Archives For My Writing Projects

Africa Comes to America

September 23, 2015 — 12 Comments

saharaYes, you read the title correctly; it’s no typo. Africa itself arrived in America this summer—and it’s an event that apparently takes place every year!

In a recent post by one of Mere Inkling’s earliest subscribers, I learned about the annual Saharan Air Layer. It is an enormous dust cloud that transits the entire Atlantic Ocean and is vital to the western hemisphere, especially the Amazonian rain forests. More about the SAL below.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. It reveals how intricately balanced and interconnected God has created this amazing ecosystem we call earth.

I appreciate this fact, even though I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t recycle. What’s more, I would actually like to see brazen polluters incarcerated and tasked with personally cleaning toxic waste dumps . . . but that’s not the theme of this reflection.

It seems to me that part of being truly human, is possessing an appreciation—or even a love—for the world in which our Creator has allowed us to dwell. By love, I mean a deep affection for the flora and fauna, and even the mountains and valleys themselves.

I am not proposing idolatry.

I am in good company in valuing nature. C.S. Lewis found time spent walking in the countryside to be invigorating. It was renewing, for body, mind and soul.

Several years back a book was published with the peculiar subtitle, The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.

The authors of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol explores the way Lewis displays his “ecological” concerns, particularly in his fiction. They also consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s similar attitude.

It is no coincidence that these two men, as soldiers during the Great War, had seen the worst violence humanity could do to nature. The ravages wrought by the orcs surrounding Isengard were echoes of the lifeless terrain of shell-shattered Western Front.

Writing this now, I recall a poem I wrote for Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

“A Foreshadowing of Epics” begins:

Filthy trenches greeted the novice soldiers’ eyes,

their two imaginations envisioned greener lands.

Crimson combat splashed red their vision,

and colored portraits one day painted with their words.

The frontlines were barren,

scarred earth stripped of all life.

Fallen trees mimicked casualties,

not even the smallest of creatures escaped death.

It may seem ironic to some that those very fields now are green, and teeming with life. It is the mercy of God that restores the scarred and heals the broken. And, as impressive as those miracles are evident in nature, they are far more wondrous when it is human lives that are transformed and resurrected.

So it is that I find the wonder of the barren and seemingly lifeless Saharan dust bringing nutrients to hungry forests on the other side of the earth amazing. No mere accident that.

If Jesus delays his return and this globe continues to spin for more centuries still, I would not be surprised to see the Americas returning to Africa a similar gift of life.

_____

Weather.com has a short video about the Saharan Air Layer here.

True Friendship

July 7, 2015 — 10 Comments

charles williamsIt seems odd to describe someone you deeply respect with the words “ugly as a chimpanzee,” but that’s precisely what C.S. Lewis once did.

Yet, reading the description in full, we find that Lewis considered the physical unattractiveness of his mentor to be a positive thing. In a sense, it accented his impressive persona.

Describing Charles Williams to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote:

As for the man: he is about 52, of humble origin (there are still traces of cockney in his voice), ugly as a chimpanzee but so radiant (he emanates more love than any man I have ever known) that as soon as he begins talking whether in private or in a lecture he is transfigured and looks like an angel. He sweeps some people quite off their feet and has many disciples. Women find him so attractive that if he were a bad man he could do what he liked either as a Don Juan or a charlatan.

I find this description evocative of the words about Jesus’ physical appearance. You can read the full passage about Jesus, the promised Messiah, here.

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

Lewis continues with his description of Williams, revealing a more intimate relationship than the previous words might suggest. Williams, you see, was one of the Inklings.

He works in the Oxford University Press. In spite of his “angelic” quality he is also quite an earthy person and when Warnie, Tolkien, he and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology. He is married and, I think, youthfully in love with his wife still.

I find it amazing how vivid Lewis’ portrait of his colleague is. He briefly passes over his physical appearance (the least important of human traits, despite what the modern era intimates). And, even though his words are not flattering, the rest of the description reveals they are expressed with deep affection.

