Friday, January 14, 2011

`What Like a Bullet Can Undeceive!'

For years I’ve kept notebooks in which I transcribe notable passages from my reading. These commonplace books used to be almost random, organized only by chronology, but they grew unwieldy because I never found time to devise useful indexes. They were diverting to browse but almost worthless if I sought a specific passage or topic. At some point I started dedicating discrete notebooks to large subjects – Trees, Birds, Samuel Johnson, Jazz, Shakespeare, Children/Education. One of the fattest is the Civil War, a subject that seized me as a kid during the centenary and never went away.

I’ve leafed through it the last several days, marveling at the amount of insight and first-rate writing devoted to the subject, the central event in our history, the one we’re still contesting. For a sobering insight, compare the mass of words inspired by the Vietnam War. Michael Herr? Tim O’Brien? The decline in sheer literary worth is embarrassing. To give an almost-random sample of what I’ve accumulated, I’ll limit the selection to several of the passages about the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). First, this from one of the great American books, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885):

“Shiloh was the severest battle fought at the West during the war, and but few in the East equaled it for hard, determined fighting. I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”

A remarkably similar image of Shiloh after the battle comes from U.S. Lt. John T. Bell’s Tramps and Triumphs of the Second Infantry, Briefly Sketched (1886):

“In places dead men lay so closely that a person could walk over two acres of ground and not step off the bodies.”

This is from A Boy at Shiloh (1896) by U.S. Col. John A. Cockerill:

“The blue and gray were mingled together. This peculiarity I observed all over the field. It was no uncommon thing to see the bodies of Federal and Confederate side by side, as though they had bled to death while trying to aid each other.”

And here is a poem Helen Pinkerton has called “exquisite” -- “Shiloh, A Requiem (April, 1862)” by Herman Melville:

“Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the fields in cloudy days,
The forest-field of Shiloh–
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh–
The church, so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foeman mingled there–
Foeman at morn, but friends at eve–
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.”

The act of transcribing such passages never feels tiresome but, instead, like an act of homage – an act renewed each time I read them.

1 comment:

D. G. Myers said...

It is difficult to imagine a critic’s writing a Patriotic Gore about the Vietnam War. The title would have to be changed, for one thing. Perhaps Self-Righteous Gore. Or Really Scary Gore Make Me Run Away and Hide.