Poetry Friday: Another voice from the Civil War

English: Portrait drawing of poet, anti-slavel...

Julia Ward Howe: abolitionist, suffragette, poet, and the woman who gave the war its anthem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most famous poems associated with the Civil War—and a poem whose words are almost certainly familiar to any American—is not usually thought of as a poem today.  I found it an interesting exercise, actually, to stop and consider these familiar words as poetry, and perhaps you will too.  In late 1861, a young woman named Julia Ward Howe watched a Union regiment march off to war, singing a marching song called “John Brown’s Body“.  A friend suggested she could write new lyrics to the song’s rhythm, and so she did, producing a work that was first published as a poem in the Atlantic Monthly, and swiftly passed into the national songbook as the words perhaps most immediately associated with the conflict.  Here, in its full original six stanzas (at least two of which are rarely, if ever, sung), is Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you My grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.

I’m hoping the poem strikes you as it struck me—a strange mixture of the very familiar and the very strange. Some of the strangeness surely arises from the sixth verse (with which I was not previously familiar), but I think it’s also because I’ve sung this often enough (complete, of course, with the hymn’s added “glory hallelujahs”) that to consider the work as a poem takes my brain off a path well-worn.  There’s something compelling about Howe’s vision—an apocalyptic (and yet hopeful) reverie in which God’s omnipotent power for good flashes again and again in military metaphor.  It must have been very stirring, especially to the element in the North that saw the war as a battle for righteousness—for the freeing of the slaves and the bringing to account of those who enslaved.  It is, of course, oversimplifying the conflict by casting it in these melodramatic terms.  But that doesn’t diminish its rhetorical power for me, or its significance as a call to the fray.

I am struck by Howe’s sacrificial language—although most hymnals today would print the line thus, “as he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free”, Howe is much more direct.  The soldiers are called to die for a cause as great as their God.  There is a sense of forboding in the hymn that taps into America’s perpetual fascination with millennial thinking—a judgment is at hand, God’s eye is on all humanity, each man’s dealings will be weighed and must not be found wanting.  If I dwell on it, it does quickly become a bit troubling—there’s something a bit too martial about the poem, and the fusing of the terrible violence of war with the belief in the cause’s righteousness makes me wonder how easy it might have been for some soldiers to be blinded to their own misdeeds.  A man in the army of freedom might not judge himself as harshly for acts of cruelty and injustice against whomever he thought the enemy to be.  It’s tough—on the one hand I believe, like Julia, that the North’s victory really was a victory for truth and freedom.  But on the other hand I know that the banner of “truth and freedom” makes too convenient a cover for human frailty.

One last thing about this poem—its relentless optimism really reaches me.  I love the turns of phrase she spins off—“the trumpet that shall never call retreat” and “the glory of the morning on the wave”, and maybe most importantly, the opening declaration that this glory is so at hand that it gleams in her eyes.  Having done some research (and slowly working on an article I’ll be submitting for publication) on the early abolitionist movement in the United States, I know that America’s abolitionists had waited a century for the country to, at long last, break the shackles and step into the true meaning of the foundational statements made in the Declaration of Independence.  I can only imagine how bright the mornings seemed to Julia Howe and her abolitionist friends, as the country leaned forward to take that step.  There is much that is brutal about the Civil War, much that troubles and disturbs.  But catching the sunny optimism of the abolitionists in this poem is a good reminder of the great truth that was forged in the war’s crucible.  The freedom won in that conflict was, of course, only the first of many steps for American equality.  We have come a long way since 1865, and have a bit farther to go yet.  But the destination seems a bit closer (and the road a bit easier to walk) when I let myself get swept up in Howe’s conviction about the forward march of freedom.  Whatever I think of the artistry of the poem, its conviction is powerful.

Advertisements

Poetry Friday: Walt Whitman and the Civil War

Walt Whitman's use of free verse became apprec...

