Friday, June 4, 2010

Chuno/The Slave Hunters: Review & Summary (with spoilers)

Chuno is a 24 episode historical drama set in Joseon Korea, in the year 1648. It is about Lee Dae Gil, a former noble who became an embittered slave hunter, and his quest to track down the runaway slave woman he had sworn to marry.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Dae Gil’s life had been shattered the night his father discovered that he was in love with one of their slaves, a woman named Un Nyun. Marriage with a slave was impossible, and Dae Gil’s father immediately put the girl in restraints and threatened to starve her to death. Un Nyun’s brother, also a slave, burned down the house in desperation, and ran off with his sister. Both of Dae Gil’s parents died in the fire. In that one awful night, Dae Gil lost his parents, his home, his status as a nobleman, and the woman he loved.

Chuno’s theme is the inhumanity of the institution of slavery. It dramatizes the impossibility of a truly human life in slavery, and the evil repercussions it has throughout society, not just among the slaves, but among the nobles and other free classes, as well.

The drama opens with Dae Gil and his two companions, General Choi and Wang Son, on the hunt for escaped slaves. They find the slaves in a tavern, and quickly subdue them. Outside, Dae Gil offers any one of them a chance to go free – if they can tell him anything about Un Nyun’s whereabouts, after he shows them a drawing of her that he carries with him at all times. This quickly shows us Dae Gil’s true purpose in life, which is not slave hunting, but finding his lost love.

None of them have any information, however, and Dae Gil and his companions therefore herd them along the road to the capital, where they will be turned over to an official for the reward money.

On the way, a female slave begs for pity from Dae Gil, and he asks if she has ever heard of a slave hunter named Lee Dae Gil. She affirms that she has, and proceeds to describe him: “His eyes are crimson red, his teeth black as a beast. He looks like he’s been starving for ten days, and is the kind of lowbred who would gorge the night away in a gisaeng’s embrace, on the same day his parents died. But sir, you couldn’t possibly compare with such vulgar beasts.” Dae Gil answers: “That’d be me – that vulgar beast you heard about.” With that revelation, the slaves give up all hope of escape or release, or any kind of pity or compassion from their captor.

This is the barbaric, merciless image that is Dae Gil’s public persona, and he works hard to make people believe it. But it isn’t his real self, as we soon find out. Among the slaves, there is a mother and daughter. When Dae Gil learns that the daughter, who appears to be about 12 years old, is to be made her master’s bedmate, he breaks into the man’s home, knocks him out, and rescues the child and her mother. He then advises them to go to a certain mountain, where there is a man who takes in and protects escaped slaves. Over the course of the drama, we learn that he has been sending a steady stream of slaves to this refuge since becoming a slave hunter.

This shows there is some kind of war going on in Dae Gil’s soul. Clearly, he could have saved the mother and daughter all this trouble by not having captured them to begin with. And what of the other slaves? He did nothing to help them, after turning them over to the law. Nevertheless, we see that he is not all he appears to be on the surface.

Dae Gil’s next assignment is to recapture a runaway slave named Song Tae Ha, who we learn had been a General in the military, and the most skilled fighter in all Joseon. Tae Ha was well known for his integrity, as well. But none of this matters when a powerful government official decides he wants you out of his way. So Tae Ha is framed for theft, and made a slave.

Tae Ha is an interesting contrast to Dae Gil. Where Dae Gil is disillusioned with the class system of masters and slaves in Joseon, Tae Ha looks upon it as the natural order of things, and simply refuses to consider himself a slave, even though he is one, and has the word for slave branded on his forehead, like any other slave. Once Tae Ha escapes he covers the slave brand with a bandana, and looks upon himself as a noble, in spite of everything. And whereas Dae Gil wanted to marry a slave, but was not allowed to, Song Tae Ha did marry a slave, without realizing it. The two have this conversation late in the drama:

LDG: “So tell me, have you enjoyed your life as a slave?”

STH: “I have never been a slave.”

LDG: “Even with that mark on your forehead, you still flaunt your nobility.”

STH: “I might have spoken and behaved like a slave, but my soul never knelt before anyone.”

LDG: “That is why you shall never judge a book by its cover. Hey, if you do manage to change this world, give it a try. Making a world where no people will be forced by distress to run away, and there will be no need for people like me, spending their lives trailing them. This world where people cannot even experience that damned love as they wish. Is it not a wretched nuisance?”

"My soul never knelt before anyone." A magnificent statement. The problem with Song Tae Ha, however, is that he does not recognize that no one deserves to be a slave, any more than he does. But he begins to understand this as the drama unfolds. Dae Gil, in this scene from later in the drama, speaks sardonically, like he doesn't really care, one way or the other. On the inside, though, he is simply heartbroken. The sardonic attitude is simply his way of hiding it.

When Dae Gil accepts the assignment to capture Tae Ha, the Minister stipulates that if he doesn’t succeed in 30 days, his life will be forfeit. If he succeeds, a very large reward will be his and his companions, enough to quit the slave hunting business and buy some land and houses to live on and farm.

Matters soon become complicated when the Minister also sends another man out to bring back Tae Ha. So we meet Hwang Chulwong, who had been Song Tae Ha’s fellow officer, and who also happens to be the Minister’s son-in-law. Chulwong is another bitter man, a parvenu perhaps, whose bitterness stems from his belief that Tae Ha, and others, look down on him, and never showed him proper respect. His marriage to the Minister’s daughter also seems to have embittered him, since the woman is afflicted with some severely debilitating disease (possibly muscular dystrophy?), and Chulwong seems to despise her. From the outset, he acts like a man who wants revenge on the world, and he also is a tremendously skilled fighter. He is after power, and doesn’t care who he has to kill to get it. Finally, he is a cynic, who believes anyone who attains high position will use it for his own power and aggrandizement, even seemingly honorable characters like Song Tae Ha. This is perhaps the reason that Chulwong is so determined to crush Song Tae Ha, since his honor and integrity give the lie to Chulwong’s cynical philosophy.

So the plot follows the cat and mouse games of these three opposing forces, Song Tae Ha on a mission to save a disinherited child-Prince, with Dae Gil and his fellow slave hunters coming at him from one direction, and Chulwong and his minions coming at him from another.

Then the last big complication is added to the main plot: Dae Gil’s lost love, Un Nyun, who has assumed a new name, Kim Hye Won. She and her brother had managed to buy their way out of slavery, and she was set to be married to a well-to-do noble. At the last moment, however, she runs away from her marriage, unable to forget the “Young Master” she had loved, Lee Dae Gil. On her own, Hye Won runs into trouble from ruffians, but is rescued by Song Tae Ha, who happened along at just the right moment. As she clearly was alone and in need of protection, Song Tae Ha, being a gentleman, offered to let her travel under his protection for as long as they were travelling in the same direction, and she gratefully accepted.

Meanwhile a major subplot is developing. A group of slaves, given help and direction from a mysterious source, are plotting rebellion. They acquire a firearm (a matchlock?), and begin assassinating selected nobles (selected for them by their mysterious helper). Gradually they acquire more firearms, and become more effective. It is in this subplot, among the slaves, that we are shown the impossibility of a human existence as a slave. Daughters are sold from their parents, or forced to cohabit with the master. Total submission to the whims of the master is mandatory. Forming relationships is almost impossible, since one’s fellow slaves can be sold off to some other master at any time. They are clothed in rags, fed poorly, worked mercilessly, and branded like cattle. It is little wonder that slaves are fertile ground for rebellion.

As Dae Gil continues his pursuit of Song Tae Ha, it becomes apparent that he is travelling with a woman. At one point Dae Gil catches sight of her from behind, as she and Tae Ha are riding away on horseback. Dae Gil has the uneasy feeling that it looked like Un Nyun, but his two friends convince him he is just imagining it, as he has imagined seeing her many times before. Unfortunately for Dae Gil, this time it was not his imagination. It is Un Nyun/Hye Won, and as she and Tae Ha have travelled together, a friendship has formed between them, that is blossoming into love.

Tae Ha had been married before, with a child, but his wife and child had both been killed by the enemy in a war against the Qing. Hye Won, for her part, believes she has found a man who will enable her finally to get over her loss of the “Young Master,” who she has always believed died in the fire that killed both of his parents. At this point it has been ten years since that catastrophe. She has been thinking of him ever since, and Dae Gil has been searching for her all this time.

When the longed-for moment finally does happen, and Dae Gil sees Un Nyun before his eyes – it is just as she is performing the marriage ceremony with Song Tae Ha. And so the woman he wanted desperately to spend the rest of his life with, and whose happiness means more to him than anything else in the world, is not only married, but married to the man Dae Gil must capture and enslave, or face his own death for failing to do so. That is a value conflict, a life changing dilemma.

Whenever anyone asked him, Dae Gil always claimed he was hunting Un Nyun as an escaped slave. Now the moment of truth has come, and his actions are not in keeping with his words. Un Nyun is right in front of him for the taking, as is Song Tae Ha. But Dae Gil suddenly tells his fellow slave hunters he’s done slave hunting, it’s time to retire and enjoy a quiet life in the countryside. As he admits to General Choi, he has found Un Nyun, and she is happy with Song Tae Ha. He will not upset her happiness, even though it means he can never get back together with the woman he loves. It also means his life is in jeopardy from the Minister who paid him to capture Song Tae Ha.

How did this happen? Why did a man and woman who loved each other get torn asunder, leading to so much pain for both of them? The institution of slavery was the cause of all their suffering, for killing the love and happiness they should have enjoyed together. A master is forbidden to marry a slave; a slave has no right to love a master. Slavery ruins the lives and happiness of both slaves and masters.

