For four months before the battle of Gettysburg, Pvt. Myron A. Clark, a 21-year-old clerk in Company I of the 14th Vermont Infantry, wrote every day in a leather-bound diary he’d bought in Washington, D.C.
He filled it with descriptions of camp life’s boredom and tedium and flashes of news. His prose, marked with spelling errors, was spare, yet lively and informative, and an entry often said more than its words. On March, 19, for instance, Clark noted: “Peter Berges on Knapsack Drill for laziness & Frank Pasno in the Guard house for drunkenness.” Four days later, he complained of “a miserable straggling march of about 7 miles.” The 14th Vermont, in the middle of a nine-month enlistment, was having discipline problems.
By July 1, Clark was camped in a wheat field south of Gettysburg, Pa., ready for a fight after a 12-mile march. “I washed myself, changed my shirt, threw away my old one so it makes my load only a Rubber & Fly tent and pr. Socks, but it is enough. This P.M. marched for Gettysburgh & saw the smoke — guess the village is burnt.”
Then, two days later, different handwriting recorded that Clark had been killed at 4 a.m. by a 12-pound cannon ball that took off “all the back part of his head.” He was one of the first casualties of the battle’s final, bloody day.
“He was a good boy and soldier,” the anonymous writer scrawled. “The whole Co. mourns his loss & Especially his Capt. Such are the fortunes of War and they are deplorable.”
No heroic tributes, no tales of dramatic action, no lashing out vows of revenge — just sparse, direct description of a death by chance, a long way from home. In 27 final words, we are connected to the real cost of a hideous war that no statesman was able to step forward and prevent.
My research on Civil War writing leads me to one conclusion. If you are literate today, it does not mean you can write — not even close to it in many cases. But if you were literate in 1863, even if you could not spell, you often could write descriptively and meaningfully.
In the century and a half since, we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.
Imagery is the primary medium of our time, a potentially powerful host for good change and authentic understanding. But in its shadow, we have gotten lazy in our appropriation of the correct words to assuage or understand or to seek the common humanity that is in all of us. Today, throwing barbs and brickbats into the Great Din of the Internet has become as second nature as breathing, and one can do it so ubiquitously that words have become devoid of any meaningful consequence. The Great Din requires no forethought, no real calculation of purpose or result, no contemplative brake, no need to seek angles or views beyond those that reaffirm or reassure what we think right now. The best photographers still work patiently and incessantly for the right angles, the right lighting, the right moments to tell the story most truthfully and honestly. Would that more writers do likewise.
This is a big reason why our approach to politics is broken. Seeking any edge, the leading actors too often talk about “optics” over accommodation or resolution. By boiling complex issues into single images or seven-word slams, everyone — actor, describer, citizen — is let off the hook, content with their own translators and tribes. Even the once-derided 30-second sound bite has become archaic, too lengthy for our run-and-gun debates.
The word appropriators in journalism have got to stop describing our politics in the language of war or pugilism. (If I see one more “traded jabs” reference describing a campaign debate, I am going to open my window and scream, and I invite you to join me). This war imagery is built on the construct that there must be definite winners vs. losers in any public policy outcome and that destroying your opponent is the ultimate goal. Some might think just that, but Pvt. Clark would not agree that politics is war. War is the failure of politics.
A picture worth a thousand words? Not even close these days.