Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:
Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is The Flower And The Nettle: Diaries And Letters Of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1936-1939
Even just looking at the dates of these journals gives me a shiver of dread. The cataclysm approaching. The Lindberghs, who had already been through their own cataclysm with the kidnapping and murder of their first-born, came to find America un-livable. Nowhere was private enough. Nowhere was safe. They eventually, in 1936, moved to England into a sprawling old farmhouse called Long Barn. (It’s been a while since I’ve read the volume, so some of the details are lost to me). By this point, I believe the Lindberghs had two children. More would obviously come. But to be in England in those dark years …. Much of Anne’s journal is taken up with fear of the war that she knew was coming. It hangs over all of life like a pall. Especially as we start getting into 1938, 39.
Meanwhile, though, the Lindberghs were just searching for a place where they could be safe from the intrusions of publicity and celebrity. After living in Long Barn, they ended moving to a rocky island off the coast of Brittany into a stone house – with no electricity, I believe. But you couldn’t get more isolated than that, and even though life was hard – not to mention the growing threat of war – it was a happy time for the Lindberghs. They had all these little children, who got to roam free and wild on the island, and the Lindberghs were pretty much left alone. Anne herself gloried in the solitude and the closeness with nature, something that she often found lacking in the whirlwind of her first years of marriage.
In the meantime, they continued to travel – huge jaunts to India and Russia (her observations of Russia are fascinating – she senses that something is not right, that something stinks in the “leveling” that is going on. Of course she was on an official visit, so she only saw what the diplomats in Russia wanted her to see, but she wrote in her journal “What is going to happen to a country where only the mediocre are safe?” I think that is quite a prescient observation, especially in 1937, especially when you don’t see ANY of the horror going on, and you only are shown how awesome everything is). But the depression in Locked Rooms Open Doors, the depression of living under the wing of her mother and feeling like she is put into a childlike state is now gone. She gets to be a wife and mother, independent, making her own decisions. She gets to hang out with her husband, one on one (something they both seemed to enjoy, at least in the early years), and revel in her children. It’s a fascinating volume because of the inner peace she seems to find – but she’s finding it at a time when the world is going to hell. She writes at one point, such a sad line, “I feel like many of the things I love are about to go under for a time.” She was right about that.
It was during these years that they made one of their trips to Germany. This was under the auspices of the United States government, by the way, and criticisms that Lindbergh was there as some Nazi-loving traitor are incorrect. Everything he did in Germany was endorsed by the US. He was there to inspect their technology and report back. His assessment was that the Luftwaffe was invincible, which eventually led to his controversial isolationist stance a couple of years later. At one party in 1938 – which would become notorious – Goering presented Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle on behalf of Adolf Hitler. There are pictures of this moment. Anne wrote in her journal how Goering basically sprung it on them, they were not prepared, and if they had known going in that that was what Goering was planning, they would have avoided it altogether. This may be a bit of a fib, but I don’t think so. Things often happen that you can’t plan, which have huge repercussions you can’t see at the time. The Lindberghs, who didn’t speak the German language, were at the mercy of their hosts, and it was awkward all around. But that picture, of Lindbergh being honored by Goering, would come back to haunt him. It still haunts him. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but we will be judged for our actions. That’s the way of the world. The Lindberghs were very naive in many ways, and did not properly protect themselves. Charles Lindbergh bought what the Germans were showing him: we are powerful, we are all-mighty, and based his opinions on that. Of course the Luftwaffe was NOT invincible, and eventually all debate about whether or not America should get into the war was completely abolished in 1941. But up until then, Charles Lindbergh took the unpopular (and in many ways wrongheaded) position that the Germans were too powerful to be fought.
Anne got caught in the middle of all of this (which you can clearly see in the next volume of her journal). Her family turned against her because of her husband’s high-profile isolationist speeches. She was shunned, by proxy. She stood by her man (what else was she gonna do?) but it was a very tough time for her.
The Flower and the Nettle, although full of travels and observations, is the calm before the giant storm.