Parallel to this ruined relationship is one among two slaves in the subplot of the slave rebellion. Eop Bok, a former tiger hunter who was enslaved for unpaid debts, had fallen in love with Chobok, a bright, intelligent young slave woman. Both of them were almost afraid to fall in love, because they both knew one of them could be sold off at any moment, and they’d never see each other again. But they were fiercely determined not to be separated. Then one day it happened. Chobok’s master decided to trade her for a cow. When Eop Bok found out, it was the last straw in his existence as a slave. He burst in on Chobok’s master, demanded to know who he had sold her to, and then he killed the man. None of this would have happened absent the institution of slavery. Their happiness would not have been broken up, and Eop Bok would not have committed a murder.

Dae Gil’s troubles did not end with his acceptance of Un Nyun’s happiness with another man. Her husband, Song Tae Ha, was still the object of a nationwide manhunt, led by the implacable Hwang Chulwong. When Chulwong found Dae Gil’s friend, Wang Son, still trying to capture Song Tae Ha, he viewed Wang Son as a competitor, and so he eliminated the competition – with his sword. When General Choi came out looking for Wang Son, he too was eliminated by Chulwong. He then set it up to convince Dae Gil that Song Tae Ha had killed his friends. This was more than Dae Gil could bear, and he set out to capture or kill Tae Ha, regardless of how it might affect Un Nyun.

Dae Gil rushes to the home where Song Tae Ha and Un Nyun had been staying, and finds only Un Nyun there. In his anguish for his lost friends, and his fury at the man he thinks killed them, Dae Gil cannot bring himself to show his love for Un Nyun. He pretends he has simply been hunting her, like any other slave. This scene is crucial to the story, and their conversation brings to the surface the theme that has been underlying the whole story. It begins with Un Nyun turning to find Dae Gil standing behind her. Dae Gil stands there silently, staring at the ground, as if to say: ”Take a good look at what I have become, compared to what I was –before your brother destroyed my home and family, and you ran away from me.”

Then he turns to her and speaks:

LDG: “Thought a runaway slave like you could have it so easy?”

UN: “Were you looking for me?”

LDG: “Slaves like you have no right to ask their keeper any questions.”

UN: “Did you, even if just for once, think about me?”

Dae Gil laughs, and says:

LDG: “What deranged fool would ever have feelings for a lowly slattern like you? Now I shall ask the questions. You couldn’t be incognizant of the tenets ruling us all, so how could you forsake our guiding principles and betray your keeper?”

UN: “Who created those tenets? And where did those principles originate? Isn’t trying to live life as decent human beings what our guiding principles should be?”

LDG: “And you even consider yourselves human beings? You know what you are? You are . . . nothing but slaves.”

. . . . . .

UN: “How could a paltry runaway slave implore for survival? Now . . . may you slay me. Seeing you alive itself brings me happiness.”

At this, Dae Gil is genuinely shocked, and indignant.

LDG: “Happiness? And what would you be happy about? Happy that I’m living this way? Or that we met in this manner? A single day feeling like endless moons: is that happiness? What the hell are you happy about?. . . Stop talking about happiness. Survival alone does not grant happiness to everyone.”

Dae Gil is unable to speak honestly with Un Nyun about his love for her. What he says to her is virtually the opposite of what he really feels. He says “What deranged fool would have feelings for a lowly slattern like you?” The truth is that Dae Gil is just such a ”fool.” He loved her long ago, has loved her for the ten years he has searched for her, and he loves her still.

When he asks how she could betray her keeper, he is betraying his own confessed desire to live with her forever in a changed world. He is pretending to believe in the master-slave system that has destroyed his life, simply so that Un Nyun will not see his anguish at having lost her.

Finally he does speak honestly, when Un Nyun says she is happy he is alive. This genuinely shocks Dae Gil, and he lashes out at her unfairly. Can you not see, he asks her, that I’m living like an animal, hunting slaves? Our meeting as enemies, instead of reunited lovers, makes you happy? What’s wrong with you?

This causes Un Nyun to break down in tears, for this is certainly not what she meant about happiness. But this meeting with Dae Gil had come about suddenly, and she had not had time to consider what Dae Gil’s life had become, and what he had suffered.

At this point, Song Tae Ha shows up. He and Dae Gil march off to a deserted spot to settle their grievances against one another, once and for all. They fight each other ferociously, each one thinking the other had killed his closest friends. In fact, Hwang Chulwong had killed all of them. As they fight, Dae Gil taunts Tae Ha with marrying a slave. Tae Ha had no idea Un Nyun, whom he knew as Kim Hye Won, had been a slave, and this shocks him profoundly. He refuses to believe it, and they renew their assault upon one another.

The fight results in Dae Gil capturing Tae Ha, and heading back to the capital to turn him over to the authorities. Before they get there, however, they have a revealing conversation about their differing world-views:

STH: “Was my spouse – truly a slave?”

LDG: “And so what? Slave or noble, what difference would it make? If you have feelings for each other, that is all that matters.”

STH: “Be that as it may, people’s roots are unalterable.”

LDG: “It’s because people like you are in power that we live in such a wretched world. If people like you didn’t exist, then there would be no need for people like me, either.”


LDG: “I don’t know what brought you to Jeju, but all you want is returning to your past, nothing more than that. You must be eager to return to all that luxury which surrounded your life.”

STH: “Do you have any right to say so? You spuriously parade the streets on the pretext of restoring public order, but it is likely that all you do is torment innocent people, and demean yourself with the vile haughtiness of a vandal.”

LDG: “That’s natural, for only that way can we survive. For creating a world where only that grants you survival is what people like you have done.”

Leading him back to the capital proves to be a mistake, because the government wants Dae Gil just as much as it wants Tae Ha. Both of them are taken to be tortured, and Hwang Chulwong is in charge of the proceedings. Both of them defy his attempts to make them talk about the whereabouts of the Prince that Song Tae Ha was protecting, and finally it is decided to simply hang them both. During the torture they learned that Chulwong had killed their friends, and so their hatred for each other abated substantially.

After being rescued from execution by allies, Tae Ha and Dae Gil search for Un Nyun, who is now being hunted because she is shielding the Prince. When they find her, it is the first time Tae Ha has seen her since learning she had been a slave. Un Nyun says she will leave him, because she deceived him about being a slave. Tae Ha finally asks her to stay, and give him time to overcome the prejudices that he had learned over a lifetime. Un Nyun/Hye Won agrees to stay with him.

All three of them then go to the mountain where runaway slaves have a sanctuary, until they can decide how to proceed. There, Dae Gil finds his two comrades, alive but nursing severe injuries. Tae Ha decides his only course of action is to contact the Crown Prince, and ask him to intercede on behalf of the young Prince, to allow him to live. Dae Gil considers this foolish and suicidal, but determines to accompany him. He will not allow Un Nyun’s husband to come to harm.

Their meeting with the Crown Prince did not prove fruitful, and after it Hwang Chulwong sprung an ambush on them. They fought their way out of it, however, and Tae Ha decides the only option left is to leave the Kingdom entirely, and take refuge with the Qing.

They get a message to Un Nyun, and she meets them on the way to a port from which they plan to make their escape. Dae Gil will accompany them to the port, and then bid them farewell.

But Hwang Chulwong has other plans. He and his men intercept them on their way, and a melee ensues. Song Tae Ha is severely injured, Un Nyun is injured, Chulwong is injured, Dae Gil is injured. Tae Ha can barely stand, but still wants to fight. Dae Gil tells him to go, to live for Un Nyun, or Dae Gil would be dying for nothing. He orders Un Nyun to take Tae Ha away, and she tearfully complies.

Dae Gil and Chulwong resume fighting. Chulwong cannot understand why Dae Gil is fighting, giving up his life, for Tae Ha. Dae Gil tells him Tae Ha saved his life once. And of course he is also doing it for Un Nyun. As they continue savagely beating each other to a pulp, Dae Gil says:

LDG: “Even if we only rid this world of people like you and me [slave hunters and brutal public officials], I’m sure it will be a better place.”

Somehow this love for which a man will give the last full measure of devotion – laying down his life – finally reaches some spark of decency buried in Chulwong’s soul, and he is changed. He stops fighting. Dae Gil prepares to fight another group of soldiers that has just arrived on the scene. As he summons his last reserve of strength, his thoughts turn to Un Nyun:

LDG: “Un Nyun, Un Nyun, live in happiness. Spend endless moons with that man of yours, and that child, until the day we shall once again meet, and you will tell me how your life was. My Un Nyun, my . . . beloved.”

And with that, Dae Gil charged full speed into his final battle.

Some of the soldiers come to Chulwong and ask him which way Song Tae Ha went, and Chulwong tells them to forget about it. It’s over, let’s go home. And he throws down his sword. When Chulwong gets home, he collapses in his wife’s lap, crying in regret for the terrible life he has led, and the way he has treated his wife.

As Song Tae Ha and Un Nyun stagger off into the distance, Tae Ha stumbles to his knees, and he speaks to Un Nyun.

STH: “My dear, will you follow my wishes?”

UN: “Yes.”

STH: “I shall not leave with you for Qing territory.”

UN: “As you wish.”

STH: “I am too indebted to this land of mine, so I don’t believe I could ever leave it.”

UN: “I’m grateful to hear you say that.”

