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“There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and in a sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchant men, than all the press gangs of Europe. I have known a young man with such a passion for the sea, that the very creaking of a block stirred up his imagination so that he could hardly keep his feet on dry ground …”

Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana ... about 8 years after his voyage on the Pilgrim

Richard Henry Dana ... about 8 years after his voyage on the Pilgrim

One of the great joys of being a free range blogger is the wide latitude in selecting topics. So if I get the urge to write about a book that was published over 170 years ago then, by God, nobody can stop me. But I wouldn’t review the book in the traditional sense. It would only be blog worthy if it sparked a particular memory, or struck a profound chord somewhere in the recesses of the heart. The memory was stirred and the chord was sounded when I re-read Richard Henry Dana’s classic “Two Years Before The Mast” last month.

I doubt that very many people read books like “Two Years Before the Mast” these days. There are just too many other options. If a reader is looking for seagoing adventure in the days of sail, Patrick O’Brian’s inconsistent but occasionally excellent Master and Commander series seems to be the most popular choice. But Dana’s book is a legitimate classic for several reasons. It is more than a superbly written narrative of life at sea in the first half of the 19th century … it’s also an absorbing piece of eyewitness history. That history includes a compelling account of life on America’s west coast in the days when San Francisco was nothing more than a dirty hamlet.

“Before the Mast” is a straightforward memoir from a well-bred, well-educated son of a prominent New England family who chose to abandon his comfortable home in response to the “witchery” of the sea. He signed on to a merchant vessel not as a passenger or an officer in training, but as an able seaman, or “jack” … to spend his time at sea “before the mast.” A sailing ship’s officers were quartered in the aft part of the vessel, but the deck seamen lived in a cramped hold forward, or “before the mast,” where the motion of the waves is more profoundly felt and the salt spray from the bow is a permanent part of their existence. Dana’s desire to live, albeit temporarily, the hard life of a sailor was fueled by the same impulse that has sent young people with restless spirits to the ends of the earth since the dawn of recorded history. He actually defines the attraction in reverse terms — in his not so complimentary description of an acquaintance …

“He is one of those cases which are more numerous than those suppose, who have never lived anywhere but in their own houses, and never walked in but one line from the cradle to their graves. We must come down from our heights and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow creatures by accident, hardship or vice.”

20th Century replica of Dana's ship

20th Century replica of Dana's ship

But the price for gratifying Dana’s disproportionate case of wanderlust was a level of physical hardship far beyond anything in his previous experience. His reservations became real with the weighing of his little trading vessel’s anchor. The unpleasantness began — predictably — with the ship still within sight of Cape Cod.

“I laid out on the yards and held on with all my strength. I could not have been of much service, for I remember having been sick several times before I left the topsail yard, making wild vomits into the black night, to leeward … I had often read of the nautical experiences of others, but I felt as though there could be none worse than mine; for in addition to every other evil, I could not but remember that this was only the first night of a two year’s voyage.”

Dana eventually adjusted to the unpredictable motion of the sea, and by his own account, became a competent or even better than average sailor. By mid-voyage, he was immersed in the language of his trade, and spewed it prolifically throughout the narrative. He leaves the modern reader hopelessly lost in his wake in passages like the following:

“As soon as each sail was hauled up and the bunt made, the jigger was bent on the slack of the buntlines, and the bunt triced up, on deck. The mate then took his place between the knightheads to “twig” the fore, on the windlass to twig the main, and at the foot of the mainmast, for the mizzen; and if anything was wrong, — too much bunt on one side, clews too taught or too slack, or any sail abaft the yard — the whole must be dropped again. When all was right, the bunts were triced well up, the yard-arm gaskets passed, so as not to leave a wrinkle forward of the yard — short gaskets with turns close together.”