Lewis then quickly presses on to a poetic depiction of Williams’ oratorical skills, and concludes with a personable picture of the man among brothers. The final sentence, given Lewis’ perception that he himself would remain a lifelong bachelor, is quite perceptive.

Mutual respect—especially when tempered with affection—generates bonds that allow for honest assessments of both weaknesses and strengths.

A Personal Experience

I recall receiving a lovely engraved glass plaque as a memento of my tour at the United States Air Force Chaplain School. Most of my duties related to writing, but it was common knowledge that there were few subjects on which I did not have something to say.

When the Commandant of the Institute read the inscription during the presentation (it was the first time he had seen it), he paused in embarrassed silence thinking he must have read it wrong. It didn’t sound like the flattery that traditionally adorns such tokens.

“He says in a book what others say in a sentence.”

You can only offer such a dialectical “compliment” to a friend.

It was true, of course, and it was to much laughter that I immediately responded, “True, and it is a book well worth reading.”

When I read this description of the literary friend who made such a profound impression on Lewis, it makes me smile. It is all the more poignant, since it was written just a year before Williams’ death.

There are far, far worse things a person can experience than having someone who respects and loves them say they resemble a chimpanzee . . . or that they tend to be just a little bit verbose.

Literary Martial Arts

December 31, 2014 — 8 Comments

nonficOne of the lowest moments in my writing life occurred when a creative writing professor advised me to “stick with nonfiction.” Oh, she said it gently, but it still struck me with the power of a mixed martial arts (MMA) hammerfist.

I was majoring in editorial journalism at the University of Washington. Attempting to expand my scope, I took a short story writing course. It was a mistake.

I thought I had done adequately during the course. I was even moderately pleased with a couple of my stories. The instructor, on the other hand, well let’s just say she was not impressed with my effort.

She was right. At the time, my ear for good fiction was quite immature. I do not claim that it’s particularly well developed today, but I have written a story about a medieval pilgrimage that I hope to unveil in a year or two.

I was reminded of my literature professor’s grim assessment as I recently read an interview with a pastor, who is also a lawyer, and happens to be a writer as well. His name is Randy Singer.

Singer describes the similarity of his professions by saying “They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.” I guess he’s right.

The difference being that pastors tell true stories, authors of fiction write imaginary stories, and attorneys weave tales that lie somewhere in between.

The part of the interview, which appeared in World Magazine, that I found particularly insightful was this:

When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.

Singer’s description struck me with the force of an MMA ridge hand (a reverse knife-hand). When I came to, I finally knew why composing fiction does not come naturally to me.

I love words too much. Too much to sacrifice them simply for the sake of the story. Oh, I value the message also, but getting there is half the fun.

Although I don’t love words to the degree many poets lust after them, I still possess an affection that does not allow me to view them through purely utilitarian lenses.

To add insult to his literary injury, Singer adds the following, in response to the question of what he learned while writing several successful novels.

Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”

That’s enough, friend. You made your point. I would have responded a bit more colorfully and fragrantly, but I hear you.

Singer doesn’t cite C.S. Lewis in the interview, but his counsel is consistent with that of the Oxford don. Lewis advised using clear and concrete language, “so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.” (Personal Correspondence, 1956).

Similarly, Lewis would always argue for the words not to draw attention to themselves. Essentially, they need to get out of the way so the message can come through. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.”

It’s wisdom like that which causes us to recognize C.S. Lewis as the brilliant, gifted, creative, versatile and anointed writer that he was.

As for Singer, perhaps I’ll have to check out one of his legal thrillers. The latest is set in antiquity, with a Roman jurist defending Paul before Nero. Should be quite interesting. Not so good as a nonfiction account of such a trial would be . . . but probably worth reading.

Plagiarizing Screwtape

October 28, 2014 — 23 Comments

breigHow many letters have you read that were penned in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ groundbreaking Screwtape Letters?

