Blog Archives

CCV

 Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Pride in our heroes of the War for Southern Independence has just about been shamed out of us down here in the South.  Their statues have a hard time staying upright.  But what was the significance of their struggle?  Yes, they were defending slavery (in some cases) or the South’s right to deal with the problem of slavery without Yankee interference (in others).  And slavery needed to end.  I know.  But there was more to it than that.  This is what their memory means to me.  Just call me unreconstructed.

I got to recite this on the porch of the Appomattox Courthouse a few years ago.[Cue Rebel Yell.]

APPOMATTOX

“I’d rather die a thousand deaths,” he’d said;

Well, better he should die them than his men.

Though there was nothing left for them to win,

Still at his word they would have fought and bled

(Or starved, more likely—true—but dead is dead).

 

So Lee, immaculate in his dress grays,

And Grant, unbuttoned, chewing his cigar,

Sat down together there to end the war.

And when they had agreed on every phrase,

They signed it through an inexplicable haze.

 

And Lee stepped out upon the porch that day

And drove his fist into his open hand

Three times while staring out across the land.

And then, since there was nothing more to say,

He mounted Traveler and rode away.

 

And now he’d have to face the thin gray lines.

“It’s Gen’ral Lee!”  With joy they gathered ‘round.

He tried to speak, but could not force a sound,

‘Til slowly in his face they read the signs

And silence fell beneath the somber pines.

Only those nearby could comprehend

The words, “Superior numbers . . . forced to yield . . .

Your horses you may keep to plow your fields . . .

I’ve done the best I could for you, my friends.

You’re heroes all.  Farewell.”  And so it ends:

 

The last gasp of the South that might have been,

The first breath of the South as she would be,

Beaten, bowed—but with a memory:

The independence that she could not win,

The Lost Cause, and the frailty of men.

 

The noblest soldier living could not save

Her from the long defeat or from the tears.

It would protect her for a hundred years

From half the vulgar lies with which men pave

The primrose paths that lead but to the grave.

 

For Lee stepped out upon the porch that day

And drove his fist into his open hand

Three times while staring out across the land.

And then, since there was nothing more to say,

He mounted Traveler and rode away.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Advertisements

CVI

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

It is now 1980-81.  I have finished my course work for the PhD at the University of Georgia and been admitted to candidacy; all that is left is the minor detail of finishing my dissertation.  Meanwhile, I have been offered a job at UGA as full time Temporary Lecturer in Freshman English, just to make sure I don’t get too much work done on that dissertation.  Meanwhile there were stories to be told, some historical, some fictional, and some personal (a sub-set of historical).  The next poem is in the latter category.

On My Grandmother’s Father, His Wife,

Minnie Ellabella Huitt,

And a Tenuous Connection With Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

William Forney Lee had a long, white, drooping mustache

And a black string tie in the pictures in the drawer

At my grandmother’s house.  She was all I knew of him,

The old photographs and the stories that she told:

How his father had been sick and couldn’t go to fight the Yankees,

And old Marse Robert had come down himself to see him

And give such comfort as could be for such a woe,

And left him a daguerreotype, a new-fangled picture

Of himself on Traveler, and written on the bottom

With his own hand, “To my favorite nephew.”  That was all.

Portrait-RELee7

That was all!  It was enough.  To have such a contact

Was more than I have even yet begun to comprehend.

But was the story true?  There wasn’t any need to doubt it.

Her very own eyes had seen the picture more than once,

And that was back when she could see as well as anyone.

Well, now she is as old, almost, as William Forney’s wife

Had been when I, a boy, barely able to remember,

Had been led up to the wheelchair where the tiny woman sat,

Her hair up in a bun, the whitest white I’d ever seen,

And someone shouted, “This is Vera Lee’s boy, your great grandson,”

And slowly her ancient hand had reached out to touch me.

There was an old country house with a long porch, and horses

At the far end of the pasture, and a calf in the barn,

And bird-dogs in a pen who jumped up to lick my fingers.

There were long tables spread in the yard beneath the oak tree.

Yggdrasil

It seems this big in my memory . . .

The spiced tea was strange on my tongue–I wouldn’t drink it,

But there was chicken and dumplings and a giant birthday cake,

And water that you drank with a ladle from a bucket

That you cranked up creaking on a rope from the well.

It was all Great Grandma Lee, it was all the Birthday Dinner,

And it happened every year.  When we came back again,

The horses and the bird-dogs were still there, but she was not.

