The Return of The Private: the Great American Spirit

One day soon, I hope that I’ll be earning enough from my writing to make it my full-time occupation. As of yesterday that was not the case; maybe tomorrow will bring better times. In the meantime, my partner and I make our living buying and selling the most lovely and useful things we can find in estate sales, garage sales and sometimes, even thrift shops. Yes, it’s a lot of fun. Especially when I come across a great old book.

Here’s a question for you: What is the difference, if any, between a Bibliophile and a Bookworm?

I think I learned to read on my own, before I learned the alphabet or read any of those Dick and Jane books (Actually Nelson’s West Indian Reader by J.O. Cutteridge). I remember getting up at dawn with my mother. She would make a pot of coffee and fix me a demitasse, hot, thick, and bittersweet and then, as she got busy in the kitchen, I’d run out to the front gate to collect the daily newspaper. Then it was on to the front porch to read it. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. What else do you do with a newspaper? And that how it was until the day my father got up earlier than usual and came out looking for his paper. He was shocked to find me reading it. I remember that he made a big fuss about it and after that things were not the same.

And then there was the old sideboard where my mother kept all the books she thought I was too young to read. The old girl’s reading habits are still a mystery to me. She had all these books, but she didn’t read them; she kept them locked away in the sideboard.

She never knew, and I never told her, that I had figured out a way into the sideboard. It was easy to slide out one of the top drawers and then to reach into the cabinet and undo the hook that held the left side door. Then a gentle tap was sufficient to pop the double doors open without a key to retract the bolt in the lock.

The first thing I’d notice was the smell. Maybe you know it – the musty, slightly sour smell of really old books. It wasn’t, in itself, an endearing scent but it was connected, in my imagination, with a universe of adventure and delight, with The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask.

So it was that at a very early age, I discovered Literature. And became a book something – bibliophile or bookworm, or maybe a little of both. One of the books I read then was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Perhaps that was the reason for my mother’s secrecy. She was a remarkable woman. I was born in 1948 so this had to be, maybe 1954 or 56. I wish I still had those books.

No matter, I find new old books all the time, these days, and often relive the secret pleasure of my childhood, heightened now by the presence of my youngest children, with whom I can share them.

My most recent find is a 1921 publication from The Macmillan Company, Modern Short-Stories edited by Margaret Ashmun, M.A.. The editor’s stated purpose was to provide access, for college students, to classic examples of the art in its modern form from Russia, France, England, America and Scandinavia.

Amazingly, or perhaps not-so-amazingly, you can find it on Amazon. There’s even a Kindle edition available for download at $0.99!

All the stories in the collection are classic examples of the form but there’s one that really resonated with especial poignancy – The Return of a Private by Hamlin Garland. The story begins with the end of the Civil War and the discharge of many blue-coated men who were left in the deep South to find their best way home. It’s the story of Edward Smith

“a man of terrible energy. He worked ‘nights and Sundays’ as the saying goes, to clear the farm of its brush and of its insatiate mortgage! In the midst of his Herculean struggle came the call for volunteers, and with the firm and unselfish devotion to his country … he threw down his scythe and grub-axe, turned his cattle loose, and became a blue-coated cog in a vast machine for killing men, and not thistles. While the millionaire sent his money to England for safe-keeping, this man, with his girl-wife and three babies, left them on a mortgaged farm and went away to fight for an idea. It was foolish, but it was sublime for all that.”

Ed and his fellows walk home together, over several painful days, forcing their worn out, wounded bodies to stick to the trail. And at the end, for Edward Smith, are his wife, his children and his farm. His beloved dog, Spot, is dead, and the farm is

“weedy and encumbered, [and] a rascally renter had run away with his machinery, his children needed clothing, the years were coming upon him, he was sick and emaciated, but his heroic soul did not quail.”

Edward Smith was Garland’s lesson in what it means to be of the ninety-nine percent. Perhaps we are often unwise, even foolish, and some of us may sometimes behave in unthinking, even deplorable ways. Yet we share a dream, of freedom for all, and a good crop.

Garland’s soldier fought a war to end American slavery while the bone-spur-encumbered millionaires of the day stayed home and counted their money. That was the difference then, and it’s the difference now.

My farm is just a raised bed of tomatoes, beans and potatoes in my backyard but I’m hoping for a good crop all the same.

About neiladaniel

Self published writer of sci-fi, fantasy, poetry, so far.
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