On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Struggle Is All: Willa Cather

    Willa Cather's strong and sympathetic writing finds clearest expression in those novels that are set in the Midwestern United States, primarily because of the unique qualities of that land. The great-granddaughter of pioneers, I was born and reared there myself, so I can appreciate the sentiments she expresses through four novels in particular. Although Cather was born in Virginia, she moved with her parents to Nebraska at the age of nine in 1883, a move which had an enormous impact on her subsequent writing.  Living there through her university years, Cather had ample opportunity to observe the pioneers, mainly immigrants, who populated the region and toiled amid great hardships.  That harsh land which required so much of those who lived on it remained with her indelibly to serve as an inspiration for her novels set in that region, which historically has been characterized as having “an inhospitable climate, a boring landscape, and conventional inhabitants.”  Cather was acutely aware of this perception and quotes a New York critic who at the time her first Midwestern novel was released said, "I don't care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it.”  But other critics since have not shared that view; Eudora Welty shows appreciation for Willa Cather's depiction of Midwesterners when she says, "There is not a trace of disparagement in her treatment of the least of her characters.  The irony of her stories is grave, never belittling; it is a showing of sympathy.”
    Cather herself moved to the East coast to establish her career, but visits to relatives in Nebraska reinforced her strong feelings of sympathy for those people who became the models for her protagonists in several novels and short stories.  Perhaps because of Cather's "showing of sympathy," posterity has had a continued interest in O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (l918), A Lost Lady (1923), and The Professor's House (1925), which can be considered her Midwestern novels.
    All of the principal characters in the four novels are connected to a greater or less degree with the land, which is employed as more than a setting for the story.  Most notably is O Pioneers!, where the land is introduced as so potent a force as to be a personality in its own right.  There and in the other three novels, the land is a featured player with a changing role, not so much for its effect on the characters as for its use as a counterpoise which indicates the moral force of each protagonist, i.e., the character of the land balances the character of the protagonist.
              Viewing the novels from an apparent chronology it seems obvious that as the plains become more readily cultivated and the population increases, the land figures less importantly in the lives of the main characters; therefore, one does not have to seek hidden or symbolic meaning as to its function.  But a closer look at the novels should make clearer Willa Cather's main thesis:  that the struggle of the immigrants on the virgin prairie symbolized the most difficult and most worthy endeavor of humankind--lofty, sacrificial striving toward an ideal: the essence of individualism.  Cather, in fact, seemed to resent the effects of "progress," in which the distractions of modern life–social pressures that desire conformity and require a money-grubbing mentality–deflected purposeful effort and constrained heroic gesture.   Cather became increasingly disturbed by the tendency of the times to look outside oneself for "success" in life.
              An unrepentant individualist, she viewed the New Deal with a kind of horror as the dawn of the age of the civil servant, whom she regarded en masse as "dreary petty men who took a mean pleasure in thwarting those who had energy, daring, and originality.”  The novels, under scrutiny, express Cather's desire to enlarge our sensibilities to her view of human potential and heroic achievement.  To Cather, the land comes to represent the protagonists themselves in these novels; how they use the land is how they "use" their lives.  The strengths exhibited by both the land and Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! form the standard by which characters in succeeding novels are to be judged.  In The Professor's House, the last novel chronologically, the author shows how the absence of struggle toward an ideal leads to spiritual poverty.  Here the land, a French garden, is relegated to an ignominious role of plaything for the Professor, and the Professor's life is as inconsequential as the garden with which he occupies his leisure moments.
              Now in our own times, when land has little importance in people’s lives, Cather’s thesis is interesting to ponder: that struggle is the great definer of character.  Since the symbolic importance of the land is now passé, other symbols of the individual’s struggle may now suffice.   A person's life may be good, even happy, Cather seems to say, without taking the heroic path, but the transcendent life of real achievement can only follow from struggle toward a formulated ideal.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Celebration and Sorrow, 1950 (An edited excerpt from SNUSVILLE)

