The unsuspected value of reading

The points of view I retrieve from talking to the other side are sometimes surprising. Yesterday I merely asked my friend Joseph Smallwood what he thought of Allan Nevins’ The Ordeal Of The Union that I am reading, and got another point of view about what really happens when any of us read and think, no matter how alone we may be when we do so.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

9 AM. Joseph, as you know I have been rereading Allan Nevins’ The Ordeal Of The Union, being presently on volume 1 and having just put down the book at a chapter on the cash account of slavery, to ask this: 

Does any of this – all of it unknown to me when we began talking four Ar years ago – does any of this change your views?

Well, you know, as usual there are several things wrapped up in what looks like a simple question. 

First off, did it change my views? Well, it gave me new data, as you would say; it gave me information I didn’t have and couldn’t have got while I was in the body. And your pondering it gave me new ways to put things together – let me make new associations, you’d say. 

So yes, like anything else that somebody I’m associated with does, it affects me. As you’ve gathered by now, what happens in that reorienting 3-D present-moment is the way things change here. That’s the importance of it. 

But – there is more than the direct influence, for you’ve forgotten till just now that reading a book connects you to the author, and to everybody else who ever read the book. (That needs to be qualified but not just now.) Secondhand, it connects me, through you, to them all, and their connections. It is one more pattern of intricate relations established. It is another layer of organized complexity, and as such it allows more things to “happen” over here. 

That ought to give you another picture of yourself and, say, your friend Jim, always reading, reading and maybe sometimes wondering if your life is passing you by and you not doing anything. All that reading is weaving connections, regardless if you ever write a word or speak one to even one soul. Doing all that reading and pondering and thinking and arguing with people long dead – all that is work, believe it. And work doesn’t always come to nothing. Many times it comes to something, but you can’t always see it, is all. 

Now, you wanted to talk about me and slavery in the light of the sympathetic clear-sighted historian of half a century ago to you – nearly a century ahead, or 80 years, anyway, to me. 

Here’s the thing. I learned all about hatred, going through South Carolina, so I learned that if I had to hate anything, it should be ideas and systems, not people no matter how bad an influence they’d had and how much misery they’d caused. Like they say, anybody can be an instrument of providence. 

Mr. Lincoln was probably the fairest man I ever read on the subject of slavery. Your historian and he would have got along. He said – Mr. Lincoln did – that it wasn’t a matter of character or wickedness. He said Southerners under slavery were no different than Northerners would have been, or would be, under the same system. He said nobody knew how to get rid of it – because of race, you know – and everybody was about equally interested in the institution financially one way or another. And of course Lincoln no more than any of us could figure out what to do with all those Negroes if they were once freed. Nobody could imagine how Black and White could live together anymore than red and white. But you know all this. 

I started off thinking the slaveholders were the cause of the trouble. In a way that’s true, but of course you can always step back and say, they were what they were because they were part of the system bigger than they were, that they were born into. 

Nevins shows me as he shows you that some of what looked like aggression to one side was just caused by fear and self-righteousness on the other side. 

And that, when you come down to it, is what I’m taking away from your reading. If you could have got rid of fear, and self-righteousness, and hatred, and all that, — well, something could have got worked out. But that’s just like saying the world would be just fine but for original sin. It’s true enough, but it doesn’t get you anywhere practical. 

If we had had more Abraham Lincolns, we might have had a happier result. 

Sure, but we were lucky to get one! You don’t get a man like that every day. It was good enough that people could follow him as he walked it out. And if they hadn’t shot him and he could have lived two or three years even, he could have kept the country’s mood and temper from souring the way it did. He could have fought the radicals and beat them. Nobody else had his stature with the people, though. By 1865 the people were with him. They trusted him so that even if they couldn’t make out why he was doing something, they’d follow till it came clear.

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