When Shakespeare wrote King Henry the Eighth at the start of the seventeenth century, he gave it a different title, All Is True, because to his contemporaries, real people and actual events outrivaled any character or incident an author could invent. Today the opposite prejudice prevails. Too many writers and readers accept the notion that nonfiction is less insightful, less innovative, less creative than other literary forms without really thinking about whether this is true. The modern viewpoint overlooks the fact that to nonfiction belongs some of the finest prose written in English. And, like any bias, the current attitude denies enrichment to those who hold it.
I have savored many profound and beautiful nonfiction books over a lifetime of reading, and in this and upcoming journal entries I will revisit several favorites. Some are acknowledged classics, other titles may be less well known, but each has left its mark on me. I'm starting today with a book that entered the world in 1854.
"Simplify, simplify," Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walden. We tend to think of Thoreau's account of his year beside Walden Pond as a manifesto on simple living, a how-to manual on letting go of unneeded possessions and unnucessary tasks, and at its most basic level his book is just this. To a cabin snug as an overcoat he brought only a bed, a desk, a table, some chairs, and a few utensils. Living in this way, Thoreau felt close to the earth and in tune with its rhythms. He planted and tended a garden and, as he wrote, "came to love my rows, my beans." But if the day dawned too beautiful for work, he would sit in his doorway to savor the songs of birds and the sunlight filtering through the branches overhead. After all, "To maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely," he taught.
Thoreau's cabin stood on this site in Concord, Massachusetts.
Living as he did, Thoreau became a close watcher of nature, and he recorded his observations in Walden. He described the "rare beauty" of the spotted pickerel that swam up to his rowboat when he sat still on the pond. "They are not green like pine, nor gray like stones, nor blue like the sky," he wrote. Rather, they shone in "yet rarer colors, like flowers and precious stones, as if they were pearls." In winter he put his face to the pond's frozen surface to peer into the tiny bubbles trapped within. They were "very clear and beautiful," he noted. "You see your face reflected in them through the ice." Come spring, buds appeared on the trees and bushes of the woods, giving "a brightness to the landscape, especially on cloudy days, as if the sun were breaking through the mists and shining faintly on the hill-sides here and there." Thoreau called Walden Pond "the earth's eye." The bordering trees he saw as "the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around it [were] its overhanging brows."
Studying nature alongside Thoreau is one of the pleasures of reading Walden, but the book becomes most profound only when its author decides to move on. He has fallen into a routine; he has made a beaten path for himself, both physically and mentally. "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there," he wrote. "Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." There it is: a truth that I hold dear and have tried to apply to my own life and work. We need to seek new experiences, because they change us, causing us to learn and grow throughout life in expected and unexpected ways. In Walden Thoreau challenges us to seek the new, to move through life like "curious passengers."
"Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening up new channels, not of trade, but of thought." I come away inspired. This is a book about life.
In 1912, U.S. Army Captain Charles Young attributed "all progress and all advance in human society" to "the force and energy of minorities, who by their leadership and often martyrdom, clear the obstacles to advance and give character to the masses." When I consider the social progress Americans have witnessed in the past century, progress that has included the historic gains of the Civil Rights Movement, achievements in women's rights, and the ongoing effort to secure marriage equality, I conclude that Young was right. A comfortable majority is not going to seek change; the impetus must come from those who feel excluded, passed over, or ignored. And, without a doubt, Young's own life proved the truth of this words.
Born to enslaved parents in Mays Lick, Kentucky, in 1864, Charles Young had the humblest of beginnings. After emancipation, his parents took him to Ripley, Ohio, where he went to school, graduated with honors, and became a teacher. The people around him saw his potential to go far in life, and this was why his principal urged him to take the qualifying examination for the United States Military Academy when it was offered nearby. Young took the test and received the second highest score.
The academy had admitted a few African Americans by the time Young arrived in West Point, New York, in 1884, and it had even graduated one, Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper. But as Young discovered, it didn't welcome them. The white cadets insulted their black peers and shunned their company, but Young stuck it out, and in 1889 he became the third African American graduate of the military academy. (John Hanks Alexander, who was commissioned in 1887, was the second.)
The army sent Lieutenant Young to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and Fort Duchesne, Utah, to lead units of Buffalo Soldiers, the African American regiments that served as peacekeepers on the western frontier. In these assignments and at traditionally black Wilberforce University, where he taught military science from 1894 through 1898, Young commanded no whites. That changed when he was sent to Camp Algers, Virginia. There, a white soldier refused to salute Young until the camp commander reminded him that he could salute an officer's jacket and not the man in it.
Young stayed in the army despite such shameful treatment and was promoted to captain. He married and in 1904 was sent as military attache to Haiti, where he came into his own. In addition to fulfilling his regular military duties, Young produced maps of Haiti and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, and reports on their shared culture. He wrote a play based on the life of Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary leader, and a study of military efficiency throughout the world that was published in 1912 as Military Morale of Nations and Races. In this book he demonstrated that a soldier's effectiveness has nothing to do with his race. All humans, he wrote, have an "equally inherent capacity for progress."
As military attache to Liberia, beginning in 1912, Young carried out exploratory expeditions, oversaw the building of roads, and reorganized the Liberian army. For these accomplishments, the NAACP awarded him its Spingarn Medal in 1916. Then Young went back to the western United States to take part in the Punitive Expedition, the aborted attempt to capture Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Promotions came regularly, to major and to lieutenant colonel.
Young was a full colonel in 1917, when the United States entered World War I. His desire to command soldiers in France presented the army's leaders with a dilemma. If he excelled as a battlefield commander (and there was no reason to think he would not), then he would be eligible for promotion to general. Rather than risk bestowing this honor on an African American, they sent Young for a physical exam. It was hardly a surprise when the doctors found some early signs of kidney disease and declared him unfit for overseas service.
Young retired from the army rather than accept a stateside command, but he proved his fitness in June 1918 by journeying the 497 miles from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., by foot and on horseback. Young returned to active duty and, ironically, was sent overseas--to Liberia rather than France. After he died while making an exploratory trip to Lagos, Nigeria, in January 1922, W. E. B. DuBois observed, "Duty to him, as to few modern men, was spelled in capitals. It was his lodestar, his soul; and neither force nor reason swerved him from it."
Still, the gratitude and respect this soldier had earned from his fellow citizens were long in coming. I know this because several years ago, my research on Young took me to the National Archives, the repository of his military records and papers. I wanted to see the maps and reports he had created while serving in Haiti, but I was out of luck. I was informed that decades earlier, a clerk had decided these documents had no value and had thrown them all away.