From the Annals of Book Collecting — La Crosse, VA

(Photo by Jeff Wills)

We headed south last weekend to attend a big family and friends get-together being held down in La Crosse, Virginia.

One of the grand gentleman of the event, knowing I was a book collecting type of guy, invited me to his nearby home to scan his shelves for any books I might want. At 80, he insinuated, he didn’t see a good reason for holding on to all these books when there were others who might actually enjoy reading them.

The above picture are the ones I picked from the shelves and decided to add to my own library….whether I get around to reading all of them before I’m 80 is a fair question.

I picked out a total of 6 books for my collection:

1. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I was assigned—as so many kids were over the past decades—to read Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby in High School…though I seem to recall avoiding that assignment and, like more than a few other high schoolers at the time, hunting down the Cliff Notes instead. A taste for fine literature is something acquired, not assigned, and I would eventually acquire this taste myself in college and beyond.

Since high school—roughly 30 plus years now—I’ve read Gatsby twice…maybe three times. And none of those times had anything to do with college either. I’ve returned to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby because, for me, it was about experiencing the power of words and storytelling. It was about art. I wanted to see what so many others had seen and felt from reading this great literary masterwork. Each time I read it I got something different out of it. That, my readers, is what makes great art so great…it lives on and on in each reading.

But I will say this about literature and books like The Great Gatsby and being a high school student. I think there is a small number of teenagers—especially teenage boys—who can truly appreciate books like Gatsby at that stage in life. Sure, we should expose our teenagers to great literature, but it’s unlikely at that young age they’ll truly appreciate art of that quality. To really appreciate books like Gatsby requires some experience with the tragedies of life, and for the most part high school kids are just too young and self-absorbed to appreciate how novels like Gatsby deepen the mystery.

So when I saw this book of Fitzgerald’s letters on my friend’s book shelf I immediately reached for it. It was the first book I took. My thoughts were about the inner life of this literary artist, his thoughts and concerns, and the quality of his prose in personal letters. Tragically, Fitzgerald died young. He was only 44. American letters lost so much.

2. The American Language.

This is a study of the American (English in North America) Language by H. L. Mencken. Most of you probably haven’t heard of Mencken. He was one of those silver tongue journalists and critics who was famous for his caustic wit. I really haven’t read much of his work to be candid, but so many great writers, like William Manchester and Russell Baker and some others I can’t think of right now, have referred to him with affection and recommended his works.

So thus I picked this book off the shelf. I couldn’t let this well known book—at least to bookish people—slip past my hands. Such is a book collector’s life. A so we collect on!

3. Lee Lieutenants. (4 volume set)

I had just the abridged (single book) version of this multiple volume set by Douglas Southall Freeman until this day. The subtitle of the series is “A Study in Command.” The books, as I recall, were at one time standard reading for West Point Cadets. I’ve read most of the abridged version and it’s a very interesting history of Robert E. Lee’s subordinate commanders and how they performed during the American Civil War.

In addition to the books themselves, I was taken by the fact that this particular set of books came from the Palmetto Junior High School library in Miami, Florida, where my friend had been a principle and retired from in the early 1990s.

A Thousand Days

(Photo by Jeff Wills)

I visited an acquaintance of mine about two weeks ago. He happens to own a used bookstore. Of course I have far too many books now, but there’s always room for another good find.

We talked for a bit about kids and college and politics and eventually we moved, naturally, into booktalk, which, naturally, led us to his groaning shelves in search of a book.

The search didn’t produce the book we were looking for, but after my acquaintance walked away to take a phone call, my wondering eye spied a thick, black book spine cover with the title of A Thousand Days printed across it.

The full title is A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House written by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. I had recently read Schlesinger’s Journals, published posthumously by his sons, and was deeply fascinated by them.

A Thousand Days won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography and, from all that I’d read about it, was one of the best books written about President Kennedy the man, the candidate, the leader, and the President. Certainly a book written by an Administration insider and admirer will reflect the writer’s biases, for which, I think it’s fair to say that Schlesinger was well aware of as a professional historian.

But this particular memoir/biography, I think, has become particularly attractive given the times we find ourselves in. I think there’s a need to be reading books about Presidents that, while not perfect, brought high ideals, intelligence, grace, dignity, and visionary leadership to the highest office in the land.

And so, in the quiet of the early morning (0630 when I took picture above), I began a 1000 day journey.

“In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time”

…I was not completely fooling myself in believing that history has something to teach us all, even though it is impossible to know at the moment of learning just what that something might be. Self-conscious attempts to teach or preach relevance in history are therefore unnecessary, because the connection between then and now is embedded in the enterprise, fated to emerge in the future in unforeseeable ways. In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time, and the more history your learn, the larger the memory bank you can draw on when life takes a turn for which you are otherwise unprepared.

