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HISTORY CLASS IN A CORNER OF W. VIRGINIA

Times Arts Editor

Barring lethal incident, plane trips these days are as perfunctory as bus rides to Claremont. But that sense of being in a sealed room, your speed revealed only as a background thrumming, heightens the shock of displacement when you finally get where you’re going and touch earth again.

The environs of Washington are as Now as anyplace gets. New malls, condos, office blocks, high-tech complexes each massier and glassier than the other, are chewing up the gentle countryside in a way that feels and looks like Orange County. The past is, as almost everywhere else, being bulldozed away.

In Washington itself, of course, the past is enshrined, preserved, celebrated, carved in marble and granite, and even the monumental bureaucratic present cannot overwhelm the beauty and implicit grandeur of that extraordinary past.

Los Angeles, I’ve always thought, is stimulating not least because the past makes itself felt so little. It is distinctly a Now city, untethered by the past, indifferent to family histories but impressed by accomplishments--a meritocracy with street lights. The past survives in place names, which evoke a pastoral yesterday that is itself not very ancient by European or Asian measures.

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But this weekend I am on a sort of double pilgrimage to the past, to Washington, where my wife is researching the life and times of a 19th-Century American scientist, and, on a dark Sunday afternoon, to Harpers Ferry. In this relic of a town there is little newness to obscure the presence of the past; there are memories and little else, but what memories.

It’s 127 years since the abolitionist John Brown and his small band, including his sons, seized the federal arsenal here and holed up in the fire station that became John Brown’s Fort. They were routed and killed or captured by Army forces under Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart, and Brown was hanged later that year, 1859, over in Charles Town.

This afternoon’s excursion is the suggestion and the work of the fine young novelist David Martin (“Tethered,” “The Crying Heart Tattoo”) whom I’d first met at a writers’ conference at UC Riverside.

Martin and his wife, Gretchen, who teaches kindergarten, have lived in Alexandria for eight years. He works in Washington as the publications editor of a private educational agency, and early on he became intrigued by this haunting and possibly haunted piece of ground.

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His third novel, “Final Harbor,” published in 1984, is set here in Harpers Ferry. It is a contemporary story, ribald and phantasmagorical, about Colleen Timmerand, a rather special young woman who may, it is thought, be able to levitate.

Harpers Ferry, with its history of fanaticism and bloody violence, its meteorological problems, its raucous observances of the Raid (which fell near Halloween) and its legacy of ghostly stories deriving from the Raid, struck Martin as the perfect setting for his tale. History is the ambient stuff in which his events (the collision of a calculating innocence on a cynical but accepting world, you could say) have their genesis.

The geography is crucial and fascinating. The Shenandoah River runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains for a hundred miles before it meets the Potomac here, and the Potomac, freed at last from its own mountain canyon, continues its quest for the sea.

The town has a history of terrible floods because the canyons act like great funnels, confining the water. One of the riverside buildings has marks nearly three times a man’s height showing the high water of various floods (and the building is well above river level). The most recent flood ravaged the town only last year.

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The 1980 flood is the climax of Martin’s novel, and gazing at the waters on the dark, damp afternoon, I had the odd and infrequent feeling of being part not only of present and past, but also of fiction and reality.

We climbed the steep path, partly made of steps carved from the mountain itself, to Jefferson Rock, where Jefferson himself once stood and contemplated the joining of the two rivers. He wrote eloquently of the view through the cleft in the mountain: “a small catch of smooth blue horizon at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself.”

The weather made good on its threat of rain, and we walked down the hill from Jefferson Rock in a worsening downpour. The town, which once had a population of 4,000, now has fewer than 400 residents, some of them with the National Park Service, which does an exemplary job of unobtrusively making the past available to the thousands of tourists while still preserving the sense that this is the way it looked, and was.

David Martin and I agreed that it was no bad thing to see Harpers Ferry on a raw, wet day. The past seemed nearer and realer than it looks on bright post cards. It was almost as if you could hear, down the empty streets, the echoes of ancient cries and the snap of rifle fire and imagine shadowy figures working their way though the trees toward the stone buildings of the arsenal.

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I’m not sure what lesson I take away from Harpers Ferry. But it did strike me that one of the uses of the past revisited is to remind you that we all rest upon the valor and the passions of those we never knew, but whose truth, like John Brown’s conviction that all men must be free, survives its time and persists.

We drove back to Washington in the rain, damp but composed and refreshed.


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