Two readings–33 Years Apart

See the source image

The 1974 paperback edition of I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.

It was the spring of 1980. I was well into the last months of my first real year of teaching school. In August of 1979, after having filled out numerous job applications, and having a degree, but no teaching certificate, I got a teaching job.

Avery School, some 15 or so miles to the west of my home town of DeKalb, Texas, needed another teacher. Being hired last and being hired to fill in some schedule gaps, I had an unusual patchwork of classes. I taught 2 remedial reading classes (with no training in that area), a 7th grade math class (an equally great surprise), a journalism class (chaotic, to say the least), and fifth and sixth grade physical education (after all, I had a history degree). And the job was in Avery!

For all those reasons that just happen to seep into one’s mind, I always looked upon Avery as a cultural backwater. That was from comparing it to DeKalb!  Avery seemed more rural, more locked in the past, less educated, more separated from the modern world. I pictured it as barely past horse and buggy days, as a place for the one-room school house, a well with a rope and bucket out front and an outhouse out back, and living in the past glorious age when it was the Tomato Capitol of East Texas.

There is no rational accounting for such provincial snobbery. We always wonder about those who are separated from us or different from us. How do they function or live or think? Do they have feelings like us, that is, like real people? So Avery was something of a mission field, and Avery was a job.
A lot of educating occurred during that year, and as is the case with all first year teachers, it was the teacher who got the education—over and over again. It was, after a few initial stresses, a fun year, a very memorable year, and a defining year. I have had no on-going contact with the students and families of that community, but I have never forgotten them. I should add, that my family roots are in Avery. My father grew up there, and when I worked there, people still remembered my grandfather, his vast strawberry fields, and his work ethic. The superintendent said to me, “I worked for your grandfather. He was an old man who enjoyed working young boys to death.” It was a compliment, and it still leaves me wishing I had known (as in, experienced) that part of my grandfather’s manner.

Roaming around the school library, I picked up a copy of a book called I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. The book was published in Canada in 1967, but was not published in the U. S. until 1973. It became a best seller, which has usually been a turn-off for me. But it was a small book of some 159 pages, so I read it. And I loved it.

The short novel paralleled my own life, slightly. The story is about a young Anglican priest who is sent to minister to a tribe of Indians in a remote village in British Columbia. Through his experiences of getting to know these people, listening to their talk, seeing their customs, sharing their losses, fearing their fears, and loving them, he learns much. His bishop sent him there because, although trained and schooled for the ministry, he had so much to learn. Also, he did not have much time. (This part of the story, thankfully, was not a point of similarity for me.) The young priest was suffering from an unnamed disease and had only a couple of years to live. So, living fully was what mattered.

Becoming a part of a community, getting to know people, seeing the lives and pains and gifts and weaknesses of my students, and embracing a life calling were all a part of my Avery experience. The sadness of the book resonated with a sadness I felt, especially, when a better job took me away from the community.

I loved the book in 1980 and always felt a pang of remembrance of the way the book and the experience were meshed in my life. In October of 1983, I picked up a used paperback copy of the book at a library sale for 25 cents. In various moves, it was shuffled here and there and finally was placed in a box of trade paperbacks that don’t command shelf space.

A few weeks back, I picked the book up again. Old cheap trade paperbacks are great for carrying along. They are my Kindle. I take such books in the car while running errands (lest I get caught with time and no reading material). I started reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name for the second time—in 33 years.

This is a short book, but for me, it was not a fast read. Usually, I read a chapter or two at night (after starting it on my town-errand runs). The book is slow, but not dull. It is more lyrically paced than plot driven. At times, it is even confusing to keep the characters in mind and to see what is happening. All the while I reread the book, I wondered how the young teacher/reading experience of 1980 would translate into this phase of my life.

Upon completing the book, I wonder why it took so many years for me to return to the village. Books don’t change, but we do. The book was good then and is good now. It speaks to different seasons of life, but it still speaks. To some degree, I read it more now as a pastor identifying with the joys and travails of a flock. I saw more of the inevitability of change. I felt more for the old in the village who lamented their loss of a way of life. And I felt more for the young in the village who saw and needed the larger world beyond their distant outpost.

I saw seasons, weather, and nature. All those things that are in view from the window where I write, but are only glanced at in my busyness about business. There is a close connection between what this book says and what the Agrarians said.

