20/80: Webster and White

  • [Reworking of a very old post]

If Stephen Vincent Benet was right — it was only a story, but one can hope — Daniel Webster is overdue. The story was “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” (American education being what it is these days, you may not know either of those names. More’s the pity. Look them up. It will be money in your pocket.)

But about the return of Daniel Webster.

Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead or, at least, they buried him. But every time there’s a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster, Danl Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was told when I was a youngster.

Yes, go to his grave and call his name. Could you, facing the shade of that giant from a century and a half ago, dare to
claim the Union now “stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible?”

I couldn’t.

Go rather to the grave of George Orwell — E. B. White, if you prefer the West Bank of the Atlantic — and call his name. He — either man — will ask how the English language stands. And you, if you are honest, will admit to the dismal state of that poor and lovely creature. Blame falls, not entirely but largely, upon the commercial and political forces which dominate both Orwell’s Britons and White’s Americans. The same crew, more or less, responsible for the parlous state of the Union.

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