Missing Rowan Oak

I just knew that I would enjoy reading Every Day By the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi by Dean Faulkner Wells.  And I did.  The book was fun, but it left me with a slight feeling of sadness.  It is like reading about a party or a gathering that you missed.  It has the sense of something real that was experienced, but is gone and never to be found.

For Dean Faulkner Wells, the Nobel Prize winning Mississippi author was “Pappy.”  He was actually her uncle.  Her own father, Dean, died in an airplane crash.  Faulkner, who loved airplanes, felt somewhat guilty that his pilot-brother had died before his daughter was born.  Being the gentleman he was, he played a major role in raising his brother Dean’s namesake and daughter, Dean.

There is lots of Faulkner and Butler family background in this story.  The Butler family was “Nannie’s” folks, and Nannie was Maud Faulkner, William’s mother.  Dean spent much of her life near her uncle and with her uncle and his wife, Estelle.  Faulkner watched over his niece, provided for her and her mother, sent her to college, and stood in for his late brother in every way he could.

Faulkner was a gentleman, a man of honor, a man who, to use his phrase, honored the “old verities,” the old truths.  He was a gracious host, a teller of ghost stories, an indulgent father and uncle, and a protector of those he loved.  He also battled his own demons.  One was alcohol.  His drinking bouts were spaced out.  Contrary to myth, he didn’t drink while writing.  Hard liquor was prone to best him.  As Dean said, he would reach the point where he would have to go to a clinic and get dried out.  Soon she would see him back home, working in his yard.  Estelle, Mrs. William Faulkner, had her own battles with alcohol.  Although the marriage of William and Estelle lasted until death parted them, the marriage was fraught with sins and errors.  Faulkner was an unfaithful husband.  Estelle knew, but tolerated his infidelities.

This book brought out the human, everyday, ordinary, humorous, sometimes cantankerous sides of Faulkner.  He never allowed a television in his house, but he would go visit a professor friend and watch the inanely goofy sitcom “Car Fifty-four, Where Are You?”  He didn’t answer the phone, and some of his callers were quite prominent.  For much of his life, he seemed quite content to live an isolated life away from the fame that his writings earned him.  I could not get over how real and common Faulkner came across in this story.  The chapter near the end that told of his death and funeral shocked me as though it had just happened.

The writings did earn fame, but for a long time, they did not earn him much money.  Faulkner sensed his own writing accomplishments even when the public didn’t.  On one occasion, his banker demanded his signature on a check.  Faulkner wrote him a letter and told him that his signature on that letter would be worth more in the long run than a check that would be cashed and spent.  The banker wisely kept and framed the letter.

I have been to Faulkner’s house three times.  I went two times during the past several years.  Once was on a Monday where we discovered that the house was closed.  We did get to walk around it and peek in the windows.  About 3 years ago, we did get to take the house tour.  My whole family enjoyed it, but I am not sure they had the same type of experience I did.  I could have stayed and stayed and stayed.

The first time I went to Rowan Oak was in the mid-1970s.  My parents and I went to Oxford, Mississippi on a summer trip.  I was thinking about going to the University of Mississippi for my last two years of college.  It was Faulkner that drew me there, however.  Rowan Oak was not open to the public at the time.  We drove up to where the gate and fence was, got out, crawled through the fence, and happened upon someone from the University who was giving a tour of the house.  It was amazing that we were not kicked out, but we weren’t.

Reading Every Day by the Sun has me wanting to make a fourth pilgrimage to the place where America’s greatest writer lived.

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R. J. Rushdoony–Missionary to the Indians and the Rest of Us

It was the fall of 1974 and I was taking the first semester of American History at Texarkana Community College.  Professor Henry Wood announced that anyone needing to replace a low test grade could read one of two assigned books and take a test to replace the low grade.  I already had a solid A in the class, so I did not need to do the extra reading and test.

Mr. Wood said, “The books are This Independent Republic by R. J. Rushdoony and A Theological Interpretation of American History by Gregg Singer.”  Then he added this comment which changed my life:  “If you are a history major, you need to read both books.”

This Independent Republic (Paperback) ~ Rushdoony (Author) Cover Art                                                                               

I bought the books, read Singer during the Christmas holidays and read Rushdoony later in the spring.  I confess to getting little out of the books.  Keep in mind, I was a reader, and I read lots of good books.  But Singer and Rushdoony spoke in foreign tongues.  Serious, scholarly, analytical, and theological discussion was totally out of my range.

