The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come

 

Believe me. I really tried to specialize at different points in my career as a student, teacher, and reader. Admittedly, I should have completed a doctoral dissertation years ago on some topic like “Remnants of Mercantile Economic Thought in Jackson’s Veto of the Bank Bill.” But the problem was, and is, that I am too easily distracted, too often drawn away, too quickly ready to jump into something else.


For a long period of my life, I studied ante-bellum America and the War Between the States with a great deal of intensity and focus. I have rows of sagging bookshelves filled with accounts of battles, biographies of generals, and studies of various and sundry topics related to the war that divided America from 1861 to 1865.

Besides the books, I was a re-enactor for a short time. I served in the Third Arkansas re-enactment group and took part in a re-enactment battle or two. I collected Civil War era clothes, a gun and a sword, pictures, actual bullets, and all sorts of items related to the war. For a time, everyone who gave me a gift, gave me some sort of Civil War item. I received Civil War maps, a beautiful set of plates features Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, a Robert E. Lee stein, a Civil War chessboard, and books, often the coffee table variety. Every trip my family took involved, as much as possible, a visit to a battlefield or to a Southern plantation. My wife and I had a deal: For every battlefield visit, we would visit an antique store.

My wife recently asked why I tapered off on these interests, on what was an obsession. There are several reasons.

First, it is my nature. I get overwhelmingly consumed in something and then begin reading, studying, talking, and thinking about it non-stop. At some point, the energy and devotion peaks and I almost become normal. Almost normal, that is, until the next obsession takes command.

Second, in my school, I began the Humanities program. Classical Christian education as a whole redirected my thinking, and then the Humanities program necessitated some radical shifts in my labors. I had, almost against my will, to read Homer, Herodotus, and Virgil for Ancient World Humanities. I had, in spite of the difficulties, to read Eusebius, Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, and Mallory for the Medieval World Humanities. I was more willing to tackle Luther and Calvin, Dickens and Hugo, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky for the Modern World class. But those authors carried me far from the battlefields of the American War Between the States.
The fourth part of the Humanities Program is the American Story. But since the whole program is book dominated, it was necessary to focus lots of attention on the books and time periods other than the 1860s.

Third, the whole field of Civil War studies is full. The room is crowded. A person can hardly keep up with all the newly published books on the battle of Gettysburg, much less the whole range of Civil War studies.

Fourth, Southern apologetics wore me out. I was initially drawn into the story of the War because of a growing awareness that the issues were not simply that of a freedom-motivated North seeking to liberate a slavery-dominated Southern culture dominated by the key players in Gone With the Wind. Books like I’ll Take My Stand by Twelve Southerners and The Southern Tradition at Bay by Richard Weaver alerted me to the more profound social, political, and cultural dimensions of the war. Theologians such as James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney alerted me to the theological angles to the war. Political thinkers such as Eugene Genovese helped me to see the complexities of the war.
So, I defended the South. I took my stand, waved the Stars and Bars, and cited the sources. If the South were a Lost Cause, so were many of the causes I stood for.
There is no simple “the North was right and righteous and the South was wicked” or “the North waged a Unitarian statist war against the freedom loving Christian South” scenario. There is much to defend about the old South, the Confederacy, and the South that survived. But it too was a flawed society, and the South remains so.
I gave a series of talks once at a conference. The first was titled “The Tragedy of the South’s Having Gone to War” and the second was titled “The Blessings of Southern Defeat.” These talks were no stab in the back to my heritage and the land of my birth. The South lost, and lost badly, a war that it should not have fought, but God graciously has blessed the South through the defeat. Those two talks gave a closure around what I had been seeking in my studies of all things Southern.


Fifth, studies of the Southern War for Independence led me into studies of Southern literature. The obsessive mode took over again. Blame the Agrarians, those twelve essayists who wrote I’ll Take My Stand. After reading their book carefully, I began collecting and reading everything they wrote and everything that had been written about them. So the poetry of Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Davidson captured me. The novels of Warren, Caroline Gordon, and Madison Jones pulled me in. The essays of Davidson, the literary criticism of Cleanth Brooks, and the literary sons and daughters of the Agrarian, Fugitive Poets, New Critics movements engulfed me.
And all Southern literature leads quickly to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. So the war faded, the book collecting changed courses, and the interest level cooled.
But it was never a jilted romance. Rather, it was the old dilemma of world’s enough and time. Time itself while moving in a linear fashion to an appointed end also moves in cycles. The time came to return to studies of America before the War Between the States.

Still in print–more than 1,000,000 sales.

Two books directly and two books indirectly prompted the return. The first was a novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr. My old paperback copy notes that over a million copies of this book has been sold. My old paperback copy, purchased at K-Mart back in 1974, cost $1.25. By and large, this novel is a forgotten book.

I read it in high school and, to the best of my recollection, enjoyed it. Perhaps I enjoyed it less on this reading, but understood it more. This is a story set in the politically divided state of Kentucky. It focuses on the social divisions as well. Mountain folk are pitted against the landed gentry. Even slaves despise the lowliness of the mountain people.

