Desiderata

“Desiderata” is Latin for “things desired.” Often in difficult times, the thing we most desire is peace.

Max Ehrmann. Fair use.

The prolific, inspirational writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) of Terre Haute, Indiana, penned a prose poem that was published as “Desiderata” in 1948. It is the only one of his works to achieve enduring fame, and that only after his death. 

For its tone and diction, and because it once appeared in a church publication with the legend, “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692,” it is often assumed to be ancient, maybe even Scriptural in origin. “1692,” however, meant the date of the church’s founding, not of the poem’s writing.

Inspiration

“Desiderata” is neither Biblical nor liturgical nor even very old. But, like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, it stakes a claim to an authenticity of its own. It swept the nation in 1971, when a voice artist named Les Crane released it as a spoken word recording. That was at the height of our nation’s internal turmoil over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. The serene, contemplative tone of the piece may have boosted its popularity.

Today we are again in a time of stress and conflict. Perhaps Mr. Ehrmann’s poem will be of some use to you. At least, it constitutes good advice.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Love . . . is as perennial as the grass. Photo by Мария Волк on Unsplash.
Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

You are a child of the Universe. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

General Grant

Ulysses Grant—rated by his contemporaries the great man of the nineteenth century, perhaps the greatest in American history besides George Washington. Even Abraham Lincoln was an also-ran to Grant.

Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant. Matthew Brady photo. Public Domain.

His giant reputation became sicklied o’er with the pale cast of revisionism in the twentieth century. “Grant? Oh, yes. He was that pathetic, cigar-puffing drunk who couldn’t do anything right except win battles and who went on to lead the most corrupt presidential administration in history.” 

Grant’s stock is now on the rise again thanks to a generation of careful historians who have worked for decades to set the record straight. That is the background against which the History Channel now offers its three-part miniseries—Grant: Unlikely Hero; Grant: Lincoln’s General; and Grant: Freedom’s Champion.

I am writing this before the series airs. Here, I will not rehash the humilitations of Grant’s early life or the transformation of a hapless man into a world-beater. You can get those tales elsewhere—perhaps even in this week’s telecasts.

I will, however, assert that a proper kenning of Grant’s role in the Civil War is the best way to illuminate the war’s grand strategy as a military matter.

Civil War Mystery?

It’s often asked: “Why did Lincoln wait so long to promote Grant? Why did the president hire and fire so many other top dogs before finally, almost as a last resort, settling on Grant in 1864?” The question is presented, usually, as an unparalleled mystery.

Abraham Lincoln on November 8, 1863. Alexander Gardner photo. Public Domain.

But it is the wrong question. 

Merely to ask it implies at least three silly ideas:

  • That Lincoln was a bumbler and no judge of military talent.
  • That Lincoln was an absolute monarch, with no Congress to satisfy and no Army bureaucracy to work through.
  • That had Lincoln been smart enough to put Grant in charge much earlier, he would have greatly shortened the war.

This perennial “Why so late on Grant?” question looks at the Civil War through the wrong end of the telescope. 

Fort Donelson

Grant became a hero when he captured Fort Donelson, Kentucky, in February 1862. Not long after, Lincoln said of Grant, “I can’t spare this man—he fights.” Of all his generals, only Grant got results without badgering the War Office to double his resources. Lincoln had to know from early 1862 that Grant stood out among his commanders. 

So, a more fruitful heuristic might be: “For what job was it that Lincoln thought he could not spare Grant, if not for supreme command?”

(SPOILER ALERT: THE ANSWER STARTS WITH A “V”.)

Anaconda Plan

Lincoln was a mature politician who relied on incisive, lawyerly reasoning skills. Before many months of war had passed, he stopped deferring to his military establishment and began to urge his own views. The subsequent record of the Civil War shows Lincoln to have been, in fact, its master strategist.

Winfield Scott in 1861. Public Domain.

In this he was not wholly original. His strategy differed little from the “Anaconda Plan” proposed in 1861 by General Winfield Scott, the grand old man of the Army. But if Scott originated the strategy, Lincoln understood it deeply and applied it from the start.

Lincoln’s lifelong habit was to zero in on what he called “the nub of the case,” going straight for the main issue that lay at the heart of any matter. Scott’s Anaconda Plan called for squeezing the Confederacy from all directions, by sea and land. But the nub of the plan was to regain control of the Mississippi River. It was America’s prime artery of commerce and the natural path of cleavage between the Confederate states. The fate of the Mississippi would dictate the outcome of the war.

December 1861 cartoon map of Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Public Domain.

Vicksburg the Key

At the start of 1862, Lincoln endorsed a naval plan to seize New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi, and along with it Vicksburg, which commanded the lower river from tall bluffs well suited to the placement of artillery. Flag Officer David Dixon Porter recorded Lincoln’s speech to his planners: 

“See,” said Mr. Lincoln, pointing to the map, “what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. Here is Red River, which will supply the Confederates with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers, which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousand. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy. Then there is that great depot of supplies on the Yazoo. Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”

To Lincoln, the Western man who had twice run the Mississippi by flatboat and who knew it as the commercial dynamo of the nation, Vicksburg was not just an objective. It was the grand strategic prize. 

“Old Brains” Halleck

Henry Wager Halleck, carte de visite, c. 1861-1865. Public Domain.

After Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson, his superior, General Henry Wager Halleck, deprived him of command and placed him under virtual arrest for various imagined deficiencies. Halleck, known as “Old Brains,” was a martinet but also a bureaucrat to the core. He wired Washington asking what to do with the deficient Grant. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton replied, probably at Lincoln’s behest, requesting further details. Halleck, perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing, chose to drop the matter.

Grant resumed command of his army at Shiloh on the Tennessee River, only to be welcomed with a surprise attack by 40,000 screaming rebels. After a hard day of fighting, his army decimated and backed up against the river landing, the unflappable Grant stood fast and launched a counter-attack the next day that swept the rebels from the field.

Again, Halleck sidelined him. This time, he hamstrung Grant by the subtle device of promoting him to be “second in command”—a position commensurate with Grant’s seniority in the department but removed from direct command of troops. 

