A young poet’s memories of the old rural America in whose fields he worked for two sunny months while awaiting the call to service in the First World War
Mark Van Doren, who died in 1972, was one of America’s most distinguished poets, critics, and educators. He was born on a farm at Hope, Illinois, in 1894, and upon graduation from the University of Illinois in 1914 went to Columbia University (where he later was to teach literature for many years) to pursue graduate study. In the spring of 1917, with America finally involved in the Great War, he returned to his family home in Urbana, Illinois, and registered for the draft. In midsummer he was indeed drafted, and served in the Army until December, 1918. Finding it difficult to concentrate on literary scholarship, immediately after the war, he wrote what he called “a plain account of all that I can remember” about the period between June, 1917, when he went back to Illinois to await the call, and his discharge nineteen months later.
This thoughtful and elegantly written memoir has never been published, although it exemplifies many of the literary characteristics for which Mark Van Doren later became famous. AMERICAN HERITAGE is pleased to present the following excerpt from it, by permission of Dorothy Van Doren, the poet’s widow; the account begins just after he was registered for the draft on June 5, 1917.
That done, I had nothing besides my own conscience to live with for a matter of about two months, as the drawing was not to be made until late July or early August. It had been decided that I should spend the summer on Frank’s farm at Villa Grove. I went down immediately, having put my books away and stored my notes on Dryden, already voluminous, among the rafters in the attic of the house on Oregon Street, and placed myself in Frank’s hands. It very soon became apparent that the farm at Villa Grove was better supplied with labor than was necessary. In a time of peace Dad would never have considered the presences of Frank, Paul, Owin Soard, Walter (Owin’s future brother-in-law), and me to be indispensable on 307 acres; under existing circumstances Dad must have seen further that any plea he might wish to make to the district Board for my exemption as an indispensable farm hand would necessarily appear absurd to anyone who would take the trouble to count the hands at Villa Grove. All this he never definitely expressed, but I am sure it was in his thoughts. In a few days he drove down and announced that I was to go with him to the farm at Hope, where the corn was in desperate need of more attention than the two men there could give it. Bidding goodbye to Grace and Frank and Paul, and to the farm on which as a boy I had spent so many summers and with which I had been happily engaged in renewing my acquaintance, I went with Dad back to Urbana, and the next morning out to Hope.
This change was certainly among the most significant events of my life. For the next two months I remember as perhaps the happiest I have spent anywhere. They were spent in retreat, Hope being far from railroads and visited by none except farmers on business for the day. They were spent in happy labor, happy for me both because I like farming and because at that particular time I needed exercise, sunshine, and separation from books. And they were spent in a scene which delighted me beyond all expression. I had spent my first six years on that farm. I had remembered little, but I had been told much since, about the place and about all the neighborhood. My imagination and affections had been stored fuller than I knew of attachments and reverences and loyalties, and even images and sensations. It was there that I had worn the long curly hair of which my mother was so proud, which I must confess I never despised, but which most of my elders were glad to see shorn. It was there that I had barely escaped the horns of an old, ill-tempered cow; and it was there that I saw those horns sawed off, bleeding for my sake. It was there that I played in the deep front yard with Frank, and was caught by him most ludicrously conversing with a lamb. It was there that I heard my first talking-machine; I heard it at Ezra Harrison’s store. It was there that Frank and I learned to swear and were caught at it by Inez, who threatened us with exposure before mother; I remember how we followed mother for days after with lamblike humility to make a rebuke or a switching impossible; I believe now that Inez never told, but I know that we were so fearful that we went with mother to milk the first night, and held the lantern better for her than we had ever held it before. It was at Hope that I had known Aunt Molly, and Fred Thomas’s store, with its caramels wrapped in tasteless paper. It was there that I had known Otie, Lorraine, and Reid. It was there that I had begun to wear pants. It was there that I went the first unwilling day to school, and was carried into the schoolhouse from behind a tree, screaming and kicking the teacher’s shins. It was from there that Frank and I drove Dick the journey to Potomac, and, returning, found Paul at mother’s side in bed. It was there that Dad was so good to his little young ’uns; can I forget how he would bring us candy—how sometimes, having forgotten the candy, he would turn back his horse in very sight of the house, and make good his promise? I shall never forget the ecstasy which kept me awake for hours one Saturday night until I should hear him gallop into the barnlot, bringing corduroy pants for Frank and me from Ogden. It was there that numberless precious memories were stored away. It was there, last of all, that the great “surprise” was held, when hundreds of neighbors and relatives drove in buggies for miles to see us off to Urbana in 1900.… Not that I had anything to do with it, I was only one of the Doctor’s boys. It was the Doctor, and the Doctor’s wife, whom the farmers left their work to come and tell goodbye. I remember the procession of buggies that came over the hill from Hope. I remember the barnyard full of teams, and the lawn full of people. I remember the tubs full of lemonade, the tables covered with cake and meat, the wagons piled high with watermelons from Kilbury’s patch. Happy boys, if we can ever earn such love, or serve so many so well!