If you’re a fan of the collection, you’ve probably read similar correspondence that owed its very existence to Lewis’ work.

Now a more sensitive question—have you ever written anything similar to The Screwtape Letters? I must confess that I have. In fact, I’m currently working on a similar collection I hope to finish during the coming year.

Many writers have tried their hand at writing angelic letters, with varying degrees of skill and success. After you finish this column, you might want to check out two examples right here at Mere Inkling: Screwtape Letters Anniversary and Screwtape Goes to War.

Some letters have been composed from the perspective of a heavenly angel (often perceived of as a “guardian” angel). Others have been, like Lewis’ innovative example, written from a diabolical angle. Demons, we recognize, have been cast out of the heavens for which they were created, but they still remain angels, albeit fallen angels.

One of the lures that motivates those who emulate the Screwtape Letters is found in C.S. Lewis’ statement that they were rather easy to compose, once he had undergone the uncomfortable process of placing himself in the mind of an enemy of God.

It is disorienting, to reverse reality. For example, to hate what God loves (i.e. his creation, and especially humanity). And it is this discomfort that Lewis alludes to in describing his reluctance to pursue the genre any further than he did.

Considering Copyrights

For writers, copyrights are precious. It is good news, unknown to many, that current law (at least in the United States) protects everything we write. As soon as it is created (the words are arranged in their unique order), our work is protected by copyright whether or not we use the © symbol.

I say this because the arrangement of words can be protected by law, but “ideas” cannot. (I’m not talking about patents here, but literary ideas or techniques.)

Thus, it’s possible to freely follow Lewis’ example. However, quotations should only be used with permission. (There are, of course, “fair use laws” that describe the acceptable use of quotations in various contexts.)

There was a bit of a scandal a few years after Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. Well, “scandal” is too serious a word. More like an awkward and uncertain moment, when an American journalist wrote a book that was clearly inspired by Lewis.

I’ve only recently received my copy of The Devil You Say by Joseph A. Breig. It was published in 1952, and the introduction echoes Lewis’ own. While the letters themselves appear to be independent of Lewis, I suspect the following parallel from the two prefaces shocked Lewis when he saw it.

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. (Lewis)

I have not the remotest intention of disclosing to anyone—not even my confessor—how these choice tidbits of demonology fell into my hands. (Breig)

Following its publication, one of Lewis’ correspondents, Idrisyn Oliver Evans, sent him a copy. Lewis’ response follows.

Magdalen College Oxford

27/ 4/ 53

Dear Evans I am really very sorry. The Devil you Say got put on a pile of ‘books received’– most of them (I don’t include yours) a major plague of my life–and I forgot all about it. I have now read a few pages: there was nothing to tempt one to go on. It certainly seems to be a gross plagiarism: I am writing to New York Macmillan to draw their attention to it. Thanks very much for sending it. With all good wishes, and thanks also to your American friend. Yours C.S. Lewis

I cannot find any record of whether or not Macmillan challenged the publication of the new volume.

Lewis had no objection to another writer developing his idea about devilish correspondence in their own creative direction. He simply desired to ensure his own work was not usurped.

Before ending, I would not want to leave a negative impression about Mr. Breig. In looking further into the work, one sees just how little resemblance it bears to The Screwtape Letters. It clearly is not plagiaristic. In fact, it’s quite possible that the line cited above was actually intended to be an homage to Lewis.

It turns out that Joseph Anthony Breig (1905-1982) was an accomplished and well respected Roman Catholic journalist.

Breig stayed at the Universe Bulletin until his retirement in March 1975. He continued to write his columns after 1975. They appeared not only in the Universe Bulletin but also in several other Catholic newspapers in the USA. Besides being a newspaper writer, Breig also wrote for many magazines (Ave Maria, Our Lady’s Digest, The Family Digest, Crozier, and others) and published eight books and several short stories and plays.

