Our Lady Under Canvas: Further Adventures of Milo Bung

These days, I try to stretch my legs. Long walks are good exercise. You don’t even need a face mask, if you stay six feet from everyone you meet.

Mary shrine. Photo by Fastfission, licensed under CC0 1.0.

My walk took me so far yesterday that I stumbled into Milo Bung’s neighborhood. Milo was out in the corner of his yard, working on something. I stood and ogled the object of his labors. It was a large, shapeless mass. A canvas sheet, I guessed, draped over . . . aha!

Milo had thrown a grayish tarpaulin over his Holy Mother grotto.

The item in question is an imitation rock face, five feet high, with a niche scooped out of its front. In the cave-like niche stands a plaster Virgin Mary in blue and white robes, arms outspread to the faithful. It’s a familiar lawn manifesto in our part of the country, where dwell many devout Roman Catholics.

Milo is not one of those. 

I do not know what religion he professes, if any. But the house’s previous owner had installed the little shrine. Milo, being Milo, had left it alone. Now it was covered with a tarp—a house-painter’s dropcloth, yet without spot or stain.

Virginal.

“What are you doing?” I cried. 

“Does that look like a rock to you?” 

“It looks like a dropcloth hung over your Virgin Mary.”

“I mean, if you didn’t know she was under there—would you think it was a boulder? A natural rock outcropping?”

“No. I’d think it was a tarp covering something.”

Milo frowned. He switched on a noisy air compressor at his feet, picked up a hose nozzle, and sprayed the canvas with something wet and gray and pulpy. 

Peace

After a few minutes he shut off the racket, set down the hose, and inspected his work. “That’s more like it. Should set up pretty quick.”

“Milo,” I asked, “why do you want to make your Holy Mother shrine into a featureless rock?”

“I heard they’re tearing down statues these days, and I didn’t want mine to be one of them. The rock is temporary camouflage. You know, till the fad passes.” 

I sighed. Conversations with Milo always include a sigh. 

“Nobody,” I pointed out, “is going to come around and tear down your statue of Jesus’s mother.” 

Milo waggled the inactive hose nozzle at me. “But then, I wouldn’t have thought they’d mess with General Grant, either. Or Francis Scott Key. I’m taking no chances. I kinda like the old gal, smiling there on my lawn. She makes me feel peaceful.”

The notion of Milo Bung, pacified, brings to mind a hibernating armadillo. He is not exactly a cauldron of pent-up mayhem in his normal state.

The Areopagus. Photo by O.Mustafin, licensed under CC0 1.0.

He resumed spraying.

Iconoclasts

I had to concede, as he worked at it, that the agglomerated mess looked less and less like a piece of canvas. It began to assume the gnarled gravitas of the Areopagus in Athens. 

“You think making your shrine into a big rock is the answer?” I asked. “How do you know the Visigoths won’t came along one day and demolish your boulder?”

“Nah.” Milo gave the nearly-finished promontory an extra squirt of sauce. “I’ve been studying these folks. They only tear down representational art. 

“They are iconoclasts.”

This conversational pièce de résistance left me staring at Milo, all flumberbusted.

“You can look it up in your Funk and Wagnall’s,” he said.

I left him there, putting the finishing touches on his art, adamantine and virginal.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Heg’s Message for 2020

Last Tuesday, I posted a jeremiad. It was my first response to the destruction of a venerable statue here in Madison, Wisconsin.

Friends who saw this lament commented, “Well, at least now, from your blog post, I have learned about Colonel Hans Christian Heg.” Meaning, they now know the name of the man whose statue was destroyed.

But if that’s all you know of Heg, then you need to know quite a bit more before you can begin to understand just why his story happens to be especially important right at this moment. 

So here goes:

Immigrant

Hans Christian Heg’s father, Even Hansen Heg, was an enterprising man who owned and operated a hotel in Drammen, Norway. In 1840, encouraged by letters from two acquaintances, Sören Backe and Johannes Johanneson, Heg took his wife and four children to join Backe and Johanneson at Wind Lake in the new Muskego Settlement in Racine County, Wisconsin.