The scene was not only familiar and venerable. It was very beautiful. The groves on that farm are the most perfect I have ever seen; they stand, august, and very dark and trim, overlooking all the land away to the west; indeed, they are a landmark for travellers from any direction. The farm slopes back from the road towards the north. The fields are fenced with high rows of hedge, and are always beautiful. I remember everything about the crops I helped to raise that summer: the grass and weeds which almost smothered the northwest “forty,” and made it difficult to plow, the clean tall corn on the north forty, which is the highest part of the farm; the ditch that ran through the northeast forty; the oats that Dad came out himself to cut, and which were the first I had shocked (I wonder if they will be the last?); the hot, dry days for the shocking; the sudden shower that drove us into the grove to sit and whittle and talk of rural nothings; the alfalfa I tended so proudly, dragging and harrowing and rolling the ground again and again, to please Dad; the beans I helped to sow; the west forty, where I did my first plowing, during the cold, damp days of early June, when mother (I learned afterwards) cried to think of me sitting on an old iron plow in the cold; the groves, through which I often walked for sheer ecstasy of contentment, and in which the two red calves were born, and to which the big boar fled after we had made him into a stag; the orchard, where I would go after supper to sit and watch the sun go down on the peacefulest landscape known to man, and watch the horses, just out of the harness, roll and graze and stroll together; the barnyard where I liked to stand at dusk, the chores done, and talk with the men of the place; the little patch of alfalfa east of the house, the ground for which I broke and the bed for which I prepared, to please Dad; the house itself, old, white, square, where all of us boys were born, and where I slept these summer nights—upstairs, in the south room, with windows opened wide on three sides, and the most abysmal darkness and stillness reigning outside, pierced from time to time, it might be, by the ugly bark of Shep, the dwarfish collie.
The surrounding country was handsome, I thought. Prom the north 40 the prairie sloped gradually but uninterruptedly off to the southwest, where I could see Ogden through the haze of a summer’s day. To the northeast the country was still higher, so that I could not see what I was always conscious of—the shaded road that ran straight north from Hope a mile and then turned east on the way to Potomac. I was truly in love with all that land. I am homesick for it now, so that it is difficult for me to write. It seems to be the truest land on earth; it is all impregnated, I like to believe, with my father, my mother, and myself—my mind, my eye, my conscience, my soul seem most at home there. I have been thinking, these past unhappy weeks in New York, that I should do best by dropping my pretensions to literature and returning to that farm, as Frank returned to Villa Grove. It is surely an illusion I have; I would do wretchedly there; yet the desire I have is very great, and it hurts me very deeply.
