Unless this is somehow the first of my letters that you’re reading, you already know about my predilection for old books…and particularly for the kind that allow us to see history unfolding before our eyes as a narrator who was present on the ground attempts to describe events he or she personally experienced. The autobiographies of the famous are part of that genre, obviously, although it is surely also the case that the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own story. But also included in that category are books written by the closest relatives of the great, people well positioned to know their subjects intimately and personally, and thus to be able to provide a window into that person’s interior self that would otherwise be closed off to the public. In that category are some of my favorite books about, not by, some of my favorite authors: Anna Dostoevsky’s book about life with her husband (published simply as Dostoevsky: Reminiscences), Sophia Tolstoy’s Diaries (featuring fifty-seven years’ worth of diary entries about her often tumultuous life with Leo), and, most recently (because one of her students’ parents gave it to Joan as a gift after her terrific Schechter production of Les Mis last spring), Adèle Hugo’s coyly-titled, but extremely interesting and surprisingly intimate, Victor Hugo by a Witness of His Life. Less stirring, but also fascinating, is Martin Freud’s portrait of his father, a bit pathetically entitled Glory Reflected: Sigmund Freud, Man and Father. And there are many others as well.
And then there are books written by talented authors about events they personally witnessed. Sometimes these books are ghoulish (I am thinking in that regard specifically of the autobiography that Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was ordered by his captors to compose in the spring of 1947 during the weeks between his conviction as a war criminal and his execution), but more often they serve not as freak shows or the literary equivalent of horror movies, but simply as windows into history. I wrote a while back to you about my experience rereading Ulysses Grant’s account of the Civil War, written as the author lay dying specifically to raise funds for his wife to use after his death. (The plan worked too—in the end Julia Grant received almost half a million dollars in royalties from her late husband’s Personal Memoirs, a goodly sum even today but a true fortune in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Interesting too, but far less well known, is Mrs. Grant’s own book of memoirs, a book first published in 1975, almost three-quarters of a century after its author’s death.) I’ve written about my experiences reading President Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe and finding it strangely—and disappointingly—dull. I wrote a few weeks ago about my plan to read Jefferson Davis’ The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government this summer as a way of looking at the Civil War from a vantage point wholly other than the one I’m used to. But the greatest of all these “I was there” books has to be Winston Churchill’s six-volume work, simply entitled The Second World War. And he was there too, and for more or less all of it.
Published over a period of six years that ended with the year of my birth, I read the first book when I was a senior in high school and the rest in the course of my college years. They stay with me still, or parts of them do. And it was something that Churchill wrote in that first volume that somehow came to me, entirely unexpectedly, when I first heard about the terrible Amtrak accident of earlier this week, the one on the Washington to New York train on which I myself have been a passenger many times. The specific stretch of track on which the derailment occurred has its own tragic history: it was less than a mile from this week’s crash site that a 1943 train derailment resulted in the death of seventy-nine people and more than one hundred wounded, some grievously, on a similar Washington-to-New York run. But this week’s disaster was horrible enough: the number of dead is fixed at seven as I write and the wounded at more than two hundred. But there are still passengers unaccounted for and it seems very likely that the number of dead, but only possibly the number of wounded, will rise as the wreckage is cleared.
One of the most foundational points in Churchill’s work is his conviction that the story of the Second World War can only cogently be told in light of the First War. And, indeed, it is both because that idea seemed (and still seems) so interesting to ponder, and also because I was so young when I read the first book, that that first volume, entitled The Gathering Storm, had such an effect on me. In the part that I wish to share with you, Churchill is writing about the mid-1930s, which he recalls as a depressing time for him personally and, on a larger scale, for his nation. In the specific section of the book devoted to the events of 1935, the House of Commons is busy debating a proposed increase in funding for the Royal Air Force, which debate Churchill finds dispiriting and rooted in what he himself considers a faulty and fully-fantasy-based understanding of what the future might bring and at best a half-hearted sense that any future war with Germany was going to have to be won in the air. And then he writes this, which passage somehow surged out of my unconscious to assert itself as I read the newspaper accounts of the Amtrak disaster:
There lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown writer about a railway accident. I had learnt them from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school in Brighton. “Who is in charge of the clattering train? / The axles creak and the couplings strain, / and the pace is hot and the points are near, / and sleep hath deadened the driver's ear, / and the signals flash through the night in vain, / for death is in charge of the clattering train.” However I did not repeat them.
