Not the Man, and Not the Hour


For the last year or so, since my job as a freelance copy editor with the Saudi Gazette came to an end (NOTE TO THE FEDS: Can you please now make the beeping on my cell phone go away?), I have worked whatever jobs I could find to pay bills as I continued my studies. I temped for nearly two months in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Global Missions office, reviewing expense accounts reports from missionaries (did you know that a security guard in Liberia costs $10 per day?), my wife has done child care as needed and worked for the seminary grounds crew, the cafeteria and the janitorial service. I’ve done some mopping and cleaning of bathrooms myself.

There have been some other odd jobs in there — Jennifer and I helped a mad scientist move his research lab one weekend — but I can’t remember them all. My father has been helping, and it’s been enough to pay rent and buy groceries, strangely enough.

Late last spring, not knowing quite what else to do and not having any prospects, I asked the seminary library — a joint operation of both the Lutheran seminary I attend and the physically attached Presbyterian seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary (there are other kinds?) — if they were looking for any help. It turned out the rare and old books cataloger needed someone to load a bunch of old theology and history books into boxes for shipment to a book buyer. Would I be willing to do that kind of work?

My short tenure 20 years ago in the United States Army (18 months, for those of you who are curious) didn’t teach me much, but it did teach me that no honest work is beneath me. So, I put books in boxes. Hundreds of books, old and very old, more history (lots and lots of stuff on the Tudors, the Stuarts and the Civil War — the English Civil War) and a little theology. Probably not as much as the book-buyer wanted, but my job was to simply pack them, which I did in about two weeks of part-time work.

With that done, the cataloger — impressed with my work — decided to see what else I could do. It helped I had worked for a time in the Jewish and Near Eastern Studies Library at Ohio State, and so I was quickly turned loose to help deal with the seminary’s monstrous cataloging problem.

The LSTC/McCormick library is the amalgamation of maybe nine or so libraries, mostly small Lutheran seminaries that merged in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and then a Jesuit seminary and the McCormick Presbyterian seminary. Merging libraries is more than just simply reshelving books and putting the card catalogs together. Different libraries have slightly different cataloging methodologies, and those change over time. This means that different libraries may catalog the exact same book differently, and when they merge, you may never really know how many copies of a particular book you have until you scan the shelves or until people check those books out.

This process is only partly done at the JKM Library. I am helping deal with all the duplicates, the book we have more than one copy of that we may, or may not, need one copy of.

If that is not enough, up until the late 1950s, seminaries built their collections on the assumption that their libraries would be self-contained. This explains all the English history that once covered our shelves (but no longer does). The seminary has gotten rid of books as varied as a 12-volume set containing the complete minutes of the English parliament from 1622 to Wendell Wilkie’s One World, complete and unabridged. I have even scored two copies of Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action (a sixth printing of the 1949 edition and a fourth printing of the 1949 edition) and a third edition (1946) of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson — neither books this seminary wanted to keep. They also have an impressive collection of middlebrow fiction that comes to an end in 1958, much of which has not been checked out since 1958.

My wife, a voracious reader, is checking some of these books out. Most are promptly weeded from the collection.

Weeding out a book that isn’t in our computer catalog involves getting what is called the shelf list card, the cards the catalogers and librarians use to keep track of all the books in a library (they are organized by call number), and then going through the physical card catalog and pulling all the cards — author, title, and all the subjects — and then getting any duplicate volumes that may still sit on our shelves. It’s somewhat tedious work, but I actually enjoy it and after having done this for some months, I know my way around the library.

So the other day, I was looking for two copies of the 1960 version of the Confession of the Church of Scotland (I believe was the title) when, distracted and somewhere else in the stacks, I came across a thin little volume of poetry I had spied earlier in the day as I browsed through the card catalog (I was looking for something else) — The Man and the Hour by Edward Parker Davis, published in 1919. Between the year and the title, this had the feel of poems written to Woodrow Wilson, and I wanted to see if that was true and if so, just how bad a book it was.

It does not disappoint in its sheer awfulness.

Davis was the personal physician to Woodrow Wilson, and one can only hope he was a better doctor than he was a poet. No, actually, one does not hope. The book was "privately printed," meaning that in 1919, no reputable publisher was going to touch this nonsense. That says something. The poems include such gems as: "President of the United States, March 4, 1913," "To Our Leader," "’Force Without Limit,’" and "Somewhere in France," and they are the kind of material I’m fairly certain has been written about every dictator and wanna-be savior of humanity. It’s oddly easy for some folks — many, actually — to go all sparkly eyed and empty headed about the tyrants who lead them.

It’s worse knowing Davis actually knew the man.

The book begins with Wilson’s first inaugural, "President of the United States, March 4, 1913":

Deep as the endless currents of the sea, Still as the mystic streaming to the pole, So, in the hidden caverns of the soul, Flow the rivers of Man’s destiny. Fixed and eternal as the morning star, Beams the clear shining of his brighter hope; Sure as the tides, and with a wider scope, Circles his purpose ever out afar. Changeless, immortal, potent and serene, That which he is comes by his being’s law; No play of chance, no ill can overawe His sacred joy in that which he has been! Fibred in right, he cannot turn aside From the swift orbit of the flying years; Here but a day, so soon to disappear In the great morning where our souls abide. Such has he been, our leader and our friend, Now in fruition of his proven power; Such is the deep meaning of this moving hour, When years of promise in fulfillment end. This is no sudden accident of fate That sets him high upon mountain peak, A beacon for his Nation; men shall seek, By his clear light, a better course and straight. Firm as the hills, his courage shall prevail; Old as the race, his wisdom shall endure; Sweet as the flow, his fellow love is sure; True to himself, and so he cannot fail.