The man in charge of the farm that year was Oscar Bowen, who had never lived more than 10 miles away, but who considered that he had come pretty far from home to work, his home being Fithian, 8 miles to the south. He was a big, ignorant, red-headed boy. He ate far too fast and too much. He worked very hard by fits, but thought little, and often did not work when work would have counted most. He thought it incumbent upon him as father of a family to be short with his wife and two baby girls; but he was never, so far as I could observe, positively unkind. He had no other idea of how to “manage” his older baby, a girl of four, named Lavonne (why, I never could guess), than that, though it could scarcely be called an idea, of yelling to her across the barnyard some senseless prohibition, and then forgetting what he had prohibited. He was headlong and heedless. The horses were a little distrustful of him, though he never abused them. He had no iniquitous habit other than eating too much, and perhaps spending too much for candy. His loftiest ambition was to own an automobile. At first he drove one of the horses to Royal, four miles away, or to Fithian. Becoming irked by the spectacle of so many automobiles on the road, and so few horses, he put all his money into an old Ford, and rattled proudly to town in that. He had very faulty teeth, which he was always picking. He had a wild good-nature in his eye. He was always merry with me, and as speculative as he knew how to be. He had a few ideas which he repeated with profane emphasis day after day. He was as strong as an ox one day, and the next, on account of some gorge of the evening before, would be as weak as a cat. He repelled most men, being the last thing from diplomatic and being overproud of a little vein of sarcasm which he happened to possess. The exercise of this, with the accompaniment of a red-whiskered, unreflecting leer, soon drove a sensitive farmhand from the place. As most farmhands are sensitive, Dad was beginning to be alarmed for the progress of the crops. For this reason, perhaps, he was glad to have me there. He knew I would not leave. I should make it plain, however, that Bowen and I were always on excellent terms. Whether this was because I was the son of his employer, or because he did not happen to dislike me, I cannot say; nor am I anxious to know.
His wife was of about the same age as he—perhaps 26. She was tall, thin, and pale, with a goitre that worried her and made her miserable. In spite of that, she was as kindly as she had time to be. She was scarcely more prudent than he, though she was less oblivious to certain amenities of living. She worked hard, and was frequently tired, but she did not forget to be proud of her family, or to be considerate of the hands. She was an excellent cook, but had neither the strength nor the imagination to make her table a delight. She seemed hardly to know the meaning of variety; we often ate fried eggs at all the three meals of the day; and the gravy which she offered us in place of butter was an unvarying deathly white in color. I never minded this, and would have gone without eating rather than tell her. She cooked certain things in season like a master. I remember the perfect cherry pies which she brought out to us in the oats field; still warm, and the flaky crust just beginning to be saturated with the juice of the fresh cherries. She had inherited a kind of whine from her mother, perhaps; for the older generation of country wives all whined. She was always kindly towards me—not from policy, I am convinced, but because I offered her a kind of courtesy she had not known in her husband, perhaps in any other man. I do not mean to imply that I lavished knightly attentions upon her; I simply treated her with respect, and never deviated from a certain mean of deference, or ceased to show a certain modicum of concern for her own self-respect and comfort.
As hands on the farm at that time were Roy Moler and Lowell Thomas. I slept with them in the south room upstairs, as well as worked side by side with them each day, with the result that I knew them pretty well. Moler was a professional hand, who had spent some four or five summers in Illinois. His home was Ohio. He had grown up in a timber country and had known little else than hard labor since a boy, plowing or harvesting in the growing seasons and cutting timber through the winters. He had come out to Vermilion County in the belief that farm wages were higher there. He had spent one summer near Rankin, and two or three more in the vicinity of Hope, at Aunt Lizzie Tillotson’s and elsewhere. He was twenty-nine years old, and consequently a registrant for the draft. He was neither tall nor broad, yet his figure had a staunch, firmly settled cast, denoting dogged strength. His face, very red in the lower half, shaded into a veritable white at his forehead, which ran well back before it found his black hair. He had a quiet countenance, though it was far from being composed. He was self-conscious and sensitive in almost a painful degree, with all the reserves yet all the claims of a hired man. It was always a nice point with him what constituted an insult sufficient to render his employer insufferable. I don’t know how many times he was offended to no one’s knowledge, but I remember that he worked out a number of delicate cases in conversations with me. Dad, who came out often, did not understand this, and on several occasions brought Moler to a point of rebellion by a hasty or perhaps a contemptuous command. Bowen had no judgment in such matters and succeeded in keeping constantly sore a spirit which he had not the inclination to analyze. Moler told me towards the end of the summer that he had stayed only on my account. I have no idea that he meant all of that, yet we were excellent friends, and we exchanged many confidences in the south room upstairs at night, after we had blown out the lamp and were lying flat, without covers, on the warm sheets of our beds. He had a few naughty stories, had had a few naughty passages with the other sex, and had often been in love in the futile way of farmhands. He owned a horse and buggy, of course, and had driven many a girl to church, or to “socials,” or simply about the country on a Sunday evening. He had stolen many a kiss, and felt occasionally a plump breast. More than that I am convinced he will never do, and even that was hard to envisage, in view of his soberness and want of countenance in critical moments. I think he took those liberties with girls because he understood that they were traditional, and I have no doubt he pursued such solace as they afforded him in a very methodical manner. He had a good memory for characters as well as for events, and he entertained me for many an hour with accounts of Jim S—, for instance, and his five buxom daughters. Jim was a renter who lived north of Hope. He was pure animal, I suppose, for he lived only to sit at good meals and lie by rosy females. Among these last were to be numbered, according to Moler, his wife, all his daughters, and as many of the girls in the neighborhood as he could “get around,” as the saying was. He performed his rites anywhere—at home in bed, out on plowed ground, in the barn, at the foot of a straw stack, or on any convenient spot of ground. He spoke of and to his daughters in precisely the same language, said Moler, that one uses of mares and ewes. He was a German by parentage, if not by birth. Moler, like most farm hands, and indeed like countless young men over the country, treasured a sheaf of dirty songs which he had taken down from various lips, and which he read to me one night.