The romance of the lifestyle and the glories of sea, sky and stars notwithstanding, Dana punctuates his memoir with brutal reminiscences of a confined existence with an omnipotent master … and the consequences of crossing an authoritarian who is deficient in both judgment and humanity. He recalls a slow-witted but hard working sailor who his Captain had taken a set against, and could do nothing right in the eyes of the powerful man who expected perfection. The sailor was shifting stores in the hold and had painfully injured his hand. The Captain inquired about the work stoppage, and the sailor, whose injured hand exacerbated his permanent speech impediment, did not respond with the alacrity expected. Minutes later …

“Sam by this time was seized up, as it is called, that is, placed against the shrouds, with his wrists made fast to the shrouds, his jacket off, and his back exposed. The Captain stood on the break of the deck, a few feet from him, and a little raised, so as to have a good swing at him, and held in his hand the bight of a thick, strong rope. The officers stood round, and the crew grouped together in the waist. All these preparations made me feel sick and almost faint, angry and excited as I was. A man — a human being made in God’s likeness — fastened up and flogged like a beast. A man too, whom I had lived with and eaten with for months, and knew almost as well as a brother. The first and almost uncontrollable impulse was resistance. But what was to be done? The time for it had gone by.”

San Francisco a few years after the Pilgrim's visit

San Francisco a few years after the Pilgrim's visit

Dana’s voyage ultimately delivered him to the unsettled and sparsely populated west coast, where his ship anchored in a small bay near an empty and desolate stretch of coast that is now San Diego. Eventually the ship moved further north toward San Francisco Bay. The potential of the topography and the quality of the anchorage there were obvious even to a youth of less than 25 years of age. The seismic dangers would, of course, have been unknowable …

“If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate … its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Dana’s journey served his purpose many times over. He did indeed learn his truths by strong contrasts, and recorded the experience in an extraordinary book that has withstood the test of time.

It’s my belief that, as people advance in age, their thoughts and memories gravitate with increasing frequency to the most profound experiences in their lives. I’ve spent weeks and months in the bush and on the incomparable African plain photographing nature in its unsurpassed glory. But in my mind, those days have yet to supersede the time I spent at sea as a young man. The beauty of it is difficult to capture in words, but certain experiences have earned a spot on the nearest and most accessible shelves in the archives of the memory …

  • Steel gray, horizonless dawns when sea and sky are merged to perfection … a slate colored world with no allowances for time and depth
  • A wide turn in a heavy sea, when the ship drifts into the trough and rolls like a drunken goose before plowing straight into the waves … the nose lifting out of the water before pounding down, salt spray splattering the pilothouse windows and the entire vessel shivering like a drenched dog on a cold morning
  • A crimson sunset on a rocky shoreline … in my mind … the ruggedly elegant Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia with the boulders on the north shore glowing soft and scarlet in the last rays of a summer day
  • The brief spasms of terror … a gargantuan container ship emerging from  the gloom just a few thousand yards out, and the quick and decisive reactions needed to avert disaster
  • The distant hills, mountains and lighthouses from unvisited but mysterious and romantically named shores … the Faroes, the Crimean peninsula, Navassa Island, and thousands more

Shipboard life has changed dramatically since Dana’s two year stint aboard the Pilgrim. In my years afloat I never witnessed a flogging, I didn’t go aloft to furl a frozen sail in the Straits of Magellan and I never had the pleasure of blowing the contents of my stomach into a powerful breeze in the dark of night. But there are parallels. One of the most notable is the occasional despair at being so far from home and family, the breathless hope of a letter or package and the curiosity about the simple day to day routine of those left behind who are leading “normal” lives. From Dana …

“No one who has ever been on distant voyages, and after a long absence received a newspaper from home, who cannot understand the delight that they give one. I read every part of them — the houses to let; things lost or stolen; auction sales and all. Nothing carries you so entirely to a place, and makes you feel so perfectly at home, as a newspaper. The very name of “Boston Daily Advertiser” sounded hospitably upon the ear.”

Another constant is the spirit of the sailor. During the course of many hours as officer of the deck during the wee hours of the night, a young signalman would sneak unobserved into the pilothouse and smear bearing grease on the receiver of my internal telephone set. Then he’d give me a call … I’d answer the phone and get an earful of bearing grease. You’d think I’d have learned after the first couple of events … but no. It was reassuring to read Dana’s account of a small boat ride from beach to ship, with several Spanish settlers as passengers. My signalman would have been a worthy member of that boat crew.

