Reading, Writing And History

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Mr. Stackpole is not trying to get the overtones in; he is simply telling the story of Gettysburg, from the moment when Robert E. Lee decided to invade Pennsylvania down to the despairing hour when he took his beaten army back to the crossing of the Potomac and headed for Appomattox. Yet this is one of those poignant, moving American stories for which the reader supplies his own overtones. Each regimental movement, each decision made in the heat of action by this or that overtried commanding officer, carries fate with it; all of the might-have-beens in the American legend, together with the still unresolved intangibles which go along with what actually did happen, cluster about each attack, each repulse, each incredible feat of heroism and endurance on that dreadful field of battle.

So here, once again, is Gettysburg, spelled out on a play-by-play basis, with a minimum of emotion on the part of the writer and a vast amount of care to get all of the details right. On the face of it, this was just another battle in just another war. Actually, it was one more chapter in the story of the unfolding of the American conscience. In a sense, this was where the roof did fall in, and many values were buried under the debris; but this, too, is where 150,000 Americans lived up to the imperative which the national conscience had laid upon them.

They Met at Gettysburg, by Edward J. Stackpole. Eagle Books, Harrisburg, Pa. 327 pp. $4.95.

The Earthquake

New England, the Mason-Dixon Line, Smyrna, Gettysburg—and then Lisbon, Portugal, in the year 1755: the step is a long one, and yet it has its own bearing on this study of what conscience does to us in America. For the national conscience is not yet through with us. It is confronted, every so often, by the necessity to take a new set of values into account, and when that happens Shakespeare’s dictum holds good—it makes cowards of us all. We can face physical threats in this country without batting an eye; it is the fear of things unseen that really hurts.

So what happened in Lisbon in November, 1755, has a bearing on our own American story.

Lisbon in that year was struck by a prodigious earthquake. It wrecked a great part of the city, touched off disastrous fires, cost upwards of 10,000 lives—contemporary reports put the death list at 50,000 or more, but the reality was bad enough—and gave modern thinking a jar from which it was many generations in recovering. The story of it is told by T. D. Kendrick, director of the British Museum, in The Lisbon Earthquake , a book which has a good deal more timeliness than appears on the surface.

This earthquake struck in the middle of a pious and self-assured age. God was in His Heaven, from which place He looked down with an ever-mindful eye on His children on earth; nothing happened here without His express consent, and natural disasters—we still call them “acts of God” in our insurance policies—could have no other object than to punish the wicked and admonish the faithful. Floods, hurricanes, pestilences, earthquakes—these were not simply natural occurrences; they were blows struck by Providence, each one freighted with its own tragic significance.

Consequently the disaster that wrecked Lisbon compelled men to take thought. The immediate problem concerned the immediate survivors: should they scurry around, pick up the pieces as best they could, bury the dead and clear away the wreckage and strive to get the city back on a normal footing, or should they don sackcloth and ashes, forget all worldly considerations, and do whatever might be possible to save their souls and avert further wrath from on high? Practical considerations being what they are, most of the people of Lisbon buckled down to the former task. But the mere fact that the question had been so brutally posed jarred men’s thinking.

The Lisbon Earthquake, by T. D. Kendrick. The J. B. Lippincott Co. 250 pp. $4.

More fundamental, however, was the fact that men were compelled to ask once more what sort of world they were living in. Does everything on this earthly plane work out for the best for God-fearing men and women, or does evil itself exist as a concrete and inescapable fact, and are the virtuous quite as likely as the wicked to be struck down without warning by some appalling and unpredictable turn of fate? Not since the fall of Rome in the Fifth Century, says Mr. Kendrick, had anything so shocked the minds of Western men as did the Lisbon earthquake. Easy optimism was ended forever. Men were compelled to re-examine not merely the nature of Providence but the part which they themselves were called on to play in the great scheme of things.

And the Bomb