Tag Archives: Hannah Coulter

“MONUMENTS WITHOUT INSCRIPTIONS”–OUR WWII VETERANS

The World War Two Memorial

I was back in Washington, D.C. last week and had the privilege of visiting the World War Two Memorial there.  If you haven’t visited it before, it’s an impressive site, although I had the kind of mixed feelings that regularly plague me on such locations.  I can’t help but think we should visit such places in quietness and contemplation.  One of the prominent inscriptions on the memorial is from one of my sailor father’s heroes, Admiral Chester Nimitz:

They fought together as brothers-in-arms.  They died together and now they sleep side by side.  To them we have a solemn obligation.

And yet there was very little solemnity around me as I walked around the memorial.  The memorial is ringed by two semi-circular walls on which the names of the major battles of the European and Pacific theaters are inscribed, and when I got to the two words “LEYTE GULF”–the battle in which my father’s destroyer was sunk by Japanese suicide bombers–I found it hard to swallow, and for a moment, difficult to see.  And yet all around me there were children laughing and playing, teenagers eating hot dogs and taking selfies, and tired parents resting on the names of battles at which Americans had died.  If an experience can be inspiring and depressing simultaneously, this one was.

“Monuments Without Inscriptions”

All of which has got me to thinking about a different kind of WWII memorial, namely the dwindling number of surviving WWII veterans.  Roughly 97 percent of those who served our country during World War Two are now gone.  Many who are still with us are past sharing about their experiences, and many never wished to.

In writing this I am reminded of one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist.  Like many of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny fictional hamlet of Port William, Kentucky.  Narrated through the reminiscences of an aged farm wife, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

HannahCoulter

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter.  Nathan came home physically unscathed, but forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad saw extensive action in the South Pacific from 1942-1944. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

Are there “monuments without inscriptions” in your life today?  Reach out to them while you can.

“MONUMENTS WITHOUT INSCRIPTIONS”: OUR WWII VETERANS

veteran

Today’s anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has me thinking about our WWII veterans.  Ninety-six percent of those who served our country during World War Two are now gone.  Many who are still with us are past sharing about their experiences, and many never wished to.

In writing this I am reminded of one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist.  Like many of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny fictional hamlet of Port William, Kentucky.  Narrated through the reminiscences of an aged farm wife, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

HannahCoulter

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter.  Nathan came home physically unscathed, but forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad served in the navy during WWII and saw extensive action in the South Pacific. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

Are there “monuments without inscriptions” in your life today?  Reach out to them while you can.

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU COULD HAVE READ HERE IN 2015 (BUT PROBABLY DIDN’T)

Yesterday I listed the most frequently read posts from Faith and American History in 2015.  Before the clock strikes twelve, I thought I would also make a plea for a few posts that I wish more of you had read.  As I’ve shared before, I started this blog because I wanted to enter into conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.  Sharing with you through this medium is, for me, an extension of my vocation as a teacher.  It’s been said that to teach effectively is to “love something publicly,” and that’s what I try to do on this site.  It may not always show, but I love the ideas and principles that I am trying to convey here, and I long to be motivated by love as well as I write.  Below are some of the posts from the past year that I most loved writing:

HannahCoulter** In March I read a novel by one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter.  Set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, Hannah Coulter is a story about relationships: relationships with the land, with family, with neighbors–and with the dead.  Penetrating my heart as much as my head, the book taught me a lot about being a historian.  If you want to know more, read “From My Commonplace Book: Wendell Berry on Protecting the Dead.”

** April 19, 2015 was the 240th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord and the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh.  When McVeigh was subsequently arrested, he was wearing a t-shirt bearing a quotation from our nation’s third president: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  in “Timothy McVeigh, Thomas Jefferson, and the Lexington Minutemen,” I explored the historical context of Jefferson’s quote and its tragic hijacking by extremists who falsely appeal to American history while knowing little of its true heroes.

Timothy McVeigh's t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

Apostles of Reason** As summer approached I wrote two essays that drew on my decades-long experience at a public university before coming to Wheaton College.  Writing nearly twenty years ago, distinguished historian George Marsden famously observed that “contemporary university culture is hollow at its core.”  That was my conclusion as well.  In “Secular Education Has Its Own “Crisis of Authority,” I responded to a recent, much acclaimed work by a Duke University scholar on the “crisis of authority in American evangelicalism.”  In “The Contradictions of the Secular University,” I argued that today’s secular university (1) exalts reason but lacks a logical foundation for its dogmatic morals, and (2) exalts democracy but is averse to genuine pluralism.

** Finally, prompted by an amazing gift from a former student, in October I penned “A Tribute to Two Teachers,” a brief reflection on two educators who touched me in very different but equally life-transforming ways.  What “deathless power lies in the hands of such persons.”

Happy New Year one and all–I look forward to renewing the conversation in 2016.