STH: “Thank you, my dear, for saying that. I shall recover in no time. Once I have recovered, we must make a better world. Hye Won. Un Nyun! I shall make sure you will never have to use two names.”

[Subtitles and translations by WithS2, Written in the Heavens Subbing Squad. Screen captures from]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chronicles of America

There is a 56 volume series of books on American history called Chronicles of America, published by Yale University circa 1920. Many years ago I read one of the volumes, The Old Merchant Marine A Chronicle of American Ships and Sailors, by Ralph Delahaye Paine. It's in the public domain, and it's a great chapter in American history. Here is one of the best chapters from the book:


In such compelling circumstances as these, necessity became the mother of achievement. There is nothing finer in American history than the dogged fortitude and high-hearted endeavor with which the merchant seamen returned to their work after the Revolution and sought and found new markets for their wares. It was then that Salem played that conspicuous part which was, for a generation, to overshadow the activities of all other American seaports. Six thousand privateersmen had signed articles in her taverns, as many as the total population of the town, and they filled it with a spirit of enterprise and daring. Not for them the stupid monotony of voyages coastwise if more hazardous ventures beckoned and there were havens and islands unvexed by trade where bold men might win profit and perhaps fight for life and cargo.

Now there dwelt in Salem one of the great men of his time, Elias Hasket Derby, the first American millionaire, and very much more than this. He was a shipping merchant with a vision and with the hard-headed sagacity to make his dreams come true. His was a notable seafaring family, to begin with. His father, Captain Richard Derby, born in 1712, had dispatched his small vessels to the West Indies and Virginia and with the returns from these voyages he had loaded assorted cargoes for Spain and Madeira and had the proceeds remitted in bills of exchange to London or in wine, salt, fruit, oil, lead, and handkerchiefs to America. Richard Derby's vessels had eluded or banged away at the privateers during the French War from 1756 to 1763, mounting from eight to twelve guns, "with four cannon below decks for close quarters." Of such a temper was this old sea-dog who led the militia and defiantly halted General Gage's regulars at the North River bridge in Salem, two full months before the skirmish at Lexington. Eight of the nineteen cannon which it was proposed to seize from the patriots had been taken from the ships of Captain Richard Derby and stored in his warehouse for the use of the Provincial Congress.

It was Richard's son, Captain John Derby, who carried to England in the swift schooner Quero the first news of the affair at Lexington, ahead of the King's messenger. A sensational arrival, if ever there was one! This Salem shipmaster, cracking on sail like a proper son of his sire, making the passage in twenty-nine days and handsomely beating the lubberly Royal Express Packet Sukey which left Boston four days sooner, and startling the British nation with the tidings which meant the loss of an American empire! A singular coincidence was that this same Captain John Derby should have been the first mariner to inform the United States
that peace had come, when he arrived from France in 1783 with the message that a treaty had been signed.

Elias Hasket Derby was another son of Richard. When his manifold energies were crippled by the war, he diverted his ability and abundant resources into privateering. He was interested in at least eighty of the privateers out of Salem, invariably subscribing for such shares as might not be taken up by his fellow-townsmen. He soon perceived that many of these craft were wretchedly unfit for the purpose and were easily captured or wrecked. It was characteristic of his genius that he should establish shipyards of his own, turn his attention to naval architecture, and begin to build a class of vessels vastly superior in size, model, and speed to any previously launched in the colonies. They were designed to meet the small cruiser of the British Navy on even terms and were remarkably successful, both in enriching their owner and in defying the enemy.

At the end of the war Elias Hasket Derby discovered that these fine ships were too large and costly to ply up and down the coast. Instead of bewailing his hard lot, he resolved to send them to the other side of the globe. At a time when the British and the Dutch East India companies insolently claimed a monopoly of the trade of the Orient, when American merchant seamen had never ventured beyond the two Atlantics, this was a conception which made of commerce a surpassing romance and heralded the golden era of the nation's life upon the sea.

His Grand Turk of three hundred tons was promptly fitted out for a pioneering voyage as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Salem knew her as "the great ship" and yet her hull was not quite one hundred feet long. Safely Captain Jonathan Ingersoll took her out over the long road, his navigating equipment consisting of a few erroneous maps and charts, a sextant, and Guthrie's Geographical Grammar. In Table Bay he sold his cargo of provisions and then visited the coast of Guinea to dispose of his rum for ivory and gold dust but brought not a single slave back, Mr. Derby having declared that "he would rather sink the whole capital employed than directly or indirectly be concerned in so infamous a trade"--an unusual point of view for a shipping merchant of New England in 1784!

Derby ships were first to go to Mauritius, then called the Isle of France, first at Calcutta, and among the earliest to swing at anchor off Canton. When Elias Hasket Derby decided to invade this rich East India commerce, he sent his eldest son, Elias Hasket, Jr., to England and the Continent after a course at Harvard. The young man became a linguist and made a thorough study of English and French methods of trade. Having laid this foundation for the venture, the son was now sent to India, where he lived for three years in the interests of his house, building up a trade almost fabulously profitable.

How fortunes were won in those stirring days may be discerned from the record of young Derby's ventures while in the Orient. In 1788 the proceeds of one cargo enabled him to buy a ship and a brigantine in the Isle of France. These two vessels he sent to Bombay to load with cotton. Two other ships of his fleet, the Astrea and Light Horse, were filled at Calcutta and Rangoon and ordered to Salem. It was found, when the profits of these transactions were reckoned, that the little squadron had earned $100,000 above all outlay.

To carry on such a business as this enlisted many men and industries. While the larger ships were making their distant voyages, the brigs and schooners were gathering cargoes for them, crossing to Gothenburg and St. Petersburg for iron, duck, and hemp, to France, Spain, and Madeira for wine and lead, to the French West Indies for molasses to be turned into rum, to New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond for flour, provisions, and tobacco. These shipments were assembled in the warehouses on Derby Wharf and paid for the teas, coffees, pepper, muslin, silks, and ivory which the ships from the Far East were fetching home. In fourteen years the Derby ships made one hundred and twenty-five voyages to Europe and far eastern ports and out of the thirty-five vessels engaged only one was lost at sea.

It was in 1785 when the Grand Turk, on a second voyage, brought back a cargo of silks, teas, and nankeens from Batavia and China, that "The Independent Chronicle" of London, unconsciously humorous, was moved to affirm that "the Americans have given up all thought of a China trade which can never be carried on to advantage without some settlement in the East Indies."

As soon as these new sea-trails had been furrowed by the keels of Elias Hasket Derby, other Salem merchants were quick to follow in a rivalry which left no sea unexplored for virgin markets and which ransacked every nook and corner of barbarism which had a shore. Vessels slipped their cables and sailed away by night for some secret destination with whose savage potentate trade relations had been established. It might be Captain Jonathan Carnes who, while at the port of Bencoolen in 1793, heard that pepper grew wild on the northern coast of Sumatra. He whispered the word to the Salem owner, who sent him back in the schooner Rajah with only four guns and ten men. Eighteen months later, Jonathan Carnes returned to Salem with a cargo of pepper in bulk, the first direct importation, and cleared seven hundred per cent on the voyage. When he made ready to go again, keeping his business strictly to himself, other owners tracked him clear to Bencoolen, but there he vanished in the Rajah, and his secret with him, until he reappeared with another precious cargo of pepper. When, at length, he shared this trade with other vessels, it meant that Salem controlled the pepper market of Sumatra and for many years supplied a large part of the world's demand.

And so it happened that in the spicy warehouses that overlooked Salem Harbor there came to be stored hemp from Luzon, gum copal from Zanzibar, palm oil from Africa, coffee from Arabia, tallow from Madagascar, whale oil from the Antarctic, hides and wool from the Rio de la Plata, nutmeg and cloves from Malaysia. Such merchandise had been bought or bartered for by shipmasters who were much more than mere navigators. They had to be shrewd merchants on their own accounts, for the success or failure of a voyage was mostly in their hands. Carefully trained and highly intelligent men, they attained command in the early twenties and were able to retire, after a few years more afloat, to own ships and exchange the quarterdeck for the counting-room, and the cabin for the solid mansion and lawn on Derby Street. Every opportunity, indeed, was offered them to advance their own fortunes. They sailed not for wages but for handsome commissions and privileges--in the Derby ships, five per cent of a cargo outward bound, two and a half per cent of the freightage home, five per cent profit on goods bought and sold between foreign ports, and five per cent of the cargo space for their own use.

Such was the system which persuaded the pick and flower of young American manhood to choose the sea as the most advantageous career possible. There was the Crowninshield family, for example, with five brothers all in command of ships before they were old enough to vote and at one time all five away from Salem, each in his own vessel and three of them in the East India trade. "When little boys," to quote from the memoirs of Benjamin Crowninshield, "they were all sent to a common school and about their eleventh year began their first particular study which should develop them as sailors and ship captains. These boys studied their navigation as little chaps of twelve years old and were required to thoroughly master the subject before being sent to sea.... As soon as the art of navigation was mastered, the youngsters were sent to sea, sometimes as common sailors but commonly as ship's clerks, in which position they were able to learn everything about the management of a ship without actually being a common sailor."

This was the practice in families of solid station and social rank, for to be a shipmaster was to follow the profession of a gentleman. Yet the bright lad who entered by way of the forecastle also played for high stakes. Soon promoted to the berth of mate, he was granted cargo space for his own adventures in merchandise and a share of the profits. In these days the youth of twenty-one is likely to be a college undergraduate, rated too callow and unfit to be intrusted with the smallest business responsibilities and tolerantly regarded as unable to take care of himself. It provokes both a smile and a glow of pride, therefore, to recall those seasoned striplings and what they did.

