My friend Dr. Bob grew up in a coal town called Packard in eastern Kentucky, a place that was abandoned years ago. All that is left these days is kudzu growing over old foundations. He’s a neurosurgeon in Louisville now, and an amateur Kentucky historian, and my favorite tale of his is about the blue Fugetts and the blind Fugetts. The Fugetts live in Letcher county, and like so many families isolated in a rural area they have in-bred a bit and linked up two sets of bad genes. One branch starts going blind in their 30’s and 40’s—well after they’ve had their quota of kids—and the other has a blood condition (methemoglobinemia) that prevents them from getting sufficient oxygen, rendering the poor Fugett distinctly blue. When it’s cold or the Fugett is stressed he is really blue. It’s got to be so bad that nobody hardly will marry them, and so some of the family have moved over one county to Perry, and changed their name I think to Thompson. Not that this has helped a lot; now there are blue Fugetts and blind Thompsons.
Growing up in Kentucky as I did, I heard a lot of stories like that. Wolfe County, in the beautiful Red River Gorge area in the center of the state, had or maybe still has the highest incidence of schizophrenia (which is a genetically linked disease) per capita in the world, because the same gorge that now attracts the backpackers further isolated families in an area where isolation was already great, and some ancestor had a bad gene. Every or nearly every family in that county has at least one case of that affliction. My same friend Dr. Bob was out there visiting the gorge one day years ago with his wife and two young boys, when a beat-up station wagon pulled up beside them at a lookout point. Dr. Bob took one glance at the locals and quietly ordered his family to get back in their car. The folks in the station wagon were each one of them, he says, mad as hatters.
I’m telling you all this not because (or not only because) I have that typically Southern ghoulish pride in the distinctiveness of home, even if home is distinguished in its disease, but because there is always another side, even to such a problem as in-breeding. What people forget when they talk about the downside of marrying your first cousin, envisioning as they do the idiot savant banjo picker in Deliverance, is that just as in-breeding can group together weak genes or bad genes and give you terrible problems, so can it link up good genes.
Up until recently the scholar’s prize at Eastern Kentucky University went year after year to some young man from a poor and tiny backwoods holler. Many of these kids were from in-bred families—and it’s not that I’m recommending we follow the practices of the ancient kings of Egypt, but there you are. I have sometimes wondered if the legends of fairy changelings weren’t based on these families that, full of dull brothers, inexplicably, out of seemingly terrible materials, produce a brilliant or beautiful child. Brilliance among a family of hardscrabble farmers may be something of a curse, but still, such genetic favors remind you that where there’s life there’s hope.
And if I may continue the family discussion here for a minute, hope and the happiness that is hope are always personal. These days, as perhaps it has been most days, the big picture is not looking too bright. What national good news there is consists of demonstrating that the bad news is over-reported. It’s not true, for example, that your young friends who are marrying each other next week have a one-in-two chance of getting divorced. Fifty percent of all marriages fail in this country, but not 50 percent of all first marriages; the success rate for those is about 62 percent. It’s the repeaters, the Elizabeth Taylors, who drive the general rate down to one in two. So while the marriage vow is in trouble it’s not as bad as it’s painted.
Likewise, as I think has been better reported in the last year or so, the modern middle-class terror that one’s child is likely to be abducted by a stranger is largely a myth. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, only about 3.8 percent of the 25,000 missing or abducted children they’ve counted since 1984 were stolen by strangers. (About 39 percent have been taken by a relative, usually because of a custody dispute, and the remaining 57 percent are runaways or otherwise lost.) If you are not a hemophiliac, a prostitute, a male homosexual, or an IV drug user, the likelihood of your getting AIDS is small. The often-quoted 60 percent figure—that 60 percent of those sick with AIDS had it from heterosexual contact—is a worldwide figure, and may have a great deal to do with the generally overtaxed immune systems of the Third World and, in some places, a very different style in intimate relations from what might be considered average in middle-class America. Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t worry about your children, or that we’re a healthy country, just that for most of us those two worries should be low on our list.
This may be cold comfort for some of my friends, especially those who are a good bit my elder, who tell me (as Gore Vidal has pointed out very evocatively) that they can remember when this was a freer country, and when they could read the newspaper without throwing it in despair or anger across the room; the only response I can think of is something George Garrett quotes his wife as saying: that there is no such thing as public life, there is only private life. With regard to that tossed newspaper, unless that’s our family in the Scene section, or our company on the Business page, or our neighbor’s son in Sports, the world of the Courier-Journal is not a world that for us exists. This means modern life is much too fragmented, that we would have such tenuous ties to our neighbors around town; but when times are not so good fragmentation can also be a refuge. Trying to think of some good news for this issue what kept coming to mind was friends’ new children and family weddings and Maria passing her medical boards; partly, yes, because there is little good news out of Washington or Chicago or even Rockford’s City Hall, but mostly because the world of my friends and extended family is the world that I live in. And in this I’m hardly unique.
