:: Thursday, February 02, 2006 ::
The Culture: Rediscovering the Spirit of '76
Posted by Nicholas Provenzo at 11:48 AM
Note: In a CAC exclusive, novelist Edward Cline talks about why he wrote his epic Sparrowhawk series.
When I first pondered the task of researching and writing the Sparrowhawk series of novels, I asked myself: What was it that I wanted to accomplish, aside from recreating 18th century Britain and America and the conflict between them? What would be the primary purpose of the story? And how could that purpose best be dramatized?
My purpose was to make real the caliber of men who made the Revolution possible. It was as simple as that. What needed to be dramatized was a stature conspicuously absent in most men today. Ideally, a writer writes for his own pleasure, for his own ends. My pleasure and my end were to recreate such men as an exercise in sanity, to escape the droning, enervating miasma of today's culture and politics and recreate a world, to paraphrase Ayn Rand on the value of Romantic fiction, populated by men who should have been my neighbors.
But that simple purpose required a stupendous task to accomplish it. And the first precondition to ensure completion of that task was that I accept as fact, as the undisputable, incontestable given, that the United States was not an accident of history, not a lucky symbiosis or combination of political or economic influences; that, instead, it was a conscious, premeditated goal and a product of men's commitment to reason and justice. Nothing less than that commitment to freedom could have moved men in that period to pursue it and achieve it in the face of odds that virtually guaranteed failure and defeat.
This had always been a given of mine. The rest was comparatively easy.
I stress the term "comparatively." It was not a costume drama that I wanted to write, nor a story in any way poisoned by the cynicism, nihilism, epistemological myopia, or crudeness of our times. It was important to capture the spirit of that period, when men glimpsed an inestimable value -- liberty, or the freedom to live on earth without fetters or manacles, literal or mental -- and took actions in pursuit of it.
This was not so easy a task, to make real, or concrete, that spirit, when all around me men were surrendering to fiat power, to tyranny, running from the knowledge that they were being enslaved, evading the knowledge that they were victims of or parties to an enormous, extortionate, life-suffocating fraud, otherwise known as the welfare state. I had never a problem projecting the "Spirit of '76" in my own mind. But, how could I translate it, or objectify it, for others, and depict its discovery by men and their subsequent loyalty to it? How was I to illustrate the transition from discovery, to potential, to the actual? To make that spirit intelligible and credible for readers to whom such a spirit was unknown or alien, or in whom such potential existed, or in whom it did exist?
In short, how, if my task was to communicate an idea, could I project that spirit in terms that would render it as real in the minds of others as it was in my own?
The answer lay in the characters of Jack Frake and Hugh Kenrick, and to introduce them in the formative years of childhood, to better be able to trace their development from discovery to an awareness of their potential, and on to its actualization in adulthood. The potential at issue is an independence of mind and a commensurate independence of spirit.
Do they achieve that dual independence? Of course. Jack and Hugh, from the very beginning, see the potential within themselves and in their lives, and refuse to relinquish it or betray it in any manner. Consequently, they set the terms of their own lives, terms that are in direct conflict with the submissive norm of most men they encounter and with the political and moral culture of their time. And, in other ways, that development of a dual independence is also traced in several minor characters, such as Glorious Swain, one of the Pippins, Dogmael Jones, the barrister and member of Parliament, and John Proudlocks, the Indian who disowns his primitive heritage. Therein are the integrated threads of discovery, potential, and actualization in the characters. And therein is the premise of the major plot and of all the subplots in the series.
How did I arrive at the conclusion that the best way to concretize that development was in dramatizing the moral and intellectual growth of especially the story's principal heroes, Jack and Hugh? There was one expression of the sense of life that I had always loved, and it occurs in Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged: "To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started." It appears on the dedication pages of Books Four through Six.
Jack experiences it one night on the cliffs of the Cornwall coast, Hugh during a fireworks celebration in London. It was as necessary to begin "in the beginning" in Sparrowhawk as it was for Rand to portray the early lives of her heroes in Atlas Shrugged. The difference between her novel and mine is merely in technique. The youth of her adult heroes is shown with the device of flashbacks, while I steadily progress in tiers of instances from youth to adulthood. And the sense of life of my characters, as with hers, is inexorably tied to their vision of freedom as rational men who see life as a glorious, unobstructed, limitless adventure. All through the series, Jack and Hugh retain their "unchanging youth," not out of desperation or as an escape into nostalgia, but because it is their normal approach to life. And throughout to the end of the series, it is their "unchanging youth" that allows them to face terrible conflicts and make life-changing decisions. It imbues within them a resilience in mind and action unknown or impossible to men of lesser stature.
Jack and Hugh, and many of the secondary characters in the story, are practicing heirs of the Enlightenment. While it is possible that a man born in the Dark or the early Middle Ages could have shared their notion of an "unchanging youth," he could not do much about it in it in practical terms, that is, live his life unimpeded by church, state, or looting feudal lords. We can see the consequences of such an attempt in the tragic lives of many outstanding thinkers and innovators even during the Renaissance that followed. Overt, conspicuous independence of mind and spirit was perilous to anyone who showed evidence of them. One's reward was usually the rack, the stake, or imprisonment.
But by Jack and Hugh's time, it was possible to develop such a vision of life and be loyal to it in practice without risking death or much in the way of persecution. The Dark and early Middle Ages would have been oppressively alien to Jack and Hugh, and especially to any of us today, and in the Renaissance our relative independence would likely be precariously founded on the tolerance and patronage of a powerful lord. We take freedom of thought and action so much for granted, that our demise in those cultures would have been virtually guaranteed. It was not until the late 18th and early 19th century that writers, artists, businessmen and entrepreneurs were able to fully cut the umbilical cord of dependence on lordly patronage and subsidy.
The new enemy of liberty or of the independent man in Jack and Hugh's time was no longer the church, whose power to dominate men's lives was fading, but the state. Nominally and traditionally, the British monarch ruled by the grace of God, and his power was unlimited. During the secular evolution of British government, Parliament wrested that power from the monarch, and ruled by grace of a corrupted majority. I dramatize this in part in the trial of Redmagne and Skelly in Book One, and of the Pippins in Book Two.
The "Spirit of '76" is not in evidence in America today, except in a minority of individuals marginalized by the dual phenomena of collectivism in politics and the revival of religion. I am happy to report, however, that the heroic characters of Sparrowhawk seem to have touched a chord in many readers of the series, a repressed form of that spirit. My fan mail represents a collective "yes" to what my readers have encountered in the story. They recognize what they have never been taught, or have been taught to forget, or have never discovered until now. Their letters and emails to me range in expression from pleased astonishment to wild enthusiasm to solemn relief. Their common denominator is "thank you for having written this."
Only the critical establishment remains oblivious to Sparrowhawk; no one in that debauched profession has acknowledged its existence, at least not in any major periodical or newspaper. For that I am grateful, for I can only imagine what verbose bile the New York Times or the Washington Post would offer in the way of esthetic guidance. Critics are members of a culture's intelligentsia, and ours are simply proving Ayn Rand's contention that this country's intellectuals are philosophically, morally, and esthetically at odds with America and Americans.
It is the American readership that is discovering or rediscovering the "Spirit of '76" in Sparrowhawk, and that certainly matters. My own reward has been two-fold: the work is done, my ambition has been realized, I am happy with it, it is now a part of the existing culture; and, I have been proven right, that it was offered to men, and they said "yes" to what it represents as literature and as inspiration. All those things can be said to contribute to what Ayn Rand identified as an "unchanging youth."
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