Ron Swanson on Wendell Berry

Offerman

If you watched the television show Parks and Recreation (1009-2015) you know Ron Swanson.  He is the director of the Parks and Recreation department in Pawnee, Indiana.  Read about him here.

Swanson is played by actor Nick Offerman, who also happens to be a huge Wendell Berry fan.  Over at the blog of the Library of America, Offerman reflects on the recent release of Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II).  Here is a taste:

I had the distinct advantage of growing up in an Illinois family that most resembled some of the Feltners and the Rowanberrys and Coulters to be found throughout these tales, but my folk were certainly not entirely innocent of laying claim to a character like Watch With Me’s Thacker Hample either. As I became accustomed to the world of Port William and the comforting cast of country folk inhabiting the acres therein, I was struck by the reverence that Wendell Berry bestowed upon each and every person, no matter how “simple” they might be, from an urban point of view. His understanding of the contribution made by every plain, hardworking person to the general welfare of a community, and thereby the world, moved me deeply.

Here in these stories, you will find a great entertainment. Laced throughout, however, will also be a set of instructions: thoughts on how to treat one another no matter where you live, and how to treat the great gifts of creation amongst which we live and by which we are able to sustain ourselves. If, perhaps, human nature will always turn our heads away from these responsibilities and towards the glitter of a billboard or smartphone, then let these necessary works of fiction serve as our reminders that before we sit down in that rocking chair on the porch of an evening, we best be sure that the chores and the dishes have been satisfactorily done.

Read the entire piece here.

Library of America Publishes Volume on Reconstruction

ReconIt is edited by Brooks D. Simpson.  Over at the LOA blog you can find an interview with Simpson.  Here is a taste:

Library of America: In your introduction to the volume you write: “Most Americans don’t know very much about Reconstruction, and in many cases what they may think they know is wrong.” What do you hope readers will learn from Reconstruction? What does the experience of reading writings by those who lived during Reconstruction offer readers that standard narrative/analytical histories do not?

Brooks D. Simpson: Reconstruction is typically taught at the break in a year-long survey of American history, so it tends to get short shrift in most courses. Instructors of first-half surveys sometimes fail to reach it, while in the second-half survey Reconstruction is at best a prelude to the Gilded Age, with its stories of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and social and political turmoil. Moreover, once upon a time accounts of Reconstruction featured assumptions about poor southern whites punished by vindictive white northerners, while giving scant attention to the fate of freedpeople deemed by most scholars to be unfit for freedom in any case. Although W. E.B. Du Bois challenged that interpretive framework in 1935 with his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, it took until the 1960s for mainstream scholarship to contest that tale. It has taken far longer for new interpretations to take root in classrooms and textbooks: old beliefs continue to have staying power in the minds and hearts of a significant number of white Americans.

By presenting what people at the time said about what was going on in the world about them, this volume reminds us that Reconstruction was a time of great turmoil when Americans debated what the Civil War and emancipation really achieved. Was the war for reunion nothing more than that? What did freedom for over four million former slaves mean? How did Americans contest the concepts of liberty and equality, and what role would government and the governed play in resolving that dispute?

Instead of imposing on the past what we assume people must have said and meant, we can discover what they said, what they wanted, and how they viewed the issues at stake. We can hear many voices, black and white, North and South, male and female, well-known and unknown, participate in this discussion. In particular we can come away from this volume with a notion of just how fiercely contested were definitions of freedom, liberty, and equality, and the extent to which violence helped shape the outcome of America’s first great experiment in racial democracy.

Read the rest here.

Wendell Berry’s Friends

berry LOALibrary of America just released an anthology of Wendell Berry fiction: Port William Novels & Stories: The Civil War to World War II.  As part of the release, LOA has released Berry’s thoughts on the work of some of his closest literary friends.  Here is a taste:

Ken Kesey. We were together in the Stanford seminar in 1958–59 and a good many times from then until his death. Our ways of living and working were very different, but I owe him for friendship, much kindness, much laughter, and a number of insights that have been confirming and necessary to my own life and work. It matters that he was another writer who went home.

