Thursday, January 09, 2014

`Every Job Counts Up to the Hilt'

“I am not educated, but I do read books.” 

If what it means to be an American of the old-fashioned sort (hard-working, proudly self-reliant, contemptuous of the ungratefully privileged) can be distilled into a plain nine-word apothegm, Richard Nixon does so in the farewell speech to his staff on Aug. 9, 1974, the day he became the first American president to resign from office. In RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978), Nixon remembers an English professor at Whittier College, Albert Upston (“he stimulated us by his outspoken unorthodoxy”), urging him to read Tolstoy: 

“At the end of my junior year he told me that my education would not be complete until I read Tolstoy and the other great Russian novelists. That summer I read little else. My favorite was Resurrection, Tolstoy’s last major novel. I was even more deeply affected by the philosophical works of his later years. His program for a peaceful revolution for the downtrodden Russian masses, his passionate opposition to war, and his emphasis on the spiritual elements in all aspects of life left a more lasting impression on me than his novels. At that time in my life I became a Tolstoyan.” 

Nixon was raised a Quaker. Among the earliest and most ardent non-Russian Tolstoyans were a Quaker husband and wife, Aylmer (1858-1938) and Louise (1855-1939) Maude. They met the writer in 1888, befriended him and eventually translated most of his work into English. Louise’s version of Resurrection, almost certainly the translation read by Nixon, was published in 1900. In 1908-10, Aylmer published his two-volume biography of Tolstoy. In Richard Milhous Nixon: The Invisible Quest (2007), Conrad Black reports: “Nixon was very knowledgeable about some Russian authors – in particular, Tolstoy, about whom he held forth to his entourage.” Earlier, Black tells us Nixon judged Guy de Maupassant “the greatest short story writer in any language.” At Whittier, Nixon “developed a taste for historical biography that he never lost, slogging through John Hay and John Nicolay’s ten-volume life of Abraham Lincoln.” 

After a summit with the Soviet Union, Nixon was moved to buy Winston Churchill's Triumph and Tragedy (1953, the year Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), the sixth and final volume in The Second World War. He wished to review Churchill’s recollections of the Yalta Conference. As president he read Robert Blake’s 1966 life of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, and reportedly was amused by Disraeli's comparison of the Liberal front bench to “a range of exhausted volcanoes.” Nixon’s relation to books, at once recreational and pragmatic, seems to embody a reader’s response to Dr. Johnson’s famous prescription for writers: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” The same could be said of many public men and women.

Nixon was born on this date one hundred years ago, on Jan. 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, Calif. In 1922 his family moved to Whittier, Calif., named for the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). He graduated from Whittier College in 1934. In his farewell speech, Nixon speaks with great feeling of his father: 

“I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, common man. He didn’t consider himself that way. You know what he was? He was a streetcar motorman first, and then he was a farmer, and then he had a lemon ranch. It was the poorest lemon ranch in California, I can assure you. He sold it before they found oil on it. And then he was a grocer. But he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt, regardless of what happens.” 

One of Whittier’s hymns, “It May Not Be Our Lot,” is adapted from his poem “Seedtime and Harvest” (1843). It includes these lines: 

“It may not be our lot to wield
The sickle in the ripened field;
Nor ours to hear, on summer eves,
The reaper’s song among the sheaves. 

“Yet where our duty’s task is wrought
In unison with God’s great thought,
The near and future blend in one,
And whatsoe’er is willed, is done.”

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