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From TAC’s Bookshelf: Light in Darkness

Looking back at a year of reading with the staff of The American Conservative.

Ernest Hemingway engraved watercolor portrait. (Kristina Tsvenger/Shutterstock)

As we celebrate Christmas and look forward to a new year, in an homage to an old “TAC Bookshelf” series, we hope you’ll enjoy a glimpse this week of some of what we at The American Conservative were reading in 2022.

It was the solemn feast of the Immaculate Conception, and I was on a flight to Pittsburgh for the funeral of my great-aunt Katie. I’d finished a rosary in memory of this 90-year-old woman, whom as her earthly life neared its fitting end I had come to think of as a friend. 


With some time remaining in the flight, I picked up Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, and thought of my old boss Declan. He once asked me how much Hemingway I’d read; however much, it was less than what would have been a satisfactory response. On the flight, I searched for the shortest short story in the collection, and found “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Like other works of Hemingway, the story’s brevity makes it undeserving of synopsis. There’s an old man, two observant waiters, and a barman. The setting is late at night: at first in a café and later at a bar. The protagonist of the story is the older of the two waiters, who recognizes the value of a clean, well-lighted place. He dislikes bars, even if the light is sufficient; “it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.” 

Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably insomnia. Many must have it.

The light of night, offered in part by the moon but mostly by some artificial source, comforts our unnamed subject, but not enough to sleep. Somewhat soothed by the sunrise, he’ll only return the next evening to join some other nocturnal personality who needs a clean and well-lighted place to spend his time. As Rod would say, read the whole thing. 

I came across the story as I was working on an article for TAC’s most recent magazine on the families of January 6 pre-trial detainees and post-trial prisoners. I spoke with mothers, wives, fiancés, girlfriends, aunts, and the detainees themselves. One of the patterns throughout those conversations that shocked me the most was the unprompted frequency with which my interview subjects would mention their faith. 


“My faith is getting me through this,” they would say. “It’s just our faith in God that’s keeping us going.” They tended to make comments like these when our conversations reached low points, which typically meant regarded treatment in detention and sentencing prospects. 

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Some family members were invested in the political questions surrounding their sons’ detention, others weren’t. Some were living with their husbands under house arrest, others hadn’t seen them in over a year. Some laughed in confusion, others cried in grief. 

The narrator in Hemingway’s story says:

What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

I don’t remember seeing nothing when I talked to these women; what they see around them isn’t particularly clean or orderly. But for many of them, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  

I also think of these wives and mothers when I read Murder in the Cathedral in T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. The framing by Eliot is startling: four knights kill Archbishop Thomas Becket, and immediately turn their attention to the audience for what appears to be a prepared apologia for their heinous action. One of the knights says, “King Henry – God bless him – will have to say, for reasons of state, that he never meant this to happen; and there is going to be an awful row; and at best we shall have to spend the rest of our lives abroad.” 

The knight is oddly satisfied with his fate and that of his brothers: they know they’ve already sold themselves out to the king. But there was another man in the cathedral who sold his soul: the good archbishop. Thomas was a foreigner in his own land and had nothing to give to his king but himself. 

I will be thinking about and praying for these families during this Christmastide and into the new year: that they find themselves in a place clean and well-lit, and that they continue to sell their souls to one King. 


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