“We went ashore in the gig to bring them off with their baggage, and found them waiting on the beach, and a little afraid about going off, as the surf was running very high. This was nuts to us; for we liked to have a Spaniard wet with salt water; and then the agent was very much disliked by the crew, one and all; and we hoped, as there was no officer in the boat, to have a chance to duck them; for as we knew that they were such “marines” that they would not know whether it was our fault or not. Accordingly, we kept the boat so far from shore as to oblige them to wet their feet in getting into her; and then waited for a good high comber, and letting the head slue a little round, sent the whole force of the sea into the stern-sheets, drenching them from head to feet.”

Ah, it’s the little things …

Life at sea is the ultimate illustration of the love-hate concept … and this has not changed across the decades. Sailors count the days until they part company from their ships, and then miss them almost as much as family after a month or so on terra firma. Life ashore can be drudgery, a boring and mundane existence compared to the sights, smells and warm brotherhood found within the confines of an oceangoing vessel. And the memories are profound and permanent. Many years after sailing on the Pilgrim, a by then famous Dana returned to the California coast to try to recover the feel of his days as a jack,

“I wished only to be alone, so I let the other passengers go up to the town, and was quietly pulled ashore in a boat, and left to myself. The recollections and the emotions were all sad, and only sad. The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellant … where were they all? Why should I care for them — poor sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beach combers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Doubtless nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where? In hospitals, in fever-climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck —

When for a moment, like a drop of rain,

He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,

Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.”

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Remote desert isle where we might some day be stranded and allowed only one book.

Remote desert isle where we might some day be stranded and allowed only one book.

One sure way for magazines, websites and television to attract readers or viewers is to come up with a top ten list of damn near anything. It’s a solid ratings strategy. It builds suspense and plays on the natural curiosity of the reader, who will generally hang in there until the bitter end to find out which of the world’s beaches are, in fact, the sexiest, or which American restaurant is the numero uno place to pig out. Then, once the winner is revealed, the viewer can take issue with the verdict and wax both wroth and eloquent on why Dreamland barbecue should be ranked above the venerable but highly overrated Dixie Pig.

It also seems to elevate the interest level if the top ten list is framed within the context of the desert island. I found one list that polled show business figures and asked them to name the five cinematic comedies they’d want with them if they were suddenly castaways on some uncharted isle. The question was bizarre … it seemed to assume the availability of electricity, DVRs and big screens in a Gilligan type environment. In my humble opinion and in light of the isolation and gravity of assuming the Crusoe lifestyle, I think books would be a more appropriate diversion for the castaway even if electricity were somehow miraculously available.

A random google search of “top ten books on a desert island” delivered Mortimer Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s preferences to my computer screen. Two worthy intellectuals, to be sure. Here are their lists:


1. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War

2. Aristotle: Ethics, Politics

3. Plato

4. Plutarch: Lives

5. Augustine: Confessions

6. Aquinas: Summa Theologica

7. Montaigne: Essays

8. Shakespeare

9. Locke: Of Civil Government, Essay Concerning Human Understanding

10. Tolstoy: War and Peace

Van Doren

1. Montaigne: Essays

2. Shakespeare

3. Plutarch: Lives

4. Homer: Iliad, Odyssey

5. Dante: Complete Works

6. Cervantes: Don Quixote

7. Freud

8. The Bible

9. An anthology of poetry

10. Collected Poems of Mark Van Doren

I find their selections offensive … here are the top three reasons why.

1. They are too formulaic. These books are almost exactly what I’d expect a mid-twentieth century, white, middle-aged academic to select.

2. They are pretentious. I don’t care if you are Mortimer Adler or Charles Van Doren … I refuse to believe that anyone who’s lounging under a coconut palm on a sandy beach, having just gorged on a hearty repast of raw fish and rainwater, will have the slightest inclination to take a turn at Summa Theologica … or go rummaging through his traps in search of his Freud compendium.

3. One of them is incestuous. Charles Van Doren picked his father’s (Mark Van Doren) collected poems. The younger Van Doren earned a modicum of notoriety when he was part of a game show scandal in the 1950s. One would think that a person with a questionable history would be overly sensitive to issues of propriety and integrity. Not so in this case of shameless literary nepotism.

