Monday, January 12, 2009

`A Spiritual Strength of the Nation'

At D.G. Myers’ prompting I’ve read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a 1975 novel about the Battle of Gettysburg told from multiple points of view, largely by Union and Confederate officers. Only a ridiculous prejudice against historical fiction kept me from it. I visited the battlefield for the first time with my family in 1963, a month after the battle’s centennial, and have returned four times. There's no point in wasting words trying to convince you of Gettysburg’s centrality to American history and the emotional impact it has on an informed visitor. Lincoln said “we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground,” and as usual he was right, and not merely rhetorically. The ground had been hallowed four and a half months before he arrived in Gettysburg.

One of the novel’s most likeable and admirable figures is Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in civilian life a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College and “sometimes professor of `Natural and Revealed Religion,’ successor to the chair of the famed Professor Stowe, husband to Harriet Beecher [author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin].” Early in the novel, on the eve of the battle, Chamberlain must decide what to do with 120 “mutineers” from his home state of Maine. Before Chamberlain speaks to the men, Shaara tells us:

“He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth when the man mattered more than the state.”

These are stirring words, as is the speech Chamberlain addresses to the soldiers he has been authorized to execute if they don’t follow orders. All but six of them choose to join Chamberlain in the looming battle. The passage I’ve quoted suggests my notion of patriotism -- the least hip of sentiments – one that transcends politics. In Chamberlain’s musings I hear Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, my American forbears, though most of my ancestors didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 40 years after the Civil War.

I was primed for The Killer Angels by an e-mail on Saturday from a reader in British Columbia. Seldom does a reader point out something about what I’ve written that takes me by surprise – and is, incidentally, accurate and pleasing. He writes:

“I often think people become self-conscious when discussing a love of country - as if there is something scandalous or naive in expressing such sentiment.

“There's an old creative writing cliché (you are no doubt familiar with) that says `show don't tell.’ I can't know if you intend to show your love of country in your posts, but I tend to see it in your writing.

“That stores can ask customers for help with Russian translation (with both hope and expectation of finding it) says so much about the society you live in. Russian neighbours, Thai barbers, Romanian good Samaritans. You notice and remark about America in a way that leads us (your readers) to gradually recognize some of what you love about your country.

“I hope I'm not being too forward by saying that I prefer your more silent appreciation of the United States' international citizenry than I do more overt and NASCAR-appropriate gestures of patriotism. Not because it is more silent, but because it speaks to a spiritual strength of the nation rather than a physical one.

“And although it can be intimidating to some, I find that stepping onto a bus and hearing seven or eight different languages being spoken a better measure of a nation's greatness than is the ability to field an army.”

Often others see us more acutely than we see ourselves and sometimes express themselves more eloquently. Patriotism has been corrupted, burdened with opposed meanings freighted with nonsense and vulgarity. One fears being misunderstood but knows misunderstanding is inevitable. Being an America means “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman was in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 1863, as news of the battle arrived. In his diary he noted:

“I walked on to Armory Hospital -- took along with me several bottles of blackberry and cherry syrup -- good and strong, but innocent; went through several of the wards; announced to the soldiers the news from Meade; and gave them all a good drink of the syrups with ice water – quite refreshing; prepared it all myself and served it around.

“Meanwhile the Washington bells are ringing their sundown peals for Fourth of July, and the usual fusillades of boys' pistols, crackers, and guns.”

1 comment:

An Anxious Anglican said...

For a wonderful biography of Chamberlain, consider Alice Rains Trulock's, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua Chamberlain and the American Civil War. Well worth every penny spent purchasing it and every hour spent reading it.

Thank you for your thoughtful (and thought-provoking) posts!