Why that stuck in my mind, I have no idea. But, intrigued by the vagaries of my own subconscious, I set myself to discovering the real story behind Churchill’s comment. It turns out that it’s significantly less interesting than I would have expected. The long-since forgotten poet Edwin James Milliken (1839-1897) had apparently heard of a train wreck that had cost the life of a guard working for the London & South Western Railway, and which had apparently ensued when the engine-driver and his engine-stoker both fell asleep on the job. It was, among the world’s rail catastrophes, a modest disaster. Yet the poet’s conclusion, just as chilling now as then, is what struck Churchill as he listened to Parliament dither about the worth of upgrading their own nation’s air defenses and realized that his country too, just like the runaway train in Milliken’s poem, was too headed for a disaster that could possibly still be headed off, but which would become inevitable soon enough…once the decision to stint on RAF funding was made, once the train was simply going too fast for its own braking system to stop it.
I would like to reproduce here the end of the poem, which reads as follows:
Sleep—Death's brother, as poets deem,
Stealeth soft to his side; a dream.
Of home and rest on his spirit creeps,
That wearied man, as the engine leaps,
Throbbing, swaying along the line;
Those poppy-fingers his head incline
Lower, lower, in slumber's trance;
The shadows fleet, and the gas-gleams dance.
Faster, faster in mazy flight,
As the engine flashes across the night.
Mortal muscle and human nerve
Cheap to purchase, and stout to serve.
Strained too fiercely will faint and swerve.
Over-weighted, and underpaid,
This human tool of exploiting Trade,
Though tougher than leather, tenser than steel.
Fails at last, for his senses reel,
His nerves collapse, and, with sleep-sealed eyes,
Prone and helpless a log he lies!
A hundred hearts beat placidly on,
Unwitting they that their warder's gone;
A hundred lips are babbling blithe,
Some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver's ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!
In theory, death is just the name of the absence of life, just as silence is the name for the absence of sound. But silence feels real when we are surrounded unexpectedly by it, just as does death feel entirely real when we confront it in the context of family life or when it touches our friends or our neighbors. So the poet’s notion that the accident occurred because personified Death seized the train, because as a “hundred hearts beat placidly on” a line was crossed that could not be crossed back over, that at a certain moment what a few minutes earlier had been a horrific possibility became an inevitable catastrophe…that notion that life is far more fragile, and intensely more arbitrary, than any of us would ever wish to admit—that is what Churchill meant when he recalled the last lines of Milliken’s poem and likened England to a train whose engineer succumbed first to drowsiness and then to sleep, and whose personal failure led to disaster.
Coming on the heels of the Germanwings disaster in March that cost 144 passengers and six crew members their lives, it suddenly seems less safe out there…and I’m the kind of person who prefers to take the train precisely because it feels so much safer than flying. (That’s an excellent example, by the way, of a personal conviction that is true and false at the same time.) But the question of whether one form of travel is safer than another is hardly the point, which is far more potently just how delicate our places in the world truly are…and just how thin the foundation stones upon which we stand and on the apparent sturdiness of which we convince ourselves it would be irrational not to depend. But, at least in the final analysis, it’s all a chimera. Things are safe until they aren’t, until the engineer falls asleep, until the pilot’s suicidal tendencies cross the line from troublesome to irresistible, “until the silver cord snaps and the golden bowl breaks, until the pitcher shatters down by the spring and the wheel at the well is ruined, until the dust returns to the earth as it once was and the spirit returns to the God Who once gave it…then Kohelet’s truth will be wholly obvious to all. The merest of breaths, proclaims King Kohelet—everything is as insubstantial as a single breath.”