Heg built a huge barn. It became a social and religious center and a place of first haven for Norwegian families arriving at Muskego. With its burgeoning population of Norsemen, Muskego was a place where new arrivals could adjust to America bit by bit, learning the new language and customs at an unhurried pace, because almost the whole community spoke Norsk. In 1847, Even Heg joined with Backe and editor James D. Reymert to start America’s first Norwegian-language newspaper, Nordlyset (The Northern Light).

Abolitionist

But by then, Even’s eldest son, Hans Christian, had already mastered the language and customs of America. In 1848, at nineteen, he became an active worker for the Free Soil Party, which opposed extension of slavery into the new states west of the Mississippi. The Nordlyset meanwhile had also become the party’s house organ in the Norwegian community.

Colonel Hans Christian Heg. Public Domain.

At age twenty, Heg answered the siren song of gold and joined the army of Forty-Niners headed for California. After two years there, and just when his prospecting was starting to pay, he received word of his father’s death. Since his mother was already dead, duty to his younger siblings called him home.

He took over the family farm at Wind Lake, married, and immersed himself in Free Soil politics. When the party merged into the new Republican Party, Heg became a Republican. In 1859, he was elected state prison commissioner, a post in which he worked to promote vocational training for prisoners. Two years later, with Republican Abraham Lincoln elected president, the states of the South seceded. The Civil War began. Heg resigned his prisons post and started recruiting fellow immigrants into the Union Army. His “thousand Norsemen” were mustered into service as the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, under Heg’s command.

Soldier

Bronze statue of Heg, by Paul Fjelde. Public Domain.

After leading the 15th through major battles at Perryville, Kentucky, and Stones River, Tennessee, Heg was shot through the gut at Chickamauga, Georgia. He died the next day. His body was shipped back to Wisconsin and buried in the Lutheran churchyard near Wind Lake. In 1925, the Norwegian Society of America commisioned Norwegian-American sculptor Paul Fjelde to create a nine-foot bronze statue of Heg in uniform. The society gave it to the state of Wisconsin and it was installed on the capitol grounds. There it stood, honoring Heg and his regiment for 95 years, until a mob—ostensibly seeking racial justice—tore it down, dismembered it, and threw it into Lake Monona on June 23, 2020.

But Wait—There’s More

If the information just given is all you know about Colonel Heg, you’re still missing the point. For context is everything.

As stirring and sad as Heg’s story is, it’s far from unusual. The reasons why it’s not unusual form the heart of the story. The statue destroyed last week was not so much a tribute to Heg as to the spirit shared by Heg and his comrades-in-arms.

Heg was one of at least 360,000 Americans who gave their lives wearing Union blue and who therefore can be said to have died in the fight against slavery. They were mostly white men, but increasingly as the war went on, many black soldiers also served and died.

Heg commanded the only all-Norwegian regiment in the war. But the 15th Wisconsin was hardly the only ethnic regiment. 

Germans

Prussian troops storm the revolutionaries’ barricades at Alexander Platz, Berlin, 1848. By JoJan – Own work; photo made at an exhibition at the Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, Germany, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17630682.

Many Germans had come to America as political refugees after the Revolutions of 1848-49 in the German states. They and other German-Americans populated all-German units such as the 8th and 68th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments, the 52nd New York German Rangers, the 9th Ohio, 74th Pennsylvania, 32nd Indiana, and 9th Wisconsin infantry regiments.  Each Northern regiment had approximately one thousand men. Counting all who served in these ethnic units, and many more who served in ordinary regiments from the states where they lived, some 200,000 of the Americans who fought for the Union had begun life in Germany.

Irish

Green Ensign of the 1st Regiment (69th N. Y. Volunteer Infantry), Irish Brigade, Union Army. Public Domain.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s brought a million and a half Irish people to America. Recent Irish immigrants serving in the Union Army numbered 150,000. Some served in all-Irish regiments like the 37th New York Volunteers and the 90th Illinois Volunteers. The 63rd, 69th, and 88th Infantry Regiments of New York formed the core of what was called the Irish Brigade. The brigade was shredded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, its effective force reduced from 1,600 to 256 men. In the whole course of the war, the Irish Brigade suffered the third greatest number of combat dead of all brigades in the Union Army.

