Saturday, March 21, 2015

"The Living"
by Annie Dillard

“The Living” by Annie Dillard portrays the numerous hardships and the strengths and weaknesses of character of the original white settlers and their immediate descendents in the northwest corner of Washington State during the last half of the Nineteenth Century.  Her novel begins in the fall of 1855 with the arrival of a fictitious pioneer family, the Fishburns, and ends in July 1897 with a celebratory gathering of second and third generation friends that include a Fishburn son and granddaughter.  It is a historical novel that informs us, that engages us with its interesting characters, and that tests our patience. 

The novel’s authenticity is one of its strengths.  It is evident throughout that Annie Dillard knows her subject matter.  One example is how early settlers felled huge Douglas fir.  The fastest way was to use fire.  They would augur one foot long holes downward into the massive tree trunks.  They would then bore holes laterally to connect with the downward-angled holes.  Next, they would insert burning sticks into the downward holes,  the lateral holes to serve as a draft for smoke to escape.  The next day “deep inside, the fired trees were burning.  Weak yellow flames curled low from their trunks.”  The following day “the trees started to fall, one after the other, and shook the earth so the house jumped.    The house rose, and everything in it rose, too … Shreds of cast green lichens, like bits of beard, blew into the house, with twigs, bark, sawdust, and plain dust. … The charred stumps kept burning.  … The fir roots were so pitchy that a man could burn them right in the ground.”  Not once did I doubt the novel’s setting or historical accuracy.

We who have lived life into our senior years know well what human existence is about.  We are brought into this world without our consent, as children we are taught (or not taught) how to survive, if fortunate we live to adulthood, we procreate, and we survive until we don’t.  The quality of our existence is more often determined by factors beyond our control -- governmental decisions, economic forces, groups of people, individuals, chance -- than by our force of will.  We, nobody else, determine our lives’ value.  This appears to be the central theme of the novel.  I appreciated how Dillard’s characters grappled with difficult burdens, endured unexpected tragedy, and strived to ascribe meaning to their lives.  “The Living” is a dark story that offers little optimism that man will ever ascend beyond his baser elements.  Strive as we may to make better the lives of our family members, friends, and neighbors, stronger forces ultimately restrict if not defeat our brave efforts and force us eventually to live safe lives of avoidance of that which may be harmful.  I prized this aspect of the novel.

The main characters were well developed and, at times, intriguing.

Ada Fishburn loses her three-year-old son Charley on the wagon trail west. Standing by the front passenger barrier of his parents’ wagon, he topples over.  “… their own wheels ran him over, one big wheel after the other, and he burst inwardly and died.”  She and her husband Rooney carve out a plot of land amidst the enormous, ever-present firs.  Six years after their arrival from Illinois, their four-year-old daughter Lettie dies of an ear infection.  Eleven years later Rooney, digging a well, releases a stream of poisonous gas and instantly succumbs.  Ada’s second husband dies accidentally three years later.  She reaches old age, a good woman in every respect.  “The more time God granted her on this earth,” she reflects near the end of her life, “the more she saw it rain, but He mustn’t think she wasn’t grateful, because she was grateful – only if He was giving out time, why not pass some to people who needed it?”

Ada’s son Clare learns the ways of existence in and outside the local towns of Whatcom and Goshen, survives childhood, and becomes a somewhat shallow-minded but helpful, generous adult.  An event occurs after he has married and fathered a daughter that causes him to anticipate sudden death.  Previously caught up in a land development boom, having accepted the prevailing attitude that life’s prime purpose is to acquire wealth, Clare is forced to contemplate what is most important about life.

In 1879, thirteen-year-old John Ireland Sharp participates in an expedition led by his grandfather up the Skagit River into the mountains to seek a pass through which a transcontinental railroad might be built to reach the Pacific shores.  The party comes upon a dying Indian youth impaled on a pointed stake embedded in the ground.  John Ireland is shaken by the experience.  Two years later, hard times having come to the Whatcom area, the boy’s father moves his large family to Madrone Island, of the San Juan Islands in Rosario Strait.  Soon after their arrival John Ireland is severely beaten by Beal Obenchain, a large-sized local boy.  Two of John’s ribs are broken.  He recovers.  The bully’s lies about the cause of the beating are believed; he is not punished.  The family ekes out a primitive existence.  One day John Ireland remains on shore while his parents and brothers and sisters board their skiff to go to Orcas Island to see a man who sells tulip bulbs.  The sky has the look of rain.  Hours later Beal Obenchain’s father spies the skiff adrift, empty.  All of John Ireland’s family is lost.  He carries with him over the succeeding years this thought: “the people you knew were above water one minute, and under it the next, as if they had burst through ice.  They went down stiff and upright in their filled gum boots and soaked skirts; they stood dead on the bottom and swayed with the currents like fixed kelp, his mother and father and sisters and brothers standing in a row on the ocean floor.”  John is adopted by the Obenchains, kind people, notwithstanding Beal.  Eventually, John leaves the island, grows into manhood, and embraces socialist principles.

Beal Obenchain is psychotic.  He is driven by an overpowering sense of unworthiness.  To stave off episodes of psychological impotence he commits violent acts, receiving from them sufficient energy temporarily to face everyday that which diminishes him.  At various places throughout the book we witness his cruel acts; and we yearn to see his come-uppance. 

