I’ve been re-organizing and re-arranging my earlier writings, so I didn’t want to read challenging books. I read a CivilWar memoir by a Confederate general, Richard Taylor (Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War). As I mentioned in an earlier issue, Taylor’s memoir was praised by historian Douglas Southall Freeman, who called Taylor “the one Confederate general who possessed literary art that approached first rank.”
Taylor graduated from Yale in 1845. Taylor’s knowledge of history, especially military history, is immense, but he’s too eager to display his knowledge. He makes so many references to history and literature that the reader needs explanatory footnotes (the reader also needs maps).1A Taylor can teach one how Southerners viewed Reconstruction, but his bitterness toward Northern Republicans sometimes mars his work. Taylor’s memoir has considerable value, and throws light on both military and political matters, but it isn’t among the most entertaining CivilWar memoirs.
Taylor’s father, Zachary Taylor, was a hero in the Mexican-American War, and then became President. Through his father, the younger Taylor had many connections among American soldiers and politicians, Northern as well as Southern. For example, he was on friendly terms with Grant and Jefferson Davis.
Though he wasn’t a WestPoint graduate, Taylor was an effective military leader, esteemed by military men like Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Taylor fought in Jackson’s Valley Campaign, and later in Louisiana.
Taylor gives us an intimate look at Jackson. Taylor says that his commanding officer, Richard Ewell, “told me in confidence that he admired [Jackson’s] genius, but was certain of his lunacy, and that he never saw one of Jackson’s couriers approach without expecting an order to assault the north pole.”
Jackson lacked the dignified appearance of Lee:
|An ungraceful horseman, mounted on a sorry chestnut with a shambling gait, his huge feet with out-turned toes thrust into his stirrups, and such parts of his countenance as the low visor of his shocking cap failed to conceal wearing a wooden look, our new commander was not prepossessing.|
Jackson was a man of few words.
|Quite late that night [Taylor writes] General Jackson came to my campfire, where he stayed some hours. He said we would move at dawn, asked a few questions about the marching of my men, which seemed to have impressed him, and then remained silent. If silence be golden, he was a “bonanza.” He sucked lemons, ate hard-tack, and drank water, and praying and fighting appeared to be his idea of the “whole duty of man.”|
Jackson was known for his friendly relations with slaves, and Taylor mentions examples of this. According to Wikipedia, “Jackson was revered by many of the African Americans in [Lexington, Virginia], both slaves and free blacks.... ‘He was emphatically the black man’s friend.’”
Taylor says that Jackson was a great general, but not without flaws. He says that Jackson had “an ambition boundless as Cromwell’s, and as merciless.” As Sam Watkins put it, “He would have a man shot at the drop of a hat, and drop it himself.”
As for Lee,
|Not only was he destitute of a vulgar greed for fame, he would not extend a hand to welcome it when it came unbidden. He was without ambition, and, like Washington, into whose family connection he had married, kept duty as his guide.... His lofty character was respected of all and compelled public confidence. Indeed, his character seemed perfect, his bath in Stygian waters complete; not a vulnerable spot remained.... His soldiers reverenced him and had unbounded confidence in him, for he shared all their privations, and they saw him ever unshaken of fortune.|
Lee was a Tidewater aristocrat of English heritage, while Jackson was from a Scots-Irish family that settled west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (Andrew Jackson was also Scots-Irish; Andrew Jackson’s family lived in the hill country, the Piedmont.) Stonewall Jackson’s family came to the U.S. in 1749, about 100 years after Lee’s. By 1749, the Tidewater region had been settled, so new immigrants often went further west, beyond the coastal plain, beyond the fall line, beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.
While Lee was an aristocrat, Nathan Bedford Forrest had humble origins, and could barely read. Taylor knew and admired Forrest, and said that Forrest understood how to concentrate his forces, and defeat larger armies.