In honor of his work he received two honorary doctorates (St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1954, and Carroll College, Helena, Montana, 1967). He also won several awards, one of which was the St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association in 1966. (The Book of Catholic Authors).

I’ll close with a final quotation from the same biographical source. When writers gaze at a blank sheet of paper they see many things. Some see it as naked canvas, and others as a challenge. I enjoyed the compliment offered by one of Breig’s editors, who praised his prolific literary production.

“Douglas Roche of Sign magazine . . . holds that Breig cannot endure the sight of a sheet of paper not covered with words.”

Convoluted Language

October 13, 2014 — 8 Comments

govwritingAre you a skilled reader? Do you pride yourself on possessing a knack for making sense of challenging prose?

Even if you consider yourself a proficient interpreter of text, there is one genre of literature that may still cause you to tremble. Government documents.

Even the most experienced lexical navigators find it challenging to traverse governmental communications. This despite the fact that in 2010 the United States actually passed the Plain Writing Act.

And I’m not even referring to legislation—where seeking sanity and clarity is virtually hopeless. And, it doesn’t matter how simple the source message is. Government scribes are capable of making a document about how to obtain a building permit read like a manual for constructing an orbital weapons platform.

I am not sure whether or not the United States is typical of other nations when it comes to this literary tradition. However, I suspect every nation, aside perhaps from those with populations under 10,000, is plagued by convoluted governmental documents. (There are thirteen such, potentially exempt, communities.*)

A prime example of institutional gobbledygook comes from this question, posed to the Chicago Manual of Style:

Q. Can you please help settle a disagreement? In the following sentence, should “instead of” be replaced with “rather than”? Overpayments occurred because facility purchased care staff processed payments using the local VA Fee schedule instead of the technical component of RBRVS.

A. Let me get this straight: in that nearly unreadable sentence (“because facility purchased care staff processed payments”?), the disagreement centers on whether to use “instead of” or “rather than”?  (Oh, wait—I see from your e-mail address that this is a government office.) Replace the phrase if you are certain that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning, and (2) the current wording does not express the meaning intended. If you cannot reach agreement on these points, you might have to fund a study.

C.S. Lewis offered much sage advice about writing. Sadly, nearly every principle he proposed is utterly alien to governmental documents. His 1956 advice (to a child) should be the required background and screen saver for all government computers:

“Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for civil servants who write official documents. After all, I edited Air Force Recurring Periodical 52-1 for three years. But I sometimes wonder whether there might be an eccentric psychological disorder that afflicts many government-funded writers . . .

So, it appears, I have made an unintentional confession. The regular readers of Mere Inkling may now know the source of some of the peculiar aspects of these columns.

I have asked my children to have me institutionalized if I ever use the phrase “care staff processed payments.” Short of that, however, these brief conversations are likely to continue for many years to come.

_____

* The following nations and “dependent territories” boast populations under ten thousand, in ascending order:

Pitcairn Islands

Cocos Islands

Vatican City

Tokelau

Niue

Christmas Island

Norfolk Island

Svalbard and Jan Mayen

Falkland Islands

Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha

Montserrat

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Barthelemy

Nauru barely misses the list due to an excess of eighty-four citizens, according to their 2011 census.

Getting Fresh

September 18, 2014 — 8 Comments

freshenIt’s possible for blogs to get stale. That’s no surprise, to regular readers.

Like everything else in life, same old same old (American slang) gets old.

I’ve never been one to desire change for its own sake. C.S. Lewis satirizes such notions in his poem, “Evolutionary Hymn.”

Lead us, Evolution, lead us

     Up the future’s endless stair:

Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.

     For stagnation is despair:

Groping, guessing, yet progressing

     Lead us nobody knows where.

Still, for some time I have felt like I wanted to freshen up the look of Mere Inkling.

I’ve taken the plunge and purchased the package where I can tailor colors and fonts. I’ve also decided to move some of my old websites here to Mere Inkling.

