Home > Uncategorized > William Deans Howells: Everyday sacrifices.”I don’t want to see any more men killed in my time.”

William Deans Howells: Everyday sacrifices.”I don’t want to see any more men killed in my time.”

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

William Dean Howells: Selections on war

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William Dean Howells
From The Rise of Silas Lapham

“Then your theory is that it’s the occasion that is wanting,” said Bromfield Corey. “But why shouldn’t civil service reform, and the resumption of specie payment, and a tariff for revenue only, inspire heroes? They are all good causes.”

“It’s the occasion that’s wanting,” said James Bellingham, ignoring the persiflage. “And I’m very glad of it.”

“So am I,” said Lapham, with a depth of feeling that expressed itself in spite of the haze in which his brain seemed to float. There was a great deal of the talk that he could not follow; it was too quick for him; but here was something he was clear of. “I don’t want to see any more men killed in my time.” Something serious, something sombre must lurk behind these words, and they waited for Lapham to say more; but the haze closed round him again, and he remained silent, drinking Apollinaris.

“We non-combatants were notoriously reluctant to give up fighting,” said Mr. Sewell, the minister; “but I incline to think Colonel Lapham and Mr. Bellingham may be right. I dare say we shall have the heroism again if we have the occasion. Till it comes, we must content ourselves with the every-day generosities and sacrifices. They make up in quantity what they lack in quality, perhaps.” “They’re not so picturesque,” said Bromfield Corey. “You can paint a man dying for his country, but you can’t express on canvas a man fulfilling the duties of a good citizen.”

“Perhaps the novelists will get at him by and by,” suggested Charles Bellingham. “If I were one of these fellows, I shouldn’t propose to myself anything short of that.”

“What? the commonplace?” asked his cousin.

“Commonplace? The commonplace is just that light, impalpable, aerial essence which they’ve never got into their confounded books yet. The novelist who could interpret the common feelings of commonplace people would have the answer to ‘the riddle of the painful earth’ on his tongue.”

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He took his cigar out of his mouth, and pulled his chair a little toward the table, on which he placed his ponderous fore-arms. “I want to tell you about a fellow I had in my own company when we first went out. We were all privates to begin with; after a while they elected me captain – I’d had the tavern stand, and most of ’em knew me. But Jim Millon never got to be anything more than corporal; corporal when he was killed.” The others arrested themselves in various attitudes of attention, and remained listening to Lapham with an interest that profoundly flattered him. Now, at last, he felt that he was holding up his end of the rope. “I can’t say he went into the thing from the highest motives, altogether; our motives are always pretty badly mixed, and when there’s such a hurrah-boys as there was then, you can’t tell which is which. I suppose Jim Millon’s wife was enough to account for his going, herself. She was a pretty bad assortment,” said Lapham, lowering his voice and glancing round at the door to make sure that it was shut, “and she used to lead Jim one kind of life. Well, sir,” continued Lapham, synthetising his auditors in that form of address, “that fellow used to save every cent of his pay and send it to that woman. Used to get me to do it for him. I tried to stop him. ‘Why, Jim,’ said I, ‘you know what she’ll do with it.’ ‘That’s so, Cap,’ says he, ‘but I don’t know what she’ll do without it.’ And it did keep her straight – straight as a string – as long as Jim lasted. Seemed as if there was something mysterious about it. They had a little girl, – about as old as my oldest girl, – and Jim used to talk to me about her. Guess he done it as much for her as for the mother; and he said to me before the last action we went into, ‘I should like to turn tail and run, Cap. I ain’t comin’ out o’ this one. But I don’t suppose it would do.’ ‘Well, not for you, Jim,’ said I. ‘I want to live,’ he says; and he bust out crying right there in my tent. ‘I want to live for poor Molly and Zerrilla’ – that’s what they called the little one; I dunno where they got the name. ‘I ain’t ever had half a chance; and now she’s doing better, and I believe we should get along after this.’ He set there cryin’ like a baby. But he wa’n’t no baby when he went into action. I hated to look at him after it was over, not so much because he’d got a ball that was meant for me by a sharpshooter – he saw the devil takin’ aim, and he jumped to warn me – as because he didn’t look like Jim; he looked like – fun; all desperate and savage. I guess he died hard.”

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