1874, Baltimore, Maryland.  Minta Randall, daughter of U.S. Senator Green Randall, marries Eustace Honer, a young man of nearly equal social standing but afflicted by impractical dreams of engaging in adventurous enterprises.  Minta, who is physically unattractive, forces her reluctant parents to consent to this marriage, Eustace deemed by them and the parents of other eligible debutantes to be an undesirable match.  Scorning the stilted life of wealth and privilege, their imagination fired by brochures extolling the virtues of Puget Sound, Minta and Eustace move to Goshen and buy property (320 acres) next to Ada Fishburn and her adult son Clare.  Minta and Eustace adapt well to their demanding environment.  Despite their wealth, they are accepted by the local inhabitants.  They produce children. 

Eleven years after their marriage, in 1885, the local community decides to clear a huge log jam on the Nooksack River.  “The jam was three quarters of a mile long – a city of trees and logs … It had been there as long as anyone … could remember.  A forest straddled the river on top of the jam.  Fifteen or twenty feet above the waterline, Douglas firs and silver firs with trunks four feet thick were growing a hundred feet high from soil trapped in the smashed mess of logs.  Birds nested in the trees.”  It takes three months to clear the jam.  Near the end of the work Eustace slips on a log and falls into the water.  Its current takes him under a layer of logs.  He drowns.  His nine-year-old son Hugh witnesses it.

Minta is devastated.  Her parents travel to the Northwest to console her.  On the evening of their arrival by steamboat, Minta prepares to meet them at the Goshen dock.  Hugh builds a fire in the fireplace to warm the house.  She and Hugh travel by coach to the dock.  Minta’s two younger children are left at home to sleep.  The fire that Hugh has built consumes the house, and his siblings within.  Minta is reduced almost to a catatonic state.  Ada Fishburn tells her, finally: “Hugh has not been going to school, and when he’s here you don’t see him, bless his heart, and with the help of God you must stir yourself.  For you have a child still living.”  Minta must contend both with her loss and, again, with her parents’ objectionable wishes.  Move back to Baltimore, they say.  There is a suitable man you once expressed love for.  He has not married.

Three years later Hugh discovers Ada’s second husband dead of a broken neck, the result of a riding accident suffered while traveling during a rainstorm.  It seems to Hugh that he is predestined to continue to witness death.  Watching a community celebration of the launching of a locally built racing yacht when he is seventeen, recognizing that he is damaged, he reflects: “People seemed so joyous tonight, yet it was the same world it ever was, and they all had forgotten.  When a baby is born its fuse lights.  The ticking begins, and the fire starts fizzing down its length.”  He has fallen in love with Ada Fishburn’s granddaughter Vinnie.  Greatly influenced by what has happened to him, he must make a decision. 

These characters kindled my emotions.  Their fates mattered to me.  Yet it took me two months to read this book, mostly because of what I will call thick narration.  Part of the narration’s “thickness” is due to the author’s considerable use of description, most of which, unlike the passage below, is not sharply visual. 

He saw that darkness was spreading from the land.  In the dark, five or six bonfires were going.  People sat lighted by flames, and from a distance the live sparks that rose over the fire seemed to emanate from the people; the yellow sparks turned red and, as they met the darkness, went out.

Part of the “thickness” is due also to the author’s too frequent explication of abstract thoughts.

Marriage began to strike him as a theater, where actors gratefully dissimulate, in ordinary affection and trust, their bottom feeling, which is a mystery too powerful to be endured.  They know and feel more than life in time can match; they must anchor themselves against eternity, as they play on a painted set, lest they swing out into the twining realms.

Also bothersome to me was that the main characters’ story-lines moved slowly.  For example, it took seemingly forever for Beal Obenchain’s fate to be revealed.  Deleting much of the information provided about unimportant characters would have quickened the novel’s pace.

But then I would come upon an excellently narrated scene like this: 

In every corner of their big house she stumbled into Eustace’s precisely shaped absence, and in the yard, the woods, the fields, garden, and barn.  She carried herself carefully, like a scalding bowl – plain Minta, whose neck sloped straight from her linen collar, whose clear forehead and high brows stayed fixed.  By herself and for herself, she tried to be splendid.  Only secretly, as she tended the quarreling younger children and worked the ranch, did she whisper to herself deep in her mind, “I am dished.”  For where, exactly, had he gone, and the intensity of his ways?

“The Living” is a substantial undertaking that, somewhat flawed, captured my interest and gained my respect. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- "Necessity Demands"

Parliament’s passage of the Tea Act in the spring of 1773 was the catalyst of a series of contentious events that culminated in colonial America’s war with Great Britain that began two years later and its declaration of independence in 1776.

The Tea Act granted the foundering British East India Company the right to import 18,000,000 pounds of surplus tea that it had stored in its London warehouses directly into the colonies without payment of any export tax.  The Company would use co-signees appointed by royal governors in Massachusetts, New York, and South Carolina and the proprietors in Pennsylvania rather than local merchants to sell its tea.  The American tea merchant was legislated out of business.  Even though consumers would still have to pay the tax on tea imposed by the 1767 Townshend Acts, they would be paying a price lower than that charged previously by American merchants and tea smugglers.  With the Tea Act, Prime Minister Lord North hoped to accomplish two purposes: provide motivation for colonialists to accept the Townshend Acts tax on tea and reinforce Parliament’s authority to impose taxes of any sort on the colonies.  In both particulars he failed.  Colonial merchants of every kind recognized that they, too, could be legislated out of business.  Colonial representatives objected to any tax imposed on the colonies by Parliament without their consent, regardless of whether the public benefited as to cost of product taxed.  In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, they, fearful merchants, and disgruntled consumers deprived of choice of purchase were determined to prevent the off-loading of new East India Company tea onto their docks.