When the war begins, some of the characters in the book side with the North, others with the South. The key character Chad Bufford fits the beloved American pattern of the rags-to-riches story. Through pluck, strength, and Providence, he goes from being a poor, orphaned, and hopeless mountain boy to being taken in by a benefactor who was a long-lost distant kinsman.

Fox created a Dickens-like cast of characters that appear and re-appear in all sorts of incidences and coincidences. For whatever reasons, I often struggled to remember who the different characters were.
No wonder, however, that this novel, first published in 1898, should have sold a million plus copies. It presents a Gone With the Wind-type of American memory of the war. The divisions the war created extended into states, communities, and families, both in Kentucky and throughout much of the nation. The young man, Chad Bufford, is the hero-type that Americans loved. He is a type of Natty Bumpo, a type of cowboy, an unlikely hero who triumphs over the odds. Then there is romance, with the delicacy of a Victorian mindset. There is danger, conflict, pursuit and capture sequences, and historical circumstances. Being an older novel written by a Southern author (Fox was a Virginian), there are enough politically incorrect notions and words to ban John Fox, Jr. from almost any and every reading list in our time.

Novels give us angles on reality. They nurture some myths we want to believe. I can readily see why I would have liked this book in 1974. Every young boy would wish to be Chad Bufford, or Spiderman, or a sports hero. The novel reveals something of what people wanted to read and already thought in 1898. The pain of the War Between the States was repeatedly assuaged by novels that sought for a healing reconciliation. It is intriguing that this novel is so strongly Southern in its flavor and perspective, but Chad Bufford joins the Union army. Finally, the novelist was wise enough and American enough to know that sweet happy endings aren’t sweet or happy. The quest for life in America was not to be found in the attainments of the plantation-owning Southern gentlemen or in the simple pleasures of the mountain folk. And even those who were on the winning side of the War Between the States still lost much in the war, even if they retained their own lives.

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Another Reading Primer from the Teacher

This morning as I was plodding through 20 pages of The Education of Henry Adams, I came across this worthy sentence:

“Here, then, appeared in its fullest force, the practical difficulty in education which a mere student could never overcome; a difficulty not in theory, or knowledge, or even want of experience, but in the sheer chaos of human nature.”  (From chapter 10, “Political Morality”)

This is an amazing sentence in the midst of young Henry Adams diplomatic work, as secretary to his father, who as the American ambassador to Britain during the American Civil War Between the States.  Adams was grappling with the complexities of the views and expressions of the British cabinet.  That story, in itself, is quite complicated, but its general tenor is very familiar ground.  Anyone entering into politics needs to dwell upon Adams’ statement, and so does anyone entering into church work, business, and family life, or, simply stepping out the door onto the street.

There is a place for the learning of theories of history, sociology, psychology, and other aspects of human behavior.  Knowledge is indispensable, and I say that as a knowledge-peddler.  Then comes experience, which can only generally be obtained by…experience, although reading might supplement it.  Human nature is chaotic.  The story of the Fall is the story of such chaos.  Eve’s deception and Adam’s willingness to transgress God’s one rule were both chaotic acts, and the rest of history is simply a long fall down a flight of stairs.  The Cross, of course, is the reversal of the cause and effects of such chaos, but the ongoing need for growth in grace is the need for minimizing and ultimately eliminating chaos in human nature, beginning with ourselves.

The Library of America edition of Henry Adams’ writings.

As I said, the Adams’ sentence is a worthy aphorism, or original thought, worded memorably.  The book, The Education of Henry Adams, is deemed an American classic.  In a recent post highlighting American history and culture, I referenced Wilfred McClay’s “American Canon.”   It includes Adams’ book.  That is what motivated me to start reading it.  I am still less than 200 pages into a 500 page book.

At this point, if you asked me…ME…if The Education of Henry Adams is a really important book, a classic, an essential read about the American experience, I would have to remain silent.  If I were merely reading a book for delight, for relaxation, this one would have been returned to the shelf. But that is the point that needs to explored.

First, any book needs to be read in its entirety before any true judgment can be made.  Before the last page, the last paragraph, last sentence, last word, all you can have are impressions.  The impressions may be good or bad, the book may be engrossing or not, the style may be captivating or plodding, and the subject may be interesting or uninteresting.  By the way, I am referring to literary works.  With self-help books, histories and biographies (although these works, too, are artistic renderings), and reference works, dipping and cherry picking is just fine.  But you cannot simply read a portion of a novel, a stanza of a poem, or a sentence or chapter of a literary autobiography and justly give a pronouncement.  Nor can you view just a portion of a work of art or hear a measure of a symphony and give a just pronouncement.

All this boils down to this:  Be quiet and finish the book.

Second,  you can glean much from the impressions.  You don’t begin thinking when the book is finished; rather, you suspend final or complete judgments.  But you can note the fine word craft, the well developed character, the wit, the pithy sentences, and the quotable lines.    I like to either have a folded sheet of paper in the book or have a Moleskine notebook handy or both.  Some books I also mark, but some of the finer books, I leave untouched.  Like David, I am always looking for five smooth stones for battling Goliaths or to simply remember and enjoy.

