Several years ago I was invited to speak at a program at the Mississippi Museum of Art. The topic I was asked to speak about was “Read something you wish you had written.” The date was June 21, 2005. Here is the text of my remarks:
Normally a writer is asked to read from his or her own work, so when I was asked to “read something you wish you had written,” I was sort of taken aback. The floodgates of the mind opened and the ideas started gushing, but a 144-year old letter floated immediately to the top of the floodwaters, and it is that which I would like to read tonight.
When I told my wife that I was going to read the world’s greatest love letter, she did not rush to the collection in the bottom drawer for something I had written. Indeed, she would have opined that any of the letters between Heloise and Abelard would be among the greatest love letters. When I told a colleague about this evening he suggested that I was going to read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Good love letters, for sure, but I have another one – the one I wish I had written.
This letter was written on July 14, 1861 from Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. Ballou is Major Ballou, a 32-year Rhode Island lawyer with a wife and two sons, and his unit is camped out in Washington,D.C. on its way to the first great battle of the Civil War. It will be fought near Manassas,Virginia and a little stream called Bull Run. Ballou, a former Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, joined the Army out of patriotism, and like almost everyone felt that war would be over in short order.
However, as talk of the battle draws near, a premonition overtakes him.
Here then is his letter:
July 14, 1861
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movements may be of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle field for my Country, I am ready.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
But my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, when after having eaten for long years the bitter fruits of orphanage myself, I must offer it as the only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and fondly in the breeze, underneath my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce, though useless contests with my love of Country.
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm Summer Sabbath night, when two-thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying perhaps the last sleep before that of death, while I am suspicious that death is creeping around me with his fatal dart, as I sit communing with God, my Country and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my heart for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have so often advocated before the people – another name of Honor that I love more than I fear death, has called upon me and I have obeyed.
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and burns me unresistably on with all these chains to the battle field.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us.
I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience, till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladest days and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys – they will grow up as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long – and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolicks with him among the dim memories of childhood. Sarah I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.
Tell my two Mothers I call God’s blessing upon them. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.
As a writer, I believe that this letter captures the three great things that make great writing – (1) something bigger, (2) something inner and (3) something about relationships.
When I say “something bigger” I mean that thing that LOOMS. It is usually something impending, such as a war, hurricane or a jury verdict, and something that will dramatically affect the characters, but something over which they have no control. “Something inner” refers to the inner conflict that the character must deal with. In this case, Ballou struggled with his decision to put country over family. Finally, “something about relationship” refers to the protagonist’s dealings with others in the story.
This letter contains all of this and more.
And that’s why, although I certainly would not trade places with Major Ballou, I wish I had written this beautiful work of literature.