States of Compromise
Reading Time: 23 minutes
"States of Compromise" originally appeared in Issue 19 of Tahoma Literary Review. In this essay, Ryan Harper curiously braids historical/personal, local/national, past/present, inherited/alienated. I selected the piece for its remarkable, prismatic approach to considering the Missouri Compromise during the legislation's 200th anniversary year. This essay is one of TLR's two Pushcart Prize nominees in nonfiction for 2020.
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The Observer: Winter
In southeast Missouri, in northeastern Cape Girardeau County, bordered to the east by the Mississippi River, there is a tract of land called Lovejoy. It was an experiment in Reconstruction. In 1866, a number of black and white men pooled resources to construct a “manual labor school” for freedmen—and, notably, freedwomen. An intentional work-study community, Lovejoy would be a place where African Americans would receive an education as they built and maintained adjacent properties, cultivating the land with and alongside each other, in a riverside location auspicious for enterprise and industry. Pennsylvania Quaker Wilmer Walton spearheaded the effort. For the next decade, Walton would live, work, and teach in Lovejoy, the only white resident in the community.
River pilots call it Lovejoy Landing. Located at a slight crook in the river, just north of the more prominent Neely’s Landing, Lovejoy Landing is not a working port, but a natural aid to navigation for workers on the big public waters. Lovejoy is now private property—rough, forested terrain, no public roads in or out. I lived the first two decades of my life just a few miles from the place, but I had not heard of it until a recent conversation with my friend, local historian Denise Lincoln. A long-time Cape Girardeau citizen, Denise has spent her late middle age doing tireless archival work, tracking down the hidden stories of African Americans who lived in nineteenth century southeast Missouri. “Check Google Maps; it’s there,” she told me with a grin, invoking the contemporary online rite of final confirmation. A Missourian in full, Denise is well-apprised of maps and legends. Google had heard of Lovejoy. How hadn’t I heard?
Fourteen hundred miles away, in central Maine, in northeastern Kennebec County, which is divided by the Kennebec River, I walk to work up Mayflower Hill, in the city of Waterville. It is January 2020, the middle of my second year teaching at Colby College. The snowmelt saddens me. The temperature broke fifty degrees Fahrenheit yesterday. What little snow we have accumulated this year has thawed into a porridge of sand and cinder. Had such a warm spell occurred my first Maine January, I would have experienced it as a grace. But the indisputability of winter here has come to constitute its appeal to me—the clarity of its terms, the equipage, requisite. Uncompromising. How can I have failed to snowshoe this year? I await the dark season’s cues, wondering how long it will take to regenerate the pack. Under the scattered light of a dry winter sky I walk.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy graduated from Colby—then Waterville Seminary—in 1826. In the 1830s, the Presbyterian cleric became an abolitionist lightning rod in St. Louis, Missouri, operating a press and running editorials denouncing slavery in his paper, the St. Louis Observer. After the slaveholding interests in slave-state Missouri destroyed his press numerous times, Lovejoy set up shop across the river in Alton, Illinois, printing abolitionist articles in his new Alton Observer. But border states trade properties. Free-state Illinois possessed its own slaveholding interests. On November 7, 1837, a proslavery mob descended on the warehouse where Lovejoy had been forced to hide his press. Gunfire was exchanged. Two people were killed. One was Lovejoy. For the second time, his press was demolished, cast into the Mississippi River. His life and death caused the Lovejoy name to appear wherever people championed the free dissemination of ideas and freedom from slavery.
At Colby, my office is on the third floor of Lovejoy Hall.
Two hundred years ago, Missouri and Maine became yoked forever by the conditions of their statehood, a slave region and free region forced to walk arm-in-arm into the United States. Designed to preserve the Union, the Missouri Compromise revealed just how precarious that union was. The Compromise granted white supremacists a seat at the American table of power and, by virtue of the concessions they won, guaranteed them a future seat. The deal involved powerful anti-slavery interests, but not enslaved people—an extraordinary compromise, that conceded nothing to the population at the center of the debate.
Two hundred years later, I am wondering about what we carry—we who have lived in the states of compromise. It is 2020: a time of quarantine, of enforced and voluntary distance, of the cutting of the breath, the spirit. I am wondering what positions are binding, are fatal, whether we might commute what lines we can.