Meanwhile, New Orleans had been taken by a naval squadron under Flag Officer David Farragut. But it was clear that Vicksburg would not succumb to naval operations alone. 

Consider Lincoln’s point of view: Vicksburg, the key objective of the war, required a combination of vigorous naval and land movements. Grant, the best general, was stymied as deputy commander to the dithering, overcautious Halleck, who nonetheless was by all accounts a genius at military administration. 

Take Vicksburg

And Lincoln was beginning to learn how the Army worked. He named Halleck to command all Union armies on July 11, 1862. Halleck was pleased to be appointed general-in-chief and left immediately for Washington. Meanwhhile, Halleck’s departure cleared the way for Grant to command the Department of the Mississippi. It now became Grant’s job to take Vicksburg.

Gentle Reader, perhaps you wonder, “Just what primrose path are you leading me down, O New Favorite Writer?” 

Well, here it is:

Those great Eastern battles you always hear about—Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, even Gettysburg—were battles that Lincoln understood had to be fought. Although they did not always end well, they were essential attempts to generate the big squeeze that gave the Anaconda Plan its name. 

But Lincoln protected Grant from Halleck’s machinations in order to put Grant on the most important project: Vicksburg. 

With its artillery trained on a hairpin river bend from three hundred feet above it, and protected on its landward side by strong earthworks, Vicksburg was a tough nut that took Grant eight months to crack. Throughout that time, Lincoln with patience and cunning resisted enormous pressures to dislodge Grant from command. When Vicksburg finally capitulated, the president exulted: “The Father of Waters goes again unvexed to the sea.” 

Eastern and Western Theories

Grant moved on to Item Two: Lifting the rebel siege of Chattanooga—a key point commanding the lower Tennessee Valley and protecting an important pocket of Union sentiment in East Tennessee. Grant completed this job much faster, in late 1863. 

Finally, Lincoln appointed Grant supreme commander of all Union forces, leapfrogging him over Halleck and promoting him to Lieutenant General—a rank previously held only by George Washington and Winfield Scott.

The timing of this appointment and promotion shows that overall command of all Union forces and a showdown with Lee’s Army in Virginia was actually Lincoln’s third wish, to be pursued only after the Mississippi was liberated and East Tennessee secured. 

“But, what about Gettysburg? Wasn’t that the most imporant battle?” 

No, Dear Reader. 

Gettysburg was the largest battle of the war and held its own rightful importance. It ended July 3, 1863, with the failure of Pickett’s Charge at the Angle, termed “the high-water mark of the Confederacy.” This defeat for Robert E. Lee may be called “the end of the beginning” of the Civil War. 

The very next day—July 4, 1863—when Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Grant, can just as reasonably be called “the beginning of the end.” The loss of Vicksburg sealed the South’s fate, although it took almost two more years to complete the end game.

We hear more about the great Eastern battles than about Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga because at the start of the war, many saw it as a game of “Capture the Flag”; sieze Richmond and you win the war. That was never actually true, but it’s a view that has shaped perception of the conflict from that day to this. 

What you have just read, on the contrary, is the Western theory of the war. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Unsocial Media

Never thought this blog would become a soapbox, but here goes—

For decades, we have decried “loss of civility” in our public discourse. 

Confucius said we would be less confused if we called things by their right names. What we commonly call “loss of civility” we ought to call “viciousness.” 

“Confucius” by Gimli62 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Recently, as an antidote to the throbbing toothache that social media has become, I posted on Facebook the following:

ATTENTION

This brief message is my own. It is not a pre-manufactured meme that I picked up somewhere, or a quote from somebody else that I thought would be fun to appropriate for my own use. This is the actual view of Larry F. Sommers.

We are called to love one another. The most elementary way to practice this commandment is to be kind and forbearing.

What does “kind and forbearing” mean? It means we do not speak ill of others or wish ill to others, even those who are not present with us. Even if they are public figures such as politicians or movie stars whom we do not know. Even if they are unknown members of the general public whose views disagree with ours. Even if our speech is not really our own but is copied from somebody else, such as a professional manufacturer of nasty memes. Even if our speech is only on social media, and everybody else on social media is speaking the same way. Even if the targets of our invective spoke ill of us first.

Our society’s public discourse has become a cesspool of narcissistic, poisonous invective. Nobody will cure that unless we do. Let us be generous in our estimates of one another, and act and speak accordingly.

Blessings, and thank you for your attention to this matter.

I probably should have added, “Even if they are in a category of people we have decided to dislike.”

Kindness Controverted

I hardly thought this manifesto would be controversial, nor was it meant as an experiment of any kind. But it turned out to be an experiment, and an illuminating one at that. 

Many of my friends agreed in general with my remarks, but some added caveats. None spoke directly against kindness and forbearance. But they did seem to think there were larger issues at stake in our human conversations.

Their implication—or was it only my inference from their remarks?—is that sometimes, in the pursuit of justice or of holiness, we must employ vilification.

I disagree categorically. What could be a larger issue than our need of kindness and forbearance? 

The only thing I said was that people ought not to speak ill of one another or wish ill upon one another. I did not suggest revoking the First Amendment.

Justice and Injustice

Micah the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century. Public Domain.

“. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—Micah 6:8. 

I’ve always felt the prophet’s words “do justice” referred prima facie to one’s own acts, as in “deal justly with others.” But some folks would interpret those words as mandating that we police injustices commited by other people as well. 

This interpretation proposes that when we see injustice in the doings of others, our perception is true and accurate. The absurdity of this assumption is just what Jesus was addressing when he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” 

I will stipulate that if you can transform your neighbor’s acts through the use of sweet reason, you may be onto something. But the moment you resort to obloquy, it’s a sign your case is weak.

Horace Greeley. Matthew Brady photo. Public Domain.

Apart from the aforementioned sweet reason, we have not even the ability, much less the authority, to compel others to do right. And calling names will not help. Nor will venting our anger with such colorful expressions as “Fuck you!” or “Fuck (So-and-so)”—phrases I see often in what passes for civic discourse on the Internet.

