In my last post I attempted to speak of my lifelong fascination with history and the strong connection I have always sensed between past and present. Night before last, while reading for the second or third time MacKinlay Kantor's magnificent Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville I happened across a description of a character who might have been, at least in one particular, myself. That character--Nathan Dreyfoos, a Jewish Union soldier, intellectual and world traveler--has, by ill fortune, ended up a captive in the horrendous Confederate prison. While it should be obvious that I share few traits with such a redoubtable and civilized person, Kantor's account of him, which I had not remembered from my previous readings, this time struck a chord of kinship. Kantor wrote: "He owned no ambition in life except to worship the better elements of the past and (in some vague manner as yet undecided) to acquaint people with the lessons and glories of the past, to the eventual comfort and enrichment of humanity."
In but one respect does this account differ from my own long-held intention; unlike Nathan's, my personally decided manner of celebrating the past has been by way of the written word. All my novels and my one nonfiction work are set in the past, and were composed with a conscious intent to bring that past as alive for the reader as it was to me. The degree to which I may have been successful in that intent is of course debatable; but the sincerity of the intent is not. It was, and is, literally, the ambition of my life. That it is a strange ambition cannot be doubted. But it has been in me for as long as I can remember. As a child, and still even now, as I travel the highways of my mountain South, I see not only the forests and mists and uplands and landscapes but, almost superimposed on these views, I see also an imagined vision of what they must have looked like long ago. Sometimes, on the rare occasions when a vestige of the past actually remains--an old farmhouse, a half-collapsed barn, the lonely sentinel of an ancient chimney whose house it once warmed but has long since vanished--there is a delicious shock of actuality to give power to my imaginings. And I wished to communicate that sublimity to others.
As anyone who has recently visited this blog will know, I have entered into a retrospective, not to say valedictory, stage of life; and that, at the age of seventy-six I now gaze back over my existence with the realization that my life has very largely been lived and the work of my life has for the most part been done. Inevitably, one who has attained such a perspective will impose a judgment on that life and that work, and I suspect that for many who do so, the judgment will be a disappointing one. It is for me. Like Nathan Dreyfoos, I wanted to do more. But again like Nathan, who fell into the hands of an enemy and ended his days, not bathed in contended satisfaction at having accomplished his mission of acquainting people with the magic of the past but as the random victim of a prison guard--an idiot child drafted into Confederate service who simply wanted to shoot someone to see how it would feel. No such dramatic exit awaits me, of course. But the loss of the cherished dream, or of the possibility of a long and distinguished life, in Nathan's case at the hands of a pitiable illiterate ragamuffin or in mine, because of a failure to have achieved what I hoped was in me to accomplish, there is a certain poignancy.
MacKinlay Kantor was, in my opinion, simultaneously a masterful and a vexing writer. He wrote of the past in a way that both invited the reader intimately into the mysterious milieu of the past and rendered that past in a fashion so minutely observed and so lushly invoked as to strike the reader with both its strangeness and its deep familiarity. Conversation was rendered in the stately, formal style of the Late Victorian period, replete with allusions and formulations of that time which rang oddly in modern ears. As one who has striven hard to make the past accessible to latter-day readers I am amazed and mystified, not only by his ability to accomplish this but also by his bravery in attempting it, because the result was often a dense, challenging style of writing that could easily be mistaken as inartful. But I also know that he achieved his own strange ambition to make the past live on its own terms. I salute that, and envy it.