No one was more nonplussed than Your New Favorite Writer when Milo Bung, after his narrow brush with mortality in the Marines, came home and married Muriel Blankenship (Class of ’62).
“Muriel Blankenship!” I expostulated at the time. “Why HER, of all people?” I prophesied that Milo would rue the day he married Muriel Blankenship. Maybe that’s why I was not named Best Man. As consolation they did, in the end, permit me to ush at the wedding.
Now, nigh onto sixty years later, Milo seems about to admit that I WAS RIGHT!
It’s all about hardware.
The Hardware Challenge
“You know I’m not much of a do-it-yourselfer or home repairman,” Milo said as we stood in his garage. “But over the years a man accumulates fasteners, lubricants, hand tools, power tools, blades, bits, and all sorts of oddities.” Milo swept his arm inclusively over a small workbench in a back corner of the garage, behind Muriel’s gardening tools.
When a man, through no fault of his own, amasses such a treasure hoard of metal and plastic doodads, he naturally takes a proprietary interest in his collection. He becomes a curator.
“Take metal fasteners, for example,” Milo said. “I’ve got here nails, screws, nuts and bolts, for starters. Each of these has subdivisions. For instance, there are common nails, roofing nails, finishing nails, galvanized nails, and so on. Two-penny, four-penny, six-penny, eight-penny, ten-penny, et cetera, et cetera. Round-head, flat-head, pan-head, oval-head screws; slotted, Philips, square drive and star drive; wood screws and sheet metal screws; steel, brass, chrome—you get the idea. I’ve got stove bolts and carriage bolts, square nuts and hex nuts. Don’t forget wing nuts. Plain washers and lock washers. And specialized fasteners like toggle bolts, hooks and eyes, turnbuckles. Not to mention turn buttons for storm windows.” He paused to take a breath.
“Turn buttons for storm windows?” I asked.
“I told you not to mention them,” he said. “Anyway, you can see these things all come in various sizes and finishes. And what about little old things like cold chisels, offset screwdrivers, and old-fashioned seat reamers for washer-type faucets?”
“Nobody uses those anymore, do they?”
He fixed my eye with a gimlet stare. “Do they not? I really wouldn’t know. But, you need a plumbing snake? I’ve got one.”
“Your point being?” I inquired.
“My point being, Muriel wants me to re-organize all this stuff. Which is secret code for, throw it out.”
“Throw it out?” I gasped. “When you’ve spent a lifetime collecting it? Those hundreds of trips to the hardware store, where you come home with things you wind up using only a part of, or not needing at all? And then you need to keep them, in case you ever don’t need them again?”
Milo nodded. “Exactly,” he said.
“Throw out those little useful parts out of gizmos you dismantled and threw away—but you kept those unique little parts, because you never know when you will need them?” I was in high dudgeon.
“Little electric motors from disused exhaust fans—”
“Curtain rod brackets for curtain rods of a style that’s no longer made—”
“Yes! And what about—”
“I know,” Milo said. He picked up an I-kid-you-not metal Hills Brothers coffee can and rattled it, with a satisfying jingle from inside. “Every kind of miscellaneous and odd-sized screw, bolt, pin, and toggle known to man. A mix you can just swirl your hand around in and maybe come up with the exact thing you need to re-attach the downspout where you snipped it loose to put in the rain barrel.”
My head swam. “And, let me get this straight. Your wife, the esteemed Muriel Blankenship Bung—”
“May her name ever be whispered with reverence—”
“Muriel wants you to throw these things out?”
Milo sighed. “Or reduce them by at least half, and then put the rest in some logical order that makes sense to her. . . .”
I could see where he was going with this. “Or to some other random observer who—”
“Did not have a hand in acquiring, collecting, and arranging all these items in the first place.”
The Many Faces of Evil
O the horror. The revered Muriel, bent on a heedless path of destruction. Never mind that she has given Milo the best six decades of her life and three fine children who are outstanding citizens. Forget that she has saved Milo’s bacon any number of times and flawlessly guided him through complex social situations with never the slightest faux pas. She is about to become a prime villainess—a veritable Cat Woman of the near West Side—by suggesting that the amorphous pile of metal parts occupying the rear corner of the garage, which Milo has spent six decades amassing, be reorganized “before it gets out of hand.”
Gentle Reader, we ask you: When does Muriel think it was ever IN hand?
The hardware situation was already spinning out of control when young newlywed Milo came home from the hardware store proudly bearing those brackets to hang the curtain rods on, and a blister pack of little brads to poke them in with.