Looking back is not going back. But looking back is not forgetting either. We are all sent to some outpost for a short time because we have so much to learn. And later, even 33 years later, we learn it again in a different way.

A movie was also made from the book, and I would like to watch it.



Round Two from House’s Cannon

Cannons at Fort Donelson, overlooking the Cumberland River.

After turning my attention to work projects at home and work, and after enjoying a week in Tennessee, I thought I had better return to the topic of my Cannon of Books on American History.  Remember that this list is fluid, incomplete, and suggestive.  I cannot guarantee that reading my list of books will result in you being like me.  Sorry, that is just the bare truth.  It is possible that you could turn out to be profoundly thoughtful, well rounded, and socially well adjusted.  That has not been my experience.  The books on the list only make me aware of how much I need to know, how incomplete my education is, and how inept I am at grasping American history, along with everything else.  So my reading and journey continues onward.

Refer back to the previous post I had for the first fifteen books and also to an even earlier post on Wilfred McClay’s American Canon.

16. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. This book captures the key theological conflict of the twentieth century. It also shows the much neglected and often overlooked intellectual vigor of Calvinistic thought. I have referenced this book on many blogs and bibliographies.  I think this book and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are the two most important books to read to understand the 1920s in America.

17. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. By describing the key theological battles of the early decades of the twentieth century, Marsden explores the themes of the entire history of the country.  Marsden, a Christian historian, has written quite a few fine books on theological issues as the grew out of the American experience.

18. Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. This is a powerful study of the impact of beliefs and practices of Britain and America.  Mead is far from perfect as a commentator on American history, but he sees things I have never thought of before.  And he is compelling, even when not quite convincing.

19. Joseph Plumb Martin, Yankee Doodle Boy. This is a first hand account of a soldier in the American War for Independence. A good account of the long stretches of camp life interspersed with battles.  Along with this book on the War for Independence, Sam Watkins’ Company Aytch is a similarly good book that describes the War Between the States from a Confederate soldier’s viewpoint.

20. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, Hero Tales. I am thankful for George Grant having written an introduction to this book and for him seeing that it has been in print for modern readers. This is significant because these stories of American heroes were written by two scholar/politicians. It is significant because of the belief in heroism also.

21. Mary Rowlandson, The Captivity of Mary Rowlandson. The strong faith, hardy disposition, and face-to-face confrontation with dangerous conflict are found in this account of a woman who was captured by Indians during King Philip’s War.

22. R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American History, This Independent Republic, and The Nature of the American System. These are historical essays from a viewpoint radically different from most historians. The centrality of Calvinistic thought in Rushdoony’s interpretation is challenging.  Whether one likes or dislikes other aspects of Rushdoony’s theology (and his package program is a vast system of thought and applications), his work on American history and culture stands on its own.  Don’t run to the internet critiques of the man. Rather, read the books.

23. Sandoz, Ellis, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805. This is a great collection of sermons that reveal how American pastors impacted the history of our War for Independence and early years as a Republic.   Liberty Fund has published and reprinted many outstanding works on American history.  Their books are beautifully bound and reasonably priced.

24. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. While this book was not written specifically about America, it deals with the cultural trends that were prevalent in America in the latter 20th centuries.  Schaeffer’s other books, such as The God Who Is There, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, A Christian Manifesto, and Whatever Happened to the Human Race, all help chronicle the currents and trends of the twentieth century that Schaeffer stood against.

The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer,  5 Volumes  -             By: Francis A. Schaeffer

Save yourself the trouble of reading individual books by Schaeffer. Get his collected works.

25. Michael Shaara, Gettysburg. This novel, like its model—The Iliad, breaks into the middle of the American War Between the States, develops the conflicts between leaders on each side, and retells the story of the biggest and most defining battle in American history.  Michael Schaara’s son, Jeff Schaara, has written the prequel, Gods and Generals, and the sequel, The Last Full Measure, to his father’s great book.  These three give an overview, via some fictional liberties, of the War Between the States.  Jeff Schaara has also written a number of historical fiction works on America’s other wars.

26. C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History. This is a study of the intellectual movements in our history. It is a thought-changing book. I remember a conversation a few years back with Pastor Randy Booth and Lonn Oswalt where we were all remembering when and where we first read this book and how it changed our thinking.