Missouri borders eight states—tied with Tennessee, more than any other state. Maine borders only one state—the fewest in the lower 48. Maine is a destination, Missouri a gateway, Arch and all. An out-of-state license plate on a Missouri highway signals a driver on her way elsewhere. Excepting occasional Canadians, an out-of-state license plate in Maine signals a trip just begun or just completed. You are in Maine because you live there, or because you came to visit. The gauntlet of welcome signs on Interstate 95 lets you know that Mainers know this:
Or, when proto-Trump Paul LePage was the state’s governor:
All are posted on rest-stop blue or green metal, in blocky, telegram font, without punctuation marks, pictures, or graphics. It makes for one of the most unceremonious border crossings in the nation. A few miles in, the brown tourist bureau’s sign seems downright pornographic by comparison, with the state silhouette in green, the gratuitous use of italics and periods: Maine. Worth a Visit. Worth a Lifetime.
The passive-aggressive greeting matches Maine’s ambivalent attitude toward itself and to visitors. The state needs money, and, if it must, people. But the state is proudly rural, wooded, and, by East Coast standards, wild. The state will take your money, but it is both poor taste and poor investment to beg by the roadsides. Maine outlawed billboards beginning in 1978 and has shot down every effort to rescind the ban. Even free market maniac LePage did not court business with glitter and fireworks; OPEN FOR BUSINESS was enough. The trees and the water provide their own testimony. If they will not suffice, you may as well turn around; Maine is neither your home nor your vacationland.
The stretch of Missouri interstate I know best—Interstate 55, south of St. Louis to Cape Girardeau—cuts through a lovely stretch of land just west of the Mississippi River valley, just east of the Lead Belt hill country. Farm fields share the hillsides with thick stands of hardwood trees, and occasional stone steeples testify to the region’s old German Lutheran and French Catholic populations. The drive from St. Louis to Kansas City on Interstate 70 contains its own potential charm as well, with larger stretches of flatter farmland and bigger sky, the soil rolling at choice moments along the Missouri River basin.
But advertising defiles both roadscapes. The paying culture tells its interests, every magnified jot and tittle, every mile. You will not drive one minute without encountering a billboard for the nearest exit with a McDonald’s Playland, a forty-foot Bible verse, a sixty-foot Second Amendment, an all-caps ad for the nearest adult video store, a picture of a fetus, blown up in more-than-full personhood. The fetuses particularly prevail on Interstate 55, a corridor of cobelligerent conservative Christianity: the reigning Lutheranism, Missouri Synod; the Catholicism, magisterial, ultramontane (until a Jesuit assumed the See); every other Christian, a variety of evangelical.
They all hang with you—more so than the ads, say, in midtown New York City. Urban ad density creates a photomosaic—troubling in its own right—but the discrete messages make little impression. In Missouri, there is acreage enough for each billboard to sustain its lurid singularity even as it augments the horrifying whole. At the same time, the obsession with hanging it all so garishly on the highways bespeaks the paying culture’s anxious suspicion that, in reality, none of it hangs together, on its own. Nothing can be trusted to bear its own witness. Commuters require counsel: what to buy, what to feel, where to get off.
It makes some sense. In a gateway state, where everyone is passing through, Missourians must make a quick pitch. Like Missouri, Maine has a fierce deregulatory streak, but it does not possess the same relationship with its commuters. Urgency is needless. People are in Maine either because they cannot get out, or because the pitch already has been made, successfully. I felt unmoored when I first moved to the Pine Tree State, to that unsoliciting edge. This was partly due to my having moved from New York City, where I still lived during the “non-academic” portions of the year with my spouse. But that city had unmoored me, too, when I moved there. It was coastal, like Maine. And the relentless solicitation in New York—where everyone had a hustle—had a self-cancelling effect, leaving me feeling as unnecessary as Maine did. I came of age tucked inland, sheltered by the constant commercial and moral attention of the Show Me State’s paying culture. I still feel it when I return to Missouri; it can feel as cozy as a warm bed, even for those of us who kick at the blankets—the way a shopping mall can feel homey to even skeptical white people, if we permit the lights and sounds their soft dominion. We know, despite ourselves, it is all for us.