    The Lilleys always ate dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas at Alma’s parents' farm with her brothers and sisters.  Joanie wouldn't have called her mother’s clan a particularly merry group, except for the rare times when Aunt Louise played the piano and a few voices joined in. 
    The winter holidays when Joanie was twelve were memorable.  The Lilleys arrived for Thanksgiving dinner with Alma's four pies--two coconut creams and two pumpkins.  All the women brought their specialties to the dinner.  Uncle Roy's wife, Lillith, always made the dressing, a mild concoction to suit Scandinavian tastes with a hint of the exotic in her addition of chopped black olives.  Louise, being single and somehow exempt from more rigorous cooking, brought relish trays and rolls, while Aunt Rose's husband, Helmar, furnished the giant bird which he baked with loving attention to a crisp, golden brown.
    Just as Joanie began to take her place at the kitchen table to eat with her younger cousins, Louise grabbed her arm and marched her into the dining room.  "You're too old to eat out there with the kiddies.  It's time you sat with the grown-ups."  Well!  Joanie’s face burned with pleasure though no one seemed to notice this big change.  The meal didn’t begin until her grandfather gave the blessing, ending it in some Norwegian phrase, and after her plate of food was handed to her, Joanie ate her dinner quietly listening to the adults talk.
    "Can't make a nickle with hog prices so low."  This from Roy, who always complained loudly about his farming.
    Uncle Ralph nodded his agreement to his brother's concerns but as usual didn't say anything.  Grandpa ate with quiet appreciation.  Joanie’s cousin Geraldine and her boyfriend Tony Marello sat together, while the others were segregated--the men sitting near Grandpa and the women around Grandma.  Geraldine's voice occasionally rang out, competing with Roy's.
    Joanie felt free to look around the table and observe how nice everything looked.  The good china had been taken out of the built-in china cabinet with the leaded glass panes.  Haviland, her mother said, ordered by her grandfather when he built this place in 1915.  No decorations, however.  Such things were considered frivolous by her grandmother.  After dinner the women cleared the table and washed dishes.  Grandma had left immediately following the meal to take her nap, while Grandpa sat in his rocker and dozed, his face lightly touched by the lengthening rays of the sun.
    Christmas ordinarily would have been a repeat of the Thanksgiving celebration with the added excitement of gift-giving, but this year was different.  Grandpa Ekdahl died ten days before Christmas of a massive coronary thrombosis that killed him instantly.  It happened on a Saturday night just as the Lilleys were beginning dinner.  Joanie answered the phone and heard her uncle Ralph asking for her mother in such a strange, hollow voice she felt frightened.
    She went to her grandfather's funeral, her first, with her parents the following Saturday at the Lutheran church in Bethany.  She didn't hear a word the minister said, but at one point Ralph, silent Ralph, bent his head into his hands and shook with sobs.  Nothing could have impressed her more.  But the others, as far as she could tell, were as dry in the eye as the stiff old body with the dry browned skin that had been Nels Ekdahl.
    After the funeral and the trip in the painful cold to the burial site on a windy hill, everyone hurried back to the farmhouse for refreshments and subdued conversation about matters that Joanie decided were not quite fitting.  Shouldn't they have talked about her grandfather?  She continued to think about him the following week and how he had passed out of their lives so easily, so completely, his passing hardly noticed except for the slight, tearful convulsion of Uncle Ralph the day of the funeral. 
    Christmas plans proceeded.  By the time the Lilleys arrived for the occasion at the farm, packages were clumped around the base of the tree and the table was set for dinner.  A large ham was being carefully whittled into slices by Helmar and placed on the huge platter around kumla, grated potatoes cooked in ham broth.
    After dinner, the men congregated in the living room while the women cleaned up the dishes.  Joanie wandered into the dining room and saw Geraldine, sitting in grandpa's big wicker rocker by the low window overlooking the side garden.  Joanie remembered Grandpa dozing there Thanksgiving, caught by a pale November sun as in a distant floodlight that exposed his weathered face.  No sunlight streamed in today.
    "Hi, Geraldine.  I wonder when we can open the presents."
    Her cousin turned.  No smile, but her voice was pleasant.  "You know this bunch.  They can't let themselves have any fun until all the work is done.  Heaven forbid they leave a dirty dish or do anything out of order."
    Joanie knew in some deep, hidden place what Geraldine meant.  She wanted to know more.  "Why are they like that?"
    "Mainly because of the old man.  At least, he was the worst.  Rigid as a post, no give in him that anyone could see."
    "Didn't you like Grandpa?"
    "Sure, I did, kid; you don't get it.  He was a softie inside, but these Norwegians can't let anything get out.  It has to explode from them.” She cocked her head at Joanie.  "Ever hear the word love mentioned around here?"
    "No."  It was true!  Geraldine had said something marvelous and true.  She knew about emotions exploding, too.  Sometimes her feelings ran so strongly in her she would have to cry or give her mother a hug.  Alma would chide her.  "Get control of yourself.  Do you want to end up like poor Paul, raving?"  Her father’s brother had had a “breakdown.”
    "Oh, yeah, I know about these Norwegians," Geraldine nodded sagely.   “They used to have prayer meetings here, and I witnessed one of them.  My God, did they ever howl then!  They'd fall all over themselves confessing their sins."
    "Grandpa did all that, too?"  Impossible to imagine the man in the throes of such fervor.
    "He was the most emotional of them all.  Didn't you ever see him cry sometimes?"
    "I've heard Mom say that Grandpa was tender-hearted and cried, but I never saw him do that."  Her own eyes filled with tears that overflowed as she thought of her grandfather, his whole life bound into uncomfortable silence by something.  What?   
    Christmas proved to be exciting, even this year.  Aunt Rose had drawn Joanie’s name and gave her a bottle of Tigris perfume, a grown-up scent that thrilled her.  Grandpa, though not mentioned by anyone, seemed to be present in spirit, quietly approving the sedate celebration that marked all their big occasions.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Love Affair with Old Things