Well, William Forney Lee had mouldered twenty years already,

And now twenty more have passed.  The horses and the dogs

Have followed both their mistress and their master into dust.

The old house is gone; there is a new brick one now,

With all the modern plumbing, but it does not have a porch.

Only the old oak tree remains as a reminder,

And the pictures I the drawer, and the pictures in my mind.

Portrait-RELee3

“But where is the daguerrotype?” I ask, but get no answer.

“Oh surely it is somewhere in the family, but I can’t say

Exactly where.  It’s been so long, there are so many branches.”

As many as the branches of the oak that was a sapling

When William Forney’s father took an unexpected present

From the kindest hand that ever held a sword.  And I have touched

The wife of the son of the man who was that nephew of Marse Robert,

And oh, I wish that I had known, I wish that I had known!

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

 Donald T. Williams, PhD

Stars Through the Clouds

On War in Fiction: “It is good that war is so terrible….”

I hope all is well with everyone!  I’m picking up from last month with my series on war in history and what we can learn from it that might help our fiction.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise.  I hope you find them useful!

__________

Lee on Traveler

It is good that was is so terrible, else we should grow to fond of it.

–Robert E. Lee,

It was a cold December day in 1862 as General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, looked out across the battlefield of Fredericksburg. He was watching his men below slaughter his opponents in the generally one-sided fight.  Row after row of gallant northern soldiers drove across a field, trying to wrest an essentially impenetrable position from Lee’s men.  As he watched, he turned and made the statement above.  For many, it seems nonsensical:  Who could ever grow fond of war?  After all, as I argued in March, “war is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”  History teaches us, though, that war has its “good” side, and that people can indeed grow “fond” of it.  Any depiction of war needs to address this element as well in order to be realistic.

As we proceed, please note that I’m not trying to make war look like it is a positive thing.  War is terrible and it leaves its scars on everything it touches.  It steal lives, saps youth, destroys nature, and undoes years of human progress.  War is best avoided altogether.

But it doesn’t follow that where there is a war, nothing good can exist.  Perseverance, strength, and honor often balance out cowardice, cruelty, and lies.  Adversity (which war by definition inflicts in spades) and while it destroys many of those that it touches, it also often refines those who are subjected to it.  Those survivors go on to become leaders and can benefit and protect their people in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.  It breeds strong friendships, making men brothers and forging deep bonds.  All of that is something that, while none of them would want to go through it again, can make people look back on war as something meaningful.

Another important point to remember is that while we like to think that a warrior’s job is to make war 24-7, the reality is much, much different.  The vast majority of a soldier’s time is spent doing things completely disconnected to violence and bloodshed.  As another Civil War soldier once observed, “War is two months of complete boredom punctuated by twenty minutes of utter terror” (my paraphrase).  Most of their time was spent in camp, doing menial chores or drilling.  When not in camp, they usually were marching to another camp.  Weeks could pass without either army getting close enough to see each other–and that was during the campaigning season (from about March until about October).  In the winter they would set up a more permanent camp and sit there until the winter passed.  That, much more than visions of glorious, gory combat, is what “war” has meant for millions through history.

So, in short, while as authors we should not allow ourselves to become fixated on the “glories” of war, neither should we simply reduce it to its horrors.  If we want to write the best, most accurate depiction of war that we can, we must look at it in all its diversity, and then pass that diversity and complexity on to our readers.

__________

Next Week–Is there such a thing as the “laws” of war?

History and Fiction: Stereotypical Character Types

For the month of August, I thought I might take a closer look at some of the intersections between history and fiction and what we can learn from them.  In a very real way, most fiction claims to be some form of pseudo history–we are telling the tale of what we want our readers to believe are real people in a real world, and often the very best authors are the ones who can make us think all this really happened.  In that sense, I think that fiction almost always has something more to learn, within reason, from history.

__________

“Plucky?”

Picking up from last week, there is another level on which we have a tendency to impress literature onto history, and it also can get in the way of writing fiction that feels “real”:  the imposition of character types.  Speaking informally, I’ll mention only a few by name–The tragic hero;  The arch nemesis; The “plucky comic relief”; The wise sage; The exuberant but inexperienced youth.  Decades of literary research has left them all broken down and categorized in ways I can only begin to imagine.  The problem is that life very rarely graces us with such clear lines of demarcation between personalities.