There were bound to be parts left over—extras that anyone would be a fool to throw away. This crisis was fore-ordained.
Now, when he can no longer figure out how to tune his TV set, and when starting up a rental car has become a dark mystery, that pile of seemingly random junk in the garage is one of the last arenas where Milo still knows what’s what.
And Muriel Blankenship Bung, Class of ’62, wants to take it apart, throw the best half away, and put the rest back together upside-down and backwards.
“Stand up for yourself!” I told him. “Don’t trade your birthright for a mess of helpful organizational hints.”
“Well,” said Milo. “I don’t know. If I don’t clear out this junk, the kids’ll just have to do it, a few years from now.”
Sometimes I feel like an army of one in the Global War on How Things Are Now.
Consumer Cellular—that Heaven-sent company for old, grouchy, reluctant adopters—has sent me a brusque email. They say that something called 3G is going away; hence, they can no longer support the phone I keep in my car.
Therefore, I must upgrade. It’s, like, mandatory.
A Smart Phone Denier
If you have been paying attention, Fair Reader, you’ll already know about my failure to be enthralled by smart phones. But in case you are a newcomer here, I’ll just mention that my only cell phone is a $13-a-month clamshell device. I keep it charged in my car in case of the just-barely-possible event of having car trouble in a remote location.
That device, and the service package that keeps it going, have now been dumped on history’s rubbish heap. The slightest available upgrade—to 4G, whatever that is—will cost me $25 per month, almost double what I now pay. Our free market being what it is, that convenient new figure of $25 derives from nothing more complex or baffling than the company’s need to extract twice as much cash from its senior citizen customers.
In addition to the service plan, one must also have a new phone. The 4G version of my old flip phone costs less than sixty dollars, and they will let me pay that off at two bucks a month for two years. So my penalty for living in 2021 will be only $27 minus the $13 I was already paying. So, an extra $14 per month. Chicken feed. Then I could roll on as before, unvexed by progress.
I probably should do just that.
But, Why Not?
You know full well, Dear Reader, how easily the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. You see, that same two bucks a month would cover an entry-level “smart” phone—a sleek little beauty with a shiny glass face and the ability to do all those things people are always doing with their smart phones.
So, what’s to think about? Why would I not make the obvious move—the “smart” move?
Once upon a time, Your New Favorite Writer—in a desperate, ill-starred bid to enter the twenty-first century—acquired an Apple iPhone 4. I shared my life with it for a couple of years, but we never became romantically involved. No matter how I tried, I could not develop an abject dependence on, or even a liking for, the darned thing.
I do enjoy chatting with my friends and relatives; that doesn’t mean I feel a need to talk or text with them every few minutes. Likewise, I feel no need to document my doings with photos. I can check email on my laptop; when I get home will be soon enough.
As for driving directions: If I’m going someplace I’ve never gone, I look it up ahead of time. My old granny always told me: If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t go.
Tallying up all all these phantom benefits, I then considered the pocket factor. In my pockets I carry a wallet, keys, comb, sun-glasses case, and, often, a roll-up hat to keep the sun off my head. I spent two years trying to cram an Apple iPhone 4 in with all that stuff. Never did find a place where it could fit.
So I chucked the smart phone and opted instead for a simple flip phone to reside in my car.
Living in the Past
Having failed to embrace the modern world, I tried instead to make a virtue of nonconformity. I have aspired to be the last person in North America to get a smart phone. One can—without becoming a Luddite, I trust—take a certain kind of calm satisfaction from hewing to the good old ways.
Yet now, this idyll is threatened. Not by the convenience or utility of smart phones, that’s for sure. Not even by irresistible coercion from Consumer Cellular; after all, they have been careful to keep a clamshell model available, newly enabled for 4G.
No, Gentle Reader, it is only the sinking feeling that some new, unforeseen wrinkle in the social fabric may suddenly render smart phones truly indispensable. Then I’d be out of luck, wouldn’t I? I would be the only person in North America yet to begin the smart phone learning curve. Maybe I should start now, before it’s too late. At least, you know, get my learner’s permit.
Does that make sense?
In a dark corner of my mind there is a ragged rebellion raging against this craven capitulation. There has been no need for the convenience and wonderfulness of a smart phone until now. What could change?
All this may seem like a small matter, but in my brain the choice looms like an existential crisis. To smart phone, or not to smart phone? That is the question.
Our church, like a lot of churches, has shrunk. So we sold our big meetinghouse and started holding services in a rented storefront. Our worship is now simpler, more informal.