Even milder expressions may cross over from reason to invective. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), teetotaler and Republican, is reputed to have uttered: “I never said all Democrats were saloon-keepers; what I said was all saloon-keepers are Democrats.” This nice distinction matters little. Whether you’re a Democrat or a saloon-keeper, you know that Horace Greeley has consigned you to the deepest circle of Hell.

Besides the business about a log in one’s eye, Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us to guard our mouths.

Control

God has placed us in a very large world, a large world inside an even larger universe. In that universe, and in that world, a great many things take place—almost an infinite array of different objects, patterns, and events. There are more people, more cultures, more habits, more motives than you can shake a stick at. 

You need not be a cultural relativist, or an amoralist, to see that in this vast carnival of life—in what Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere”—almost the only thing we may control is our own conduct. As a corollary, almost the only way to influence the conduct of others is by our own example.

Feel free also to look at this from the other end of the telescope. By absolutely relinquishing the cheap options of calumny and hostility, one is freed for the grander game: The slight chance to improve others’ ideas and attitudes through patient, persistent persuasion. (SPOILER ALERT: Such persuasion is a lifetime project and offers no guarantee of success.)

Unbridled Passions

Modern American society has canonized the practice of giving free rein to one’s passions. But I am here to suggest that not every emotional impulse need be shared with others, especially if it be shared in the manner of a bludgeon. Society will work better when more of us cultivate a studied reticence, giving only blessing and encouragement to our friends—and making everybody, as much as possible, our friends.

High principles which require ad hominem salvos for their defense may not be such high principles after all. If they cannot be advanced by calm and logical argument, perhaps they should be exchanged for others that can be. 

O Inky Wretch,” you may ask, “do you always practice what you preach?” 

Of course not; I am only human. But, with great persistence, I do try. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

John Adams, per David McCullough

One day, when I was about five, Daddy took me for my haircut. In those days, a barber shop often had a large wall calendar showing rows of small, oval-shaped portraits:  All the presidents, from George Washington right up to Harry S. Truman. 

I recognized Washington, the Father of Our Country. But I had to ask Daddy who that fat old man beside Washington was. 

“That’s John Adams. He was the next president after George Washington.”

In an instant, I pegged the unprepossessing Adams as a second-rater. 

Boy, was I wrong

That’s the message, in a nutshell, of David McCullough’s John Adams, a monumental biography I have just read, only nineteen years after its publication. 

John Adams, the Real Deal

John Adams was born in 1735 to Deacon John Adams and Susanna Boylston Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts. Adams junior inherited the deacon’s farm. He would be a farmer, on and off, all his life—persistently, passionately, and successfully.

Oh, and by the way: He attended Harvard University, was admitted to the bar and practiced law; joined the movement for American colonial rights, becoming the most forward champion of Independence in the Second Continental Congress; nominated George Washington of Virginia to command the Continental Army; went to France as a commissioner, helped  negotiate the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, and became the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James, where he exchanged decorous greetings with the spurned monarch George III; was elected vice president of the new Constitutional republic; became our second president, after Washington’s two terms; was defeated for his own second term by his old Revolutionary friend, Thomas Jefferson; retired to an active life managing his farm in Braintree; lived long enough to see his son, John Quincy Adams, inaugurated as sixth president of the United States in 1825; and died the following year on the same day as Jefferson—July 4, exactly fifty years after the two of them had, with 54 other patriots, declared the Independence of the United States.

Abigail Smith Adams. 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth. Public Domain.

Throughout this remarkable journey, John Adams associated with the most remarkable people of a remarkable era—including his own wife and best ally, Abigail. To our immense good fortune, John and Abigail and their children kept journals and wrote letters, to one another and to many historic figures—thousands of letters, written over many decades. And all of them, or most of them, were preserved.

Well, Who Wants to Read a Bunch of Old Letters, Anyway?

David McCullough. Nrbelex at English Q52, licensed under CC BY-SA.

David Gaub McCullough, that’s who. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933, McCullough earned a degree in English Literature from Yale University. According to his Wikipedia biography, “He said that it was a ‘privilege’ to study English at Yale because of faculty members such as John O’Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Brendan Gill. McCullough occasionally ate lunch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder, says McCullough, taught him that a competent writer maintains ‘an air of freedom’ in the storyline, so that a reader will not anticipate the outcome, even if the book is non-fiction.”

As he weighed options for his life, McCullough gravitated towards research and writing. He served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency, Sports Illustrated, and American Heritage. While working at American Heritage, McCullough found a subject that interested him deeply and spent three years writing the story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968, established him as a top-shelf historical writer. Since then, he has written nine more books. He has received two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, the second of which was for his Adams biography. 

“History ought to be a source of pleasure,” McCullough has said. “ It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.” 

McCullough on Adams

John Adams may be the most magisterial, and perhaps in the long run will be the most influential, of McCullough’s works. Few, if any, Adams biographers have had the ambition, tenacity, and skill to produce such an illuminating book.

Like any good writer, McCullough begins his story in medias res: On a bitter January day in 1776, the 40-year-old Adams sets out on horseback, first to a meeting with General Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge, then onward to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Before long, the author doubles back to fill us in on the essentials of Adams’ early life and the arc of destiny that brought him to the brink of rebellion in 1776. He then proceeds on through the main acts of Adams’ portentous life. 

Benjamin Rush portrait by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818. Public Domain.

What raises this book above a standard scholarly biography is the way McCullough tells the story. His deeply researched narrative unearths the humanity in the Founding Fathers. We are given Dr. Benjamin Rush’s contemporary estimate of Adams in the prime of life: He was “possessed of another species of character” than his firebrand second cousin Samuel. “He saw the whole of a subject at a glance, and . . . was equally fearless of men and of the consequences of a bold assertion of his opinion. . . . He was a stranger to dissimulation.” 

The journals, letters, and other writings of Adams, his family, and his friends are quoted so extensively, and so appositely, that the reader comes to know these people—especially John and Abigail—intimately. McCullough’s third-person narration serves merely to set a context in which this marvelous conversation—this ongoing lifetime argument about liberty, duty, morality, religion, and the deep things of life—takes place. 