I have perhaps done Moler an injustice—at least I should be unfair to him if I stopped here. Along with this pornographic vein in him, which possibly was inevitable in view of a conviction he entertained that he would never have enough money to marry, went a really various and humane interest in affairs, so far as he knew them, in habits of life other than he had ever known, and in certain matters of speculation. He liked to hear from me of New York, and it was always pleasant to exchange platitudes with him on such subjects as love and religion and labor and wealth and travel and right and wrong and death and burial.
Lowell Thomas was the adopted son of Aunt Mollie and Fred Thomas, who kept a store at Royal. He was a slim and rather complicated youth of 14, with greenish-grey eyes that were strangely shallow, and denoted, I thought, some deficiency behind. He was an impulsive little fellow, and he too hated Bowen. He was fond of both Moler and me because we seemed to recognize such qualities as he had. I was truly sorry for him, since even his foster parents were too short with him, and he seemed never to be received anywhere with perfect consideration. He made the most of Moler’s and my own confidence, communicating little secrets to us and begging us to keep them, or perhaps stealing candy or cookies from the store at Royal and bringing them to us on Sunday evening or Monday morning. He had a furious temper, and could not quite be trusted with nervous horses. He plowed corn with a team of old, gaunt mules who had tough mouths and not much concern for Lowell. More than once I observed him sawing in rage upon their reins in an endeavor to hurry them along or return them to the furrow, and, that failing, run around in front of them and traduce them with shouts and curses and tears and fists and clubs and clods—they lazily blinking all the while or at most only drawing back in disdain. Dad discharged him a few weeks after I arrived, as soon as the corn was laid by.
This is all the “help” I have to describe, with the exception of a sort of loon who came back from Royal one evening with Bowen and plowed corn with us for two weeks. I have forgotten his name. We called him “The Michigander.” He had left a wife and child in northern Michigan among the stumps and patches of white sand, and had strayed southwards in search of employment. It seemed that his potato crop in Michigan had failed three successive seasons, and that he was desperate. He was a wild, theatrically-minded fellow, who swaggered and swore more earnestly than anyone I have ever known. He lied, no doubt, almost every time he parted his lips, but for the most part he was a picturesque liar. His last act before leaving Michigan was to lead his one poor, blind, stumbling horse back over the hill and shoot it. He would often stop his team abreast of his malignant step-father, whom he had been of a mind to kill, and whom indeed he may have killed along with the horse, for all I can say. He left as suddenly as he had appeared, walking off hastily towards Royal with his great, bursting suitcase full of dirty clothes.
