Nobody who is somebody looks down on anybody. -Margaret Deland

Margaret Deland, 1857-1945
Her mother died in childbirth, her father two days later. She aroused controversy through poems, short stories, and novels. Her book, John Ward, Preacher, was a best-seller about the philosophical clashes between a Calvinist minister and his Episcopalian wife. Deland married Harvard football coach Lorin Deland, and shared her home with dozens of unwed mothers.

The universe eludes me. It appears to be where I am not and I am where it is not. In 1989, a friend said he envied me my self-knowledge. I assumed that he referred to my grasp of values, self-history, and goals, but values change; memories change; and I no longer have goals.

Over the last few years, I have increasingly sought escape in English and American literature, focusing more or less on the period from 1875 to 1925, because it represented an era that I imagined happier and more natural. My escape proved a mirage when I realized that my favorite writers of the era not only struggled with “modern” issues but approached them with greater depth and insight than today’s writers. I had imagined that the endless ease with which authors can now edit would have improved literature, but the reverse is true. Perhaps this is because education was formerly focused on history, literature, language, and philosophy, fields that promote depth. I also suspect that our “electronic devices” have tended us toward shallowness by becoming the intellectual equivalent of fast food. Whatever the reason, modern writers are challenged to use good grammar.

After reading many of the works of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Butler, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Jack London, Willa Cather, and others, I recently had the good fortune to discover, for $2.49, a first edition copy of John Ward, Preacher in a St. Vincent dePaul store. I hadn’t so much as heard of the author but her writings quickly became the shrine before which I worship, and her books the only books I ever kissed each night before going to sleep. In John Ward, Preacher, Deland examined the deeply-loving marriage between a nominal Episcopalian who doubted God’s existence and her fundamentalist husband who became obsessed by the fear that his wife was going to hell. I was raised a fundamentalist but became an atheist, and through the couples arguments I saw myself.

My next reading was her 65-page story Where Ignorance Is Bliss, 'Tis Folly To Be Wise. The story opens with a soon to be married couple—the man an Episcopal priest—enjoying a woodland outing on a sunny day. The story progressed to the man’s memory of having forged a check 23-years earlier, a crime that no one knew about—and that no one would ever know about unless he told them. He pondered whether morality required that he confess his sin to his fiancée, and for perhaps forty pages, he debated the decision from every conceivable angle before finally telling her two days before their wedding. She broke off their engagement—by letter—within hours. Months later, two friends who knew what he had done also examined the pros and cons of his decision. They concluded that the choice between telling and not telling had been a moral necessity, but they couldn’t agree on which was right. So it is that Deland’s writings commonly concern painful decisions that pit apparent self-interest against social, physical, and economic ruin. 

What we now have in place of depth, morality, and thoughtful religion, is political correctness on the one hand and religious reactionism on the other. Both are antithetical to freedom and intelligence, so it’s no wonder that our era is characterized by slanders and Tweet-length repartee. Surely, you can see why I have abandoned my era in favor of another. In truth, I don’t care too terribly much about Syrian refugees; I can do nothing about Global Warming; and I think of our Middle Eastern Wars as the disturbed obsession of callous politicians whose interests lie anywhere but their own country. Fourteen years of turning on the radio and, in the first sentence, hearing such terms as: suicide bombing, Taliban, Islamic State, school shooting, government shutdown, racial tension, Gaza Strip, government atrocities, sectarian conflict, Civil War, chemical weapons, roadside bomb, WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestinian conflict, fighting erupted, weather event, police shooting, unarmed black man, or other phrases that make me feel both angry and hopeless have worn me down until I no longer care. 

I remind myself that I am more old than young, and I ask myself whether this is what I want to listen to for the rest of my life because, truly, I see no reason to hope for better. Almost nothing that is on the news concerns things that I can remedy—which is probably why it’s on the news. Whatever happened to the welfare of America? Except for school shootings and an endless stream of killings by so-called racist cops, are any of our problems solved by this obsession with the Middle East, a region that we have only made worse after spending a trillion dollars and leaving millions of people maimed, killed, or displaced?

No, give me Victorian times. They call to me, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard, yet I find a kinship there that I don’t find today. The last two friends who came to my house talked on their cell phones in my presence, and I thought, why are you here? If you had rather be with someone else, then go to them with my blessing, and call me when you get there so I can have the attention that you’re now giving to them. Why insult me by making me listen to a one-sided conversation? Am I really so unimportant to you? Such events have led me to write people out of my life until there are very few left.

I reject my era. I reject our personal devices; our warmongering in the name of peace; our “special nation status”; our endless threats of a government shutdown; our 18-month long presidential campaigns; the daily slanderings and lies of psychopathic politicians who pretend to be statesmen; but most of all, I despise our shallowness. I think that the only things we’ll be remembered for are violence, flag-waving, political correctness, and asininity, and so it is that I profoundly don’t care about us. As long as the economy doesn’t crash, my Social Security check arrives on time, and Medicare stays solvent for the remainder of my lifetime, I’ll content myself with the knowledge that this is the most I can expect from a sick, shallow, and silly nation that I am powerless to influence. Like the man in Simon and Garfunkels I am a Rock,I  have my books and poetry to protect me, only they don’t protect me any better than they did him, they instead take me deep within myself through the words of people with whom I can have no knowledge other than sentiments frozen on a page. It is to this end that I’m buying every first edition of Margaret Deland’s books I can find. Fortunately they’re cheap because the mass of Americans are only interested in the day’s celebrity. I frankly find Deland’s words, “Nobody who is somebody looks down on anybody,” an impossible row to hoe, but I’ll keep reading.


rhymeswithplague said...