Stand advised, Dear Reader: The Adamses were no ordinary letter writers. Their sentences bounce and sparkle with informed passion on everything from the mundane to the sublime. The marital love between John and Abigail, as shown in the letters, was deep and abiding. Each suffered greatly when separated from the other; yet neither would put personal happiness ahead of the stern duty that often led to long separations. Abigail, as fierce a patriot as her husband, championed his revolutionary and political role always.

“You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator,” she wrote. “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”

Their language is felicitous. When a constituent from Massachusetts wrote Adams in June 1776, wondering why the Continental Congress was dithering over Independence, Adams wrote in reassurance:

Some people must have time to look around them, before, behind, on the right hand, and on the left, and then to think, and after all this to resolve. Others see at one intuitive glance into the past and the future, and judge with precision at once. But remember you can’t make thirteen clocks strike precisely alike at the same second.

This wisdom from one well known for his own headlong impatience.

Feeling every bit the New England rube gawking at the fineries of the French royal court, Adams wrote this description of Marie Antoinette:

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1778. Public Domain

She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe. . . . Her dress was everything art and wealth could make it. One of the maids of honor told me she had diamonds upon her person to the value of eighteen million livres, and I always thought her majesty much beholden to her dress. . . . She had a fine complexion indicating her perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. . . . The Queen took a large spoonful of soup and displayed her fine person and graceful manner, in alternatively looking at the company in various parts of the hall and ordering several kinds of seasoning to be brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste. When this was accomplished, her Majesty exhibited to the admiring spectators the magnificent spectacle of a great queen swallowing her royal supper in a single spoonful, all at once. This was all performed like perfect clockwork, not a feature of her face, nor a motion of any part of her person, especially her arm and her hand could be criticized as out of order.

Though obviously impressed by royalty and its trappings, Adams was no friend of monarchy—despite the scurrilous bandying of precisely this charge by Jefferson’s Republicans. Neither was he a country bumpkin. His voracious lifelong reading habit encompassed Shakespeare, Milton, the Scriptures, Virgil, Voltaire, Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History; Justinian, Cicero; Benjamin Franklin,Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine; Hume, Johnson, Priestley, Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch; Walter Scott, Jane Porter, James Fenimore Cooper; Rousseau, Condorcet, Turgot, Mary Wolstonecraft; Adam Smith, Bishop Joseph Butler, Pascal. His personal library numbered 3,200 volumes. 

John Quincy Adams, age 29. Portrait by John Singleton Copley. Public Domain.

History, he advised his eldest son, John Quincy, “was the true source of ‘solid instruction’. . . . He must read Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War. There was no better preparation, whatever part he was called to play on ‘the stage of life.’ It was best read in the original Greek, of course, but he could find a reliable translation among his father’s books.” 

McCullough describes the mature John Adams, at age 40, on the eve of the Revolution:

He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his “Dearest Friend,” as he addressed her in letters—his “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world”—while to her he was “the tenderest of husbands,” her “good man.”

John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal—all traits in the New England tradition—he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.

Despite the aptness of McCullough’s words, you won’t really begin to understand all those things about Adams the man—let alone many other things about his place in the Revolutionary and early Republican era of our country—unless you actually read the book. So read the book.

What It Took

We owe a great debt to David McCullough. He spent six years of his life researching Adams and writing his book. He read all of John’s and Abigail’s letters, all of their diaries, many letters written to them or about them. He also read the books that John Adams read, to immerse himself in Adams’ mindset. 

He set out to write a book on Adams and Jefferson, concerned at first that Adams would fare poorly next to the charismatic Jefferson. He soon found the reverse to be true. Jefferson was a more private man, who did not share his true feelings in letters as easily as Adams did. Moreover, fewer of his papers still exist. Eventually McCullough decided to leave Jefferson alone and focus on Adams. Jefferson enters the book only in relation to his dealings with Adams, which were considerable.

At any rate, it’s a fine book and one which will give you a glimpse of one of the most remarkable couples in the history of any country.

So do give it a read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Author

 

What’s All This Shouting?

The return to “normal” will not be swift or easy. On the contrary, it will be slow, cautious, and hedged. That’s because almost all Normal People are cautious and prudent in the face of a real threat to health. Almost all Normal People also are working day by day, without fanfare, to restore an orderly economy and society.
Northern cardinal. Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash.

A cardinal tweets his piercing notes outside my window at five-thirty. The Global Pandemic has not changed his routine one iota.

Why do we revel in disaster and cling to desperation? What is there that so inclines us to doom and gloom?

The old TV show Hee-Haw had a recurring scene in which several indolent hillbillies lolled on a cabin porch and sang:

“Gloom, despair, and agony on me;
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery;
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.
Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”

I am thinking of the coronavirus. Not the virus itself, Gentle Reader. Rather, the social phenomenon that COVID-19 has become.

The Public Face of Pandemic

If you were to attend only to the news broadcasts, to the briefings and pressers, to the partisan Memes of Malice which clutter the Facebook feeds and the Twittersphere, you might  think—no matter what point of view you’re coming from—that ALL IS LOST.

After all, it’s plain enough that Those Other People are behaving in dangerous and evil ways. Choose your poison:

A. Knuckle-dragging cretins flout the scientifically-determined guidelines, because they have no concern for the most vulnerable among us. They will spike the curve and cause millions of deaths, including their own, with no thought at all for the common good.
B. A bunch of shrewd operators are using this disease hoax as a pretext to grab power for themselves and deprive us of the right to live as we have always lived. They are destroying our economy and our means of subsistence, with no thought at all for the common good. 

If these are the themes you’re hearing, Dear Reader, I weep for your ears and your soul. And these are the themes we are all hearing, over and over again.

Worm’s-eye View

But let me tell you what I keep seeing on the ground, out here in the United States:

Most people are maintaining a respectful fathom’s-length distance to one another. Many but not all wear masks. Those who go maskless still do steer a wide berth around others.

Truly frail oldsters stay buttoned up in their homes. They receive phone calls, Zoom calls, window-mediated visits, and messages of cheer from those who care about them.

Almost all of us go to the store to buy food and other essentials, but not often, and only with great care. The store employees work tirelessly, as usual, keeping the shelves stocked as well as possible, even though spot shortages persist.