No unusual instance was that of Nathaniel Silsbee, later United States Senator from Massachusetts, who took command of the new ship Benjamin in the year 1792, laden with a costly cargo from Salem for the Cape of Good Hope and India, "with such instructions," says he, "as left the management of the voyage very much to my own discretion. Neither myself nor the chief mate, Mr. Charles Derby, had attained the age of twenty-one years when we left home. I was not then twenty." This reminded him to speak of his own family. Of the three Silsbee brothers, "each of us obtained the command of vessels and the consignment of their cargoes before attaining the age of twenty years, viz., myself at the age of eighteen and a half, my brother William at nineteen and a half, and my brother Zachariah before he was twenty years old. Each and all of us left off going to sea before reaching the age of twenty-nine years."

How resourcefully these children of the sea could handle affairs was shown in this voyage of the Benjamin. While in the Indian Ocean young Silsbee fell in with a frigate which gave him news of the beginning of war between England and France. He shifted his course for Mauritius and there sold the cargo for a dazzling price in paper dollars, which he turned into Spanish silver. An embargo detained him for six months, during which this currency increased to three times the value of the paper money. He gave up the voyage to Calcutta, sold the Spanish dollars and loaded with coffee and spices for Salem. At the Cape of Good Hope, however, he discovered that he could earn a pretty penny by sending his cargo home in other ships and loading the Benjamin again for Mauritius. When, at length, he arrived in Salem harbor, after nineteen months away, his enterprises had reaped a hundred per cent for Elias Hasket Derby and his own share was the snug little fortune of four thousand dollars. Part of this he, of course, invested at sea, and at twenty-two he was part owner of the Betsy, East Indiaman, and on the road to independence.

As second mate in the Benjamin had sailed Richard Cleveland, another matured mariner of nineteen, who crowded into one life an Odyssey of adventure noteworthy even in that era and who had the knack of writing about it with rare skill and spirit. In 1797, when twenty-three years old, he was master of the bark Enterprise bound from Salem to Mocha for coffee. The voyage was abandoned at Havre and he sent the mate home with the ship, deciding to remain abroad and gamble for himself with the chances of the sea. In France he bought on credit a "cutter-sloop" of forty-three tons, no larger than the yachts whose owners think it venturesome to take them off soundings in summer cruises. In this little box of a craft he planned to carry a cargo of merchandise to the Cape of Good Hope and thence to Mauritius.

His crew included two men, a black cook, and a brace of boys who were hastily shipped at Havre. "Fortunately they were all so much in debt as not to want any time to spend their advance, but were ready at the instant, and with this motley crew, (who, for aught I knew, were robbers or pirates) I put to sea." The only sailor of the lot was a Nantucket lad who was made mate and had to be taught the rudiments of navigation while at sea. Of the others he had this to say, in his lighthearted

"The first of my fore-mast hands is a great, surly, crabbed, raw-boned, ignorant Prussian who is so timid aloft that the mate has frequently been obliged to do his duty there. I believe him to be more of a soldier than a sailor, though he has often assured me that he has been a boatswain's mate of a Dutch Indiaman, which I do not believe as he hardly knows how to put two ends of a rope together.... My cook... a good-natured negro and a tolerable cook, so unused to a vessel that in the smoothest weather he cannot walk fore and aft without holding onto something with both hands. This fear proceeds from the fact that he is so tall and slim that if he should get a cant it might be fatal to him. I did not think America could furnish such a specimen of the negro race... nor did I ever see such a simpleton. It is impossible to teach him anything and... he can hardly tell the main-halliards from the mainstay.

"Next is an English boy of seventeen years old, who from having lately had the small-pox is feeble and almost blind, a miserable object, but pity for his misfortunes induces me to make his duty as easy as possible. Finally I have a little ugly French boy, the very image of a baboon, who from having served for some time on different privateers has all the tricks of a veteran man-of-war's man, though only thirteen years old, and by having been in an English prison, has learned enough of the language to be a proficient in swearing."

With these human scrapings for a ship's company, the cutter Caroline was three months on her solitary way as far as the Cape of Good Hope, where the inhabitants "could not disguise their astonishment at the size of the vessel, the boyish appearance of the master and mate, and the queer and unique characters of the two men and boy who composed the crew." The English officials thought it strange indeed, suspecting some scheme of French spies or smuggled dispatches, but Richard Cleveland's petition to the Governor, Lord McCartney, ingenuously patterned after certain letters addressed to noblemen as found in an old magazine aboard his vessel, won the day for him and he was permitted to sell the cutter and her cargo, having changed his mind about proceeding farther.

Taking passage to Batavia, he looked about for another venture but found nothing to his liking and wandered on to Canton, where he was attracted by the prospect of a voyage to the northwest coast of America to buy furs from the Indians. In a cutter no larger than the Caroline he risked all his cash and credit, stocking her with $20,000 worth of assorted merchandise for barter, and put out across the Pacific, "having on board twenty-one persons, consisting, except two Americans, of English, Irish, Swedes and French, but principally the first, who were runaways from the men-of-war and Indiamen, and two from a Botany Bay ship who had made their escape, for we were obliged to take such as we could get, served to complete a list of as accomplished villains as ever disgraced any country."

After a month of weary, drenching hardship off the China coast, this crew of cutthroats mutinied. With a loyal handful, including the black cook, Cleveland locked up the provisions, mounted two four-pounders on the quarterdeck, rammed them full of grape-shot, and fetched up the flint-lock muskets and pistols from the cabin. The mutineers were then informed that if they poked their heads above the hatches he would blow them overboard. Losing enthusiasm and weakened by hunger, they asked to be set ashore; so the skipper marooned the lot. For two days the cutter lay offshore while a truce was argued, the upshot being that four of the rascals gave in and the others were left behind.

Fifty days more of it and, washed by icy seas, racked and storm-beaten, the vessel made Norfolk Sound. So small was the crew, so imminent the danger that the Indians might take her by boarding, that screens of hides were rigged along the bulwarks to hide the deck from view. Stranded and getting clear, warding off attacks, Captain Richard Cleveland stayed two months on the wilderness coast of Oregon, trading one musket for eight prime sea-otter skins until there was no more room below. Sixty thousand dollars was the value of the venture when he sailed for China by way of the Sandwich Islands, forty thousand of profit, and he was twenty-five years old with the zest for roving undiminished.

He next appeared in Calcutta, buying a twenty-five-ton pilot boat under the Danish flag for a fling at Mauritius and a speculation in prizes brought in by French privateers. Finding none in port, he loaded seven thousand bags of coffee in a ship for Copenhagen and conveyed as a passenger a kindred spirit, young Nathaniel Shaler, whom he took into partnership. At Hamburg these two bought a fast brig, the Lelia Byrd, to try their fortune on the west coast of South America, and recruited a third partner, a boyish Polish nobleman, Count de Rousillon, who had been an aide to Kosciusko. Three seafaring musketeers, true gentlemen rovers, all under thirty, sailing out to beard the viceroys of Spain!

From Valparaiso, where other American ships were detained and robbed, they adroitly escaped and steered north to Mexico and California. At San Diego they fought their way out of the harbor, silencing the Spanish fort with their six guns. Then to Canton with furs, and Richard Cleveland went home at thirty years of age after seven years' absence and voyaging twice around the world, having wrested success from almost every imaginable danger and obstacle, with $70,000 to make him a rich man in his own town. He was neither more nor less than an American sailor of the kind that made the old merchant marine magnificent.

It was true romance, also, when the first American shipmasters set foot in mysterious Japan, a half century before Perry's squadron shattered the immemorial isolation of the land of the Shoguns and the Samurai. Only the Dutch had been permitted to hold any foreign intercourse whatever with this hermit nation and for two centuries they had maintained their singular commercial monopoly at a price measured in terms of the deepest degradation of dignity and respect. The few Dutch merchants suffered to reside in Japan were restricted to a small island in Nagasaki harbor, leaving it only once in four years when the Resident, or chief agent, journeyed to Yeddo to offer gifts and most humble obeisance to the Shogun, "creeping forward on his hands and feet, and falling on his knees, bowed his head to the ground, and retired again in absolute silence, crawling exactly like a crab," said one of these pilgrims who added: "We may not keep Sundays or fast days, or allow our spiritual hymns or prayers to be heard; never mention the name of Christ. Besides these things, we have to submit to other insulting imputations which are always painful to a noble heart. The reason which impels the Dutch to bear all these sufferings so patiently is simply the love of gain."

In return for these humiliations the Dutch East India Company was permitted to send one or two ships a year from Batavia to Japan and to export copper, silk, gold, camphor, porcelain, bronze, and rare woods. The American ship Franklin arrived at Batavia in 1799 and Captain James Devereux of Salem learned that a charter was offered for one of these annual voyages. After a deal of Yankee dickering with the hard-headed Dutchmen, a bargain was struck and the Franklin sailed for Nagasaki with cloves, chintz, sugar, tin, black pepper, sapan wood, and elephants' teeth. The instructions were elaborate and punctilious, salutes to be fired right and left, nine guns for the Emperor's guard while passing in, thirteen guns at the anchorage; all books on board to be sealed up in a cask, Bibles in particular, and turned over to the Japanese officials, all firearms sent ashore, ship dressed with colors whenever the "Commissaries of the Chief" graciously came aboard, and a carpet on deck for them to sit upon.