A couple of old things, Jeanne and Max
    I read many years ago that Cary Grant had a thirty-year-old top coat he wore regularly because it was perfectly good, and he liked it.  His view about something old echoed my own feelings.  As children we used to sing a ditty about making new friends but keeping the old; “one is silver, the other gold.”  Do children sing this anymore?  Do people treasure old companions, old clothes, old furniture, and other old things?  I do.
    I live in a part of the country (the South) which is known for its appreciation of the past.  Yet for all the Daughters of the Confederacy, the treasured heirlooms, the frequent viewings of Gone with the Wind, this culture is also succumbing to a tendency that runs rampant through our society.  Since the 1920s, when "modern" became a revered word, Americans have come to value whatever is the latest anything.  Perhaps this is because of our inventiveness, our “go get'em” philosophy which has propelled this nation into the forefront of virtually every technological and scientific advancement.  Commercials touting detergents or cosmetics or vacuum cleaners insist we buy their "new, improved" product.  We don’t question the validity of these spiels; yet I understand ad people in Britain seldom use the term "new" in their ads.  They know that their potential customers would ask, “What's wrong with the product, then, if it keeps needing improvement?”  In most places around the world people are allowed the natural phenomenon of getting attached to old things.  They recognize that old things are appealing and important in a way very different from the novelty and shine of the new, that old things can become as valued as old friends.
    For some mysterious reason, I have seldom been lured by new things.  I like old furniture, jewelry, and clothes, and when we moved a few years ago to another state, we had our thirty-five-year old washer hauled off for practical reasons.  It was ugly and noisy but still working.   I also have a predilection for old cars as long as they’re reliable.  That along with my love for other old things probably stems from a two-fold influence–my appreciation for classic design with the integrity from a more substantial age coupled with my parents' attitude about possessions.
    My mother as a homemaker considered herself a “good manager,” carefully husbanding my father's modest income.  Because of her energy and ingenuity, we were able to live in a nice house amid comfortable, well-kept furnishings. Other than his family, my father took care of only one thing in his life: he gave fanatic attention to his cars.  For Dad, the automobile was a wondrous thing which he never took for granted.  To his dying day, his car was his horse, groomed and petted like a champion of its class.  He spoiled them–no car deserves to have its engine wiped off after a trip to the store.
    If I recited a list of all the aged things which surround me, it would sound like a not-very-particular museum inventory.  I live among furniture and accessories that may be anywhere from twenty to three hundred years old.  Since moving to Tennessee many years ago, my husband and I have scouted antique malls, thrift shops, and garage sales to find treasures.  I admit I do appreciate the electronic age and many of its products.  In fact, I have a useful supply of those new-fangled devices, so I don’t consider myself a Luddite, but I also put those inventions that are constantly becoming obsolete in the proper perspective.
    This brings me to the relationships which we nurture throughout our lives with care, love, and tolerance–those of our friends and family, and even our animals.  (We’ve had only two dogs in our married life, a poodle that lived to be seventeen and currently, Louie, a peppy fourteen-year-old papillon.)  But longevity in relationships applies most especially to our partners in life.  The fact that my husband and I have lived happily together for so long make us something of an admired novelty for our grandchildren, who seem amazed at anything quite that long-term.
     Unlike the Europeans, the Orientals, the Africans, for example, most Americans have not understood the value of old things.  As a people we tend to abandon anything that begins to get troublesome--whether it's a couch, a house, or a spouse.  But old things reflect our personal values as well as our collective memory, which in turn informs our attitudes about the future.  The past doesn’t become real through text books.  Instead, we can best remember another age by the artifacts of that age and by tales from elders; those memories combine to make up our identity. Old things represent more than their physical being or even their usefulness.  They have a history, and as far as I’m concerned, they will have a future.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Spooky Writing Space: A Twisted Tale

