Responses to Our Summer 2020 Issue

The Myth of the Black Loyalist

Farah Peterson’s “The Patriot Slave” (Summer) is one of the best articles I have read on the subject of slavery. It took me back to the late 1940s, when, as a young African-American boy growing up in Florida, I would listen to my paternal grandmother, who was born in 1876, share with me some aspects of her life. Some of the things the author cites as examples of intimate violence obviously extended through the Reconstruction and Redemption periods because they were mentioned by my grandmother. Thus, to me, she—who had little or no formal education—has been vindicated after all these years. I congratulate Dr. Peterson for such a well-written, meaningful, and informative article. It touched me in so many ways.


China Grove, North Carolina

Professor Peterson takes a sharp and necessary look at antebellum America, a period encompassing the colonial era through that of the plantation economy. Because America is a nation founded upon and propelled to the heights of global capitalism through the subjugation of Black people, Peterson successfully draws a through-line from the early physical trauma and Black people’s resistance of that trauma to the current moment of pandering practiced by both political parties—as well as the Black electorate’s unwillingness to be strung along by a nation that is unrealistic about its past and uncertain about its future.

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There is much to admire in this persuasively written piece, but I think I would have admired it more if the writer had acknowledged that North and South—and the enormous differences between the two— existed even at the time of the American Revolution. The reference to “domestic insurrections” in the Declaration of Independence is certainly noteworthy, but it strikes me as a political sop. We would expect to find political sops in a political document written in pursuit of particular goals. The Declaration was not meant to be a work of art or a philosophical treatise.

Peterson seems to assume and assert far too much, and is quick to take offense. It is claimed that Washington’s valet, Billy Lee, was viewed “through a veil of white contempt”—evidence, please? An army physician describes Lee as having “a martial air,” which I would have thought indicated seriousness. But no, for the writer, the physician’s phrasing means that he saw Lee as “a child playing at war.” That is really scraping the bottom of the grievance barrel. Later, the writer dismisses another slave’s seeming feeling for the dying Washington with the comment that “people often love their abusers.” Do they? Do we know that Washington abused this slave? Is there any evidence to this effect? When I read this sort of thing—assertion piled upon assump- tion piled upon unsubstantiated claim—I see Wile E. Coyote rushing over the edge of a cliff, with nothing under his busy feet but air. Then a dizzying plunge.

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What Thoreau Might Say Today

David Gessner’s beautiful essay (“Looking Back From the End of the World”) is a reminder of the difference between an absolute withdrawal from life—the common misreading of Thoreau’s lesson—and a strategic withdrawal from the made and synthetic things of social life. Yet, reading it on this day in early June, as antiracist and antipolice protests fill our cities’ streets, I wonder whether any withdrawal is desirable or even possible now. Even if Thoreau would have followed his argument for abolishing slavery with an argument for abolishing prisons and police, and even if economic justice could be realized, peace could be secured, at least temporarily, only with regulatory mechanisms from the world of made and synthetic things. Would Thoreau fight fire with fire? Would he dowse it in water? Or would he just let it burn itself out? The “fire next time” must be decisively extinguished. Gessner’s title refers to “the end of the world,” but the pandemic is only half of the end. The other half is institutional racism, from which we can only dream of a retreat to Walden.

Pullman, Washington

Like Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes also confers balm when, confined at home, we are unable to sat- isfy our appetite for ephemeral tastes, sensations, and fashions. For Holmes, the highest intensity of being alive is achieved through more “complex and intense intellectual efforts [that lead to] a fuller and richer life.” Surely the life of the mind is more attainable when isolation induces quiet and calm by shielding the thinker and writer from the scatter-gun clutter of the frenetic lives we used to subscribe to.

Brisbane, Australia

The Haldane Factor

I fear that David Brown, in his review of Samanth Subramanian’s biography of J. B. S. Haldane (“Mysterious Inheritance,” Book Reviews), does not differentiate Marxism from Stalinism. In addition to breaking with the British Communist Party, Haldane also broke with Stalinism. A curiosity: it was Haldane who wrote the prologue to the English edition (1939) of Dialectics of Nature, an unfinished work by the German philosopher and political activist Friedrich Engels (1820–1895).

I also fear that the review distorts the importance of Haldane’s scientific work. It was the contributions of Haldane, Ronald Fisher (1890–1962), and Sewall Wright (1889–1988) that laid the foundation for what would become modern evolutionary theory. Two other curiosities: (1) Haldane was one of the first to write about the evolution of senescence; and (2) among his students was John Maynard Smith (1920–2004), one of the giants in the history of biology during the second half of the 20th century.

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Beyond his other contributions to our understanding of science and technology, Haldane’s remark that it seems most probable that the universe is not only more mysterious than we think but also more mysterious than we can think is becoming evident in our most recent scientific discoveries. As much as I am horrified by the experiments toward what Russia proclaimed as communism, the current capitalist progress toward the elimination of much of our planet’s life via global warming as well as the appetite for nuclear armaments leave me unenthusiastic about any present-day efforts to sustain human civilization. As we continue to proclaim victory over nature, the particular genius of our species seems to lie in our great progress toward self-elimination.

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A Remembrance of Things Past

Readers interested in Josef Eisinger’s article about the compression of history since formation of the earth into one year (“What Time Is It?” Tuning Up) might want to look at an article by Carl Sagan, published in his 1977 book, The Dragons of Eden. Sagan does a similar thing, though he starts with the Big Bang about 15 or so billion years ago, instead of with the time of the earth’s formation. This, of course, translates to a different scale of estimated events, but it is again valuable to think of human existence as truly a brief flash in the timetable of the universe.

Great work on the magazine!

Pueblo, Colorado

Pandemic Reading

I finally took the time to read The American Scholar during Covid-19 … and am I glad I did! I also love your Smarty Pants podcast and some of Clellan Coe’s charming pieces on the website. Many thanks for truly enriching my homebound time during the pandemic.

Alexandria, Virginia

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