Third, you must read communally.  The solitary life ended when Adam took a long nap after pondering the pairing in animal life and wondering why he alone was alone.  There was not a committee somewhere, or a government agency, or a poll among readers, or a gaggle of librarians, or a group of bookish folks gathered for coffee or tea who determined what books constitute classics.  Battling over the, as in THE, definitive list of greatest books is a fun sport, either as a spectator or participant.  But it is not a science or math class.

For some reason or another, and actually, for many reasons, certain books show up on almost every list and other books show up on many lists.  I love such lists so much that I even have a book or two that are made up of reading lists.  I almost never meet a book list I don’t like.  But lists are not infallible.

However, when the fog lifts and you see a title up there on this list and that, on the list of the great books or the essential books, on the 100 best, or the defining canons, then yield the right of way to the experts.  When reading the book, mutter to yourself or to an illiterate friend, “I don’t know what is so great about this book.”  Don’t you dare state it in class, or out loud, or on a blog, or to a frog in a bog.  Your dislike of a classic may be right, but most likely it is not.  Most likely, your rejection of a classic is a mental disorder.

Case in point:  Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  Everyone knows it is a classic (except many of those who read it right after it was published).  It appears on the lists of great American books and it even gets to elbow its way into the European books.  (There is a school of thought that implies that the term “great American novel” is an oxymoron.)  The book starts well and really ends well.  (I wanted to say, “starts whale and ends whale.”)  The last 3 chapters are riveting adventure.  But the book is incredibly long and detailed and rambling.  Anyone thinking this is going to be a sea adventure on the order of Master and Commander  (starring Russell Crowe) or Gilligan’s Island finds themselves soon disappointed.

Any modern editor, with an eye toward sales, would have said, “Herman, great idea.  But shorten every sentence, every paragraph, and throw in a visit to an island with pretty women and have more whale attacks. ”  Then he would have added, “Let’s make this Ishmael a lot younger–maybe 13 in the first book.  Then let’s give this kid a few magical powers which have to conflict with Ahab’s magical powers.”  The next you know, Melville would have been cranking out a series of novels about a kid growing up with his friends, one ethnic and one female, and uttering juvenile platitudes about the world.  In the later novels, things could get a little more racy since people soon tire of “boy meets white whale” scenarios.

Instead, Melville’s novel, and we find ourselves locked on the Pequod, enlists us for a long journey.  It seems like it is going around the world, but it is going around the human psyche, the mind.  And being a ship, you must have a crew–the book has to be read communally.  And being a ship, you have to obey the captain—you have to obey what Melville is saying.  Melville, after all, is not rambling or filling space.  He is following the navigational charts of his intent.  And being a ship, you have to have officers–you have to listen to Bainard Cowan and others.  And being a ship, you have to swab the decks–meaning, read the book.

Fourth, when the book is finished, you are ready for two or three follow-up things.

1.  You are ready to listen to what the experts have to say.  Read some good critics and authorities.  Scan the web for a few short articles on the book.  Read the introduction.  Read Wikipedia.  Read from Louise Cowan and Os Guinness’ Invitation to the Classics, Thomas Foster’s Twenty Five Books that Shaped America, or any other source. Listen to a true teacher (some of whom can be found in classrooms) and to other engaged readers.

2.  You are ready to start expressing judgments on the book.  These judgments are still to be regarded as evolving, embryonic, impressionary, preliminary, and yearning for clarification.  If everyone agrees that it is a classic, and you missed it completely, stay quiet, very quiet.  Possibly, you need to check into a place that helps people with severe disorders.  Connect the scattered quotes and notes.  Step back and look at the whole.  Start asking what the author really was up to.

3.  Plot and plan a re-reading of the book.  You will not get to every book, but many will need to be re-read.  Somewhere, I read that Faulkner cannot be read, but only re-read.  That is so true of so many books.  I was not impressed with or convinced of the worth of The Iliad, The Great Gatsby, Light in August, The Last of the Mohicans, The Chronicles of Narnia, or All The King’s Men the first time I read those books.  (I was then taken to an institution.)  I made a dumb statement about Achilles in the presence of Professsor Glenn Arberry and a dumb statement about a poem to Louise Cowan.  Great literature fools us, tricks us, only shows hints.  Read a pop novelist (and I wish I were one) and the fun, adventure, plot, and characters are all plain to see as we whip through the book and toss it aside.  Read literature and you only see a tip of an iceberg, a hint of trail, a little smoke from a great blaze, and fleeting glimpse of the chaos of human nature.

Ten readings are, in my estimation, the goal for the essential books.  Think to yourself, how many times do you need to read Matthew’s Gospel, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and David’s Psalms?  On a lesser note, can you emotionally understand George Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” after hearing it once, or twice?  Can you truly know the Smokey Mountains with one drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee?

Unless you are a teacher or a speed reader (which contains its own destructive seeds), or a man or woman of leisure, not every book can get its ten readings.  Two might have to suffice.  Three would be nice.  Usually, the readings need to be spaced out.  Our minds, our theories, knowledge, experiences, and confrontations with human nature need time to grow.