27. Jesse Stuart, The Thread That Runs So True. Much of America was rural for much of our history. Stuart’s many books tell of that rural world, particularly as it was found in Kentucky. This is his autobiography of his teaching experiences, which were very revealing of American rural education. Also recommended are Stuart’s novels, such as Hie to the Hunters, and poetry, such as Man With a Bull Tongue Plow.

A Life Goal: Go to the Jesse Stuart Foundation in Kentucky.

28. I’ll Take My Stand by Twelve Southerners. These 12 Southern intellectuals and academics challenged the philosophies, sociologies, and intellectual views of their time. Their thought still amazes the reader.  Read these essays and then start collecting the books by the individual authors.  These men defined Southern literature and thought.  Most were associated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  Key authors in the group included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren.  Often called “The Agrarians,” several of the contributors were also the “Fugitive Poets” and the “New Critics.”

A reunion of some of the defining authors and thinkers. From left to right: Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and David Donaldson.

29. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men. This is an incredible political novel. It tells much about American politics, but more about human nature. The story was modeled after the career of Louisiana politician Huey P. Long.  And Warren was one of the Agrarians and Fugitive Poets and a founder of the New Critics school of literature.

30. Wells, David F., No Place for Truth; or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, and Losing Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, and Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World.  All these books are good, but the first one, and the long introduction in that first volume would be the essential read.

Perhaps, I will add more books later.

Name Above All Names

Name Above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson: Small, Informative, Devotional, Rich.

In his delightful book about books, The Minister in His Study, Wilbur Smith says, “The most inexhaustible, inspiring, and important subject that can ever occupy the minds of men is the person and work of Jesus Christ.” He goes on to speculate that over ten thousand books about Jesus Christ had been written in English over the past two hundred years (prior to 1973) and beyond that would be all the books in other languages.

I think Wilbur Smith would have been happy to see a recent book titled Name Above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson. Published by Crossway Books, this small volume contains seven messages, each focusing upon one of the titles given to Jesus.

The book’s background is itself a great illustration of the ongoing world and life-changing impact of Jesus.
Both authors are Scotsmen, both are fervent believers, both are pastors, and both were serving in American churches. Alistair Begg, a Baptist, is pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and Sinclair Ferguson, a Presbyterian, only recently announced his resignation from First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Their common Scottish roots and childhood Christian experiences and their common in Christ cemented bonds of friendship—even more, brotherhood—between the authors.

The background to the material in the book was a conference in Memphis, Tennessee. I think it would have been a grand experience to hear these sermons. Thankfully, they can be read and reread with profit, in this volume.
The topics of the book are Jesus as the Seed of the Woman, the True Prophet, the Great High Priest, the Conquering King, the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant, and the Lamb on the Throne. The sweep of Old Testament prophecies, Gospel accounts, and insights from the Epistles are all packed into these sermons.

This is not an in-depth theological study of Christ, nor is it detailed exegesis of Christological passages, or an interaction with various theological views. It is preaching, proclaiming, and worshiping Christ—in print form. This is fine devotional reading, but that should not imply any fluff. This is a good theological survey, but that does not mean any dry details. This is the Gospel, Good News, for believers to hear and hear again.

Let me mention a few favorite parts of the book.

In the chapter titled “Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest,” the writer discusses Jesus as worship leader, song leader, and preacher of the Word. It is so easy for the mind to fade in and out in worship, for great words being sung to go unnoticed, and for the experience to be routine. But when we realize the presence of Christ, the lethargy, like the apostles’ sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, is shaken off. When the Word is preached, from whatever portion of the Bible, “Christ himself addresses our minds, speaks to our hearts, draws out our affections, and brings us to faith and repentance.”

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 unfold what John Calvin called the “threefold office” of Christ. That is, Jesus Christ is prophet, priest, and king. This rubric, or outline, is a useful study for connecting Jesus with the Old Testament. It also explains His teachings and ministry in the Gospels. The Epistles build upon different aspects of these titles. Hebrews, for example, is largely devoted to Christ’s work as High Priest. The kingship of Christ was a major point of His ministry and a point of contention for His enemies. Christ as prophet, a revealer of the Word of God, is clear from the Gospels in letters red and black.