First of all, I have added The Odes of Solomon. If you’re interested in learning about the most ancient Christian hymnal, check it out. I have included paraphrases of five of the Odes.

Next I will either move my C.S. Lewis Chronicles pages here, or the information that I’ve assembled online for two of our family’s ancestors who served in the American Civil War. I have also added a link to the military chaplaincy journal I edit.

Those will all be static pages, of course. The main feature of Mere Inkling will continue to be the regular columns, or posts.

I hope you enjoy the new format. I think it is an improvement, and enabling me to get all of these efforts under a single digital “roof,” will certainly help me stay better organized.

In expanding the offerings of Mere Inkling, I have maintained the valued past and am importing material that will be of interest to some. My goal has been to have the site “grow,” in the sense used by C.S. Lewis in “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem.”

Mere change is not growth. Growth is the synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity there is no growth.

Lemming Legends

July 8, 2014 — 18 Comments

lemmingThe closest camaraderie I ever experienced in my life, was on the staff of the USAF Chaplain School. A sign of our esprit de corps was seen in the nicknames we gave one another. Mine was Lemming. (Not too dashing, I know, but read on and you’ll see why it was bestowed with affection and respect.)

Those of us who worked on “Air Staff” projects (for the Chief of Chaplains) were in the Resource Division. Probably because we were always rushing (scurrying?) around responding to emergencies, the other chaplains called us the “Resource Rats.” We were close indeed, and our energies and creativity was magnified by our synergy . . . just like the Inklings.

We embraced the label, and before we knew it each of us had been identified as a particular member of the rodent family. We had a rabbit, hamster, beaver, squirrel and fudged a bit with a ferret and a weasel. Among assorted other “rats,” I was nicknamed—you didn’t choose your identity, your friends awarded it to you—Lemming.

They called me Lemming because I had a unique duty on the team. One of my duties was to do a little bit of “ghostwriting” for the Chief of Chaplains. Some would consider it an honor, but trust me, due to the general for whom I wrote the first year, it was anything but.

Why a Lemming? Well, because whenever a tasking came down I would dutifully march off in obedience . . . even if it meant marching right off of a cliff. Like the humble Lemming, I accepted my fate, and made the best of it.

We all know their tragic story. When the Lemming burrows become overcrowded, a large number of them will sacrificially gather together and march to the sea. There, those who did not perish in catastrophic falls, nobly swim out to sea so that their relatives back in the warren can once again devote themselves to overpopulating their habitat.

I was proud of the appellation. I wore the name (literally, on the shirt logo pictured above) as a badge of honor. Until . . . until I discovered it was all based on a lie.

Lemmings, we have learned, do not suffer from periodic mass suicidal impulses. The common myth is based on an insidious 1958 “nature film” made by Disney. I have no idea why they would compromise their flawless reputation for scientific accuracy in their naturalist media, but in White Wilderness, they cast all integrity aside. (And now I know why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were wary of the machinations and shadowy motives of Walt Disney Studios.)

With utter disregard to the reputation of these clever arctic creatures, the film showed (supposed) members of the Scandinavian clans eagerly casting themselves to their deaths. However, their bizarre behavior was manipulated by cinematic chicanery.

It turns out that not only did Disney pull the lemmings out of their normal habitat for filming—since they were too intelligent to voluntarily leap to their death, they were thrown off of the cliff from a modified turntable! Ghastly.

Learning that lemmings will not march knowingly (and stupidly) to their own demise has actually made me a bit prouder to bear the title. I mean, it’s one thing as a member of the armed forces to risk your life in the defense of your nation. It’s quite another to commit suicide because a general thought one of your commas was in the wrong place. But that’s a story for another day.

Impromptu Poetry

May 8, 2014 — 3 Comments
eye

I had to endure a to and fro transcontinental trip this week. Endure is the right word, when flying miles above what would otherwise be a scenic, albeit lengthy, journey.

One positive thing about flying is that I have time to catch up on some of my “pleasure” reading. This week it included an article about cinquains.

