Heat

Wow, it is stifling today. I go into the air conditioning of the house and never want to come out. Instead, I am reading history, an activity which doesn't raise much of a sweat.

Three weeks from now, I am co-teaching a history seminar for high school teachers. That is requiring me to do some reading in advance. Amongst the many texts for the course are Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self Reliance and Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. I regard it as a privilege to be required to read these essays for the first time at age 41 instead of reading them in college. Classic texts take on a different hue when viewed from the middle years.

Emerson can't write worth a hoot. His message is wonderful, but it is buried in a sea of vague pronouns and odd syntax. I would think my difficulty with him was a product of the times in which he wrote if Thoreau, his contemporary, wasn't so much more accessible. So, somebody in mid-nineteenth century New England knew how to write.

Thoreau and Emerson are flaming idealists. Particularly Thoreau. Seems their essays are particularly suited to a college audience. Thoreau was inflexible in his insistence that not a one of his tax dollars go to support slavery or the Mexican War. He said that silent opposition to those twin evils meant nothing--but not paying his taxes was his duty as a human, and it might inspire others to question the whole endeavor as well.

About the Mexican War, another one of my favorite writers, Gen. U. S. Grant, said of the conflict that never has a more unjust war been waged by a stronger people against a weaker one. So, Thoreau was not alone in his opposition to the war. Grant, who fought in it, thought it unjust--but, unlike Thoreau, Grant went about his duties anyway.

Even more eloquent than Emerson or Thoreau--so eloquent that every phrase sounds forth like a trumpet from the mountaintop--was the anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass. Wow, could he write. His What to a Slave is the 4th of July? is heart-rendingly brilliant. It is 19th century oratory, so it goes on a bit. But speakers of that time, the good ones at least, knew how to string together an argument. No sound bites back then--the people came miles on horseback to be entertained by a speech--and they didn't want it to finish in five minutes.

Speaking of 19th century oratory, I wrote a column a couple of weeks about about The Maples. In it, I said that for me, the row of trees strummed the "mystic chords of memory."

Aunt Olla cut out the article and underlined that phrase. She said when she read it, she said to herself, "more, more, more!"

Well, I had to inform her that I stole the phrase from Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. I thought it was common enough to be in the public domain, so I didn't ask permission. I figured Abe wouldn't mind.

But it just goes to show you the power of rhetoric Lincoln commanded. One-hundred fifty years later, Aunt Olla picked out a single phrase of his and recognized its genius even though it wasn't between quote marks or given attribution.

AUNT OLLA CALLED today to discuss the last column I wrote on modern loneliness. We got to discussing how times have changed. She said children are so overprotected today. Years back, she said, quoting her brother Roy, "we kids were a dime a dozen and we knew it."

When company came, the kids played unsupervised around machinery, swamps, potholes, swimming holes and horses while the adults ignored them completely and discussed adult matters. Nobody worried a whit about safety.

Sometimes families got to many kids so they had to ship some off to the relatives, or the neighbors. They just couldn't feed them all. Not much room for sentiment when people were threatened with hunger. Olla's sister, my great-aunt Millie, was shipped off to Saskatchewan for a time before she objected so strenuously that she came back home. I believe she was 10 years old or younger.

Olla herself showed me a letter which she wrote home which told about how she stayed in bed all weekend at Moorhead Teacher's College in the 1920s because she couldn't afford food. She and her roomate figured that by staying in bed they wouldn't need to eat so much.

So, people are more lonely now--but our tummies are full.