I could be snarky (WTF??) or sympathetic (poor dear, I know just what you mean) but the truth is I love it when you write like this. We are a dying breed, I think, if the pop culture is any indication. I'm sure every generation has had similar thoughts as it sees its end approaching.

Helen said...

I am at loose ends today .. not wanting to watch or listen to updates on the terrorist attacks in Paris ... obsessively turning on/off our TV. All I can muster for you today is if I could transport myself back to a kinder, gentler time .. I would. Thank you for introducing me to Ms. Deland. Take care, Snowy.

Tom Sightings said...

Well, I'm afraid any response I have will seem inadequate to your thoughtful and convincing essay. But since I'm a contrarian at heart, let me remind everyone that as bad as our political split is these days, we're not engaged in a civil war like we were in the 1860s. As bad as the terrorists are, we're not engaged in a world war like we were in the 1900s. We live longer; we are far richer; and we are much more tolerant than at any time in history. Hollywood flimflam is as old as Hollywood; political lies are as old as politics. But we are more educated, more analytic and more free to speak our minds than ever before. All that being said, I don't blame you one bit for immersing yourself in the 19th century. Nothing wrong with that.

Elephant's Child said...

She is not an author I know. Thank you for widening my world. Again.
I share many of your concerns. My own country is no better. Shallow, and destructive too often.

Elephant's Child said...

Except that I do still care. About rather a lot of things which I cannot influence, let alone control. A route to despair.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have not read her. I'll have to have a look see. I personally don't believe that humanity has changed much in the last hundred and fifty years. the population has grown, resulting in a net increase in assholes. And each asshole can cause a lot of hurt for a lot of people.

PhilipH said...

You despair of this idiotic world, and you are perfectly correct in saying this so succinctly and honestly.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

OK Snowy, delete the fantasy word "God" and there you have the truth of the subject of your essay.

The murder of 6,000,000 Jews happened and there was little or nothing that was done to stop that in the 1940s.

The sacrifice of millions of men, women and children in the two world wars happened and will, I'm sure, happen again in times to come.

It's a mad, mad world. Face it. Accept it. End of.

billy pilgrim said...

we're not the target audience for modern artists, writers, muscians etc. i have a lot of self absorbed friends always complaining that saturday night live has gone down the crapper and how our music was so much better. but once again, we're not the target market for these things. we're the target market for diapers and diabetes medication.

we pampered boomers have polluted the planet, rang up debt and started enough wars to keep the next generation in debt ad infinitum in order to prolong our self indulgent lifestyles. but that's the human condition.

as for me, i still care a great deal about my kids and wildlife but i realize that it's time to hand the ball off to the next generation.

primum non nocere. i take that to mean, reduce my carbon footprint rather than driving across the country in a winnebago or thinking it's my god given right to spend my retirement traveling the globe.

my key to happiness, realistically manage my expectations.

uthman saheed said...

Hmmmmm...your is thoughtful. You've taken your time to itemise the most threthening issues on the globe.

My own country is not excepted among the countries that are seriously down with terrorist attack as well...but all we have is HOPE. So that it won't be that the terrorists are here to destroy the World completely.

I like your write up and the manners in which you always present your facts. Though, to we the younger genetations we may see far less below what you see.

Sparkling Red said...

Yup, the news media always focuses on the worst news. It's extremely depressing.

I also feel drawn to the past, not so much because I feel that it was a better time during [name your era], but because it provides me with a healthier perspective on our own times. Living in Victorian England as a fairly well-off white person would probably have been very pleasant. During that same time period in other countries, colonialism was planting the seeds of conflicts that continue to this day.

I have a theory about why the past always seems to be better than the present: better music, better books, better people. It's because time has sifted the wheat from the chaff. It's easy to forget the crappy novels of the last two centuries and focus on the cream of the crop. Classic music has been carefully reduced down to the best tunes, based on years of expert selection. 100 years from now, the best of our own era will probably be held up as an example of excellence. We just don't have the perspective to see it yet.

fiftyodd said...

So glad I had a look at your blog. Loved this post - I could say exactly the same things about living in South Africa. I lament the same things and applaud your thinking in every respect. I am also glad to be older than younger. My mother-in-law's favourite saying to her 7 children was: "Remember, you are better than no-one and no-one is better than you." All her children have taken this to heart.

Emma Springfield said...

Wow! You have made so many statements that I agree with. In truth I believe that more people than are realized feel the same way. It is just not politically correct to say so. Bless you for being slightly incorrect.

Joe Todd said...

Good post Snow.. I was just listening to Paul Simons "I know what I know" and now I know you know what I know in so far as "I think that the only things we’ll be remembered for are violence, flag-waving, political correctness, and asininity." If we are remembered at all. Sorry I haven't been around more... just been lazy.. Always wishing you the best.. Joe Todd