Thursday, July 11, 2013

Chautauqua Travel Journal: Day 5

If Tuesday involved much running around here at the Chautauqua Institution, then Wednesday turned out slower. This was less a matter of choice than circumstance. But more on that in a minute…

I attended more single sessions in my classes on Walt Whitman and "Civil War victims" and the Book of Job. In the case of the poet, I continue to be surprised at how much he overturned, poetically and sexually. He remains our contemporary in ways I couldn’t imagine when I read him as an undergrad.

As for Job, the Civil War victim in this case turned out to be Mary Todd Lincoln. The closest parallel in the Book of Job to the First Lady, Job’s unnamed, briefly seen wife, turned out to be all too appropriate. Both, in the principal accounts we have of them, are depicted as shrews who help their husbands in no productive way when misfortune strikes. And yet, both are indisputably among the worst victims of fate, losing one child after another.

The morning Civil War lecture was the most dynamic, though not unexpected, of the week so far. Gary W. Gallagher (pictured)—the only military historian on the program this week--played devil’s advocate against the notion that 1863 represented a turn of the tide in the war. It was an argument I had heard before, in an essay in a book he edited, The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond.

Nevertheless, the capacity audience at the Amphitheater seemed to lead him to make the case with unstoppable gusto, something merely suggested by the conclusion of his guest column in the morning’s Chautauquan Daily:

“If we had been able to poll people during the incomprehensibly bloody spring and summer of 1864, no one would have said Gettysburg and Vicksburg had sealed the fate of the Confederacy and guaranteed emancipation. Not Abraham Lincoln. Not the loyal citizenry of the United States. Not the Confederate citizenry. Not the more than 3 million black people who remained enslaved in the Confederacy. For them, living in the midst of continuing turmoil, the military events of 1863 lay far in the past, well remembered but scarcely connected to expectations about how and when the seemingly endless bloodletting would cease.”

The two classes and the morning lecture were my major activities for the day. I had planned to see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur at the Chautauqua Cinema. But a half hour before that showing, as I prepared to leave Afterwords Café, I looked outside the window, only to see what appeared to be a slanting gray wall.

It was actually hailstones, and their startling drumbeat kept me in place for 25 minutes, too late to catch the start of the movie.

(I discovered later that weather conditions were worse elsewhere. Floods in Pittsburgh were bad enough to make the evening news. In my hometown of Englewood, N.J., led to such high energy demand that my neighborhood experienced a brief loss of power the next morning.)

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