Common senses

The evidence of one’s senses is always in both senses material: a point which writers generally, and historians particularly, ought to bear in mind. Life is not carried on, carried out, lived, in hermetically sealed, soundproof rooms.

The writing of history is a literary art. The writer of fiction is the historian of his or her world. Both sorts of writers, and all sorts of writers, need to be able to immerse themselves and their readers imaginatively in the world they are portraying: the past, or the fictional. Accordingly, both sorts of writers, and all sorts and conditions of writer, need to be able to immerse themselves (and their readers) sensorily, bodily, sensually, in the world they are portraying – whether the past, or the fictional – to be worth a damn, and to be worth reading.

The writer, in any genre, is tasked with answering one question above all which must be, and always is, in the reader’s mind: What’s it like? And that, in practice, means, very much, How did or does it feel, how did it sound, how did it smell, what did it look like?

As I slowly begin to stagger back from the latest bout of heart trouble and recovery, I have begun sporadically to resume work on our (long-delayed, by my health troubles) book about the July Crisis of 1914. Our first notion, of getting it out as a centenary history, as we were able to do on the Titanic book, went to hell when I had major heart attack and consequent triple bypass surgery in 2014. My recovery therefrom was interrupted, and the book further delayed, by a series of further health problems, the most recent of which was my (comparatively) minor heart attack in November of 2020, and the subsequent angioplasty and stent. In response to my entering anew upon the task of working on the 1914 book, Gerv emailed me urging restraint, on the ground that, whilst he indeed wished to finish the book, he did not care to become known as the former writing partner of the last casualty of the Great War. He was “not, of course, suggesting that the book was, as a collaboration, cursed, but….” One sees his point. All the same, one carries on.

And, carrying on, I find this as good a time as any to stress, perhaps as such legacy as I shall leave, this point, to writers of fiction and nonfiction alike, and to their readers: the senses matter. Allow me to point a few examples of what I mean and what this can accomplish. They are taken from my, Wemyss’, and our joint, works, for the excellent reason that, although these may not be the best examples, I have the rights to them. The easiest thing to do after detailing how Congress, by one vote, in August of 1941, kept the draft going, four months before Pearl Harbor, would have been to wrap it up in a few sentences and say that, because of this, the country, though not expecting war, wasn’t caught flatfooted by it completely; but that hardly catches the mood and the facts – or foreshadows the all too imminent future. This does:  

… Congress had voted, which is what they were there for, and the promised hell hadn’t broken loose, and Lend-Lease and defense contracts and all had put money in the pockets of folks who hadn’t seen just a whole hell of a lot of that during the Depression.

The long burning stasis of August ended, and September followed, with harvest and the proceeds of harvest. Auctioneers were at work in tall, airy tobacco barns; steers were sold; grain poured into silos. At various days in various parts of the country, hunting season began. Volunteer fire departments held turkey shoots. When the frosts came, apple butter was made and hogs were slaughtered for the smokehouse.

Students were back in school. Frank Dobie was contemplating the longhorn; Walter Prescott Webb, the frontier; Roy Bedichek, sighing over his papers as head of the UIL, brooded upon the Inca dove and the hackberry tree; John Graves considered the Upper Brazos from the library at Rice Institute.

In Rockbridge County, the established kirk of the Ulster Presbyterians, the gratin of Episcopalians with vague connections to the First Families of Virginia, the humble Roman Catholics and the solid, worthy Methodists and the Baptists all afire with the Good News of the Gospels, began to contemplate anew the mysteries, as cool weather spilled down the slopes of the Great Valley like sweet well-water in a dipping-gourd. The annual cycle of revivals and “mother-church” parish reunions and dinner-on-the-grounds and church bazaars and dowager Episcopalian churchwomen making plum puddings to sell for Christmas in aid of the church funds, went on with the regularity of a settled order of nature. The Stonewall Brigade soldiers of the 116th were long since resigned to the Guardsman’s fate.

Across the mountains, in Bedford, beneath the Peaks of Otter, small merchants and farming families whose sons were in the National Guard wished the boys could stay at home and do their jobs.

As harvests came in and the leaves blazoned autumn and farming families had harvest-money to spend, it was a time of Smithfield or country ham, fried chicken, creamed salsify, spoonbread and corn pudding and chess pie.