Louisa May Alcott
     As a young girl I was very impressed with Jo, the heroine of Little Women.  I was especially intrigued by the description of the garret where she wrote.  An avid reader of Louisa May Alcott since probably the fourth grade, I had taken to scribbling poems and stories, which culminated with my piece de resistance in the fifth grade.
     I’d written for a class assignment a twelve-page, slightly over-heated story about six brothers and sisters having to spend Christmas with an aunt and uncle recently arrived from Norway.  Bereft because their parents had to go to the Southwest for reasons of the father’s health, the children ended up with an experience to remember.  My great-grandparents had immigrated from Norway, so I plumbed the memories of various relatives for anecdotes and pertinent holiday details to make my story seem more real.  At my teacher’s request, I read the paper aloud to my classmates amid mixed feelings of embarrassment and pride.
      Afterward, I believed, like Jo, I should have my own quiet, private place to write all those stories that would no doubt soon be published.  So I looked above for a solution–not for divine guidance but to our own attic. This space was a dark and cavernous room, particularly dark where the ceiling burrowed under the eaves.  It was, however, spotlessly clean and had decided possibilities.  I imagined Jo’s own attic was much like ours.  After all, we had an old house, too, built before World War I.
     To reach the attic, one ascended via a treacherously narrow stairway.  In the mind of a ten-year-old girl, that dark passage held uncertain perils--a corner landing that was pitch black, steep stairs, and no rails.  I don’t know what I expected–a criminal lurking in the shadows ready to pounce; a mouse scuttling across my path, though no self-respecting rodent would put up with my mother’s unrelenting attentions;  more probably, a slip of the foot and a painful crash down the stair well.
      A long cord hung from the top of the room to the foot of the stairs and when pulled would turn on the faint light above.  Nine times out of ten, the last person to exit the area would pull too hard and the string would fly back and catch on the steps above.  So I would have to climb with blind eyes, feeling my way on the curving, narrow treads.  Once I arrived at the top, it was not much better, illumination coming from two low windows a great distance from one another and a fifteen watt bulb in the center of the room.
      Nonetheless, because of zealous devotion to my craft, I tried to conquer my fears, seeing a large trunk that would make a fine writing table.  I hauled it to one end of the room near a window within easy reach of a homemade bookcase.  A small stool with a wobbly leg completed my arrangements; the young writer was poised for fame.
     But in arranging my papers, I noticed the trunk had a bumpy top that wouldn’t do at all.  My mother helped me cut out a piece of cardboard for a smooth writing surface but the glow had started to fade.  My work table had become non-authentic.  Would Jo have had a cardboard cutout?  And then the stool, unfortunately, was not suitable for long periods of sitting; it cramped my legs and strained my back to hunch on it.  I found I had to stand up and stretch a lot, albeit carefully, for though I was only five feet, two inches, the ceiling at that point was five feet high.
      What bothered me the most and kept me from writing as prolifically as I had expected was the strange muffled sounds I heard from time to time downstairs.  Bangs and thuds, thin human cries, and the faint ringing of bells (telephone? front door?) all necessitated my running to the edge of the stairs and yelling,”What was that?” or “Did someone call me?”
    I started quite a number of pieces of writing, but it was hard going when my pencil seemed to need sharpening after only a few sentences.  Also, the attic was as quiet as a tomb, and I couldn’t concentrate for lack of the usual distractions.  In fact, time seemed frozen..  How strange to spend long hours toiling over my writing only to be told by my mother when I went downstairs for a drink of water that a mere ten minutes had elapsed since my last visit.
    My writing was dull, unsatisfying; even my memoirs were lacking.  For inspiration I tried to write something based on a title stolen from one of Jo’s early stories, “The Repentance of Lady Clinton,” but I couldn’t decide what she was repenting about and gave it up as a bad job.
    As the summer days grew hotter and hotter, I discovered I could not think or write in the inferno our attic had become.  I moved to the more comfortable dining room table with unspoken relief, my mother diplomatically not saying a word.  The attic room was abandoned forever to old clothes and furniture, never again to be a haunt of the Muse.