Resisters in New York and Philadelphia caused appointed co-signees to resign and ship captains to return their vessels to England with their unloaded cargo.  In Charleston co-signees were also forced to resign and the cargo was left to rot on the unloaded ships.  Boston had a very different outcome.  

The tea ship Dartmouth arrived in the Boston Harbor in late November.  British law required the Dartmouth to unload and pay import duties to customs officials within twenty days of its arrival.  Massachusetts’s governor Thomas Hutchinson persuaded his co-signees, two of whom were his sons, not to resign.  A mass meeting led by Sam Adams passed a resolution that urged the captain of the Dartmouth to send the ship back to England without paying the import duty.  Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for the Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty.  Two additional tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, arrived in Boston Harbor.  Hutchinson also refused to allow these ships to leave.  On December 16 (one day before the twenty day deadline was reached) at a meeting attended by about 7,000 people at the Old South Meeting House, Sam Adams declared: "This meeting can do nothing further to save the country" (Boston Tea Party 1).  That evening a crowd of what later was roughly estimated to be 30 to 130 “Sons of Liberty” boarded the three East India Company tea ships.  The entire cargo -- 342 chests of tea – were dumped into the water.  This flagrant act of defiance impelled Parliament to pass several punitive measures that the colonists came to call the “intolerable acts.”  The first measure, the Boston Port Bill, closed the port of Boston until the destroyed tea was paid for.  The other three measures sought to cripple the political rights of the colony, transfer the trial of capital offenses to England, and renew the quartering of British troops in Boston.  Massachusetts would be made the example of what British authority could do to rebellious colonies.  Instead of being cowed, the twelve witnessing colonies, especially Virginia, made Massachusetts’s cause their own.

Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and other members of Virginia’s House of Burgesses saw the necessity of arousing the Virginia people “from the lethargy into which they had fallen” (Henry 176) the past three years following Parliament’s repeal of all but the one that taxed tea of the Townshend Acts.  The group decided to have the House declare “a day of general fasting and prayer” to be observed June 1, 1774, the day the Boston Port Bill would go into effect.  The House passed the resolution.  Two days later Governor Dunmore dissolved the legislative body.

Eighty-nine burgesses, Thomas Nelson among them, assembled the following day (May 27) at “The Raleigh” Tavern, formed a non-importation association, and called for a meeting to take place at a later date at which time all House members could determine what else they could do to aid Massachusetts.  Days later that meeting was scheduled for August 1 in Williamsburg.  Meanwhile, Burgesses would meet with their constituents to formulate resolutions to be presented at the general meeting.

Thomas Nelson was moderator of the meeting of free holders in his county, York.  He opened the meeting July 18 with a lengthy address that called for careful consideration of the resolutions about to be formed.

“You will know what it is to be FREE Men.  You know the blessed privilege of doing what you will with your own, and you can guess at the misery of those who are deprived of this right.  Which of these will be your case depends upon your present conduct.  We have found already that petitions and remonstrances are ineffectual, and it is now time that we try other expedients.  We must have those who are endeavouring to oppress us feel the effects of their mistakes of their arbitrary policy; for not till then can we expect justice from them” (Virginia Gazette July 21, 1774).

Nelson doubted that the colony could stop her exports without serious harm, “but that imports ought to be prohibited necessity demands, and no virtue forbids.  It is not supposed that we can do this without subjecting ourselves to many inconveniences; but inconveniences, when opposed to the loss of freedom, are surely to be disregarded” (Ibid.).

Then, Nelson the merchant spoke: “It is true, we must resign the hope of making fortunes; but to what end should we make fortunes, when they may be taken from us at the pleasure of others” (Ibid.)?

Following the address, the county of York formed its resolves.  They first defined the rights of the American colonies, coming to the ultimate conclusion that although British America was under voluntary subjection to the crown, every British parliamentary edict of taxation, custom, duty, or impost on the American colonies without their consent was illegal.  The resolves declared the Tea Act illegal and the Boston Port Act unconstitutional, the latter due to the fact that Boston was only defending “their liberties and properties” the night the tea was thrown overboard.  All imports would be stopped “with as few exceptions as possible.”  The question of stopping exports would be settled at the August convention.  Lastly, a subscription would be “immediately opened for the relief of the inhabitants of Boston” (Ibid.), under the direction of Thomas Nelson and his fellow burgess, Dudley Digges.

Nelson ultimately obtained 49 subscribers who pledged bushels of wheat and corn, barrels of flour, and shillings.  In a not altogether trustworthy record kept by Massachusetts authorities, ten subscribers’ contributions were specifically noted as not having been delivered.  This was due to no fault of Nelson.  He had the contributions of twenty subscribers shipped to Boston at his own expense.  The subscribers’ contributions averaged 4.8 bushels in wheat and 5.4 bushels in corn per person.  Nelson sent 100 bushels of wheat.

Thomas Nelson and the delegates of the various other counties met in Williamsburg August 1.  They agreed to cut off all British imports to the colony after November 1.  They would also cut off their own exports to Britain if the mother country did not redress “American Grievances” before August 10, 1775.  The Convention ended its business by electing seven of its leaders to represent Virginia at the First Continental Congress, which had been called to meet in September in Philadelphia.  They were Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison and Edmund Pendleton.  Nelson returned to York to spend what would be his last few months of peaceful living for the next four years.

Works Cited:

Boston Tea Party.”  Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.  Net.

Henry, William Wirtz.  Patrick Henry’s Life, Correspondence and Speeches. Vol. I.  New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, 1891.  Print.