I must not neglect to give a full account of the horses. I can scarcely do justice to them as comrades, but I can at least name them. I loved them in all sincerity—at least, such of them as I loved at all I loved sincerely. I never had known any horses so well before. These I came to feel a proprietary interest in. There were numberless thoughts which I could not communicate to Bowen or Moler. The horses seemed to understand a great deal. I hope I did not indulge myself too much with them. I was never maudlin. Yet it is true that, standing at their heads and stroking their noses or talking into their ears, I felt almost none of the loneliness and isolation which I frequently felt in the fields, or at Mrs. Bowen’s table, or in the middle of the night when I chanced to awake.…
Charlie and Baldy were a team of horses. Charlie was large, square, patient, strong, and extremely simple. Baldy was my favorite among all the animals of the place. He was a huge grey draft horse built on the English plan, with a heavy head, a round, bald nose, large eyes, a loosely flapping lower lip, hairy jaws, a slender neck, a trunk by no means graceful, and long square legs weighted with shaggy feet. At a trot he was a ludicrous spectacle—something like an elephant at play. But Prank informed me that horses of his breed were not built to trot or run—only to walk. Walk he could superbly. He was the fastest and most willing walker on the farm. His energy was boundless. His mouth was tender, and his feelings were easily hurt. Nerves in so large and awkward a beast seemed out of place at first. But they were what eventually made him my favorite. Once going, he was steady and efficacious in a stupendous degree. Kate and Jin were a team of tall, handsome gray mules whom Dad had bought a year before for $500. They were mated perfectly in appearance, but in disposition they were as different as brews and good wines are supposed to be. Kate had a threatening eye, which frequently justified its cast by inspiring a nasty kick from the heels. She was a self-centered, over-sexed creature, whose brain must have been boiling night and day with dreams and images of amorous jacks. For whole days she would stand and work her jaws in a strange, lickerish way which was as irritating to us as it was curious. This was “horsing,” Bowen said. Why mules are endowed with any sexual desires at all I know not. Tantalus was positively comfortable, I should say, in comparison. Jin, on the contrary, was a placid, even sunny old wife, who was faithful and sensible in every particular, and in addition could walk almost as fast as Baldy down the corn-rows.
Jim was a black carriage horse whom Dad had accepted from Doctor Bartholaw of Urbana in part payment for a lot, I think, in the Van Doren addition. Bowen drove him to his surrey until he bought his Ford, after which Jim ran free all day. He was a highstrung steed who had seen better days, and perhaps saner days. We thought him “locoed” upon certain occasions. There was no living with the other horses for him. Whether his aristocratic veins heated him to a fury of contempt cannot be said, but it was evident from the first that he would kick or run them into a frenzy if left long in the same pasture.…
Dad and Jack were small, neat, black mules whom Moler drove. They were the “handiest” animals on the farm: very graceful, very steady, and very wise.
Nell was a sturdy, hysterical white mare. Frank was her colt, working for the first time this summer. I named him after our Frank. He was a tall, freckled gray, overgrown fellow, absolutely good and absolutely lazy. He had no notion at any time where his feet would be planted next, nor any desire to know that critical fact. He was lovable in his guilelessness, but exasperating in his lack of passion, and it was quite beyond his comprehension that anyone should become enraged at him as I confess I often did.
“The Broncho” was an amazing piece. She was old, perhaps the oldest thing on the place, but she had lost not one jot of her fiery resentment towards the conqueror man. She submitted to the harness but worked out her passion in a frenzy of prancing and plunging and sweating. She was tiny. No harness would fit her. Any bridle fell loosely and often ludicrously, over her burning black eyes. She was most tragically out of her element. She should never have been tamed, but should be running free this minute on the western plains, the incarnation of female littleness and fury.
One of my most positive delights consisted in walking before sun-up to the gate of the pasture wherein these animals had lain and fed all the dewy night, and whistling them up to the barn for breakfast and harnessing. The east would be faintly rosy by that time, and the currents of mist and cool morning air would scarcely have begun to stir. My long, carrying notes would float out through the dawn and soon the figure of the nearest horse or mule would appear, moving soberly towards the gate. Then another figure would appear, then another, and soon all would have filed past me to their places in the barn, where corn and hay would have been distributed by Roy and where Bowen would be milking the two stupid red cows. Then we would curry and harness our respective teams and go in to our own breakfast.
On the farm to the west were Bob and Mont Cessna, the only representatives of a family which had once numbered 15 or 20,1 believe. Mont, who was, I suppose, 27, was operating the farm that summer for the estate. He was a slender, sharp-featured, gentle fellow, who I do not doubt was aware of many subtle values & distinctions but who was distressingly inarticulate. He was impulsive, yet never acted impulsively; was friendly, yet never cordial; was anxious to jest and banter, but never succeeded in being genial or hearty; started often to confide an opinion or an observation, yet somehow always failed to finish his statement or complete the image of his mind. A thoroughly decent fellow, but not destined for a blithe kind of career, and never, I fancy, a successful farmer Bob was more glib, He was the youngest of the family, a sophomore at the University of Illinois, and was only spending the summer with Mont. The two of them lived in a little shanty behind the tenant’s house, and cooked their own meals. Mont had contrived a shower bath in the rear, consisting of a tank and a hose. Mont liked to ride over on horseback to see Bowen and me on rainy mornings, when we would sit on the straw in the bottom of the driveway in the barn and lazily converse.
