To Harmonize Heaven With Earth: The Difficulty of Teaching Hawthorne in Our Time

Introduction: Distinguishing Hawthorne’s moral philosophy from his political criticism

Today, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter has become a staple of the high school curriculum. Hawthorne’s most retold and remembered fables are The Birthmark, The Artist of The Beautiful, and Rappucini’s Daughter. Through his stories, Hawthorne shows his great range as a writer. On one hand, his readers see him revivifying history and the past, and on the other, his stories can pass for science fiction looking into the future. However, It is little wonder that Hawthorne acquired such range as an author. Alexis De Tocqueville prophesied that democratic readership would implore the artist as writer flex a full range. Tocqueville writes,

(democratic people) like books that are procured without trouble, that are quickly read, that do not require learned research to be understood…they need lively and rapid emotions, sudden clarity, brilliant truths or errors that instantly pull them from themselves and introduce them suddenly, almost violently, into the midst of the subject”(Democracy in America, page 448).

My argument is that the tales less widely read are those which do not proffer sudden clarity and brilliant truths but nonetheless provide insight into the moral philosophy of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In order to answer the questions posed by Hawthorne regarding the polity in his most widely read works, one must consider the framework of individual morality sketched in Hawthorne’s stories in which the individual has departed from political society. Such stories illuminate the tension apparent within the American soul which regards salvation and civic duty as incommensurable; the demands of both pose the question regarding what a man should do in an age of democracy where the preservation of religious liberty is contradicted by religious intolerance or religious laxity. My aim in the following essays is to forsake Hawthorne’s tales which are more explicitly critical of Puritan society and scientific materialism, and resituate those tales most critical of the polity within the framework of his more intimate tales regarding the decisions to be made by the individual regarding the human heart. I seek further to prove that Hawthorne and Tocqueville, who write differently about America’s Puritan ancestry, understand the point of departure similarly. In writing about the Puritans they similarly critique democratic society urging that it adopt certain mores necessary for the preservation of freedom. Tocqueville and Hawthorne are complementary in that they are in agreement upon what is necessary to sustain liberty. Where Tocqueville provides advice regarding how society should embrace the individual, Hawthorne provides the mode in which the individual should properly embrace society; they come about their complementarity by considering that which is most harmful to democratic society, and what the collective and what the individual should do about it.

In considering Hawthorne’s two genres, readers may draw two criticisms that at first appear mutually exclusive. Hawthorne critiques his contemporaries as men who wish to impiously overcome their inherent frailty through science, and he concomitantly criticizes his ancestors as fanatics who harness political coercion to serve their faith. Hawthorne derails scientific materialism and transcendentalism while also dismissing his ancestors as worthy of emulation. It thus appears that he leaves his audience no stable foundation for flourishing and salvation, and nothing worthy of the commitment of man’s life. Hawthorne, however, sees in the transcendentalist, the materialist, and the Puritan, one similarity: they disregard man’s original sin and attempt to overcome it subverting God’s providence. Hawthorne attempts to moderate the influence of his contemporaries on the regime by drawing parallels between their shortcomings and that of his ancestors. He thereby details America’s own original sin as the ignorance of man’s nature as inherently flawed and limited. But in considering Hawthorne’s political philosophy through the context of his moral philosophy it becomes apparent that he urges that progress is possible only through the slow improvement of the conscience through charity and a bolstering of the human heart through community and the family. Hawthorne understands that such mores supplant the democratic desire for rapid and unchecked change with a dedication to fundamental principles that rear men of humility.

Section 1: Habits and Hearts

In 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville remarked, “Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants”; however, as Hawthorne’s career as an artist progressed, he would bare witness to the very thing that Tocqueville feared as a “shelter” for all future tyrants. Hawthorne saw the spirits of transcendentalism and scientific materialism as the direct enemy of (1) reliance on God’s will, (2) a proper understanding human nature and of liberty, and likewise (3) a respect for the human heart.