My favorite chapter, I think, is “Jesus Christ, the Son of Man.” On the morning I started it, my intention was to only read a few pages into the chapter, which is thirty pages long. I had other readings that were pressing. After I got started into this study of the oft-used title “Son of Man,” I could not stop. Besides the instruction, based on Daniel 7, there was this remarkable quote regarding miracles:

“Already Jesus is giving glimpses of the future renewed creation. Perhaps you have gone into a darkened room and switched on the light, only for it to fuse. Yet in that moment you caught a glimpse of what was in the room. In a similar way the miracles give us momentary glimpses of the last and future world when all things will be made new” (page 121).

Perhaps that phrase “momentary glimpses” is a fitting way to describe this whole book. We need those images, exhortations, pictures of Christ before us constantly. This book preaches to the preacher, comforts the believer, and points us again and again to the Savior Jesus Christ.

A current part of the long, glorious line of good and godly Scots who have proclaimed Jesus as Lord. Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson.






My Own Cannon of American History and Literature

This is my cannon of books on American history, literature, and culture.  In this case, cannon, rather than canon, is the right word.  I am not claiming that these books are “the defining books” for a student of all things American.  This is only some heavy artillery.

There is lots of wiggle room on this list.  There are books that could be added and books that I might not keep on the list.  Quite a few that Wilfred McClay listed would be here, if he had not already chosen them.

I affirm that these are good books, but I did not choose them because they are good reads. Also, they are all related to American history, literature, and culture, but I did not choose them for that reason either. I choose them because they tell a story on two levels. First, they are good accounts of the subject matter. Second, they are good reflections on what America is.

1. Sidney Alhstrom, A Religious History of the American People.
The study of America’s religious history is American history. This account is long and detailed. There are points to quibble over, but the breadth and depth reveal much about America’s history.
What is America like? Religious, historically Christian, and  diverse.

2. Stephen Ambrose, D-Day and Citizen Soldiers. There are many great histories and biographies related to World War II. These two works show the human price paid in war. The focus is on the American soldiers. Ambrose was a good storyteller.
What is America like? Brave and resourceful.

Colonial America, European culture encountering Indian life, the Frontier, and evangelical Calvinistic zeal.

3. David Brainerd, edited by Jonathan Edwards, Diary and Journal of David Brainerd. This is defining because Brainerd represents the Calvinistic evangelicalism of early America. This religious impulse has inspired many preachers and believers. Brainerd, after his conversion, stakes everything, including life and health, on the truth of the Gospel.
What is America like? Calvinistic and zealous in its impulses.

4. William F. Buckley, Up From Liberalism and I See a Dream Walking. Buckley was a defining figure of twentieth century conservative thought. Conservatives from Whittaker Chambers to Ronald Reagan were helped along by him.
What is America like? Willing to cry “Stop” when foreseeing the impulse toward modern destruction.

5. John Adair, The Puritan Fathers of England the United States. While Perry Miller’s The Puritans gives source materials, this is a good and favorable read about the Puritans themselves. There are also really good studies on the Puritans by Leland Ryken and J. I. Packer.
What is America like? Rooted in Puritan values.

6. Willa Cather, My Antonia and Death Comes to An Archbishop. Willa Cather is the poet, novelist, chronicler of the American Great Plains and Mid-West. Her writing is lyrically beautiful, with a strong note of sadness since the midwest and frontier was no paradise.
What is America like? A land defined by the frontier.

One of many movie versions of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. This movie was inspired by, but is not based on, Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.

7. James Fenimore Cooper, Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans. Cooper defines so much that is America. He deals with heroism, race, land, culture, faith, and literature.  Nathaniel Bumpo is the archetype for every American hero from Daniel Boone to cowboys to Sgt. York to Spiderman.
What is America like? Heroic, vexed over land.

8. William Faulkner, The Unvanquished and Go Down, Moses. Faulkner unveils the South, through which we see America, through which we see the human soul. The Unvanquished captures the South in the War Between the States and Reconstruction better than any book I know of. Go Down, Moses reminds us of our tangled past and kinship.
What is America like? Flawed, but persevering.

robert frost, best, quotes, sayings, wisdom, brainy, deep

Robert Frost, 1874-1963, still America’s favorite poet.