A quintain is a poem with five verses. A cinquain is a specific form which has the following number of syllables in each of the lines: two, four, six, eight, and two.

I took a break from my reading and drafted a few of these small poems. I found it quite simple, and it’s likely you may as well.

I make no promises about the quality of my verse, but perhaps you’ll find one or more of them interesting. Or, at least they may inspire you to write some of your own.

Springtime
Narnian hope
Delayed by the White Witch
Borne by Aslan’s Resurrection
New dawn

Pilgrim
Traveling through
This world is not my home
Destined for a new creation
With Christ

True hope
He died for us
Emancipation now
Washed clean by the blood of the Lamb
New life

Inklings
Lewis, Tolkien
Friends rounded out the group
Imaginations unfettered
Wonder

Choosing Patience

March 7, 2014 — 13 Comments

patient bearI got up very early this morning to attend a meeting that had been rescheduled from its regular monthly date. I was happy with myself for remembering the change in date, as I drove to the sunrise gathering of a group of fellow chaplains.

I felt great—until I learned after arriving that our rescheduled meeting had been rescheduled. There I was, all alone . . . and primed for a bit of unseemly disappointment with having risen more than two hours earlier my normal routine, for an aborted purpose.

Because that sort of reaction is not foreign to my nature, I was pleasantly surprised when I didn’t feel that way. Oh, for the briefest of moments (literally, less than a half a minute) I experienced what some might consider a mild case of “upset,” but it immediately gave way to my thoughts of how I could most constructively use the “extra hours” I had received.

The most amazing part of all is that I did not even have to consciously think, how can I put the best construction on this? It just happened.

Now, I’m uncertain whether this positive response was due to my increasing age, or to my growing sanctification. I suspect it’s a combination of the two. It’s such a calm and healthy way to respond to unwelcome events that I wish everyone was able to enjoy it as their norm. Thank you, Lord, for gracing me with this gift for the fall and winter decades of my life.

Being able to see the good in a seeming disappointment, is akin to possessing the virtue of patience. I once made the mistake of praying for “patience.” It was during my college days, and learning to be more patient proved quite painful; it was primarily taught to me by being deluged with a near-infinite number of things which demanded my patience. Quite painful.

In a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to Don Giovanni Calabria in 1948, he says, “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is ‘good,’ because it is good, if ‘bad’ because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.”

This is precisely the attitude I wish to experience in my own life.

And, sometimes its fruit is easy to recognize. For example, the cancellation of today’s meeting gifted me with the time required to compose this post itself. And, for that, I am genuinely grateful.

roeShould literary critics look down on authors whose work proves popular with “common” people? Is it appropriate for the literary elite to smirk dismissively whenever the prose of a writer outside their circle resonates with the masses?

These, my friends, are rhetorical questions. The answer to both is “no,” and if you believe otherwise, you probably won’t find yourself too comfortable with the opinions shared here at Mere Inkling.

I believe each piece of literature, regardless of its source, should be judged on its own merits. Not all genres appeal to all people. And not all writers compose their works with equal skill. Nevertheless, it is possible for even a poor miner to strike gold.

Likewise, an accomplished writer is not infallible. Even a master wildcatter can sink a dry well.

I’ve been writing an article about Civil War chaplain who became one of America’s most popular writers during the nineteenth century. In fact, many years his novels outsold the works of Samuel Clemens himself.

And yet, despite his success—or possibly, because average people enjoyed his stories—he received an extraordinary amount of criticism from the literary establishment.

I’m going to share his insights about writing in a moment, but  before doing so, I want to draw a parallel with one of the twentieth century’s most gifts authors. C.S. Lewis was loved by common women and men of Britain and other English-speaking countries. And yet, this very popularity undermined his standing in the world of academia and, I daresay, literary snobbery.

Lewis describes this condescending mindset in a 1939 essay entitled, “High Brows and Low Brows.”