But I’ll have to concede that this marketing exercise did indeed make me think … so I drew my own hypothetical. If I were a castaway and allowed only one book … just what the hell would that book be? It would depend on the circumstances, of course. I’d probably want a book on survival in the wild, or maybe an instruction manual on how to build a seagoing vessel from palm fronds and conch shells. But if it were specifically stipulated that my exile would be permanent, and the book selected would be my sole source of diversion for the balance of my solitary life … I think I’d have to choose the Everyman Library edition of The Selected Essays of George Orwell. Here are the top five reasons why …

1. It’s a turbo-fat book. If I’m marooned for 40 years or so I’m not going to want a little skinny book like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I want something that will require some serious time to plow through … and by the time I begin to re-read it I will have ingested so many words that it will be much like launching on an entirely new work. This book, notes included, is 1370 pages long.

2. Variety. The book seems to have everything. It does not include fiction per se, but many of the essays are written in narrative form and are more compelling than any manufactured story. The author’s eyewitness account of a hanging in Burma is as harrowing and suspenseful as any fictional account could be. Orwell addresses an expansive range of topics … a scan of the table of contents includes discussions of literature, philosophy, politics, history, book reviews, reminiscences and meanderings.

3. Synchronicity with the reader, specifically me. An example … I’ve long been a clandestine admirer of Rudyard Kipling. I realize that his views, even at the turn of the century, were antiquated and often intolerant. But the music of his language is undeniable and irrefutable.

From Orwell (1942) …

“During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling in some sense is still there.”

Touche, brother Orwell, and if you were writing that essay today you could adjust your reference to “five generations” to include about three more.

4. The timelessness of his observations.

On war and pacifism …

“… there is something distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features.  Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences.  But all talk of “limiting” or “humanizing” war is sheer humbug …”

On anti-Semitism and nationalism …

“The point is that something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilization, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil.”

5. Sheer credibility. Orwell is not a writer who draws solely from his experiences in a library armchair. He was a man of action as well as a man of letters who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain during their Civil War. He paid for his principles with a near fatal bullet wound to the throat. He does indeed know and understand that of which he speaks. And his words most certainly come directly from the heart.

Final note … any reader with the perseverance to have slugged through all this is welcome to recommend a desert island book in the trackbacks below. But no lists, please.

Hammock tethered to a coconut palm on an uncharted island.  Here's where we'd most likely peruse our only book.

Hammock tethered to a coconut palm on an uncharted island. Here's where we'd most likely peruse our only book.

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I recall reading this Ernest Hemingway memoir of an East African hunting expedition while I was still in High School.  My memory is that I didn’t love it, but there were a few golden passages sprinkled through the book that kept it from being a complete waste of time.  I had not yet visited Africa in those days, and despite my addiction to television wildlife programs, I never suspected that I would … it was far too distant and exotic to be real.  So I had no real reference point by which to judge the book other than pure literary merit.  But then, as now, I had no claims to literary wisdom beyond a simple awareness of what I liked and didn’t like.  I read GHOA again a couple of weeks ago and found it sufficiently disturbing to rate a blog entry.


I think that any book, fiction or otherwise, should be evaluated within the framework of its own era.  That’s one of the reasons I’m able to read and enjoy the poems of the politically incorrect but indisputably gifted Rudyard Kipling.  But Hemingway, and GHOA in particular, are notable exceptions to this standard.  The rare, beautiful passages were much more difficult to locate in this reading than I’d expected, and the book was offensive on almost every level.


Ernest Hemingway is one of the most respected and revered of the great 20th century American writers.  But his magic has always eluded me (there are two exceptions … I’ll save them for a later post).  I’m rarely at ease with his prose, but I found the writing in GHOA to be unusually annoying.  Here’s a sample:


“So in the morning, again, we started ahead of the porters and went down and across the hills and through a deeply forested valley and then up and across a long rise of country with high grass that made the walking difficult and on and up and up and down and across, all in high grass, now, that you had to break a trail in, and the sun was very hot.”