9. Robert Frost, Collected Poems. Frost was a New Englander, a Grover Cleveland Democrat, a man named about Robert E. Lee. He had an ear for the way people talked and the deep, often frightening things people thought.
What is America like? Searching, witty, but realistic.

10. Shelby Foote, The Civil War. Along with Bruce Catton, Foote told the story of our greatest and most tragic war in the fashion of a poet and true story teller.  Foote combined a novelist’s eyes and ears for description with an epic poet’s sense of telling the big story.
What is America like? Sometimes suicidal as a nation.  Big, painful, sometimes torn apart, often destructive, but striving to heal after the war.

11. George Grant, editor, Patriot’s Handbook. There are many collections of primary documents, like the Declaration of Independence. What distinguishes this collection are the poems and historical sketches. Where else do you learn of America’s forgotten fourteen Presidents (all before George Washington)?
What is America like? A people with a story.

12. David Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the Founding of America. This is the defining study of the influence of Calvinistic thought on religion, politics, and culture as it developed in Europe and crossed over to the Americas.
What is America like? Rooted in the Reformation.

Never expect the expected in any history done by Paul Johnson.

13. Paul Johnson, The Story of the American People and Modern Times. There are many good historians who have told the story of America. Johnson stands out because he is an Englishman and a conservative. He sees in a fresh way.  What is America like?  Not like what the more liberal and critical historians have told us.


14. Russell Kirk, The Roots of the American System. Kirk is a key conservative thinker from the 20th century. This book and Kirk’s study of John Randolph are powerful books.  What is America like?  Rooted in traditions.

15. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism. These lectures, by a Dutchman, were given in America. They reflect a lot about the religious receptivity and viewpoint as brought to America by Dutch Christian thinkers.  What is America like?  In 1898, fresh and invigorating with a strong belief in the Sovereignty of God and the application of Godly order in every sphere of life.  Today, what is like?

Kuyper was optimistically visionary about America’s future. But without the discipline of Protestant theology, the vision dims.

The rest of the list is forthcoming.

Great Books and Studies in American History

          At least I have an excuse for some of my recent readings. This fall I will be teaching American history. I have only taught American history for thirty years, having studied it in college before that, so I really need to devote time and energy away from yard work and to the books.

Volume 1 of Alan Brinkley’s treatment of American History

There are several American history texts that I will be using, reading, and consulting. The text for the class is American History: Connecting With the Past by Alan Brinkley (2 volumes). This is an overly large unwieldy rather recent history. Brinkley currently teaches at Columbia University and is the author of quite a few historical studies. I am just getting acquainted with this book and author.

I will fall back frequently to two or three favorite U.S. histories. Paul Johnson’s History of the American People is quite good because Johnson’s perspective is that of an outsider (an Englishman), an independent thinker, and a conservative. Since my college days, I have enjoyed Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant. More recent editions are co-authored by David Kennedy. The more Bailey the book, the better since Bailey was remarkably witty. I also really like William Bennett’s two volume narrative history of the United States, titled America: The Last Best Hope. Bennett is not “a professional historian,” but he is an academic by background. His main strength is that he sees history as a narrative, a story. His title stems from his former boss’ view of America.  (Bennett was Secretary of Education under President Reagan.)  A book with a different angle or approach to American history, a thematic approach, is David Fischer Hackett’s Liberty and Freedom. So far, and not far enough into it, I am really enjoying this book.

A Student’s Guide to U. S. History by Wilfred McClay. Dr. McClay is a professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

I have rereading A Student’s Guide to U. S. History by Wilfred McClay. This is a short (less than 100 pages) survey of major themes of American history and lots of book recommendations.  Although short in length, the book is packed with content. It is a part of the series of Student’s Guides published by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The whole series is a great collection of short works that introduce students to large fields of thought and study.

At the end of McClay’s book, he gives his list of books that he dubs “The American Canon.” He says that every one of the books in his list is one that “a serious student of American history and society ought to have read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested.” I love such lists, even when I question a book included or gasp at what was not on the list. So, here is McClay’s “American Canon” with my brief comments to follow:

Wilfred McClay’s American Canon

1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams. I am currently five chapters into this book. I am beginning to see why it has so often been mentioned and am repenting of my neglect of it.

The Library of America edition which I am reading.