Two years later, the Margaret of Salem made the same sort of a voyage, and in both instances the supercargoes, one of whom happened to be a younger brother of Captain Richard Cleveland, wrote journals of the extraordinary episode. For these mariners alone was the curtain lifted which concealed the feudal Japan from the eyes of the civilized world. Alert and curious, these Yankee traders explored the narrow streets of Nagasaki, visited temples, were handsomely entertained by officers and merchants, and exchanged their wares in the marketplace. They were as much at home, no doubt, as when buying piculs of pepper from a rajah of Qualah Battoo, or dining with an elderly mandarin of Cochin China. It was not too much to say that "the profuse stores of knowledge brought by every ship's crew, together with unheard of curiosities from every savage shore, gave the community of Salem a rare alertness of

It was a Salem bark, the Lydia, that first displayed the American flag to the natives of Guam in 1801. She was chartered by the Spanish government of Manila to carry to the Marianne Islands, as those dots on the chart of the Pacific were then called, the new Governor, his family, his suite, and his luggage. First Mate William Haswell kept a diary in a most conscientious fashion, and here and there one gleans an item with a humor of its own. "Now having to pass through dangerous straits," he observes, "we went to work to make boarding nettings and to get our arms in the best order, but had we been attacked we should have been taken with ease. Between Panay and Negros all the passengers were in the greatest confusion for fear of being taken and put to death in the dark and not have time to say their prayers."

The decks were in confusion most of the time, what with the Governor, his lady, three children, two servant girls and twelve men servants, a friar and his servant, a judge and two servants, not to mention some small hogs, two sheep, an ox, and a goat to feed the passengers who were too dainty for sea provender. The friar was an interesting character. A great pity that the worthy mate of the Lydia should not have been more explicit! It intrigues the reader of his manuscript diary to be told that "the Friar was praying night and day but it would not bring a fair wind. His behavior was so bad that we were forced to send him to Coventry, or in other words, no one would speak to him."

The Spanish governors of Guam had in operation an economic system which compelled the admiration of this thrifty Yankee mate. The natives wore very few clothes, he concluded, because the Governor was the only shopkeeper and he insisted on a profit of at least eight hundred per cent. There was a native militia regiment of a thousand men who were paid ten dollars a year. With this cash they bought Bengal goods, cottons, Chinese pans, pots, knives, and hoes at the Governor's store, so that "all this money never left the Governor's hands. It was fetched to him by the galleons in passing, and when he was relieved he carried it with him to Manila, often to the amount of eighty or ninety thousand dollars." A glimpse of high finance without a flaw!

There is pathos, simple and moving, in the stories of shipwreck and stranding on hostile or desert coasts. These disasters were far more frequent then than now, because navigation was partly guesswork and ships were very small. Among these tragedies was that of the Commerce, bound from Boston to Bombay in 1793. The captain lost his bearings and thought he was off Malabar when the ship piled up on the beach in the night. The nearest port was Muscat and the crew took to the boats in the hope of reaching it. Stormy weather drove them ashore where armed Arabs on camels stripped them of clothes and stores and left them to die among the sand dunes.

On foot they trudged day after day in the direction of Muscat, and how they suffered and what they endured was told by one of the survivors, young Daniel Saunders. Soon they began to drop out and die in their tracks in the manner of "Benjamin Williams, William Leghorn, and Thomas Barnard whose bodies were exposed naked to the scorching sun and finding their strength and spirits quite exhausted they lay down expecting nothing but death for relief." The next to be left behind was Mr. Robert Williams, merchant and part owner, "and we therefore with reluctance abandoned him to the mercy of God, suffering ourselves all the horrors that fill the mind at the approach of death." Near the beach and a forlorn little oasis, they stumbled across Charles Lapham, who had become separated from them. He had been without water for five days "and after many efforts he got upon his feet and endeavored to walk. Seeing him in so wretched a condition I could not but sympathize enough with him in his torments to go back with him" toward water two miles away, "which both my other companions refused to do. Accordingly they walked forward while I went back a considerable distance with Lapham until, his strength failing him, he suddenly fell on the ground, nor was he able to rise again or even speak to me. Finding it vain to stay with him, I covered him with sprays and leaves which I tore from an adjacent tree, it being the last friendly office I could do him."

Eight living skeletons left of eighteen strong seamen tottered into Muscat and were cared for by the English consul. Daniel Saunders worked his passage to England, was picked up by a press-gang, escaped, and so returned to Salem. It was the fate of Juba Hill, the black cook from Boston, to be detained among the Arabs as a slave. It is worth noting that a black sea-cook figured in many of these tales of daring and disaster, and among them was the heroic and amazing figure of one Peter Jackson who belonged in the brig Ceres. While running down the river from Calcutta she was thrown on her beam ends and Peter, perhaps dumping garbage over the rail, took a header. Among the things tossed to him as he floated away was a sail-boom on which he was swiftly carried out of sight by the turbid current. All on board concluded that Peter Jackson had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles and it was so reported when they arrived home. An administrator was appointed for his goods and chattels and he was officially deceased in the eyes of the law. A year or so later this unconquerable sea-cook appeared in the streets of Salem, grinning a welcome to former shipmates who fled from him in terror as a ghostly visitation. He had floated twelve hours on his sail-boom, it seemed, fighting off the sharks with his feet; and finally drifting ashore. "He had hard work to do away with the impressions of being dead," runs the old account, "but succeeded and was allowed the rights and privileges of the living."

The community of interests in these voyages of long ago included not only the ship's company but also the townspeople, even the boys and girls, who entrusted their little private speculations or "adventures" to the captain. It was a custom which flourished well into the nineteenth century. These memoranda are sprinkled through the account books of the East Indiamen out of Salem and Boston. It might be Miss Harriet Elkins who requested the master of the Messenger "please to purchase at Calcutta two net beads with draperies; if at Batavia or any spice market, nutmegs or mace; or if at Canton, two Canton shawls of the enclosed colors at $5 per shawl. Enclosed is $10."

Again, it might be Mr. John R. Tucker who ventured in the same ship one hundred Spanish dollars to be invested in coffee and sugar, or Captain Nathaniel West who risked in the Astrea fifteen boxes of spermaceti candles and a pipe of Teneriffe wine. It is interesting to discover what was done with Mr. Tucker's hundred Spanish dollars, as invested for him by the skipper of the Messenger at Batavia and duly accounted for. Ten bags of coffee were bought for $83.30, the extra expenses of duty, boat-hire, and sacking bringing the total outlay to $90.19. The coffee was sold at Antwerp on the way home for $183.75, and Mr. Tucker's handsome profit on the adventure was therefore $93.56, or more than one hundred per cent.

It was all a grand adventure, in fact, and the word was aptly chosen to fit this ocean trade. The merchant freighted his ship and sent her out to vanish from his ken for months and months of waiting, with the greater part of his savings, perhaps, in goods and specie beneath her hatches. No cable messages kept him in touch with her nor were there frequent letters from the master. Not until her signal was displayed by the fluttering flags of the headland station at the harbor mouth could he know whether he had gained or lost a fortune. The spirit of such merchants was admirably typified in the last venture of Elias Hasket Derby in 1798, when unofficial war existed between the United States and France.

American ships were everywhere seeking refuge from the privateers under the tricolor, which fairly ran amuck in the routes of trade. For this reason it meant a rich reward to land a cargo abroad. The ship Mount Vernon, commanded by Captain Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., was laden with sugar and coffee for Mediterranean ports, and was prepared for trouble, with twenty guns mounted and fifty men to handle them. A smart ship and a powerful one, she raced across to Cape Saint Vincent in sixteen days, which was clipper speed. She ran into a French fleet of sixty sail, exchanged broadsides with the nearest, and showed her stern to the others.

"We arrived at 12 o'clock [wrote Captain Derby from Gibraltar] popping at Frenchmen all the forenoon. At 10 A.M. off Algeciras Point we were seriously attacked by a large latineer who had on board more than one hundred men. He came so near our broadside as to allow our six-pound grape to do execution handsomely. We then bore away and gave him our stern guns in a cool and deliberate manner, doing apparently great execution. Our bars having cut his sails considerably, he was thrown into confusion, struck both his ensign and his pennant. I was then puzzled to know what to do with so many men; our ship was running large with all her steering sails out, so that we could not immediately bring her to the wind, and we were directly off Algeciras Point from whence I had reason to fear she might receive assistance, and my port Gibraltar in full view. These were circumstances that induced me to give up the gratification of bringing him in. It was, however, a satisfaction to flog the rascal in full view of the English fleet who were to leeward."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Long View

Although it is depressing to see America descending into socialism, and away from the rugged individualism that was its glory for so long, it doesn't affect my view of Man. It's just another wrong path that will lead to a dead end, and then we will return to the path of reason and individualism and their result, the Ascent of Man.

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than Man--
Man who makes the winds of winter bear him,
Through the trough of waves that tower about him,
Across grey wastes of sea;
Man who wearies the Untiring, the Immortal--
Earth, eldest of the Gods, as year by year,
His plough-teams come and go.
The care-free bands of birds,
Beasts of the wild, tribes of the sea,
In netted toils he takes,
The Subtle One.
Creatures that haunt the hills, the desert-dwellers,
His cunning snares; he lays his mastering yoke
On the horse's shaggy mane,
On the tireless mountain-bull.
Speech, too, and wind-swift thought
And the soul of the ruler of cities
He hath learned, untaught of any.
To shun the bitter arrows of the roofless frost,
The bitter shafts of rain,
He knows, the all-deviser; for without device
No morrow finds him. Only against Death
He shall call for help in vain,
Yet many a mortal sickness he hath mastered.