Virginia Gazette (Rind) July 21, 1774.  Microfilm.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Introduction

One reason that I retired from teaching at the age of 56 was to take advantage of my school district’s generous early retirement package.   If I were to provide my school a specific number of hours of curriculum development during the first five years of my retirement, I would receive during those years additional retirement compensation.  One of the projects I undertook was to write a somewhat novelized account of England’s first attempt to establish a colony on America’s Atlantic coastline.   I refer to the colonial settlement of Roanoke, Walter Raleigh’s endeavor to establish a base that would serve two purposes: raid Spanish treasure ships passing through the Caribbean islands and discover, extract, and export to England gold, silver, and other valuable natural resources.

My “novel” was about 150 pages long.  It was essentially a work of non-fiction whose people thought, spoke, and acted.  Years later, after my Revolutionary War novel Crossing the River was published (2011), I reread my Roanoke manuscript to assess its flaws and decide whether I wanted to revise it.

I was disturbed that I had committed probably the worst of a novice writer’s sins.  My narration summarized (told) too much; it did not demonstrate (show) enough.  Here is an example. 

            The watch had alerted Arthur Barlowe of the sighting of Indians.  Yes, he saw them, three, standing by a canoe that they had beached on the island near where Barlowe's ship and that of Philip Amadas had anchored two days before.  They were staring back at him.  Unabashedly.  As though inviting him to communicate. 

Barlowe decided to initiate Walter Raleigh's other instructions.

            He had not yet found in the great sound of water that Verrazzano had called the "Inland Sea" an island that they could easily defend.  He and Amadas had left Plymouth April 27, 1584, piloted by Simon Ferdinando, the same Portuguese seaman that had explored Norambega for Humphrey Gilbert five years earlier.  The two ships had picked up the trade winds at the Canary Islands, arrived at Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to take on fresh water, avoided the Caribs on Guadeloupe, entered the Gulf Stream off Cuba, and sighted the Carolina banks between Cape Fear and Cape Lookout July 4.

            For nine days Ferdinando had searched for an inlet before finding one with scarcely twelve feet of water at high tide.  Subsequently, the two ships had entered Pamlico Sound and anchored off Hatarask Island.

            Barlowe, Amadas, and Ferdinando had immediately rowed ashore, and Barlowe had declared possession of the land in the name of the Queen.  Almost immediately he had noticed the profuse growth of wild summer grape, dominating the low, sandy terrain, reaching to the very edge of the water.  He believed this to be an important economic discovery; for Englishmen drank great quantities of wine, imported mostly from Spain.  Here was a land that benefited from, he suspected, a warm Mediterranean climate.  Additionally, there were trees, lots of trees: cedar, pine, cypress, sassafras, and tupelo.  For shipbuilding.   For excellent furniture, perhaps.

            On their second day of discovery one of Barlowe's men had fired his arquebus at a flock of cranes.  Huge flocks had ascended like an undulating wave, issuing an echoing cry, like an army of men shouting all together, Barlowe had thought.  If the savages are not already aware of our presence, that sound will inform them! he had thought.  He was encouraged to see their quick willingness to bear witness.

Another flaw was that I had focused almost entirely on English characters.  The few native characters that appear in the manuscript are one dimensional.  What were their fears, aspirations, internal conflicts? I asked myself.  It was as though I had considered these natives superfluous.  The characters in the excerpt below are essentially bodies with names.  My purpose here was to provide important historical information through the use of dialogue.  Conspicuously lacking is individuality of character.  The scene is, succinctly stated, an information dump. 

           “The white men are not gods,” Wanchese repeated.

            Several of Wingina’s advisors nodded agreement.

            “I believe they are men of an old generation many years ago,” Granganimeo responded, “dead men returned to this world again. That they remain dead for a certain time only. That another generation is now in the air, invisible, waiting to follow them.”

            “If they are of the sprit world, they have very large appetites,” declared Osacan, Wanchese’s friend.  “They are men only lacking color, from a distant land. And their god is not to be feared.”

            “Their god is to be feared.  His power is in Hariot’s sword and looking-glass.”

            The others faced Ensenore, Wingina’s frail father.

            “Why then are they without food, helpless and starving with food about them?” Wingina asked quietly.

            Ensenore spoke carefully. “They came without women and they refused our women so we believed they were gods, pale spirits as Granganimeo has said. I do not know if they are gods. If they are men, their god has given them great power over us. He has given them the skill to kill any of us without a weapon and from any distance. We suddenly are ill, and then we die. Their god wishes that we give them food. If we do not, he punishes us.”

            Wingina stared at his father without speaking. He was not convinced. He wanted Lane’s men gone from his island forever. If they did not leave voluntarily, he would find a way to destroy them.

Finally, not one person in the manuscript is a fictional character.  Any novel that attempts to recreate some aspect of the past needs invented characters.  How could I portray effectively the Carolina coastal Algonquians’ way of living and thinking without them?  I needed to tell stories about individual people to create a mosaic, a context to make more meaningful those major events that did occur when Englishmen and Algonquians came together and eventually clashed. 

What had subjectively attracted me to this subject matter was clearly missing.  Rewrite it, or chuck it?  I decided to accept the challenge. 

I want to explore themes like the clash of incompatible cultures, the exploitation of the vulnerable, man’s need to conquer and control, the dangers of resistance, man’s overall purpose, his need to adhere to religious beliefs.  I want to create fully-dimensional characters, individuals with whom readers can identify, human beings deserving emotional judgment.  I want to present specifically the Algonquian point of view.  I want to write a novel that demands the best of what I am able to produce.