2. James Bryce, The American Commonwealth. This work has been reprinted in two large volumes. I received the set with great glee some years back, but have neglected it. I hope to at least start reading bits and pieces from it.

3. Whittaker Chambers, Witness. I have read portions of this book and have read a fair amount about Whittaker Chambers. I need to dig more deeply, however, into this book. I find it a curious inclusion on the list, but am willing to accept McClay’s judgment.

4. John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum and The Child and Society. Hmmm. Nearly everything I have read about Dewey has been critical, and I recognize the need for reading the sources, but I will have to be further convinced of the inclusion of this book in the American Canon.

5. Frederick Douglas, Narrative. I have long read about Douglas and this book and recently picked up a copy. It is on my “to read” list.

6. W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk. I again question this book’s inclusion and would defer to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery instead.

7. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Plain and simple, I need to read this.

8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Essays, First Series. I have read some of Emerson and read much that was critical of him. But, like him or not, or even judge him as a lunatic (as I do), he was an influential thinker.  Emerson’s essays were also recommended by Jay Parini in a book he wrote on poetry.

9. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. In spite of the fact that movie versions of this story appear every decade or so, it is a defining book about American attitudes.

After Robert Redford played Jay Gatsby, why did anyone else even try?

10. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography. Read this book and reread parts of it many times. It is a key book to understand much about an amazing man and his times.  It also clearly reveals the oddities and deviations in Franklin’s religious views, and it is the first of the “rags to riches” American sagas.

The weighty musings of three American thinkers written for the common folk of New York state.

11. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalists. Thankfully, I have been able to read and teach through these essays, but would like to better understand them.  This is one of the best works of political philosophy ever penned. It is also helpful to read some of the Anti-Federalists, who accurately foresaw some of today’s political problems.

12. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. I have read and taught it several times. The only warning is that it should not be taught as Puritan history.

13. William James, Pragmatism.  William James and Pragmatism have had such an impact on our history and culture that I must agree with McClay’s including this work. (I also need to read lots more of William’s brother Henry’s works.)

14. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature. I have learned indirectly from Lawrence’s study of American literature, but don’t even have this book.  Lawrence does present a strong defense of James Fenimore Cooper’s works, which is a further reason to read this book.

15. Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings. I agree with James McPherson’s essay read long ago somewhere that Lincoln won the war with metaphors. An extensive reading of speeches of political leaders is a great way to better understand America.

16. Herman Melville, Moby Dick. This is one of my favorite novels. Its length, which repels many, is justified by its intensive study of knowledge.

The novel is really bigger than it seems, just like the whale, just like knowledge, just like life.

17. Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson, eds., The Puritans. This is one of many sources I have on the American Puritans. It is a sourcebook of their thought. Perry Miller, an atheist, did more to revive interest in the Puritans than anyone else.

18. David Reisman, et. al., The Lonely Crowd. Long heard of it, but do not have it.

19. George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” and Character and Opinion in the United States. I don’t even know how much I don’t know about these works.

20. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I agree to its importance, and, although dripping in sentimentality, it is a good story.

21. Henry David Thoreau, Walden. I read it in high school and from it since then. Beautiful but wacky.  Of course, Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” must also be read.

22. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. I have read and taught through much of this book. I like it better after each teaching.

23. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is one of the most important books about America ever written.  Hemingway’s glowing endorsement was on target. The narrative use of the midwestern vernacular, the racial, social, and religious issues, the beauty of the idyllic interludes on the river, and the character of Huck are all defining points of American culture at all times.

24. Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery. Read it and taught it several times.  Booker T. Washington, however, has long been largely out of favor with both black and white readers.  That is a shame.

25. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and American Vistas. Yes, Whitman was gifted, sprawling in his poetry, stylistically brilliant at point, but also crazy and warped.

26. Richard Wright, Black Boy.  It is interesting that McClay has four (or five, if you count Twain) books that deal with the black experience in America.  Also, it is curious as to why he did not include a single white Southern writer (unless one counts Twain) in the list.  

Coming Next:  My Cannon (sic) Battery of American History and Culture.


Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson

The Day of Battle

The Day of Battle, the second volume in Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy.

A few years back, Tom Brokaw referred to the generation of men and women who were in World War II as being the greatest generation. I knew and still know a few of those men. My Dad is one of them. The more I read of the boys who signed up to take on the Axis powers, the more awed I am.

