[A book with four interlocking themes:
- how to communicate with the dead;
- the life of a 19th-century American;
- the massive task facing us today, and
- the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]
[7 a.m. Thursday, February 16, 2006]
It feels like I haven’t heard from myself this good while. I have been reading, reading. Sam Watkins and then Elisha Hunt Rhodes. And a bit of re-reading – Far Memory by Joan Grant.
[Watkins, who had been a private in the Confederate army, wrote a book of memoirs called Company Aytch. Rhodes began as a private and rose to the rank of colonel in the Union Army. All for the Union is a book compiled from his diary and letters by his great-grandson. Both men were extensively cited in Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series.]
I wound up liking Elisha Hunt Rhodes very much, though I suspect that he and I would be farther apart in temperament than Sam Watkins and I would be. But his political opinions and his determination to do his duty are very appealing. He found that he liked army life. I don’t think that Sam Watkins ever would have, even if he’d been paid and fed. But then Watkins joined after he was 30, and Rhodes before he was 20.
All right, to work. Joseph, what is your reaction to Watkins and Rhodes? And do you communicate “up” there? And, does my watching “the Civil War” facilitate communication for you somehow? And, what in general is your life there? (May want others on that last question.) And don’t think I don’t suspect prompting when I come up with bright questions like these.
We can take those questions in order, knowing that everything connects to everything, and so sometimes we wind up going in circles and yet still get somewhere.
Sam Watkins and Elisha Rhodes are both good Christians, in a way that is becoming strange to your times. I’m not only talking about belief in creeds, but
Well, let me start again. You read their books and you keep coming to sentences talking about God’s mercy to them, and their friends having gone to their reward, and – especially Watkins – God holding them in his hand, so to speak. “God always does good, and he has his own purposes that we were working out here below.” That is the general tenor of it, if the words aren’t quite right.
In your day you would suspect a man of hypocrisy if he talked like that. Yet – notice – you, yourself, understand and sympathize with that attitude much more than the attitude that says life is chance and coincidence, and meaningless. In some ways you would have fit in here (in the 19th century, I mean) but you’d certainly have been on the forward end of things! I mean, you wouldn’t have been able to take the form of the religion so much.
I know what you mean but it isn’t coming out very clearly. Is the connection faulty, or is it hard for you to express, or what?
Well let’s just soldier on, and see what we get. I’ll start again. We got all day. (Here, anyway, we do!) This all connects us to the other book you’re working on putting together, that you are calling Iona. And the subject is close to my heart, and has a lot to do with why you have been getting all this.
In your day, the people who are simple and religious are in a different relation to their times. In your day, your civilization is not Christian and don’t pretend to be. It pretended still when you were a boy, but it has been a good while since everybody assumed or pretended that Christian life was the society.
In the 1800’s it was different. Then – well, Civil War times, anyway – people were moving toward being a Christian nation –
No, I ain’t any good at these general statements. You need somebody else for this. Let me tell you my specific reactions, and we’ll go better.
All right. Interesting; I suppose I wouldn’t be the personality to discuss molecular biology or something, but I hadn’t really thought about the fact that of course we specialize in how we think, as much as what we like to think about.
That’s right. Well, Watkins and Rhodes, like I said, both were religious. Watkins came to it in battle and hardship and suffering, and in feeling like he was protected by the very hand of God because he kept watching his friends get killed till he was one of seven left. He was already 30 and more when the war started, and he was in the Southern army which meant if he was a private he could expect to stay a private, and he was pretty disgusted with the class aspect of it all, even if he never put together the fact that it was the class aspect that caused the war. But you can see from his own account that he was brave and true, and smart and quick-thinking, and just damned lucky more than once. Now, you can’t safely assume that he tells things just the way they happened, even though he does try to keep to what happened to him; memory plays tricks, plus there’s so much we make sense of but don’t make sense of right, if you see what I mean. But mostly he is telling the truth, because he was a God-fearing man in a way that is not natural to your time but was then.
Now Elisha Rhodes, that you like so much and suspect you wouldn’t have had much in common with – he and Watkins were the same pea formed in different pods. Rhodes was formed in Rhode Island – (you didn’t see Watkins having his own island named after him, did you?) But he was a New England boy, and he was a boy. First to last, he kept saying to himself, this is all for the Union; I hope they know what they are doing; I can’t do anything but do my best where I am, and God will provide. And I want to be in the whole fight. I hope it’s over soon but I want to be here first to last.