Americans could no more contemplate a future of rationing than of war.

November was coming, with Thanksgiving and all the trimmings; and after that, Christmas, in a land yet at peace in a war-torn world.

And so, when the first, mild Sunday in December brought a reckoning to a confiding nation, the country was unprepared, perhaps, but not unarmed.

– Pyle, “Fools, Drunks, and the United States:” August 12, 1941, 2011, 2012 (2d ed.), 2012 (3d ed.)

The language of a sociological tract could presumably have conveyed something of life in 1937; but not, I venture to say, quite as much as this:

In September of 1937, from Shockoe Slip to the Fan District, Richmond, Virginia was one great Call for Philip Morris – and the factory floor was integrated. Wise housewives shopped at Ukrop’s for groceries – including Duke’s Mayonnaise, Richfood milk, Mrs Fearnow’s Brunswick Stew, and Sauer’s Vanilla Extract – and at Standard Drug for pharmacy, the Vick’s on the Biggs Furniture bedside table. (If sister truly felt right low, some Northern Neck ginger ale might help – and some ice cream from White’s.) The Virginia Seed Service was now the Southern States Cooperative, for all your farming needs.

Up north, in Philadelphia and New York, people relied on Horn & Hardart’s Automats for meals.

North Carolinians insisted on Luck’s Black-Eyed Peas. In the Deeper South, everyone knew that ‘Colonial is good bread’. And Nabs went with a Co’-Cola as much as peanuts themselves did.

From Sout’ Louisian’ to Deep East Texas, you slathered Steen’s Cane Syrup on your Light Crust biscuits. Pickles were Del-Dixi, light-bread came from Mrs Baird’s, canned vegetables were Allens or Trappey’s, and ice cream came from the little creamery in Brenham: Blue Bell. In the summer, a Haspel seersucker suit was just right for the business day at the Esperson Building in downtown Houston – although you wanted to be careful not to get your James Coney Island cheese coney on it, at luncheon.

In Britain, the hoardings shouted the merits of Cadbury’s and Guinness, Lucozade, Ribena, Hovis, Quality Street sweets and Cowan’s Whisky. Peek, Frean and Ovaltine; Sanatogen Tonic Wine, Virol, Bovril for beef-tea, and Marmite; Roberston’s, appallingly, not only used Golliwog in everything, including its marmalade adverts – Golden Shred –, but for its ‘Golliberry’ jam, blackberry jam, bramble. These were the years of Morris Motors and Senior Service cigarettes, Sunlight soap and Hornby trains…. The Bermaline loaf was sliced for a Scots tea. Huntley and Palmers for biscuits; Palethorpe’s for bangers.

It all moved by rail, just as the post did, the down postal train, the Night Mail celebrated the year prior by Auden and Britten in a classic short film. This was why men dug coal and died at Holditch.

August was the harvest month, and September hardly less so: the cereal crops were harvested, stooks in Britain and shocks in America heaped golden in every arable field, but September was the time of fruit, of bramble and of apple. (In the American South, the cotton was yet being harvested, and might be picked until January, still largely by hand.) All through the West Country, men dreamt of cider – and were part-paid in it. The corn of August had been reaped with luncheon harvest ales and tea in the fields at 4.0 or 5.0.

And it had relied on horsepower: on horse power. The hobbits of the Shire were little less advanced.

 – Pyle & Wemyss, ’37: the year of portent, 2012 (1st ed.), 2013 (2d ed.)

Any fool, even I, could recount the bare bones of how Georgia persuaded itself into adopting slavery, forbidden by its founding; and adopted it much later than in Virginia and the Carolinas. Any fool could then dismiss those who did so as one-dimensional villains. Of course they sinned terribly in doing this; but even sin has motives, and a rationale, and a despair of other options, as anyone writing anything more thoughtful and more serious than a comic book or a Victorian melodrama ought to know and to be able to convey:

The Countess of Huntingdon had her hands full in 1770. Two years before, she’d opened her seminary at Trevecca, hard by the community founded by the Welsh Methodist leader Hywel (or “Howell,” if you were English, Saes) Harris. Now Whitefield was dead, the Minutes Controversy was raging, the first president of her new Trevecca College (John William Fletcher, the vicar of Madeley) had left it through taking Wesley’s side, Harris’ foundation at Trevecca and the Countess’ College there were at daggers drawn, and her late chaplain had left her what she did not yet realize was a poisonous bequest.