Over the course of years, I have read quite a few books on World War II. I generally try to limit such reading. I don’t teach a lot or even enough on that war. We usually reach it late in the school year. I could easily devote a semester to the Second World War, or even a whole school year for that matter. But I have not had the chance to teach a class on World War II,  so I try to not get too involved in that area of reading. (I have read only 3 books this year on it.)

I recently finished Rick Atkinson’s book The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. This is the second volume of Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, told about the capture of North Africa by American and British Armies in the first major allied initiatives in World War II. The third volume, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 , hit the shelves in May and it is devoted to the campaigns from Normandy to the fall of Berlin in 1944-45. Atkinson deals with America’s allies, particularly the British, and our enemies, particularly the Germans, but his major focus is on the American armies and American leaders.

(My review of An Army At Dawn can be found at my beloved old blog site:

There have been quite a few really good historians who have covered World War II and a vast library of really good books. Just carving a niche in the list of the great books and authors is quite a feat.  With past and present historians like Cornelius Ryan, Stephen Ambrose, Anthony Beevor, John Keegan, and the inimitable Winston Churchill, who would even have the courage to pick up a pen?  Atkinson has edged into a crowded room and has proven himself worthy of the task.  In terms of worthiness, Atkinson has won a long list of awards, including Pulitzer Prizes and other honors.  In his free time, when he is not writing epic histories, he has been the senior editor of the Washington Post.

Perhaps, the greatest strength of Atkinson’s history is the close up, individual, and personal angle on the battles. The big picture is always that of German General Albert Kesselring having 50,000 German troops stationed in a particular area, while the American General Mark Clark was opposing him with 65,000 troops. Add to those names and numbers the officers under the commanding generals and the number of guns, tanks, and supplies. That is the story of war, but not the whole story of war.

Every one of those individuals, like the many people Homer names in the Iliad, has his own story, often poignant, often tragic.  War is the story of a 26 year old captain named Henry Waskow, a Texas boy of German descent, one of eight from a farming family, a young man interested in ministry. Suffering from the dangers and deprivations in the Italian campaign of the war, Henry longed for the chance to get home, buy himself “one of them smart-aleck toasters where you put the bread in and it pops out.”

A mortal shell fragment to the chest ended that hope. Waskow had written in a last will and testament, “I would like to have lived, but since God willed otherwise, do not grieve too much, dear ones, for life in the other world must be beautiful, and I have lived a life with that mind all along. I was not afraid to die, you can be assured of that.” (page 293)

I realized in reading this story that there is a connection here between Henry Waskow and me, or all of us. I grew up eating and enjoying toast out of a pop-up toaster. In part, the world I grew up in was possible because of men like Henry Waskow.

There are many wars that are questionable. I have some real reservations about the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, just to name a few. But of this, I have no doubt: The war that was waged to defeat Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich was absolutely necessary. That should not imply an endorsement of every battle, commander, political leader, and consequence of that war. But it is good that Hitler and the Nazis were defeated.

Does that mean that the campaigns to capture Sicily and the boot of Italy in 1943-1944 were necessary? The book raised questions all along and particularly at the end about the necessity of the Italian campaign. There were lots of questions raised about particular commanders, including George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, Mark Clark, and Harold Alexander. Great commanders make great blunders. The great egos that are necessary for leadership result in unnecessary deaths and horrible miscalculations.

Not just some things here and there, but lots of things went wrong when the Allies invaded Italy at Salerno. How the British and Americans kept from being driven completely off the beaches of Italy is still beyond me. The slogging drive up the boot of Italy, the debate over whether and how to take the abbey at Monte Cassino, and the miseries of mud, winter, and mountains of the Apennine Mountain range are all haunting stories, resembling the horrors of that other Italian campaign chronicled by Dante and told in his verse story, The Inferno.

If World War II had only consisted of the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, it would have been phenomenal and horrifying. The near war of attrition, the battle against terrain and climate, and the inch-by-inch struggle for battlefield supremacy is is hard to comprehend when being read in the comforts of our times.  At least, it is beyond my understanding. And yet, in the larger battles and campaigns of the war, the Sicily and Italy campaigns are usually little noted and less studied than other aspects of the war.