Now those are two Christian men – very pious, very intent on being good men, church-going for what it nourished in them, not for show or company – both joining for principle and both thinking they are the righteous party. Watkins thinks he’s fighting to protect states’ rights from centralization, and he is, and you can’t in your time say that was wrong. Rhodes thinks he is fighting to preserve the union – “all for the Union,” he says first to last – and you can’t in your time say that was wrong. But one of ‘em had to lose as soon as it came to war. That states rights cause, or that Union cause, were fine until the tug came, then one side had to lose, which meant one set of right had to lose not only to a different set of right but to a set of wrong. Either way.
That is why Abraham Lincoln’s clear-sighted, temperate nurturance of abolition made the difference. From Europe, the question of states rights versus the Union didn’t stir any passion; They didn’t much believe in either one, and they didn’t have much of a stake in either one. The aristocrats that ran England – and that had had the whip hand over Europe since Waterloo – had a certain sympathy with the would-be aristocrats of the south, though they still considered them semi-barbarous upstarts – but their financial interests were balanced between southern cotton and northern markets, so they were held in suspension.
It was the people of England, not the rulers, that made the difference. They didn’t have any sympathy with aristocrats; they didn’t want to see the great experiment broken up – and they knew that the big issue was slavery, and they didn’t want their country ranged on the wrong side of the slavery question.
You noticed, to read either Watkins or Rhodes you never would have guessed that the war had anything to do with slavery. Rhodes doesn’t mention the abolition until the end; he was in it to preserve the Union, and Watkins said he was in it to protect states rights. The slavery problem didn’t exist as a cause of the war. It was the elephant in the living room, as you say in your time. It was so big they couldn’t see it!
Now, that takes some explaining.
The south was calling the north names for decades – their worst epithet was to call somebody a damned abolitionist, or, after a while, a black Republican. But they would only see it as outside interference with their affairs, as if somebody was telling ‘em to plant potatoes instead of tobacco. They never did and never could and never would have come to the point of thinking that abolition sentiment wasn’t just interference by outsiders but was God’s will.
Mr. Lincoln saw that.
Elisha Rhodes went to war to save the Union. He never thought much about slavery except that it was somewhat vaguely the cause of people wanting to break up the Union. He didn’t care about the subject and never informed himself about it, even while he was right in the middle of the war that centered on it! His mind was on protecting the Union and it didn’t extend to questions of domestic arrangements, as we called it.
But Mr. Lincoln saw it. You saw that Herndon said he read less and thought more than anybody in the country. He had seen what was in people’s hearts, even before they could see it themselves, and he knew.
I’ll tell you again, flat. The Union itself was not cause enough to beat secession itself. The rights and wrongs of it were too closely balanced. It was right to save the Union but wrong to break down the states – but it had to be one or the other, once it came to war. So which one did you choose? But when it became a war to end slave-holding, the sacrifice of states rights became worthwhile. In other words, once slavery was thrown into the scales it became the Union and freedom on one side, states rights and slavery on the other. And just like the German who said “we are allied to a corpse” [in the summer of 1914, referring to Austria] so states rights was allied to a corpse, and went down with it.
All right. Now to go back to Watkins and Rhodes as good Christian men. This is important. You in your day cannot understand them if you try to make them into models of yourself – and if you do understand them, you will see yourselves a lot clearer.
All this is about your own time, you see. All this is about you, and your dilemmas, and your dangers, and your crisis that is going to be settled in your time.
Watkins and Rhodes put it into a Christian framework because that was the right thing, the only thing, for their time. Should they have been talking about quantum mechanics, or the akashic record, or the uncertainty principle? No, they were in the 19th century, and they understood things in the terms the century understood. Watkins may not ever have heard of Darwin.
Being soldiers they had a broad experience of death that few others get. Not just the horrible ways men die in battle, but the varieties of experience, like the men who know they are going to die, and do – and the ones who think they are going to die, and don’t – and the seemingly arbitrary nature of it all that takes one and leaves his neighbor, that wounds instead of kills because of a bible or a button or a scabbard.
Experience – not fear – leads them to a knowledge of God, though they wouldn’t have claimed knowledge but belief, and though you might not say God but The Universe, or All There Is, or even The Reality Beyond The Guys Upstairs, for all I know,.
What I’m saying is, you are closer to them in your belief – in your experience – of the reality of non-material love and guidance than either of you is to the blindness that thinks in terms of materialism and chance. Now – this has consequences!
Take a break now. Get something to eat.
Before I do, I seemed to sense more what I would call The Guys (in general) then you in particular, a couple of paragraphs ago. True?
We all put in an oar here and there. You are beginning to notice. That’s good. Progress.