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him.

Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema. Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion.

Of each of us some great poet made a rape when we still wore Eton collars. Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? If so, that very fact bears witness to the novelty of the modern situation; to us, the claim that we have always liked Keats is no prouder than the claim that we have always liked bacon and eggs. For there are changes afoot.

I foresee the growth of a new race of readers and critics to whom, from the very outset, good literature will be an accomplishment rather than a delight, and who will always feel, beneath the acquired taste, the backward tug of something else which they feel merit in resisting.

Such people will not be content to say that some books are bad or not very good; they will make a special class of “lowbrow” art which is to be vilified, mocked, quarantined, and sometimes (when they are sick or tired) enjoyed. They will be sure that what is popular must always be bad, thus assuming that human taste is naturally wrong, that it needs not only improvement and development but veritable conversion.

For them a good critic will be, as the theologians say, essentially a “twice-born” critic, one who is regenerate and washed from his Original Taste. They will have no conception, because they have had no experience, of spontaneous delight in excellence.

I confess I’ve sometimes felt slightly embarrassed when in the presence of a group of people singing the praises of authors of fiction popular among the well-educated. Sometimes I don’t even recognize their names, much less have an idea of what they have written.

Part of my “handicap” rises from the fact that I’m by and large a non-fiction sort of guy. As seminary I was less enraptured by abstract “systematic theology” than the time-proven lessons learned during the Church’s two millennia history. Likewise, I found “practical theology” far more beneficial. After all, I was being equipped not to be a theologian per se, but to become a shepherd entrusted with the cura animarum (the cure of souls).

In that spirit, valuing history and lessons I could put into practice as a pastor and writer, I have been researching the legacy of Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888). He was a Presbyterian pastor who served as a chaplain in the Union cavalry, and later as a military hospital chaplain.

After the war, Roe served a congregation, and eventually turned his energies to writing wholesome fiction. He played a key role in helping many suspicious Protestants realize that, like manna, fiction was neither good nor bad. It’s effects depended on the use to which it was put. Roe proved quite popular with readers. Less so with the literary establishment.

The following account comes from an essay about his life solicited by one of the prominent magazines of his day. It is well worth reading, touching as it does on a broad range of subjects, including international copyrights and the vagaries of publishing in the late 1800s. Most precious, though, are the echoes of Roe’s humility and his realistic understanding of the vocation of writing.

“While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly. When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception. I had none of the confidence resulting from the gradual testing of one’s power or from association with literary people, and I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one’s friends are the protecting headlands.

“That I knew my work to be exceedingly faulty goes without saying; that it was utterly bad, I was scarcely ready to believe. Dr. Field, noted for his pure English diction and taste, would not publish an irredeemable story, and the constituency of the New York ‘Evangelist’ is well known to be one of the most intelligent in the country.

“Friendly opinions from serial readers were reassuring as far as they went, but of course the great majority of those who followed the story were silent. A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought. If my memory serves me, Mr. R.R. Bowker was the earliest critic to write some friendly words in the ‘Evening Mail;’ but at first my venture was very generally ignored.

Then some unknown friend marked an influential journal published in the interior of the State and mailed it so timely that it reached me on Christmas eve. I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, ‘The story is absolutely nauseating.’ In this instance and in my salad days I took pains to find out who the writer was, for if his view was correct I certainly should not engage in further efforts to make the public ill.

“I discovered the reviewer to be a gentleman for whom I have ever had the highest respect as an editor, legislator, and honest thinker. My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact. Meantime, the book was rapidly making for itself friends and passing into frequent new editions. Even the editor who condemned the work would not assert that those who bought it were an aggregation of asses. People cannot be found by thousands who will pay a dollar and seventy-five cents for a dime novel or a religious tract.