Others

New York’s 79th Infantry Regiment was made up of recently-arrived Scots, who wore tartan kilts as part of their uniforms.

Other ethnic units had soldiers who had come to America from Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, France, and Spain. 

Many immigrant soldiers joined the fight in mixed units of ordinary Americans. 

My great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen—a second son of a second son who came from Norway in 1853 because he could not inherit the farm—settled in central Illinois, where Norwegians were scarce. There was no local Norwegian regiment to join. The unit he did join—Company K, 106th Illinois Volunteer Infantry—was an outfit from Menard County whose other soldiers all had Anglo-American names, except for a handful of Germans and Irishmen. 

Motives

I wrote a novel, Freedom’s Purchase, a fictional account based on the lives of Anders Gunstensen and his wife, Maria. In making up the plot, except for a few dry, statistical facts—such as Anders’ membership in the 106th Illinois—I had no information about Anders’ and Maria’s lives in America. No letters, no diaries, no heirlooms. So I was free to speculate that a large part of Anders’ motive in serving was a strong opposition to slavery in his adopted land. I dare anyone to prove otherwise.

African American soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864. By Unknown author – Library of Congress CALL NUMBER: LC-B811- 2553[P&P], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3819873

But the assumption is not far-fetched. It was demonstrably true of many immigrant soldiers in the Civil War, like Hans Christian Heg. 

Most or all of the African Americans who volunteered as soldiers had fighting slavery as a prime motive. They joined regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry—the unit celebrated in the film Glory—and various federal units known as United States Colored Troops.

Why?

What’s the point of all this? 

I said when you knew more about Colonel Hans Christian Heg and understood why he was not unusual, you would know the point of the story. What does that mean?

Here it is: Millions of men, women, and children braved long, perilous voyages in sailing ships from Europe to America in the years before the Civil War. Whether they fled famine, political persecution, or simple economic hardship, they came to America hoping for a better life. 

They sought not only the material wealth of this blessed country. They hungered also for the democratic, republican political system of the new nation that had electrified the world with its revolution of 1776 and its constitution of 1789.

Upon arrival, they found themselves part of a dynamic nation, strongly swayed by recent immigrants like themselves. When that nation was threatened with extinction, they came together to save it. 

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln told all Americans, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” And they believed him. 

These immigrants, whether they ate lefse, potatoes, or sauerkraut, came together in a joint cause. People who grew up in autocratic monarchies like that of Sweden/Norway (joined as a single country at the time) and those who came from German states jockeying for prominence in post-Napoleonic Europe came together for a complex of reasons. It was imperative to save the Union and high time to end the system of slavery. 

They joined forces with Anglo-Americans whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, with recent immigrants from other lands, and with undaunted, agitated African Americans whose friends and families still wore chains. 

They did something special for themselves, for black people in America, and for all of us  descendants. What they did, they did at the cost of their lives. Or they left arms or legs or facial parts on bloody fields and lived out their days hobbled. 

What they achieved was noble in conception but turned out to be a far cry from perfect when put through the wringer of a racist society. Their battlefield success was only one phase of a longer war—a struggle for freedom, understanding, and decency that is still being waged today. 

Those immigrant soldiers of the Civil War, men like Hans Christian Heg, did not solve all the big problems they inherited from America’s slavemasters. But they came together; and what they did, they did together. They kept the Union together to face the internal struggles of later times.

We have a gigantic task ahead of us—the formation of a better society—a task which can only be accomplished bit by bit.

The only way it can possibly be done is together.

That is why we should remember Hans Christian Heg and his many brothers in arms. That is why they are important.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A War Against History

Hans Christian Heg, an immigrant from Norway, believed that black lives matter.

For this reason he became a leader of Wisconsin’s Wide Awakes, an anti-slave catcher militia. He sheltered Sherman Booth, who was made a federal fugitive after inciting a mob to rescue an escaped slave. He joined the Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western states. 

