Next Tuesday (19 November 2013) will be the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
The words are well-known, so much, in fact, that it’s become a cliché to point out that Lincoln was wrong when he said his speech wouldn’t be remembered. Many schoolchildren are obliged to memorize the text, guaranteeing that they won’t understand it. Lincoln gave a good encapsulation of a democratic society–government of the people, by the people, for the people. If only such a government existed, what a wonderful world we would have.
But as a son of North Carolina and someone with a contrary streak, there’s a part of me that understands another famous passage, this one written by William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust:
It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world’s roaring rim.
Now before anyone rises up to accuse me of supporting slavery or the like, understand that I abhor that peculiar institution. The driving impulse that led to the Civil War was the wrong cause. But it was also a lost cause, and as Faulkner explained, something in the spirits of those of us born in the South feels a sympathy for lost causes. It may be that many of us are of Scots-Irish ancestry and have a cultural memory of what distant capitals do to common people. It may be the hillbilly sensibility that we’ll welcome you in for a plate of beans and cornbread if you’re hungry, but if you commence to telling us what to do, you’d better be able to run faster than 850 ft/sec down the road back to town.
But the Union won that fight, and I am glad for it. The rebel in me–the source of my western character, Henry Dowland–hears the trumpet sounding for the charge. As dangerous as it is to follow that call, at times we must. Alas, as we’ve seen in the tales from the Trojan War to the War between the States and beyond, the contest requires two sides at least to be fought out. May the gods grant us the wisdom to choose the side of good.
Crossposted in English 301: Reading and Writing.