“I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York ‘Tribune.’ ‘Here is a man,’ I thought, ‘whose fame and position as a critic are recognized by all. If he deigns to notice the book, he will not only say what he thinks, but I shall have much reason to think as he does.’ Mr. Ripley met the diffident author kindly, asked a few questions, and took the volume. A few weeks later, to my great surprise, he gave over a column to a review of the story. Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see; it would seem that the public had sanctioned his verdict

“From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending. There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people. Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm: the only thing for a writer is to be himself and take the consequences. Even those who regard me as a literary offender of the blackest dye have never named imitation among my sins.

“As successive books appeared, I began to recognize more and more clearly another phase of an author’s experience. A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds. In my own case, I do not mean classes of people looked at from the social point of view. A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency. He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back. This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality.

“Certainly, if I had my choice, I would rather write a book interesting to the young and to the common people, whom Lincoln said ‘God must love, since He made so many of them.’ The former are open to influence; the latter can be quickened and prepared for something better. As a matter of fact, I find that there are those in all classes whom my books attract, others who are repelled, as I have said.

“It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author’s life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown. Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration. On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor.

“While I clearly recognize my limitations, and have no wish to emulate the frog in the fable, I can truthfully say that I take increasing pains with each story, aiming to verify every point by experience—my own or that of others. Not long since, a critic asserted that changes in one of my characters, resulting from total loss of memory, were preposterously impossible. If the critic had consulted Ribot’s ‘Diseases of Memory,’ or some experienced physician, he might have written more justly.

“I do not feel myself competent to form a valuable opinion as to good art in writing, and I cannot help observing that the art doctors disagree woefully among themselves. Truth to nature and the realities, and not the following of any school or fashion, has ever seemed the safest guide. I sometimes venture to think I know a little about human nature. My active life brought me in close contact with all kinds of people; there was no man in my regiment who hesitated to come to my tent or to talk confidentially by the campfire, while scores of dying men laid bare to me their hearts. I at least know the nature that exists in the human breast.

“It may be inartistic, or my use of it all wrong. That is a question which time will decide, and I shall accept the verdict. Over twelve years ago, certain oracles, with the voice of fate, predicted my speedy eclipse and disappearance. Are they right in their adverse judgment? I can truthfully say that now, as at the first, I wish to know the facts in the case. The moment an author is conceited about his work, he becomes absurd and is passing into a hopeless condition. If worthy to write at all, he knows that he falls far short of his ideals; if honest, he wishes to be estimated at his true worth, and to cast behind him the mean little Satan of vanity. If he walks under a conscious sense of greatness, he is a ridiculous figure, for beholders remember the literary giants of other days and of his own time, and smile at the airs of the comparatively little man. On the other hand, no self-respecting writer should ape the false deprecating ‘’umbleness’ of Uriah Heep. In short, he wishes to pass, like a coin, for just what he is worth.

“Mr. Matthew Arnold was ludicrously unjust to the West when he wrote, ‘The Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe.’ Why could not Mr. Arnold have taken a few moments to look into the bookstores of the great cities of the West, in order to observe for himself how the demand of one of the largest and most intelligent reading publics in the world is supplied? He would have found that the works of Scott and Dickens were more liberally purchased and generally read than in his own land of ‘distinction.’ He should have discovered when in this country that American statesmen (?) are so solicitous about the intelligence of their constituents that they give publishers so disposed every opportunity to steal novels describing the nobility and English persons of distinction; that tons of such novels have been sold annually in the West, a thousand to one of the ‘author called Roe.’

“The simple truth in the case is that in spite of this immense and cheap competition, my novels have made their way and are being read among multitudes of others. No one buys or reads a book under compulsion; and if any one thinks that the poorer the book the better the chance of its being read by the American people, let him try the experiment. When a critic condemns my books, I accept that as his judgment; when another critic and scores of men and women, the peers of the first in cultivation and intelligence, commend the books, I do not charge them with gratuitous lying. My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public. I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.”

_____

If you are interested in learning more about E.P. Roe, check out my article in the new issue (4.2) of Curtana: Sword of Mercy which was published online just last week.