When I first travelled to Waterville, I thought I was driving off the edge of the planet. It was early April, the browning season, when the snow metamorphizes from blessed rule to exception, when even the landscape withdraws its best offer. Turning off the interstate, I realized, alas, civilization had arrived before me. Waterville, population 16,000, somehow sustained two Burger Kings, two McDonalds, I am not certain how many Dunkin’ Donuts, and consequently two hospitals. I felt disappointed and relieved. As I spent weekends daring farther northward—to Bangor, to Baxter, even to Presque Isle—the cycle repeated: each horizon would be my last, the cliff was approaching, then I landed, sighing, at the next settlement. To be sure, things get sparse in the north country. But Vacationland is not the ends of the earth.
We Missourians worshipped the coast as only the landlocked could. Coastal Living magazine rivalled the Bible in its ubiquity. Those ultramarine covers, oiled up in bromide, steered us through our every holding pattern, from the grocery check-out line, to the wicker basket adjacent to the living room sofa, to the dentist’s waiting room—wherever one prayed for smooth sailing and a numbness that endureth. Our god was not the coast but the idea of the coast: summery, white, and overlit, forever and ever.
The lighthouse was the central icon of this gnostic littoralism. Lighthouses suffer from excess of applicability. Missouri is filled with them. Thomas Kinkade’s lighthouse paintings lined the walls of my evangelical friends’ homes, sometimes augmented by ceramic lighthouse statuary, or lighthouse table lamps. On occasion, the works included a caption—Bible verses about light shining in the darkness or houses built upon rocks. Usually, the lighthouses stood wordless in a word-tossed world, alongside framed hangings from Hobby Lobby that raged, in faux-embroidered capital letters, “FAITH,” “FAMILY,” or “BLESS THIS HOUSE.” Altar and liturgy, every room instructed visitors on what to feel. Lighthouses were the most subtle symbols we would countenance.
The lighthouse paintings almost always situate the viewer terrestrially—at a distance from the tower sufficient to capture it all, but still on some nearby peninsula, or behind the scene, inland. Missourians do not live near coastal lighthouses, which is perhaps one reason it bothers no one that the genre’s common perspective is rare. While Maine’s ragged coastline has some stabs of land that provide nice inland views of lighthouses (the light at Portland Head is a popular example), the best views of them usually require crawling out on rocks exposed only during low tides, or taking a ferry. This is no great mystery; lighthouses are built for pilots, in particularly difficult-to-navigate spots. Viewers in unhazardous locales are not a lighthouse’s target audience. But evangelical lighthouse art desires the full loveliness of a lighthouse with only implied hazards. Makers of such art rarely provide views from ships, or in the dead of night. Indeed, they rarely depict ships at all. If they do, the vessels appear in the distance, sailing in apparently smooth waters.
Lighthouses present their painters with a paradox: a lighthouse’s usefulness is inversely proportional to its visibility. At peak functionality, a lighthouse is only its light. The full body of a lighthouse is visible when it catches and reflects large amounts of external light. Sunny days are the best. A landscape so aglow has no need of artificial illumination, so the tower’s light would be off in such a setting, or faint at best, diffused in the luminance of settled weather. One cannot have both the light and the lighthouse.
The best painters of lighthouses know this, and they make a choice. Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley, both of whom resided in Maine, privilege the structures—trading the extinguished light for the play of shadow on the structure, in landscapes empty with dayglow. British artist William Daniell, in his Eddystone Lighthouse During a Storm, opts to show the light, obscuring the structure itself in the black storm, the sea waves. Whether or not they are strict representationalists, genuine painters of light are committed to honesty, which means refusing to lie about the availability of illumination and its juxtaposition to darkness. A painter of light must be a painter of darkness. If this is a compromise, it is a compromise rooted in real relation.
But Kinkade and company go in for neither paradox nor compromise. Every light, natural and artificial, is on. They want palpable light with only theoretical darkness—just as they want aids to navigation in a world with only hypothetical hazards. This is why their light fails, as representation and as symbol. An artist cannot sacrifice the ecology of a landscape at the altar of symbolism and expect a symbolism that is anything but kitsch. A compelling symbol is like a compelling theology: it does not come at a discount.