— Joseph J. Ellis, American Dialogue

“All history is the history of longing”

All history is the history of longing. The details of policy; the migration of peoples; the abstractions that nations kill and die for, including the abstraction of “the nation” itself—all can be ultimately traced to the viscera of human desire. Human beings have wanted innumerable, often contradictory things—security and dignity, power and domination, sheer excitement and mere survival, unconditional love and eternal salvation—and those desires have animated public life. The political has always been the personal. 

Yet circumstances alter cases. At crucial historical moments, personal longings become particularly influential in political life; private emotions and public policy resonate with special force, creating seismic changes. This is what happened in the United States between the Civil War and World War I. During those decades, widespread yearnings for regeneration—for rebirth that was variously spiritual, moral, and physical—penetrated public life, inspiring movements and policies that formed the foundation for American society in the twentieth century. 

— Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

The 100th Anniversary of the End of WWI

Today marks 100 years since the end of World War I, so this morning over coffee I reflected on what small connections I personally have to the great war and what books have educated me on it.

My maternal grandfather, Elmer Dalton Warren, was in the Great War. He was 82 years old when he died in 1973 and I was only 7, and so I don’t recall learning anything about his experiences during the war. My dad told me “Poppy” served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, assigned to a “submarine chaser.” My guess is Poppy spent his war years in the Atlantic, hunting German U-boats.

I also knew another gentleman, Sebastian “Jose” Sanchez, who was like an uncle to me growing up, who’d served in WWI. I believe he served in the British Army, though I’m not sure. He died in the mid 1980s when I was around 16 years old. On his death bed he gave me his WWI rifle bayonet, which was really more like a small sword. I can remember asking him if he’d ever used it, though I can’t recall what he said in reply.

Educationally speaking, my views of WWI have mostly come from reading books like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, John Keegan’s history of The First World War, Robert Grave’s incredible memoir Good-bye to All That, and a vast trove of magazine articles and TV documentaries that I’ve read and watched over the years.

My views of WWI are basically summed up in John Keegan’s opening paragraph to his masterful work, The First World War:

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the cause of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.

And, of course, for me, no reflection on the First World War can leave out my reading of Alex Danchev’s incredibly well done biography of B.H. Lindell Hart. Lindell Hart was a British army infantry officer during the First World War, and learned firsthand the futility of WWI battlefield strategies. It was Lindell Hart’s strategic insights, formulated after WWI, that would, oddly enough, be quickly adopted by the German army and utilized to make quick work of the French and British armies on the battlefields of Europe during WWII.

One of the stories that’s stayed with me from reading Danchev’s biography of Lindall Hart, is the one about the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Lindall Hart was an officer in the Battalion…one of the lucky ones to survive. There’s no doubt that on eve of the Battle of the Somme, British officers and soldiers were well aware of the gruesome carnage and death that awaited those going “Over the top.” And yet, the futility and fear would not outweigh the sense of honor and duty in the face of it all by the officers of the 9th.

On the evening before the Battle, the officers of the 9th all met one last time before being deployed to the trenches the next morning. Most of them certainly knew or felt that many of their fellow officers wouldn’t survive the coming battle. The commanding officer of the Battalion, Lt. Colonel Lynch, was not popular with the officers because it was believed he’d shown favoritism with promotions. So there was some bad blood between the officers. And even though they were going into battle and there was a good chance this was the last time some of them would ever see each other again, honor and sincerity would not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Captain Haswell would find a way to preserve his personal integrity while summoning all to reflect on their shared duty—and fate—that lay ahead.

At about 6pm on June 28 all officers received a summons to go to Battalion HQ for a final drink before going into action. We assembled, glasses were put into our hands, drinks were passed round and we drank quietly to one another – everyone was naturally feeling strained. The Adjutant and Second-in-command were away on some course, so the Acting Adjutant, Keay, was in charge. Lynch came into the room and was given a glass. Keay went up to Haswell, the senior Captain, and said quietly to him,

‘I think you should propose the CO’s health!’

‘I’m damned if I will’, said Haswell ‘I don’t wish him good health and am not prepared to be insincere on this occasion.’

‘You must’, said Keay.

‘I won’t.’, said Haswell.

For a few moments they argued, and then Haswell stepped forward and raising his glass said:

‘Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9 Battalion of the Regiment’ – a slight pause – ‘Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.

We emptied our glasses and were silent. Dramatically, Haswell had avoided an unpleasant scene, and the toast has never been forgotten.

Of those present, twenty-four went into action the next day in the attack on Fricourt. Six were in reserve [Lindell Hart was one of them]. Of the twenty-four, twelve were killed, including Lynch and Haswell. Three died of wounds afterwards, eight were wounded, one slightly and only one left untouched.*

Of the 800 British soldiers assigned to the 9th Battalion, 720 were either killed or wounded in the July 1, 1916, attack on Fricourt.

9koyli
Officers of 9th Battalion of the KOYLI, La Neuville, Corbie, April 1916.