|Asked after the war to what he attributed his success in so many actions, [Forrest] replied: “Well, I got there first with the most men.” Jomini could not have stated the key to the art of war more concisely. I doubt if any commander since the days of lion-hearted Richard has killed as many enemies with his own hand as Forrest. His word of command as he led the charge was unique: “Forward, men, and mix with ’em!” But, while cutting down many a foe with long-reaching, nervous arm, his keen eye watched the whole fight and guided him to the weak spot.|
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Taylor explains why his troops abandoned their tents:
|Tents, especially in a wooded country, are not only a nuisance, involving much transportation, the bane of armies, but are detrimental to health. In cool weather they are certain to be tightly closed, and the number of men occupying them breeds a foul atmosphere. The rapidity with which men learn to shelter themselves, and their ingenuity in accomplishing it under unfavorable conditions, are surprising. My people grumbled no little at being “stripped,” but soon admitted that they were better for it, and came to despise useless impedimenta.1B|
Concerning the Siege of Vicksburg, Taylor says the Confederates shouldn’t have put so many men behind Vicksburg’s walls; Vicksburg became a “trap.” When Vicksburg fell, 30,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered. Taylor says,
|The policy of shutting up large bodies of troops in fortifications, without a relieving army near at hand, cannot be too strongly reprobated. Vicksburg should have been garrisoned by not more than twenty-five hundred men.|
Taylor often excoriates Republicans without actually naming them, perhaps to avoid prosecution for libel. He writes thus of Stanton, the Secretary of War:
|A spy under Buchanan, a tyrant under Lincoln, and a traitor to Johnson, this man was as cruel and crafty as Domitian. I never saw him. In the end conscience, long dormant, came as Alecto, and he was not; and the temple of Justice, on whose threshold he stood, escaped profanation. [Stanton had been nominated for the Supreme Court, and confirmed, but died before joining the court.]|
Taylor speaks of harmonious relations between masters and slaves, even when many Southern men were at the front:
|In their dealings with the negro the white men of the South should ever remember that no instance of outrage occurred during the war. Their wives and little ones remained safe at home, surrounded by thousands of faithful slaves, who worked quietly in the fields until removed by the Federals. This is the highest testimony to the kindness of the master and the gentleness of the servant; and all the dramatic talent prostituted to the dissemination of falsehood in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and similar productions cannot rebut it.1C|
While Taylor is angry at Northern politicians like Stanton, and at Northern writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, his deepest anger is reserved for his superior, General Kirby Smith, whom he feels mis-managed the war in Louisiana.
|Far away from the great centers of conflict in Virginia and Georgia, on a remote theatre, the opportunity of striking a blow decisive of the war was afforded. An army [i.e., a Union army] that included the strength of every garrison from Memphis to the Gulf had been routed, and, by the incompetency of its commander [Nathaniel Banks], was utterly demoralized and ripe for destruction. But this army was permitted to escape.... More than all, we lost Porter’s fleet [i.e., a Union fleet], which the falling river had delivered into our hands; for the protection of an army was necessary to its liberation, as without the army a dam at the falls could not have been constructed [the Union fleet needed a dam to raise the water level]. With this fleet, or even a portion of it, we would have at once recovered possession of the Mississippi, from the Ohio to the sea, and undone all the work of the Federals since the winter of 1861.... The Southern people might have been spared the humiliation of defeat, and the countless woes and wrongs inflicted on them by their conquerors.1D|
When Taylor’s anger falls to the level of sarcasm, it mars his work, but when it rises to the level of pathos, as in his remarks on Kirby Smith, it strengthens his work.
The most highly-regarded biography of Lincoln is David Herbert Donald’s 600-page work. The theme of Donald’s work is that Lincoln was passive. At the front of the book, Donald puts a quotation from a letter that Lincoln wrote in 1864: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Donald says that this quotation illustrates “a basic trait of character evident throughout Lincoln’s life: the essential passivity of his nature.” Donald speaks of, “Lincoln’s reluctance to take the initiative and make bold plans; he preferred to respond to the actions of others.”
Donald’s thesis has been widely criticized. People think that anyone who rises from humble origins, runs for President, frees the slaves, etc. must be active, not passive. The historian James McPherson expressed the prevailing view when he said, “the facts mostly do not fit [Donald’s] passivity thesis.”
I’m very impressed with Donald’s insight. Lincoln’s attitude is a good example of what the Chinese call wu wei, non-doing; the Chinese say, Do nothing and everything will be done.
We often find passivity in the creative process, and in the biographies of genius. Hawthorne said, I didn’t write The Scarlet Letter, it wrote itself. Bukowski’s gravestone says “Don’t Try,” a phrase he explained in a letter:
|Somebody [asked me]: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more.|
Jung said that the true leader is always led, and the same could be said of the true artist.
Lincoln’s passivity often took the form of silence — refusing to speak out on the key issues. The Lincoln specialist Harold Holzer wrote an essay for the New York Times called “The Sound of Lincoln’s Silence.” After his CooperUnion speech in February, 1860, Lincoln
|said nothing for nearly a year. [He] retreated in isolation to Springfield.... Between his election and his inauguration, Lincoln withdrew into intractable official silence.... Supporters called Lincoln’s silence “masterful inactivity” because it offended neither abolitionists nor secessionists.1E|
In an earlier issue, I said that “the best argument is often silence.”
