Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Harnessing the power of the telling detail

Professor Edgar E. Stanton
Edgar E. Stanton, my favorite American Studies professor at the University of South Florida, let me do an independent studies project during my last term as a senior in 1972. The project was a journey whose particulars will surprise no one who survived the late hippie era.

My wife Monique and I had our Volkswagen van outfitted with a bed, cabinets, a fold-down typing table and iron pipes on which we mounted a front-row car seat for Sven, our 21-month-old son. Then I quit my job and off we went, up the East Coast to New Hampshire, across the country (and the Rockies!) to Oregon, down the West Coast and across the country back to Florida. We were on the road for nearly three months.

Along the way we visited Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg, Walden Pond, Abraham Lincoln’s grave, Carl Sandburg’s houses in Flat Rock, N.C., and Galesburg, Ill., several Mormon sites, the Donner Pass, San Simeon, Dealey Plaza and many other American places. By the campfire nearly every night, I wrote about the day’s adventures.

This trip is such a happy memory that I could go on about it, but let me get to the point. What called it to mind is a lesson about writing it taught me: the power of the telling detail.

Monique, Sven and our trusty VW 
We spent a day in Dayton, Tenn., where the so-called Monkey Trial was held in 1925. We visited the Rhea County Courthouse and the house where William Jennings Bryan, a prosecution lawyer, died shortly afterward.

In town I tracked down Bud Shelton, who had been 17 in 1925  and served as one of the two student-witnesses at the trial. He testified that John T. Scopes had indeed taught evolution, violating the Tennessee state law. I asked what he remembered about Clarence Darrow, the renowned ACLU lawyer from Chicago who defended Scopes.

“He was always the first one to take off his coat,” Shelton said.

Talk about a telling detail! The Scopes trial was a media circus, and the courtroom was crowded and sweltering. But hot or not, southern gentlemen kept on their coats. By taking his off, Darrow reminded the jury that he was not one of them.

While researching Our War, I was always on the lookout for such telling details and found dozens of them in soldier letters and diaries.

The Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton,
Tenn., scene of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The best of them “tell” by showing. Some in the book show how self-reliant people had to be during the 1860s – a soldier who squeezed berries to make his own ink, prisoners who carved chess pieces with their pocketknives or mapped a 250-mile escape route on the back of an envelope.

No detail better conveyed the men’s naïveté at the outset of the war than the reaction of the First New Hampshire Volunteers the first time they came under infantry fire – at a safe distance, thank goodness. The men ran around like children scooping up the musket balls rolling into their camp. Similarly, what could capture the coming wave of wartime grief more poignantly than the soldier’s fiancée who laid not one wreath but three on the grave of her betrothed?

Telling details often come in words spoken by the participants. Here is the way Cpl. Elmer Bragg described the Ninth New Hampshire’s first march: “It was just like walking in ashes, and we was covered all over with dust and dirt.”

Pvt. Martin Haynes of the Second New Hampshire added a sound track to his regiment’s long march to Gettysburg. What the men heard, he wrote, was the “unceasing tramp, tramp, tramp of thousands of feet, and the monotonous clatter of tin dippers ticking against bayonets and canteens.” Tick, tick, tick.

When Capt. Freedom Rhodes of the Fourteenth New Hampshire went to find his wounded brother after Antietam, he saw telltale signs of Robert E. Lee’s retreating army along the way: half-burned fences, charred spots from cook-fires and hundreds of corncobs strewn beside the road. For me, it was those corncobs that painted a picture.

The disenfranchised Julia E. Jones 
One sentence from Julia Jones of East Washington, N.H., illustrated the status of women in the 1860s. She described to a friend the scene outside her window – voters of all parties marching to the polls for a crucial state election. Then she wrote: “Being a woman I must quietly fold my hands & wait the issue.”

Pvt. Joseph S. Swain’s letter to his brother Charley expressed a nearly universal truth about soldiers. After the first major battle, at Bull Run, Swain wrote: “A man cannot tell much about anything, after a battle, for it is all a whirl, but it did not seem so in battle. I thought I could tell everything, but cannot.” This detail foretold the perception gap that grew between the warfront and the home-front during the course of the war.

Some telling details are gory. Testimony in the court-martial of a New Hampshire soldier showed how close he had been to his victim when he shot her. The wound, the witness said, was “as large as my hand. Her heart came out of the hole.” When Sgt. Ferdinand Davis of the Seventh New Hampshire lay down to have his leg wound examined, the surgeon stuck in a finger to look for the ball and turned the finger “like a well-digger’s auger.” Sgt. Robert O. Farrand was blinded by a bullet in the head, captured and sent to Andersonville. As he cleaned his wound one day, his left eyeball burst.

How crowded was the makeshift hospital where Napoleon B. Perkins of Stark, N.H., was carried on a door after being wounded at Chancellorsville? His head stretched into the fireplace, where soot fell in his face. How did a surgeon’s assistant remove the bone protruding from his stump after amputating his leg? He grabbed the bone and bent it from side to side until it broke off.

These details make us wince, but they also show us modern readers the brutality of the war and the state of medical care.

Telling details do not always tell all. The nurse Hannah Ropes clearly liked her much younger colleague, Sarah Low of Dover. She called Low sweet names in her journal, and they once sat by the fire in Ropes’s room sharing a breakfast of corncakes and beefsteak from the same plate.

Does this touching picture mean they were lovers? The details are telling, but they don’t tell us that.

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