Lovely.  I think EH inflicted that sentence on us because he wanted the reader to feel the undulations and repetitions in the sentence as he felt them in the land.  In one respect it was effective – the reader is as worn out from the sentence as the author is with the hunt.  There are additional examples of inelegant writing on virtually every page.  The most egregious example is in the third paragraph of Chapter 8.  There is a single sentence that includes 420 words (the number may be imprecise … word counting without a computer can be problematic).  And the tragedy is that the point of the sentence is both valid and important … but at about mid-page the reader loses interest in the substance of the writing to focus on, and stand in awe of, the sheer volume of words.


EH’s sense of humor is also deeply disconcerting.  He is consistently disrespectful of the guides and natives, and seems to take great joy in ridiculing them.  They are obviously a lesser species … and he speaks of them without reverence or appreciation, assigning them absurd monikers based on their appearance or behavior.  His awkward attempts at humor tend to bludgeon the reader.  On page 124 he draws a bead on an unsuspecting Maasai strolling across a valley floor for the sole purpose of eliciting a reaction from the guide he calls Garrick (after the legendary Thespian David Garrick … so named because of his theatrical demeanor):


“a Maasai walked down the center of the valley while we were glassing it and when I pretended I was going to shoot him Garrick became very dramatic insisting it was a man, a man!

     ‘Don’t shoot men?’ I asked him.

     ‘No! No! No!” he said putting his hand to his head.  I took the gun down with great reluctance …”


In another passage:


“… I thought what a pleasure it would be to shoot David Garrick in the behind, just to see the look on his face, sometime when he was dramatizing a stalk …”


In yet another, EH seems to make some awkward progress in acknowledging the humanity of his hosts:


“Kamau was very modest, quiet, and an excellent driver and now, as we came out of the bush country, and into an open, scrubby, desert looking stretch, I looked at him, whose elegance, achieved with an old coat and a safety pin, whose modesty, pleasantness and skill I admired so much now, and thought how, when we first were out, he had very nearly died of fever, and that if he had died it would have meant nothing to me except that we would be short a driver …”


But EH reached the apex of Mt Arrogance in his depictions and treatment of the African animals.  As I pored through this book there were several times when I imagined the Hemingway hunting expedition from an aerial perspective.  It seemed, looking down, that the entire circle of life within the 360 degree radius of rifle range was blasted without hesitation or discrimination … be it guinea fowl, wart hog or traditional “big game.”  The most pathetic example was his murderous onslaught against the hyena (not a favorite animal – see my earlier post).  EH took particular joy in describing the confused loops the dying animals executed during the brief span between gunshot and collapse.


I tried to identify the African location of the Hemingway expedition based on the descriptions of the land … and because of his repeated references to Manyara I think it must have been in present day Tanzania, somewhere between Tarangire and the Ngorongoro Highlands.  As he described the animals he’d plugged, I made a mental list of the wildlife that is now rare or extinct in that region.  It includes sable, roan antelope, kudu, reedbuck, gerenuk, rhino and oryx.  There may be more.  But EH, and others like him, seemed to believe that the ego gratification associated with hanging a kudu head on the wall of the den superseded any right the animal may have had to graze, drink and breath.  Hemingway is not the only hunter I’ve known to lovingly describe the beauty of the prey, but he may be the most eloquent.


“It was a huge, beautiful kudu bull, stone-dead, on his side, his horns in great dark spirals, wide-spread and unbelievable as he lay dead five yards from where we stood when I had just that instant shot.”


In EH’s mind, the highest tribute he could pay to such an animal was to destroy it.  Attitudes have changed for the better across the decades, but the impact of the big game hunters on East African wildlife is still evident … the oryx, roan, sable and rhino that were once widespread in northern Tanzania are now confined to isolated pockets and reserves.   I like to think that if EH were with us today and had it all to do again, he’d do his shooting with a Nikon or a Canon.


All quotes from GHOA were extracted from the 1998 Scribner’s Classics edition.