Near the middle of his career Hawthorne writes Rappaccini’s Daughter and its corrective The Artist of the Beautiful in direct response to this new tendency of the American mind to rely on scientism for progress. He later pens The Scarlet Letter detailing the project of an apparently pious people attempting to harness political coercion for the salvation of souls and the purification and subsequent transcendence of the township. All parties usurp the power ascribed to God in different ways, and all meddle with God’s creation attempting to harmonize the earthly with the heavenly.

It is often understood that Hawthorne writes The Scarlet Letter simply in rebuke of his ancestors, but that is not the whole of it. A careful reading of Hawthorne’s sketches and short stories reveals a much more complex critique present in the novel that has proved itself immortal. A more robust study of Hawthorne’s philosophy lays naked his purpose in writing The Scarlet Letter as a critique of his contemporaries and reveals his true purpose in realigning protestantism between the two extremes of the moral laxity of the present and the moral obstinance of the Puritans.

The themes that drive Hawthorne’s most widely read work can be seen in the Boston of Hawthorne’s own time. In viewing Roger Chillingworth, one sees the reckless abandon of moral limitations due to a mastery of the scientific, and one sees a striking parallel between the transcendentalist and the Puritan society who both wish to perfect man’s moral character in order to bring about heaven on earth. All parties, through their infirmity in judgment, cannot but violate the sanctity of the human heart in demanding such perfection, performing what Hawthorne takes to be the greatest sin of all.

The assumption of the proper bounds of freedom has long been the test of American politics. The question of how men may be taught to respect the rightful bounds of their freedom without the application of force by government is therefore of the utmost importance in a polity dedicated to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter he uses Puritan society to paint a backdrop that considers two forms of tyranny in Chillingworth and Puritan society, one of which Americans of his day still have to fear while the other appears to have been overcome. As a city in a free nation, the Boston of Hawthorne’s time does not institute what Aristotle would consider distributive law favoring any one religious sect. In 1780 the Congregational Church was disestablished and in 1833 state funding was suspended. Hawthorne chooses to write about a Puritan society that utilizes distributive justice and through such power neglects the punishment of the one man who uses his intellectual might to transform himself into a devil, committing the most grave of crimes by meddling with the sanctity of the human heart. Then, Hawthorne utilizes Roger Chillingworth to prove the twofold point that through harnessing the power of the mind man may transform himself into a devil and that the expansion of man’s own freedom through mastery of the scientific perhaps leads to the enslavement of the spirit. What is noteworthy is that Hawthorne critiques both ends of the spectrum: the scientific and the religious when vested with a power that is not in accord with the laws of nature restrain man’s ability to serve both the self and the collective. That said, transcendence properly understood is that which invests man with the power to know himself in terms of his nature: knowing his natural limits are therefore just as important as his ambition to overcome those limits.

Many who teach Hawthorne’s novel today fall into the pit of historicism, concluded that The Scarlet Letter is a firm critique of an overbearing religious society and Hester, in breaking down barriers is to be praised as the hero. They thus conclude that Hawthorne was dedicated to tearing down the maxims of the Puritans. However, this would be to dismiss both Hawthorne’s words regarding Hester as hero, as well as Hester’s regard for herself as hero. Hawthorne bookends his novel between a conclusion and an introduction that are of utmost importance when considering the “parable” that this story establishes. In his Custom House introduction he apologizes for any stern remarks he may place at the graves of his ancestors, and in his conclusion he renders Dimmesdale himself the parable. Dimmesdale is regarded as a parable to “express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man’s own righteousness” and that “in the view of infinite purity, we are all sinners alike”. What is most curious is that Hester, not Dimmesdale was intended to become the parable at the outset of the novel. Hester was meant to become “a walking sermon on sin”, and Dimmesdale supplants Hester to that end. But in order for Dimmesdale to become the parable that Salem needs he must defeat Chillingworth, not Puritan society itself. Puritan society can be redeemed through Dimmesdale, if only Dimmesdale acts properly. Hester exhausts her efforts attempting to upheave society itself, but Dimmesdale in finally committing himself to his own spiritual survival is able to usurp Hester’s place as protagonist. He thus renders the antagonist not society itself, but Roger Chillingworth.

Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville are particularly concerned with the heart. Hawthorne regards the sanctity or violation of the individual heart as definitive when considering one’s ability to preserve freedom, whereas Tocqueville considers the collective heart of the community as paramount to the preservation of liberty. In Democracy In America, Tocqueville defines mores as “habits of the heart”. He considers “this word (as) the whole moral and intellectual state of a people” (Democracy in America, Page 275). To Tocqueville, not only were mores habits of the heart, but also applied “to the different notions that men possess, to the various opinions that are current in their midst, and to the sum of ideas of which the habits of the mind are formed” (Democracy in America, Page 275). These habits of the heart, Tocqueville considered “one of the great general causes to which the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States can be attributed”. Tocqueville and Hawthorne both considered the heart the agent that would check the democratic mind from overturning all that was customary and overrunning all that stood as apparent barriers for the progress of equality. Both understood that the heart would need cultivation if democratic man were to submit himself to those things worthy of self-sacrifice. In The Scarlet Letter, true repentance for both Dimmesdale and Hester can only come about through sacrificing their pride. Dimmesdale must cease pretending he is doing all in his power to cleanse himself by repenting alone and holding onto his lie, and understand that only submitting himself wholly to the judgment of the city will he surrender his guilt. With Dimmesdale’s death, Hester must come to the realization that although she may resist and lash out against the society which alienates her for her sin, God’s justice is irresistible, ultimate, and forgiving.

Teachers who teach The Scarlet Letter as a tale only in rebuke of Puritan society miss the point. Although the injustices of Puritan society are definitive, the acceptance of that society is ultimate if we are to consider Hester’s end a happy one. In order for Hester to become heroine, she must accept the society that has rejected her, and work from within in order to become the prophetess who will moderate that society and overturn the unjust law that is the perceived antagonist of the story. Roger Chillingworth is a mere shadow of the law itself which agitates Hester Prynne. He violates the Reverend Dimmesdale’s heart just as civil society violates Hester’s. He acts as the parallel punishment for Dimmesdale, and Dimmesdale must accept and forgive him in order to pave the way for Hester’s ultimate acceptance and forgiveness of society.

What is most important though is that both heroes of the parable of sin and redemption accept the very thing that proliferates their suffering in order to ultimately purify their antagonists. Where Tocqueville understands that democracy in America is most stable because of the several associations that temper her citizens, he understands that what is to be most feared is the breaking of the ties that unite individuals in various groups that satisfy, guide, and moderate the American appetite to serve one’s self interest. Hawthorne refers to this connection of citizens with a similar interest when he writes of “the electric cord” that unites Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale. Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville understood that materialism and the scientific captivated the American mind and had the capacity to undermine these associations by making men believe that through science and knowledge they could transcend in order to become self-sufficient without relying upon others within society. However, Chillingworth’s once virtue, knowledge, is at least part of the reason he is able to undergo the transformation of man to devil. His knowledge, marred by his broken heart, allows him to do that which Dimmesdale could not. Because of the self-assurance his own intelligence provides he is convinced that he is capable of escaping all associative bonds and live with a false face to the multitude. Through his escape, his action goes unchecked by his fellow man. Because of his pain, his actions go unchecked by his conscience. At least part of the reason that civil associations are important for liberty is that they are a useful tool for checking passion.

Perhaps Hawthorne’s greatest lesson is that which is set in motion by Pearl. He unites Hester and Dimmesdale by the link that is Pearl who thus urges the Reverend to “be true”. What she means by this, is to tell Dimmesdale to live up to the compact that he signed by committing adultery with Hester Prynne. In order to do this he must be honest with himself and with society that he has partaken in a relationship that cuts against the principles of the very society of which he is considered preeminent. Hawthorne does not wish to dismiss the dedication of the Puritans to serving some good, but rather he wishes to relegate the work done by society to the realm of the several associations that comprise society itself. In free society praise and blame can only progress a people when it utilizes love and holds the heart and conscience to be sacred. Pearl is therefore able to urge Dimmesdale where the rest of the city cannot. Society, however homogenous, is a collective of several human passions and interested associations and thus cannot be counted on to urge praise and blame while respecting individual liberty. The problem with the transcendentalist authors of Hawthorne’s time mirrors the problem of Chillingworth, and embodies all of the vices of Aristocratic literature and materialist thought to which Tocqueville refers: it has the tendency to ignore the bounds of individual liberty and use its power as an excuse to assert its control where it ought not.