Not just a talented writer and a brilliant mind, but one of the century’s greatest beards: Papa Walt Whitman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have other options from the poetry of 1937, but my current Pulitzer novel, Gone With the Wind, has kept me so immersed in the events and characters of the Civil War that I felt it was high time to bring a 19th Century spin to Poetry Friday—there were many poets who wrote about the war, but the war’s violence forged one truly great American poet, “Papa” Walt Whitman, and I think it would be wrong to begin looking at Civil War poetry with anybody else.  Here I offer a brief poem from his 1865 collection, Drum-Taps: the poem itself is entitled “Reconciliation”

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

In a few words, Whitman captures a moment of extraordinary, almost unbearable beauty—Whitman, who had lost one soldier brother to death and another to capture as a Southern prisoner, Whitman who had worked as a nurse among the maimed and the dead in the army hospitals, Whitman kneels and kisses the face of a fallen foe.  There is an American tendency to talk about the Civil War as nothing but a tragedy, which Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out misses half the point—the Civil War wasn’t so much a violent tragedy as a spilling over into the world of white Americans the two and a half centuries of violent tragedy that had been endured by the enslaved.  To the extent that any war can be called good (I hear you, Edna), a war that brings an end to slavery has to be seen as a good act—just as we praise the Second World War for ending Hitler’s genocides.  But in another sense (with respect to Ta-Nehisi), war has to be considered a tragedy, and a war that pitted a nation against itself, and many families against themselves, is certainly no less tragic than usual.

Into this maelstrom steps Whitman with a poem that wastes no time getting down to business.  The word that fills him with joy and fascinates him is our title word, “reconciliation”, a word so strong that as he says “war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost” (what a hopeful sentiment, and incidentally what a perfectly crafted phrase!).  I’ll confess that I have too many ideas about how to take the sisters Death and Night—is he hailing the passage of time and its effect on memory, is he looking forward to the progress humanity will make with each passing day and generation, or?  I like the openness of the phrase, anyway, and the space it makes in a small poem.

And then the body in the coffin—divine, of course, because Whitman is as fascinated by the idea of “divinity” as perhaps any poet ever has been—and the simple elegance of the prose as Whitman gazes on the face and bends to kiss it.  In 1865, when this poem is published, a nation has to be ready for reconciliation in order to survive and move forward, and Whitman shows us how unexpectedly simple it can be to reconcile.  There’s a lot of power here (some of it reminiscent for me of Priam, with his lips on the hands of the man who killed his son, in Book 24 of The Iliad) and I like that Whitman avoids the 19th Century tendency to make emotion overly florid and weighed down with sentimental flourishes.  The poem packs a punch because it gets into its idea and its central image as quickly as it can, and stops, letting the impact resound in a quiet space.  Papa Walt knew what he was doing.

I don’t know if I’ll come back to Whitman again next week, but I will tangle with Leaves of Grass, for certain, before too many more months pass.  I have to get my head up from the 1930s now and then and see the lay of the land.

“Atlanta was of her own generation, crude with the crudities of youth and as headstrong and impatient as herself.”

Mitchell’s above comparison of the young Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton and the young Atlanta is clever, and would be more clever if it also had the merit of being true.  But in fact, as we and Scarlett discover, the “anything goes” attitude she seeks and seems to find in Atlanta isn’t necessarily there—it’s still a Southern town full of gossiping old biddies and restrictions on the conduct of a young widow and church bazaars and the like.  I’ll grant that Scarlett finds a degree of freedom in Atlanta that she’d missed back home, but that is almost entirely due to the weak will of her chaperone aunt-in-law, Miss Pittypat Hamilton, in comparison with the stern authority of her mother, Ellen O’Hara, who remains back home at Tara.  If Ellen lived in Atlanta, and Pitty at Tara, Atlanta would be no walk in the park for Scarlett, and a visit to Tara would have been her chance to live it up a bit.  Still, there is something interesting at work here: I’m curious to see if Mitchell really does want to dig into the tension of countryside vs. town (as is usual for Pulitzers of this era—One of Ours, Arrowsmith, and So Big all come to mind, off-hand), and what she can do with it.  So far, I don’t really see it being developed very much, but I think Scarlett’s return to Tara towards the end of the war may create more opportunities for this.