Not much happened during these three months at Hope. Dad had the Chicago Tribune sent to me; I read little else. He was convinced, quite rightly, that I should thus keep abreast of the larger events. Such was my delight in this vegetable existence, however, that I should never have missed a newspaper. Dad was indescribably good. He came about once a week in the old Overland and took me home for Sunday. I would shave and dress hurriedly (I remember how soft and snug my good clothes seemed when I put them on) and run down to the automobile where he would be waiting, always patiently, or perhaps imparting a few final directions to Bowen, who promptly forgot 9 out of 10 of them. I would drive home most often, to rest Dad, who drove so much. The late afternoons would often be cool, and we would roll pleasantly along towards Urbana, talking of all that country in the old days, and many things. How I loved then and shall always love that gentle man! How I despise my tongue that has uttered so many sharp, shallow, impatient things to him! At home would be mother, who was also as good as any mortal can be. The next morning, perhaps, we would go to church, to please mother, and then in the afternoon Frank and Grace and Charlotte were very likely to drive up from Villa Grove, and Paul with them. The next morning, often before it was light, Dad arid I would be rolling back to Hope, where he would leave me and go on to Potomac to look after the farm there. Twice I went with him to Potomac in the evening to see Grandma and Grandpa; and once I went with Bowen in a wagon, leading three colts which Vasa, the Potomac man, had better pasture for than we could find at Hope.
There were a number of trips in this direction or that. I rode with Roy in his buggy one evening to Collison, and once for three days Bowen and I hauled shelled corn for Dave Fowler to the elevator at Collison. Then Bowen and I drove three wagons to Fithian before daylight one morning, with hogs. And of course we all drove over to Royal on many a fine evening. I was sorry that the occasion never offered for driving to Muncie or Danville for coal. I had in mind a dramatic procession past Hazel Shepherd’s house. She was Nell Littler’s cousin, and, as I remember, a beautiful girl. I had been first smitten by her, strangely enough, at Ed Knight’s funeral in the Baptist Church at Muncie, where she played the piano. I had gone out from Urbana twice since with Nell and Carne to see her family. Now I wanted most particularly to drive by in my overalls and give her a good, rough, first-hand impression of me. But this never came off.
The Tillotson Reunion was held that summer at Uncle Frank Henry’s, near Number 10. Dad and Mother and Charlotte drove out from Urbana and Frank and Grace came all the way from Villa Grove in their Marmon. I have forgotten now which party picked me up at the farm. The day was rich in revelation to me. Never before had I seen so far into the good-natured bosoms of the Hope and Potomac people. Grandpa, of course, got up on the porch and made his Prohibition speech, and referred to his old girl, Grandma. There were dozens of distant cousins to meet, and no end of little children to praise and immediately forget. The dinner was only slightly curtailed by the exigencies of war: cakes, salads, meats, jellies, preserves, and sandwiches went round the table, which stood under the trees, unceasingly. The talk ran mostly upon the war. I had little to say.
I rode back as far as the farm with Frank and Grace and Charlotte, who stopped a few minutes to see “my horses” and take a picture of good gray Jim.
Innumerable little scenes and actions present themselves to be recounted now, but I must let them fall back into my memory and go on to what, after all, was to have been the center of this relation, the army.
Towards the last of July the initial drawing of numbers was made at Washington by Secretary of War Baker and others. On that day I was hauling limestone from Royal. I drove into the lane with my last load about dusk, to find Bowen and Moler and Lavonne standing in a little group at the barnyard gate. I knew at once what they had to say, and was not in the least moved when Bowen announced, “Your Dad telephoned and said you’re drafted.” “Good,” I returned, and drove on in to unhitch. I think I was more relieved than anything else. To be chosen among the first, to have all settled so easily, to know for once what I should be doing soon, was blessed, and I unhitched with a light heart and a strange glow in my breast.