Monday, October 3, 2011

New Life for an Old Haunt of Jesse James: Edgefield

In the late 1970s a German friend and I were driving down the main street of Hendersonville, a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, when we saw a wrecking ball working on an early 1800s house called Darlington. My friend commented wryly, “That’s just like the Americans; they don’t let anything get old.” Jolted into a new awareness, I began to volunteer as a docent and eventually got appointed to the boards of two historic homes in our county, first of Rock Castle and later of Rose Mont. At some point, I was asked to write the text for a small pictorial booklet about a Nashville neighborhood called Edgefield that was being reclaimed from dissolution. What follows is an edited version from that booklet that describes the neighborhood, traces some of its history, and gives a sense of its present state. My researches into Edgefield gave me the idea for my Foxhill Series e-books that have a fictionalized Nashville historic area as a setting:  Flowers at Her Feet, Neighbors, and newly published Ever After.
 In the shadow of Nashville's skyscrapers looming beyond the Cumberland River lies a fifteen-square-block residential area with the intriguing name of Edgefield. This inner-city historical district began as a suburban home site for John Shelby in 1818, who over time built two imposing homes there, "Fatherland" and "Boscobel." Both have long since vanished, but something of the earliest history of Edgefield remains with streets bearing those names. During the nearly two centuries since its beginnings, the area was subdivided and prospered, was struck by tragedy and rebuilt, only to eventually fall into a decline it might never have recovered from. Then a community group promoted the inclusion of Edgefield in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, the first neighborhood so designated in Nashville. Since then, Historic Edgefield, Inc. has achieved a small miracle of matching the aesthetic values of historical integrity to contemporary housing needs along with community responsibility.

A visitor to the area might be struck by the varied appearance of the architecture that denotes its history. An expert eye could locate the sparely elegant homes of the early classical period; the eclectic Victorian styles, including Italianate, Gothic, Romanesque, Queen Anne, and Eastlake; the four-square and solid turn-of-the-century homes and public buildings; the Craftsman bungalow styles of the early 20th century; and in muted echoes of the earlier periods, brand-new cityhomes and townhouses. Yet architecture is only part of the story of Edgefield, for familiar names of past residents should find its way into a history of the area, especially the notorious "Mr. Howard, Grain Speculator," alias Jesse James, who for a time lived on Fatherland Street. (He and his wife, Zee, took up residence there in 1875 as a hideout until 1881 when the place got too hot for them, and they decamped back to Missouri. During those Nashville years, the Jameses lived on his ill gotten gains as he continued his nefarious activities in outlying areas.)

When John Shelby, in 1854, decided to turn his estate into housing tracts, Edgefield was ripe for growth, and influential citizens of Nashville scrambled to build in what was to become the most fashionable location around. In 1868 the community was incorporated as an independent municipality. Soon its burgeoning residential population demanded the construction of schools, churches, and commercial enterprises. Eventually seeing an urgent need for more public services to the little city, in 1880 Edgefield officially became part of Nashville.

The bell of St. Ann's Episcopal Church frantically tolling a warning knell, calamity struck Edgefield when the great fire of 1916 cut a swath through the area. The devastation was enormous, the fire leveling over six hundred homes and other structures. With so many of the older homes gone, the look of the neighborhood began to change as new post-World War I houses filled in some of the vacant lots. (A 1933 tornado as well as another devastating one in 1998 wreaked further havoc on structures and the landscape.) Until World War II, Edgefield continued as a viable community, but the years of the late 1940s and ‘50s saw movement away from the old neighborhood into new, distant suburbs. Traffic-laden roads and highways were by-passing the once proud area, turning it into a nearly forgotten way-station. Edgefield was not forgotten, however.