(Chorus, lines 332-375, Antigone, Sophocles)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Light Bulb Moment

While watching episode 13 of Dae Jang Geum, I noticed another of the seemingly countless Romantic moments of the drama. I mean those moments that show a character, usually, but not always, Jang Geum, demonstrating her intelligence and goal directed behavior. Jang Geum and Lady Han are investigating the reason why the bean paste (one of the basic ingredients of Korean dishes at the time) in the palace has gone bad.

Earlier in the day, Jang Geum had run into her foster parents, and they had offered her a special type of wine in thanks for something she had done for them. They said the wine had a very good taste because it fermented well. A seemingly small plot point, but it served more than one purpose---the writer of this drama is very clever in her plotting ability.

So, Jang Geum and Lady Han go to a place where the common people make bean paste, and try to figure out why theirs still tastes good, while the paste in the palace is bad. They are told that it tastes well when it is stored in three specific locations in the village, and nowhere else. The villagers attributed this to the village gods, who were worshipped in one of these locations. As they stand at one of these places, Jang Geum looks about, and then flashes back to her foster mother's earlier comment about the wine tasting good because it fermented well. Then she had the "light bulb moment," or Eureka moment, when she realized the solution to their problem.

It turned out the bean paste was stored, in big ceramic jars, underneath chestnut and pine trees, from which pollen fell into the jars and aided the fermentation process. This had also been the case in the palace, until some of these trees were cut down. That changed the taste. Jang Geum looked at all the facts, and came up with the solution.

This is the hero of the story, admired and valued by all fellow people of good will in the drama, precisely because of her intelligence, independence, self-confidence, and benevolence. She is intrepid, and a risk taker. Just another Romantic episode in the drama of Jang Geum.

In the same episode, one of the evil characters, the Head Lady, was speaking of the Highest Kitchen Lady, Lady Jung, who is one of the good characters. The Head Lady hated Lady Jung, but admitted that she was a woman of upright character---and this was her weakness! Because, said the Head Lady, such people never make allowance for the deviousness of other people, assuming everyone is as upright as themselves. I forget what Ayn Rand called that attitude, where the evil take advantage of the good, by counting on their goodness. Anyway, it is yet another example of this writer's brilliance, and her psychological understanding of the good, and the evil.


For some reason the word stragglers came into my mind today. In my teenage years I used to read a lot of military history, and especially a lot of books on Napoleon and his campaigns. In such books, you become acquainted with the term stragglers. The majority of all armies at the time were infantry, and they marched great distances, day after day. Sometimes there were forced marches, meaning at increased speed or duration, to get to some location before the enemy expected you to get there. Stragglers are those soldiers who cannot keep up with the main body of the army. They stop to rest, or just walk more slowly. They may be physically weaker, or they may be deliberately malingering, planning to desert. If the march is a retreat, and in poor conditions---for example, the retreat of Napoleon's Grande Armée in the Russian Campaign---most of the stragglers will become casualties: deserters, killed by the pursuing enemy, or simply die of exposure.

When the word came to mind today, I realized it must be a dying word, because even the infantry in modern armies is mechanized, and do very little marching, except as physical training. Our army flies to places of conflict, or gets there by naval transport. So I looked up stragglers in my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. It didn't even get its own entry, but was reduced to being appended to the verb straggle, as its noun form. The definition made no mention of armies:

straggle vi straggled: straggling 1. to wander from the direct course or way: ROVE, STRAY 2. to trail off from others of its kind (little cabins straggling off into the woods) straggler n

Next I looked in a more comprehensive dictionary, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, where straggler still had its own entry:

straggler noun 1. A person who straggles; spec. (a) a person who strays away from or trails behind a main body, esp. on a line of march; . . . . .

So ordinary dictionaries have relegated the word to obsolescence, and only the extraordinary dictionaries keep this barbarous relic of the past in their repertoire. It's not a bad thing that stragglers are a relic of the past, of course. But for those of us who like to learn from history, it's good to know the OED is still there to define the terms the modern world has left behind.

Postscript: To give some idea of the numbers of stragglers a failed campaign can have, here is Wikipedia's description of Napoleon's retreat from Russia:

It [the Grande Armée] reached its maximum size of 600,000 men at the start of the invasion of Russia in 1812. All contingents were commanded by French generals, except for a Polish and an Austrian corps. The huge multinational army marched slowly eastwards, with the Russians falling back before it. After the capture of Smolensk and victory in the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and a large part of the Grande Armée reached Moscow on 14 September 1812; however, the army was already drastically reduced in numbers due to bloody battles with Russians, disease (principally typhus) and long communication lines. The army spent a month in Moscow, but was ultimately forced to march back westwards. Assailed by cold, starvation and disease, and constantly harassed by Cossacks and Russian irregulars, the retreat utterly destroyed the Grande Armée as a fighting force. As many as 400,000 died in the adventure and only a few tens of thousands of ravaged troops returned.

Monday, April 5, 2010

What Is Art?

From C. M. Bowra's The Greek Experience (© 1957):

Greek Poets had their own notion of the kind of truth which their art demanded. In the fourth century Aristotle faced the issue candidly and squarely and, in discussing the difference between history and poetry, came to a clear conclusion: 'It really lies in this: the one describes what has happened, the other what might. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and more serious than history; for poetry speaks of what is universal, history of what is particular.' No Greek poets would have used precisely this language, and most of them would have been surprised to hear their work called philosophical, but they would certainly have thought it serious. But Aristotle is right to call it philosophical, because in its own way it is concerned with the revelation of truth. The truth in question, as he saw, is not of particular facts, but of universal principles or tendencies or characteristics. Even if, as is perfectly possible, there was once a historical Achilles, the importance of Homer's presentation of him is irrelevant to his existence. The Achilles whom we know is indeed universal in the sense that he embodies in a convincing and satisfying form qualities which are to be found in many men, but seldom so clearly or so forcibly as in him. To find this universal element the poet must make a severe selection from reality and present it with decisive discrimination. Just as sculptors emphasized what they thought to be the essential characteristics of their subjects at the expense of the incidental and the accidental, so poets emphasized what they thought to be the essential characteristics of human beings and showed how these led to certain kinds of result in action and suffering. They saw too that behind the infinite variety of human behaviour and fortune there must be forces at work which could to some degree be understood and presented in a concrete form. Their idea of truth was to find out these principles and forces, which were indeed at work in individuals but could best be grasped if they were abstracted from the particular case and displayed through situations which manifested more clearly their significance and their reality. (p. 134-135, emphasis added)

If you take away the Greeks' unfortunate belief in the Gods influencing man's behavior and fate, this is very similar to Objectivist aesthetics. And, as is well known, Ayn Rand subscribed to Aristotle's view that art portrays man as he "might be."

Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 37)

By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man's fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes---of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities---an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.

For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist's view of man's nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 37)

The Romanticists did not present a hero as a statistical average, but as an abstraction of man's best and highest potentiality, applicable to and achievable by all men, in various degrees, according to their individual choices. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 425)

Ayn Rand's aesthetic theory is more fully developed than these brief statements, of course. I am simply pointing to a possible source of inspiration, not only the Greeks and Aristotle, but C. M. Bowra's description of Greek art.

Postscript: With appropriate modifications, Bowra's description of Homer's Achilles fits a modern Romantic heroine of mine:

Even if, as is perfectly possible, there was once a historical Dae Jang Geum, the importance of Kim Yeong-hyeon's presentation of her is irrelevant to her existence. The Dae Jang Geum whom we know is indeed universal in the sense that she embodies in a convincing and satisfying form qualities which are to be found in many men, but seldom so clearly or so forcibly as in her.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Shining Inheritance #3

I don't think there's ever been a better statement of rugged individualism than this. This was the American sense of life, back when America was great.

I don't know what to make of the line, "I grant him a white man's room on earth." It is shortly followed by "all clean men are as good as I," which does not exclude anyone on the basis of race. If the first statement is racist, I condemn it. At any rate, the rest of the poem is magnificent.

The Westerner,
by Badger Clark, 1947

My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,
And each one sleeps alone.
Their trails may dim to the grass and rains,
For I choose to make my own.
I lay proud claim to their blood and name,
But I lean on no dead kin;
My name is mine for the praise or scorn,
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

They built high towns on their old log sills,
Where the great, slow rivers gleamed,
But with new, live rock from the savage hills
I’ll build as they only dreamed.
The smoke scarce dies where the trail camp lies,
Till rails glint down the pass;
The desert springs into fruit and wheat
And I lay the stones of a solid street
Over yesterday’s untrod grass.

I waste no thought on my neighbor’s birth
Or the way he makes his prayer.
I grant him a white man’s room on earth
If his game is only square.
While he plays it straight I’ll call him mate;
If he cheats I drop him flat.
Old class and rank are a worn-out lie,
For all clean men are as good as I,
And a king is only that.

I dream no dreams of a nursemaid State
That will spoon me out my food.
A stout heart sings in the fray with fate
And the shock and sweat are good.
From noon to noon all the earthly boon
That I ask my God to spare
Is a little daily bread in store,
With the room to fight the strong for more,
And the weak shall get their share.

The sunrise plains are a tender haze
And the sunset seas are gray,
But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
Over me and the big today.
What good to me is a vague “maybe”
Or a mournful “might have been,”
For the sun wheels swift from morn to morn
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shining Inheritance, #2

Under this title, I'm going to post continuing tributes to the great artists, intellectuals, and heroes of the past.

