- Historic Sites
A luminously written inquiry into the history of one man’s family turns out to be about all of us
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
But he also realizes that however closely he may feel himself linked to his ancestors, they and he remain starkly different. Take the matter of religion: “I imagine myself in a grange hall full of ancestors—their dark clothes, perhaps a woolly, smoky smell, their inward demeanors—and I think conversation between me and them would be even more strained than usual at family get-togethers. My ancestors talked and wrote a lot more about God and Jesus Christ than I do. … They approved of mirth but not ‘dissolute mirth.’ They could be a tough audience. In church, they often hummed when they liked what the preacher was saying and sometimes hissed softly when they didn’t. … Compared to them, I suppose I am an infidel. They might call me a Nothingarian—the name regular church-goers in the nineteenth century sometimes applied to those who weren’t.”
Despite his own lack of orthodoxy, Frazier comes to see the central role religious faith played in the founding of the country and is led to a conclusion that seems as eloquent as it is currently unfashionable: “The people who founded the country came from a tradition of thinking about God and man and about how people best should live, a tradition more passionate then than it became or is today. And if the founding words about freedom and justice and equality were traduced the moment they came out of the speakers’ mouths, traduced by crimes against people unlike the speakers themselves, still no fact of history tells us we cannot believe the aspiration.”
Frazier’s is an ordinary family. But his account of it is among the most affecting books I’ve read in years.
Family is filled with personal epiphanies. The one that moved me most came to the author on the Chancellorsville battlefield, where his greatgreat-grandfather and several other relatives had fought in the 55th Ohio Volunteers and somehow managed to survive. It was the memory of their furious struggle, combined with hearing a historian at the visitors’ center repeat Stonewall Jackson’s last words as he lay dying in the bedroom of a nearby farmhouse, that first brought Frazier to tears and then set him to writing:
“‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.’ In this sentence, perhaps the most famous dying utterance in American history, Jackson concentrated a lifetime of prayer and struggle and aspiration—his, and that of the young country he had fought to divide. So many crossed water to get here, so many wanted to rest under the shade. … In the staccato rhythm of the words I can see each step of the action. The sentence ascends in terraces to rest and peace, it undoes knots inside me, it exhales like a sigh. I can see the shining, whorled river sliding by and the gently rising bank and the shaded grass trodden down after a day-camp picnic, across the river and under the trees. I see the columnar trunks almost in a row and the high ceiling where the leaves begin and the sketchier clouds and sky, somewhere above. And then I get kind of carried away and I extend this landscape indefinitely in every direction and I imagine it as the new good place America in its best moments has hoped to be and I populate it from the whole globe and I fill it with faces like those in a poster from an old epic Western movie with cooking smells and music and maybe even a few car-burglar alarms for verisimilitude—I will spare you all the details. Suffice it to say that all of the drinking fountains work, across the river and under the trees.
“Before the Civil War, America didn’t know if it was a country or lots of different Promised Lands. People invented the America they wanted to live in and then struggled to live there. Across the river and under the trees combined all these invented countries into one. Across the river and under the trees descended like a beneficence in the last moments of a fierce man’s life and crystallized his fierceness to purity. Across the river and under the trees carried no demurring subclauses or riders. It included us all—people Jackson considered infidels, men he would have shot unblinking in life. Across the river and under the trees was poetry equal to the nation-making poetry of Lincoln, and the only line of public poetry to come from the South in the war. Even though Stonewall Jackson fought for the Slave power and though his faith is beyond me and though … the flag of his cause still scares me when I see it on the radiator grille of a truck in my rearview mirror and though I am more than glad his side lost, I dream of across the river and under the trees.”