I have to admit, the characters are all very appealing—not as people I want to befriend, I should note, but rather as people I’m enjoying observing.  Rhett Butler’s got a nice caddishness about him, and he certainly knows how to maneuver within (and yet somehow unconstrained by) the conventions of Southern society.  Scarlett’s got more to her than I’d at first guessed, though she’s still not really a sympathetic character, or rather I am sympathetic to her plight but not always to her way of resolving problems.  I think Mitchell’s having fun with that aspect of the Scarlett character, and I don’t blame her—it’s a nice distance for an author to have from her main character.  Melanie Hamilton Wilkes has a bit more edge to her than I’d expected from my memories of the movie, and I no longer feel, as I did in an earlier post, that she’s just some wish-fulfillment character expressing Mitchell’s idea of herself.  Watching these characters interact with each other and the rest of an enormous cast is definitely fun, especially because Mitchell is good at those conversations where one thing is said and another meant.  Most of Rhett and Scarlett’s dialogue effectively operates this way, and it has a sparkle to it.  Most of the chapters I hit are fun to read—lively, eventful, sometimes a bit humorous, and certainly easy to get caught up in.

But the long struggle continues with GWTW as a) a book that defends the Confederacy as an idea and b) a book that defends racism.  It’s fair at this point to say that I haven’t resolved whether a) or b) are true statements to make, although I’m pretty skeptical about acquitting the novel entirely on either charge.  Jillian from A Room of One’s Own has been a welcome and vocal addition to the comments section here in the last few days, and I think if anybody can convince me that I’m being too hard on the novel, she can.  But, having said that, I’m not sure anyone can.  The reason is this: Mitchell presents a case about the Confederacy that, at first blush, seems pretty critical.  Scarlett, with whom we are closely concerned (whether or not we always agree with her), is not a fan of “the Cause”, and Rhett’s even harsher than she is.  It might seem, then, that the novel is in fact an argument against the South’s attempts to stave off change—a novel that sees the war as wasteful, boastful arrogance, an act of an ignorant and petulant child.  But Mitchell presents other views as well—Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, who is undeniably presented to us as admirable (even the caustic Rhett Butler has nothing but praise for her), has shown anger on only one occasion so far…when she realizes that some of the South’s men are unwilling to go and die nobly for the sake of the glorious cause.  And Ashley Wilkes, who I’d also argue is undeniably presented as a thoughtful and admirable man, laments the war but for the wrong reasons.  He claims in a letter to Melanie that the war is not about “the darkies”, as he calls them—no, he is fighting for something other than the preservation of slavery.  What?  The “old ways” that are certain now to disappear.  What characterizes the old ways?  Oh, he lavishes detail on them, but it boils down to missing the peaceful, quiet, steady life he could have lived on a plantation, and the sweet sound of tired “darkie” voices singing as they trudge home from the fields after a long day’s work, etc.  No, Ashley’s not fighting for “the darkies”….he’s fighting to defend the privileged and pleasant life that owning slaves allowed him to live.  The fact that he sentimentalizes slavery by seeing it as this sweet, decorous, stained-glass window image of the happy slave headed home, proud of a good day’s cotton-picking, is really no excuse for making it his reason for fighting.  I certainly don’t hate Ashley Wilkes, or his wife Melanie, for that matter, but there’s no denying that the characters most praised and built up by the narrative in this book are also the characters most eloquent in defense of the South’s war to preserve the comfortable lives of white slaveowners.

Cropped screenshot of Leslie Howard from the t...

“Why, no, I’m not fighting to protect slavery….just to protect the entire civilization built on slavery (and so slavery too, but implicitly, as polite people should always do).” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this point, I can read the above work in one of two ways—I can say that Mitchell actually thinks Ashley and Melanie are wrong, obviously wrong (as they are, in fact), and that therefore the novel’s presenting a case against the South, largely through the mouths of Scarlett and Rhett, who for their faults are more vivid than the Wilkes are.  Or I can say that Mitchell agrees with the Wilkes and thinks the Civil War is a tragedy, not because so many people had to die in order to set a race free, but because so many people had to die in noble defense of the beautiful world made possible by slavery.  The question of the author’s intentions is not important to every reader, but it’s important to me—I went a few rounds with Paul on this subject in the comments section of a post on The Magnificent Ambersons, and I suspect I may go a round or two with Jillian in this post’s comments section.  This is not a bad thing—I like being pushed to make sense of a novel like this.  And it’s fair to point out that there’s no reason I can’t praise or enjoy a novel where the author’s intentions run opposite to mine.  I’m certainly liking a lot of the reading experience I’m getting out of GWTW, which is a much more skillful and engrossing novel than many of the Pulitzer winners I’ve read thus far—it’s just that the novel still makes me uneasy every time we turn back to race and the war.  I tense up every time it looks like the narration is running back to those subjects.  I don’t know that I’ll ever get over that, and more to the point, I’m not sure I should try to “get over it”, since it may be that this is a perfectly good reaction to a book whose agenda ought to be opposed.  I will be mulling this one over long after I finish reading it, though, that’s certain, and I’m glad of that.