Denise Levertov. With characteristic generosity she wrote me a letter in 1958 about a poem I had published in Poetry. There was some correspondence from then until we met in New York in the fall of 1962. We lived as friends and neighbors in New York City. I have great respect for her work, and a big debt to her.

Wallace Stegner. I met him of course when I went to Stanford in 1958. He taught the writing seminar in (as I remember) the spring of 1959. He was an excellent, practical critic and teacher, and I have remained under that influence. After I returned to my own country to live, I began to be very much affected and influenced by his responsibility, as writer and advocate, to his country. My debt to him is probably greater than I know.

Read the rest here.

Some of Wendell Berry’s Port William Novels Are Now Part of the Library of America

berry LOASpeaking of rural America

You can now read Wendell Berry’s Nathan CoulterAndy Catlett: Early TravelsA World LostA Place on Earth, and a bunch of short stories from Berry’s fictional town of Port William in one place!  Congrats to the Library of America for releasing this collection!

Here is an overview:

For more than fifty years, in eight novels and forty-two short stories, Wendell Berry (b. 1934) has created an indelible portrait of rural America through the lens of Port William, Kentucky, one of the most fully imagined places in American literature. The river town and its environs are home to generations of Coulters, Catletts, Feltners, and other families collectively known as the Membership, women and men whose stories evoke the earthbound pleasures and spiritual richness of what Berry has called the three-dimensional life, a time before industrial agriculture, pervasive technology, and unrestrained consumerism began to unravel the deep bonds of community that once sustained small-town America.

Taken together, these novels and stories form a masterwork of American prose: straightforward, spare, and lyrical. Now, in an edition prepared in consultation with the author, Library of America presents the complete Port William novels and stories for the first time in the order of their narrative chronology, revealing as never before the intricate dovetails and beguiling elegance of Berry’s larger construction. As one of his narrators puts it: “their stories are all added finally into one story . . . bound together in a many-stranded braid beyond the power of any awl to pick apart.”

This first volume, which spans from the Civil War to World War II, gathers the novels Nathan Coulter (1960, revised 1985), A Place on Earth (1967, revised 1983), A World Lost(1996), and Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006), along with twenty-three short stories, among them such favorites as “Watch With Me,” “Thicker than Liquor,” and “A Desirable Woman.” It also features a newly researched chronology of Berry’s life and career, a map of Port William and a Membership family tree, and helpful notes.

Jack Shoemaker, editor, is Editorial Director of Counterpoint Press, publishing the work of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, M.F.K. Fisher, Evan Connell, Robert Aitken, Anne Lamott, Jane Vandenburgh, and many others. He has worked with Berry for more than forty years.

 

“If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox”

Grant-Lee

I recently reread humorist James Thurber’s classic piece, “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”  The blog of the Library of America (LOA) has posted it here.  It was originally published in the New Yorker in 1930 and got a second life thirty years later in A Thurber Carnival.

Here is some context from the LOA blog:

At the end of 1930 Scribner’s Magazine began publishing what would prove to be a short-lived series of “alternative history” pieces. The first installment, in the November issue, was “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln.” This was followed by a contribution from none other than Winston Churchill, who turned the concept on its head. It was bafflingly titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”—but, as we all know, Lee didn’t win the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, Churchill’s essay purported to be written by a historian in a world in which Lee had won not only the battle but also the entire war. This fictional historian, in turn, speculates what might have happened if Lee had not won the battle. This type of dizzying zaniness brought out the parodist in Thurber, who published “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” in The New Yorker in December. The next month Scribner’s published a third essay (“If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”) before bring the series to an end. All three pieces were soon forgotten, but Thurber’s parody became one of his most famous and beloved works. 

Three decades later “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” enjoyed a second life when it was included in the hit revue A Thurber Carnival. Virtually every review proclaimed it as one of the show’s highlights. During an interview, a reporter admitted to Thurber that “the Grant skit” was one of her favorite parts of the show. Thurber responded, “A woman said to me, ‘I don’t like the bastardization of history,’ That woman didn’t know the point of the thing and she didn’t know history. And I don’t like my humor to be called mild and gentle.” 

