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TAC Bookshelf for the Week of July 8

Emile A. Doak, senior development associateAntique stores are underrated. The very idea that one would seek the old, the worn, or the used over the new, the fashionable, or the easily available flies in the face of a modern culture and economy that scorns attachment to the past. And it’s for this reason that they are always worth the visit.

It was in one of these bastions of local history in my native Virginia that I found a copy of The Shenandoah, penned in 1945 by Julia Davis as part of a “Rivers of America” series. The first edition copy, frayed and yellow after nearly 75 years, is a fitting casing for its contents. As Davis writes, “nostalgia haunts the name of Shenandoah.” It’s “as unified a region as one can find in the United States,” one that demands fierce devotion from all who call it home—and has been fiercely defended by its people in return (one wonders the extent to which the intervening 75 years of social dislocation since publication have eroded such loyalties). 

One of the most remarkable passages in Davis’s work is her description of the Valley in the run-up to the Civil War. Davis acknowledges that “the causes of our War Between the States are not within the scope of this narrative”; much ink has been spilled on that topic, and it’s only become more contentious in recent decades. She instead simply describes the mood among the Valley’s people in those fateful months leading up to the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of the Ordinance of Secession on April 17, 1861. The Shenandoah Valley is arguably one of the more Lost Cause-friendly regions of the Commonwealth in 2019, but such was not the case in the lead-up to war. Just two months prior to secession, Virginia received only pro-Union delegates from the Valley, elected by majorities of four to one. Ironically, Union sentiment grew stronger the deeper and further south into the Valley one travelled.

The sudden shift in public opinion, from overwhelming support for Union to intense opposition to Lincoln’s government in mere months, is perhaps the most revealing part of Davis’s book. She puts the United States of 1861 into its appropriate context:

To understand these apparent inconsistencies, one thing should be remembered. Within the memories of the fathers of these men, there had been no Union….But before the Union, there had been Virginia. For nearly two hundred and fifty years there had been Virginia. She could not be coerced, she could not be invaded with impunity.

This local patriotism was a primary driver of the change in hearts. Logan Osburn, a staunchly pro-Union delegate from Jefferson County, wrote at the time, “My opinions have been overruled by a large majority of the freemen of my state. I am a son of Virginia, and her destiny shall be mine.” A VMI professor, Major Jackson, offered similar sentiments: “If I know myself, all I am and all I have is at the service of my country.” By country, he meant Virginia.

The post-World War II years have accelerated the eroding forces of mobility and globalization, which were already underway when The Shenandoah was published. Davis expresses skepticism over the influx of new, non-Virginian residents into the Valley, musing, “When the cold winds and the rain bring in the winter and the mud, these strangers may fly off on the wings of dollar bills to some region where life is more ‘amusing.’ ” 

The nationalist moment sweeping the globe is in some ways a backlash against this placeless proclivity that Davis identified. But a healthy nationalism must be rooted in the local, in the concrete places and people that are capable of engendering the love of place from which nationalism must arise. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with “its old brick houses…[containing] an air of permanence and peace, its rich fields and mountains older than measured time, and its land which has been loved rather than exploited” is certainly one of those places. It’s time we intentionally foster this connection to our places–and the local antique store is a good place to start.

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Gilbert T. Sewall, contributor: At Memorial Day a book-wise cousin insisted I read Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, a well received 2007 book. I was suspicious. The opaque title did not grab me. (It comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 advocacy of state planning to help “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” and later a catchphrase for New Deal liberals.) I figured that historians Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and William Leuchtenburg had pretty much sewn up the subject. 

But as I read the 2007 book, I welcomed the fresh treatment of the Great Depression that deviates from the standard narrative of FDR-led social repair and liberal federalism. Adding almost unknown personalities like the charismatic Father Divine’s bourgeois gospel of plenty for blacks, and Bill Wilson, a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Shlaes enriches the readable narrative. Drawing out differences in character and program, Shlaes positions Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover as political rivals before 1928. She explains convincingly how Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s protectionist tariffs and tax policies compounded world deflation. Her account of a 1927 American delegation to the Soviet Union including utopian Rex Tugwell, later to be a key White House planner in the so-called brain trust, future Senator Paul Douglas, and progressive educator George Counts reveals the degree to which the Soviet Union seduced a generation. Shlaes rescues the reputations of banker and treasury secretary Andrew Mellon and utilities builder Samuel Insull, both of whom New Deal partisans unjustly reviled. Her close look at the Tennessee Valley Authority and government-produced electrical power recalls the pivotal role of electric power companies in 20th economic development. Led by David Lilienthal, the omnibus regional project was controversial enough to make Willkie the GOP candidate for president in 1940 amid fears of creeping socialism. 

More than many conservatives, I admire FDR, both for his competence and personal energy after polio crippled him as a young man. He dealt with disability nobly and stoically, keeping his physical trials strictly out of the public eye. Eleanor was the bleeding heart. FDR courted farmers, labor, and pensioners, not women or blacks, and as Shlaes demonstrates in her review of the 1938 Supreme Court controversy, he could be a ruthless politician.