Why Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address is poetry…

The title’s not as ambitious as I promised, of course, but sometimes it’s best to keep one’s hubris below the fold.  In case you’re lost right now, I posted to this blog several days ago two “poems” for Poetry Friday: one of them a short ode to Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay, and the other was the full text of Lincoln’s remarkably brief speech given after he took the oath of office for the 2nd time, in March of 1865.  I acknowledged going in that calling it a poem was daring but defensible.  I commented afterwards that by Monday I’d explain why I think it’s his best speech—better even than the Gettysburg Address—and perhaps the best speech ever given.  I’m going to make that attempt now.  I want to say at the outset that I recognize this is an unresolvable question.  I’m not even sure that I’d agree with me on this 100% of the time—there are a lot of great speeches in the world, and in different moods they affect me in different ways.  So all I’m really doing is trying to explain why this reaches me, why I think it deserves higher acclaim than it gets, and why at the very least it is one of the great prose poems that expresses America at her noblest and best.  I’m not including the whole text here (as it’s accessible by scrolling down a bit), but will quote from time to time.

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln from the Library of Congress

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln in 1863

I want to start with his humility.  This is a public address on an immensely important occasion.  Lincoln has been re-elected by a country that knew his first election had caused the war.  His dedication and unconventional thinking had helped steer a course to victory.  As recently as the fall of 1864, leading up to the election, it was unclear if the war could end in any reasonable time, and many Northerners thought suing for peace would be best.  But startlingly by March 1865, the war is essentially over.  Lee is weeks away from surrendering at Appomattox. The Union is victorious.  And Lincoln begins this triumphant opportunity by telling the crowd he doesn’t want to talk long.  He calls the course of the war “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all” and refuses to predict anything about its imminent conclusion.  He’s a man who literally had been sneaked into the capital through the shadows for his first inauguration because there were mobs waiting to kill him, and he’s unwilling to take a bow until the last shot is fired.  He would rather not linger on the stage.  Nothing he has to say is important.  This is characteristic of him—the Gettysburg Address is in exactly the same vein—and there is something pure and unfeigned about his shyness.  He recognizes the greatness of his time and the inability of any human being to look prominent by comparison.  In the modern era, where politicians never pass up a chance to give a long stirring speech with lots of applause lines, where our leaders look for chances to declare victories with banners and fanfare, Lincoln is a mystery.

Lincoln acknowledges the contrast with March 1861, noting the anti-Union forces at the start of the war (though saying nary a word about their personal hatred of him, or their attempts to do him violence).  And then the first of the great moments in the speech arrives: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”  Lincoln uses 19th Century American language the way Shakespeare used Renaissance English—their command and confidence, in both cases, is really beautiful.  In one sentence, that slips by us like a rider in the night almost before we can hear it, Lincoln draws the lines between North and South in a way that does not demonize, but does distinguish.  The irony in that sentence—of the peoples who would have rejected war had there not been a more terrible evil to conquer—is at just the right level for me.  Lincoln was an unwilling warrior—strangely, the President we most associate with a war was, as far as I can tell, one of our least warlike and most pacifist leaders—and the phrasing of that clause “would accept war rather than let it perish” must be exactly what he said to himself the night that Sumter was fired upon.  It’s how he justifies to himself the years of blood and smoke that follow—the death and horror that live in those four slow syllables, “and the war came”.