The colony of Georgia, like Bethesda Orphan House itself, was founded as an act of practical charity: in Georgia’s case, for those who’d had their brushes with His Majesty’s debtors’ prisons. It oughtn’t to take a right smart of familiarity with the Parable of the Unjust Steward to realize that that, as we say down home, “cuts and shoots, both.” For those making their way, hoeing very stony ground, in General Oglethorpe’s colony, failure was familiar enough that a second failure was in no way an option.

I have seen young men in the peak of their physical condition and in the prime of their youth collapse messily and bloodily on tarmac, face-first, incapable even of attempting to break their falls: going down like a gunnysack of cabbages, brains shut down, not knowing they were falling, dead to the world. It’s called Summer at Fort Benning, the happy home of heatstroke. And it’s not unknown at A. P. Hill, as far as that goes. I don’t know if I can convey to, say, Europeans, what it is like. Usually by April, pretty often by February or at least by March, the first few minutes in a pick-up truck in Texas, before the airconditioning beats back, for a time, the bewildering force of heat and humidity…. A heat-wave in the dog days of a British Summertide racks up high temperatures that are the overnight lows of Winter, let alone Autumn or Spring, in the American South. We may, nowadays, be weaker, tenderer, than our colonial and pioneer ancestors, ruined by airconditioning and soft living, fatter and weaker and older than the old ones; but I’m betting the over. The heat is bad enough. The humidity is worse. We call it “muggy”: well, it feels like a mugging. In those first few moments of our encounter with it, the face goes numb, precisely as if with bitter cold. Breath labors. It is stupefying. And it was just as stupefying, this appalling climate, in Georgia in the 1760s and ’70s.

For colonists escaping prior failures, failure in their refuge and escape was not to be tolerated. Neither, though, was the intolerable climate. And so they persuaded themselves into a work-around. Chattel slavery.

– Pyle, Benevolent Designs: The Countess and the General: George Washington, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, their correspondence, & the evangelizing of America, 2013

In fiction, and still more in life, in history, people are not the personified Vices and Virtues of a morality or miracle play.

People are shaped by, and shape, their environments. And it is the author’s job to depict those environments.

Here’s Brother Wemyss:

I’ve had the great world, and you may have it if you like. For the writer, particularly, the universal inheres in the local. To be at once servant and master to and of one’s own ground is the secular beginning of wisdom. It wants time, as slow and as deep-rooted as itself, to see and comprehend an oak; and the time even of the butterfly is of equal duration beneath the eye of heaven.

In East Sussex, let us say, an old farm sleeps in sun-dapple, its oast-house with its cowls echoing the distant steeple of SS Andrew and Mary, Fletching, where de Montfort had prayed and Gibbon now sleeps out a sceptic’s eternity. The Sussex Weald is quiet now, its bows and bowmen that did affright the air at Agincourt long dust. A Chalk Hill Blue spreads peaceable wings upon the hedge. Easter is long sped, yet yellow and lavender yet ornament the land, in betony and dyer’s greenweed and mallows. An inquisitive whitethroat, rejoicing in man’s long opening of the Wealden country, trills jauntily from atop a wall.

Or awa’ upon Islay, in January, the wind was honed to a cutting edge across the queer flatness of Loch Gorm and the strand and fields ’round. The roe deer had taken shelter in good time and the brown trout had sought deeper waters. An auld ram alone huddled against the wind, that had swept clear the skies even of eagle, windcuffer, and goose. The scent of saltwater rode the wind over the freshwater loch, and the dry field-grasses rattled, and there was the memory of peat upon the air: a whisky wind in Islay. The River Leòig was forced back upon itself as the wind whipped the loch to whitecaps; only the cairn and the Standing Stones stood unyielding in the blast as of old.