A few years back, James Jordan and Andrew Sandlin wrote articles explaining what happened to me, to them, and quite a few others during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  We had gotten smacked down by the Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers of the mid-to-late 20th century.  I read, felt flustered, and yet, by God’s grace, was determined to crack the code on this way of thinking.  I was hindered by not knowing how to think and not knowing how to think Biblically.  I was missing what John Calvin says in the opening words of The Institutes of the Christian Religion:  “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

My mind could read the words, but my heart could not fathom a Sovereign God.  Also, I needed to understand lots more history, particularly the people and ideas that propelled historical events.  Singer and Rushdoony had gently let me know how little I knew.

I spent the next 20 years or so reading lots of books by Rushdoony, Singer, Van Til, Kuyper, Gary North, Gary DeMar, Greg Bahnsen, and others influenced by them.  I read more theologians than historians; I read more about Christian thought than about more popular ideas.  Rushdoony and Singer and others formed deep grooves in my mind that continue to affect and direct how I think, teach, and live.

I have read all or large portions of most of Rushdoony’s books.  I have listened to countless hours of Rushdoony “Easy Chair Talks,”  history lectures, and other studies.  When Rushdoony recommended a book or author, I either bought the books or searched for them.  It was from Rushdoony that I learned to love the writings of Ernle Bradford, Christopher Dawson, and countless others.

Rushdoony looked and spoke like an Old Testament prophet.

But Rushdoony was and still is quite controversial.  I can honestly say that I both understand and don’t understand.  The world of Rushdoony is intricate and wide-ranging.  It is, like the children’s song repeats, “deep and wide.”  Rushdoony held views that were unpopular, strongly contested, counter-cultural, and to some, offensive.  And that just refers to how fellow believers view him.  I can understand Arminians, premillennialists, dispensationalists, and other varieties of Christians disagreeing with certain of his views.  During most of the years when I was reading him, I was a Reformed Baptist.  I understand people who are not post-millennial, theonomic, reconstructionist,  presuppositionalists, pro-Christian schools, and non-political disagreeing with portions, even whole books, that Rushdoony wrote and thought.

But here is what I do not understand:  How can any serious Christian reject the whole realm of Rushdoony’s thought?  On having occasion to read and teach Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, I find lots to disagree or quibble with.  Never hold a church family conference using Augustine’s recommendations concerning marriage and family.  But even when large portions of the great thinkers is rejected or questions, there is still so much solid granite to see and marvel at.

I find the same with Rushdoony.  Consider this:  Rushdoony wrote books and articles about American and World history, the philosophy of science, the economics, politics, overpopulation, the root sources of pornography, psychology, philosophy, epistemology, systematic theology, eschatology, apologetics, and books and passages from the Bible.  In The Institutes of Biblical Law, he compiled an extensive survey of the Old Testament laws.  He had three books devoted to education, and these books both analyzed modern and non-Christian thought and provided Christian answers.  Rushdoony was one of the first Christians to write about and aptly explain the significance of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic method.

In other words, Rushdoony’s thought is extensive enough for any thinking Christian to profit from.  Those reject his works because they disagree with one point or another miss a great blessing.  As the Chalcedon bumper stickers proclaim:  Read Rushdoony.

In light of that, I just finished reading The American Indian: A Standing Indictment Against Christianity and Statism in America.  This book was published this past year, but it is made up of essays that go back to the late 1950s.  Rushdoony (1916-2001) served as a missionary on an Indian reservation from 1944-1953.  This book is an outstanding study and delightful read for three reasons.

First, Rushdoony was eager to listen to the old Indians.  There were still plenty of Indians who had witnessed the days before the reservations.  They had hunted buffalo, been pressured by the Ghost Dance religion, and had known the old ways.  The younger Indians were often uninterested in their stories, but Rushdoony, having already read extensively on Indian history and anthropology, was eager to learn.

Second, this book is more autobiographical than any of Rushdoony’s other works.  He tells of experiences he had on the reservation;  he discusses how these experiences often countered what the “experts” had said.  For those who remember Rushdoony as a scholar and speaker, a very bookish and deskbound man, it is amazing to realize that he lived on the frontier.  He gardened, hunted and fished, and lived very much like his Indian parish.  (He was, nevertheless, always reading and studying.)  Parts of this book reminded me of a favorite novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, which is a story of an Anglican priest who serves in a Indian village in Canada.

Third, this book is essential for understanding the place of the American Indian in American life, history, and culture.  It debunks ideas promoted by people of all types.  It indicts Christians for our failures and the government for its failures.  The Indian people are praised, honored, but also duly criticized for their gifts and failings.  Rushdoony always used history for lessons.  He saw the statism and socialism of the Indian reservations spilling over into all of American society.  The microcosm of the reservation was filled with warnings for church, state, and society.