Read the 4-page piece here.  It is worth your time.

“Hamilton” Minus Music?

FreemanYale University historian Joanne Freeman recently released her Library of America volume The Essential Hamilton: Letters and Other Writings.  In a short review at The New York Times, John Williams described it as “Hamilton Minus Music,” or, “a more direct (if less rhyming) way to learn about Alexander Hamilton.”

Over at The Anxious Bench, Agnes Howard of Valparaiso University worries that “Hamilton Minus Music” sends the wrong message.  Here is a taste of her post, “Does Hamilton Have to Sing?”:

My disquiet over Williams’s idiom of praise stems from questions about what Americans ought to know about their country’s history, or really, what they ought to want to know. One can’t know everything, and I have observed enough U.S. history survey courses to see that much over which teachers enthuse falls through the cracks in students’ interest. But still, some U.S. history topics, including Revolution, Constitution-making, and early nationhood, should clear that bar without overmuch enhancement. We should want to know about Hamilton’s career because it’s interesting. It’s also curious, formative, fascinating, and–in a way that Freeman is particularly good at bringing out–full of personalities, some deservedly famous and some stuck obscure, entirely as entertaining as television, often more so, and more significant. Those eighteenth-century arguments, the way they were framed and the way they tilted, shaped the country we all are sitting in.

Read the entire post here.

Gordon Wood on John Adams

AdamsOver at the website of The Library of America (the real LOA, not the Randall Stephens version), historian Gordon Wood discusses the life of John Adams.  Wood is the editor of John Adams: Writings from the New Nation, 1784-1826.

In this part of the interview, Wood discusses Adams’s view of “American exceptionalism.”

LOA: It has become a commonplace in American politics today to call the United States an exceptional nation. Would Adams have agreed?

Wood: Jefferson believed that the United States was a chosen nation with a special responsibility to spread democracy around the world. More than any other figure in our history Jefferson is responsible for the idea of American exceptionalism. Adams could not have disagreed more. Deeply versed in history, he said over and over that America had no special providence, no special role in history, that Americans were no different from other peoples, that the United States was just as susceptible to viciousness and corruption as any other nation. In this regard, at least, Jefferson’s vision has clearly won the day.

Read the entire interview here.

Abigail Adams: Letters

LOA jacket templateThe Library of America has announced the publication of Abigail Adams: Letters.  The collection of 430 letters from the former first lady is edited by historian and Adams scholar Edith Gelles.

In a post at The Library of America blog, Gelles discusses Abigail’s remarks on the election of 1800:

“The Spirit of party has overpowerd the Spirit of Patriotism,” observes Abigail Adams in her January 29, 1801, letter to her eldest son John Quincy, then American minister to the Prussian court in Berlin. Written after having learned that her husband John had been defeated for a second term as president, Adams’s letter vividly conveys the unsettled nature of American politics in the early republic.

The election of 1800 was perhaps the most vituperative in our history. Federalist John Adams, the incumbent, was despised by a prominent faction of his own party, the so-called Essex Junto. Alexander Hamilton, the de facto leader of the Federalist party, had written a pamphlet denouncing the President as a madman. This fratricidal conflict opened the door for the two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who, by a fluke of the original electoral process established by the Constitution, ended up tied in the Electoral College, with Adams coming third. The deadlock shifted the decision to the House of Representatives, where it would take 36 ballots for Jefferson to secure election. Denied a second term, President Adams, in a move that was as controversial then as it would be today, made a series of “midnight appointments” in the final days of his administration, including that of John Marshall to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As the young nation prepared for the first transfer of power from one party to another, the outgoing First Lady despaired for the future.

Adams’s mood in this letter is melancholy for more personal reasons as well. She had recently arrived in the swampy new capital, the first First Lady to occupy what would become known as the White House. On her journey to Washington, over roads that were so rutted that “it was like a ploughd field,” she had passed through New York City to pay a “dying visit” to her beloved second son, Charles, who was fast fading from the effects of alcoholism. Not yet regarded as a disease, alcoholism was then considered a sign of personal weakness and a sin. She prays that Charles, the son she remembers as the charming and loveable man “he once was,” will be forgiven, and that John Quincy will become a surrogate father to his younger daughter. Abigail and John took Charles’s older daughter, Susanna, home with them to Quincy, Massachusetts, where she remained until her marriage in 1817.

