My dear Tully,
Your point about education is not lost on a teacher who is son and a grandson of country school teachers. We were all committed to an impossible ideal. But was that so unusual?
I am committed to the notion that I must tell you something about America, yet I am not at all sure I know what America is. I do know that democracy underwent a terrible crisis in my century, spasms of economic failure and industrialized warfare, profound quandaries of allegiance. One man who had renounced American democracy, but later resolved to support America, explained his decision with the following words:
I wanted my wife to realize clearly one long-term penalty, for herself and for the children, of the step I was taking. I said: "You know, we are leaving the winning world [Communism] for the losing world [America]." I meant that, in the revolutionary conflict of the 20th century, I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat. Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since, has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast. But nothing has changed my determination to act as if I were wrong--if only because, in the last instance, men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable.
I suppose this sentiment is not unknown to you, Tully. Do you not experience just such a severe conflict before Pharsalus. That is where you consciously choose the losing side.
You are not alone in scoffing at the American dream of joining liberty and equality. Our own great Civil War was fought on this self-contradiction. But let us not dwell on these grand decisions. We in our modest dustbowl schoolhouses recognized every day that we were on the losing side, and nothing changed our determination to act as if we were wrong. That required a kind of dull bravery, too.
For example, what Katherine Anne calls the gravitation of the masses weighed most heavily. Even she eventually succumbs to the democratic tendenz that literature should serve some useful purpose--and gets her first bestseller that way, a comfortable pension for her old age. But even then she holds her head high. The greater burden felt most acutely in dustbowl classrooms was the demand that literature affirm acceptable truths and, more dangerous, exclude fundamentally antagonistic thought. That was the same as to ban precisely those works with educational content. I suspect you agree with Herder on this point, albeit you express yourself more diplomatically.
But I wander from the subject, which was--as always--the idea of America. One of the consequences of our successful trek across this continent was our overweening self-confidence. We loved our Paul Bunyons and Pecos Bills who flat out did things that could not be done. We coined the Americanism, "The impossible takes a little longer," but our true favorite was John Henry, who died trying, or Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd, outlawed by the nay-sayers. But self-confidence alone would have produced only a nation of bullies.
In one dustbowl-schoolteacher's opinion, our most admired President Abraham Lincoln, slaughterer of his thousands and ten thousands, devastator of generations, who brought down the power of an industrial giant against a small agrarian populace under his own protection, was certainly a bully. But he too was following the gleam of a transcendent grail, the Union, so luminous as to cast the sufferings of his war into shadowy oblivion. In him, America saw the glory of the coming of the Lord. America's historians doctored his motives accordingly. --But his self-declared purpose to preserve the Union (whether sincere or politically calculated), illuminates Americans' determination ever to look for some higher, transcendent principle. All these figures, from the legendary president to the heroic outlaws, even to the atheist Whittaker Chambers (whom I quoted at the outset) are expressing their fundamentally religious drive. We called it Puritanism, and it may indeed have been brought from the Old World, even by those whom we called the Puritans.
American self-confidence is no doubt part and parcel of Protestantism. He who lives through faith by grace is counting on benevolent guidance. He can confidently renounce man's law, however venerable, be it written in ink or in stone, in favor of the epistles written in the fleshy tables of the human heart.
With the sincere blessings of Sipe Springs Baptist Church,
John Wesley Worthy
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