Why Progressivism and Religion Don’t Go Together - Leftists want government to do the work of God — transform human beings into perfect creatures.
by ALEXANDRA DESANCTIS for National Review, July 7, 2017
Anyone watching the Democratic leaders in the months since Donald Trump was elected president will likely agree: The party is in nearly complete disarray. There is less consensus, however, about exactly why Democrats are having such a difficult time defining themselves in the post-Trump electoral landscape....
Some have suggested that the party’s top leadership is the main issue, and Democratic politicians in the House have begun openly grumbling against minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Others on the Left believe that Democratic candidates have been losing because they’ve stayed too close to the center, rather than endorsing the increasingly progressive policies some voters desire. Still others have posited that the underlying issue is the party’s dismissive attitude toward religious values and even organized religion itself.
While the problems afflicting the party must stem from some combination of these factors, Democrats’ scorn for religion should be their biggest concern. That scorn is compounded by the party’s sudden and dramatic swerve to the Left on key social issues — abortion, contraception, religious liberty, and marriage, to name a few — in a quest for votes from far-Left, progressive Americans.
Just after the election in Georgia, historian Daniel Williams wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Democrats’ Religion Problem.” In it, he suggested that Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign might offer the party a way of reaching religious Americans. He writes:
Mr. Sanders’s non-Christian background may have hurt him in the South; he did poorly among African-American voters, despite his consistent civil rights record. But he did what few other secular candidates have done: He won a sympathetic hearing from conservative evangelicals with a speech that gave a religious grounding for his economic views, complete with biblical citations. When Mr. Sanders spoke at Liberty University, he did not pretend to share evangelical Christians’ faith, but he showed respect for his audience’s religious tradition.
Williams concluded by arguing that Democratic politicians must convince religious voters that they are not enemies of faith, and they ought to do so by “grounding their policy proposals in the religious values of prospective voters.”
This week, in a New York Times column, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf offered an alternative model. The co-authors suggested that Thomas Jefferson’s unique attitude toward religion — which pervaded his contributions to the nation’s founding and early government — could serve as a model for today’s Democrats, especially Jefferson’s vigorous embrace of civil religion and peaceful pluralism.
These debates may provide Democrats a method of attaining electoral success, perhaps even in the near future. But while each suggestion hints at a way of combating negative public perception, neither of these models can eliminate the underlying obstacle: progressivism’s inherent contradiction of religion.
Progressivism has always been premised on the notion that man has a changeable nature and thus is able to achieve perfection during his time on earth. As a result, progressives consistently maintain that government is responsible for transforming men and women into perfect creatures. They develop programs and reforms suited not for man as he is, but for man as he ought to be (and, progressives would argue, for man as he could become, with the right societal structures). Against that idea, most religious believers contend that man is flawed by his very nature and incapable of perfecting himself without the help of God, and that perfection is in fact unattainable during earthly life. While sects and denominations differ vastly, religion itself — and indeed any dependence on a Creator — is a direct contradiction to the progressive conception of man as changeable and perfectible. In short, progressivism and religion — understood as a fundamental reliance on God rather than on oneself or on other men — are inherently incompatible. Where progressivism asserts that properly ordered government can and should transform man into a perfect being who lives in a man-made utopia, religion insists that God, not government, is responsible for changing men’s hearts.
To be sure, many religious Americans believe that progressive social programs are helping to carry out God’s work — caring for the world’s poor and needy. But that underlying contradiction remains a stumbling block for many faithful voters, especially when seen in conjunction with Democrats’ increasing repudiation of traditional values. Unless Democratic politicians understand and address those legitimate concerns, they won’t sway those who reject the notion that government should take the place of God.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute
The new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes hi hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.
Charles Lanman (1819-1895) was an American Renaissance Man. The Michigan native was a librarian, scholar, ambassador, angler, explorer and travel writer. Participating in the Hudson River School for an entire decade, Lanman was also a talented painter who studied under the great Asher Durand.
Lanman’s Letters from the Alleghany Mountains (1849) is, arguably, the most picturesque eyewitness account of Southern Appalachian life in the antebellum period. I read it thirty years ago and have returned to it often. Digging a bit deeper into his extensive literary output, I recently discovered a piece that he described as an origin story of the Catawba Indians, among numerous other Indian tales in his 1857 book, Adventures in the Wilds of the United States and British American Provinces. In the eighteenth century, the Catawbas were a prominent native group in the Carolina Piedmont and were also perpetual adversaries of the Cherokees. Their culture has survived, not quite intact, to the present day. Last year, I posted an entry on one man who was (ostensibly) the last speaker of the Catawba language. To what extent Lanman was personally acquainted with Catawba people in the 1840s and 1850s is an open question, as is the degree to which he relied on his own imagination to recount the Catawba Genesis legend:
THERE was a time when the world was an unbroken waste of rocks, hills, and mountains, save only one small valley, which was distinguished for its luxuriance, and where reigned a perpetual summer. At that time, too, the only human being who inhabited the earth was a woman, whose knowledge was confined to this valley, and who is remembered among the Catawbas as the mother of mankind.
She lived in a cavern, and her food consisted of the honey of flowers, and the sweet berries and other fruits of the wilderness. Birds without number, and the wild streams which found a resting-place in the valley, made the only music which she ever heard. Among the wild animals, which were very numerous about her home, she wandered without any danger; but the beaver and the doe were her favorite companions.
In personal appearance she was eminently beautiful, and the lapse of years only had a tendency to increase the brightness of her eyes and the grace of her movements. The dress she wore was made of those bright green leaves which enfold the water lilies, and her hair was as long as the grass which fringed the waters of her native vale. She was the ruling spirit of a perennial world, for even the very flowers which bloomed about her sylvan home were never known to wither or die. In spite of her lonely condition, she knew not what it was to be lonely; but ever and anon a strange desire found its way to her heart, which impelled her to explore the wild country which surrounded her home.
For many days had she resisted the temptation to become a wanderer from her charming valley, until it so happened, on a certain morning, that a scarlet butterfly made its appearance before the door of her cave, and by the hum of its wings invited her away. She obeyed the summons, and followed the butterfly far up a rocky ravine, until she came to the foot of a huge waterfall, when she was deserted by her mysterious pilot, and first became acquainted with the emotion of fear.
Her passage of the ravine had been comparatively smooth; but when she endeavored, in her consternation, to retrace her steps, she found her efforts unavailing, and fell to the ground in despair. A deep sleep then overcame her senses, from which she was not awakened until the night was far spent; and then the dampness of the dew had fallen upon her soft limbs, and for the first time in her life did she feel the pang of a bodily pain.
Forlorn and desolate indeed was her condition, and she felt that some great event was about to happen, when, as she uncovered her face and turned it to the sky, she beheld, bending over her prostrate form, and clothed in a cloud-like robe, the image of a being somewhat resembling herself, only that he was more stoutly made, and of a much fiercer aspect. Her first emotion at this strange discovery was that of terror; but as the mysterious being looked upon her in kindness, and raised her lovingly from the ground, she confided in his protection, and listened to his words until the break of day.
He told her that he was a native of the far-off sky, and that he had discovered her in her forlorn condition while travelling from the evening to the morning star. He told her also that he had never before seen a being so soft and beautifully formed as she. In coming to her rescue he had broken a command of the Great Spirit, or the Master of Life, and, as he was afraid to return to the sky, he desired to spend his days in her society upon earth. With joy did she accept this proposal; and, as the sun rose above the distant mountains, the twain returned in safety to the luxuriant vale, where, as man and woman, for many moons, they lived and loved in perfect tranquility and joy.
In process of time the woman became a mother; from which time the happiness of the twain became more intense, but they at the same time endured more troubles than they had ever known before. The man was unhappy because he had offended the Master of Life, and the mother was anxious about the comfort and happiness of her newly-born child. Many and devout were the prayers they offered the Great Spirit for his guidance and protection, for they felt that from them were to be descended a race of beings more numerous than the stars of heaven.
The Great Spirit had compassion on these lone inhabitants of the earth; and, in answer to their prayers, he caused a mighty wind to pass over the world, making the mountains crowd closely together, and rendering the world more useful and beautiful by the prairies and valleys and rivers which now cover it, from the rising to the setting sun. The Master of Life also told his children that he would give them the earth and all that it contained as their inheritance; but that they should never enjoy their food without labor, should be annually exposed to a season of bitter cold, and that their existence should be limited by that period of time when their heads should become as white as the plumage of the swan. And so endeth the words of the Catawba.
One of Charles Lanman's paintings
In 1848, Lanman spent some time exploring Roan Mountain, on the Tennessee – North Carolina border and he credited the Catawbas with an explanation for the rhododendron balds of that region:
In accounting for the baldness which characterizes the Roan Mountain, the Catawba Indians relate the following tradition:
There was once a time when all the nations of the earth were at war with the Catawbas, and had proclaimed their determination to conquer and possess their country.
On hearing this intelligence the Catawbas became greatly enraged, and sent a challenge to all their enemies, and dared them to a fight on the summit of the Roan. The challenge was accepted, and no less than three famous battles were fought—the streams of the entire land were red with blood, a number of tribes became extinct, and the Catawbas carried the day.
Whereupon it was that the Great Spirit caused the forests to wither from the three peaks of the Roan Mountain where the battles were fought; and wherefore it is that the flowers which grow upon this mountain are chiefly of a crimson hue, for they are nourished by the blood of the slain.
The following post first appeared here on December 16, 2007:
I happened upon a collection of presidential inaugural addresses. After browsing through the past fifty years of speeches, I’m struck by how similar they all are (with a few exceptions). Reagan’s addresses, (and to a lesser extent those by the Bushes), break the pattern a bit, marked by language and ideas that are less lofty, and more specific, than the typical inaugural address. That's my first impression after a quick reading. In any event, you'll probably have a tough time matching the right president to each of the following quotes. These represent all of the inaugural addresses since 1957 (Eisenhower through Bush), but in random order. Answers follow the quotes. Noble words come easy, eh?
1. The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
2. Together with the rest of the world, let us resolve to move forward from the beginnings we have made. Let us continue to bring down the walls of hostility which have divided the world for too long, and to build in their place bridges of understanding—so that despite profound differences between systems of government, the people of the world can be friends. Let us build a structure of peace in the world in which the weak are as safe as the strong—in which each respects the right of the other to live by a different system—in which those who would influence others will do so by the strength of their ideas, and not by the force of their arms.
3. America must remain freedom's staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally. And it is the world's only hope, to conquer poverty and preserve peace. Every blow we inflict against poverty will be a blow against its dark allies of oppression and war. Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace. So we go forward today, a nation still mighty in its youth and powerful in its purpose. With our alliances strengthened, with our economy leading the world to a new age of economic expansion, we look forward to a world rich in possibilities.
4. In America’s ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love. Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another, and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth. And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.
5. We live in a land of plenty, but rarely has this earth known such peril as today. In our nation work and wealth abound. Our population grows. Commerce crowds our rivers and rails, our skies, harbors, and highways. Our soil is fertile, our agriculture productive. The air rings with the song of our industry—rolling mills and blast furnaces, dynamos, dams, and assembly lines—the chorus of America the bountiful. This is our home—yet this is not the whole of our world. For our world is where our full destiny lies—with men, of all people, and all nations, who are or would be free. And for them—and so for us—this is no time of ease or of rest.
6. Beyond that, my fellow citizens, the future is up to us. Our founders taught us that the preservation of our liberty and our union depends upon responsible citizenship. And we need a new sense of responsibility for a new century. There is work to do, work that government alone cannot do: teaching children to read; hiring people off welfare rolls; coming out from behind locked doors and shuttered windows to help reclaim our streets from drugs and gangs and crime; taking time out of our own lives to serve others.
7. We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to "the better angels of our nature," we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings.
8. If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.
9. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state. For the first time in this century, for the first time in perhaps all history, man does not have to invent a system by which to live. We don't have to talk late into the night about which form of government is better. We don't have to wrest justice from the kings. We only have to summon it from within ourselves. We must act on what we know. I take as my guide the hope of a saint: In crucial things, unity; in important things, diversity; in all things, generosity.
10. While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.
11. We have already found a high degree of personal liberty, and we are now struggling to enhance equality of opportunity. Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced. We have learned that "more" is not necessarily "better," that even our great Nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems. We cannot afford to do everything, nor can we afford to lack boldness as we meet the future. So, together, in a spirit of individual sacrifice for the common good, we must simply do our best.
12. How incredible it is that in this fragile existence, we should hate and destroy one another. There are possibilities enough for all who will abandon mastery over others to pursue mastery over nature. There is world enough for all to seek their happiness in their own way. Our Nation's course is abundantly clear. We aspire to nothing that belongs to others. We seek no dominion over our fellow man, but man's dominion over tyranny and misery. But more is required. Men want to be a part of a common enterprise—a cause greater than themselves. Each of us must find a way to advance the purpose of the Nation, thus finding new purpose for ourselves. Without this, we shall become a nation of strangers.
13. In serving, we recognize a simple but powerful truth—we need each other. And we must care for one another. Today, we do more than celebrate America; we rededicate ourselves to the very idea of America. An idea born in revolution and renewed through two centuries of challenge. An idea tempered by the knowledge that, but for fate, we—the fortunate and the unfortunate—might have been each other. An idea ennobled by the faith that our nation can summon from its myriad diversity the deepest measure of unity. An idea infused with the conviction that America's long heroic journey must go forever upward.
1. John F. Kennedy, 1961 2. Richard Nixon, 1973 3. Ronald Reagan, 1985 4. George W. Bush, 2005 5. Dwight Eisenhower, 1957 6. Bill Clinton, 1997 7. Richard Nixon, 1969 8. Ronald Reagan, 1981 9. George Bush, 1989 10. George W. Bush, 2001 11. Jimmy Carter, 1977 12. Lyndon Johnson, 1965 13. Bill Clinton, 1993
After decades perusing nineteenth century documents pertaining to the Southern Appalachians, it is easy for me to assume that I've already found all the "Really Good Stuff." Of course that's not the case, though the rare gems I still unearth from time to time have been well hidden.
The work of James Roberts Gilmore is a good example.
A prolific and popular author during and after the Civil War, Gilmore deserves to be better known than he is today. In a prior post, I shared his introduction to Mountain-White Heroine (1889). Gilmore's commentary caught my attention thanks to his early grasp of the threat posed by lax immigration laws and the diffusion of socialist thought in America. In contrast, Gilmore saw the embodiment of desperately needed "American values" in the mountaineers of Southern Appalachia.
Although his political commentary at the front of Mountain-White Heroine is a somewhat surprising curiosity, I wasn't expecting anything special from the novel that followed. I've read, or tried to read, other 19th century regional fiction. Some of it is worth the effort, but much of it is deeply flawed. Besides if Gilmore was any good, why had I never heard of him?
Born in Boston, James Roberts Gilmore (1823 - 1903) began his career in New York as a businessman involved in the cotton and shipping industries. During the 1850s, his work took him to the South where he became acquainted with whites and blacks. During the Civil War and the decades that followed, he devoted more of his time to writing, often publishing his work under the pseudonym, Edmund Kirke. He was a novelist, historian, poet and lecturer, spending time in the South to collect material for his books. He took particular interest in John Sevier and other pioneers of trans-Appalachian settlement and stayed in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina while conducting research for his historical book series.
As a Civil War story, as a suspenseful tale well-told, Mountain-White Heroine rises well above my low expectations. It warrants a space on the same shelf as similar works by modern writers like Charles Frazier and Robert Morgan. The novel recounts the hardships endured by Union loyalists in Madison County, NC. Sons and husbands who refuse to fight for the Confederacy suffer the most dire of consequences. Several historic figures appear in the novel: Robert Vance (briefly), Daniel Ellis (a Union officer who wrote a popular memoir about his war-time exploits in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina), and Union Colonel George Kirk. More often than not in other novels and histories, Kirk and his "Raiders" are portrayed as cruel bushwhackers, terrorizing North Carolina mountaineers regardless of their allegiances in the war. Gilmore, though, presents a different perspective on Kirk's Raiders, casting them in an unusually positive light.
Several things ring true in Mountain-White Heroine: Gilmore was intimately familiar with the geographical setting for the story, primarily in Madison County, although action ranged as far as Charleston (Bryson City), Soco, Waynesville and Morganton. Gilmore also had a sense of the social strata of mountain communities. His descriptions of some mountain people as ignorant and slovenly verge on stereotype. On the other hand, he devotes as much or more space to mountaineers who are resolute, principled and brave. Gilmore introduces us to the best and the worst of society.
The novel opens in April 1861 with the arrival of the circus:
...the monster placard announced that the dancing dogs, the monkey that plays the tambourine, and the half-nude goddess who rides four steeds at once, bare-backed, and at full gallop, would soon be on exhibition in the widely-known village of Asheville. The circus stole into town over night, and when the half-asleep dwellers in the place heard its measured tramp on the highway, they knew that a long procession of Mountain-Whites would follow in the morning. And it did. One unbroken stream of both sexes, and all ages, on foot, on horse-back, mule-back, and "critter back," and in every kind of nondescript vehicle, poured into the town, over all its principal thoroughfares, from early dawn till high-noon...
Gilmore devotes several pages to colorful descriptions of the people travelling to the big show:
The most of the people in this procession had dull, expressionless faces, and only a casual glance was needed to show that they were below the average of our rural population in civilization, and intelligence. A considerable portion had the appearance of well-to-do farmers, the remainder are known, far and wide, as "poor whites;" though they are not poor in the sense of being homeless, and destitute of the necessaries of life. However, their homes are often little better than hovels, and their food is usually a ration of salt pork, hominy, and "corn-dodger," which fails to develop in them a very high order of manhood. But the hovels are their own, and so are the small patches of cleared ground which they cultivate in the rudest and most primitive manner.
During the circus, news of the recent attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston begins to circulate through the crowd:
It is probable that not an individual in the assemblage had any adequate conception of the national bearing of the event, or of its vital relation to his own future; and yet, a feeling of dread and uncertainty, a vague sense of a grave crisis having come into their lives, pervaded the entire gathering, and sent each one back to his home pondering the tidings with more than his accustomed thoughtfulness. By none was the political bearing of this event more fully appreciated than by three youths, aged respectively, fifteen, seventeen, and nineteen years, who occupied one of the upper seats of the immense tent at the beginning of the itinerant performance. They were of a better class than a larger portion of the motley audience. Their clothing was of homespun, like that of the others, but it was neat, cleanly, and well-fitting, and sat upon them with the easy grace which betokens good breeding.
A reference to "good breeding" might chafe the sensitivities of the 21st century reader, but so be it. Gilmore's distinctions bring to mind an interview with Charlotte Young (1879-1985) a poet and educator who taught in remote mountains schools in the early twentieth century. She had her own way of depicting the range of virtue and vice that she observed among mountain folk:
According to Greek belief, there two groups in the world. Apollo stood for reaching for Divinity for music and poetry. The followers of Bacchus emphasized the physical side of like, and were call Dioninysians. In Western North Carolina you see that as it was then in Greece and Rome, and everywhere, for that matter. You can see it all over the world now; all civilization, or lack of civilization. It was a fight between those two forces. In North Carolina the force for seeking the Divine is rather strong. Some are followers of Bacchus and some are followers of Apollo, reaching for the Divine in art, in music, in beauty, as Apollo stood for all the finer things of life, as we say. So Bacchus stood only for his wine and women and eat, drink and be merry. In North Carolina, I don't know if it's more so than in other places, but those who are with the group that reach for Divinity are very strong in it; and just as strong are those who like to shake their feet and dance and drink and run with the Bacchus crowd. I find that in my teaching, and I suppose it's more or less that way everywhere.
The three brothers in Gilmore's novel have never been so far from their home across the Ivy River in Madison County. Growing weary of the circus, they leave early to share the news of Fort Sumter with their widowed mother, Mrs. Nancy Hawkins, a saintly woman and the central character of Mountain-White Heroine, a Charlotte Young Apollonian if there ever was one.
