…and live in that America

On June 30, 1891, my great-great-grandfather, Ole Olsen Kvalevaag, of Avaldsnes parish, Karmøy Island, Norway, wrote the following in a letter to his son, my great-grandfather, who’d emigrated to America and changed his name to John Walker (my translation):

I myself have been sick awhile, but now, thank God, I am better again; and it’s a good thing, because I haven’t had much of anyone to help me with the farm work this year…. I myself have plowed every furrow this year….

Ja, it is certainly hard to think that we, who have brought up so many as we have, are now alone in our old age. Ja, it is sorrowful to think of, that we should have two sons in America, and [they] go and work for day wages, with nothing of their own to hold on to, and will not be at home in their own home and country. Ja, it is amazing how a person can be, ja, I often wonder about it when I think of you, that you could forsake your dear home, and live in that America….

You, Jan, are scared to come home, you say, because you have to go to Madla [for military service], you say; ja, setting aside the fact that you have to, for you aren’t too good for that place, nor is anyone else; for as surely as you are, and want to be, a Christian, there is something the Lord has commanded, that we should submit to God and king. I ask you not to refuse this, for think how the Lord can lay upon you something that might be worse for you if you avoid this; for I can tell you that there are many who have been punished by God for it.

I don’t have John’s replies, but what I see in this letter (as well as the others in the collection) is the Declaration of Independence writ small (to an extent), in one family’s history. My great-grandfather resisted a lot of pressure and well-meaning warnings (not to mention guilt) in order to strike out on a new path in a new country. He left familiar things, and things that felt right, to try it the American way.

He ended up rich by the standards of his time and place, incidentally. The later letters make it clear that his father had borrowed money from him.

I’m grateful to be an American, grateful both to God and to my risk-taking ancestors.

Happy Fourth of July.

The Fourth

For Independence Day, Junk Yard Blog quotes from ancient Episcopalian wisdom, which may have little to do with modern church leadership.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will.

Blogger SeeDubya calls the modern Episcopal church the Shasta Cola of Anglicanism.

He also points to some good parodies of the NY Times and others, including this one on Powerlineblog.com which shows the Times blowing the cover on colonial plans to announce the attack of the British.

Who’s in control here?

Ever wonder what comedy was like before Christianity? Anthony Esolen has an intriguing meditation over at Mere Comments today.

Phil wonders, in a post below, why we read literature. I suspect it’s partly for the same reason a few of us miserable wretches produce literature. And that’s the main reason anyone does anything—a need to feel in control, or to feel vicariously that there is control and order somewhere.

The older I get (and I’m getting pretty old) the more I agree with the psychological theory that most of us do the things we do (wise or stupid or crazy) out of a desire to feel in control of some part of our worlds.

There are many ways to divide mankind into Two Kinds of People, but it seems to me one of those standard divisions is between the Men of Action and Creative Men (I know I’m supposed to say Persons nowadays, but being a brutal sexist is one of the ways I try to exercise control on my own part). Generally—there are exceptions, of course—people who do big things and impose their wills on others don’t produce art. And people who produce art aren’t movers and shakers in the world.

When I was a child, I learned early on that I didn’t have much power in my environment. I couldn’t make decisions and I was pretty much at everybody else’s mercy.

So I started playing with puppets. I loved puppets. They were like little people who’d do whatever I wanted them to do. Later I turned to drawing. Drawing was better than puppets, because the cast of characters I could play with was unlimited. Finally I started writing, and that was even better, because my drawing skills only went so far, while writing gave me a greater sense of mastery.

A greater sense of mastery. An arena where I could call the shots. Turn any old pile of ideas and conflicts into a coherent, rational whole.

Sounds kind of pathetic when I put it that way, but it seems to me all human endeavors are like that in one way or another. The politician tries to create or change the political order to make it conform to his own vision of A Really Good Society. The scientist tries to discover the hidden laws of the universe, and to manipulate them to achieve ends he approves of. The carpenter imposes a new level of order on lumber.

Lewis and Tolkien called this “subcreation.” Rather than seeing it as a pitiful attempt to impose order where there is none (as the postmodern critic might charge), they saw human creativity as one of God’s gifts, bestowed by Him along with His Image at Creation.

How you see it all depends on the biases you bring to your observations. And if you want to minimize it by explaining it away with psychological jargon, well, that’s another way of imposing order on the world, isn’t it?

Re: Sadhu Sundar Singh

I just received word that Artist Alec Stevens’ graphic novel on Sadhu Sundar Singh is in print and available through Calvary Comics.