Lincoln begins to walk directly into the topic of slavery, unblinking, fully aware that his Maryland audience is tense about the end of the war because it will bring with it an end to slavery—slavery which had been legal in the Union state of Maryland throughout the war.  He does so because he wants to show them that the course of history gives them no alternative.  He reminds them that both sides tried their best to avoid this outcome—to seek, in his beautifully phrased prose, “an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding“.  But it could not have been.  Lincoln here reveals a personal perspective on slavery, in saying that it “may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces“, but he immediately steps back from this as a policy statement: they are not to judge, lest they be judged themselves.  There is a wonderful balance here, in which Lincoln simultaneously reminds the audience that the Bible and their faith has been used by both sides against the other, while using the language of the Bible and of faith himself to present his own perspective on the war, a perspective he knew in his heart was “right” in a way the Confederacy could not be.

We are not far into the speech—a handful of sentences, really—but are already past the half-way point, and everything from here on out is shocking.  Lincoln accepts the war as a punishment to both the North and South for slavery: he presents this simply enough, but think of the even-handedness of this.  He does not present the North as the white knight, having vanquished the iniquitous Southern villain.  Both sides are brothers, kinsmen in a house that must suffer for its sins.  Lincoln, who grew up and lived in an emancipated North, believes so firmly in the unity of his country that he will not excuse the North for having allowed the South to go its own way for so long.  Think of the daring of that from any political leader at any time—the willingness to share blame equally between your friends and your foes—and then think of a President doing this on the day of his triumphant inauguration, on the brink of victory after a long and bloody war.  The kind of character it takes to say this is remarkable.

Patients in Ward K, Armory Square Hospital, 1865

And then he says “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”  The epic scope of this overwhelms me every time, and sometimes pushes me to the brink of tears when I read it.  The Civil War had been the country’s bloodiest conflict—over 600,000 Americans dead, hundreds of thousands more wounded and maimed for life.  Every community in the country had felt loss, every neighborhood had at least one young man who would not come home (and many who came home were never the same).  And at this moment, when that long national nightmare seems at an end, when the light is beginning to dawn, Lincoln looks squarely in the eyes of his nation and tells them that this war has been the mercy of God.  That the evils they have undeservedly visited upon a whole race of human beings are so terrible that only the destruction of the American society, only an ocean of spilled American blood, could expiate their guilt.  At a time when he could easily have saluted his followers for their victory “in the cause of freedom”, he instead looks back on the gruesome past of a country built on the backs of an enslaved people and can hardly believe that divine justice will allow his land to escape with a mere million casualties.  His bravery in facing this truth has never, I think, been paralleled by any national leader in the history of democracy.

And I haven’t even gotten yet to the best sentence he ever penned.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  The war is on the verge of ending, but as he continues to remind them, it is not quite over yet.  So, how does he envision the next four years?  Retribution against the traitors who destroyed his country?  Punishments that ensure no such rebellion will ever again arise?  No, he reaches out into the bleeding wounds of the South with charity and not malice—with a love that aches for his American brothers and sisters even as they continue to deny his leadership, even as a few of them are plotting to kill him and his closest friends in a night of assassinations.  Lincoln reminds his people, as both a benediction and a call to service, what work they are engaged in: not the work of warfare, of brutal force and blood.  There has been enough of that—a necessity forced on Lincoln by the war he could not avoid, but not the path of his choosing.  No, the work for Americans is to bind up the nation’s wounds, the whole nation’s and not merely part of it.  To care for soldiers and for those left behind by the dead, regardless of the color they wore as they fell or the flag they saluted when they enlisted.  To take every step, to leave no stone unturned, until the nation is at peace with the world and at peace with itself.

It’s not the greatest speech ever if you want to inspire modern people to action—it’s not timeless in the way that some speeches are (Martin Luther King comes to mind as a better example).  But as a speech of its time, especially of that particular context of the 2nd inauguration at the end of a difficult war, I think it shows an unmatched willingness to confront the truths no one would have asked to hear.  Lincoln is a great leader and a great man because of what he manages in speeches like this one—to humbly and simply put before the nation the truth about itself, that America has never lived up to its ideals, that America has built itself on injustice and exploitation, that in facing hardship America is only facing the consequences of fate and divine retribution that would befall any nation so unwilling to do what is right.  And he says all of this without condescending, without pulling rank or moral authority, and without shifting the focus away from what is most important—that revenge is unthinkable and that peace will only come from kindness and goodness, from the open love offered by a charitable heart.  Lincoln is our greatest President, and this is his greatest speech, because he shows us that under all his canny political instincts (there’s no denying he was skilled, and crafty at times) his devotion to truth and justice is unflinching even when it aims the sword at his own heart.  How our nation was fortunate to elect, not once but twice, a man who ultimately refused to glory in victorious battle, refused to keep honest criticism from his allies, refused to take vengeance on those who threatened the safety of himself, his family, and the nation he swore to protect, I cannot possibly imagine.  If he were a politician in the United States today, he might never rise above the office of local dogcatcher.  That is our century’s shame, and should be all the incentive we need to re-examine our politics.

