Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Harvest of History

I spent a couple of days over the weekend reading Dorothy Canfield's A Harvest of Stories (Harcourt, 1958), which I bought many years ago so as to have a copy of her story "Sex Education."  That story made a big impression on me when I stumbled on it in a public library while I was in junior high.  It's about how age altered the perspective of a rural woman as she told the same story three times over several decades.  Canfield, who often published under her married name as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, lived a life that spanned the late 19th through the mid-20th century.  That fascinated me as a kid, and still does: I lived at the same time as someone who was an adult in 1900, who knew people who'd fought in or lived through the Civil War, and who saw the world change tremendously in her lifetime.  I say "the world" because she spent time in Europe, and brought the Montessori method of schooling to the United States.  She saw a good many changes in the opportunities open to women, and it would be interesting to know what she would think of the changes that came after.

Anyway, I thought of the book when I told an acquaintance about "Sex Education," and decided it was time to read the rest of it.  Canfield was from Vermont, where her family had lived for generations, and several stories are about those earlier generations, based on recollections of elderly people she knew when she was growing up.  For all that her sensibility looks pretty old-fashioned now, she was a vigorous writer, and a pleasure to read; her style hasn't dated much.

The third section of the book consists of stories about war, and I couldn't help thinking, as I read about the effect of the German invasion on French families in World War I, of some latter-day parallels.  I kept transposing them in my mind to, say, Iraqi families have had to endure since 2003.  Canfield went to France to follow her husband as he served in WWI, where she worked the with American wounded, and these tales probably draw on people's real experiences.  They're about the survivors without ignoring the dead, and they're heartbreaking.  Few Americans have the kind of connection to the Middle East (except perhaps through Israel) that many of us have to Europe, so it's unlikely that we'll get such stories out of the Iraq War; besides, we're the invaders, and there's probably not a market in the US for stories about American soldiers ransacking Iraqi houses and executing the Mayor of a village for failure to cooperate with them in every detail.  But I'm sure the stories are there to be told.

I was especially intrigued by a story that could have been put in the war section, but instead was with the other "Vermont Memories."  It's called "Ann Story," about a real woman who assisted the rebels during the American Revolution.  She married at 14 (child marriage!), and when her husband was killed by a falling tree while setting up a homestead, she took over the claim herself with her five children.  She lived to be about seventy-six.

Canfield begins the story by assuring the reader that
We know most of the homely-heroic details of her life, for the people who settled Vermont, from 1764 to the 1790s, were younger sons and daughters of decently educated Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island people, hence quite literate.  They left behind many kinds of written records of those first years -- letters, diaries, account books, memoirs, amateur local histories.

In addition, Vermont oral tradition is vivid and unbroken.  The grandparents of my youth had heard from their grandparents all about the life of the early settlers.  It is from talk as well as from yellowed letters, deeds, and daily journals that we know accurately how the primeval Vermont forests were turned into the mellow home-farms now all around us [36-7].
That reminded me of Craig Womack's remarks on oral tradition, which I've discussed before:
I would argue that oral traditions – legends and myths, if you will – performed in their cultural contexts have always been nationalistic and are told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness. If one considers the comments of elders telling stories in The World and Way of the Creek People, virtually all of them indicate the purpose of the stories is to inculcate a sense of Creekness in Creek listeners – what it means to form a clan, a town, a nation; their storytelling constitutes an act of Creek survival. Creek nationalism is created through a Creek narrative; the two from an interdependency, not an oppositional discourse. Although Adams is surely justified in critiquing the way “myths and legends” are often used as a diversion from political discussion, this is not an inherent characteristic of the discourse itself. “Legends and myths” might provide strategies for nationalism instead of functioning as a distraction, and this may be more closely linked to their original purpose [61-2].
Oral tradition is certainly linked to nationalism in Canfield's writing!  She goes on to tell how the early Vermonters were
simple-hearted enough to be on fire with the love for liberty, which they spelled, pronounced, and lived for with a capital L. When, before long, they drew up a constitution for the new state, those buckskin-clad farmer-hunters laid down their rifles and their axes to write into it (the first state which did this on the North American continent as far as we can find out) a clause forbidding human slavery in any form.  The rising wind of the passion for human freedom, for the recognition of individual human dignity sang loudly in the years of all these young family men, then British Colonials, soon to become Americans, who pushed into Vermont along Indian trails [39].
The Indians, alas, were British allies during the Revolution, so that passion for human freedom didn't extend to them, nor to the land "these young family men" took from them.  Indians appear only as villains in Ann Story's tale, hired by the British "to fight for them against the colonial rebels" (42), just as some American slaves fought for the British in hopes of securing their freedom; as "an Indian war-party, about half a mile away, was pillaging and setting fire to the cabin of a neighbor" (43) who wasn't at home, having fled with most other colonists to escape the Indian danger.  Ann Story was a patriot ("we still keep such words ... in our everyday vocabulary" [42]).  "She wanted the same thing for other people's children -- her country.  In a time when political opinions meant something, showed the stuff men and women were made of, she was passionately on the side of self-government by the people" (42).  Well, American people -- you know.  Not Indians.

So, as you can see, as Craig Womack says, "oral traditions – legends and myths, if you will – performed in their cultural contexts have always been nationalistic and are told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness."  But that truism cuts both ways, or in many.