I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and it is just stunning. Amazing. Beautiful. I remember reading Housekeeping a long time ago and loving it, but I have had the opportunity recently to recommend books I read in my teens and twenties and have mostly regretted it. There was the time I chose Young Men and Fire for our book group and everyone wanted to kill me (we switched at the last minute to A River Runs Through It and those that read that instead I think forgave me). So I was prepared to be underwhelmed by her new book, but I needn’t have been. Gilead is only her second novel; Housekeeping was the first and it came out 24 years before Gilead. 24. All I can say is that woman must have thrown a lot out in the meantime. She only lets the masterpieces out of the house, apparently.
Plenty of people have written much better reviews of the book than I could so instead I want to write a little about Kansas and Iowa. So, as it turns out, all this stuff happened in Kansas in the 1850s that presaged the Civil War. From the Wikipedia article on History of Kansas:
The most controversial provision in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was the stipulation that settlers in Kansas Territory would decide whether to allow slavery within its borders. This provision repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in any new states created north of latitude 36°30′. Predictably, it also led to violence between the Northerners and Southerners that rushed to settle there.
Within a few days after the passage of the Act, hundreds of pro-slavery Missourians crossed into the adjacent territory, selected an area of land, and then united with other Missourians in a meeting or meetings, intending to establish a pro-slavery preemption upon the entire region. As early as June 10, 1854, the Missourians held a meeting at Salt Creek Valley, a trading post three miles west of Fort Leavenworth, at which a “Squatter’s Claim Association” was organized. They said they were in favor of making Kansas a slave state, if it should require half the citizens of Missouri, musket in hand, to emigrate there, and even to sacrifice their lives in accomplishing this end.
To counter this action, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company (and other smaller organizations) quickly arranged to send anti-slavery settlers (known as “Free-Staters”) into Kansas in 1854 and 1855….Several Free-State men also came to Kansas Territory from Ohio, Iowa, Illinois and other Midwestern states.
In case that was too abrupt a transition for you, the narrator in the book is the grandson of a Free-Stater and a major thread throughout the book the history of his family, especially the rift between his father and grandfather over the grandfather’s advocacy of violence in the pursuit of the abolition of slavery. The narrator alludes to all this stuff like Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, the Underground Railroad, and the fact that the whole town of Gilead, Iowa exists because “it was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lane could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest.” He doesn’t really explain it but you can piece it together, and it helps if you look up a couple of articles on Wikipedia to help you understand the context of the story, or it would really help if you’d been, say, an American Studies major at a prestigious liberal arts university when you were younger.
Which I was. And yet, this largely news to me. Underground Railroad, sure, John Brown, yeah, vaguely, but I had no idea for instance what Bleeding Kansas referred to. Hello, I went to Yale! For Christsakes, Yale had a reputation at the time for focusing heavily on race and class issues, so that’s exactly the shit I was supposed to learn! I probably did learn it, but just forgot it. Maybe there was a lecture I skipped (well, there was more than one). Shouldn’t have been on a test at some point? Hell, I got As and Bs, at least in AmStud. I always knew I knew jack-all about European history or philosophy or even English literature (in which my father has a fucking PhD) or math or chemistry but I realize I don’t know anything about even the very few subjects I’m supposed to know anything about. Same is true of knowledge I’m supposed to have gathered since then. I’m a professional conference organizer, but people ask me things like “how big a ballroom do you need for a general session of 1000 attendees?” and I just kind of stare and drool. I worked in the video game industry for 8 years and I probably could not accurately describe the premise of many of the top selling games (ah, but I could tell you who developed and published them!) Now I’m dallying about in the Internet industry and seem to be moving along well enough with what I’m picking up, but I realize: I don’t actually KNOW ANYTHING.
It gets better. I have had the same ten CDs in the visor of my car for about the past eight years. I would say they are my favorites but it’s only because I happen to have them there and have listened to them seventy-four thousand times. One of them is The Damnations’ Half Moon Mad. Track 6 is Kansas, where the chorus lyric is “Kansas, Bleeding Kansas.” Did it never, ever, in the bazillion times I listened to this track, occur to me to figure out what the hell they were singing about?
So, sure, this could be driving towards that common argument about education teaching one how to learn rather than focusing on teaching specific facts and figures. Totally true, of course, and more so now with the Internet and all. But I feel like it would have be nice if I’d learned a little more actual history (or literature, or whatever) along the way. Oh, I’m not blaming. No one’s fault but mine, trust me. I’d like to go back and audit courses at Berkeley. But I’m a bit busy for that at the moment. I’ll probably have time to learn a bunch of interesting shit just before I die.
BTW, I had to look up those quotes in the book to write this and rereading parts of the book makes me realize I need to reread the whole thing. Such a great book.