I think Davis was far too fond of inhaling deeply from the ether cone. Is he writing about a mere man, or is this the Messiah, God’s anointed, or the very logos who was present at the creation and through which all things were made? It’s hard to tell. "Our leader and our friend?" Is Davis using the royal we to speak of Wilson as his personal leader and friend or is he saying that Wilson was everyone’s leader and friend? (I think we can guess the answer to that without much trouble.)

And that last line, "True to himself, and so he cannot fail" — that reads like it could be used to describe George W. Bush as well. In fact, I’m guessing this poem could have been written by any supporter of every U.S. president since they claimed something akin to godhood.

I want to say it gets better — Davis’ poem about the second nomination celebrates both peace and the fact that Wilson isn’t a conqueror who claims a laurel wreath on his "murderous victor’s brow" (oh yeah?), but rather the freely chosen leader of a nation where happy hearts beat for the "great and lasting good" — but it doesn’t, as the poem "To Our Leader" (January 1918) attests:

Trough the black night of terror and alarm, Through the wild storm of War’s insatiate harm, Through the loud tumult where men rage and arm, Lead on! Up to the hills where Freedom’s watch first burn, Up to the heights for which our spirits yearn, Up to the strongholds where our hopes return, Lead on! On, for Mankind is thronging after you, On, for men’s hearts are calling out to you, On, for men’s hopes are built anew on you, Lead on! He who has called you trod a fearful path, He who has made you gave to you his faith, He who sustains you conquered over Death, Lead on! There where the morning breaks in shining Peace, There where Grief’s captives win a glad release, Rest in that Heaven, once to Heroes given, Leader who won!

Considering that nothing, at this point has been won, I’m trying to imagine exactly what victory it is that the leader (who could, in this poem, be any president waging any war and written by any groveling sycophant) has achieved? Release of the captives? While Davis does seem to understand that Wilson isn’t quite Jesus, he uses a lot of words that suggests he confuses the two. Why? Was the first Jesus not enough? Did he leave something undone that only Wilson (or any of his successors) were up to finishing?

In "’Force Without Limit’," Wilson is the wielder of God’s "sword of Righteous Wrath" that will bring "Earth Peace again." The war is the "argument of God" against the unnamed "oppressing clod" — always the war or the struggle is against unnamed generalities, and not concrete specifics — and the poem closes with God’s wrath giving place to praise and the "song of better days." (There are better days than war?) Finally, Davis appeals to his sometime patient, the saint and messiah, to:

Strike with the sledge of Justice the anvil of the Lord, Oh man of God and man of men, safe keeper of his word!

Again, is this a reference to Christ or Wilson? Or, I ask again, does Davis not know the difference?

The volume closes with the undated "My Country, Oh My Country," which is the kind of nonsense you’d expect a too-well-behaved teenager to publicly recite, somewhat teary eyed, at a VFW barbecue on the Fourth of July:

My Country, Oh my Country! The battle hour has come For Justice and for liberty, For human rights and homes. The free wind blows our trumpet, Our flag the starry sky, Our drum roll is the thunder, The lightning sword on high. Our ships are in the ocean, Our planes are in the air, A mighty folk in motion, The rushing tide to war! To go, to stay? to fight, to watch To keep our hearth fires bright? Our country asks from each his part, His duty and his right. My Country, Oh my Country! The battle hour has come; How shall I stand before God’s hand Who asks, "What have you done?"

Isn’t it amazing just how flexible this kind of poetry is? Written for Lincoln? McKinley? FDR? Harry Truman? Lyndon Johnson? Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? Bill Clinton? Both George Bushes? Is any specific war being described here, or it is just any — or every — war the state seeks to wage, the very nature of the state and statism that it can demand all do their duty and right, and invoke God in support of that demand? Isn’t it amazing that when it comes to praising the state and war, just how little changes?

And can’t you just imagine some idiot poet composing this kind of dreck for Hillary Clinton?

Two other things also strike me here. First, the implication that all of creation somehow points to the United States of America in that second stanza. America is the world, the world is America. And not just all the people in the world, who under the assumption of Wilsonianism are all yearning to be Americans, but the very physical, natural world itself. Second, do you suppose Davis really believes that God will hold it against a soul on judgement day if that soul did not do "his duty and his right" to his country? (Or at least the United States of America, to which all human allegiance appears to be owed.) He probably does. I suspect a great many allegedly religious people do.

As I said, it’s probably just as well Davis was as lousy a doctor as he was a poet, or maybe Wilson would have made a better recovery from his strokes and continued terrorizing the world with his arrogant self-righteousness. (It would have been nice if both Wilson and Lenin could have had their strokes a few years earlier than they did.) He apparently wrote at least one other book, A Manual of Practical Obstetrics, a late 19th century medical guide to pregnancy and whatnot. I cannot judge, one way or the other, whether that book is any good.

It probably isn’t anywhere near as bad as his poetry.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.

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