There is so much good stuff in this rich detailed volume, I didn’t know which excerpt to pick. I decided to go with something that has nothing to do with war or Germany or Russia – but instead describes an evening in Paris when she goes to a party and meets Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It gives a good impression of how readable Anne Lindbergh’s writing really is. And I love the anecdote about the French peasant, told by Gertrude Stein. Although that peasant was wrong in his assertion that “there would not be a war”, the way he expresses it is actually very truthful, and could actually be used to sum up the entire 20th century. “Ce n’est pas logique.” To have a huge world war come after the OTHER world war? No, it is not logical. There needs to be more time between wars. At least a generation. The French peasant, while wrong in his prediction, was actually right on the money when it comes to the truth of what that whole time must have really felt like.
This entry is from March, 1939.
Monday, March 6th
C. still has a temperature; stays in bed all day. He has eaten nothing – doesn’t like the vegetable bouillon and doesn’t like anyone to come in and fuss around him.
I go out between 12 and 1 with Jon. On the way back I buy a can of meat bouillon for C., also rush into a flower store to get some white violets for Mrs. Miller’s birthday “party” tonight.
I go down to Mrs. Miller’s car waiting for me. It is raining hard. The violets are soaking wet (because I put them in water). C. said they looked like old crushed white tissue paper!
When I get there Jo [Davidson] and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are there. Jo comes up gallantly and makes me feel at home. Mrs. Miller puts on my violets, which drip all over her black velvet sash. Jo has brought her a watercolor. And I see a new flower painting by Vlaminick.
I meet Gertrude Stein. A stocky, solid, middle-aged person with stubby gray hair cut like a man’s; a squarish face, a good chin, aquiline nose, and curious little hard brown eyes, near together. She has on a kind of long-skirted brown crash suit with a white uniform blouse (which looks as if she had made it herself in a fit of independence), clipped at the throat with a very beautiful old paste (no – probably diamond) pendant pin, and old diamond cuff-links. Except for these signs of luxury the dress looks like a costume for a “Madchen in Uniform” matron. But her face is strong – simple and very American.
Alice B. Toklas (I really never believed in her, but there she was!) was more conventionally dressed in black taffeta with a modern Chanel (pink stone) flower necklace around her high-necked dress. This managed to look very old-fashioned and so did she. She had very dark hair combed into a low bang over her forehead, dark sympathetic and intelligent eyes, rather elegant hook nose, altogether a gracious, intelligent, and kind face.
Jo was bantering Gertrude Stein (who talks in a loud, rather harsh mannish voice) on her getting a dog – a new dog after her old one had died. (She got one as much the same as possible, immediately, and named it the same.)
“Oh, how could you!” said Jo.
“But it’s the only thing to do!” she parried. “Le Roi est mort – vive le Roi!”
(She likes to be different, I thought instinctively.)
The Lin Yutangs arrive, he looking around disappointedly for C. I explain about the cold.
We go in to supper, I sit between Gertrude Stein and Lin Yutang.
Gertrude Stein is easy to talk with because she does not want anything from you. She delivers – and very well. I found myself pinned down by what she was saying, about Americans (Louis Bromfield in this case) going home and excitedly “discovering” America. “There seems to me something indecent in it, like ‘discovering’ you love your mother and father or your husband.”
I say it’s like being afraid you’ll “forget” someone who’s died.
We got onto memory and she says that when she is asked why there are so few geniuses she always says the same thing. She went into a rather profound definition of genius and its connection to a time sense. In other words (I cannot quote her – I was so intent on understanding her that I lost the words) that it was only the now which should be written, what you felt and were now. The trouble was that many writers looked back or forward. So few could write the new. (This is sloppily stated. She said it concisely, and it cut deep; but, as always, abstractions are difficult to quote.) I gathered that it was the same thing, said philosophically, that Rilke said poetically of writing poetry, “even to have memories is not sufficient. If there are many of them one must be able to forget them, and one must have the great patience to wait till they return. For the memories themselves are not yet what is required. Only if they become blood within us, sight and gesture, nameless and no longer distinguishable from ourselves, only then is it possible, in some very rare hour, for the first word of a verse to arise in their midst – to proceed from them” [Journal of My Other Self].
After an intense and absorbing conversation with her I turn to the delightful and not intense Lin Yutang. We talk about C. chiefly: his life on the farm, his school, his wanting to go into pure science, etc. Lin Yutang is a most sympathetic person. We talked of the soundness one has if one has a basic connection with the land.