A young girl's thoughts at Christmas time:

Santa Claus has come once more,
Though not quite as he came before,
We can't celebrate his day
In last year's fine and pleasant way.
For then our hopes were high and bright,
All the optimists seemed right,
None supposing that this year
We would welcome Santa here.
Still, we'll make his spirit live,
And since we've nothing left to give,
We've thought of something else to do
Each please look inside his shoe.

As each owner took his shoe from the basket there was a resounding peal of laughter. A little paper package lay in each shoe with the address of the shoe's owner on it.

From The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, an entry from December, 1943.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Shining Inheritance

There is a Korean drama called Shining Inheritance. I haven't seen it, but I like the title. It applies nicely to our intellectual and cultural inheritance from the Aristotle's and Michelangelo's of the past. One shining example, one of my favorite scenes from Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac:

And I - I have done
This to you! All my fault - mine!

You? Why, no.
On the contrary! I had never known
Womanhood and its sweetness but for you.
My mother did not love to look at me--
I never had a sister-- Later on,
I feared the mistress with a mockery
Behind her smile. But you - because of you
I have had one friend not quite all a friend--
Across my life, one whispering silken gown!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Separation That Couldn't Start

A beautifully lyrical performance of a touching Korean song from the OST of My Lovely Sam Soon. The song is Ibyol Mothan Ibyol (A Separation That Couldn't Start) by Loveholic, sung by Ji Sun.

**Ibyol Mothan Ibyol**

Idji anhassuni hemalgun usum
bitnadon uri yennaldurul
imi jiwossuni sumgappun nunmul
kamahge byongdun ne moyangun

Gude goun ne saranga sonul jabada oh
dashi negero waso gobdigoun kotnorechorom

Gadugkin monjirul toro on goul
hurin dalbiche shisobone
sewore giphun jam pusoghan olgul
sebyogisullo danjanghago

Gude goun ne saranga sonul jabada oh
dashi negero waso gobdigoun kotnorechorom

Sarang ajig gu jarie
hanbondo ibyol mothan ibyol sogeso
dashi doraonun gunal
gutte ne norega i sesangul da gajilteni

Gude goun ne saranga sonul jabada oh
dashi negero waso gobdigoun kotnorechorom

**A Separation That Couldn't Start**

I haven't forgotten your bright smile
Our youthful past
I've already let go
The tears from my heart turned me into a dark figure

You, my delicate love, hold my hand
Come back to me like delicate flower song

I wiped the dusty mirror
The moonlight shines upon it
Plenty of deep sleeps comfort our face
A midnight slowly approaches

You, my delicate love, hold my hand
Come back to me like delicate flower song

Love is still at that place
Where separation couldn't start
When that day returns
This song will take the world

You, my delicate love, hold my hand
Come back to me like delicate flower song
And smile

Friday, July 17, 2009

Glamour Photography: Hedy Lamarr

In the old days Hollywood photographed actors and actresses in ways that made them look stunningly beautiful. The stylish clothes, the hats, the lighting, whatever techniques they used, the result was a Romantic style of photography, showing people as they could be and ought to be, at their best. It was most effective in black and white photographs. Modern color photography just doesn't have the same glamourous look as black and white.

This photograph of Hedy Lamarr (downloaded from the website Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans) is a perfect example of the old glamour photography. Thin, arched eyebrows and long, curved eyelashes draw attention to and enhance the beauty of her eyes. The round, very wide brimmed, black hat acts as a virtual picture frame for her face. The hat is rakishly slanted to one side to throw a dramatic shadow across her face, one eye in shadow, the other in light. Her shining black hair has enough light focused on it to make it stand out, even against a black background. She wears a strapless dress that exposes her soft, fragile shoulders, and a black velvet choker that circles her slender white neck. A pair of black lace evening gloves extend above her elbows, for added feminine delicacy and allure. There are three pieces of jewelry: two large, pendant pearl earrings contrast with her black hair; a thick bracelet (I can't tell if it is silver or gold, in this black and white photograph), adorns her left wrist; and what appears to be a diamond encrusted ring sparkles on one of her fingers. Her hands are clasped gracefully together in front of her right shoulder, putting her slender lace-gloved arms and the bracelet prominently on display.

The overall impression is of a woman of great beauty, with an elegant and alluring sense of style, a bit of mystery, and the confidence to display herself to the world. And that is the way glamour photographers tried, generally speaking, to make all of their subjects appear. Which is why I like old Hollywood glamour photography so much.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Beethoven Virus

Beethoven Virus is a Korean Drama that aired in 2008, and consisted of 18 hour-long episodes. It tells the story of an unlikely group of people trying to form an orchestra, and the world-famous conductor they enlisted to help them achieve their goal.

There are several interesting aspects to Beethoven Virus. It is a story about the art of leadership, in which a leader, in this case a conductor, molds a less than promising group of individuals into a cohesive and skilled team. In this respect, it has similarites with a favorite Western of mine, Only the Valiant. But the conductor, Maestro Kang, is also pushing these people to "seize the day," to try to achieve their own goals, instead of always sacrificing their own goals to those of everyone else in their life. Listen to him exhorting them, from Episode 4:

Conductor: Mr. Kim Gab Yong.

Mr. Kim: Yes.

Conductor: You had worked before in Shin Hyan Ri, right? Why did you retire?

Mr. Kim: My age.

Conductor: Did you leave because they told you to leave? And still at your prime of 57?

Mr. Kim: It’s the rule.

Conductor: Then why didn’t you join another Orchestra after that?

Mr. Kim: My age.

Conductor: That’s an excuse.

Conductor: Why didn’t you[to the Contrabass player] go into the Orchestra after graduating college?

Contrabass: There was no place that wanted me.

Conductor: Excuse.

Conductor: Why didn’t you[to the 2nd trumpeter] go to the music college?

2nd Trumpeter: I had to work because my father was ill.

Conductor: What about your mother? Your siblings as well?

2nd Trumpeter: I’m the only child of a three generation family and my mother just knows how to dance. My father was lying in bed.

Conductor: He can’t work just because he was sick? He can’t cook noodles because he had to rest in bed?

2nd trumpeter: But my father is already lying in bed like a child---

Conductor: Why must all these be your concerns? Children, parents, we don’t need all of these. You can only think of yourselves! And you [turning to the 1st trumpeter, a self-taught genius], why didn’t you go to college? That’s right, what can I expect of such an arrogant fellow like you?

You must be selfish, all of you are too kind-hearted. No, it’s not kindness, but foolishness. You sacrificed because of your parents and kids. These are illusions. In the end, look at what you have become. You couldn’t do what you wanted and were unable to make a living. You only grew an inferior heart because you sacrificed for them. This is not kindness, not even foolishness, but inferiority. You all merely set your hearts on making 100 kinds of excuses and ran away!

From now on, there are no more places to escape to. As you can see, this is the roof top, on the edge of a cliff [they were meeting on top of the church where they rehearsed]. But then, if there is anyone who feels that they can’t do it all . . . I will not hold you back, just leave. This is your last chance to run away . . . [one begins to leave] But, I’ve already locked the door over there. You will have to jump down from here if you want to escape. I’ll give you all three seconds. One . . . two . . . three . . . No one? Good, it’s the choice of everyone, there are no objections, right?

He is actually exhorting them to be selfish. When's the last time you saw that in a modern story? One of the musicians in particular, a trumpeter named Kang Gun Woo (which happens to be exactly the same name as the conductor), also wants to be a conductor. But like many of the other musicians, he has not committed himself fully to this goal, and when the job from which he had been suspended (traffic cop) calls him back, he reluctantly goes back to it, and withdraws from the orchestra. Maestro Kang sees something special in this young man, however, and goes out of his way to find him and try to change his mind (from Episode 5):

Conductor: Your form looks great [he's "conducting" traffic]. Are you incorporating the baton technique that I taught you here? To tell you, for the idiot who can’t even keep track of the concert date. The concert starts at 6 o’clock and your solo’s the first song in the second act.

Are you happy? Are you happy to squirm and struggle in the heat, directing traffic in place of a faulty traffic light and breathing in all the exhaust? Ah, of course, I accept it. There are many different types of people. The people who think money’s the best in the world. The people who are ok with eating rice with just a piece of kimchi. The people who save up all their money to send to the destitute in Ethiopia, so that they can sleep with peace of mind. They are all different. There’s no right or wrong. Just living by your values.

So, you, Kang Gun Woo, by your values at this moment, are you happy? Let me ask you one thing. What about your wanting to learn how to conduct?

Kang Gun Woo: I wanted to learn.

Conductor: So, then?

Kang Gun Woo: I’m just going to leave it as a dream.

Conductor: A dream? How’s that your dream? It’s immovable. That’s a star, in the sky, something that you can’t have, something that you can’t even strive for, something you can only stare at---a star. Look who’s talking about some ridiculous and absurd story about stars now. You need to do something. You need to, even for a little, struggle, try hard, or at the very least, make plans to make a change . . . a change as small as your smell or color. By doing all that, you can call it your “dream.” Do you think it’s your “dream” if you just use the word to describe any idea? If it was that easy, then why don’t you make being a doctor, professor, lawyer, and prosecutor---everything---your dream? Why not? I’m not telling you to achieve your dreams. I’m telling you to at least dream the dream by trying.