When the Free Soil Party merged into the new Republican Party, which also opposed the expansion of slavery, Heg became a Republican. When the Republican candidate became president and the slave-holding states of the South seceded, he went to work raising an army unit from his fellow Norwegians. His “thousand Norsemen” were mustered into service as the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the only all-Scandinavian regiment in the Union Army, with Heg at their head as colonel. 

Colonel Hans Christian Heg, in bronze, by Paul Fjelde. Public Domain.

He led the 15th in battle at Perrysville, Kentucky, and Stones River, Tennessee. In September 1863, at Chickamauga, Georgia, he “was shot through the bowels and died the next day.” Heg’s body was returned to Wisconsin and buried in the Norwegian Lutheran cemetery near Wind Lake.

In 1925, in conjunction with the centennial of Norwegian immigration to America, a bronze statue of Heg was installed at the state capitol in Madison. The bronze colonel has stood in silent witness to Norwegian-Americans’ contributions to freedom ever since.

Statue Toppled

But a few nights ago—June 23, 2020—a mob of citizens toppled Heg’s statue, dismembered it, and threw the pieces in Lake Monona. They had begun by protesting the disorderly-conduct arrest of a black man named Devonere Johnson and ended by destroying the statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg.

Many have pointed out the apparent incongruity of Black Lives Matter protesters destroying the statue of a leading abolitionist and Civil War hero. “These people must not know history,” they have said.

But surely the point here is that in the current uproar, historical judgments are irrelevant. History itself is the enemy. The bond between past and present sometimes becomes more visceral than philosophical. At such times, the strident present ransacks the mute past, seeking out victims. Ask any Bosnian.

There can be no distinction between a Hans Christian Heg and a Nathan Bedford Forrest when a noisy claque regards the whole past as merely a bogus excuse for a deplorable status quo.

Taking Revenge on the Dead

As the descendant of a Norwegian who died as a Union soldier in the Civil War, I have more than a casual interest in the fate of Colonel Hans Christian Heg.

It is bad enough they killed him at Chickamauga. Killing him all over again, by effigy,  assasinates his memory. It cannot injure Hans Christian Heg beyond the grave. But it is dispiriting to those of us who would like to suppose that Americans express themselves in rational ways. Obviously, that is not always so. 

The people destroying things now for racial harmony, like those destroying things fifty years ago for peace, may think they are igniting The Revolution. Their Marxist utopia did not come into being in those days. But our nation’s troubling racial divide is a more fertile ground for deep-seated conflict.

It’s unlikely there will be a revolution, but it’s easy to believe we are in for a long, hard time. It would be nice if some good came out of it all, but I don’t have that kind of faith.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Police

In the spring of 1965 I flunked out of Knox College. The timing of this was pretty spectacular, as there was a war on. 

I lost my student deferment and went to the top of the Draft Board’s list for two years’ service in the Army or Marines. Instead I volunteered for a four-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force. They sent me to Monterey, California, to learn Chinese. 

After learning Chinese, I spent a year on a Taiwan mountaintop, monitoring Chinese Communist radio communications; then spent about fifteen months flying out of Okinawa, grinding away at the Chinese Problem from recon aircraft over Southeast Asia. 

RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Photo by Tim Felce, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I completed my service in September 1969 and came home to a land I barely recognized. Gone was the familiar America of Walt Whitman, singing its varied carols. In its place wallowed a society designed by, or for, Saul Alinsky and Howard Zinn.

The culture shock was starkened by my having gone immediately from military service to the University of Wisconsin campus at the height of its anti-war, revolutionary, zeal. The serious leftists in Madison, some of whom I got to know pretty well, were dedicated, if mostly amateur, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist agitators. 

Revolution

Turned loose by Uncle Sam, I sought now to redeem myself as a student. This time around, I promised myself, I would shun all-night poker parties and all-day Frisbee flinging. I would hit the books with righteous fervor. Admitted to the university on academic probation, I was determined to clear my name in one semester. 