Stevens sends this word because of a post Lars wrote in May which mentioned Singh. On our old blog, Lars wrote:

I’m a long-time member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. In January, 1991, the society’s Bulletin published an article by Lindskoog which appears to be an early version of the “Golden Chain” piece. It was titled, “C.S. Lewis and Sadhu Sundar Singh.” A comparative reading shows that the material is very similar, though much of it has been rearranged. A further difference is that this (apparent) early version features no mention of the Visions book in relation to The Great Divorce.

In response to that article, I wrote a letter to the Bulletin editor. That letter was published in the January 1992 issue (the delay in Bulletin releases in those days was something of an embarrassment). A portion of my letter is reproduced below:

I enjoyed the article [by Kathryn Lindskoog…] on Sadhu Sundar Singh as the original of Lewis’ “Sura” in That Hideous Strength.

I recently picked up a booklet I have owned for many years but never read before, Visions of Sadhu Sundar Singh of India. It was originally published in 1926, and contains a series of teachings on life after death which the Sadhu claimed were revealed to him during ecstatic experiences. He tells of conversations with angels and blessed spirits, and direct visions of heaven and hell and an “intermediate state” between them.

I was intrigued by some apparent similarities between the visions in this book and the scenes in The Great Divorce. The Sadhu pictures the intermediate state as a place where the majority of human souls are met by angels and spirits of saints [and] are given many opportunities and encouragements to believe in Christ and go on to higher and higher states of grace….

…I can’t help wondering whether there is any evidence of Lewis ever reading it. It could have been a spark for his artistic imagination….

I expressed my devout skepticism as regards “intermediate states,” and closed with publication information on the edition of the Visions I owned (which, as it happened, was published by Osterhus Publishing, a small press/bookstore within walking distance of my present home).

Beyond the Summerland, by L.B. Graham

Summary: The son of a nobleman journeys to a beautiful southern city for extensive training and is caught up in an adventure which appears to be the harbinger of an epic war.

Beyond the Summerland, the first of five in the Binding of the Blade series, is a fairly exciting story once you get into it. Joraiem, the son of one of the nobles who rule Kirthanin, is of the age to go to the Summerland for the political, physical, and academic training that all of the young nobility receive. Along the way, he meets several interesting people who will also be trained for leadership, the most interesting being a large warrior who carries an ancient sword and is mystically connected to a tiger. A dozen or so men and women train in the Summerland for weeks before the danger increases and all of them feel compelled to risk everything on what may be a doomed mission.

This is L.B. Graham’s first novel, so perhaps I should ignore some stylistic matters, but those matters are the reason Beyond the Summerland takes some patience. The prologue or opening chapter should be 2/3 shorter due to needless detail. Throughout the book, the story bogs down in a few paragraphs of narrative which don’t sound unnatural to me but are unneeded. For example, Joraiem may think through a situation and give the reader no more understanding than that a few story points are being made too obvious. Despite this, it’s an enjoyable story, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

Tags: , , , , ,

from “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates

As a precursor to tomorrow’s national holiday, let me repeat the lesser verses of “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates (1859–1929):

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,

Those stern, impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life!

America! America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine.

Why Do We Read Literature?

As a partial response to a suggestion from searider a few weeks ago, I ask you, a reader gracious (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to glance at this humble blog, why do you read literature? Why do you read good fiction as opposed to cheap or pulp fiction or non-fiction?

Here’s an answer from Proverbs 25:11-13.

A word fitly spoken

is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold

is a wise reprover to a listening ear.

Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest

is a faithful messenger to those who send him;

he refreshes the soul of his masters.

Ignore this post

The post that follows is, as far as I can figure out, entirely pointless.

It has nothing to do with books, and it involves no stories of any detectable drama. I inform you only because I promised to, yesterday (Walker: a synonym for useless, unwanted integrity).

I live on a hillside, and a number of my neighbors have retaining walls running along their neighbors’ driveways, as I do. The difference between my retaining wall and any of my neighbors’ is that mine is much larger, and potentially more expensive to repair.

So I was distressed when a toolbox-sized chunk cracked itself out of the concrete this spring. I told my brothers, Moloch and Baal, and they offered to come up (and down, respectively) and see if we could repair it ourselves.

Since that time I’ve also noticed a tendency for rainwater to run into my basement, along the side that has not, for some reason, been equipped with rain gutters. Someone (and you know who you are) told me that putting up gutters, especially on a straight shot along one side of a house, is an easy afternoon job for a couple guys. So I asked M. and B. if they’d care to help me with that too.

They agreed. I bought supplies, borrowed a ladder at work to supplement the extension ladder I already own, and they came yesterday for the big work day.