Today, the streets of Edgefield are quiet but wonderfully alive. Neighbors may be found greeting one another along the broad, brick sidewalks that invite a stroll. An Eastlake cottage may be getting its wood siding retouched in one of the vibrant, earthy hues authentic to that period. A Queen Anne two-story may be having its garden replanted. While Edgefield is no longer on the edge of the city, it appears now to be on the edge of an exciting future, delicately poised between the ideals of preservation and the drama of continued renewal.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

AMERICAN GIRL Writer, Frances Fitzpatrick Wright, RIP

    We met when she was leading a study group on C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity at the church I then attended.  I was attracted to her wit and intelligence, her clarity of expression, and her kind face.  Forty years separated us; furthermore, I was a Midwesterner, she a Southerner, but in a mysterious, magical way, we knew almost immediately we were kindred spirits.  That study group was succeeded by others on the Christian apologist, of whom the widowed Mrs. Wright said half-jokingly that she was “in love with.”  Before long, I was invited to lunch, the first of many such occasions, at her 1790s farm house near Nashville, Tennessee.  It was in that more intimate setting where I learned about a life that had been both hard and rewarding, but always grounded in her faith.
    She had been orphaned young, along with an older brother and sister, her mother going first from TB, whom Mrs. Wright quoted as saying before she died, “though He slay me, yet I will trust Him,” which deeply impressed the young girl.  This death was followed soon after by her father succumbing to a painful kidney ailment.  At that time, she and her siblings were living on a farm outside of Gallatin owned by their paternal grandparents, the grandmother lovingly depicted in Mrs. Wright’s last novel, Bless Your Bones, Sammy.
    An excellent student with potential, Fanny Belle, as she was called, had few prospects without money or position or parents.  College was out of the question; then her elocution teacher brought her home to meet her forty-year-old brother and their mother.  The eighteen-year-old was impressed with the fine old house, the neat little farm, and the welcome given her by the family with an old and respected name.  In short order, a marriage was arranged, mainly for the convenient getaway of her unmarried sister-in-law, Mrs. Wright told me.  The union produced three children, but not much income.
     Ever resourceful, the young wife and mother began sending out stories to various sources, including American Girl Magazine.  She became one of its main contributors for over twenty-five years, getting more fan mail than any other author.  Readers loved her tales, particularly of the Old Sampey Place, her fictional farm.  She sold so many stories that she published a book of them, and then another, until she had to her credit thirteen novels besides biographies of Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson written for the younger set.
    As she recounted to me her difficult early years, she was never bitter, and when she spoke of the hardships and other problems during her marriage she never castigated her husband, whom she termed as “intelligent but unlucky.”  She employed ingenuity through the years to give her rooms a look of timeless good taste by finding bargains at auctions and painting her own designs throughout the house.  Finally, in her eighties, she sold the much reduced farm, retaining a life occupancy of the  guest house on the property.
    At the beginning of our relationship she was my mentor when I was pleased to sit at her feet.  Soon I found we could talk about any subject in near perfect accord.  As she grew older and less able to get out and around on her own, she came to depend on me for companionship or to take her shopping.  Each year until she became infirm I brought her to a Nashville grade school where she would discuss one of her books the children had been reading.  This was a treat, not just for the children to meet a real live author, but also for Mrs. Wright to feel the love and appreciation of those she’d wanted to please through her writing.
    Mrs. Wright had the writer’s ability to penetrate the character of those around her, but she was never cruel in her estimation.  She once said with blue eyes twinkling, “I love my friends, but I belong to a book club where nobody reads, and a garden club where nobody digs.”  This phrase I found so deliciously apt, I used it in my novel, Rosehall.  In fact, some of the characters and incidents of that novel, though not the plot, were suggested by Mrs. Wright’s memories.  Among the townsfolk, she was loved for herself as well as her remarkable achievements.  For me, she was an inspiration.  In fact, she was an enlightened Southern lady without prejudice or pretensions.
    And then as the years went by, that keen mind began to dim from a faulty memory until in her late nineties, living in a nursing home, she failed to recognize me.  My husband and I moved to Texas for the next five years, and it was during that time a friend called and told me Mrs. Wright had died at the age of 103.  I was sorry I couldn’t be there to attend the funeral, but I had my own requiem for her in my mind and heart, which I hold from time to time in honor of the loving friendship she bestowed on me.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