Part of Lincoln’s youth was spent at Knob Creek, Kentucky. Harold Holzer speaks of, “the muddy creek that gave the place its name. Young Abe once fell into its rain-swollen waters and was rescued by a neighbor boy.” This is the sort of life-threatening accident that we would expect to find in the childhood of a man noted for melancholy. Such “accidents” are probably not accidental (is anything accidental?). Jung had such accidents in his childhood: “[I had] a fall downstairs... and another fall against the angle of a stove leg.... These things point to an unconscious suicidal urge or, it may be, to a fatal resistance to life in this world.”1F The young Lincoln, like the young Jung, probably had an “unconscious suicidal urge,” and this urge led to his creek accident.
In an earlier issue, I discussed an essay on Hawthorne by Paul Elmer More. I recently read More’s essay on Byron, and was much impressed by More’s elegant style and deep ideas. More’s essay deals with one of the central questions in aesthetics: the difference between Classic and Romantic. Byron was a champion of the Classic, a critic of the Romantic.
|Byron condemned the romantic spirit, and waged continuous if often indiscreet warfare for Milton and Dryden and Pope. His indifference to Shakespeare proves the sincerity of his opinion, however it may expose the narrowness of his judgment.|
Writing in 1898, More notes that Byron is out of fashion:
|So much has been written of late years about Wordsworth and Shelley, while their quondam rival has been treated with much contumelious silence, that the disdainers of Byron had begun to feel that the ground was entirely their own.|
Byron is still out of fashion today — perhaps even more so than in More’s day.
One of the chief characteristics of Romanticism is its worship of nature. More notes that the worship of nature arose when religious faith declined: “By the closing years of the eighteenth century the long illusion of man’s personal value in the universe had been rudely shattered; his anchor of faith had been rent away.” More argues that the Romantic poet’s worship of nature causes him to lose sight of man:
|In this flattering absorption into nature the poet was too apt to forget that, after all, the highest and noblest theme must forever be the struggle of the human soul; he was too ready to substitute vague reverie for honest thought, and to lose his higher sympathy with man in the eager pursuit of minute phenomena.... Wordsworth has made a stir over the small celandine, and Tennyson has discovered that ash-buds are black in March; the present generation must, for originality, examine the fields with a botanist’s lens, while the poor reader, who retains any use of his mind, is too often reminded of the poet Gray’s shrewd witticism, that he learnt botany to save himself the trouble of thinking.2|
The Classic writer focuses on man; as More says, “The preponderance of human interest is an essential feature of the classical spirit... this human interest is everywhere present in Byron’s work.” Byron has “intense human passions and personality.” Byron focuses on “simple, fundamental passions.... I hardly know where in English literature, outside of Shakespeare, one is to find the great passions of men set forth so directly and powerfully as in Byron.” More’s remarks remind me of Tolstoy; Tolstoy exemplifies the Classic approach.
More says that Romantics like Wordsworth and Shelley possess a “subtle grace,” their style is “wayward and effeminate,” they view poetry as “a vehicle for the emotions and imaginations of the heart alone.” On the other hand, Classic poetry has a “predominance of intellect and breadth of expression.” More says that the best poets, like Homer and Shakespeare, have both Classic and Romantic qualities, they combine “subtle grace” with vigorous breadth.
Though Byron admired the Classic style, he couldn’t achieve it himself, his work is mixed with Romantic qualities. In his day, Christian ideals were crumbling, and it wasn’t clear how they could be replaced; as More says, Byron “revolted from the past, and still felt himself homeless and unattached in the shadowy ideals of the future.” So it wasn’t an auspicious time for Classic serenity and restraint. Byron exemplifies the world-weariness (Weltschmerz) of his time.
|Classical art [More writes] should result in self-restraint and perfection of form, but to this Byron never attained except spasmodically, almost by accident it would seem. So far is he classical that he almost universally displays predominance of intellect, breadth of treatment, and human interest; but side by side with this principle of limitation runs the other spirit of revolt, producing at times that extraordinary incongruity of effect which has so baffled his later audience.|
More finds the “spirit of revolt” in Byron’s private life, as well as his writings: “Many times [Byron] refers to the ruin of his own life, and always he puts his finger on the real source of the evil, his lack of self-restraint and his revolt from conventions.”3 One of Byron’s girlfriends called him, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Byron’s art reflects his life. In both his art and his life, Classic serenity, restraint, and moderation eluded him.
