A friend, progressively debilitated by a rare disease and recently deceased, afforded me during the late plague-times a great opportunity. Ralph was a learned man belonging to the same fraternity of men with frustrated educations as I do: holders of doctorates in fields like English literature and American history awarded at a time of saturation in the academic job market, which, wherever else it directed us, saved us both from academic careers. He became a foreign service officer with some hard postings—Tehran, Moscow, East Berlin—then retired to our small Virginia town and a Victorian house with a front porch suitable for sitting in wicker and drinking cold gin. We talked some of local doings but mostly of literature and history, and then as he declined and moved into a care home nearby, slowly losing speech and the ability to read, I read and he listened. Sometimes this was in person. When the lockdowns forbade visitors, we read and listened over an old-fashioned landline phone on speaker for months on end. We read Faulkner and the Percys, both Walker and William Alexander; Paddy Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris; Max Hastings and Andrew Roberts; Herbert and Keats, Betjeman, Larkin, and Auden. Toward the end, there was Bruce Catton.
Ralph, like me, was of an age to remember Catton (1899–1978) in his prime and for the work that made him famous: the great Civil War narratives from the 1950s and 1960s and his supervision as editor of the old print bi-monthly American Heritage. In one of his last books, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Coming Fury, A Stillness at Appomattox, and the rest stepped back from “big” history into his own past with a quiet memoir titled Waiting for the Morning Train (1972). It seemed right for Ralph and me, both in our seventies, as was Catton when he wrote it fifty years ago.
The railroad metaphor of the title has lost its punch in our time, when passenger trains are few, their history and imagery largely vanished from the popular mind. It is a good metaphor, though, for life’s mundane arrivals and departures, which are very much still with us and which are Catton’s subject, woven through his memories of boyhood in the village of Benzonia in northern Michigan before World War I. The book’s relaxed pace is easy to mistake for nostalgia, but Catton is too good a historian for that. Youth may be innocent, but that does not necessarily make it simple. Thornton Wilder demonstrates a similar sensibility in the invention in Our Town, his own meditation on mortality, of turn-of-the-century Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, populated with characters held in some affection but not spared tragedy. Wilder’s conception has hardly dated at all. Through the device of the Stage Manager, he keeps the right dramatic distance.
Benzonia, Catton’s real-life Grover’s Corners, was a town of all of 350 inhabitants and whose reason for being—the virgin pine forests that were raw material for rebuilding Chicago—was already slipping away when Catton was a boy there. His father, who came up to Michigan from Oberlin, Ohio, taught at a prep school that was as idealistic as it was forlorn, from which Catton graduated in 1916, only a few years before it closed its doors for good. It was a Currier & Ives–ish time and place that Catton neither ridicules nor romanticizes. He just describes it, lyrically at times. The town was modest in the extreme, a crossroads settlement with wooden business buildings strung out from the intersection of the east–west road with the north–south one. Houses straggled along toward surrounding farms and woods where lilacs grew like weeds. There were three general stores and the usual small businesses and services of that era: post office, bank, blacksmith, drugstore, and a barber shop where Catton used to listen to “lectures on socialism” and which contained a pool table and a sign on the wall—“If you can’t pay don’t play”—which for a long time he misread as “If you can’t pray . . .” Simon McDonald, the proprietor of the general store that gave more candy for a penny than the competitors, was the only Democrat in a devoutly Republican community. When Teddy Roosevelt lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, McDonald in due course became the postmaster. Catton was best friends with his two sons, Douglas and Dwight, who lived across the road.
There was no getting past the fact, however, that Benzonia was a fading fly-speck on the map, like thousands of others in history and literature that writers recall primarily as places to leave behind or, to put it another way, to start out from. If we are lucky enough to achieve longevity, we will realize, on looking back, that we have spent only a sliver of our time in the place that is childhood. Its importance, the psychologists tell us and our own experience confirms, is neither inconsequential nor determinative. Growing up in Benzonia, in addition to happy memories, also planted an assumption that, from the twilight of his life, Catton could see was mistaken. Catton was not a modern “interpretive” historian but a non-academic narrative one. He told stories for his fellow citizens, and, in telling the story of his Benzonia boyhood, his mistake came into focus. He was looking back fifty years, as I now am looking back at him then, and the mistake is the same mistake that so often corrupts our culture and undermines our polity today. It was the assumption that “what we were going to be was determined by what had gone before. We accepted the unbreakable continuity of the society that had produced us.” Evidence that that continuity was soon to snap lay everywhere. So you have Catton, in words meant to be read and heard aloud: “We lived in Indian summer and mistook it for spring. Winter lay ahead just when we thought June was on the way.”
Of all the memories Catton kept of Benzonia, none was more clear-eyed than that of the dwindling band of Civil War veterans marching, under the banner of the Grand Army of the Republic on Decoration Day and the Fourth of July, to the war memorial they had built with their own hands. One by one, these old men found their own way up to Benzonia’s Our Town–like hilltop cemetery “to sleep beneath the lilacs.” Catton spent his life as a chronicler of their battlefield deeds and was unafraid of judgment about them. They personified “the faith we lived by,” which, at the time, he had never thought to put into words but later did: “the continuity of human experience, the progress of the nation toward an ideal, the ability of men to come triumphantly through any challenge.” If disruption lay ahead, he feared “it would come down very hard.” So it did.
Catton likened both old age and youth to waiting on a station platform for a train that would pause briefly and never come back. He had alighted the morning train around the end of World War I and, at the time of his memoir a half-century later, saw the approaching headlight of the evening one. Ralph awaited his evening train until a couple months ago, as we read Catton together. I am still looking down the track.