For the author as for God, standing outwith his creation, all times are one; all times are now. In mine own country, we accept as due and right – as very meet, right, and our bounden duty – the downs and their orchids and butterflies, the woods and coppices, ash, beech, oak, and field maple, rowan, wild cherry, holly, and hazel, bluebells in their season and willow, alder, and poplar in the wetter ground. We accept as proper and unremarkable the badger and the squirrel, the roe deer and the rabbit, the fox and the pheasant, as the companions of our walks and days. We remark with pleasure, yet take as granted, the hedgerow and the garden, the riot of snowdrops, primroses, and cowslips, the bright flash of kingfishers, the dart of swallows and the peaceful homeliness of house martins, the soft nocturnal glimmer of glow worm and the silent nocturnal swoop of owl.

On late Summertide Sundays shading into Autumn, after service, the gentle sun has long since burnt away the earliest morning’s fog, that had bedewed and bejewelled the first autumnal spider webs in hedgerow and rosebush. The sky is perfect, as blue as the butterflies that adorn each sunny surface fit for basking; the breeze gentle, and the air murmurous with the hum of bees and the drowsy susurrations of wood-pigeon and stock-dove. There are shy, largely unseen bullfinches in the ancient hedge that bounds the pub’s back garden, where it slopes down towards the winterbourne. The ancient turf is sweet underfoot, and God, assuredly, an Englishman today: here, at least, There Will Always Be an England. Just beyond the peaceful, quiet churchyard, the village trails away into countryside: white horses in the chalk, and larks, above, ascending. Sand martins are on the wing above the river and the quarry, thrushes and meadow pipits dart and flutter. Local JPs and the district medico talk of roses and wall-fruit: the good doctor is complaining of his never-ending war against a nearby sett of badgers who have taken his garden’s bulbs as a buffet supper for the third year, now.

The Ringer’s Guild host their opposite numbers from a Cotswold parish and a Berkshire parish; not a few once served in the same regiment, the old RGBW, and its forebears.

Some of the village youths, intent upon seeing the cricket when village XI meets neighbouring village XI and there comes the clash of arms, are trailing back, muddy, damp, and chuffed, with the trophies of a day’s fishing, their long poles casting shadows in the afternoon’s long slant of light that recall the spears of Alfred’s army when Wessex fought the Dane.

And just outside this charmed circle, where the countryside begins, the Ancient ever and always is: the land everlasting, sacred with circles and henges, horse-carven, stream-scrolled and fluted, rich; otters and voles slide into the waters and play in the wild cress, dormice sleep in coppiced bluebell-woods, foxes and deer, nightingales and woodcock, make them their homes in ancient woods of oak and ash, beech and silver birch; and the great bustard once again makes the downs its home.

We live, all of us, in sprung rhythm. Even in cities, folk stir without knowing it to the surge in the blood that is the surge and urgency of season. In being born, we have taken seisin of the natural world, and as ever, it is the land which owns us, not we, the land. Even in the countryside, we dwell suspended between the rhythms of earth and season, weather and sky, and those imposed by metropolitan clocks, at home and abroad.

– Wemyss, Sensible Places: essays on place, time, & countryside, 2012

Wherefore you shall find, we trust, when it is finished, in the 1914 book, this, prefacing a statistical account of Britain on the eve of war:

It can be terrifically difficult to recover a sense of the past, and even of the recent past. Facts do not always tell the full story: or, rather, they do, if they be themselves full, but they cannot always convey it to us. Even the past of sixty years ago is remote now to many people, including those who lived in it. That this is so is not solely owing to the pace and increasing rapidity of pace of technological change, but to the loss of sensory perceptions which have accompanied it. The past is a vanished soundscape, and smellscape, and viewscape. Americans of Mr Pyle’s generation not uncommonly react to the taste of Tang and the sight of an Apollo Program patch or decal as Proust reacted to a soggy madeleine biscuit and a typically appalling French substitute for proper tea. Mr Wemyss cannot always resist the urge, on hearing an aeroplane overhead, but to hope that his daydreams have come true and Concorde flies once more: ‘last night I dreamt I went to Filton again’.