Children play outside in good weather and, shocking or not, interact with next-door friends, suffering no apparent ill effects.

You can get restaurant food—tasty, well-presented, thoughtfully packaged—by pre-arrangement, with carefully designed procedures for pick-up or delivery.

Ken Jennings. Phil Konstantin photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Most of the really necessary things can still be done, if inconveniently.

Mail is delivered.

Jeopardy! has begun recycling old Ken Jennings victories. What could be wrong with that?

Amid the wreckage wrought by pandemic and panic, the world is starting to resume.

Here in Wisconsin, taxidermists can once more ply their trade. You may scoff, but this is Wisconsin.

The place where my wife and I take our cars for service is open for business again, on a “drop-the-car-off-all-day” basis—no hanging around the waiting room.

Our church begins to plan for resumption of in-person worship services, though this may not happen until late summer or early fall. Until then, Zoom services are a blessing.

Lacey

Several colleges and universities have announced they plan to receive students on campus again for the fall semester.

The dog grooming service we use is re-opening on a limited basis, with a long waiting list of shaggy clients. It may be some time before Lacey gets her trim, but she will get it.

The plumber came out and fixed the water supply to our laundry tubs, but he wore a mask and gloves.

The price of gasoline seems to have bottomed out as more driving takes place than before. Sub-dollar prices, alas, are already in the rearview mirror.

Normal

The return to “normal” will not be swift or easy. Nor will “normal” be quite normal.

On the contrary, it will all be slow, cautious, and elaborately hedged. That’s because almost all Normal People are cautious and prudent in the face of a real threat to health. Almost all Normal People also are working day by day, without fanfare, to restore an orderly economy and society.

As Mister Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers.” We’re all around.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Into the Blogosphere

DEAR READER: This is a re-post of the first entry to this blog on 12 April 2019. You can judge for yourself whether subsequent posts have fulfilled the original intention. Of course, to do that, you would have to read them all, which is definitely encouraged.

“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926

King Lear and Cordelia, by Benjamin West (1793) / Folger Shakespeare Library, Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the best way to tell you about that, as Michael Hauge would say, is to tell you how I came to write this blog.

I was a happy, successful septuagenarian. But—from the time I wrote a detective story on a pencil tablet in third grade, when I was supposed to be doing something else—I had always meant to be a writer of fiction. What with one thing and another, I just had never gotten around to it.

So I quit my day job to write fiction. I had something to say. Just didn’t know what it was. Now, if you have an itch like that, nonfiction won’t scratch it. Something about fiction gives you an opportunity to tell the truth.

My approach to writing fiction is what the psychologists call a “projective technique”—akin to journaling, role-playing, or inkblot-guessing. I just thought, “I’ll start writing, and see what comes out.” 

What could possibly go wrong?   🙂

Early Success

Within a couple of years, I was lucky enough to get a few short pieces published: a dog essay in Fetch! magazine and three “Izzy Mahler” stories, about a young boy growing up in the 1950s, published electronically by the Saturday Evening Post.

Meanwhile, I started thinking about a historical novel based on Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, my great-great-grandparents, who came from Norway to Illinois before the Civil War. 

Fast forward to Now, and I have a good first draft of that work, Freedom’s Purchase. All I need to do is make it a lot better, and then pitch it to agents and publishers.

The Writer’s Life

But—STOP THE PRESSES! It turns out that to be in the writing game in a serious way, you must become a Major Literary Figure before the ink is dry on your first paragraph. You can’t simply write something great, publish it, become rich and famous, and then go on to your next triumph. That’s not How the World Works.

You must let other talented writers see your work and critique it. This is a vitally necessary step, if you want to avoid writing unprintable dreck. But when others spend time and effort to read and critique your stuff, you must do the same for them. Reciprocity rules. That means that from the outset of your writing career, you’re sending drafts to fellow writers, receiving and responding to drafts of theirs. 

For researching subject matter and for familiarization with the literary landscape, you find yourself reading more and more books—things you would not have read otherwise. You write and submit thumbnail book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.com. You subscribe to writers’ magazines and literary market websites.

You’d better attend a writers’ conference now and then. Two great ones are hosted every year in my home town by the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They cost money and time, but it’s necessary money and time. Writing can be a lonely business, and a solid bond with your “tribe” of fellow writers will help see you through. 

And what of querying and pitching—researching agents and publishers, and learning the best ways to approach them? The material they receive is so voluminous that you need to find ways to make your submissions stand out.

“You and what army?”

And finally—or, perhaps, initially—you need an “author platform.” Platform is a code word for a large band of fanatical followers. (This could include you, Gentle Reader!)

Book publishers try not to take unnecessary risks. They do want to publish great writing. But, as between a Great Writer with an Army of Rabid Fans and a Great Writer who is just, well, a Great Writer—they’ll take the former. It all but ensures a certain number of sales. If you were a publisher, you’d feel the same way, n’est-ce pas?  

There was once a golfer with a platform that just wouldn’t quit. His name was Arnold Palmer. His fans were known as “Arnie’s Army.” I could use an army.

“What’s it All About, Alfie?”

At some point, a writer starts thinking like this: Why am I doing this? Writers don’t make fortunes, unless their name is James Patterson. Writers are lucky just to get advantageous publication. Still: If one must write, one writes. And it would be good to have lots of people read what one writes. 

So, hoping to zero in on why people might want to read what I write, I plumbed the depths of my psyche (both inches) and concluded that what I have to say to people is always rooted in a general awareness of our common past.

A noted poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

–“Little Gidding”

That sense of better-late-than-not-at-all recognition of the world is what I seek, in personal memories from my long life or in the delving into events that no one is still alive to remember.

To cultivate my author platform, therefore—so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published—I hereby launch this website, larryfsommers.com, including this blog, titled “Reflections.”

If you come back from time to time you’ll encounter various kinds of content:

  • Ruminations on “the writer’s life.”
  • Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
  • Mentions of good books recently read.
  • News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
  • Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
  • Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
  • Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.

Be brave enough to stick around through several posts, and you’ll catch on. I’ll try to post something new every Tuesday. Hope to see you often.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

“F” Is for Franklin

His name was Franklin. Most folks around the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, called him Frankie. 

