yankee of the bunch, Colonel Oliver Hazard Palmer, commander of the 108th New York Volunteers.

They saw action (“going to see the Elephant” was what they called it) any number of times in any number of desperate places, most notably at the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg. From his notes on the latter, one can learn a good deal about what it was really like. Prior to the passage quoted below he had led his brigade, following direct orders, to attack the Confederate positions on the high ground overlooking the town. To start the assault they had to begin by crossing roughly 400 yards of open terrain in the face of “a most destructive, accurate and deadly fire. . . It was too hot. One third of my Brigade was disabled in twenty minutes and I was compelled to fall back.” The brigade was withdrawn into the cover, such as it was, of the town. After which he wrote:

I remained on the field until nearly dark and until the fighting of the day was mainly over. It was a terribly hot place. The shells were flying in every direction and plowing up the earth all around me, frequently covering me all over as in a whirlwind. The scene was frightful but intensely exciting. New Brigades of fresh troops were forming in line and advancing hoping to be more successful, but I knew they were doomed to disappointment and death. Broken and shattered Companies, Regiments and Brigades were falling back. Dead and wounded officers and men were being borne to the rear, some in blankets, some on the shoulders of their comrades. You would see one here with one arm, another there with one leg trying to get back. Some moaning, some swearing, occasionally a poor fellow trying to save the half not shot away in front would disappear in fragments by a solid shot or amidst the smoke of an exploding shell . . . About sundown I made my way to town to gather up fragments of my Brigade not knowing what the next day might require. Out of the 1200 men in my command in the morning I could get together at night only 400. It was a sorry sight.

The place, Fredericksburg; the time and place, the Civil War. You have now been there. So can we all if we care to.

As luck would have it, or maybe it’s not luck, but (in Nabokov’s sense and term) as synchronicity will have it, I am working on this first draft of the piece on “A Summoning of Place” in my high attic study in Charlottesville, Virginia, a place, the one place, where I have lived, off and on, for more than 20 years. My attic windows overlook the hedge, the handsome toothpick fence, the huge, shady sweetgum tree (in their backyard) separating my place from that of my next-door neighbor for a dozen years and more—the late Peter Taylor. His widow, the poet Eleanor Taylor, lives there still. It is now Monday, July 2, 2001, a cool, bright summer day, clear breezes blowing; and, coming after more than a week of hot and humid days, with the temperature in the high 90’s, it is most pleasant weather.

As synchronicity will have it, the daily New York Times has an essay by the writer Geraldine Brooks, “You Live Differently In a Small Place” (“Arts,” pp. B1, B2). Part of their on-going series of star turns—”Writers on Writing.”

Ms. Brooks’ article is interesting and pertinent in a number of ways. She identifies herself as having been, until now, a city person at home “in the dense urban tangles of Sydney, New York, Cairo, and London.” She has now come to live “in a tiny village of 250 souls in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia.” A place, whatever its name and wherever it may be, that cannot be far from where I am at work. We are (assuming she is still there at this moment) sharing the same good weather and, to some extent, sharing the same view of the Blue Ridge Mountains lining the western horizon. The central point of her article is to make the case that living in this Virginia village has been an experience that, as she says, has served to liberate her from some prejudices and preconceptions, and allowed her to write and finish her forthcoming novel—Year of Wonder. Year of Wonder is a historical novel set in 1666 in Eyam, “a tiny English village of 250 souls in the year the Bubonic Plague struck.” In a larger sense, the piece is a defense of historical fiction in general, defending the art of it against the doubts of Henry James, as voiced in a 1901 letter to Sarah Orne Jewett. Ms. Brooks effectively disagrees with James’ arguments and concludes: “It is human nature to imagine, to put yourself in another’s shoes. The past may be another country. But the only passport required is empathy.”

The past may be another country . . . That is, another place. At some point in the past (James announced it was 50 years) there is a conflation of time and place; and unless we are able to imagine it, the deeper, darker past, inhabited by strangers, is lost to us. Past time becomes an exotic and remote place as far away from and as strange to us as (real or imaginary) China was to Marco Polo.

I spent 30 busy years as an expatriate Southerner and 20th-century American living, at least part of the time, among Elizabethans and trying to write some reports, news from their time and place to ours. It proved to be at once more pleasurable and more challenging than I could have imagined at the outset. One of the most serious problems for me was to contend with, if not to overcome (impossible), my 20th-century mind-set. As I said once that “in order to confirm and strengthen our precarious self-esteem and to nurture our hopeful sense of historical superiority, we are ready, willing, and able to distort, even to suppress any information and likewise to encourage all sorts of rare or common misconceptions and misunderstandings in order to defend our assumptions and our preconceived views. We regularly, almost reflexively, do this with current events and issues. Why would we not seek to do so as well with the imagined and imaginary past?”

In her article Ms. Brooks takes note of this challenging difficulty, honestly noting that, from her globalized, cosmopolitan point of view, from “the dense urban tangles of Sydney, New York, Cairo, and London,” it was a very strange experience to move to a village in Virginia, after years of living among friends with “like minds and agreeable opinions,” and to make friends with alien others there—”I found it hard to be thrust into relationships with supporters of the death penalty or the N.R.A., of prayer in the schools or unbridled property rights.”

There it is, exactly there, that the Southern writer, the writer out of the Southern tradition, has something else to offer, beyond though not superior to the ritual celebration of the flora and fauna, the weeds and flowers, the winds and weathers of his (increasingly imaginary) home place. And that something more is not mere ability, but the common habit of accepting the ragged contradictions of our age; understanding, without a need to justify, that we are all of us bundles of contradictory assumptions, beliefs, superstitions; that we have been wrong about so many things and will surely be wrong again; that our tradition, though it be sorely tested, tried by ordeal, is to question the truth and value of the wisdom of “like minds and agreeable opinions.” When we summon up our place in the world we have to call up as well the people who live there.

Finally, however, what can help to save us from the weight and woe of our self-concern is the persistent Southern habit of laughter, of skeptical laughter, even at our easy pretensions. I think here of the public service rendered by the avant-garde Southern writer, R.H.W. Dillard, by his satirical, parodic short story—”That’s What I Like (About the South).” There, taking as his starting point “the defining characteristics of Southern fiction,” as defined by the prominent editor Shannon Ravenel, he holds them, each in all, in the light of pitiless scrutiny. The section under the solemn rubric of “deep involvement in place” is devoted to a richly detailed scene set in (where else?) a 7-Eleven market—”Roy pulls a medium-sized paper cup, red and white with Slurpee written on it in blue, from the torpedo rack of cups by the machine.”

The Southern place, “real” or remembered and imagined, past and present, is as much haunted by comedy as by tragedy. When we summon up our place and our past, together with a renewed awareness of the ineradicable tears of things, we also summon up the sounds of ghostly laughter.

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