The auditory, visual, and olfactory world of 1914 is remoter still. City, town, and countryside were more distinct then. So also were the districts of each. Could we but walk in 1914 again, before the War, we might soon become able to guess, blindfolded, where or in what sort of place we were, simply by snuffing the air and pricking an ear. Soapworks and steam laundries, coal and clinker and soot and steam from the railways and urban railways; cabbage boiling, and the scent of imperfectly washed humanity in clothes not of the cleanest; the pervasive smell, then outside of academia and politics, of horse manure, in a world in which horsepower was almost entirely yet literal; beer and gin and oysters and beefsteak, steelmaking, leatherworking, the sounds and smells of the farrier’s and the blacksmith’s trades; the sound of hundreds of inexpertly played parlour pianos heard through opened windows from the same middlebrow songbook of sentimental treacle. The rattle of wheels, the jingle of harness and brass and trace, the bells of the hansom cab and the carriage and their horses, the trundle of the beer waggons from the little breweries pulled by great draught horses. Pub sing-alongs, and the sudden hilarious roar and cheering from the music hall. The sound of plough and ploughman, of the reaper in its season; or of pastoral animals and one man and his dog. The scent of sweat and pigs and cider presses, of hedgerow and churchyard yew. Birdsong in the countryside; sparrow, pigeon, and starling in the cities, rioting over the bounty spread daily upon the streets by the innumerable horses. Change-ringing and church choirs and Mattins and market days. Or, in America, the disturbing and fascinating aromas of foods scarce known in Britain save in the East End of London, and of foods less familiar even yet; church choirs of inexpressibly different voice and accent singing hymns unfamiliar to British ears, unknown even in the chapels of the Welsh valleys; crowds at a baseball game speaking, cheering, in a language which was not cricket; the braying of mules where the American plow and the American plowman worked a very different team in very different soils; the scent of oleander, honeysuckle, and magnolia, of ripening sweetcorn or of cotton, flowering (‘White? Lord, Lord, there’d be days when you got out of bed and’d’ve swore it done snowed in Summer, them cottonfields all white an’ all’), and of sugarcane and sorghum at the mills. The resounding clank and clatter and rattle, of railroad trains the rhythms of which gave the travelling George Gershwin the inspiration for Rhapsody in Blue, or of early oil rigs, casing and pipeline … and sometimes the noise, the roar and the heat and the noonday terror and the acrid smoke of a blowout well, or the viscous rain of crude petroleum from a gusher. The old, slow, long sounds of cowboy and cowhorse and cattle on vast ranches, and the reek and the uneasy or terrified noise of thousands of cattle in feedlot or stockyard, waiting to be turned into beef, at trailhead and railhead. The rustle of rows of tobacco, the dizzying scent of curing, the echoing acoustics of tall barns in Southside Virginia and the rhythmic, spellcasting, ritual voice, rising, falling, urging, plangent, hortatory, wheedling, of the auctioneer, running up bids on Cavendish and Burley and Bright Burley.

We cannot re-enter that world; we cannot recapture its feel, its sounds and smells. Fact, naked and bare, must do what it can.

– Wemyss & Pyle, The Crisis 1914 (forthcoming)

I have tried to make this point, not least by example, is every book I have written or cowritten (or edited), and distinctly remember making this point, in lecturing on Titanic, and the world in which she sailed and sank, to the Darien Historical Society in 2012. We cannot re-enter that world; we cannot recapture its feel, its sounds and smells. But we must try. Unless we do, we cannot understand for ourselves, nor can we convey to anyone else, a reader, what we most importantly and significantly mean, and the reality we seek to depict, be it historical or fictional.

From cruising altitude, groundscape becomes very two-dimensional – such that a road to a farm can at first appear to be an obelisk. There is a lesson in this for historians and historiographers.

So too is there such a lesson in the way in which, at cruising altitude, one feels – and the view looks – as if one were falling back towards stall speed. But this is not so, any more than a road is an obelisk casting no shadow at noon: it is all quite literally a matter of perspective. A nearer horizon is necessary: it undeceives. For reasons of speed, scope, and three-dimensionality alike, history cannot successfully be done from thirty thousand feet.

On the other hand, even at thirty thousand feet, you can’t miss the Gulf or the Mississippi. And you cannot help but wonder how we made it across a continent, we Americans who are not wholly of Native American ancestry (and indeed, from Bering to Patagonia, how they managed). It’s a big country, and its big bold features can’t be missed at any altitude; may perhaps be seen most wholly at altitude. This may explain the recent fashion for Big Ideas History: you don’t have to leave First Class, come back to earth, and get close to things.

