Short book provides intelligent insight
“History is a field of human intentions, deeds, acts. We need to look a little more closely at this field of human intention: for upon it hangs, as if by a silver thread, the concept of the Living Being.”
In Stewards of History: A Study of the Nature of a Moral Deed (RoseDog Books, 2012, 126 pages), Caryl Johnston, author of the above passage, does indeed “look a little more closely” at history. She begins with one of her ancestors, Virginia General John Hartwell Cocke, friend of Thomas Jefferson and one of the founders of the University of Virginia. For most of his life, Cocke called for the emancipation of slaves and sought ways to free his own servants, conducting for a time an experiment in Alabama in which he and others would teach slaves the rudiments of reading and writing and how to make their way in the world before attaining freedom.
With Cocke’s death in 1866, we look next to the history of his descendants, particularly those caught up in the racial strife of 1960s Birmingham, Alabama. Johnston here recounts the struggles of her parents, particularly her liberal father, an attorney, as they battle the prejudice and segregation of that time.
Johnston concludes her book with reminiscences of other family members and with a meditation on the meaning of history, covenant, honor, and family. Here she discusses such turns in philosophy and history as deconstructionism and postmodernism, and the ways in which these ideas have disrupted our concept of our own history and severed our relationship with the past, a break which changes how we view not only the past, but the present and future as well.
Johnston writes that “My father had the morality of the colt without the honor; his parents had gained the honor without the moral deed. Thus there was, in my family line, something that led to a sense of vexation and incompleteness; of things not quite achieving their appointed goals; of opportunities not so much missed as misinterpreted.”
Though a short book, Stewards of History offers much to ponder. Some of the author’s thoughts on race relations from the 1960s until today are, I believe, unique, especially one of her points about the Birmingham Bombings and the use of police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters. Those who remember that time when Martin Luther King was calling for a non-violent civil rights movement and Freedom Riders were coming into the South to support that cause will recollect that the marches, sit-ins, and protests involved white and black participants. “After Birmingham,” writes Johnston, “no longer could the struggle for civil rights be seen as a common struggle of white and black. From Birmingham on, inevitably, it was white against black.”
Johnston goes on to examine the split between men like King and Stokeley Carmichael. King examined questions regarding the moral worth of Western civilization for people of color and “provided a spiritually-affirming answer to them.” Carmichael, who popularized the term “black power,” turned away from King’s vision and embraced force as a more effective tool for change.
Questions of race play a part in Stewards of History, but the main point of the book lies in the title word stewards. Johnston, a Baby Boomer, writes, “As far as I was concerned, the Sixties were about spiritual search, which came as the result of the experience of discontinuity.” Discontinuity and our lack of stewardship I read as the overarching theme of this book. Technological development, the growth of cities in the last seven score years, the electronic world in which many of us spend so much of our time, the breakdown of the family and its place as the repository for biography, story, and tradition, the much-diminished belief in the value of Western civilization: these and other changes have cut us loose from the anchors of our past.
And I’m not sure most of us are aware that we are adrift, that many of us, as Johnston reminds us, take our civilization for granted. Fifty years ago, the growing sense in the West of “alienation” received attention from moviemakers, psychologists, and novelists and philosophers like Sartre and Camus. Today I rarely hear that word spoken, and can only surmise, after reading Stewards of History, that we in America, Europe, and elsewhere have grown so accustomed to feeling alienated from our culture, our past, our fellow human beings, and even from ourselves that we are no longer aware of its existence. We have adapted and moved on.
Stewards of History is not an easy read. It is neither a conventional biography nor a screed touting the political left or right. Frequently, in telling of General Cocke or of other members of her family, Johnston will pause to examine larger questions of history, theology, politics, and philosophy. When she discusses Cocke setting out for Alabama intending eventually to free the slaves he is bringing with him, Johnston then for two pages discusses Harriet Beecher Stowe, historian Stanley Elkins, William the Silent, the Holy Grail, and Christianity. Some might be put off by such intrusions, but if the reader will slow down and make the connections offered by Johnston, that patience will be rewarded with insight and wisdom.
Stewards of History once again proves the truth of that old saying: Good things come in small packages.