Meanwhile, the campus of 35,000 students seethed with anger, revolt, socialist machinations, and broken windows.

On the twelfth floor of Van Hise Hall, East Asian and South Asian language students gathered to read, translate, argue, and kibbitz. From a perch nudging the stratosphere we gazed down on ant-like protesters surging at straight lines of National Guardsmen and police. Puffs of white smoke plumed the ground here and there—signs that our homeward treks at day’s end would be tinged with tear gas.

“The Pigs”

One day a young man whose name I no longer recall complained about the police—whom he called “the pigs,” in the argot of the day.

Pig. Photo by BadgerGravling, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“I wish you wouldn’t call them pigs,” I said.

He frowned. “Why not? That’s what they are.”

“No. Pigs are animals; police officers are people. They may not share your ideas, they may be ranged against you in a riot. But they are human beings. If you call them pigs you deny their humanity and make it convenient to disregard their human attributes. They may have a viewpoint  of their own, but you will never bother to consider it, because they’re only pigs.” 

For me, this was a long speech.

Policeman. Photo by rocor, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The young man gazed at me for a moment and said, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. From now on I will not call police officers pigs.”

A transformative moment, in the midst of the Revolution?  Fat chance.

If this young man was changed by my earnest entreaty, then he was the only one. I soon figured out that I was not made for political battles, or any other kind of battles. I gave up trying to engage intellectually with my friends on the left and shunned politics from that day to this. 

The protesters of 1969-70 opposed the police not only in practice but in principle. Policemen enforced the law. Thus they were tools of the Establishment, defenders of the status quo. The enemy.

Kent State, Sterling Hall

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard members killed four students at Kent State University. Then on August 24, here in Madison, revolutionaries planted a huge bomb that demolished Sterling Hall, a large academic building, and killed a physics researcher.These grim events took steam out of the anti-war movement; but only in January 1973—when President Richard Nixon pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Ho Chi Minh’s communists took over the whole country—did that movement end.

Pre-Vietnam normality began to seep back into the United States. But the gaping wound in our national fabric did not heal. Fifty years later, we remain mired in distrust of one another, of our government, and of authority in general.

Today’s Crises

“Authority” can mean two different things. Let’s call them “intrinsic authority” and “conferred authority.” 

Intrinsic authority speaks for itself. Jesus was said to have taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” When you have a knee replaced, you may rely on the surgeon’s medical diploma; but your go/no-go decision might be based on your gut’s  confidence in the surgeon, not on his formal qualifications. That’s intrinsic authority.

Conferred authority is legal, or legalistic. It is the authority of a city clerk to license a couple for marriage. It is the authority of a president to okay the launch of nuclear-tipped missiles. 

When intrinsic authority and conferred authority coincide, one of the results is a high-trust society. Unfortunately, such coincidence is becoming a rare thing. We give little obedience to conferred authority because we discern no intrinsic authority within it. We jeer our leaders; we defy those to whom they delegate power, including the police. 

Then and Now

The long-drawn-out war of our present day, being fought in Afghanistan since 2001, does not attract the intense interest that the one in Vietnam did fifty years ago. Fewer American troops are involved, none of them are draftees, and Southwest Asia seems even farther away now than Southeast Asia did then. 

Today’s great controversy is not war but race—racism, racial discrimination, white privilege, and the oppression of blacks. But in one way our time does resemble the past: Police and policing stand at the center of the conflict.

I have not heard the term “pigs” applied to police in recent years—not even in the past two or three weeks. They are still regarded as humans, which is good. Recent events, however, paint them as racists—which may be worse than pigs.

Because of this, people keen on public order rush to point out that “most police” are dedicated, overworked public servants and should not be tarred with the brush of racism.

Defunding

But people keen on social justice assert that racism is systemic in our society. They profess that “defunding” the police would be a good step toward redressing the balance. The general public views this concept with horror, so the would-be defunders belatedly explain they do not mean complete defunding but only partial defunding. This satisfies nobody, because some folks really do want to abolish the police, while everybody else thinks the police need more funding, not less.

