Nobody who is somebody looks down on anybody. -Margaret Deland

Margaret Deland, 1857-1945
Her mother died in childbirth, her father two days later. She aroused controversy through poems, short stories, and novels. Her book, John Ward, Preacher, was a best-seller about the philosophical clashes between a Calvinist minister and his Episcopalian wife. Deland married Harvard football coach Lorin Deland, and shared her home with dozens of unwed mothers.

The universe eludes me. It appears to be where I am not and I am where it is not. In 1989, a friend said he envied me my self-knowledge. I assumed that he referred to my grasp of values, self-history, and goals, but values change; memories change; and I no longer have goals.

Over the last few years, I have increasingly sought escape in English and American literature, focusing more or less on the period from 1875 to 1925, because it represented an era that I imagined happier and more natural. My escape proved a mirage when I realized that my favorite writers of the era not only struggled with “modern” issues but approached them with greater depth and insight than today’s writers. I had imagined that the endless ease with which authors can now edit would have improved literature, but the reverse is true. Perhaps this is because education was formerly focused on history, literature, language, and philosophy, fields that promote depth. I also suspect that our “electronic devices” have tended us toward shallowness by becoming the intellectual equivalent of fast food. Whatever the reason, modern writers are challenged to use good grammar.

After reading many of the works of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Butler, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Jack London, Willa Cather, and others, I recently had the good fortune to discover, for $2.49, a first edition copy of John Ward, Preacher in a St. Vincent dePaul store. I hadn’t so much as heard of the author but her writings quickly became the shrine before which I worship, and her books the only books I ever kissed each night before going to sleep. In John Ward, Preacher, Deland examined the deeply-loving marriage between a nominal Episcopalian who doubted God’s existence and her fundamentalist husband who became obsessed by the fear that his wife was going to hell. I was raised a fundamentalist but became an atheist, and through the couples arguments I saw myself.

My next reading was her 65-page story Where Ignorance Is Bliss, 'Tis Folly To Be Wise. The story opens with a soon to be married couple—the man an Episcopal priest—enjoying a woodland outing on a sunny day. The story progressed to the man’s memory of having forged a check 23-years earlier, a crime that no one knew about—and that no one would ever know about unless he told them. He pondered whether morality required that he confess his sin to his fiancée, and for perhaps forty pages, he debated the decision from every conceivable angle before finally telling her two days before their wedding. She broke off their engagement—by letter—within hours. Months later, two friends who knew what he had done also examined the pros and cons of his decision. They concluded that the choice between telling and not telling had been a moral necessity, but they couldn’t agree on which was right. So it is that Deland’s writings commonly concern painful decisions that pit apparent self-interest against social, physical, and economic ruin. 

What we now have in place of depth, morality, and thoughtful religion, is political correctness on the one hand and religious reactionism on the other. Both are antithetical to freedom and intelligence, so it’s no wonder that our era is characterized by slanders and Tweet-length repartee. Surely, you can see why I have abandoned my era in favor of another. In truth, I don’t care too terribly much about Syrian refugees; I can do nothing about Global Warming; and I think of our Middle Eastern Wars as the disturbed obsession of callous politicians whose interests lie anywhere but their own country. Fourteen years of turning on the radio and, in the first sentence, hearing such terms as: suicide bombing, Taliban, Islamic State, school shooting, government shutdown, racial tension, Gaza Strip, government atrocities, sectarian conflict, Civil War, chemical weapons, roadside bomb, WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestinian conflict, fighting erupted, weather event, police shooting, unarmed black man, or other phrases that make me feel both angry and hopeless have worn me down until I no longer care. 

I remind myself that I am more old than young, and I ask myself whether this is what I want to listen to for the rest of my life because, truly, I see no reason to hope for better. Almost nothing that is on the news concerns things that I can remedy—which is probably why it’s on the news. Whatever happened to the welfare of America? Except for school shootings and an endless stream of killings by so-called racist cops, are any of our problems solved by this obsession with the Middle East, a region that we have only made worse after spending a trillion dollars and leaving millions of people maimed, killed, or displaced?

No, give me Victorian times. They call to me, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard, yet I find a kinship there that I don’t find today. The last two friends who came to my house talked on their cell phones in my presence, and I thought, why are you here? If you had rather be with someone else, then go to them with my blessing, and call me when you get there so I can have the attention that you’re now giving to them. Why insult me by making me listen to a one-sided conversation? Am I really so unimportant to you? Such events have led me to write people out of my life until there are very few left.

I reject my era. I reject our personal devices; our warmongering in the name of peace; our “special nation status”; our endless threats of a government shutdown; our 18-month long presidential campaigns; the daily slanderings and lies of psychopathic politicians who pretend to be statesmen; but most of all, I despise our shallowness. I think that the only things we’ll be remembered for are violence, flag-waving, political correctness, and asininity, and so it is that I profoundly don’t care about us. As long as the economy doesn’t crash, my Social Security check arrives on time, and Medicare stays solvent for the remainder of my lifetime, I’ll content myself with the knowledge that this is the most I can expect from a sick, shallow, and silly nation that I am powerless to influence. Like the man in Simon and Garfunkels I am a Rock,I  have my books and poetry to protect me, only they don’t protect me any better than they did him, they instead take me deep within myself through the words of people with whom I can have no knowledge other than sentiments frozen on a page. It is to this end that I’m buying every first edition of Margaret Deland’s books I can find. Fortunately they’re cheap because the mass of Americans are only interested in the day’s celebrity. I frankly find Deland’s words, “Nobody who is somebody looks down on anybody,” an impossible row to hoe, but I’ll keep reading.