Every history teacher must have this book on his or her shelf.  Pastors and laymen would enjoy it as well.  For another praise-filled review, read what Rushdoony’s son-in-law, Gary North, wrote about this book.

This book can be ordered from Chalcedon Foundation.

Summer Readings

I love summer reading and the mythical ideas and imagination of summer reading.  Sad to say, most of my reading in the summer is done in the same rooms, chairs, and bed as my reading during the other parts of the year.  No pounding of the suft, no mountain vistas, no calm misty lake, and no quaint little cottage nestled on the edge of a village can be found in my life.  Try as I might to find or achieve such environs, I am here at home.  Nevertheless, I do enjoy the freedom and extra reading time that summer affords.

I have no set plan or list to read.  In the past, I would make such lists and then fail to follow them.  I will give a few mentions of what has been read  or started of late.  I will focus mainly on some of the longer books.  A few works will be blogged about later.

Several books that I have already finished or am pressing on with now are books that were started in the past.  Some were started over a year ago.  I read for a time and then the particular books got by-passed by other books, interests, or necessities.  I rarely start a book over; instead, I pick up where I left off.

Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, which I recently blogged, was started last year and finished this year.  It was a good coda for my year of teaching American history.  I also finished reading Another Sort of Education by James V. Schall, but that book deserves a lengthy review.

Last summer, in anticipation of teaching American history and literature, I began reading Henry Adams’ autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams.  This is a lengthy and unusual book.  Often quoted, it is considered a defining classic in American literature and history, and its author was the grandson and great-grandson of the second and sixth Presidents.  I will try to develop some thoughts about the book after I finish it.  The end is in sight however.

Last October I began reading D. G. Hart’s Calvinism: A History.  I enjoyed what I read, but did not get far into the book.  Last week, I picked it back up and am now plodding along.  This is a very detailed and scholarly study.  It goes beyond the cursory summary of Reformation history.  I know now why I could not get into it enough last fall.  It takes some energy and concentration.  I also find it will be helpful to me as I approach this year’s Humanities course, which is the Modern World.  As the term is used in history, the Modern World began around 1500.  When I get Hart’s book finished, I hope to read Presbyterian and Reformed Churches: A Global History by James E. McGoldrick.

                     

On the other end of the Modern History period, I am now into reading A Patriot’s History of the Modern World:  From America’s Exceptional Ascent to the Atomic Bomb, 1898-1945 by Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty.  I started this book a few months ago when I was covering the Spanish-American War.  It is a good and lively historical survey from a politically conservative perspective. (I did recently see a second volume of this work that covers more recent history.)
I am now officially reading and into Ayn Rand’s hefty, bulky, and influential novel Atlas Shrugged.  I gave this book to my upcoming government students as a summer reading assignment.  The particular paperback edition that I have is hampered by small print, but I am pressing on.  There are many writers I read where I find myself admiring and even envying their writing style.  In this case, I find Ayn Rand’s writing style and descriptions appalling.  Some of her sentences hurt me physically.  In her defense, she was a Russian who acquired her English mainly after coming to the United States.  On the other hand, one wonders how her writing survived editing.
Atlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand’s writing continually exalts a certain kind of independent, strong, unflinching, self-consciously directed character.  Her heroes and heroines are the personifications of her Objectivist philosophy.  The array of other characters are the straw men of philosophies and ideas that she despised.  Ayn Rand was brilliant and she was crazy.  She had a great love for individual initiative, free enterprise, business success, and limited government.  She despised any institutions or ideas that either controlled the individual or dictated how they should think, feel, and act.  She extolled selfishness as a virtue and excoriated humanitarianism as a vice.
Many conservative and libertarian writers and thinkers have been influenced by her.  Her ideas have recurring popularity among young thinkers.  There are several politicians who credit Rand for influencing their thought.  Both Ron Paul and Paul Ryan read and appreciated Ayn Rand.  The younger Paul, Senator Rand Paul, also appreciates her, and he is not, contrary to appearances, named after her.
Half-length monochrome portrait photo of Ayn Rand, seated, holding a cigarette
Ayn Rand was a great defender of freedom.  Her hatred of Communism, Fascism, Socialism, group-think, and government interventionism empowered her writings.  She also hated Christianity and religion in general.  In what would surely irritate Ms. Rand, I have read of several people who profess to have been changed by reading Atlas Shrugged and the Bible.   She was quirky, weird, tyranical in her domination of others, immoral, inconsistent, and frequently stupid in her assessments of people and ideas.  Amidst the atrocious prose and the overly simplistic characters, there are some great insights in her writings.
So far, I am enjoying Atlas Shrugged.  Keep in mind, that this is a love story (so far) between a woman and a railroad company (paralleled with a love story between a man and his steel alloy).  There is a place for a teacher reading the books that influence people.  There is a place for a student reading the books (even misguided ones) that continue to impact thought and discussion.
One further note:  Prior to his election as President, Ayn Rand said that she would rather die than see Ronald Reagan elected President.  She thought that Reagan was a moral monster.   Happily, Reagan was elected in 1980 and Ayn Rand died in 1982.