The high tide of success in this campaign was the capture of Rome, Italy. There were all sorts of sub-plots and results of this event. The American and British forces had intense rivalries and jealousies. The American General Mark Clark was determined that the Americans would capture the city and the glory. The British forces had to settle for lesser prizes. The Germans had the tendency to pillage, plunder, and destroy whatever they had to abandon. For self-centered reasons, Hitler advised leaving Rome unscathed, lest the Allied propaganda make Germany look bad.  (Wish he had done more to avoid that image problem!)

When Rome was captured, the news of that triumph was overshadowed by the Normandy D-Day invasion. It is highly likely that the Italian campaign provided the balance needed to make Normandy a battlefield triumph. The Allied forces learned a lot from the amphibious invasions of Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. Much of what they learned was the result of miscalculations. Wisdom in war is gained often by blood, wasted blood. Also, the Italian campaign diverted men and war materials from northern Europe. Another 20 or so German divisions in France in 1944 could have been really bad for the Allies.

I stand in awe of the men who fought in World War II. Many were American boys, including uncles, my father, and the men of the town where I grew up. In reading of their struggles, I hope I am doing more than just learning history. I hope I am paying tribute to their sacrifices.

I now look forward to acquiring and reading The Guns at Last Lightvolume three  of the Liberation Trilogy.

The Guns at Last Light






Freedom and Liberty

David Hackett Fischer is a good teacher to listen to on this morning of July 4.  I have been getting into his book Liberty and Freedom.

He writes, “A leading scholar of other cultures, Orlando Patterson, observes that ‘non-western peoples have thought so little about freedom that most human languages did not even possess a word for the concept before contact with the west.’ ….The Western world is unique not only in its invention of words such as liberty and freedom but also in having invented so many of them.  These words have distinct origins and different shades of meaning. Consider the two leading terms in English usage: liberty and freedom.  In early uses, both words implied a power of choice, an ability to exercise one’s will, and a condition that was distinct from slavery.  In all of those ways, liberty and freedom meant the same thing.”

Look closely at what Fischer says the words liberty and freedom imply:

1.  A power of choice

2.  an ability to exercise one’s will

3.  a condition that was distinct from slavery

If our leaders were to carefully just read the early parts of Fischer’s book and contemplate what they should do, we would experience a revolution that would far exceed that one which we celebrate on this day.

A book filled study: The true incubator of great thoughts.


Why Did They Fight?

Concord Bridge: Where the shot was fired that was heard all around the world.

In 1843, Captain Levi Preston was 91 years old.  A young scholar, Mellen Chamberlain, was researching the American War for Independence, and he had the occasion to interview the veteran of Lexington and Concord.

“Captain Preston,” he asked, “what made you to to the Concord fight?

Captain Preston, bristling  at the notion that he was made to fight, replied, “What did I go for?”

The young historian continued, “Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?”

Captain Preston replied, “I never saw any stamps and I always understood that none were sold.”

“Well, what about the tea tax?” the historian asked.

Captain Preston: “Tea tax? I never drank a drop of the stuff. The boys threw it all overboard.”

Chamberlain: “I suppose you had been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?”

Captain Preston:  “I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms, and hymns and the almanacs.”

Chamberlain:  “Well, then, what was the matter?”

Captain Preston:  “Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be free always. They didn’t mean we should.”

Captain Levi Preston

The interview with Levi Preston can be found in David Hackett Fischer’s Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas.

Liberty and Freedom: One of many great studies by David Hackett Fischer.

Summer and Winter, as seen by Henry Adams

From The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams:

“Winter and summer, then, were two hostile lives, and bred two separate natures.  Winter was always the effort to live; summer was tropical license. Whether the children rolled in the grass, or waded in the brook, or swam in the salt ocean, or sailed in the bay, or fished for smelts in the creeks, or netted minnows in the salt-marshes, or took to the pine-woods and the granite quarries, or chased musk-rats and hunted snapping turtles in the swamps, or mushrooms or nuts on the autumn hills, summer and country were always sensual living, while winter was always compulsory learning. Summer was the multiplicity of nature; winter was school.”

I am trying to amend a long over-due need to become acquainted with the writings of Henry Adams, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of President John Adams.  Henry Adams was quite remarkable for the range and depth of his own writings.