The Fog of War at the Book Fair

I am a book collector and have a weakness for modern first editions, although many of these are no longer in my price range (or that of anyone I know). And so, on a Saturday morning last April, I dropped by the Park Avenue Armory, site of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, hoping to simply say hello to a few dealer friends, peruse the books quickly, and get back home in time to catch the Mets-Braves game. As it happened, I found a nice copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. But what really interested me was a rather incongruous sideshow, also with a wartime theme.

A dealer from White Plains, more in the line of selling maps and memorabilia than books, had mounted in a large display case an odd-looking leathery item, which on closer examination turned out to be a Confederate field physician’s medical saddle bag. The leather case was unfolded, revealing empty pockets for medicine vials and some twenty actual steel instruments: scalpels, calipers, and other tools for extracting bullets and treating fresh wounds, most likely in tents not far from the killing grounds. The ancient leather contained what looked like faded blood stains.

I have been fascinated by the Civil War since childhood, and was transfixed by this grisly relic of America’s homegrown Armageddon. It could have fired the imagination of E.L. Doctorow, whose recent novel The March has as a central character a German-born doctor attached to the Union Army under Gen. Sherman. It bespoke the poignancy of the business of trying to save lives, while others nearby are engaged on a massive scale in doing precisely the opposite. 

Vonnegut might also have appreciated the bag, as a token of war’s absurdity and horror; and likewise Ambrose Bierce, the writer who brought that absurdity and horror to the nation’s attention (or recollection) in his powerful, ghoulish short stories in the decades after the war. Bierce, in particular, might have relished — and described with biting irony — its capacity to titillate voyeuristic “buffs” such as myself.

For several minutes I stared at the saddle bag, trying to imagine its use and to picture it in situ in my mind’s eye. But historical artifacts of this sort are strange, teasing things. Like sound bites from a lost era, they both connect us to the past, providing tiny objective fragments for us to contemplate, and at the same time rebuff us and underscore the impossibility of any such connection. 

At best, such relics serve as instructional aids for the imagination, while also reminding us that we can never fully inhabit the past. They do not recreate; they merely evoke or testify. They bring us no closer to the actual nightmare of Gettysburg or Shiloh (or Guadalcanal, or Tikrit) — and yet, somehow they do. It is an enduring paradox.  Horrified fascination seems an entirely appropriate response.  

(When we try to measure our distance from past events, time itself becomes strange and warped. Appomattox seems far away, yet my parents’ generation can remember seeing Civil War veterans. In 1933, aging blue and gray vets shook hands at Gettysburg, on the 70th anniversary of that battle, and were addressed by President Franklin Roosevelt; I have the video. I remember, as a child, seeing a centenarian who had been alive during slavery. And the last living veteran, a Texan named Walter Williams, died when I was six.)

I also know from personal experience  the allure and frustration of cavorting with history’s ghosts. Some years ago, I came across a batch of letters dictated by an illiterate Union soldier from Putnam Co. to his wife in Poughkeepsie. Those bleak, spare missives betrayed little about Alvah Kirk, of the 95th Regiment, New York State Volunteer Infantry — except that he wanted fish hooks, more letters from home, and a couple of bottles of whiskey waiting for him when he returned.

Kirk never did return. As I later discovered, he lost both legs to bullet wounds during the bloody Wilderness Campaign in a rugged corner of peninsular Virginia, in the spring of 1864, and died a few weeks later in a Washington hospital. 

Seeing the Rebel doctor’s medicine bag at the Armory inevitably reminded me of Kirk, and of the necessity, and ultimate futility, of trying to connect with the past. Sobered, I left the Book Fair with Doctorow, Bierce, and Kirk on my mind, and Vonnegut under my arm, and got home in time to witness another slaughter, as the latter-day Rebels in Atlanta withstood the siege of the Mets.

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