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Vera Brittain as a V. A. D. nurse

Vera Brittain as a V. A. D. nurse



Winston Churchill once wrote that the American Civil War was perhaps the least avoidable of all human conflicts.  World War I most certainly lies at the opposite end of the necessity spectrum.  Over the years I’ve made repeated attempts to define and comprehend the precise basis for that mindless four year exercise in human misery.  Despite several visits to the library and an extended mining expedition through my own stacks, I’d be hard pressed to offer a viable explanation for it all.  I further suspect that the most accomplished student of that era would be similarly challenged. 


Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir “Testament of Youth” chronicles the war’s spiritual and emotional toll on an actively engaged member of the Lost Generation.  Raised in a comfortable home in the north of England, VB aspired to academic and literary accomplishment throughout her peaceful and near idyllic youth.  When the guns of August began to roar, she’d just completed her first year at University and was recently engaged to a close friend of her brother’s.  Her fiancé was a sensitive and thoughtful young man … a thinker and writer of poetry who appeared to be VB’s kindred spirit in almost every way.  As the months rolled past, her fiancé, brother, and the other two dearest members of their circle of friends volunteered for military service.  In a selfless gesture of solidarity and personal sacrifice, VB gave up Oxford and offered her services to the V. A. D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as a nurse.  Writing about her fiancé, Roland Leighton, who was in the trenches in northern France at the time …


“I have been trying to picture to myself what I should feel if I heard he was dead.  It would be impossible to realize; life would seem so utterly empty and purposeless without him that it is almost inconceivable … I only know that such an anguish could never be conquered in a life of scholastic endeavour … never among those indifferent, unperceiving college women for the majority of whom war and love and grief might not exist.”


She was initially assigned to care for the wounded in a London hospital, then to Malta and finally near the front in northern France.  The horrors of her occupation and the hideous wounds inflicted by “modern,” mechanized instruments of war were cruel beyond her experience and imagination.  But like most who work in that trying environment, she adapted and made the mental adjustments that enabled her to persevere.


Vera's fiance, Roland Leighton, died on 23 December 1915

Vera's fiance, Roland Leighton, died on 23 December 1915



VB’s fiancé died at a casualty clearing station just before Christmas in 1915.  On the first of July following, in the initial assault of the Somme offensive (a dark day for the British Army – 60,000 casualties in a 24 hour period) her brother sustained a serious, but not life-threatening wound that earned him an extended convalescence in England.  In 1917, another of her brother’s inner circle was killed in France and yet another – the last of her brother’s dearest friends – sustained a severe head wound that permanently blinded him.  Serving her Malta stint at the time, she returned to England to his bedside with the full intention of becoming his wife and permanent caregiver.  Within days of her return, however, this friend died as well.


VB had already begun to question the sanity, if not the morality, of the war that had consumed so much of her youth and innocence.  As her blinded, would-be husband passed from this world to the next, she rendered a searingly accurate judgment on the collective head of humankind:


“… the orderly lifted the sheet from the motionless figure, so familiar, but in its silent unfamiliarity so terrible an indictment of the inept humanity which condemned its own noblest types to such a fate.”


Edward Brittain, supremely gifted violinist and brother of Vera Brittain

Edward Brittain, supremely gifted violinist and brother of Vera Brittain



Her beloved brother Edward, the gifted musician and lover of poetry, was the last to fall.  Returned to service after his recovery, he died on the Asiago Plateau in Italy in the summer of 1918, just a few months before the end of the war.  Back in England when the Armistice was signed, VB could feel no exultation when the bells tolled the “victory” and the celebrations spilled into the streets.


“Already this was a different world from the one that I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues.  And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part.”


VB’s post-war existence was focused on her development as a novelist, her dedication to the advancement of women’s rights and her commitment to pacifism.  She also served as a lecturer for the newly established League of Nations.  In the interest of self-enlightenment, she toured the defeated countries and witnessed firsthand the irrational, needless suffering inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles.  With passion and precision, she described the misery and resentment that played so critical a role in condemning yet another generation to the unspeakable horrors of global conflict.  Ironically, her memoir was published in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler began to seize power by force to begin the creation of a National Socialist Germany.