In all this palaver, what gets lost is any mature reckoning of the unique position that police occupy in our society. 

Mao Zedong in 1963. Public Domain.

The late Chairman Mao got at least one thing right: Political power does grow from the barrel of a gun. That is true always and everywhere. In a free society, we place that gun in the hands of a police officer and expect that officer to exercise conferred authority within limits prescribed by law.

George Orwell in 1943. Public Domain.

George Orwell said, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” Police are the people we hire to do violence on our behalf.

Protectors

What I am getting at is that, while police officers are humans, they are humans of a special kind.

Most of us fall into the category of the Protected. Police officers are the Protectors.

My wife’s cousin was a police officer in a Chicago suburb. He said that within a few weeks of putting on his badge, he had learned to lump people into two categories: good folks and bad guys. And he made this distinction within seconds of entering a situation. Such swift decisions must have included a large reliance on intuition. Was he ever mistaken in his assessments? The conversation did not extend that far. 

Those who have the “take-charge” kind of personality that leads them into law enforcement, and who need to survive in potentially hazardous situations, will most likely develop the same reliance on snap judgments that my wife’s cousin described. 

So when we, the People, lay plans to send out social workers in place of cops, let’s get real. When we modify police training and rules of engagement, let’s remember that police will need to translate their instructions into action in fluid situations. We should not be surprised when they find their powers creatively enhanced by statutes that we had thought would curb their power.

Remember that we license the police to use violence—brutal acts labeled as “authorized use of force”—on our behalf. If we do not wish to confer this authority, perhaps we should completely defund the police; abolish the departments. 

Then all of us, including those who “abjure” violence, would need to become the Protectors for ourselves and our families. Thirty-one states allow firearms to be carried openly. I suppose a general defunding of police departments would bring us back to the old Western ambience of Dodge City. Is that the outcome we seek?

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What we face, in practical terms, is a need to improve the way we confer authority upon our police officers.

But the greater issue is seldon spoken of. It is simply this: Unless those who wield conferred authority combine it with intrinsic authority, our problems will continue, will intensify, and will multiply.

Intrinsic authority = character. 

There is no substitute for character. Its short supply, in the police and in the whole population, is our real problem. 

When can we start working on that?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Book Review

The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go

A novel by Amy E. Reichert

In the mood for a summer read that will boost your faith in people, yet without being simplistic and sappy? A book that may even compel you to cry real tears—I confess I did—from sympathy and joy?

A Wisconsin woman has written such a book for you. Her name is Amy E. Reichert, and the book is called The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go.

No, it’s not one of those step-by-step self-help guides guaranteed to make you happy by teaching you to trust your Inner Self. Instead, it’s a novel, the tale of four women—three  generations of one family—who must try out new, unaccustomed paths through life as they cope with dizzymaking love, heartbreaking loss, and hard-wrought social and psychic defense mechanisms. 

The story centers on Gina, who owns and operates a one-woman food truck, serving  gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for Milwakee’s lunchtimers. Gina’s a pushover for people in real need, yet hard-nosed enough to run a thriving business. She’s also half-numb with mourning for her deceased husband and stumped by the challenge of relating to May, her equally grief-stricken daughter.

Gina, May, and Gina’s younger sister, Vicky, are showered with unwelcome parental supervision by Lorraine, Gina and Vicky’s overbearing mother. When a sudden crisis in Lorraine’s health begins to expose deeply-buried family secrets, all four need to readjust their lives to accommodate startling new realities.

I loved this book, principally because the people in it are so real. They are all people I’ve known, and I’ll wager you know them, too. The family situations they find themselves in both preposterous and absolutely credible. These are just the kinds of things that happen to people in real life.

The characters’ strengths can also be weaknesses, and their weaknesses strengths. Gina is a compulsive organizer, who can only stumble through her hectic days by making lists. Patronizing remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, it is Gina’s listmaking that gradually, persistently, begins to impose order on the chaos of her life—and even on the structure of the novel itself.