Transcendentalism became peculiar to America as romanticism grew stale, and its poetic expression has colored much of the way American literature is approached to this day. The expression of the idea of transcendence in this world is a peculiar expression and appeals to the American sense of self-reliance and individualism. Tocqueville understood that democratic people, and Americans particularly, conceived of man’s ability to better himself in a way much unprecedented. He writes

Although man resembles the animals in several points, one feature is peculiar to him alone: he perfects himself and they do not perfect themselves. The human species could not fail to discover this difference from the outset. The idea of perfectibility is therefore as old as the world; equality did not give birth to it, but it gives it a new character.

Puritan society, in envisioning itself a shining city upon a hill, embodies the sentiment of the indefinite perfectibility of man. The great critique drawn from Hawthorne’s famous novel is the critique of Puritan society and the severity of the punishment conferred on poor Hester. However, what many American’s miss is that the punishment of Hester Prynne as sinner is expressive of the American character itself. The peculiarity of Hester’s punishment is that it is done publicly in hope that she will become a “living sermon on sin”. Although Americans today do not prescribe distributive laws, much legislation is geared toward progressing the limitations on practical liberty that prove a bane to the people as they hope to pursue objects of their own happiness. The Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is no different from the America of today when considering the end toward which it strives. The mastery of Hawthorne’s great work is not only that it encapsulates a period of American history that is defining of America and distant from the artist himself, but that he is able to use history to teach a perennial lesson to Americans. Unfortunately, much of that lesson perishes when the Puritan society of the novel is so far divorced from our own contemporary reality that it becomes a strawman that serves to bolster our appreciation for progress rather than a reminder that some things ought not be strived for by collective society no matter the power of the collective will. The greatest lesson that Hawthorne may teach us is an echo of Tocqueville. Tocqueville is sure to include that the severe punishments doled out by the Puritan settlers were democratically decided, and Hawthorne is sure to have the women of Puritan society urging a harsher punishment for Hester Prynne. What Hawthorne’s great novel calls into question is the tendency of democratic progress to defy the bounds of morality. This lesson that Hawthorne teaches calls into direct question the project of the naturalist to revivify the prospect of man’s transcendence. Where Tocqueville and Hawthorne both understand that habits of the heart have a way of conditioning the mind, the Transcendentalist wishes to unleash the mind for this project of bringing about heaven on earth. What is most striking about Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is its relevance as a teaching for the readers of his own time and the transcendentalist movement of which his often incorrectly considered a part.

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The Innovation Schools Deserve

 

Image result for 1950s school

School is no longer about education. From 2004 to 2016 teachers’ unions provided political endorsement that has grown from $4.3 million dollars to an all-time high $32 million. While their aims are peddled as what is best for schools and classrooms, teachers unions contributions have ramped up school budgets and made innovation in the classroom less dynamic. Their solutions do not address the problem that our modes are outdated. In 2013 the US collectively spent over $620 billion on public and secondary schools, numbering at around $10,700 per pupil. Education spending has nearly quadrupled since 1984, reaching upwards of $67 billion in 2014 while showing virtually no quantifiable results in eighth to twelfth grade reading proficiency and math scores. Admitting that the current system is broken and that we are merely average in world education today would force us to radically change the school system, so we refuse to do what is best for our kids and our country; however, there are a plethora of innovations that can and should be adopted by states and school districts immediately.

 

If you had spoken to a teacher at the end of the previous school year, you would have heard the woes of the fidget spinner. It was an epidemic sweeping classrooms throughout the nation, akin to the water bottle flipping fiasco of 2014-15, and it was a result of our students seeking to distract themselves. It is unnatural that our students do not want to learn. All human beings desire to understand the world surrounding them, but when students are wasting their time with test preparation they begin to believe that education is not worthwhile. The first innovation that our schools need is that our curriculum must become richer and more personal. National and state standards cannot address this, nor can educational experts or additional funding. Education can only be made interesting by good books and good teachers. We must allow students to read books that have stood the test of time, and we must have passionate teachers teaching those books. Our teachers must prove to our students that they are involved in an ongoing conversation with great minds throughout history. Computers and worksheets cannot provide this conversation, and arbitrary standards imposed by the state deter students from realizing that education is, after all, for their own benefit.