I may not get there.  I’ve barely begun.  I’ve written five chapters.  At this later stage in my life writing another novel gives me a special purpose.  I will be posting in future installments my difficulties and how I have attempted to surmount them.  It would be fun to hear from you.  My email address is

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Observing, Learning

Less than a year after his return from England, Thomas Nelson married Miss Lucy Grymes, a daughter of Philip Grymes of Brandom, in the neighboring county of Middlesex.  They settled permanently in a commodious house built for them by Nelson’s father, the new house nearly opposite his own.  In between his yearly trips to Williamsburg as a burgess representing his county, York, Thomas lived in a style of great elegance and hospitality.  Upon Thomas’s marriage his father had been given him an independent fortune and taken him into the family business.  From his long resident in England, Thomas had acquired some of the manners and pursuits of its country gentlemen.  He would ride out daily to his plantation, a few miles from York, with his fowling piece and an attending servant.  He kept a pack of hounds at a small farm near the village, and in the winter his friends and neighbors would join him once or twice a week to participate in a fox hunt.  Young Nelson’s home became the center of genteel hospitality.  It was said that no gentleman ever stopped an hour in York without receiving an invitation to it.

Nelson found time during his residence in Williamsburg as a burgess to further his education.  For a short time he attended William and Mary College.  It was here that he met a young law student from Albemarle County, Thomas Jefferson.  In 1763 Thomas’s father took under his care his orphaned niece, Rebecca Burwell.  The twenty-year-old Jefferson, four years older than Rebecca, fell in love with the girl, and during their rather sporadic courtship became quite intimate with the Nelson family.  This relationship was to be maintained through the Revolutionary War.

As a burgess, Thomas Nelson served his country from 1761 to his appointment to the Continental Congress in 1775.  He did not take an active part in the debates of the Assembly during the stormy years prior to the American Revolution.  There were many gentlemen in the Assembly who were older than he and who possessed greater political experience.  Better that he receive his training and acquire political wisdom by observing others and working quietly in various committees of the Assembly.

At the end of May 1765, following the passage of the Stamp Act, Patrick Henry managed to push through the Assembly several resolutions that, in essence, denied the right of Great Britain to tax the colonies.  There is no record of how Nelson voted on the resolutions; but, considering his political feeling and actions following the Stamp Act, we can assume that he supported them.  Following the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766 the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts.  The new measures were designed to raise a revenue by taxing common articles used by the colonies: glass, lead, paper, and tea.  The House of Burgesses rose again in opposition, sending to the king in 1768 a petition and to Parliament a memorial and remonstrance.  In 1769 it passed resolutions claiming the sole right to tax the colony's inhabitants.  The governor dissolved the Assembly following each action taken.  In 1769, the members met in The Apollo Tavern, where they signed a non-importation association written by George Mason and presented by George Washington.  They pledged not to import or have imported any of the Townshend goods until the duties were repealed.  A merchant, standing to lose more in material gain than most of the Burgesses, Nelson signed the agreement. 

Following the repeal of all of the Townshend duties (except that on tea) in April 1770, the colonies and the British government enjoyed a brief period of relative peace.  However, the winter of 1772-1773 was not a good time for Nelson.  His father died November 19.  Thomas’s religious upbringing is reflected in a letter he wrote soon afterward to his father's friend, Samuel Martin.  “It falls to my lot to acquaint you with the death of my father …  His death was such as became a true Christian, hoping through the mediation of our blessed Savior to meet with the reward promised to the righteous” (Meade 210).  The funeral sermon delivered by a Mr. Camm, the president of William and Mary College and minister of York, summarized the qualities of the elder Nelson.  “… his own gain by trade was not more sweet to him than the help which he hereby received toward becoming a general benefactor.  He is an instance of what abundance of good may be done by a prudent and conscientious man without impoverishing himself or his connections, nay, while his fortunes are improving” (Meade 209).

President Nelson left to each of his five sons – Thomas, Hugh, William, Nat, and Robert – landed estates and servants.  But to his eldest son, Thomas, he left 40,000 pounds, equivalent to $133,000 at that time.[1]

Work Cited:

Meade, Bishop (William).  Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia.  (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1891).  I.  Print.

[1]  Ibid., 208.  Page, Genealogy, 152

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom"
by Lynda Blackmon Lowery

I was 28 when courageous black Alabama citizens and white sympathizers set forth March 21, 1965, across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their successful march to Montgomery, the state capital, to demonstrate their determination to force the state of Alabama to allow all of its black citizens to register to vote.  I, like many Americans, had watched on television the brutal acts committed by the local police and sheriff’s deputies to end demonstrators’ attempt March 7 to cross the bridge and march to Montgomery.  Having lived in Tennessee for two years, having years later received a bachelor’s degree in history, and having thereafter become a public school teacher, I had not been na├»ve about racial prejudice prior to the Selma events.  Nonetheless, I was shocked.

A week after recently watching the movie Selma, I read a, excellent memoir (just published by Dial Books) about the Selma to Montgomery event written in retrospect (assisted by two professional writers) by a teenage participant, Lynda Blackmon Lowery.  Unlike the movie, Selma, many parts of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom; My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March stirred my emotions.  Geared for readers in their teen years, the memoir reaches out as well to adults born after 1965 and to jaded seniors like me.

Here are my reasons for recommending this book especially to young people.