Our music director plays an electronic piano, not a multi-manual pipe organ. Today’s prelude was Fond D’Orgue by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 1632-1714. It must have been composed for organ, but now it was played on a single keyboard, boiled down to a simple melody.
As usual, my mind was on other things—mainly the progress of my historical novel, which I am now revising. I was thinking about changes I would make in Chapter 22, when Nivers’s tune broke through.
The simple fall of pure tones stopped me cold. In a startling moment, the tune became an attribute of the Divine.
It is more my style to cast God as a supporting player—essential, yet secondary—in my own grand maneuvers.
What is God for, if not to support me?
Along came Nivers’s tune, a pure thing, existing in its own plane, its link to a long-dead Frenchman moot.
My work—no matter how worthy, no matter how inspired—is a hardscrabble of striving and becoming, a smudged object of trade.
But a tune, a color, a shape, a tree, a stream—is all being. Is God manifested.
God dwells at the heart of things, always in flux yet never changing. The facets of God’s transformation flash like signboards on country stations at night as we go barreling through on the fast express with rarely a glimmer of recognition.
But the God of tunes and colors and leaves and fishes is always accessible. Is present to us in that sabbath state when we hear music and forget our customary concerns.
We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere.
My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.
But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.
Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream.
Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.
Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.
Life at Sea
Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.
Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans.
Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods.
Salmon Patties, Anyone?
When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.
Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.
But I digress. Back to the sea:
Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born.
Born to Spawn
Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn.
In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.
Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.
If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders.
A Salmonic Odyssey
In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it.
To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves.
Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.
Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process.
We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say.
But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.
“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”
Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.
“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.”
“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.
Alaska has a way of wearing a man down.
The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.
This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities.
Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill.
On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra.
It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.
It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system.
We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives.
For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.
Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that.
Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.
Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.
Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.
Just over a month ago, I announced in this space that I was laying aside my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase for an indefinite time because of difficulty in reconciling two diverging story lines.
Soon after, I heard from my friend and champion Christine, who made a compelling case that it was possible to write a successful novel including this bifurcated plot. I took a deep breath, tried again, and lo! The successful rewrite is now complete. I am extremely satisfied.
I won’t tell you, Dear Reader, exactly what changes I made in the manuscript. I will tell you that it’s now a much more compelling read than the manuscript I was trying to sell as recently as a year ago. Some work remains to polish it, but I hope to begin marketing again in the near future.
What I can tell you is that is has a new title: The Maelstrom. And it is still the story of a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning.
Thanks for your patience. I heard recently the average time an author takes to complete a first novel is five years. So I’m right on schedule.
O purple splotch,
How dare you?
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
You are an intruder beneath my skin.
I say again, How dare you?
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
In days of old this could not have happened.
In days of old my forces would have marshaled
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries
against your onslaught.
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow,
the tread of an opponent’s spikes,
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
You and your cunning ways,
how you will linger
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp
as silently as the Arabs,
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
How dare you?
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing;
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality
of its deliverance.
My old MacBook Pro 13” laptop has been Your New Favorite Writer’s general headquarters ever since it was purchased in 2011. It is a wonderful device. It’s probably as close as I’ve ever come to loving an inanimate object. (I had a casual fling with an MGB-GT sports car in the late 1960s when I was stationed on Okinawa—but that’s another story.)
My 2011 MacBook Pro exceeded my wildest expectations. And it still works.
But its keyboard and trackpad are not quite as responsive as they once were. After ten years’ hard use, they might be forgiven if they just wore out.
So I went to the Apple Store and bought a new MacBook Pro 13” laptop.
I wanted a computer just like the old one—but of course that’s impossible. The new one is thinner by almost 3/8”. It’s a pound or two lighter, though it still feels substantial. The keyboard has a nicer touch. There is more memory, more storage, and more speed. The battery is said to last twenty hours. I haven’t pushed it to that limit; but I have taken it off the grid for periods of two or three hours, only to find that 90 to 95 percent of the battery’s power remained.
But my Microsoft Office 2010 will not run on the new 64-bit system with M1 silicon chip and the . . . wait for it . . . “Big Sur” operating system. So I had to sign up for a $70/year subscription to Microsoft 365.
Big deal. I’m back in action and good to go.
The upshot of which, Dear Reader, is that you’re stuck with me for at least ten more years. Think about that sometime when you’re up in the middle of the night.
“The Pilgrims? It’s not November—why are we talking about Pilgrims?”
