Friday, April 21, 2017

Most Excellent: Reflections of a Ghost


Of the twelve agrarians who wrote the, symposium I’ll Take My Stand, only three are alive: Robert Penn Warren, the poet and novelist, Lyle Lanier, a psychologist and former executive vice-president of the University of Illinois, and myself, a writer and reader of fiction. I don’t presume to speak either for Warren or Lanier, and I don’t know how to address myself to myself in the past tense. Perhaps I am not here at all. Secretly I’ve had the feeling I was killed at the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads, taking the bullet meant for General Forrest. You understand it was Forrest who, if he’d been let, could have been decisive in winning the War of the Northern Rebellion. Too often Confederate forces won the field only to retreat later on. Brice’s Cross Roads, fought in Mississippi, was a perfect battle.

Whoever wins an internecine war writes the history of that war. And, the textbooks as well. Lost in diaries and obscure histories there were too many stories about the settlements in Middle Tennessee, both of Indians and Americans, which would have told our young of stamina and courage. The attack on the stations around Nashville, the skillet and the kettle at a bend in the Tennessee River, or an account of that one man Spencer who lived in the arm of a hollow sycamore, alone during the hardest winter that country had known, with only half a skinning knife for protection and food. It must have been some tree, for he was so big a man, a French trader seeing his footprints jumped into the Cumberland River and swam away. He thought he was fleeing a monstrous bear. Later at a militia muster Spencer intervened between two young men who were fighting. One tried to get rough with him, whereupon he picked him up and threw him over the nine foot fence surrounding the stockage.

The man called back, “If you will just throw my horse over, Mister Spencer, I’ll be getting on my way.” There are a number of these tales, and they carry the truth about a history, the quality of a tradition, as well as more formal documents.

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