Turning 15 is a personal story.  We experience vicariously the thoughts, emotions, and actions of an actual participant.  We gain insight about the effects of racial hatred on actual African Americans.  We learn of the sense of security felt by most black children growing up in segregated black communities.  We understand better the need black Americans felt to right collectively racially-committed wrongs.  Mrs. Lynda Lowery cites her grandmother’s advice: “… if you give someone or something control over you, then you’ve given up yourself.”  We celebrate the realization experienced by thoroughly-segregated people like the young Lynda that white racists did not represent all white Americans.  After the bloody attempt by early demonstrators to cross the Pettus bridge March 7, many white people traveled to Selma to exhibit their support.  Lynda wrote: “It was a whole different feeling suddenly with white people living in your house.  They marched with us and were willing to go to jail with us.  They ate what we ate.  We cooked collard greens and cornbread, and they ate it and enjoyed it as much as we did.  They were happy to be with us, even if they had to sleep on the floor.    There was a whole new feeling in Selma.”

I especially appreciated the details Mrs. Lowery gave us about her experiences.  Here are two examples of information I did not know and found fascinating.  School children were used extensively to demonstrate and crowd the jails.  Mothers who were maids took employers’ food home surreptitiously that their children ate the next day after they were arrested and put in jail.  Twenty-one school girls, mostly high school students, were put in a steel cell (called the “sweatbox”) that had no windows, water, toilet, or lights and kept there until every girl had passed out.  It is always the detail of individuals’ lives that make history especially interesting.

This memoir is written simply, but it touches upon all the important Selma/Montgomery subject matter events.  Anybody who reads at or above the sixth grade level will have no difficulty finishing it in one sitting.  Yet the reader will be informed about every topic or event an instructor would want a student of his to read about, examples ranging from the different instances of segregation existent in Selma to the deaths of three people murdered, one by the police and the other two by racist thugs.  Mrs. Lowery also explains, quite simply, the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 and how it has been degraded most recently by the United States Supreme Court.

Finally, I am concerned about what our young generation doesn’t but should know about our nation’s past.  Racism in America persists.  My grandchildren and friends their ages should be exposed to appealing sources of information that instruct them to recognize that no nation is a “shining city on the hill” and that those who proclaim such assertions should be looked upon with skepticism.  Take nothing, therefore, for granted.  Human history is a story of struggle for freedom and dignity against unwarranted control.  Lynda learned from her experiences that “the person I wanted to be was a person who would stand up against what was wrong.  I wanted not only to protect myself, but to protect others, not only to fight for myself, but to be out there fighting for others.”

Mrs. Lowery’s memoir is a worthwhile, appealing book.             

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Private Life"
by Jane Smiley

“Private Life” by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley is a third-person narrated account of the life -- from the age of five in 1883 to the age of 64 in 1942 -- of an accommodating, submissive woman, Margaret (Mayfield) Early, who must finally, out of necessity assert herself. I felt that Smiley’s narration, a consequence of Margaret’s compliant nature, lacked excitement until maybe a fourth of the way into the book when she marries her husband, Captain Andrew Early, an egotistical astronomer and physicist. I empathized more and more with Margaret’s character as her dissatisfaction with Andrew progressed.

People late in life tend to judge their past lives in terms of accomplishment and fulfillment. Margaret’s judgment becomes one of bitterness, toward those who have manipulated and controlled her and toward her own cowardice of accommodation. Accomplishment requires courage. Fulfillment requires contentment with outcomes and with oneself as a human being. Throughout most of the novel Margaret lacks the courage to forge her identity and determine her future. She has allowed stronger-minded individuals to control her. Her enjoyments result from her associations with strong-minded yet considerate acquaintances: her eccentric, exciting sister-in-law Dora; Mrs. Lear, a neighbor and wise advisor at Mare Island Naval Base, Calfironia; Mrs. Wareham, a compassionate boarding house landlady in Vallejo, California; Pete Krizenko, an adventurous, mysterious Ukrainian entrepreneur for whom Margaret feels an emotional and sexual attraction; and the Kimura family – the aging father, an exquisite painter; the mother, a tireless, traveling midwife; and the daughter Naoko, a trustworthy midwife and housekeeper.

At the beginning of Part One of the novel we learn that Margaret, living near St. Louis, Missouri, has repressed her memory of a public hanging that her older brother had taken her to witness when she was five years old. Both of her brothers die during her childhood. Margaret’s father, a physician, kills himself. Margaret’s mother Lavinia moves her family to her father’s nearby farm where they reside until her three daughters marry. From an early age Margaret learns resignation.

Lavinia considers Margaret, at age 23, to be lazy because she is content to read books rather than assert herself to attract suitors. Daughters of several of Lavinia’s friends have taken school teacher jobs in Idaho to find husbands. Margaret tells Pete Krizenko fairly late in the novel: “I was the third sister even though I’m the oldest. There’s always a beautiful sister and a smart sister, and then there’s a sister that’s not beautiful or smart.” Lavinia places her daughters Elizabeth and Beatrice in social circles where their attributes attract eventual husbands. Margaret appears destined to be an old maid. However, Mrs. Jared Early, a rich, seemingly generous, well-educated widow and elitist member of high St. Louis society, befriends Lavinia, and, ultimately, Margaret. Her son, Andrew Early, educated at Columbia and the University of Berlin, and recently a professor at the University of Chicago, visits St. Louis. Mrs. Early arranges for Lavinia and Margaret to spend a fiercely cold winter night at her residence. Andrew is present. Margaret had met him by chance briefly several years before. Margaret experiences “the distinct feeling of staring into her own future … The play had begun. The customary ending was promised. Her own role was to say her lines sincerely and with appropriate feeling. At her age, she thought, she should know what those feelings were, but she did not.”