The old woman, Lorraine, is almost as irritating to the reader as she is to her daughters and granddaughter. But as her story gradually unwinds, we find ourselves admiring the very adaptations that make her so annoying. 

I would like to go on and on about the strengths of this novel, with its sure-footed narrative style. But if I write any more, you’ll begin to feel I’ve told you the whole story.

And it’s too good a story not to experience for yourself.

Ensconce yourself, at your earliest opportunity, with a copy of The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go. I’ll bet you will like it as much as I did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Milo Bung: Fact or Fiction

There is a niche of special distinction in the Class Clowns’ Hall of Fame, and it contains a marble bust of Milo Bung, smiling beatifically and crowned with laurel. When we were in sixth grade Milo was a source of much innocent merriment.

Laurel-crowned Milo Bung. Or perhaps, Apollo? Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

Where your average class clown fed on spectacles like putting a thumb tack on the teacher’s chair while she was down the hall grabbing a smoke, or stacking books on a desk corner so they would fall when somebody walked by, Milo was more subtle. 

His specialty was a unique glassy-eyed stare, which he flashed whenever the teacher called on him for an answer. I don’t know whether he was transfixed by the mystery of South America’s principal exports, or just languid by nature. 

Whatever Milo had, subtlety was of its essence.

Masking 

I bumped into him at the supermarket recently, pushing his cart the wrong way up a COVID-directed aisle. “Milo,” I said, “where’s your mask?” 

“Mask?” he wondered.

“Like the one I’m wearing. You know, for coronavirus.”

“Oh, is that why everybody’s wearing masks?”

I nodded, as emphatically as one can nod at Milo Bung. “Without a mask, you might get sick and die.”

His eyes opened wide. “Then I’d better stock up right now on Cheetos.” And off he dashed, up the down aisle.

Looting

That was my most recent encounter with Milo until now; but apparently he has not gotten sick and died yet, for I saw him tonight on the ten o’clock news. A squad car lay burning in the street. Several demonstrators, or maybe outside agitators, stepped through the smashed front window of a store that sells ladies’ foundation garments. They carried boxes and cartons of what must have been frilly unmentionables. 

Despite the burning squad car, no cops were in view; yet here came Milo, strolling down the street, right into camera range. He halted smack dab in the center of all this resistance to injustice. He swiveled his head this way and that, then stared into the camera with an expression that proclaimed, “Is anybody else seeing what I’m seeing?” He shrugged and ambled out the right side of the frame. He had something in his hands. Looked like a bag of Cheetos. 

Knowing they must have taped this earlier in the evening, I surmised that Milo Bung, if not in jail, might now be at home. So I dialed his number. Sure enough, he answered.

“I saw you on TV! In the middle of a riot!” I shouted as calmly as I could.

“A riot?” said Milo. “(Crunch, crunch.) Oh, sure, that’s what it must have been.”

“Couldn’t you tell?”

“Well, something funny was going on, that’s for sure. It’s getting so a guy can’t take an evening promenade (crunch, crunch) without running into out-of-towners.” 

“Out-of-towners!” I roared. “How do you know they were out-of-towners?”

“Well, (crunch, crunch), stands to reason. I mean, how many guys do you know from around here (crunch, crunch) that need so many boxes of lacy underwear for their sweeties?”

“Are you munching Cheetos?”

“Yeah, I got boxes and boxes of them. Come on over, I’ll give you some.”

“But weren’t you even aware what they were rioting about? It was injustice. Racial injustice. What do you think about that?”

There was a moment’s silence on the line while Milo digested my question, and his Cheetos. “One man’s injustice,” he said, “is another man’s free underwear.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say?”

“No, but if I told you, then you’d blab it to everybody else, so I’m clamming up.”

Uniformed Service

Milo was always a step or two ahead of the rest of us. He was the first boy in our class to declare what he wanted to be when he grew up: An elevator operator. “I like the look of a uniform,” he drawled. When we graduated from high school—and, lo! all elevators had been converted to self-service—Milo joined the Marines. 

Imagine my confusion when Ho Chi Minh let Milo live and returned him to our community in his original condition. He may simply have been unshootable. Wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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