Even moving to the world at large, the good news is always local, and the best people often localists. Take Bill Kauffman’s favorite politician, John McClaughry of Vermont, or Dick Lamm of Colorado, who as his reward for bucking the national trend in health care received a good deal of slander from his state press (though he may live to see national opinion swing around). Or take John Lukacs, a Hungarian expatriate historian living in Pennsylvania, who despite every excuse of birth and education for being a cosmopolitan internationalist, is one of the more eloquent nationalists (in all positive senses of the word) we have. Or take Tom Murray, a Scot poet living near the Firth of Clyde, who writes in the very individualized voice of a widower with the same universal authority Larkin had, or Brendan Calvin in Connecticut, whose most recent book of poetry is a series of monologues by a fictional 18th-century New Englander, metered local history. The world is full of junk, but it is full of these people too, and if the nightly news or the National Book Awards are getting you down, you are missing the trees for the forest.
We live in a world ruled by paradox. There is oppression in every victory and opportunity in most every disaster, and sometimes even when the big picture looks good—because it looks good—it can get depressing. Going up East to a high-intensity college as I did I saw so many people who were suffering from what critic Harold Bloom calls the “Agony of Influence,” or what non-Freudian nonacademics used to call achievement anxiety and sophomore slump: it has all been done; there is nothing left to contribute, or least I’m not capable of it; I am just some turkey wading through an English (French, History) major and will never be Milton (or Moliere or Thucydides) or anything close. I used to wonder if a lot of the most self-promoting twenty-year-old poets in my college didn’t feel this way, a prize from the department going a long way to make up for a hidden anxiousness, and the anxiety being the cause of so much of the self-promotion in the first place. And I wondered because I saw some succumb—like the art major who jumped off the top of the Art & Architecture building, a reminder to the poor folks who had to clean her up that suicide is not only a desperate and pitiable but a furiously selfish act. The best answer to this kind of self-absorbed teenage depression is not the one the Yale English Department generally gives, which is to shower praise for bad writing on young people who are generally smart enough to recognize baloney even when it is flattering baloney.
The best answer is to point to people like Margaret Morse Nice. Margaret Nice was essentially a housewife, who for eight years during the 20’s and 30’s spent two hours a day in Columbus, Ohio, watching the song sparrows in her large backyard. The observations she recorded in The Watcher at the Nest and her two-volume study of the sparrow made her one of the great ornithologists of the century. Or look at the more famous J. Henri Fabre, the son of small farmers in Provence, who recognized in the imperfect observations of the wasp Cerceris by Leon Dufour an opportunity for entomological study that he was to pursue his whole life, despite a large family, little money and little free time; his assistant professorship at Avignon paid so badly he had to take on extra lessons, even after being inducted into the Legion d’Honneur. But he like Mrs. Nice made use of his backyard.
Those of us wise enough to cultivate our own gardens will find we have plenty to do. As Lytton Strachey observed, this advice of Voltaire’s is one of the very few pieces of practical wisdom ever uttered by a philosopher—philosophers being a group that generally deserts the concrete for the universal. But for writers or rulers, businessmen or entomologists, it is the undiluted specific at your elbow that always has the greatest lessons to teach, not the watered down generalism; after all, the first is the root of the second. If Machiavelli had written general tracts on government, distilling the lessons he’d learned from Florence but leaving the Florentine examples out, he would not be as convincing. The experiment proves the hypothesis, not the other way around. It’s not just that the good news is at your elbow, but all news.
Woody Allen says somewhere, “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.” What we have to be optimistic about, as anybody who’s lived in New York can tell you, is that it is possible—just—to know Chinatown. Hence not only is it necessary to work your garden, but much more importantly it can be done—something those of us striving to recreate the Garden of Eden forget at our peril. I am not arguing against ambition, or even against ambitions that are too large, only against the human tendency to despair of doing anything when we cannot do it all. What is left for an idealist whose forty years of toil in the vineyards of world peace have not improved so much as the block he lives on but a nihilistic old age? And the unavoidable disappointments of old age are tough enough.
Sam Johnson’s Rasselas, prince of Abisinnia, leaves the Happy Valley in which he has been anything but to search for happiness and wisdom in the world at large. In Johnson’s final chapter, “The Conclusion, in Which Nothing Is Concluded,” Rasselas speaks of the kingdom he would like to rule, his sister of the women’s college she would like to found, and the lady Pekuah of the abbey over which she wants to be prioress. “Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained,” Johnson finishes. “They deliberated a while what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abissinia.” Rasselas has found the same answer as Candide, and it is not much of an answer as far as revelations are supposed to go. But it is all the answer we are allowed to have.