Perhaps Byron’s early success contributed to his lack of self-restraint. Byron became famous at 24, with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As Byron put it, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”
By age 28, however, Byron was embroiled in scandal and mired in debt. After Byron had numerous affairs, his wife left him and took their daughter, Ada Lovelace. Byron was accused of incest with his half-sister, Augusta, and he was rumored to be the father of one of Augusta’s children. Byron was probably bisexual, and his affairs with men probably contributed to the cloud of scandal that surrounded him.
His personal life in tatters, Byron left England at 28, and never returned. He spent much of his remaining eight years in Italy, often in the company of the poet Shelley. Byron died at 36, while helping Greece in its war for independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Though Byron died young, it seems that his life was complete. Goethe wrote,
|Although Byron has died so young, literature has not suffered an essential loss.... Byron could, in a certain sense, go no further. He had reached the summit of his creative power.4|
As Byron put it in his “Epistle to Augusta,”
I have outlived myself by many a day...
I had the share
Of life which might have filled a century,
Before its fourth in time had passed me by.
In our time, it’s easy to forget what an impression Byron made on his contemporaries. Goethe advised his friend Eckermann to learn English in order to read Byron. Goethe said, “a character of such eminence had never existed before, and probably would never come again.”5
I discovered a British writer named Ronald Bodley. During the 1920s, Bodley lived in the Sahara Desert for seven years; he bought sheep and goats, hired shepherds, and joined a nomad tribe. “He wore Arab dress, spoke Arabic, practiced the Muslim faith.... Bodley regarded his time in the Sahara as ‘the most peaceful and contented years’ of his life.” In 1927, he published a popular book called Algeria From Within. His book Wind in the Sahara (1944) was also popular.
|One of the strongest impressions I had when I lived with the Arabs [Bodley wrote], was the “everyday-ness” of God. He ruled their eating, their travelling, their business, their loving. He was their hourly thought, their closest friend, in a way impossible to people whose God is separated from them by the rites of formal worship.6|
In the early 1930s, Bodley travelled around Asia and the Pacific. In 1935, he moved to the U.S., and became a Hollywood screenwriter. Later he gave speaking tours in the U.S., and was called “Bodley of Arabia.” He became a U.S. citizen, and lived in York Harbor, Maine. Bodley died in England in 1970 at age 78.
Bodley was a descendant of diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Bodley attended Eton College and then the military academy Sandhurst before serving in India from 1911 to 1914. During World War I, he was wounded several times and gassed, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. Then he attended the Paris Peace Conference, where he met T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”). When he told Lawrence that he planned to enter politics,
|Lawrence responded furiously, calling him a moron and a traitor. When he replied that he had no other prospects now that the war was over and asked what he should do, Lawrence suggested “Go live with the Arabs.” Bodley said his conversation with Lawrence, which lasted “less than 200 seconds,” proved to be life-changing. He promptly sorted his affairs, and with a total of £300 and no prospects of further income, went to live in the Sahara. His bemused friends held him a farewell party. They all agreed he would be back in six weeks; he stayed in the Sahara for seven years.|
Bodley was the cousin of Gertrude Bell, who became well-known for her writings on the Middle East. In 1892, after graduating from Oxford, Bell visited her uncle, who was minister to Persia. She became an archaeologist, and travelled extensively in the Middle East. According to Wikipedia, “Bell’s vivid descriptions opened up the Arabian deserts to the western world.” One of her books was called Syria: The Desert and the Sown (1907). Bell witnessed the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Bell opposed Zionism and the Balfour Declaration, believing that “it would be unfair to impose Jewish rule on Arab inhabitants of Palestine.” She seemed to foresee the endless war between Arabs and Israelis: “It’s like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can’t stretch out your hand to prevent them.”
Bell died in 1926 at age 57. In an obituary, the archaeologist D. G. Hogarth wrote,
|No woman in recent time has combined her qualities — her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigor, hard common sense and practical efficiency — all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.|
Werner Herzog made a film about Bell, Queen of the Desert (2015), starring Nicole Kidman as Bell. The film wasn’t well received.7
I read a classic Western, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. This novel is often called Grey’s most popular work. Set in Utah around 1875, it deals with conflicts between Mormons and non-Mormons. As a literary work, it has little merit; the prose is mediocre. But the plot eventually draws you in — you’re on “the edge of your seat.”