For one thing, maybe in midsummer we can step back and be a bit—dare I whisper the word?—dispassionate.
Passion rules the day. On every hand, our passions are egged on. “Engage your passion” is almost as frequent a bit of advice as “Follow your dreams.”
But has anybody bothered to check what that really means? Perhaps you will indulge me:
passion . . . n. [[OFr < LL(Ec) passio, a suffering, esp. that of Christ (<L passus, pp. of pati, to endure < IE base *pē-, to harm > Gr pēma, destruction, L paene, scarcely): transl. of Gr pathos: see pathos]] 1a) [Archaic] suffering or agony, as of a martyr b) [Now Rare] an account of this 2 [P-] a) the sufferings of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the Garden of Gethsmane and continuing to his death on the Cross b) any of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion and of accompanying events c) an artistic work, as an oratorio or a play, based on these narratives 3a) any one of the emotions, as hate, grief, love, fear, joy, etc. b) [pl.] all such emotions collectively 4 extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement; specif., a) great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness [a passion for music]c) strong love or affection d) sexual drive or desire; lust 5 the object of any strong desire or fondness 6 [Obs.] the condition of being acted upon, esp. by outside influences—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
Webster goes on to comment that “passion usually implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect [his passions overcame his reason] [.]”
Ignoring all the brackets, parentheses, italics, boldface, numbers, letters, and abbreviations that clutter the lexicography, we can discern that passion comprises suffering, endurance, harm, destruction, pathos, agony, martyrdom, and extremes of compelling or overpowering emotion—to include love, affection, and lust but, more commonly, hate, fear, grief, anger, rage, and fury.
As a novelist and screenwriter, I applaud these outrageous eruptions of emotion. They make drama.
But in my role as a human being trying to cope with the world, I must take a rather different tack. I believe that reason and objectivity—things that do not easily coexist with passion—are the best survival tools handed down from the philosophers of old.
They allow us to see our world more nearly as it is—less tinted by our fears, resentments, and extravagant dreams.
“Okay, My New Favorite Writer, but what about the Pilgrims? You were going to say something about Pilgrims.”
We’ll get to that, Gentle Reader. Don’t give up on me yet.
First, another mild digression.
As a young man, I studied a bit of the History of Science under Prof. David Lindberg at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Lindberg’s introductory lecture in the course covered what he called ancestor worship.
Ancestor worship, in the good professor’s view, was the study of history on the basis that people of old times were either clear-sighted heroes (if we can make out that they pioneered the values we espouse today) or blind and bigoted blackguards (if they violated our current norms).
This ancestor worship—really more an attitude than a program—leads to outlandish propositions that we often accept without rigorous examination. For instance:
Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in order to champion Freedom, Progress, and Democracy.
Christopher Columbus ravaged the American hemisphere and commited genocide because he was a vicious white supremacist.
All those who lived before the Renaissance—or the Enlightenment, if you will, or the Summer of Love—were untutored savages who lived lives void of intelligent vision.
Many other, similarly fatuous, statements could be made. What they all have in common is a fatal simplicity.
Real life, Dear Reader, is not all that straightforward.
Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German mathematician, started from the assumption that the planets moved in circular orbits which could be neatly inscribed in a nesting series of perfect Euclidean solids, and ended up proving the planets move in elliptical orbits that could not possibly answer to such imaginary constraints. Furthermore, despite his massive intelligence, it seems he saw no contradication between his two irreconcilable theories. He saw the former as being proved, not disproved, by the latter. Huh?
Actuality just wants to escape any convenient mental box we try to cram it into.
Luther lived in a time when Progress was not a recognized value. Democracy was unthinkable, except as a curious aberration of the Athenians in remote antiquity. And if Luther valued Freedom, it would have been the freedom of the believer to realize salvation in Christ. His whole concern was that the institutional Church was stifling the ordinary person’s hope of receiving the Grace which the Scriptures revealed. If Luther was a hero, he was a hero of Faith, not of Modernity.
Columbus seems to have been actuated by the hope of Glory, Fame, and Wealth on Earth—and, perhaps, Eternal Life in Heaven. That he pursued these goals by enslaving the inhabitants of Hispaniola shows that he did not value their lives as much as white European lives; not that he held a Hitler-style ideology of race. He trampled on the Arawaks just as any supreme egotist tramples anyone in his path. It was made easy by the fact that they could not post eloquent written protests in Spanish or Latin. His genocide was casual, not programmatic。
And as for the belief that those who lived in days of yore were simply not bright enough to understand the world’s complexities as we do—Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Augustine of Hippo would like to have a word with you.