 

The school day and school week needs to become shorter and more dynamic. No university in the country forces students to sit in a building for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. There is no reason for high schools to so wastefully use time other than that the schedule is more accommodating for parents, and it is what the school day has looked like historically. Most states mandate that schools are in session 180 days of the year, and the average school day must be around 6 hours. It is little wonder that students wish to spin fidgets rather than learn: if the work is too rigorous they are worn out, and if the curriculum is too simple they become bored. Keep in mind that most classrooms are filled with students from any educational background. This makes it difficult for teachers to calibrate the rigor within the classroom to the needs of both the more advanced students and the weaker students. Advanced Placement classes have tried to remediate this deficiency, but they do not allow students the flexibility that they have merited; they provide the rigor without peaking their interest. What states should do is provide a more flexible environment for students who want to experience substantive work outside of school so that they may gain a taste of the real world and what they wish to do beyond high school; however, the high school schedule only provides students the time to work menial jobs after school hours. What the students miss out on is the opportunity to gain real world experience and learn about what they wish to specialize in for the rest of their lives.

 

The same is true for teachers: they need to be given flexibility. Although teachers unions are partially to blame for their defense of bad teachers, a plethora of studies show that millennials leave the teaching profession within five years of entrance. What teachers need is the flexibility to sharpen their academic gifts. While most businesses provide opportunities for development of low level entrants, our education system leaves teachers dead in the water within their first few years. Teachers should act as life-long learners who steward their pupils to pursue wisdom, but as teachers lack the time to pursue additional development themselves the discipline becomes stale through a lack of incentives.

 

Studies show that what fulfils teachers is appreciation, not money. Teachers need to be appreciated more and this begins with making school an extension of the home. Teachers face pressure from national and state standards, but also from administrators and parents. This detracts from what is done in the classroom and the critical voices often ring louder than the appreciative ones. Parents are too quick to blame the teacher when their child underperforms; however, it is difficult to blame them when high school achievement seems to set the path for the remainder of their child’s life. There must be more communication between parents and teachers, and parents need to take a stake in the education of their children. This begins with creating a partnership between families and schools; however this is incredibly difficult when teachers have so much on their plates. If the school week was shortened, teachers would have the flexibility to communicate effectively with families and provide one on one support with kids; schools could even facilitate such a program. Education should not only be about knowledge, but about wisdom. This means that a true educator must mentor pupils outside of the classroom as well as within it. This is not possible with given the amount of standards and regulations imposed on teachers. We have made it all but impossible for good teachers to go the extra mile.

 

Our school system was devised to meet the economic imperatives of the industrial revolution; since the conception of this school model, we have lacked innovation to fit the needs of the given day. It is high time that we take interest in the needs of education today, and tailor the school system to deliver what is necessary for students to succeed.

“You Can’t Die if You Don’t Give Up”

So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this way the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it. 


He was nineteen days shy of his sixty second birthday: prematurely old, multidiseased, mentally bewildered, delusional, slurred of speech, in exile from Cuba, from the Stream, unable to compose so much as one true sentence a day, or so he’d wept on a sofa in his living room. Is it any wonder the most imitated writer of the twentieth century rose sometime after seven o’clock that morning, moved past the master bedroom where his wife was sleeping, padded down the carpeted stairs, crossed the length of the living room to the kitchen, retrieved the key to the locked storeroom where the weapons were, went down to the basement, took shells from his ammo box, closed and relocked the door, came back upstairs, walked ten steps to the front-entry foyer, opened the foyer door, stepped inside, placed the butt of the gun on the linoleum tile, tore open the breech, slammed in the cartridges, snapped it shut, bent over, rested his forehead against the blue steel, and blew away his entire cranial vault with the double-barreled, 12-gauge Boss shotgun with which he once shot pigeons?