This is an immense post, and may well be rambling (though I hope not).  I think at the very least it conveys my enthusiasm for Lincoln and for this speech, and I hope I did so in a way that touches you also, even if not in the same way.  If you’ve never read anything by him, I urge you to track down whatever you can—even in short letters to people he was unacquainted with, the character and the vision I’ve been praising are very evident.

Reflection XXIX: In which our hero’s resolve is tested, and he makes an apology to Booth Tarkington

I’ve gotten into the habit—almost a “tradition” of sorts—of titling these posts with an apt line or two from the section of the novel I’d just read.  I think it keeps me grounded in the author, and it gives you a little taste of the book I’m reading.  I don’t think I’m strong enough to do that with The Able McLaughlins.  I’ll offer an example passage:

“If it is’na Isobel’s Wully!”  She shook his hand, and patted him on the shoulder, and reached up and kissed him.  He didn’t mind that.  She was practically an aunt, so intimate were the families.  In her silent excitement she brought him into her wretched little cabin.

And there stood another woman.  By the window—a young woman—turning towards him with sunshine on her white arms—and on the dough she was kneading—sunshine on her white throat—and on the little waves of brown hair about her face—sunshine making her fingertips transparent pink—a woman like a strong angel—beautiful in light!

Wully just stared.

I don’t know how you’re reacting to this section. Personally, I nearly threw myself out the bus’s emergency door.

It’s as though I’m reading, not a novel, but a message from a far-off land.  A land where they have read no fiction but stories that were rejected by the editors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the rambling journals of people who think being excited about something while you write means that your writing will be exciting.

I’m being too harsh, you might say…it’s been a long week, and clearly my patience is wearing too thin.  And maybe I just hit a particularly clunky passage.  Fair enough.  A good point—let’s see how Wully’s encounter with this radiant young woman goes…

“Chirstie!” he whispered.  “I didn’t know that you were here!  I didn’t know that you were the lassie for me!”  He kissed her fearfully.  He kissed her without fear, many times.  She said only “Oh!”  He held her close.

I should point out that the “conversation” between them is the first they’ve had for four years, and that when Wully left home, she was a girl of 12 or 13, while he was going off to fight in the Civil War.  He sees her ‘all grown up’ and can’t quite contain himself.  Oh! she says.  Oh, indeed.

I have three observations to make.  First of all, truly, I apologize to Booth Tarkington.  I was irked by him many, many times, but he never subjected me to this.  He never made me wonder if he had the talent sufficient to compose a greeting card or leave an amusing Post-it note on the fridge door.  I was entirely too hard on him.  Second of all, the tragic thing is that there’s a society here to tell a story about—a secluded Scottish community in Iowa where everyone knows everyone, and where the outside world does not come, until these boys go off to war and never come back (Wully’s brother is dead, and Wully just escaped a prison camp after being a POW for months).  I ought to be fascinated, but I can’t get past Wilson’s writing.

So, to my last point, where I ask your input—what’s wrong with her writing?  The choppiness of that last passage, for example, isn’t all that different from Hemingway, is it?  And yet his prose works and hers doesn’t.  I know that I’m exceptionally picky about style (if my reactions to my book group’s novels are any indication), but I think there’s something undeniably bad here.  Given that none of you have read this, pick a novel you’ve read whose writing style was so atrocious you couldn’t bear it.  What is it that we react badly to?  Is there anything definable about bad writing, or, like Potter Stewart, do we simply have to say “I know it when I see it”?  I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about that often as I continue–this book wants to stop my journey, but I won’t let it!  It’ll be a long stretch of road, though, I can tell you.