But we Midwesterners bought it. We had our reasons. Maine’s grays move; its whites breathe and shimmer. Not colorless, the atmosphere is, in fact, a commuter of color. In Missouri, the grays hung blank, locking the land in with more than land. We lived under season-long tombstone skies—slate in fall and winter, the latter quickly giving way to summers so humid the air was like polished marble. Things cleared and moved in short fits: the time of hail, tornadoes. The skies matched the religious temperament: ashen for much of the year, occasionally kindled by a Pentecostal spark to a ghostly, unforgiving pillar of cloud and fire. We dreamed of another dispensation: a controlled burn, a welcome motion, an abiding, peaceable light. From a distance, we the landlocked sang the idea of the sea.
Descended from an extended line of Quakers, Wilmer Walton knew fellowship and disfellowship. The Friends’ orthodox faction had disciplined then disowned him in the last years of the Civil War for his inclination toward the Hicksites—the more socially and theologically daring, less well-heeled strand of Quakerism. Before purchasing some Lovejoy property and assuming the role of schoolmaster, fundraiser, and general principal, he had taught freedmen in Alabama, where his progressive pedagogy and egalitarian views rankled his Freedmen’s Bureau bosses. Lovejoy would be the restless, homeless Walton’s opportunity to attempt a fuller reconstruction.
He and the people of Lovejoy met resistance early. In 1866, a mob burned the schoolhouse down; a literal reconstruction would be one of the community’s first projects. Lovejoy’s citizens lived under perpetual suspicion that often resulted in threatened and actual violence. Walton was targeted, since area whites regarded him as the sole head of the settlement—an assumption rooted partly in truth, partly in their belief that black people required an autocratic white leader. Walton recorded several instances in which groups of angry white men terrorized him. The worst occurred in 1875, when a masked group that Walton described as a “Ku Klux band” held him at gunpoint, charged him with “teaching niggers,” beat him, and let him go with the promise of hanging him if he persisted. The group returned a few nights later to do just that, but were frightened away, according to Walton, “by the presence of a few unarmed colored men” with whom Walton was meeting.
This incident prompted a half-hearted investigation on the parts of local authorities. The conditional, waffling tone of the local press suggests they did not totally believe Walton’s report. While they grudgingly admitted Walton was assaulted, they were hesitant to admit Klan presence in southeast Missouri. Had Walton truly been attacked by a racist mob, it had been the work of a handful of slapdash ruffians, whose major crime seemed to be related to “reputation and purse.” As Jackson, Missouri’s Cash-Book newspaper saw it, local authorities had to waste funds on the investigation, and “the thoughtless, lawless act of a few unknown men or boys” made it seem as if the region housed white supremacy of the organized, Klan variety. A few bad eggs caused the entire community to smell rotten.
The tone is as familiar to me as my own name. The high bar for acknowledging white supremacy as a systematic problem is endemic to Missouri, that non-Confederated slave state, from Ferguson to the University of Missouri. Wilmer Walton left Cape County about the same time the Hayes-Tilden Compromise ended Reconstruction. Lovejoy disappeared without report.
Cape Girardeau County is landlocked on an edge, on the western banks of the Mississippi. The county seat is the port city of Cape Girardeau: “Cape,” everyone calls it. Locals like to declare Cape Girardeau the only inland cape in the nation. The claim’s validity depends on one’s criteria. True, it is the only inland city called “Cape,” but cities with “cape” in their names are rare in the United States, even on coasts. True, there is a significant bend in the river north of town commonly called a cape by the river navigators. However, the rock promontory originally known as “Cape Girardot” was blown up in the 1800s to complete construction of the riverside railroad. Cape was, and is not.
Cape. Not The Cape. A childhood friend who attended a private university in St. Louis told me she could tell which of her classmates knew nothing about Missouri if they referred to her home with a definite article: Are you going back to the Cape this weekend? Isn’t it nice to get down to the Cape sometimes? “The Cape” conjured weekends of highbrow New England leisure: walking the dunes with Elizabeth Bishop by day, drinking with Robert Lowell by night, whiling away the golden hours in softly lit dayrooms and clean-angled houses. “Cape,” though, was pool halls, tanning salons, hair product, huge parking lots, and weather too harsh to be poetic because there was no ocean to throw the storms in or out, no marked entries and exits, no stern symmetries.