Frankie on the gridiron

He was the youngest of five children. At Knoxville High School he played football and basketball and ran track—as had his brothers Lloyd, Stanley, and Edward before him. He was a regular kid, good-looking, with a winning smile.

He graduated from high school in May 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States went to war against the Axis Powers. Frankie enlisted as an Army Aviation Cadet on 3 April 1942. 

Aviation Cadet Frankie

In December, while he was in his year-long pilot’s training, his brother Stanley was killed flying a B-17 in the Southwest Pacfic. Frankie graduated from Advanced Flying School and was commissioned a second lieutenant 12 April 1943. After a week-long home furlough and a brief training assignment in Florida, he left for England. 

They sent him to RAF Chipping Ongar, near London, home of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 559th Bomber Squadron, 387th Bomber Group, Medium. On 1 August, 1943, after 68.6 hours of training flights in the squadron’s twin-engined B-26 Marauders, he flew his first actual bombing mission. Through the end of August, he flew five training missions and five more combat missions, totaling 20.5 hours. 

His seventh combat mission was on 2 September 1943. By this time he was the regular co-pilot on Aircraft 41-31629, Janet’s Dream, captained by First Lieutenant William F. Vosburgh. 

Janet’s Dream and her crew, Frankie second from left

Over Bergues, France, Janet’s Dream took flak—anti-aircraft artillery fire—in her right engine, and Frankie’s war ended. The Marauder broke up and crashed, killing Frankie, Vosburgh, and two others. Two back-end crewmen bailed out and became prisoners of war.

Hap Arnold’s letter

Frankie’s eldest brother Edward, a pilot for Pan American Airways, paid a visit to Frankie’s unit in England. He collected Frankie’s things, talked with his commander and fellow fliers. Frankie had been well-liked, a “regular guy” and was the “banker” of the outfit—always had a few bucks he could lend to a fellow aviator in need.

“Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, sent my grandparents a letter that read almost as if he knew young Franklin William Sommers personally. 

“It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Sommers, a highly regarded graduate of the Advanced Flying School at La Junta, Colorado, was a brave and conscientious officer. He attained success in his effort to perform his duties in a superior manner and his commanding officers were pleased with his accomplishment of difficult tasks which they entrusted to him. Amiable and dependable, he made friends easily, and he is keenly missed in the activities of his group.”

Though doubtless they knew it was War Deparment boilerplate, this stately prose must have given them some comfort.

Frankie was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His remains were buried in Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32 at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Frankie was 20 when he died, unmarried and childless. 

I was born almost two years later, never having known my Uncle Franklin—who now lives on only in my middle name, and in a few yellowing letters and photos. 

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All of that was three-quarters of a century ago. What has it to do with today?

Through life my friends have generally known me as Larry Sommers; but when I launched my writing career at age 70, I did so as Larry F. Sommers. I thought it had implications for author branding. “Larry Sommers” was plain vanilla; but “Larry F. Sommers” was premium vanilla. 

Besides that trivial consideration, I’m starting to understand that my name is more authentic with the “F” included. Authenticity can’t be manufactured; it can’t be designed, can’t be faked. Authenticity is that ineffable quality of actually being who you really are.

Second Lieutenant Franklin W. Sommers

My middle name, Franklin, claims the patrimony of my uncle’s remembrance. It is not something to be shucked off lightly. This man I never met gave his life for me before I was even conceived. He gave his life for all of us—one of many who did so in a dark chapter of the world’s story. 

Unlike those many others, Frankie, and his older brother Stanley, were mine. I am bound to them by two bloods— the blood of kinship and the blood of sacrifice.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our being is entangled in those we remember and perpetuate—ancestors, forerunners, pioneers of our civilization. 

Whatever authenticity we may possess is a mix of individual traits with old associations. We are the sum of our present selves, our past, our family’s past, and our people’s past. 

I never knew Uncle Stanley or Uncle Franklin. There is no need or mandate for me to carry their  baggage, the burden of young lives so casually cast on history’s ash heap. Yet, wearing their mantle on my shoulders makes me more the person I am, not less. 

You can be an atom, bouncing along in a hostile universe; or, with God’s grace and your own awareness, you can purposely pitch your tent along the route of the grand parade. You can be one with your uncles, with your aunts, with Mister Lincoln, with Frederick Douglass, with the signers of the Magna Carta, with Leif Erikson and with Homer, who sang the tales of Odysseus the adventurer. 

You can be part of all the glory of the human condition, but then you must be part of the pain also.

That, Gentle Reader, is what I mean by “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Life or Death

We are a death-denying society.

We think, “Death is bad, life is good.” 

Moses gets the word from Yahweh. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) fresco, Sistine Chapel. Public Domain.

Even God says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). 

The Lord of Hosts tells us to choose life over death; who are we to argue?

So we try to live, as high on the hog as we can, and we do everything possible to avoid death. Even some impossible things, to avoid death, we attempt. We try to shut death out of our houses, out of our schools, out of our clinics, out of our hospitals, out of our emergency rooms. We try to shut death out of our mortuaries and cemeteries, preferring a quick cremation, followed by a “memorial” service that focuses on reliving our happy memories of the—uh, that is, you know, dear old Uncle Jack, bless his soul.

The Grim Reaper waits. Image by doom156, licensed under  CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Most effectively, we shut death out of our consciousness. The Grim Reaper is barred from the threshold of our thoughts. We live in uneasy assurance that there is no such thing as death. Death is taboo.

Yet, AS IF BY SOME MIRACLE, people keep dying. 

A Gentleman in a Dustcoat Trying

They die a few at a time, here or there. They die of heart ailments and strokes; they die of cancer; they die of accidents; they die of murder; they die of suicide. Sometimes they die unaccountably: I once read about a man who jumped off a four-foot-high platform at a county fair, and at the time his feet hit the ground he was dead. The coroner could only scratch his head. 

Whatever the cause, by age 120 or so, we achieve one hundred percent mortality.

COVID-19. Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, Center for Disease Control. Public Domain.

Once in a long while there comes a great epidemic, or a pandemic. You might say the very definition of such an event is that it taxes our resources as a whole society, not just as an individual or a family or a town. 