Keep Cool With Coolidge

Credit Ronald Reagan, credit Paul Johnson, and now, credit Amity Shlaes.  There are other voices as well who have weighed in.  The conventional history was given a shake-up.  The times and the details were re-examined, and the judgment has been changed.

Franklin D. Roosevelt captured history for a generation or two.  Without a doubt, Roosevelt was a very powerful, gifted, and forceful leader.  I grew up loving him and then came to loath him.  I am somewhere in between now.  There has rarely been a politician with the political saavy, the people skills, the speaking gifts, and the timing of FDR.  His voice and radio were just the right combination.  His pragmatism and willingness to experiment with new powers and governmental venues were made to order during the Great Depression.  His leadership during World War II was bold.  None of this is said to endorse or agree with all that he did, but he was a political force for his time and for a generation to follow.  Every President since FDR is held up to his patterns and programs.  No President’s first hundred days in office match that of Roosevelt.

No wonder then that the historians, and by extension, the history textbooks, and by application, the classroom history teachers touted a similar line.  FDR got the United States out of the Great Depression and then went on to win World War II.  Before Roosevelt, the United States suffered under a series of weak, ineffectual Republicans.  Warren G. Harding’s short lived Presidency was characterized by scandals, by poor linguistic skills, and by incompetence.  It was the 1920s, the age of the Flappers and of Prohibition.  Harding was a politically mediocre pawn who did little while serving as President.    Then came Calvin Coolidge.  Silent Cal.  The object of jokes, a lazy man, a man out of touch with political realities while content to let ruthless businessmen fuel the fires that led to the Stock Market Crash.  Coolidge was the model of how little would be done if conservatives ran the country.  Coolidge was followed by Hoover, whose response to the Great Depression was to focus on “rugged individualism.”  But thankfully, FDR came along and saved the country, capitalism, democracy, the world, and the forgotten, common man.

The problem with the simplification is its inaccuracy.  Amity Shlaes’ brilliant book Coolidge does a powerful job of recasting the life and work of Calvin Coolidge.  He was a man of good solid personal principles.  His personal principles and code of ethics and Christian faith dominated his political life and actions as well.  He was a serious reader and thinker.  He wrote his own speeches and thought his own thoughts.  He was stubborn and generally unrelenting when it came to issues that mattered to him.  Even though he spent most of his working life in politics, politics never seemed to capture his being.  Being President was just what he did because that was the job he had.

I started reading this book last year.  I read about the first third of it and then put it aside.  There was no problem with reading about the early years of Coolidge’s life.  But there were other books.  Coolidge the book, like the President, got somehow overlooked for a time.  A few weeks back, I picked it up one night and started reading from it again.  Admittedly, I was just beginning to get into the most interesting part.  Coolidge was becoming a nationally known figure due to his strong stand in the Boston Police Strike.  His statement “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”

From those events, Coolidge became a Presidential candidate.  Although he did little to promote his candidacy, he was enough of a force to win the Vice Presidential nomination at the 1920 Republican convention.  Running as VP with Warren G. Harding, Coolidge was elected.  He was the first Vice President to attend cabinet meetings.  As VP, his role and activities were limited until Harding died.

Coolidge stepped into the Presidency in August of 1923.  Working with some brilliant cabinet members,  Coolidge began a mission to control and reduce the budget and national debt.  This part of the book is phenomenal.  Anyone wanting to serve in politics should read it repeatedly and, we might say, prayerfully.  I don’t think the kind of economy that Coolidge practiced would be possible now, but the general sense, the dedication, the nit-pickiness, of cutting spending, reducing government, and being willing to lose on principle is needed more than ever.

This book is an important historical revision.  But it needs to go beyond the history classroom.  Congress and the President need to read this book, especially those chapters on Coolidge’s spending cuts, and repent.  I don’t expect that to happen.  But the message can be trumpeted in the classrooms, in discussions, and in blogs.

This book will make the 2014 list of best books of the year.  Amity Shlaes’ previous book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression is also a valuable study.