There are plenty of things for which you can criticize Ernest Hemingway. You can call him a coward for taking his own life, and you can point to Zelda Fitzgerald’s account of his making a pass at her in an alleyway one drunken night. Many have pointed out that his code-hero is simply an affirmation and vindication of his own machismo character, and many have argued that there is nothing creative about his work: that it is merely a retelling of events that indeed happened in Paris and in Pamplona. However, all this would be to miss the most important point of Hemingway’s contribution to American literature, and this would be to dismiss the aim of good writing.

Hemingway’s most widely read work, and perhaps his most tired, is The Old Man and the Sea. Of that work, Papa once said “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.” Despite the criticism of his simplicity, Ernest Hemingway’s stories still endure because they touch what is all too human: failure in endeavor, and failure in self-redemption. Hemingway was able to produce work that was honest to his own life and his own vice, and this resonates with readers who are too weak to be honest with themselves about their own failures and their inability to white-wash those failures. Hemingway’s stories are the simplest of stories because they are the truest of stories, and they touch what is truest about ourselves; this is what most readers of Hemingway are too weak to confront, that his stories mimic the human fallen-ness that is too evident to all of us.

No story shows Hemingway’s confrontation and confession more so than The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Snows is the story of a man named Harry on safari in Africa with his rich wife. Harry is a writer who believes that he has become impotent as he has lived off of his wife’s wealth. Because he has become weakened by the life of luxury provided by his wife, when he becomes afflicted with gangrene in a cut on his leg he begins to distance himself from his beloved even blaming her for his demise as a writer and his belief that he “would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well”.

The story is a reflection on the life of a writer and his suffering; of his inability to express those truths that “Maybe you could never write… and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting”. What is striking is that Harry has given up: he believes that he is going to die and there is no fighting it. Meanwhile, his wife holds out hope for his survival, telling him “You can’t die if you don’t give up”. Harry responds “Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool”. He treats of his death as an imminently practical matter, whereas his wife looks to the metaphysical. While she asks “What have we done to have that happen to us?”, Harry responds “I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it”.

There are threads that run through this story and provide its depth. On one hand you confront the difficulties of marriage. Hemingway provides a power struggle between his code-hero husband and wife. There is the bickering about Harry’s purported “giving up” and the way in which his readiness for death will affect his wife. On a much deeper level, we see Harry bickering with himself through flashbacks, internally confronting his own insecurity and fears of death while providing false strength in regard to his impending death.

But what we receive through the depths of this text is some knowledge that what is most important is out of both Harry and his wife’s control. Although Harry believes that he is already dead, he has hope that is above and beyond him despite his recognition of that hope toward which he may grasp. Harry reflects, “He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones”. You see, just as Hemingway believed that his life has ended as he no longer had the ability to write the things that he once wrote, Harry believes that his life has ended because he has given up the opportunity to write by marrying his wife. What he doesn’t realize is that what he subconsciously confronts in his reflections throughout the story: that his life contains the properties of a life well lived, if he could just make good of these properties. Most readers rebuke Harry for beating up his wife, which is understandable, but my reading is that Harry’s verbal abuse of his wife stems from his inability to see good in himself. He verbally attacks her in order to confirm his control over his own life, despite his understanding all the while that he has lost control. What must be understood by Harry and Hemingway alike is that salvation is not to be found in fame and writing; that one cannot redeem himself through the product of efforts on this Earth, and that honor is something above and beyond the individual endeavor or accomplishment. Hemingway struggled with this his entire life, and Harry never approached it.

The story has a double edged ending. Harry lies in his cot after dinner with his wife as he drifts to sleep. He has a dream that he has been rescued. Harry ascends and sees the square top of Kilimanjaro, and “he knew that there was where he was going”. This recalls the opening description of Kilimanjaro as “the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai, the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”. However, Harry’s dream is interrupted as his wife wakes to the laughing of a Hyena and witnesses her husband dead in the night. Undoubtedly, Harry’s reflection points that he is assured that he is that leopard climbing toward the House of God. Nevertheless, the reality is not so. Helen wakes and is still haunted by her husband’s death and the cackling of the hyena that accompanies that death. The great question that the reader is left with is the same one that we all confront: does the man who acts viciously in times of despair reach the House of God, and is his vice pardoned in death?