 

LEARNING ABOUT HISTORY FROM AN IMAGINED FUTURE

I’m always on the outlook for metaphors that help us think more deeply about what history is and what historians do. But my quest is hardly systematic. There’s not enough time—not enough lifetimes—for that. I follow up leads that I stumble across and tips that my students give me. The latter can lead me into corners of the world of literature that I would never otherwise explore.

Science fiction is a case in point. I’ve never liked it, not even C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy, although at Wheaton we’re supposed to adore everything the man wrote. (I’m being facetious, although we do claim to own the wardrobe that inspired  The Chronicles of Narnia.) But recently one of my students recommended that I check out Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and it was a good tip. The novel centers on a marvelous metaphor for a crucial role that historians can play.

speaker_for_dead

I actually had to read two of Card’s novels. Before I could understand Speaker for the Dead, which contains the metaphor, I had to read its predecessor, Ender’s Game, for context. You may have seen the 2013 movie by the same name. It earned mixed reviews and bombed at the box office, but it follows the plot of the book reasonably well.

Here’s my two-minute synopsis of Ender’s Game, in case you need it. I promise I am not trying to make it sound sillier than it actually is: The setting is a century or so in the future, at a time when the world is still reeling from the attack of a race of insect-like beings called Buggers. (They’re called Formics in the movie). Although the Bugger invasion failed (after killing millions of humans), Earth’s leaders fear that these insect people will eventually come again and succeed. Enter Ender Wiggin, a child genius recruited by the military to save the human race.

After extensive training with other child prodigies, Ender is selected to travel to a distant planet for additional training on an especially sophisticated battle simulator, and he excels. He then learns to his horror (spoiler alert!) that his mentors have been manipulating him. Rather than taking part in a simulation, he has actually been engaged in a live battle. In fact, he has unwittingly orchestrated a preemptive counterstrike against the Bugger home planet that has apparently wiped out the only other known sentient race in the galaxy. The novel ends with Ender discovering one surviving Bugger queen pupa, who telepathically relates to him that the Buggers regretted their earlier attack of earth and posed no threat to humanity. Devastated by guilt, Ender resolves to devote his life to finding a new home where the Buggers can flourish again.

No, it’s not War and Peace, and if not for my student’s solemn assurance that it was worth it, I would never have continued on to Speaker for the Dead. But I did, and I am glad that I did. Early in the novel, set three thousand years in the future, we learn that after the Second Bugger War Ender abandoned the military for a different role. Adopting the pseudonym “Speaker for the Dead,” he used his conversations with the Bugger queen to tell the Buggers’ story and reveal the misunderstanding that led to their (apparent) extermination. Made a pariah on earth because of the part that he played in the genocide, Ender embraced his new identity as “Speaker for the Dead,” and for the past three millennia (I’m not even going to try to explain how this is supposedly possible) he has wandered across the galaxy at near light speed, going wherever someone requests his services.

As Card portrays him, the Speaker for the Dead is part funeral orator, part investigative reporter, but first and foremost, he is a historian. I don’t think Card ever uses the word, but that is Ender’s primary role. A character named Novinha explains that the job of the Speaker is to “discover the true causes and motives of the things that people did, and declare the truth of their lives after they were dead.” That’s not the only thing that a historian aspires to do, but surely it’s an important part.

Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” metaphor immediately struck me. It resonates with some of my favorite quotes regarding our obligation to the past: G. K. Chesterton’s plea that we listen to our ancestors and practice “the democracy of the dead.” Beth Schweiger’s observation that the goal of the historian is to “make a relationship with the dead.” David Harlan’s insistence that history should be “a conversation with the dead.”

It also evokes Wendell Berry’s lament that we often abuse our responsibility to the dead. “I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say,” the title character in Hannah Coulter tells us, thinking of her late husband who had died in WWII. “The dead are helpless,” she says. “The living must protect the dead.”

In his introduction to Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card reveals that he shares Hannah’s concern. “I grew dissatisfied with the way that we . . . revise the life of the dead,” he writes,” giving the dead “a story so different from their actual life that, in effect, we kill them all over again.” Card continues,

To understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story—what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know.

Unless you’re Ender Wiggins.

It’s not necessary to know all the plot details of Speaker for the Dead to follow Card’s metaphor. It’s enough to know that the novel centers on a call for Ender to Lusitania, not the WWI-era British passenger liner but a sparsely populated planet in a remote corner of the galaxy. There’s a small colony of Earth recently established there, as well as a tribe of another alien race that the humans call porquinhos—the first sentient beings that humans have encountered in three thousand years of space travel. (Humans are not alone in Card’s imagined universe, but it’s also not very crowded.) The plot follows two intertwined threads: Ender’s preparations to speak for one of the deceased colonists, and his efforts to help the colonists bridge the cultural chasm that divides them from their alien neighbors.

So here are four features that make the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” a useful metaphor for thinking about history and the historian. First, in his role as Speaker, Ender recognizes that his audience harbors a range of agendas. Some are merely curious or in search of entertainment. Some seek vindication or revenge. A few seek understanding. The metaphor calls us to consider what we really want when we consume history.