From Norway to Vicksburg and the Long Road Home

    He was thirteen when he traveled with his family from Etne, Norway, to the verdant prairie land of central Iowa.  The year was 1855, and Severt Tesdel felt an immediate kinship with this seamless vista, so different from the picturesque hills where his father had scratched out a living.  That little farm remained as his sole knowledge of Norway, never even visiting Oslo, the capital.  The Iowa prairie must have seemed like the whole world with all its possibilities stretching out before him.  But soon after their arrival, his mother died, and the five children had to take on many responsibilities.  Severt helped work the land with his father, a task he welcomed.  Soon, though, he hired out as a farm hand to a neighbor. The family liked the intelligent, hardworking young man, who picked up their English handily, and they taught him to read and write in this new language.  Each Sunday, Severt traveled by horse to the Norwegian Lutheran church and afterward spent the day with his own family.  His devotion to the church became a lifelong practice.  Within five years, the boy had become a man with his own land, purchased with his earnings.
    Then war broke out; Severt heard the call to arms, and at the age of twenty, he joined the 23rd Iowa Volunteers, Company A.  He loved his new country and believed in the Union.  The danger was great, the odds of survival were poor, but it seemed the right thing to do.  And so his odyssey began in September, 1862.
    The company trekked to the Mississippi River, boarding a steamboat to St. Louis, where they spent some time carrying wounded soldiers taken off boats to hospitals.  Severt comments in a letter: “It was a gruesome sight to see those poor fellows.”  Their orders were to stay in the vicinity until the ten regiments there were joined by thirty or forty more, the troops massing for the eventual assault on certain Mississippi strongholds, including Vicksburg.  He describes several skirmishes around Camp Patterson during the winter months; it would be a slow and perilous march with the troops at last boarding another steamboat for New Madrid.
    All spring they marched and fought their way toward their target, Vicksburg. “I am still well,” Severt writes, “for which I thank God,” a prayer he expresses several times in his letters. Many around him, including all the Norwegians from his company, had taken ill, some dying.  On the way, they engaged the enemy in a hard fought battle, taking 5000 prisoners and escorting them to Memphis before returning to Mississippi.
    By now, it was early July, 1863, and the Battle of Vicksburg had begun.  Grant’s army had surrounded the city, bombed the redoubts with cannon, assisted by gunboats, and even charged forward with bayonets.  Now the plans, Severt writes, were to starve out the Rebels, “because it is almost impossible to conquer them in battle.”  The night of July 3, Severt was part of a tunneling group that was spotted by the enemy, who had themselves tunneled in the hope of blowing up the Union soldiers.  Their efforts to bomb them failed, and both tunnels were abandoned.  The next day, July 4, Vicksburg surrendered, with 27,000 being taken prisoner.
    Then for the next year or more, Severt writes of their movements along the Gulf coast, from Mobile to Matagorda Island in Texas, where they picked up a Norwegian prisoner, whose wife’s brother-in-law was a neighbor of Severt’s in Iowa.  “Brothers fighting brothers,” he laments.  Finally he was mustered out in September, 1865, after spending three full years fighting.  Of  the 58 men in A Company who had left together in 1862, only five returned.  For his war efforts, he got no medal, but instead won his citizenship, a prize infinitely more valuable to him.
    He resumed the life of a farmer, having sent his pay home regularly to his father with instructions to buy cattle and horses in preparation for his eventual return.  Ultimately, he acquired more land, amounting to 1000 acres, as well as a wife, the strong and handsome Ingaborg Lie.  They reared six children, including my grandmother, who found herself through her mother’s line to be the second cousin of Chief Justice Earl Warren, another Norwegian.  She herself married--who else--a Norwegian farmer, Cyrus Sydnes.
    Severt never forgot Norway, the land of his birth, treasuring his memories like a small jewel in an old fashioned setting, brought out occasionally to admire.  His new country, however, had captured his allegiance, and as a small businessman, he preferred the Republican Party.  In 1913, along with the other early emigrants still living, Severt was honored by the Governor as one of the Original Pioneers of Iowa.  He died in 1920, respected and successful.
    His story is not unique, not even out of the ordinary, but it should not be forgotten.  It is stories like Severt Tesdel’s that make up the fiber of our nation, so diverse, yet one.  Courage, devotion to family and God, resilience, and industriousness define his character.  I am proud to claim him as my great-grandfather.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stephens College and a Returning Woman