Now we have COVID-19. We have mobilized against this pandemic at a scale, in a timeframe, and in specific ways by which no disease in human history has been resisted. 

In America—I can’t speak for other societies, but yes, in America—we have mobilized chiefly, it seems, to deny death its victims. 

Through a panoply of means, some new and some time-tested, we fight this dread disease. The dread thing about this disease is its death toll.

 You don’t hear people saying, “I sure hope I don’t catch the COVID, it’s a pretty rough thing to go through.” 

Those who recover occupy none of our attention, regardless how harrowing their escape. All the emphasis is on preventing death. 

If it were just one among the crowd of viruses that constantly assail us, claiming a few lives here and there, nobody would make a big deal about it. But COVID-19, because of its novelty (as in “novel coronavirus”), is statistically forecast to sweep through the world, taking millions of lives from populations that start with zero immunity to it. 

At this writing it has claimed about 42,000 Americans, but who knows what the coming months may bring?

According to our trusted experts—and I do trust their expertise—our most effective weapon against the onslaught has been “social distancing.” We seem to have dramatically reduced the death toll by staying away from one another—a method that has dealt a dire blow to our national economy. But that method has worked. 

All our physical distancing and other measures have slowed the progress of the disease, not stopped it. We have deflected the incidence of death from COVID-19; we have not banished death altogether. Remember the early days, when our experts first recommended these measures. The slogan was, “Flatten the curve.” There was no thought of eliminating the disease altogether.

The point of all our efforts was simply to reduce the caseload to what our hospitals and medical professionals could handle.

It has always been in the cards that a lot of people were going to die from this disease. 

So What?

There is a reason, Dear Reader, that I belabor this obvious point. 

Now that we have blunted the coronavirus attack, our leaders work on means to bring back the economy. This is no trivial concern. It will take a complex strategy, with a well-calibrated balance between, on the one hand, fostering more freedom of movement for productive endeavors; and, on the other, protecting the most vulnerable from exposure to a highly contagious disease organism.

It is not just the president who wants to get the economy working again. Responsible politicians of both parties and executives of businesses large and small share this urgency. They bear a heavy responsibility to restore the systems and mechanisms that provide us all with food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, education, health care, social satisfaction, and all the other things we require—including paychecks—before additional damage is added to what those systems have already sustained. 

DeForest Kelley. Public Domain.

It would be foolhardy simply to drop all the new practices we have adopted and go on a binge of “pre-pandemic normalcy.” If anyone seriously proposes this, they ought to think more thoroughly.

And if anyone seriously thinks that loosening any of the present restrictions is irresponsible, they also ought to think more thoroughly. 

How often have we heard it said that no cost is too great to save a single human life?  Quite often, to my recollection. Remember, in our society, death is taboo. Consider the refrain oft-voiced by the late actor DeForest Kelley, playing Doctor McCoy on the original Star Trek series: 

“Dammit, Jim, there are lives at stake!”

Yes, Bones, there are. 

There are always lives at stake. No matter what we do, or what we don’t do, lives are at stake. People will live this way, or that way; people will die this way, or that way.

Seldom are we given a simple choice between life and death. Commonly, we make hundreds of microchoices—to walk or drive, to eat a fish or a steak, to floss or not to floss, to wash our hands or leave them unwashed—each decision tending either to promote life or to hasten death, yet no single decision dispositive. 

Right now, a particular subset of microchoices is forced on us by the disease— commended to us as mandatory or at least highly beneficial. In weeks to come, those choices, one by one, will become antiquated and irrelevant. 

Life will go on. In the midst of it, people will go on dying.

Not you, any time soon, Dear Reader, I pray.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Terror at 20,000 Words

OUTLINERS figure out what the story is, then write it. 

PANTSERS are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” and get surprised by their stories. 

Which one are you? Or, which would you be, if you were a writer?

I have always been an Outliner. Now, however, I’m changing my tune, and it scares me to death.

The Haven of Preparedness

Outlining may be considered a premeditated act. An Outliner commits Fiction in the First Degree.

Dentistry in my day. Public Domain.

This approach has a lot to recommend it. Once you have the whole plot engineered in outline form, you know where you are going. All that remains is to render it in prose. 

But the way I personally think of it is: I must do the hard part first, the part I don’t like one bit, the part that intimidates me, which is making up the story

Inventing plot twists, character actions, and dramatic events is like having all my teeth drilled and filled, one by one, and then extracted, without benefit of Novocain. That’s why I prefer to take refuge in historical novels. The main events have already happened and are known. All I need to invent is a few details. Even that seemingly small effort can leave me wounded and edentulous. 

Writing prose, on the other hand—with its delicious prospect of future revision, and further revision; polishing, and then polishing the polishing—is a pleasant gambol in Elysian fields. Given any encouragement at all, I could spend the rest of my life merrily revising a single chapter.

Elysian Fields by Carlos Scwabe, 1903. Public Domain.

Fabulous

The problem is, people want a story. People consume stories wholesale. People hunger for story. And The Magic of Story is the reason I got into this game in the first place.

I was seventy years old then. In the five years since, I have learned a lot about writing. Mostly about the technique of writing. About craft. About marketing.

But the most important thing I’ve learned is that a story is more than the words by which it is told. It’s more than the plot turns along the way. A story is the verisimilitude of a live person’s meeting and overcoming—or perhaps succumbing to—challenges that are interesting and exciting. A story is the telling, or the showing, of “life as she is lived.”

To bring a story to life by draping a string of phrases over an outline is a highly artificial skill. Only a few people can do it well, like an actor bringing a character to life on stage by sheer technique. For what I’m trying to write now, that just won’t do.

I must become a method actor. 

A Pantser.

Izzy—or izzn’t he?

A few years ago, I wrote some light-hearted short stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I was thrilled when three of them were e-published by The Saturday Evening Post. (You can read them herehere, and here.)

These Izzy stories replicate my own boyhood. Every detail comes straight from personal experience, with minor re-arrangements to enhance the drama. 

Now, I am starting a book about Izzy Mahler. It’s not a collection of Izzy short stories but a full, front-to-back novel aimed at young people, starring an Izzy slightly older than the one who appears in the Saturday Evening Post stories. 

