“Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free,” Jefferson said, “expects what never was and never will be.” And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that.
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:
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.
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!
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.
Today marks the 80th anniversary of beginning of World War II.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s German army—the Wehrmacht—invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany. By the time WWII ended in September of 1945, between 70 and 85 million people had perished.*
Of course Hitler was the central villain of WWII (Europe), and so he’s the focus. There are a lot of books about the Nazis and Hitler’s rise to power. Just type in “Hitler” on Amazon’s search engine for books and you’ll get 20,000 “results.” Just casually scan the hundreds of cable TV channels at your fingertips, and the odds are fairly good you’ll find a program or documentary about the Nazis or Hitler. A friend of mine nicknamed the History Channel, the “Hitler Channel,” because he noticed throughout the year so many programs on the channel seemed to be about the Nazis or Hitler.
But while Hitler himself continues to attract the consternation of many, I believe we’d be far better served if we better understood the psychological dynamics or emotional forces moving Hitler’s followers. Would-be tyrants and demagogues are always present in any society. There’s always someone saying he—and “only” he—can make us great again. But why, especially in modern democratic societies, like, say, Germany in the 1930s, would so many people come to support and believe in such a man? I realize this is a complicated question. And before anyone says: “Well most Germans didn’t know before the war, before Hitler came to power, that he’d do so many horrendous and cruel things,” I’ll remind them that Hitler, long before he came to power, had published his extreme views in a book called Mein Kampf—which was a best selling book in Germany! Hitler views were well known.
Hitler’s hate for Jews, for example, was red hot. Not something that could stay hidden. In 1922, that’s 11 years before Hitler became German Chancellor, Jospeh Hell asked Hitler: “What do you want to do to the Jews once you have full discretionary powers?” Hitler didn’t mince any words:
Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows—at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example—as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.
No doubt Hitler’s views weren’t secret. And yet many Germans, fully aware of Hitler’s spoken intentions, at least in Mein Kampf and what they’d read in the newspapers, voluntarily attended his massive rallies and flocked to the streets to throw the Nazi salute as their fuhrer past. Many Germans willingly surrendered their democratic freedoms, their personal liberties, and without a doubt their conscience, to a fascist, authoritarian leader.
Besides Hitler’s hate of the Jews, Hitler’s plans to expand Germany—which any sentient person knew meant war—was also well known. And once Hitler’s mission to expand Germany began, Hitler held nothing back in how this expansion would effect, not just Jews, but all non-Germans, non-Ayrans. In an August 22nd speech to the group of German military commanders leading the invasion of Poland, Hitler said:
The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formationswith orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.
That a whole group of educated, and supposedly civilized, German officers could be informed of the coming systemic slaughter of innocent men, women, and children—just because they were Polish!—and not immediately reject Hitler, should remind us of just how fragile so called civilized people’s commitment to civilized values, basic humanity, can be. After the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Nazi SS carried out Hitler’s orders with cold-blooded efficiency. By the time the war ended 6 million Poles had been killed.
So I think the bigger, more important, challenge for us is to understand the social factors, the social pathologies, that caused so many German people to accept and support Hitler and his dark Nazi ideology. Again, there are always authoritarian types in the crowd, but these types can only take power if a large number of people in democratic societies go along and buy into it. If anything, Nazi Germany serves as a reminder that the real danger to peace and civilized values isn’t so much the sociopaths and authoritarian personalities, but the social environment where authoritarianism is welcomed, accepted, and saluted as it passes by.
While walking through the Gettysburg battlefield museum this past June, I noticed something I hadn’t during my previous 6 or so trips: a display listing the total number of white southern men, per confederate state, that had fought for the Union and its army. The total number was over 100,000 men. That’s basically a large army of southern men rallying to Old Glory and President Lincoln. The largest number, I noticed, came from the southern state of Tennessee, where about 42,000 southern white men joined the Union army ranks. This gives a whole new meaning to the motto “the volunteer state.”
No doubt these southern men were labeled “traitors” by many of their fellow southerns. But these Southern Unionist or, more aptly, Union Loyalists, might have reminded their secessionist brethren that they had rightfully acquired that label first.
I had always known there were white southerns during the American Civil War that didn’t support secession, but they got outvoted. I think one might argue that most southerners got out-maneuvered politically and psychologically as well. Many got pulled into the war by the southern planter class who benefited the most from slave labor and the wealth it generated for their vast plantations.
This brings me to a civil war era movie I watched on Netflix the other night. It’s based on a true story. This particular story had escaped my readings over the years until the other night when I saw the movie the Free State of Jones. I hadn’t known that men (and women) in the deep southern state of Mississippi had taken up arms against the confederacy—a rebellion within a rebellion you might say.
Newton Knight was their leader and in the movie he’s played by Matthew McConaughey. Knight was a confederate solider who got furloughed by General Braxton Bragg to go home and to be with his dying father. (The movie has Knight leaving the army to bring his cousin’s—killed in battle— body home). But back home, in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight found the confederate army was confiscating food and other supplies from the locals, and not necessarily in nice way either. And of course the confederate army was hunting down deserters…at gun point…and hanging some of them, too.
On top of that, the confederate government had recently passed a new conscription law that favored wealthy southern families. The law said that for every 20 slaves a family owned, one of its male draft age members was exempt from conscription—the draft. Well…of course…it was mostly wealthy southern planters who owned 20 or more slaves. Almost needless to say the vast majority southern men (didn’t own more than 20 slaves, if any at all) in the confederate army and many weren’t pleased when the word got out about the new law. This aristocratic exemption only added to the confederate army’s desertion rate. On top of that, the whole idea of seceding from the Union hadn’t been particularly popular with many Mississippians anyway.
So Newton Knight, along with a growing band of confederate army deserters, and a number of local run-away slaves formed their own resistance army in Jones County, Mississippi. Basically, at first, their intent was to assist the Union army. They began ambushing confederate army wagon-trains and skirmishing with confederate army troops. Ultimately Knight and his band ran the confederate army out of Jones County and seized Ellisville, the county seat. Initially, Knight tried to get help from the Union Army, but he and his rebel band weren’t happy (at least in the film) with the answer they got from General Sherman. So Knight and his band declared Jones County Mississippi the Free State of Jones. They held on to Jones County until the war ended. Of course after the war you had the continuation of war (against the freed black population) by other means: the rise of the KKK, lynchings, voter suppression, etc, etc, and all kinds of other cruelties by white southerns determined to keep blacks disenfranchised.
It’s well worth your time to watch the Free State of Jones. Overall a good historical drama. A pretty good movie about an interesting aspect of Civil War history.
“And uniquely American, this happens with regularity, in large numbers, as a pattern, just here, nowhere else.”
“Now, gun laws, regulations, background checks, soft targets, body armor, death penalty, mental health, time for action, I promise, thoughts and prayers. We hear yah. We heard you last time, and the time before that. And we’ll likely do it all soon…yet again in America.”