I have kind of a mental list, as I'm sure all readers do, of the books that have meant the most to me over the years. Graham Greene
's The Quiet American
is one, as is Turgenev
's Diary of a Superfluous Man
. But, maybe the single most important to me, a book that spoke eloquently to the very core of who I am, is William Stafford
's World War II memoir, Down in My Heart
, which has just been re-released in a gorgeous new edition by Oregon State University Press.
Stafford's is not just any WWII autobiography, as the role he played was shared by relatively few of his peers. You see, Stafford was a conscientious objector (CO) ? a "Conchy," as others called them ? someone who, for deeply held reasons, most often religious, objected to war in any form. This slim book, which was Stafford's master's thesis in college, is truly beautiful. It consists of short stories or episodes of Stafford's life in the camps that were set up for COs to perform alternative service, and focuses heavily on the relationships built there, both with fellow objectors and with Forestry Service personnel and others. There's a roiling account of a trip into Los Angeles to meet with Aldous Huxley and friends, and a gripping, edge-of-the-chair episode in which Stafford and a few friends are nearly lynched by a "patriotic" mob in Arkansas.
The book has two introductions, in this incarnation (it's been through four: the first, from Brethren Press, the second from Bench Press, the third and fourth both from OSU). The first is by Stafford's son, Kim, and it helps flesh out a lot of the detail concerning the meaning of being a CO, and, more particularly, of Stafford's understanding of what it meant to be a pacifist engaged fully in the world. The second is Stafford's own original introduction, and it's a bit of writing that packs quite a punch. Take this passage, for instance:
Those landmarks that had made us a part of society we discovered to be certain elements of fellowship that we came to value for ourselves and for others ? all others; and we looked for other human beings everywhere and for fellowship. When we found it in bits here and there we hoped for it again, and analyzed it, and traced its antecedents and consequences. Down in our hearts we found it and wanted to protect and promote it as something more important than ? something prerequisite to ? any geographical kinship or national loyalty. The social fabric rent by war presented itself as thousands, as millions indeed, of broken fellowships, of alienations.
How does this relate to my life? I'm not old enough to have been a WWII CO, however I was old enough to be a CO in the seventies, and that's what happened. I read and read ? Kropotkin, Remarque, Hersey, Vonnegut, Gandhi ? and met with all sorts of people, and gradually came to the classic position of opposing war in any form. And, I got out of the Army. But, I'd found very little in the literature that really enunciated clearly how I felt about the whole situation, and, at that time, I was incapable of clarifying my position perfectly for myself.
Then, while I was working at a bookstore in Washington, DC, I ran across this book. I'd heard of Stafford as a poet, but hadn't read anything by him, and I read this book at the suggestion of its publisher. I was blown away, and read it again and again, until it became a part of me. Finally, I'd found someone who was able to speak those words most deeply inside of me.
This is the story of one book in one person's life. We all have stories like this. I just feel blessed that this book keeps surfacing again and again in my life, and that every time I'm reminded who I really am at the very deepest level. I wish the same for all of you.
Let's end with the original dedication from the Brethren Press edition. It's by Bosanquet:
To the Kingdom
All that we mean by the Kingdom of God on earth is the society of human beings who have a common life and are working for a common social good. The Kingdom of God has come on earth in every civilized society where men live and work together doing their best for the whole society and for mankind.
All I can add is Amen.