Grey says, “Gun-packin’ in the West since the Civil War has growed into a kind of moral law.” We think of the West as a place of gunfights and violence, but some of this violence was an outgrowth of the Civil War. The gunfighter Jesse James started out as a Confederate guerrilla.
Grey grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, a town founded by his ancestor, Ebenezer Zane, who fought in the American Revolution. His early novels dealt with his ancestors and with the Revolution. Grey was a talented baseball player, an avid fisherman, and a dentist. He often traveled in the West, taking notes that he later used in his writing. Before writing his first novel in 1903, he made a close study of Owen Wister’s classic Western, The Virginian.
Another popular Western writer is Andy Adams, author of The Log of A Cowboy (1903). According to Wikipedia,
|The Log of a Cowboy is an account of a five-month drive of 3,000 cattle from Brownsville, Texas, to Montana during 1882 along the Great Western Cattle Trail. Although the book is fiction, it is based on Adams’s own experiences, and it is considered by many to be literature’s best account of cowboy life. Adams was disgusted by the unrealistic cowboy fiction being published in his time; The Log of a Cowboy was his response. It is still in print, and even modern reviewers consider it compelling. The Chicago Herald said: “As a narrative of cowboy life, Andy Adams’ book is clearly the real thing. It carries its own certificate of authentic first-hand experience on every page.”|
If you prefer a more modern novel about the West, consider Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Stegner also wrote a biography of explorer John Wesley Powell. Stegner taught creative writing at Stanford, where one of his students was Western writer Larry McMurtry.
|1A.||Other memoirs also need explanatory footnotes — for example, Eggleston’s Rebel’s Recollections. Discussing Jefferson Davis’ unpopularity, Eggleston says, “The favoritism which governed nearly every one of the president’s appointments was the leading, though not the only, ground of complaint. And truly the army had reason to murmur, when one of the president’s pets was promoted all the way from lieutenant-colonel to lieutenant-general, having been but once in battle.” The reader needs a footnote to name the “president’s pet.” (Is it Richard Taylor? Kirby Smith? Wade Hampton?)|
|1B.||Union armies were often well-supplied, but slow-moving, much to Lincoln’s annoyance. Lincoln complained to one of his generals,
|1C.||Eggleston makes a similar point in A Rebel’s Recollections:
|1D.||Note the reference to “Porter’s fleet.” This is David Porter, Union admiral and adoptive brother of David Farragut. David Porter’s father, also named David Porter, was a prominent sea captain in the War of 1812. David Porter père captured several British ships in the Pacific before the British sent three ships after him, and defeated him. The story was depicted in the movie Master and Commander (the names of the countries were changed). For more on Porter père, see Robert Booth’s Mad for Glory. back|
|1E.||In the years before the Civil War, William Seward was more prominent than Lincoln, and was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 1860. But Seward made the mistake of “over-talking”; he spoke of an “irrepressible conflict,” and he spoke of invading the South. He scared off potential supporters with the idea that war was unavoidable. So Republicans nominated Lincoln. back|
|1F.|| Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Ch. 1. For another account of Lincoln’s accident, see Wikipedia. back|
|2.|| More quotes Pope: “The proper study of mankind is man.” He also quotes St. Augustine: “And abroad to gaze at the lofty mountains, and the great waves of the sea, and the wide flowing of rivers, and the circle of ocean, and the revolutions of the stars, and pass themselves, the crowning wonder, by.” back|
|3.|| As Byron wrote in “Epistle to Augusta,”|
I have been cunning in mine overthrow,
More praises Byron’s “Epistle to Augusta,” calling it “perhaps the noblest of all his shorter poems.” back
|4.|| Conversations With Eckermann, 5/18/1824 back|
|5.|| Conversations With Eckermann, 10/19/1823. Click here for Jacques Barzun’s essay on Byron. back|
|6.||In my Realms of Gold, I quoted a Muslim saint, “The true saint goes in and out among the people and eats and sleeps with them and buys and sells in the market and marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets God for a single moment.”|
|7.|| I haven’t been able to trace a relationship between Gertrude Bell and another Bell family — Clive Bell, his son Quentin, etc. Clive Bell was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and the husband of Vanessa Stephen, sister of Virginia Woolf. Quentin Bell wrote a highly-regarded biography of Virginia Woolf, a study of the Bloomsbury Group, and other books.
Gertrude Bell knew St John Philby, whom I discussed in an earlier issue. Bell and T. E. Lawrence supported Hashemite dynasties in Jordan and Iraq, while St John Philby was close to the House of Saud. back