Harry’s true failure is being like that leopard of whom no one knows what he is seeking. He reflects, “You kept from thinking and it was marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it”. Because Harry hides all that is internal for fear of being perceived weak, he neglects the opportunity to lead a life of honest. If Ernest Hemingway’s birthday warrants one lesson, it must be that we ought not worship false idols and sirens singing the psalms of temporal fulfillment. This is a lesson that we as Americans are in such deep need of, and it is fitting and proper that Papa provides this insight for all of us in which we often take for granted that which is most important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: I Guess I Named Myself

Cornelius Sheridan Dare Postell. Wouldn’t that have been a hell of a thing to go by? The day that I was born my Uncle said “He will always be Bob to me”.

The tale that was told me was my uncle Frank Smith come in the morning I was born and heard that name. He always did his business on a Sunday. He asked, “What’d ya name him?”

“Hoho!” He laughed “He’ll always be Bob to me!”

That name stuck. So when I went into the Navy that was the name I put in: “Bob Postell”.

But the recruiter said that was just a nickname. I said “No… It’s not a nickname. I was named Bob”.

He said “That’s not a full name- you’re going to have to go by Robert”.

I complied because at the time that was all there was to do. There was no fighting it. So I’ve always signed my checks “Robert S. Postell”. It is the deal between what I was given and what I took; what the Navy give me and what I refused to give them.

I always said that I’ve named myself.

In school I went by Deacon. I always went to Sunday school because Pop always made us go. I had a friend who was named Bob Bryner and he was a Jehovah’s Witness. His folks had me over for dinner one night and his mother asked me when I would go with him to “class”. You see, they always called church “class”.

I replied “I’ll come with him to class when he decides to come to the Baptist church with me!”

Oh boy, did that go over bad!

So that’s when I hung the nickname “Baptist” on him. From that point on I was known as the “Deacon” among us boys. Old Dale Ward was “Cedrick”, Rolly was “Rolo”. And then there was old Carol Reams who we called “Dutch”; he was a really good friend of mine.

We started nicknaming one another early on. It was a way of knowing who we were, and that is what that Navy recruiter couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand how deeply American it was because, rather than his own self-reliance, his obedience to the Naval order defined his American-ness. There is nothin’ more American than naming yourself. There is nothin’ more American than defining who you are and what you will be.

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This is the story of my grandfather, my hero. He is an Ohioan who served in the Navy in World War II. He is extremely conscious of becoming too elaborate in his story-telling and when he heard that I had recorded him the first thing he said was “It wasn’t any braggin’ in there was it?”. He always defines these stories as “most of ‘em funny”. Every time he tells me stories he reveals that of which he is most proud saying, “I’ve had a good life, Sammy”.

He also reveals that which he wishes to be remembered by. He fathered three children with the same wife. He loved my grandmother deeply and faithfully. The first time I ever saw him shed a tear was the night before her funeral. He said “She was my left hand and my heart” and brought the entire room to tears. He wrote her every day when he was away at war while she was working in a factory and taking care of their first born daughter.

However, little of what is within these pages come from the letters. We were able to locate a plethora of pictures, keepsakes, notes, and Naval garb in my grandfather’s house, but only two letters that he had written to my grandmother. His story is that he saw her lighting them on fire because she was “bashful”. In my heart I know that my grandmother was too proud to relive losing him to the war for so long, and she was too “bull-headed” to admit how special they were to her.

The stories herein told are taken from several hours of recording on different occasions of his telling them to my brother and myself. At first, I thought it impossible that he could remember so many stories from as early as the age of eleven, but I have heard these stories on numerous occasions as have a few others. I have talked to others that he has spoken with and the stories are the same each time. He is either being honest or he has memorized lies. You may choose to believe what you wish.