As a young person in Missouri, I had dreamed of living in New England, though I had not been there. It was my edition of Midwestern littoralism. I had a vague notion that New England was not all coastal, but I believed its proximity to the grumpy Atlantic, that raging, intolerant Puritan, cleansed even the inland recesses of philistine shenanigans. When Missourians travelled to a coast, we went to the placid Gulf of Mexico, usually on the Florida panhandle, which in the summer became one long waterwing warehouse of cracker tackiness. I did not like it. New England, I imagined, housed a life of the mind, fresh-aired literary production, neatly cultivated civic life, surrounded by people who prioritized high thinking and plain but groomed living. I would not have admitted what a pale dream it was—the idea that, somewhere, the right kind of white people lived alone together with their progressive opinions and tastes. Such was life on the Cape.
I quickly learned upon my move to Maine that the state (and the region) had more Cape than the Cape. Outside of Mayflower Hill, Waterville and the surrounding area looked more like my Missouri reality than my Missouri dream of New England. I ended up being somewhat glad of this. The intervening years had soured me a good deal on respectable, high society white America. It started before Trump’s election, but it escalated afterward, when it became evident that Trump provided self-identifying white progressives of a certain class easy cover for our questionable life choices. Everyone who did not vote for Trump was suddenly in the resistance, and all of our deeds, from selecting wine to visiting the dog park, we decided were courageous. As we always do, entitled white people collapsed and coopted discourses of self-cultivation and self-care to justify all of our consumptive habits—the costs of which are the reason most of the world requires some self-care in the first place. It was quite visible in New York City among people in my demographic, which is probably why I inclined toward the older populations of Harlem, Morningside Heights, and that triple-digit-street portion of the Upper West Side. So too I took to the Mainers beyond Mayflower. I liked their unadorned grit, their cheerless friendliness, their flat-footed clomp through the world. Cape, not The Cape.
Cape is no more romantic than The Cape. The racism of this population is real; it is not total, but it is too total to ignore. The toxic masculinity is real—the guns, the mufflerless pickups, the raging, wheezing report of men who wear only the masks they were given as boys, who feel the very air would be theirs were they strong enough, whose smoke feathers out over the pines. I am sure, were I not a white man, I could not so easily assume its dissipation. The myth of the rugged individual is as real as the region’s opioid epidemic: both are addictive, because the long, white winters so badly want self-medication. Both are lethal.
Growing up in a family that possessed neither the will nor the finances for distant travel, I was drawn to maps at an early age. New England’s dimensions fascinated me. The entire region nearly could fit inside Missouri. Maine was especially intriguing. It was about the size of the other New England states combined, yet it was not even a state in the nation’s first decades. The colonial maps in my textbooks always colored it the same shade as Massachusetts, of which it was a province. Some aspect of its identity always appeared parenthetically: Maine (Mass.), or Mass. (Maine). I wondered over the effect of an area being dominated by partially unincorporated territory. How could a state possess an exclave over three times its own size? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have regarded Massachusetts as the satellite of Maine? And what of this little world, this New England? What did it mean to imagine community in tidy, regional terms? Here was a region so unified as to have its own professional football team. (This greatly confused me; Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings—but New England Patriots?) I don’t recall when I began thinking of myself as a Midwesterner, nor when I began to mark the Dixie inflections of my corner of Missouri. In my education, we did not talk much about the meaning of borders, the scales of empire, or the thumbs on the scales. I cannot recall when I learned which side Missouri took in the Civil War.
Maine is fun to talk about with my elementary-school-aged Missouri nieces and nephews. But they prefer tales of New York City. Projecting my early-life curiosities onto them, I like to share scale. Their aunt and I live in a city that is 300 square miles; Missouri is 69,000 square miles—230 times larger. Our city contains about eight million people; Missouri has about six million people—smaller by 25%. They silently play the numbers, reacting with a mixture of politeness and awe. The youngest has an odd, endearing fascination with the Flatiron Building, always routing conversation back to it, always a little disappointed that it does not figure more prominently into my daily city routines. I had maps at his age. He has architecture.