In the spring of 1903 Mrs. Early arranges to have her son and Margaret tour the exposition grounds of the 100th year celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. Margaret recognizes that “he was not exactly like other mortals—he knew more, saw more. His mind worked more quickly and surveyed a broader landscape.” Submitting to the wishes of her mother and Mrs. Early, Margaret persuades herself to believe that, unlike other couples, they could share a unique life. He leaves St. Louis to spend several weeks in Washington, D.C. Afterward, he travels to Arizona and California. Lavinia advises patience. Eventually he returns and proposes. Thus begins their unique, increasingly unhappy marriage.

Years later Margaret discovers several letters that Mrs. Early had written to Andrew about the purpose of the marriage.

"Our thoughts about certain persons here in this town may not have come to anything (though the girl and her mother still seem receptive enough), but there are other girls and other mothers. My very least favorite thought is that of you solitary and alone, with no companion and no one to care for you. … No, the girl is not educated nor evidently intelligent, quiet without being mysterious (though I think there is more to her than meets the eye), but what do you want in a wife at your age? [He was 38, she 27] … I do not, frankly, think that you could abide a rival or even a young woman who considered herself your equal and spoke her own ideas back to you with any sort of self-confidence. … This girl is a well-made young woman with proper instincts and reasonable connections. Her mother has trained her to take care of household matters."

Telling Margaret’s thoughts, the author narrates: “in the end, Mrs. Early carried her point—she had chosen the local old maid, harmless but useful, to marry and care for her darling son” and that Lavinia had been “in on the plot. … Not only had he [Andrew] entertained doubts about her, he had tried her out, seen that he could have her, and then doubted and hesitated and suffered before taking her as the least of evils.”

Margaret learns that Andrew is actually two men. “When he was wondering [his greatest talent], he was a likable, congenial, and sociable person. When he had stopped wondering and was convinced that he knew the answer, he became stubborn and stern.” Before their marriage, while he was at Columbia and Chicago, he had challenged his superiors’ theories and made enemies. Married to Margaret, forced thereafter to work independently of academia, at a naval observatory at Mare Island, California, he spends most of the next three and a half decades of his life seeking to achieve scientific world acclaim. He writes numerous newspaper and scientific journal articles; he makes speeches; he writes lengthy books about the universe. “Private Life” is as much a portrait of an unstable genius who, craving adulation and not receiving it, becomes delusional and callously destructive as it is the portrait of a not remarkable, submissive, but decent woman who must defy her deep-rooted passivity to take command of her life.

Margaret’s and Andrew’s dual stories weave through many important historical events: the San Francisco Earthquake, World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Pearl Harbor, and the internment of Japanese American citizens.

Early during my reading I considered not finishing the novel. “The pace is slow,” I complained to my wife. A fourth of her way through the book, while I was writing the first draft of this review, she disagreed. “It’s not slow at all.” I persevered and was amply rewarded. This is a thought-provoking book. In strategic places Jane Smiley’s excellent command of language stirred powerfully my emotions. I conclude this review with this example, the death of Margaret’s jaundiced baby.

"Alarm and guilt surged in her, burning upward from her feet, enveloping her head, her brain, her mind in a fever of knowledge. … Alexander started to make a noise, high-pitched and distressed, and to arch his back. It seemed to her that he was crying for help, so she picked him up and went to the door of the room and opened it. Naoko was in the hallway. She looked at her, and without Margaret’s saying a thing, the girl ran out the front door. Margaret closed her door and carried Alexander over to the bed. She sat down and readied herself to nurse, but in that short moment, the moment between her sitting down and her putting him to the breast, he lost even that ability—Margaret felt it. It was a feeling of something dissolving. She looked at his face. She saw that he had but one thing left, which was that he could look back at her. She stroked the top of his head, moving the thin hairs this way and that, feeling the smoothness of his golden skin. She held him closer, as gently as she could. And then, in the way that you can feel with your baby but not see or sense with anyone else larger or more distantly related, she felt the life force go out of him entirely."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Early Life

In Capital Square in Richmond today stands an equestrian statue of George Washington.  A tourist would notice six figures mounted at the base of the statue.  Chances are he would recognize instantly the importance of three of the figures: Patrick Henry, the orator of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and John Marshall, the famous Supreme Court Justice.  But the other three figures about the statue – George Mason, Thomas Nelson, and Andrew Lewis – might mean nothing to him.  Seconds later he would probably walk away, intent upon seeing another historic monument in historic Richmond.

Mason, Nelson, and Lewis were important leaders.  To the general public, however, they are anonymous patriots, their significance overlooked or underemphasized by the biographers of the giants of American history.

Thomas Nelson is the subject of this new series of posts.  He can be taken as a test case of the importance of obscure Revolutionary War leaders.  If he had not died relatively early, he would probably have been an important national political figure.  Even so, his life was full and his contributions substantial.



In describing the seaport town of York to Sir Henry Clinton shortly before the beginning of the American Revolution, a British officer wrote: “The people in and about it, influenced by the family of Nelson, are all Rebellious” (Riley 22).  If the officer had remained in the town longer and inquired about the Nelson family, he might have left contemplating just how far beyond the boundaries of foolishness this rebellious family might go.  They were merchants, the first in York, one of the wealthiest families in the colony.  If the existing breach between the political and economic interests of Great Britain and her colonies should expand to the point where neither antagonist could reverse course, if the ultimate solution to this clash of interests could be none other than a clash of arms, the Nelsons stood to lose economically far more than most Americans.  Yet, from the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, the family’s history is one of consistent loyalty to colonial principles.  The British officer might have explained all of this with the thought that many men lose their senses in times of strife, but a crisis can also inspire the employment of rare qualities of character, one being courage.

