Soldier, Author, Diplomat…

I frequently talk with the other members of my book club about how one of my favorite “side effects” of reading a lot is how “connections” begin to form between the different books one reads. The inter-relatedness of one’s reading makes the reader begin to feel a sense of ‘cultural literacy’ (at least it does for me) that can make him swell with pride. Sometimes, it’s as overt as another book I’ve read being mentioned or referred to in a new book (an example of this would be my recent reading of The Help, which mentions To Kill a Mockingbird several times). Sometimes, it’s a reference to a person whose works you’ve read. One joy of becoming more familiar with the works of Kurt Vonnegut in the past year is that – with him being from Indianapolis – there are sometimes references that are perhaps more special to me, a fellow Indianapolitan…

I encountered something of this nature yesterday when I was (re)reading Cat’s Cradle for this Friday’s meeting of the KVML Book Club. In chapter 42 (the chapters in Cat’s Cradle are only a few pages long), the narrator, John (or Jonah, call him Jonah…) is on  a flight to The Republic of San Lorenzo and has encountered a couple, H. Lowe and Hazel Crosby, on the plane who also happen to be from Indiana. Hazel comments that “I’ve been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.” Later she gushes, “The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier.” At this point I closed the book for a moment and, as Haruki Murakami might say, entered the realm of memory…

I went to college in Crawfordsville, Indiana, at the small but well-respected Wabash College.  Crawfordsville happens to have been the home of General Lew Wallace in his final years, and the location where he wrote the famous novel (which became a more famous Oscar winning movie) Ben Hur. Wallace was one of the town’s most famous citizens. His name is still on things all over town, including a motel and lounge. The town’s main theater, The Strand (sadly, no longer standing) showed Ben-Hur every spring around Easter, and I’m happy to say one year I took in the show in what must have been something resembling the original movie experience from 1959 (The Strand was one of those classic old, huge theaters that have largely disappeared in the age of the multiplex).

During my college years I became a habitual walker. The odd schedules that college students generally keep led me to even become a frequent walker late at night. I considered these late night walks “study breaks.” I walked all over town, sometimes logging several miles, admiring the many old and architecturally interesting houses in the quiet solitude of the late hour.  On one of these late night wanderings I “discovered” the Lew Wallace study, a historic landmark and museum. It became a favorite terminus of many of my walks.

My initial discovery was on a night walk, and normally the grounds were kept locked up and there was no admittance to be gained. The property is surrounded for the most part by a tall brick wall, and there were several times I walked speedily down the gently sloping sidewalk on the north side. At that time in my life, I was given to a sort of vague mysticism that these night walks helped incubate. Something about walking along this wall enhanced the mystery of what was on the other side. A few times I even imagined that some sort of ‘guardian entity’ would shadow my steps, following along with me just on the other side of that wall. Of course, I could’ve returned to the spot in the daytime to learn more about this place, but that would spoil the aura of mystery my imagination had built around it. One night however, the gate was open, and I crossed the threshold…

The grounds were fairly large, and one of the first things I encountered was a statue of Wallace, whose square base had his name engraved on one side, with the other three sides bearing the words Soldier, Author, Diplomat – in honor of Wallace’s three main careers. A little further to the east was the study itself. A hearty but not ostentatious fortress of solitude, I could certainly appreciate the sentiment which led to its construction. Wallace once wrote,

“I want a study, a pleasure-house for my soul, where no one could hear me make speeches to myself, and play the violin at midnight if I chose. A detached room away from the world and its worries. A place for my old age to rest in and grow reminiscent, fighting the battles of youth over again.” (Letter to Susan from Santa Fe, Dec. 4, 1879.)

The piercing quiet of the late night and the thrill of “discovery” has forever imbued this place with a magical aura that I still feel to this day. I’ve often thought of visiting it again as an adult, but again, I almost feel that would ruin it for me. I often now marvel at the fact that never in my late night perambulations and trespassings was I ever encountered by any local law enforcement, who might not appreciate the innocent motives of my “study breaks.”

So, thank you, Kurt Vonnegut, for leading me to excavate this memory…

5 Comments

  1. Dee said,

    March 29, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I’m new to this site and very much enjoy the perambulations of your mind. This time you notice the interconnectedness of all things – always a kind of reassuring pleasure.(I’m writing from Santa Fe, by the way!)
    Thanks also for the previous – my mother used to use the word “hobbledehoy” though I never knew what it meant until now!

    Like

  2. Jay said,

    March 29, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Dee,

    Thanks so much for your visit and comments.

    I think Lew Wallace served as Governor of New Mexico after the Civil War. I don’t know if it was a state or still a territory when he was there. I love New Mexico! I’ve visited the northern part of the state many times. So beautiful. I guess that’s what one would expect from “The Land of Enchantment”…

    I hadn’t seen the word hobbledehoy for ages myself and had to look it up again. I’ve really started to enjoy the Trollope book after an admittedly slow start. I’m sure I’ll post about it further when I finish.

    -Jay

    Like

  3. Darlyn said,

    March 31, 2011 at 9:11 am

    I love “literary coincidences” as I like to call them. I’m currently reading Anne of Green Gables, and Ben Hur was mentioned. Anne pretended to study history while she was actually reading Ben Hur.

    Also, I think you’re really lucky to live near so many historical places.🙂

    Like

    • Jay said,

      April 2, 2011 at 8:11 am

      Hi Darlyn,
      I’ve never read Anne of Green Gables and didn’t know Ben Hur made an appearance in that novel. That’s great! I actually found a very old copy of Ben Hur at a used book sale once. I’m not generally a collector, but due to my ‘connection’ with the book and author I had to buy that one.
      -Jay

      Like

  4. March 25, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    […] Visit the Lew Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, IN I mean IN THE DAYTIME (see my old blog post). One of many literary treasures in my part of the country that I have yet to take advantage […]

    Like


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