Few people in history have made a more viable and personal case for pacifism than Vera Brittain.  The 10 years or so immediately following World War I were inordinately trying for her.  She was haunted by demons that at times very nearly overwhelmed her and rendered her unable to function in “normal” society.  Her Testament is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years, which is why I’ve spent so much time on it and filled so much space with this post.  It should be mandatory reading for those in positions of national leadership who hold the power to send our youth in harm’s way.


A final note on Testament of Youth …


In the spring of 1917 Vera Brittain was again serving as a V. A. D. at a field hospital in northern France, not far from the front.  Czarist Russia had capitulated, and the steadily advancing German Army had been heavily reinforced with tens of thousands of troops from the east.  The danger was grave and the outcome of the war was, for the first time since 1914, in serious doubt.  I hope the reader will forgive the insertion of the lengthy passage below … it is, in many ways, gratuitous.  I include it because I want to incorporate some words of hope and optimism in this segment, and I’ll admit that as a career military officer I do take some pride in VB’s heartfelt and moving observations.  And I’ll further concede that I lack the sophistication to loathe my own country.


“Only a day or two afterwards I was leaving quarters to go back to my ward, when I had to wait to let a large contingent of troops march past me along the main road that ran through our camp.  They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigour in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest.


They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed.  At first I thought their spruce, clean uniforms were those of officers, yet obviously they could not be officers, for there were too many of them; they seemed, as it were, Tommies in heaven.  Had yet another regiment been conjured from our depleted Dominions?  I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect.  But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent.


Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me.


‘Look! Look!  Here are the Americans.!’


I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so God-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army.  So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!  There seemed to be hundreds of them, and in the fearless swagger of their proud strength they looked a formidable bulwark against the peril looming from Amiens.


Somehow the necessity of packing up in a hurry, the ignominious flight to the coast so long imagined, seemed to move further away.  An uncontrollable emotion seized me – as such emotions often seized us in those days of insufficient sleep; my eyeballs pricked, my throat ached, and a mist swam over the confident Americans going to the front.  The coming of relief made me realise all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.”


— From Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

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There are certain books that strike a unique and often permanent chord with their readers. In Wilkie Collins’ absorbing mystery, “The Moonstone,” there is a butler named Betteredge who finds every bit of wisdom life requires of him in “Robinson Crusoe.” He says …

“You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday, she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.” – from “The Moonstone”

Robinson Crusoe is a lovely book, but it has never moved and served me as it did Mr. Betteredge. I have, however, been known to turn to “Huckleberry Finn” from time to time for commonsensically delivered life lessons, particularly on issues of integrity, where the peerless Huck has more to teach us than any character in all of literature. In a moment of extreme duress, he manufactures this logic …

“I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place is taking considerable many resks, though I ain’t had no experience, and can’t say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here’s a case where I’m blest if it don’t look to me like the truth is better and actuly SAFER than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it’s so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it.” – from “Huckleberry Finn”

Who could possibly argue with that? Having grown up not far from the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s style and substance are more directly relevant to my taste and experience.

My father, who passed away at age 94 in August of 2008, could have been a Mark Twain character. He was a delightfully humorous man, a storyteller par excellence who lived a quiet and peaceful life in rural Missouri, just a few short miles from the river that was the beating heart of Twain’s writing. Last Christmas I visited his grave in company with my oldest son and lamented the probability that in a generation or so, his marker would be just one stone of many in a country cemetery, and the beauty of his wisdom would no longer even be a memory. My son very appropriately cited the last sentence of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” It is this …

“for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – from “Middlemarch”

This placed things in the proper perspective and inspired me to tackle this monstrous book that had so overwhelmed me when I was 18 years old. So … “Middlemarch” became my travel book for a vacation to the Dominican Republic. It is a book that requires the reader’s focus and full attention. Given the appropriate level of quiet and solitude, it is no longer a ponderously written 800 page Victorian novel … it is a “page turner” that captures the range of human frailty and delivers many a valuable lesson to the receptive reader. Although Charles Dickens was an equally perceptive observer of humanity, as a writer he was never George Eliot’s equal. George Eliot – Mary Ann Evans Cross – was without peer, certainly the greatest English writer of her generation.

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