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

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.