I am wary of making them poor surveyors. I do not want them to misinterpret, say, the overwhelming visibility of one color on a Presidential election map as a sign of one political party’s cultural dominance. The white South has maintained much more than three-fifths of its political authority with this trompe l’oeil. But I also want them to reckon with the diminutive size of the nation’s culture industry. New York is, in fact, physically small, and quite fragile. 9/11 demonstrated that to my generation. The coronavirus outbreak of 2020 will make it terribly clear to theirs. In any event, I hope my nieces and nephews might see from a more total station. Considering the wholes, they might build resistance to the worst attempts at colonization proceeding from my city and from their own state. Land matters, but land does not vote. Manhattan matters, but it is an island, in space, in history.
New York City fixes itself in memory and imagination. The Maine and Missouri I know were among the first places, inhabited by white people in this country, that capitalism forgot. Both suffered from being arborous and wet. My family came from the Missouri Bootheel, a low-lying region on the Mississippi River, just downstream of its convergence with the Ohio River. In the late nineteenth century, lumber barons harvested the dense cypress groves of the area’s mostly uninhabited swampland. Once the “Big Swamp” was cleared of trees, a collusion of land speculators and government agencies turned it into farmland. They dried it out by cutting miles of drainage ditches and levying off portions of the Mississippi. Long nourished by the great river and its local tributaries, the now-unconcealed soil was among the most nutrient-saturated in the world. The Bootheel became a patchwork agricultural region, owned by major landowners, worked by tenant farmers and an African American labor force fairly new to the state. Before the second-wave Great Migration population booms in Kansas City and St. Louis, the Bootheel bore witness to Missouri’s peculiar legacy vis-a-vis America’s “peculiar institution”: it was a former slave state whose black population proportionally increased during Jim Crow. The Bootheel region is presently among the most impoverished in the country.
Maine’s deforestation and water misuse go back farther and are better documented; I won’t rehearse the stories. But every time I walk through a stand of great eastern white pines, I imagine walking a landscape dominated by those giants, in the days before the British king needed masts for his navy. It must have been the closest thing, in recent history, on the eastern seaboard, to the west’s redwood forests. The money is as absent as the old growth. In neither Maine nor Missouri have the people who lived on the most intimate terms with the land profited the most from their use.
When absentee capitalists drain a place to nothing, they generate utopians. The Compromise states have long been the subject and site of social, often religious, idealization. Early European explorers scoured Maine for Norumbega, the fabled golden city of the northeastern Atlantic coast. Joseph Smith was so bold as to locate the garden of Eden outside of present-day Kansas City, and hoped to build a Mormon “New Jerusalem” there, until hostile Missourians, with the “Mormon extermination order” of governor Lilburn Boggs at their back, pushed Smith and his flock out of state. Since the lumber barons, each state has yielded a logjam of social experimenters and prophets. William Dennes Mahan, a Presbyterian minister in Boonville, Missouri, made a splash peddling his Archko Volume, which supposedly contained long-lost interviews with people who knew Jesus as a young man. Religious seeker Sarah Farmer drew spiritual leaders from across the globe to teach at her Green Acre Center in Eliot, Maine. The Amish of Seymour and Aroostook. The homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing in Maine. Unity Village in Missouri. Lovejoy.
As I write this, St. Agatha, a village in northern Maine, is working to prevent newcomer/squatter Gary Blankenship from turning the tiny town into the center of what residents feel is his religious cult. In Jackman, Maine, former city manager Tom Kawczynski advocates for the establishment of “The Kingdom of New Albion,” a whites-only settlement carved into the state’s northern counties. Jackman citizens kick him out. Disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker has set up shop in Branson, Missouri; the state attorney general has sued him for selling a coronavirus “cure” on his broadcasts. Missouri white supremacist Timothy Wilson has been killed in a shootout with the FBI; he was plotting to bomb a Kansas City area hospital. Wilson originally planned to target a synagogue, mosque, or predominantly black school. The coronavirus outbreak, which he blamed on foreigners and his own government, altered his designs. Cape Girardeau County is the birthplace of Terry Jones, the pastor who travelled the country burning Qurans and disseminating anti-Muslim propaganda from 2010 to 2013, setting off a wave of protests in the Middle East. Jones graduated from Cape Central High School in 1969. He was a classmate of Rush Limbaugh.