The story this novel tells will have a bit more substance. I could never write anything really dark; but growing up in the 1950s was not all Leave It to Beaver. Kids had problems to face.

I started by outlining a plot for this book. It took a great deal of mulling over, but ultimately it went well: I emerged with a real spiffy outline. Then I started to write the text, based on my outline. I got seven chapters in before noticing that, although the writing was going very well, the book was going astray. The story was going off the rails by staying true to the outline.

There was no spontaneity to it. No real voyage of discovery for Izzy Mahler. 

I had made a rookie error. I mistook my protagonist for myself. 

If Izzy is merely a smudged copy of me, his saga will be a failure. My actual boyhood served me well enough, but it was not the stuff of stories. Whatever unhappiness I owned, whatever traumas in my upbringing, they cannot be cured by rehashing old grudges or inchoate yearnings on paper. That is not fiction, it is whining.  

Protagonizing

What is needed, if the past is to have meaning for the future, is an imaginative restaging, starring a better and more interesting person than me. That would be Izzy, you see. But this improved Izzy will not take pleasing shape from an outline. Izzy needs to be a true protagonist. He must burst forth from his circumstances and shove the story rudely in its ultimate direction. 

Melancholy protagonist? Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, circa 1864. Public Domain.

In this account of things, Izzy is someone who flies by the seat of his pants. To capture him alive, I must follow his example.

Someone told me:

“The protagonist must protag.”

Don’t waste your time looking up “protag” in your Funk & Wagnall’s. No such word appears. It’s just a writer’s in-joke, meaning that for a book to enthrall readers, big things must happen; and the central character must be the one who makes them happen.

If I have a main fault as a writer, it’s that my characters are too much like me: Timid, passive, inert. Lord, preserve my little hero Izzy from such a fate. But Izzy will only seize his destiny if I grasp the nettle and make him strong where I am weak.

That is why Pantsers are always saying things like, “I thought it was a story about lust and betrayal, but then my hero took it in a whole different direction.” 

The plunge. . . . Photo by Clarke’s County, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

All I can do is put Izzy on paper and confront him with challenges that he must address. Just fly by the seat of my pants, and hope the story will be worth reading.

But right now, in the moment of doing, it feels like I’m riding the world’s tallest roller-coaster. My carriage, on the top level, has just tilted sharply downward and started its plunge. 

Pray for me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

How American of Us

All the kids in my neighborhood were vaccinated, and we would gladly show the little round scar in our upper arms to prove it.

Inoculation to ward off smallpox had been practiced for more than two hundred years. That is what “vaccination” meant in the 1950s. 

Today, “vaccination” means many things. It means different things to different people. Not everybody likes it. But at this moment in our history, we mainly think of vaccination as a tool we wish we had against COVID-19. It is not in our toolkit yet and won’t be for quite a while. We tap our feet impatiently. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?

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Odd and unexpected are the prophets who may speak to us in these confused days.

Benedict Arnold. Copy of engraving by H. B. Hall after John Trumbull. Public Domain.

Benedict Arnold is known primarily as a traitor. A bold, charismatic leader of troops in our war for Independence, Arnold changed sides and became a secret agent for the British. He worked to give them the American fortifications at West Point, New York. 

His treason was found out, and he fled for his life. On October 7, 1780, a few days after he reached safety behind British lines, Arnold published an open letter defending his actions, titled “Address to the American People.” In that egocentric display of self-justification, the erratic Benedict Arnold—half a century before Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit and commentary—penned the definitive remark about Americans:

“The private judgment of any individual citizen of this country is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

It was a true saying then, and it remains true 240 years later. Combined with the Puritan imprint on our public outlook and the indelible marks of our frontier experience, it explains a lot about our uniqueness as a people.

By “all conventional restraints,” I suppose Arnold meant the class-conscious pecking order of European society, as well as the customary appeals of king and country and the divine imperatives of Church potentates. 

To Americans all such guiding principles are merely advisory, both then and now. Each person must choose his or her own way. We are a nation of rugged individuals, most of all deep in our heads and hearts. We know we are right; if not for others, at least for ourselves and our families. We are self-willed, to a nearly anarchic extreme. 

Here, even the Magisterium of The Law “derive[s] its just powers from the consent of the governed” and, in practice, perches perilously on a wobbly base of voluntary compliance. “The private judgment of any individual citizen . . . is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

We see this truth enacted in our present crisis. Compare the responses of other nations: 

  • The Chinese government, once it grasped the severity of the virus problem, sent in goon squads to round up the sufferers, burned the evidence, and put out some fake numbers to reassure the world.
  • The Swedes seem to be opting for a slow-rolling herd inoculation through gradual exposure of their citizens. This may possibly work in Sweden, where the surge of the virus will be dampened by the Swedes’ national impulse to work together as if they were, indeed, a herd.

Swedish-style cooperativeness is unthinkable here in the United States. Violators of even reasonable regulations would be legion, the loci of their intransigence unpredictable. Any forced imposition of rigid controls would backfire; people would rebel. Even the enforcers would rebel.

So the suggestion that we follow the Swedish model, though doubtless well-intentioned, is naïve and absurd. Americans, in general, won’t act like Swedes—even though some of them, like my wife, are Swedes. The results of relying on Swedish-style social cohesion from Americans would be disastrous in the short term.

But those who call for a unified national crackdown do not grasp the dimensions of the problem. The president, with all his minions, cannot command all Americans to do anything, any more than King Canute could turn back the tide. 

King Canute rebukes his courtiers as the tide rolls in, unblocked. Illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. Public Domain.

The governors have a slightly better chance of applying that nuanced mix of persuasion and compulsion that will work in their respective states. Even they will probably mis-calculate some of their edicts. What federal authorities can offer is material support to the states and the broad popular influence of national experts who speak with credibility.

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Does all this add up to an imperfect response? Maybe so. 

Are other countries doing better? Who can say?

Will people die because our government has no magic wands to wave? Could be.

It is what it is. We are who we are, exercising our private judgments free of all conventional restraints. 

Let us seek to be wise, prudent, and kind in that exercise.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer