Yesterday I vented on behalf of the great state of Iowa, a squarish polity whose flag is largely French, whose capital is positively monk-filled, and whose luminaries include Herbert Hoover and Ashton Kutcher. And I quoted at length from an essay published in These United States: Portraits of America from the 1920s by one Johan J. Smertenko, whose connection to said state consists of having been born in Russia, educated in Wisconsin, and preoccupied with Israel.
(As an aside, I once stopped for gas in Wisconsin. After handing my credit card to the attendant, he shouted at me: “Iowa? Really?! Idiots Out Walking Around, that’s more like it! Ha!”)
So I decided to turn to the back of These United States and investigate how the Commonwealth of Virginia fared at the hands of the Nation. Would she be subjected to the same scurvy cliches as Iowa, coughed up like exhaust by her city-fried enemies? Would she, in other words, be Smertenko’d?
Well, it depends upon how you look at it, I guess. Because when I found Virginia on page 374, she was woman wrapped in black, mourning her lost youth. “Virginia buried her beloved at Appomattox,” it begins, “as her sons stood by, very ragged.”
All that she was, all that she hoped, all in which she had taken pride she told herself she had interred there. But it was spring for her sons, plowing-season, and they were hungry. They tramped back home and fortunately found in the reclamation of stumpy fields and neglected meadows an outlet for their grief. They thought of the past as seldom as they might and talked of it scarcely at all. It was five years before they had the farm in order, ten before they had any leisure, twenty before they possessed any money, thirty before they were measurably prosperous as their fathers had been in 1860. After the Spanish-American war—they never knew why—they could paint the house and buy a new surrey and take the wife to town for her shopping twice a year. By 1905 they began to argue whether it would not be possible to send the girl as well as the boy to college.
This strikes me as an approximate cross between The Sons of Katie Elder and the Yeats play Cathleen Ní Houlihan. The author, you might not be shocked to learn, is Douglas Southall Freeman, and he has titled his state portrait “Virginia: A Gentle Dominion.” Gentle! Would never hurt a fly! Why, you Yankees from Iowa, would you have ever been so mean to our dear Mother? And just in case you don’t follow, Freeman does call her Mother, as in
The Mother herself, Virginia, went straight from Appomattox to the old house that typified the civilization that had perished. She climbed to the second-story bedroom; she pulled down the blinds and through the darkness of reconstruction sat in her mourning . . .
That sounds like Psycho; or maybe Virginia is really Miss Havisham. I don’t know anymore. I’m just glad she’s starting to perk up.
IMAGE: Henry S. Tanner, “A New Map of Virginia with its Canals, Roads & Distances from place to place along the Stages & Steam Boat Routes.” From A New Universal Atlas. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1842/43. 10 3/4 x 13. Engraving by W. Brose.