The real history of the world is not a relentless March of Progress nor a sinister Parade of Criminality, but an ongoing Stumble of Perplexity.
“But what about the Pilgims? Are we there yet?”
Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:
A group of Puritan Separatists—people who wanted to leave the state-mandated Church of England—fled to Holland after persecution by British monarchs. A few years later, disillusioned with life among the Dutch, they sailed for America. They arrived off Cape Cod in December 1620. Half of them died of disease and hunger during the first winter. Friendly Indians named Squanto and Samoset introduced themselves the following spring and taught our Separatist Pilgrims how to grow corn. In the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a harvest feast that we now call the First Thanksgiving.
Because the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by other Puritans ten years later, became materially successful over the ensuing decades, they came to be celebrated by their 19th-century descendants as precursors of all that was good in American life. They were seen as model saints, who were sometimes victimized by their Native American neighbors but had never done anything to provoke such treatment. They were energetic and intelligent colonists, whose prosperity owed all to hard work and intelligence. Indeed, in the Mayflower Compact they had drawn up the very blueprint of American Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy.
Does anything about this seem familiar to you? That’s right—Ancestor Worship!
Because the view of the Pilgrims developed by 19th-century Congregationalists was slanted, 20th-century historians began to debunk many parts of it, in the interest of correcting the record. The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of a corps of self-consciously subjective historians motivated by Marxist ideology. Their view was that there is no such thing as objective historiography; that history is always a political act. To them, the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ checkered relationship with the Native Americans of the region was an opportunity to denounce capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.
Besides this, Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century gained ground in their quest to be heard. And the Wampanoags, today’s descendants of the Patuxets and other early Massachusetts tribes, had some long-neglected bones to pick.
Thus, although the 19th century’s triumphalist view of the Pilgrims held sway well into the 1950s—when Your New Favorite Writer and many other old people were school children—the “oppressor Pilgrims” narrative, fed by leftist historians and supported by well-documented assertions of the Wampanoag people, has gained ground since the 1960s.
There are still plenty of pro-Pilgrim apologists out there. But they must increasingly feel like yesterday’s children, shouting down a dry rain barrel.
In the interest of sanity, not to mention conciliation in a divisive era, let me point out a few truths that are sometimes overlooked.
1. Before the arrival of white Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America was never what we would consider densely populated. Nobody knows how many Native Americans there were in pre-Columbian days, but recent estimates range from eight million to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. The North American part of that would be less. If we average the two figures and assign half of the result to North America, we get 30 million. While this is a much larger population of American Indians than existed subsequently—after the effects of virgin-soil epidemics, outright wars, and a long period of genocidal practices—North America would still have seemed sparsely populated to Europeans of that era.
2. The incursions of Spanish colonists in the West and Southwest, and Englishmen on the East Coast, started a catastrophic decline in the fortunes and the populations of Native American tribes. Of this there can be no doubt. As the Pilgrims constituted an early successful experiment in colonization, they were part of the problem, from the Native American point of view.
3. The frequent forays of English fishermen, explorers, and adventurers into North America in the arly 1600s caused one or more serious virgin soil epidemics in New England. Such epidemics happen when a group of people bring new disease organisms into a population not previously exposed to them. Since no resistance has been previously acquired, the disease spreads swiftly, with extreme virulence. One such epidemic depopulated the Massachusetts shoreline just before the Pilgrims arrived. Finding evidence of a recently vanished native civilization, the religious Pilgrims saw in that circumstance the special providence of God—the Hand of the Almighty had cleared a place for them to live.
4. In the first weeks of their sojourn on the new shore, the Pilgrims uncovered a bushel of corn left by the former inhabitants as grave goods. They understood something of the spititual significance of this corn to the people who had left it there. But those people were nowhere to be seen, and the Pilgrims were in danger of starving. They took the corn and resolved to make restitution if they ever got the chance—a pledge they made good on, by the way.
Now it is 2021. We live thirty years after Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” We seem to be having some trouble doing so.
If we are to make progress towards getting along, we must start by acknowledging the scope and pain of the real losses suffered by those cast aside in America’s rush to power and wealth. Where feasible, we should try to make amends.
To shed light on the past may help us do better in the future. But ferreting out the sins of our ancestors to use as cudgels against one another in the present is worse than useless.
Our common history is no less complicated for its being troubled, and the search for Good Guys and Bad Guys is more futile the farther we are removed from the facts.