Here’s where the story gets (even more) dull: Everything went great. We used patching cement to repair the wall, and the final result appears acceptable (at least as a temporary repair). We overcame some problems with awkward angles (since my ladders weren’t the ideal sizes or shapes), and the gutters went up handsomely. I don’t think professionals could have done that any better.

We did it all in a day. I provided the meals and basically hewed wood and drew water, leaving M. and B. to do the manly work.

They went home this morning, to resume their various duties.

And that’s it. It was a good day.

Busy day

No time to post much tonight. Brothers Moloch and Baal are both here, giving me heroic help on a couple of maintenance projects. I’ll post at greater length tomorrow, barring surprises. Short version: our projects seem to be successful, nobody got hurt, and we’re all still speaking to each other.

RIP: James Patrick Baen

The man who gave me my chance as a published author, Jim Baen, passed away yesterday. Author David Drake provides an eloquent eulogy here.

In the ups and downs of our working relationship, I never lost my deep respect for the man they used to call the “GE” (officially General Editor, though many fans preferred God-Emperor, begging your pardon).

You’ll read now and then about the great old days of publishing, when Mighty Editors roamed the earth (or at least the hallways) wielding their red pencils and showing callow authors who showed some promise how to tell a real story.

Those days are mostly gone now. Today the industry is run by bean counters who sell books by the yard. Editors flit from house to house, perpetually frustrated that they can’t get approval for books and authors they believe in.

Jim Baen was a throwback to the glory days. He ran his own shop, and he ran it his own way. He published the kind of books he wanted to read himself, and he showed the world that you could make a nice living doing just that.

He was fiercely, even frighteningly, honest. When he said he’d do a thing, he did it.

He believed in freedom of speech and, unlike many in the publishing business, he practiced it. He published me (a Christian) and Eric Flint (a Communist). He himself was an agnostic.

I doubt I’ll ever see another editor/publisher like him.

We can never know for certain the fate of any soul. I pray Jim will have found grace at the end.

Andree Seu on Writing and Faking It

[first posted August 16, 2003] This week’s issue of World Magazine includes another great essay by one of my favorite essayists/columnists/journalists (whichever label fits best) Andree Seu. She says, “Writers know that you can find a source to say anything you want, so they move heaven and earth to scare up an expert who agrees with them.” That and the pressures of marketing, whose goal is to turn a profit, makes some reporting and even fiction writing an exercise in building a pre-determined product. For some news sources, the stories they report are meant primarily to earn them money, not inform their readers. The right to know, if it exists, is subject to the desire for profit. She ends her essay expressing disappointment over the report that Tom Clancy doesn’t write all of his novels. “I keep wondering about the poor schmo who writes for Mr. Clancy and doesn’t get his name on the jacket,” she says.

A couple years ago, Ms. Seu told me that she was preparing her essays for possible publication in book form. Whether that pans out, that is to say if it’s in the cards she’s been dealt (I love American gambling and gold rush metaphors), I hope she has a book of some sort published while I’m still around to read it. I’m sure it will have more heart and thought than at least half of what’s published that year. [That book or a precursor to it now exists.]

If not the whole nine yards, at least 8.5 of it

[first posted August 29, 2003] Gideon Strauss introduced me to The Phrase Finder, another helpful etymology web site for understanding the origin and true meaning of clichés and phrases. Now, before you stop reading and rush to the site, let me tell you about the phrase you’re going to look for, “the whole nine yards.”

The phrase means “all of it or as much as can be.” If you went the whole nine yards to get something done, you did as much as anyone could do. How did the phrase come about? The Phrase Finder says, “No one knows the origin, although many have an fervent belief that they do. These convictions are unfailingly based on no more evidence than ‘someone told me’.”

There are several possible origins, but not enough evidence to back up any of them conclusively. I like what Evan Morris, the inimitable Word Detective, has to say on this. He says he likes the theory that nine cubic yards is the most a cement mixer can carry. He argues that this theory has the advantage of being concrete.

Speaking of the Word Detective, let me point you to the question I asked him earlier this year on thumbing one’s nose. It’s a small, fleeting thrill to have a question published in your better’s column. Being a small man, I’ve been quite proud of myself for months.

Treason, eh? I Can Handle Treason.

So the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal ran details reports on a government program which spies on the money trail left by suspected terrorists. President Bush called the reports “disgraceful” and harmful to the war on terror. Others have called it treason. I heard the NY Times chief editor (I believe) say the president needs to be restrained, presumably by him.

What do you think? Was it treasonous for the paper to report on this or are they free to do so under the first amendment?

Book Reviews, Creative Culture