Battling for the soul of America

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette: 12/28/2020

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Jon Meacham’s latest book is “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and The Power of Hope.” It follows his 2019 “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels,” which offers the hope to be found in conquering America’s past divisions.

President-elect Joe Biden ran on and won his own “Battle for the Soul of America.” Democracy, he said, was on the ballot. That these are fraught times hardly needs saying. We had a national election for president and Congress in the midst of a once-in-a-100-years pandemic. Biden earned a record seven million-vote majority inside of a record 80 million votes, 306 electoral votes and the White House.

Every white American like me that took the time to watch the movie “Selma,” knows that America’s better angels are not always on hand. To see John Lewis and others beaten to the ground as they marched for the right to vote in Alabama — is to feel ashamed. To enjoy white privilege into the 21st century with little appreciation of its heavy price is a chosen ignorance.

Many of us were there when African American’s marched for the right to vote in the early 1960s. It was on TV, we saw it, and for many of us it was someone else’s problem to solve. The bravest were Freedom Riders who daringly faced a murderous Jim Crow. Watching “Selma” educates everyone who was not there. No excuses. The damning facts were again visible in 2020, owing to the videoed killing of George Floyd — inspiring coast-to-coast marches for justice.

Which brings me to our outgoing President, Donald Trump.

If late-night comics, and their writers, have any justification it is in their ability to puncture bloated egos with wit. Equally, cartoonists all the way back to Thomas Nast turn their pens into scalpels. The New Yorker Magazine delights in cartoon humor, often political. I like a good laugh.

I’ve long admired the writer C. S. Lewis, a surprising convert to Christianity. Lewis’s popularity extends from works like: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” to “The Screwtape Letters.” The latter a must-read challenge to agnostics and believers alike.

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Luther.

An Oxford Don, C. S. Lewis quoted Martin Luther and Thomas More when he sent along the text of “The Screwtape Letters” to his fellow author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien founded The Inklings’, a literary group that met in their local pub, The Eagle and Child, which they punned, “The Bird and Baby.” At meetings, “The Inklings” read aloud their in-progress writings for comment.

Lewis’s ‘Screwtape Letters” date from July 5, 1941, during the second summer of Hitler’s attack; England was fighting for its life.

FDR’s America was isolationist and public polling strongly against getting involved in another European war. Post-World War II histories highlight a determined Prime Minister Winston Churchill counseling his American counterpart to come to Britain’s aid sooner than later. Fingers in the air to test his voter’s mood, FDR did not commit until Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7th , and Hitler declared war on the U.S.

In his preface, Lewis introduces a senior devil, Screwtape, writing letters to his nephew and student devil, “Wormwood.” His subject is man, humankind, as Screwtape analyses us from his lowly netherworld position. Lewis begins by reminding his readers that “the devil is a liar,” and that not everything he says should be assumed to be true, even from his own angle.

Reading on, you learn that Screwtape refers to God as, “the enemy” and the Devil as “Our father below.”

The junior devil’s target, whose soul he covets, is ‘the client.”

To Wormwood: “Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see.”

In this pandemic year of 2020, I’m rereading Lewis’s description of the devil, invisible, but nearby and encouraging us in our follies. He’s the cartoonist’s bad angel whispering in our ear.

President-elect Joe Biden is a cradle Catholic. Joe’s parents did their duty, believing that Christian baptism cleanses souls of original sin. Sixty years apart, I’m proud to have voted for Joe Biden and Jack Kennedy. I share Biden’s love for our Celtic heritage. No doubt we would agree on my father’s well-worn Irish blessing: “May you live as long as you want, never want as long as you live, and may your soul be in Heaven 24-hours before the devil knows you’re dead!”

President Lincoln’s appeal to our better angels was for help in battling the fiends of our nature. Victory over the virus will require a united effort to beat the devil at his own game.

Go Joe! Go Kamala!


It’s been a good year! I hear their

 solid punch of earth from on high.

Or, a surprising bounce off macadam

Where they wait, anxiously, to be opened

By Acura tires in a flashy coup de grace.

Announcing themselves through foliage,

Dislodging the comfortable with minimum

Din. “They’re everywhere” she says to no one

In particular. Her garden’s in autumn retreat.

Another year is speeding through the trees,

Bringing down leaves.

              Ship of Fools, University of Rio Grande, Rio Grande, Ohio

The Krypton Kid

The act of reading occurred,
Like creation, in sage steps..

First awareness of selfhood
Was there. Idolatry, beyond 

Teacher’s axioms and action
Words became rationality. 

Take comics for instance:
Captain Marvel’s, “Shazam!” 

Superman’s, “Faster than…”
In them I invested my youth. 

In them I found me: grown up.
Doing deeds I could not do, 

Never would do. Before girls
Intruded, icons fought for me. 

Together we were something.
All alone, I was nothing. 

Just a foam-flecked
Blue daddy’s boy. 

Comically literate.

Ilya’s Honey, Dallas Poets Community, Dallas, Texas.    

His Hours of Gladness

William Cullen Bryant House, Cummington, MA. June 29, 2008 Recorded by The Florence Poets Society for later broadcast on Northampton, MA Cable Television.

One of the Bryant poems remembers our brother, Jack, who left us in January 2008:


My late brother loved going back

To our dad’s village in Ireland

There he found rare peace in a

Spot where, he swore, his soul

Was born. John wasn’t deemed to

Be a poet like his namesake uncle.

No, his talents lay in hands that

Crafted and maintained our world.

Our grandfather could entertain a

Whole pub or party with stories in

Rhyme set to old tunes. Breathing in

His clan’s Kerry air cured Jack’s ills.

Younger sons get leftover

Attention at the first. They

Have to work harder to stand out

From their bigger brothers who

Crowd around absorbing a mothers’

Time, warmth, and light: three of life’s

Basic ingredients for sons of every age.

Fathers treat boys like they were men

Long before they’re ready. Younger

Sons, bereft of mothers, overestimated

By fathers, choose to leave home to find

Their due: respect and love, out where it’s

To be found. All the time though they’re

Drawn back to seek what they missed the

First time around, pulled back from being

Away, and dreaming of days that never

Were. Their life is betwixt, unfinished.

Love is God’s gift to our world. His son

Died that might live in hope. Old, young,

Or in between we are all his children. We

Are all loved beyond our imagining. Now

Heaven awaits our fair-haired boy, who’s

Been so long a traveling, Johnny’s been

So long at the fair: So, so long at the fair.