Thomas Nelson, the founder of the wealthy Virginia family and the grandfather of the subject of this post, came to the colonies from Penriff, near the border of Scotland, shortly after the turn of the Seventeenth Century.  He established himself in York as a merchant, married a Miss Reid of the neighboring county, and had two sons and one daughter.

Thomas Nelson’s two sons, William and Thomas, upon reaching their adulthood, also settled in York.  Both men took an active role in Virginia politics.  Thomas -- Thomas Nelson Jr.’s uncle -- was secretary of the governor’s council for over twenty years.  William became a member of the House of Burgesses from York County in 1742.  In 1744 he joined his brother in the council and later became its president.  Due to the length of time both men held these positions in the council, they came to be called Secretary and President Nelson.

Importing goods from the merchants of Philadelphia and Baltimore, then in their commercial beginnings, William Nelson acquired a large fortune.  After the death of Governor Botetourt, Nelson was acting governor of the colony from October 1770 to August 1771.  While he was “the right hand of George III,” he remained loyal to colonial ideals.  His letters to merchants at this time reveal his indignant opposition to onerous acts passed by the British Parliament, unwarranted impositions, he believed, legislated upon colonial rights and privileges.  Bishop Meade wrote that he left “none to doubt where he would have been when the trumpet sounded to arms” (Meade 209).

William Nelson married a Miss Burnwell, a pious and conscientious woman.  All of their daughters died before they reached the age of twelve.  Of their six sons, one burned to death and another damaged his brain in a fall from an upper story of the Nelson house.  These tragedies turned Mrs. Nelson ever closer to her religion.

She was particularly attentive to the religious training of her children.  She taught them to be punctual and conscientious in their daily prayers, set for them an exemplary example, and prayed for them often.  Equally concerned with their children’s religious upbringing, William took the lead in affairs of the local parish.  On Sundays, generous as well as pious, he had a large dinner prepared to which both rich and poor were invited.

Thomas Nelson, Jr., the eldest son, born December 26, 1738, had the qualities of courage, generosity, honesty, and leadership – so apparent during the Revolution – instilled in him in the Nelson home. 



At the age of fourteen Thomas Nelson, Jr., was a rather high spirited boy, energetic enough to give his father uneasy moments.  The boy had become old enough for President Nelson to consider sending him to England for a formal education.  It was the custom of many wealthy seaboard Virginia families to send their eldest sons to London for that purpose.  In a year, or perhaps two, Thomas would be ready.  Then, one Sunday morning while strolling about the outskirts of York, father Nelson’s aristocratic soul was rudely shaken.  He had come upon his son playing in the streets with several of the little Negro boys of the village.  Realizing the delicacy of such an association and the difficulty of preventing future ones, Nelson decided quickly that it was time for Thomas to begin his English education.  A vessel stood anchored in the harbor ready to sail.  Thomas found himself aboard it the next day.  He would not return for nine years.

President Nelson placed Thomas under the care of two friends: a Mr. Hunt of London, and Neilby Porteus, then fellow of Cambridge University, later to become a bishop.  Nelson needed six years of preparation before he entered Christ’s College at Cambridge in 1758.  He was then placed under the care of a Dr. Newcome at the Hackney School, in the village of the same name near the outskirts of London.  He then entered Cambridge under the private tutorship of Mr. Porteus.  In letters to Hunt and Porteus, President Nelson shows his pious concern for the improvement of his son – “in all things, but especially in morals and religion.”  Thomas’s spirited nature yet troubled him.  He had exhibited behavior unbecoming a gentleman of his station by associating with Negroes.  What form might his behavior take now that he was older?  Nelson requested of his friends that during the vacation seasons Thomas be placed under the supervision of an eminent scientific agriculturalist, so that “the temptations incident to young men during the vacation” resulting from “a disposition to idleness and pleasure” be avoided.  Additionally, when Thomas returned to America, he would be able to make adequate use of the soils of Virginia (Meade 206).

Regardless of what President Nelson may have wished, Thomas’s activities were not devoted exclusively to the studying of books and soils.  Nelson saved a man from drowning.  Ironically, the man was a kinsman of Lord North, Prime Minister just prior to and during most of the Revolutionary War.  In appreciation of Nelson’s heroic deed, the Lord presented the young man a gold snuff box containing a fine miniature of himself (Davis III 119).

After three years of tutorship by Mr. Porteus, Thomas was ready to return to York.  However, due to his father’s great concern for his spiritual upbringing, Thomas’s departure was delayed several months.  The elder Nelson had learned that two young Virginians, whose habits he feared, though they were sons of the first families of the colony, would be aboard the ship that Thomas was scheduled to take.  Thomas, therefore, was ordered to remain in England until another ship sailed for Virginia.

A blue-eyed, light-haired youth of twenty-two, exhibiting a ruddy complexion, finally returned to Virginia at the close of 1761.  His father was happy to find a general improvement in his son, but regretted that he had adopted the bad practice of smoking tobacco – “filthy tobacco,” he wrote his friends in England.  The elder Nelson also complained that Thomas ate and drank “more than was conducive to health and long life, though not to inebriety” (Meade 217).  If the reunion of father and son had given the President some cause for feeling a bit surprised, it gave Thomas far greater cause.  While Thomas was still on his voyage home, his name had been entered, undoubtedly by his father, as a candidate to the House of Burgesses from York County.  Thomas was greeted at the dock with the news that he had been elected a burgess.

Sources Cited:

Davis III, Edward Morris.  “Historical Silver in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1941) XLIX.  Print.

Meade, Bishop.  Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia.  Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1891)Vol. I.  Print.

Riley, Edward M. “Yorktown/During the Revolution.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (January 1949), Vol. 57.  Print.