     You know how something completely unexpected and unplanned can change your life to the good?  
     Well, I nearly botched one of those God-given opportunities at the outset.
     In the mid-'80s, I had just been hired as a writing aide at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, with only an associates degree under my belt.  I knew that in order to get ahead in the academic arena, I'd need more education, but I was stumped as to any viable choices. There were no near-by colleges in those days offering night courses for part-time students.  Then, by chance, I ran across a newspaper article about a program called Stephens College Without Walls. 
    Intrigued, I called the contact person and found out that any "returning women," as they were designated, over the age of 23 with a high school diploma were eligible to enroll and work toward a bachelor's degree.  I particularly liked Stephens' motto:  "Women who are going places begin at Stephens College."  I signed up immediately.
     A few months later, I hopped a plane for Columbia, Missouri, to join fourteen other women of  different backgrounds and education.  We were to be closeted together where we would receive orientation to the college while attending a duo-discipline course--all within eight days. 
     It was an enlightening experience.
     After I returned home, I completed the course work begun at the college, and began work on Jacobean Shakespeare, and that's when near disaster overtook me.  My first assignment was The Taming of the Shrew.  I wrote my required essay, not availing myself of the suggested theses, but constructing one of my own choosing, which the instructions allowed.  Days later, I got the essay back in the mail without a grade, marked heavily with red ink, but with no constructive criticism.  The comments seemed trivial to my mind; nonetheless, I was told I needed to redo the essay "to improve it" and send it back for a grade.
     Well!  For two days I stewed over this, but I couldn't see that I'd goofed in any way, being very familiar with the essay form.  Finally, I called the professor.
     "Sir," I began respectfully, "you're asking me to improve my essay, but I can't.  I feel that I've supported my thesis and done the best job I could in writing this.  I'd have to write a completely different essay."
     "Jeanne, I'm sure you can do a better job.  I always have students re-do their first essays they turn in."
     "I'm afraid that's not going to happen with me," I said, hotly.  I had been frustrated; now I was angry.  "I said I'd done my best, and your criticisms didn't really make sense to me."
     "Jeanne, I'm your professor. You can't talk to me like that!"  He really did sound shocked, but I felt cornered and had no place to go other than defend my assertion.
     "I can and I did!"  With that, I slammed the receiver into the cradle of the phone (we had real phones then, not just electronic devices.)  He called me back immediately, but I had my son answer the phone and say I was not available.  What more was there to say?
     But this couldn't be the end of my dreams--surely.  So I called the English Chairwoman, whom I had earlier met.  I tried to remain calm as I explained my dilemma.  Her first words were, "He's a nice person, really."  Then she suggested I make a copy of the essay and send it to her.  She'd get with him and then back to me.
     I had little hope of this coming out right.  I'd defied and then challenged a professor, right out of the starting gate!  Yet the next evening I got a call from him telling me he would not require a re-do of my essay. 
      "Let's start over with the next assignment, Jeanne.  Shall we?"  He seemed more than accommodating. "I hadn't examined closely enough your originality.  I'm sure we can work together in the future."
     I did finish that course and then another one from him, doing well in both classes.  In fact, we became quite friendly.
     A year and a half later, at the Awards Ceremony prior to Commencement, it was that professor who handed me my prize, a book from the English Department who had selected me as "Outstanding English Student of the Year."  I mention this not to brag but to illustrate the importance of doing what we believe is right for us, whether it's jumping into a new venture or standing up for ourselves.
     The professor did say, upon our first face-to-face.  "You look different from what I had imagined."  I wondered if he'd had the face of a gargoyle in mind!
    Stephens College has discontinued this program, but for me, my experience remains one of the saving graces in my life, and I'm grateful for the opportunity given me.  I went on to graduate school and then to teach English at the college and become Director of the Writing Center, my own pet project, all because of College Without Walls.