The two states born of a compromise with people-owners remain the project and projection of the opportunistic, the hopeful, the desperate, the hateful. Chopped up and cut down, they bear cruel cartographies.
The Observer: Spring
Lovejoy Hall is empty and quiet in March 2020. I walk home, down Mayflower Hill on a sunny day. On this route, I sometimes see bald eagles flying over the stream at the base of the hill, perching on the tall pines townside. Today, there are none.
Automobile traffic is reduced to nearly nothing due to the quarantine, but foot traffic is up, so I pass a number of neighborhood walkers. Mainers seem built for social distancing—gladly giving wide berths, happy to wave meekly, happy to just keep walking. It is a friendly introvert’s dream.
Were these “my people”? I had not asked that in a while. It is not always a helpful question when you are a peripatetic academic with no privilege of place. Perhaps it occurs to me because historical and cultural affinities cause me to read Maine against the backdrop of my state of birth like no other place I have lived—certainly not New York. Although I find Maine’s crabby libertarianism more tolerant of certain kinds of difference than Missouri’s more religiously-rooted version, I suspect that, as it would be in Missouri, these Mainers and I would not have much of each other, given sustained contact. Based on political profession, “my people,” alas, were as likely to be the Massholes, or the summer folks from Manhattan, whom I crossed in transit on the bookends of the academic calendar.
My states are constituted by compromises written on the backs of people made powerless. I am their beneficiary in many ways. How easy it is to recline into a friendly compromise—how familiar it feels for me, a white man who can play house anywhere and pass well enough. It only requires me, in every case, silencing or forfeiting a few precincts of my identity: a concession of ultimate concerns, a moral blunting. Maine is doing comparatively well in the pandemic. The virus can feel a world away, in the pines. So can George Floyd. How easy for me, if I make the requisite concessions, if I permit the light its dominion, to think of trouble elsewhere. It is deep in my rearing. The thoughtless, lawless act of a few…
Whether you are an individual or a nation, a compromise may constitute the worst of all options if you are trying to build an integrated life. Unequivocal champions of compromise omit the fact that keeping all members of a whole together is often fatal to the whole, and to the members. If you want to preserve a true union, sometimes you must allow, perhaps enable, some secessions. Of course, those secessions may turn out to be fatal as well. And it is impossible to know for certain when secession is the best choice, when it is mere flight from difference in the service of an idle singularity, less union than monolith. But the dogma of compromise eschews such long-term considerations. It does not reckon with the fact that bills come due. Two hundred years after the Missouri Compromise, a submicroscopic pathogen has delivered a bill. The murder of George Floyd has redelivered another. America is forced to consider the compromised health system of the whole, the compromised immunity of the members, the compromised respiratory system, the compromised morality, all the result of a long series of compromises with immoral powers, that worsen the present national crisis.
Reflecting on Huck Finn’s moral and geographic refusals, Azar Nafisi writes, “both the reward and the punishment for his straying from the fold was a permanent state of homelessness.” An orphan of Missouri, Huck could brook no compromise. I imagine that mythic river he and Jim commuted, united in the restless chase, in a freedom that would cease at every landing. Huck learned the price; Jim knew it. That same river runs over the wreck of The Observer, down to Lovejoy, empty and quiet. Union and domestic tranquility: they do not come at discounts. You cannot have both.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Harper had this to say about his piece:
I started working on this essay in early 2019, knowing the Missouri Compromise’s 200th anniversary was approaching. Although I originally imagined an entirely-historical article, conditions on the present ground kept throwing me backward and forward in time—reminding me how the United States’ compromised present was an inheritance of former concessions. The pandemic hit. Then, George Floyd’s murder. Then, the shooting of Jacob Blake. My thoughts became prismatic.The local/national; past/present; Maine/Missouri—in reality, in imagination—I felt I could not consider any one without catching a refracted vision of the others. The essay preserves those dispersions and convergences.
Ryan Harper is a visiting assistant professor in Colby College’s Department of Religious Studies, where he teaches courses on American religion, the arts, and the environment.