Monday, June 14, 2021

'To Have Known Him As He Was Then'

Lyon Hartwell is an American sculptor living in Paris. Willa Cather’s 1907 story “The Namesake” is narrated by one of his students. Hartwell is working on a new sculpture of a young soldier running, “clutching the folds of a flag,” the staff of which has been shot away. The artist explains that his father had a half-brother who enlisted in the Union Army at age fifteen. Hartwell, who was named after his uncle, says, “He was killed in one of the big battles of Sixty-four, when I was a child. I never saw him—never knew him until he had been dead for twenty years. And then, one night, I came to know him as we sometimes do living persons—intimately, in a single moment.” 

Hartwell was fourteen when the uncle was killed. He was living in Italy with his artist father and never met his namesake. Twenty years later, Hartwell visits the family homestead in Pennsylvania for the first time. On Decoration Day, his elderly aunt asks him to bring from the attic an American flag and run it up the pole. He finds a locked trunk in the attic. Stored in it are the dead boy’s clothing, his wartime letters and a copy of the Æneid, which is signed on the flyleaf “Lyon Hartwell, January, 1862.” Cather’s subsequent passage is worth quoting at length:


“My uncle, I gathered, was none too apt at his Latin, for the pages were dog-eared and rubbed and interlined, the margins mottled with pencil sketches— bugles, stacked bayonets, and artillery carriages. In the act of putting the book down, I happened to run over the pages to the end, and on the fly-leaf at the back I saw his name again, and a drawing—with his initials and a date—of the Federal flag; above it, written in a kind of arch and in the same unformed hand:


“‘Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?’


“It was a stiff, wooden sketch, not unlike a detail from some Egyptian inscription, but, the moment I saw it, wind and color seemed to touch it. I caught up the book, blew out the lamp, and rushed down into the garden.


“I seemed, somehow, at last to have known him; to have been with him in that careless, unconscious moment and to have known him as he was then.”


In the United States, today is Flag Day. On this date, June 14 in 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted this resolution: “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” More than 2.8 million service men and women have been killed or wounded defending the flag since the American Revolution.

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