After dinner I find (the ladies segregating) that I am again listening to Gertrude Stein, completely absorbed, trying very hard, sitting on the edge of my chair, to memorize those clear chiseled and profound statements.
“Life,” she said, with one of her magnificently careless gestures, “is just one thing – just one thing – very simple, that’s all it is: we are living here in a finite world, a finite universe, with limits. Even in flying there are limits. One lives in a finite world and one is able to conceive of the Infinite.” (She is sitting down squarely, her legs slightly apart, like a man, her strong firm hands cupping a “finite world” in her lap.) Now – leaving out the disquieting murmur inside me that probably a scientist like du Nouy would dispute the statement that the world is finite – still that is a magnificent statement.
She went on to illustrate what pain, what complexities, what inevitable difficulties arose from this paradox, this lame state of man. “Even Hitler and Mussolini … they conceive of the Infinite. They want to make the finite (race, nations, etc.) become the infinite. Every world conqueror has dreamed of doing this, but it is doomed to failure … carries the seeds of its own death. You are sure to wake up one morning like Alexander broken-hearted because ‘there are no more worlds to conquer’.”
She goes on and gives other examples. I am reminded of Christ’s “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” I tell her this and she agrees. “He only tried to do it here.” She tapped the brain. (The Kingdom of God.)
I am quite excited by this idea and am well off down the road it has opened up in my mind. But she goes right on – about humanitarianism: “I know. It’s the fashion in America.” Much overrated, she felt, in industrial and other fields. “Mankind on the whole is pretty contented with life, otherwise it wouldn’t live.”
“But,” I said, “that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to better conditions?”
“Who is to say what is better?” she said.
A long discussion of “dull” lives. “Everyone’s life is dull looked at from the outside.
How did we get onto Munich and Louis Bromfield again? “Louis got excited in September because Europe didn’t go to war and he wanted it to go to war. Well, Europe didn’t want to go to war, that’s all. Czechoslovakia – yes, that was too bad, but Europe didn’t want to go to war for it.”
She went on to tell me a beautiful story about a peasant in the south of France, a simple uneducated man. She asked him if there were going to be a war.
“No,” he said, “there isn’t going to be a war.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Ce n’est pas logique,“, he said simply (very French, she pointed out).
“Why not?” she asked again.
“Well,” he said, “you see, Mademoiselle, I am forty-two. And I fought in the last war and here I am about to fight in another war. And my son is eighteen and he would fight in this war. Ce n’est pas logique. If I were sixty and it was my grandson who was eighteen, then there might be a war. But now, ce n’est pas logique.”
I do think this is superb. We were still talking when the men came back. About Munich and Chamberlain, whom she was for, oddly enough (since most artistic, literary, and “intellectuals” are against him). She said that he was arranging things in a common-sense way, as a housewife arranges squabbles in her kitchen.
We go into the studio and I talk with Mrs. Lin Yutang, a vigorous, earnest woman who teaches her children Chinese in the morning, works at a China Relief office all afternoon, and takes French lessons besides! She is a little hard to understand and I spent so much time concentrating on the words as they rush out, bubble out over each other, that I sometimes miss the meaning.
Gertrude Stein and Lin Yutang – or rather Gertrude Srtein – had a conversation on Catholicism and the young French Catholic Party that I wanted to hear. She said no one could understand France without understanding Catholicism.
And then suddenly we were going. Alice B. Toklas standing up – stooped and small and black – looked like the frail little old maid she is. And Gertrude Stein put a small round felt cap on her head (of no particular shape or size; it stuck on the top of her head and did not fit, having the same impetuous homemade look as the brown crash suit) and suddenly looked absurd. They both seemed to me pathetic at that moment – sad old women going home. Though I suppose this isn’t true. I think they are probably very happy and contented with life.
And I go home to C. in bed. I get him some cornflakes and milk and myself some too and sit on the bed and try to describe Gertrude Stein to him. I have the feeling that she is quite a big person of this age – not for her literary “pioneering”, her own “daring” experiments in writing, as she no doubt thinks, but as a great personality nurturing, encouraging, and stimulating a whole body of writers. The Dr. Johnson of this age. The Mme de Stael. I kept thinking of the Yeats poem:
“They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air ….”