Mrs. Hawkins' relationship with a mountain "wild-woman" named Sukey is remarkably similar to the Ada and Ruby friendship in Frazier's Cold Mountain. For anyone steeped in 19th century mountain narratives, Frazier's "borrowings" from that pool of literature are obvious. Frazier acknowledges as much in an afterword to his novel, listing a dozen books that he found particularly helpful. Nothing by James R. Gilmore is listed. So, the parallels between Nancy-Sukey and Ada-Ruby could be sheer coincidence...or not:
...house-keeping was not Sukey's "gift." She preferred to roam the woods, rifle or shot-gun in hand, in pursuit of the deer or wild rabbit. With these she kept their larder well stocked, and sometimes she brought down game that would have been regarded as a trophy by a male sportsman — on two or three occasions, a bear, and once a panther, which had stretched itself along the limb of a tree, and was about to spring down upon her.
Sukey faces ongoing difficulties with her neer-do-well common law husband, the "Parson:"
"He's just loike what they say uv his farder and gran'ther — lazy as one, an' as big a thief as t'other. Why, he steals game thet I gits by all-day hunting; and swops hit off for bacon. He'd ruther pay twenty cents a pound for greasy swine-flesh, nor eat my best venison for nothin'. An' the swine ar' got inter his blood — made him just loike the porkers, an' thet's the trouble with all the folks round yere. They'se lived on swine so long that they'se got to be swine tharselves."
Yes, some of the dialect might be an issue for today's reader, but isn't as extreme or pervasive as that found in other Appalachian literature from the same time period, Mary Noailles Murfree (aka Charles Egbert Craddock) being a prime example. Gilmore is also more moderate than Murfree with another common device from that time, florid descriptions of mountain scenery. I happen to enjoy over-the-top word pictures like those painted by Murfree, including this one from The Frontiersmen:
The mockingbirds were singing in the woods outside. The sun was in the trees. The leafage had progressed beyond the bourgeoning period and the branches flung broad green splendors of verdure to the breeze. The Great Smoky Mountains were hardly less blue than the sky as the distant summits deployed against the fair horizon; only the nearest, close at hand, were sombre, and showed dark luxuriant foliage and massive craggy steeps, and their austere, silent, magnificent domes looked over the scene with solemn uplifting meanings.
It is worth remembering that most readers in the mid to late 19th century had no access to full-color, high resolution images of the Smokies. Perhaps they had seen a few black-and-white lithographs in popular magazines, but they relied on their own imaginations to form a mental image of the mountains. Compared to other writers of his time, Gilmore exercises restraint with his depictions of the landscape, and this passage is about as extravagant as it gets:
...the horsemen set off at a brisk gallop down the road to Waynesville, until they came opposite the point where the Oconolufta joins the Tuckasege. There in Indian file, each horseman treading as nearly as possible in the tracks of the one preceding him — they forded the Tuckasege, and striking a north-east course entered, at the distance of a few miles, the wooded ravine bordered by steep mountain ranges, a mile or more in height, through which flows the picturesque Oconolufta. They were now in a magnificent region of mighty woods, majestic mountains, and noisy cascades, which leap over precipitous cliffs, and rush in sheeted foam down steep declivities. Here and there a grassy cove indents the side of the ravine, or a quiet, tree-sprinkled valley, where the mountains had receded farther from the river, and left some luxuriant nook to be one day the abode of man. As yet, however, no human habitation can be found in all the forest-covered region, and a stillness unbroken save by the noisy rush of the river, the startled cry of some bird, or the occasional bleat of a deer, or growl of a bear, reigns over all the leafy solitude.
I'll reveal nothing more about the plot of Gilmore's novel. Despite, or perhaps because of, the literary license he takes with historic facts, he gives us an engaging and valuable perspective on a tragic episode of Appalachian life. The author's obscurity, 130 years after his hey-day, is revealed by googling "James Roberts Gilmore." After reading his novel about the people of Madison County, I would say he deserves to be rediscovered.
Among his other books was the historic work, Advance Guard of Western Civilization, focused on James Robertson and the pioneer settlers of Middle Tennessee's Cumberland Region. Though Gilmore's contemporaries were underwhelmed by the depth of his scholarship. With a lengthy footnote in the The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt skewered Gilmore for shoddy research about John Sevier. Even so, and even if Gilmore's version of history might have its shortcomings, Advance Guard is an entertaining read. Until finding Gilmore's book, I knew nothing about Spanish intrique among the trans-Appalachian pioneers in the 1780s, and I was unaware of James Wilkinson, a man who challenges Benedict Arnold for the title of "America's Worst Traitor...Ever."