Actually, all this talk is useless. What should I have to care about? The one who’s going to regret it the rest of his life is you. “I’m nothing more than this.” “I don’t have any dreams.” “I couldn’t even dream anything.” “I’ve been eaten up by life.” Live the rest of your life while tormenting yourself. By the time you die, maybe you’ll die with your last word being “Conducting?” and a scream.

As you can see from these excerpts, Mastro Kang is depicted as not only selfish, but very harsh and blunt in his language and communication with others. In some degree, he embodies Ayn Rand's injunction: Judge, and be prepared to be judged.

At one point in the story, the mayor of the town where the orchestra plays is trying to get the Maestro to apologize to the musicians for some rude remark or other, and he wheedles and cajoles him:

Mayor: There's a saying that "losing is winning."

Conductor: That's just something the losers came up with to feel better.

Later, when a new mayor is elected and orders an unwilling Maestro Kang to celebrate his election with a concert of music of the new mayor's choosing, the Maestro agrees to do it. But what he plays at the concert is not what the mayor was expecting . . .

The other main character is a young woman named Du Ru Mi, a violinist whose idea it was to form the orchestra, and to get Maestro Kang as its conductor. She, Maestro Kang, and the young trumpeter/conductor, Kang Gun Woo, form a love triangle. This exposes another aspect of Maestro Kang's personality. He is ruthlessly wedded to his music, and doesn't have time for personal relationships. He even denigrates love as a purely "hormonal" aspect of man's nature. This is where the story lets me down, as if a selfish, rational man has to be some Spock-like character without emotions.

In the end, Maestro Kang does undergo some changes to his personality, and the writers soften his image to make it more palatable to the public at large. This reminds me of Ayn Rand's one criticism of Calumet "K", that Bannon is shown being kind to one of his workers in a hospital, simply to make his love interest admire him---as if his magnificent achievements were not reason enough to admire him! The same appplies to Maestro Kang, and the way the writers soften him through the course of the story.

But I don't want to make it sound worse than it is. He is still Maestro Kang, brilliant and blunt in his judgments, at the end.

In sharp contrast to the Maestro, young Kang Gun Woo wants to be a conductor, but he wants to do it without being mean and blunt with people, but just by being a nice guy as he is in his normal life. This contrasting style is emphasized throughout the story.

So, although I have reservations about the story's portrayal of a selfish man, I still recommend this excellent drama. The Beethoven Virus is catching the passion to pursue one's dreams, and make them real.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Musical Interlude

Under the Water, by Merril Bainbridge

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Dead End of Appeasement

I've been watching a Korean drama called Jumong. It does not compare with Dae Jang Geum, because Jumong is filled with fatalism, and there are Sorceresses who can predict the future, heal injuries with some sort of faith-healing, etc. However, it does have an interesting plot, and many interesting characters, in spite of the flaws.

Episode 41 is of interest for its examination of the idea of appeasement, something relevant to our situation in America today, with regard to our relations with Iran and North Korea. The scene involves the deposed King of Puyo (a Korean kingdom), named Kumwa, lecturing his son, Taeso, who had forcibly taken over from him. Taeso has refrained from killing the King, evidently, because the people would revolt if he committed regicide. So he is ruling under the fiction that the King is incapacitated from a wound received in a recent war against the Han (China), in which Kumwa was attempting to recover lands taken from Korea by the Han in an earlier conflict.

Kumwa: I heard the Han demanded a hostage. Is that true?

Taeso: Yes.

Kumwa: You might be my representative, but shouldn't you have told me earlier?

Taeso: I was going to, after giving it enough thought.

Kumwa: So, are you done thinking?

Taeso: Yes.

Kumwa: What will you do?

Taeso: I'm going to send a hostage.

Kumwa: Don't you have any pride?

Taeso: Why wouldn't I have any?

Kumwa: Yet you're going to send a hostage and accept that we're a tributary state?

Taeso: We can't afford to talk about pride. The Han is just waiting for a chance to make us pay for the war. I had to marry a woman I don't love just to put an end to it. If one hostage will save thousands of lives, why not? Your Majesty, pride won't stop a war. I'll reap the benefits of not starting one.

Kumwa: Give up one thing to avoid a war and the Han will demand something else. You'll use Puyo's peace as an excuse to back out again and again until you're at a dead end. What will you give them then? Will you let them conquer us if they want to? Will you die for them if they ask you to? Can't you see the reality hidden behind the so-called benefits?

This is indeed the fruits of appeasement. Bush did it too often, and for Obama, it is the only option he considers. How long before we reach the dead end?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Road Builders

As Ayn Rand said about Calumet "K," this novel could be subtitled: This Was America.

Samuel Merwin, with Henry Kitchell Webster, was the co-author of Calumet "K," (1901) Ayn Rand's favorite novel. Merwin and Webster collaborated on two other novels, The Short Line War, (1899) about the struggle for the ownership of a railroad, and Comrade John, (1907) about a religious huckster. Both men also wrote novels individually, and I will summarize and review one of Merwin's best here, The Road Builders,(1905).

As with Calumet "K," a few years earlier, The Road Builders was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, under the title A Link in the Girdle. (As a sidenote, Frank Spearman's Daughter of a Magnate was also serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. It must have been a wonderful magazine back at the turn of the last century.)

The Road Builders is about the construction of an extension of the Sherman & Western railroad to the town of Red Hills, set in Texas circa 1875. The man in charge of the construction project is Paul Carhart, who accepted the job because "it promised to be pretty work, in which a man could use his imagination." The "prettiness" of the work was due to a number of complicating factors. First, the line had to be finished at breakneck speed, however shoddy the construction, in order to defeat another railroad company with designs on the same territory. The quality of the work could be improved at a later date. Second, the territory through which it was to be laid was a largely uninhabited stretch of Texas desert. All supplies, including water, would have to be carried along with the construction crew, and the line of supply would get longer and less reliable as the work progressed. Third, a strong river would have to be bridged near the end of the extension. And finally, the rival railroad company was expected to do everything in its power to stop the construction by legal injunctions, board room intrigue, Wall Street manipulations, or outright sabotage and force of arms. Carhart was given a "free hand" as to methods and expenses for the project. So commenced an epic battle of man against nature, company against company, laborers against employers, and even brother against brother.

The main theme of the novel is the art of leadership. Carhart is the standard against whom others are compared. He is literally "the spirit of the enterprise." His energy and confidence, his fairness to the men and mastery of the art of railroad construction inspires everyone else. When he leaves the site for a few days, the life seems to drain out of the laborers, and work slows to a crawl. Railroads are his passion, and while he is among them, all the laborers are infected with the same enthusiasm.

Ayn Rand's comments on Charlie Bannon, protagonist of Calumet "K," apply equally well to Paul Carhart:

"It is interesting to note that Bannon is not an industrial tycoon, but merely an employee of a building contractor; he is presented, not as a rare exception, but as an average man. I doubt that a man of Bannon's stature could be average in any society; and, in a free one, he would not remain an employee for long. But he represents, in its purest form, the characteristic which a free society demands of all men, on all levels of ability: competence.

"The story demonstrates in many skillfully subtle ways that that characteristic runs through the whole social pyramid. On the lower levels, it depends on the quality of the leadership involved in a large, cooperative undertaking. Bannon's leadership is the decisive factor in the issue of morale or lethargic indifference on the part of all the workers on the job. His self-confidence, his demanding standards and his strict fairness bring out the best in them: pride in their work, conscientiousness, energy, enthusiasm . . . . . Their potential virtue is like an inert, responsive mechanism that can swing either way; Bannon is the spark plug. They respond when they know that their best will be appreciated." (From Ayn Rand's Introduction to Calumet "K.")

Like Calumet "K," The Road Builders is light fiction. Paul Carhart has no inner conflict, he does not grow morally or intellectually through the novel--but the railroad grows under his sure guidance. All his conflicts are external, and designed to show his admirable qualities. For instance, when the superintendent in charge of forwarding supplies to the construction crew sends forward more excuses than supplies, Carhart journeys back to their supply depot, investigates the situation, and finds the superintendent is diverting trains and supplies to the rival railroad. He sends the man a note: "I am sure you will agree with me that I can spare none of these [railroad] cars, least of all to supply a rival line. And in consideration of your future hearty cooperation with me in advancing this construction work, I will gladly take pains to see that my present knowledge of the use that has been made of these cars shall not interfere in any way with your continued enjoyment of your position with the Sherman & Western." He shows good humor, even in trying and desperate circumstances.

When the rival railroad company cuts Carhart's line of supply by occupying one of the stations behind them, he is left without the rails and ties he needs to go on with the construction. What to do? He literally tears up a branch line of the Sherman & Western that is little used, and uses it for the new line. These and other events demonstrate his resourcefulness.

There is a subplot that does evidence some inner conflict in one of Carhart's lieutenants, Gus Vandervelt. Young Van, as he is called, is Carhart's aide-de-camp. Gus's older brother, "Old Van," is one of Carhart's construction chiefs. Old Van is "old school," and believes in one form of leadership: the whip. While Carhart is no pushover himself, he is a reasonable man. He is not the slave driver Old Van is. Young Van must wean himself from his older brother's familial influence to become the kind of leader Carhart is--because he knows Carhart's way is better. The subplot documents his struggle between these two strong influences.

A line from the novel, when the construction expedition was about to begin, sums it up very nicely: "There was about the scene a sense of enterprise, of buoyant freedom, of deeds to be done."

The book is of course out of print. However it can generally be found on any of the better used book sites on the internet. It is probably the most available of Merwin's novels.