By contrast, train travel – rail travel – is as linear as history itself, and inevitably at or near ground level. It necessarily comes freighted with history, the recapitulated history of itself and its own technology. It bridges, it cuts – if the rock is competent –, but it is all but literally in a rut. To some extent, the same is so of the automobile: it requires roads. A pedestrian history avoids this restriction; but it is too slow, too limited, and too low to the ground to take any wide view. Metaphorically, at least, history is best done on horseback.

*** I was scheduled to speak on the Sunday, and to fly back to Houston on the Monday. Saturday was devoted to a pre-Halloween trip to an orchard (and pumpkin producer) in Bethel, in a part of the Connecticut countryside that unequivocally recalled the fact that it is, geologically and geographically, a part of Appalachia, linked indissolubly to Rockbridge County, Virginia, to Belle Isle off Newfoundland and Labrador, to Cheaha Mountain in Alabama: even as the Maryland and Virginia Lines of Washington’s Continental Army were bound to the troops from New York and Connecticut and Massachusetts: the Appalachians, that great barrier to the westward expansion and settlement of the British colonies and the fledgling United States that were their diadochs.

… I had determined that the correspondence between George Washington and Lady Huntingdon was begging for a fuller examination, in itself and in its context: a wider context, which included the American expansion through a continent of natural obstacles and wild weather, of all but impassable mountains and rivers that few dared to bridge;[*] and which included as well the growth of the American spirit and character, our tangled relations with the possessors of the land before us and the enslaved peoples who were brought here to ease the Anglo-Americans’ way forwards and westwards, the religious roots of abolition and the predestinationist attitude of Manifest Destiny….

Rock and river; wind and weather…. Robert Louis Stevenson’s highlands have their American counterparts: old plain men with rosy faces; young fair maidens with quiet eyes; winds and rivers, life and death. Within a century of the last correspondence between Selina Huntingdon and George Washington, the former colonies had extended over the continent, to the Pacific strand. The aged Sam Houston asserted that the American epic was superior to the romances of Europe: that the true saga was in “the unwritten legends of heroism and adventure which the old men would tell them who are now smoking their pipes around the roof-trees of Kentucky and Tennessee.” Yet there was more to it than that. The peopling of the continent by what we loosely – and inaccurately – call “Anglos” was more than adventure, or heroics. Consider my journey between Connecticut and the Gulf Coast of Texas. The “fall line” all along the Atlantic seaboard is quite near the sea: in New England, almost on top of the shoreline; further south, to the southern end of the Appalachians, increasingly distant, yet not too far removed. The head of navigation on the rivers of Texas is much further inland. Yet in 1783, the Appalachians and their piedmont, even without the Native Americans’ presence, were a barrier to the Westward expansion. Florida was then Spanish. Between Georgia and Maine there were few passages through the palisade and rampart of the mountains; only in the Northeast Appalachians, east of the Adirondacks, do the mountains bend their axes, creating routes to the Northwards: in the Taconics, the Berkshires and the Green Mountains, the White Mountains and the Mahoosucs. And these routes are in a sense dead ends, leading only to the St. Lawrence and, politically, to Canada: hostile territory in 1783. The Great Valley was accessible, and accessed, by the Germans we call the Pennsylvania Dutch and by wave after wave of Ulstermen; but it also was a cul-de-sac, for, once in it, Westward, ho, the way was blocked, Cumberland and Allegheny insisting, “They shall not pass.” That there is a Houston at all – the man or the city – is testament to a great event.

Benevolent Designs

I do not say, Go thou and do likewise. I say, Go thou and do better.

Here endeth the Lesson.


* “For four centuries now, the American people have resigned themselves to natural disasters and acts of God: floods, prairie fires, blizzards, tornados, hurricanes, dust bowls, epidemics, academics, lawyers, and politicians.”

– Me, in “Aphorisms & Observations,” Pyle & Wemyss, The Transatlantic Disputations: Essays and Meditations, 2012

Published by Markham Shaw Pyle

Ex-lawyer turned historian; W&L man; historian; author; partner, Bapton Books

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