Like the standard questing party in your average role playing game, different types of fiction often come equipped with a particular stable of stereotypical characters that can vary slightly based on a story.  Whether we intend it or not, we find ourselves looking for them, first as authors and then later as readers.  They become the standard by which creativity is measured.  Think of fantasy:  The wizard, the warrior, the thief, the young prince, the dwarf or halfling.  Even if an author is intelligent enough to purposely avoid including his/her particular laundry list of characters, we still have a tendency to pattern those that we do include after that character’s archetype.  Wizards have an annoying tendency to sound like Gandalf.  Big, brash warriors sound and awful lot like Boromir.  You get the idea.

From the perspective of literary criticism, there is something to be said for the process of breaking down characters into such specific categories and analyzing their attributes.  Through that study, we begin to understand exactly what it is about a personality that readers find attractive, and we see in detail how the interplay of the various factors inside that personality combine to produce certain effects in our readers.  The types give us something “hang our hats on,” for lack of a better description; they allow us to concisely summarize a very complex situation.  The issue emerges, I think, when we unconsciously (or overtly) begin to think of those types as ends in and of themselves.

The problem this causes should be obvious.  Real human beings are an incredibly complex mixture of vast amounts of experience and often contain myriad competing motivations that constantly struggle for control.  That means very, very few people fall neatly into any one character type and, when they do, they aren’t likely to linger there for long.  Big, brash warriors are also intelligent, thoughtful, and gentle.  The tragic hero, when examined closely enough, isn’t all that tragic.  The demonized villain turns out to be human after all.

Robert E. Lee has become such a stereotype of tragic virtue that historians now often call him the “Marble Man.”

In terms of writing actual history, the search for character types leads to the historian impressing his/her own thoughts onto a historical actor artificially.  Robert E. Lee becomes the angelic general who tragically lost a war while never losing a battle, when the truth is that, as amazing a general as Lee was, he made mistakes.  Adolph Hitler becomes literally demonic, when the truth is he was a human being who made some very real, very evil choices that seemed to him right according to his “progressive” ethic.  This is a problem on two fronts.  First, the author gets in the way of the truth about both men and distorts the facts about them.  Second, it means that we have nothing to learn from either situation—we learn from human beings, like ourselves.  In short, it results in history that may be either nostalgic or self-righteous (or both) but is also completely worthless.

For fiction, we can see in the temptation-to-type lessons both in what to do and what not to do, and I  expect that you’ve dredged up examples of both as you’ve read this:

  • On the one hand, there is little practical difference between character typing and plain stereotyping except that the former is a particular kind of the latter.  When an author forces his/her characters into a particular pre-made mold, they come out looking uncreative and bland to most intelligent readers.  The author is using a crutch to attempt to cover for a lack of creativity.  Worse, once the types become obvious, readers already know the rest of the story.  There is no “magic” left; there are no surprises.  Put bluntly, there is no reason to read the book.
  • On the other hand, understanding types—with a good dose of history—opens up all sorts of possibilities.  The types help isolate what it is that makes characters convincing and provocative.  Those aspects can then become part of a significant palate that, used intelligently, can allow the author to pluck the reader’s heartstrings like LHP’s own David Mitchel might a mandolin (and that is saying something).  The key often (but not always) is to muddy the waters.  To break the types apart and combine them into someone so complex it might resemble real humanity.  Used in the proper balance, a villain can be understood, pitied, and loathed—like Gollum.  A hero can be accessible, exciting, awe inspiring, and melancholy all at once—like Frodo.  Perhaps even better, you can play on people’s expectations, lull them into a false sense of security, and then do something new and dramatic.

No one thinks of him or herself as a stereotype.  Done right, readers will see enough of real people–of themselves–in the reality of your characters to bring those personalities home in real and touching ways.  Your characters can live, just like the real actors of history, in vivid memory.

__________

Other Posts in the History and Fiction Series

  1. Talking Turning Points
  2. Stereotypical Character Types
  3. Eras, Ages, and Everything Else….
  4. The Role of the Individual–Me Myself, and I

And now for something completely different: Robert E. Lee

I recently did an interview with CSPAN on my small book on Robert E. Lee, and I thought I might share it:

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/RobertELee

To be honest, I haven’t watched it–I hate watching myself on TV–so I’m just taking other people at their words that I didn’t make a fool of myself.  🙂

So, for once, we have no elves, dwarves, or Jedi.  No Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, or Lucas.  Just something on a real person from actual history, a person who was much more human than many people like to think.

If the book intrigues you, it will be out on April 30.  Here is the link to order on Amazon.com.

Best Regards,
Brian