Second, Ender knows that truth about the past is complex. He hopes that his words will be a blessing; he is certain they will be controversial. As he shares his findings, some among his audience are thankful, some offended, some uncomfortable, some embarrassed. Because his role is to speak truth about the dead, he will challenge and convict as well as comfort.

Third, the Speaker’s ability to know the dead is the same aptitude that allows him to understand the porquinhos in the present. Card tells us that Ender is a successful Speaker because of “his ability to see events as someone else saw them.” This is why learning to think historically is one of the best ways to equip ourselves to transcend the cultural fault lines that divide our world today. Both require Ender’s gift of seeing the world through others’ eyes.

Fourth, Card makes clear that exercising that gift is impossible without love. “In history,” Beth Schweiger writes, “the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.” When Ender offends some of the Lusitanians in how he speaks for the dead, they have a ready explanation: he doesn’t respect them. Even those who concede the truth of what he says about the past question his motive. “It’s easy to tell the truth,” Novinha tells her daughter, “when you don’t love anybody.” But Card gives the last word to Novinha’s daughter, Ela, who insists that the Speaker loved the dead he has spoken for. “I think I know something, Mother,” she explains. “I think you can’t possibly know the truth about somebody unless you love them.”

No single metaphor can capture all that is involved when we try to understand, love, and learn from the past, but I think the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” can carry us a long ways. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, as well as any tips you might share about other metaphors you find useful.

Back with more soon.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: WENDELL BERRY ON PROTECTING THE DEAD

I thought I would take a break from my series on the American Revolution to share the latest entry I have made in my commonplace book. It comes from a book I listened to just a couple of weekends ago as I made the 640-mile-drive from Wheaton to my father’s assisted living home in southeastern Tennessee. I make the trip almost every time the school’s schedule permits. In this case, Wheaton College was on what is known euphemistically around here as “Spring Break.” If the term describes reality in some parts of the country, I’ve learned that it’s mostly a cruel joke in the upper Midwest. There were icicles on the eaves and six inches of snow on the ground as I backed out of my driveway, and I was happy to be headed for warmer climes.

I was also looking forward to listening to an audio book or two along the way. Nothing makes the miles pass as quickly, in my experience. I’ve made this trek more than thirty times since moving to Wheaton, and I’ve long since developed a ritual in which I visit the local library on the day before the trip and check out three or four titles. I’ll listen to the opening pages of each as I’m headed out of town, and before an hour has passed I’ve made my choice and entered into a committed relationship for the duration of the trip.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

The choice was easy this time around. I settled quickly on the 2004 novel Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry. I had long heard of Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist, but I had never read anything by him until the previous fall, when I had listened to his 2000 novel Jayber Crow on an earlier trip to see Dad. I’m a historian—not a literary critic—so take this assessment for what it’s worth, but I was enthralled. I think the book is remarkable in three respects: Berry masterfully recreates a place, in this instance the fictional rural community of Port William, Kentucky; he raises eternal questions without preaching or offering simplistic answers; and he crafts what is hands down the most unique love story I’ve ever encountered. Call me a fan.

HannahCoulterAnd so when I found that the library carried another Berry title on tape, I knew that I wanted to listen to it. Like Jayber Crow (and most of Berry’s fiction), Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny hamlet of Port William. Whereas Jayber Crow recreated life there through the eyes of the town’s barber, Hannah Coulter sketches the community through the memories of an aged farm wife. Chronologically, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter, who did come home but was forever marked by what he had experienced.

Some of the passages that I have recorded in my commonplace book are there for personal reasons. Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad served in the navy during WWII and saw extensive action in the South Pacific. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

If this passage speaks to me as the son of one of these “monuments without inscriptions,” a second passage now in my commonplace book speaks to anyone who wishes to take the past seriously. Much earlier in the novel, Hannah shares some of what went through her mind after news arrived of the death of her first husband, Virgil:

Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn’t get mad about Virgil’s death. Who was there to get mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God. What made me mad, and still does, were the people who took it on themselves to speak for him after he was dead. I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say. Was Virgil a hero? In his dying was he willing to die, or glad to sacrifice his life? Is the life and freedom of the living a satisfactory payment to the dead in war for their dying? Would Virgil think so? I have imagined that he would. But I don’t know. Who can speak for the dead? . . .

It’s a powerful question. Who, indeed, can speak for the dead? In a sense, this is exactly what the historian is called to do, to resurrect the dead and give them voice again. And yet, as Hannah realizes, in our fallenness we will be sorely tempted to make the dead agree with us, to speak for us rather than to us. None of us is exempt. It is a temptation that Christians face just as strongly as the most ideologically driven “revisionist.” And when we succumb to it, however noble our motives, Hannah reminds us that what we are doing is preying on the weak. “I don’t mean to be quarrelsome,” she concludes, “but the dead are helpless. . . . The living must protect the dead.”