My grandfather’s stories are important because they capture the character of a people and ennoble that character, shedding light upon the goodness of a people who are in great need of ennobling. What his stories capture are a dedication to family, country, and compass. He always put his family first, no matter how difficult, and he never thought a thing of it. He understood that family was the stuff of life. He always loved his country, honored it, and fought for what it stood for, despite the various things about that country that he could choose to hate her for. He always kept in view his own moral compass, never straying from what he thought was right and never backing down when had to fight for what he believed in.

My grandfather is my hero because he embodies what is redeeming about Midwesterners and about Yankees. My grandfather’s story is important because it preserves the character and the habits of a time past and it preserves the history of a time when Americans were dignified without believing themselves so.

The terms “Yankee” and “Midwesterner” that I use to describe my Grandfather ought to be synonymous; however, not all Yankees are Midwesterners and not all Midwesterners are Yankees. Nonetheless, I believe that a Yankee is what a Midwesterner and an American should strive to be.

Outside the United States all Americans are sometimes described as “Yankees”. This includes Southerners. The informal British and Irish English “Yank” refers to Americans in general. It is especially popular among Britons and Australians and sometimes carries pejorative overtones.

Within the United States, “Yankee” usually refers to those of the Midwest and the Northeast. It most precisely identifies those with New England cultural ties and descendants of colonial New Englanders. It is therefore more cultural than geographical. It ties Americans back to the settling of America before the United States became Independent from Great Britain and expanded Westward, allowing the descendants of those settlers to disperse. It recalls the grit and the stern Puritan faith of those who settled along that coast. They later migrated through New York, then Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio, later dispersing throughout the Midwest in no certain pattern.

Southerners often refer to Northerners as “Yankees”, and this certainly carries a negative connotation. It refers to the nickname of those fighting for the Union side in the American Civil War. The term Yankee implies holding one’s ground, willing to fight in order to “nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth”.

Yankees were the ones who migrated North, up the shore of America, and began operating fisheries and running towns. They were the ones who migrated West into what we now understand as the Midwest where they began to create the infrastructure that would later facilitate the industrialization that happened in the north. Because they were the first to define the habits and culture of the place that they inhabited to a great extent they informed the culture and the habits of immigrants who came to work throughout the next two centuries in hopes of becoming Americans. Throughout Industrialization, Yankees began to define themselves by work and work ethic in addition to grit and religion. It is peculiar the way in which a Midwesterner or a Yankee earns money and feels toward that money, especially if he becomes rich. Rich Yankees are different from any other rich men I’ve met.

If the hillbilly happens to become rich it is usually by chance. He takes a risk and stumbles upon wealth, only to expend that wealth quickly, lavishly, and foolishly.

The rich men on the coasts are always old money, or if they are not they feel self conscious that they are not. If their fathers were not rich they are burdened by this almost daily and conceive of a way to manufacture the circumstance of their birth in order to dignify themselves. They are defined by the wealth of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them.

Rich men in cities are self-made but often the product of calculated risk. They come to their own demise as a result of that risk, never taking a moment to cherish what they have got while they’ve got it, and never thinking about the provisions for the next day or for their children because they always believe that their industry and talent will provide income.

The Yankee, on the other hand, almost does not believe he has money even if he’s got it. It sometimes seems that he is bashful about having money for concern that he may appear to be reaching beyond his own means and therefore exercising haughtiness, but that is not quite it. The Yankee always deeply understands his past and his future and therefore he understands equality as the capacity of misfortune to bring any man to ruin. He does not feel exempt from the heaves and throws of life simply for having earned a few day’s bread. Even if he becomes rich he feels compelled to toil, often outlasting his necessary work years. The Yankee understands that work and toil define life and a man’s worth. It is almost as if the money is for naught. Even after the Yankee has ceased a life of labor and lives peacefully in retirement, he will conceive of a way to show those around him that he still struggles and works rather than rests. It is almost as if he believes that in giving up a life of labor he gives up life altogether. The Yankee feels self conscious if he is spending lavishly and frivolously and this will weigh on him. He will soon feel that his neighbors mock him and disdain him for breaking the appearance of equality of hardship and the fashion that is work.

This is but a mere sketch of what the Yankee is and what my grandfather has taught me is good within him. My grandfather’s stories should give vividness and expression to this description, and this should serve merely as a framework or reference to the themes throughout the book.