Read the rest here.

More on the Obama-Niebuhr Connection

LOAOne of these reasons that New York Times columnist David Brooks likes Barack Obama so much (despite the fact that he disagrees with him more than he agrees with him) is because both he and Obama are fans of the mid-twentieth century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Edmund Santurri, a professor of religion and philosophy at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, is also Niebuhr fan.  Over at the blog of the Library of America, Santurri talks about his St. Olaf course on Niebuhr, “Obama’s Theologian.”

Here is a taste:

For me the principal attraction of Niebuhr’s work is its anthropological vision. That vision is traditionally Pauline or Augustinian in casting the world as fallen, but it’s also one that Niebuhr imaginatively rearticulated in trenchant observations of signature twentieth-century political events. According to Niebuhr, human beings generally are confronted with two persistent temptations: (1) the temptation to overreach, to ignore human limits, to indulge in Messianic delusions—what Niebuhr calls the sin of pride, and (2) the temptation to underachieve, to surrender prematurely, to evade responsibility for action in the world—what Niebuhr calls the sin of sensuality.

Read the rest of this post here.

Gordon Wood on the American Revolution Pamphlet War

Historian Gordon Wood has edited one of the most recent volumes of the Library of America. The two-volume boxed set is entitled The American Revolution: Writings From the Pamphlet Debate, 1764-1776.

Over at the blog of the Library of America, Wood discusses some of his editorial choices. Here is a taste of that interview:


LOA: The new Library of America set collects thirty-nine of the more than one thousand pamphlets that appeared between 1764 and 1776. What were your main criteria for the selections you finally settled on? 

GW: The key criterion was the importance of the pamphlet in advancing the debate. The goal in assembling this collection was to provide readers with a clear sense of how the polemical contest over the relationship between the British government and the colonies emerged and escalated until the final rupture in 1776. To do this, it was essential to include pamphlets published in England as well as in America, because they often spoke directly to one another.

It is one of the ironies of the American Revolution that the colonies had closer ties to the mother country in this period than they had ever had before, and this is nowhere more evident than in the pamphlet debate. These texts were part of a lively transatlantic discourse in which pamphlets published in Boston or Philadelphia soon appeared in London and were quickly reprinted, and vice versa. Distinguishing these writers as “British” and “American” can be tricky, too. Englishman Thomas Paine had been resident in the colonies for only fourteen months when he wrote Common Sense, the most influential expression of the “American” position, while Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who in two pamphlets gathered here presents the “British” position as forcefully as any writer, had deep ancestral roots in the Bay Colony. Finally, I took into account the historical significance of the authors. For some writers, like Thomas Jefferson, the pamphlet debate marked their emergence on the scene; for others like Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, it afforded an opportunity to display their unique rhetorical gifts.

LOA: For a general reader, one of the discoveries here is a nuanced debate about “virtual” versus “actual” representation that sows the seeds for what became the American Revolution. What made that debate so important for later events in our history—and did it have consequences for Great Britain’s political development as well?

GW: The pamphlet debate revealed the extent to which American ideas about representation had diverged from British. Because of the manifest impracticality of the colonies sending representatives to Parliament, defenders of parliamentary authority over the colonies were forced to clarify as never before the idea of virtual representation, which held that Parliament represents the interests of the empire regardless of how or from where its members were selected. This became the primary philosophical difference that animated the controversy. Americans going back to the colonial period have always thought of the electoral process as the principal criterion of representation, and we have generally believed that representation has to be in proportion to population. That is why we have usually placed great importance on expanding suffrage and on bringing electoral districts into some kind of rational relationship to population. To underscore the link between the representative and the represented, we have also required that elected officials be residents of their specific districts. Conversely, even today, such a residency requirement does not exist for British MPs.