Published: July 22, 2020

The Living and the Dead Face Off on the Porch


The Porch Curriculum

As administrators in higher education struggle to figure out how classes will resume next month, I offer this testimony that porches can out-perform classrooms as learning environments. The porch, in other words, is the natural habitat for the proliferation of lessons that last, though I am not sure what this would mean when the seasons change.

My classes in graduate school did me a world of good, equipping me for my strenuous job at the Center of the American West. Courses in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, in the history of the South after the Civil War, in American intellectual history, and in Western American history stocked the cabinet of my mind. The shelves of that cabinet filled up with an overflow supply of case studies and illustrative examples, all of them wrapped in meanings that made it easy for me to hold onto them. Thanks to those courses, I have had very few “Mother Hubbard” moments; I have rarely gone to the cupboard of stockpiled historical references and found only an empty shelf.

But if Yale offered a course on how to manage the troubled relationship between the living and the dead, I seem not to have had the prerequisites.

Fortunately, the Porch Curriculum made up for that.

The Grim Reaper Stops by for a Visit on the Porch

In New Haven, we lived next door to Kay and Eileen, two older ladies who often prepared a pitcher of manhattans in the late afternoon. Having shoveled snow from their sidewalk, offered them refuge when they locked themselves out of their first-floor apartment, and removed a dead squirrel or two from their driveway, Jeff Limerick and I had secured a standing invitation to join them when that pitcher appeared on their porch.

One late afternoon, anticipating what was usually a merry exchange with the neighbor ladies, I headed to their porch. But, manhattans or not, there was no merriment this time. The ladies told me that a friend of theirs named Skippy had gone in for an operation that no one expected to be dangerous, but he had died during the operation. Skippy’s widow Anna had just called to say that she needed to talk to someone, and the ladies thought she would probably stop by soon. This didn’t seem like the place for a stranger, so I started to excuse myself. The ladies said I should stay.

When the widow joined us on the porch, grief proved to be locked in a tight contest with anger. Anna had just learned that Skippy had left a will that gave her no resources to raise their two young daughters. Unhappy with the possibility that his wife might remarry, Skippy had been determined to make sure that, if she did have a second husband, he would get nothing from the estate. So, Skippy had put his money in a trust, and the money would stay there until both daughters had come of age.

Anna told us this story. And then she told us—or, rather, she told Skippy—how she felt.

“Skippy,” she said, “if you weren’t dead, I would kill you.”

Death has many meanings, and Skippy’s widow gave us an intense lesson on the most confounding of those meanings.

For Skippy, it seemed that death was doubling as a grant of amnesty. His widow might envision a well-deserved vengeance, but he was far beyond the reach of retaliation. While it wouldn’t make sense to say he had gotten off scot-free, the statute of limitations on his possible punishment had definitively run out.

And yet there was no imaginable reason why his status as deceased should neutralize the anger that had taken over Anna. To deploy colloquial phrasing that Skippy might have used himself, she couldn’t lay a glove on him. Still, his exemption from recrimination could only add to her rage.

I don’t remember what Kay, Eileen, or I said to Skippy’s widow, but I know what we did not say.

We didn’t say that we hoped she would forgive him since anyone could see that her anger at him would accomplish nothing. We didn’t say that we ourselves had come to realize that problems that seem very big when they first appear often seem less important with the passage of time. We didn’t urge her to “let it go” or to “move on.”

On the contrary, we remained quiet and subdued. Mostly, we listened, and with our expressions, body language, and tones of sympathy, tried to convey the message:  “We are very sorry that this happened to you; if we could think of something to do to help you, we would offer that; but for now, we can only be present.”

Grief and grievance pulled at Anna in a terrible tug-of-war. And yet she seemed like a resourceful, self-reliant person who wouldn’t linger in hopelessness but who would soon begin figuring out how she was going to cope. Post-Skippy, it seemed likely that she would hold things together for herself and her daughters. But the concatenation of things threatening to fly apart for her was formidable.

To use the word that has, in 2020, gotten itself stuck with the job of summing up the relationship between the living and the dead, Skippy had left his widow with quite a “heritage.” She deserved better in life, but she still had to live with what she had inherited—and not inherited—from her departed husband.

Those were different times, and so here is a suggestion that, blessedly, never entered our minds on that solemn evening. None of us proposed that Anna might feel better if the neighborhood came together and erected a statue in Skippy’s honor.


Continuity in Theme, but a Change in Scale

When it comes to troubled relationships between the living and the dead, there are enormous differences between the anger that Anna felt toward Skippy and the anger many Americans today feel toward the historical figures who are honored in the monuments, memorials, statues, and plaques that are distributed throughout the United States.

I recognize the differences, but it is the similarity that holds my attention.

When Skippy expired, and when the nation’s slaveholding Founders expired, a statute of limitations expired with them. The door slammed shut on the options of reprimand, reproof, rebuke, censure, and every other form of punishment. When the Founders died, everyone who survived them, as well as everyone who would be born in the years to come, lost the chance to inform the Founders that they had failed to master, or even to conceal, their moral failings and deficiencies. Having died, they were and are—as Skippy was and is—off the hook.

There is no evading the fact that mortality’s delivery of an exemption from consequence is a maddening state of affairs. There is nothing that should mystify us in the fact that contemplating the history of slavery, as well as the history of invasion and conquest, provokes in many an intense desire to do something to the slaveholders and the invaders and conquerors. I myself have no inclination to make the claim that we should “let bygones be bygones” as we deal with the inheritances and legacies created by the slaveholders, invaders, and conquerors. I would no more tell the people who are angry at historic figures today that they should “let it go” or to “move on,” than I would have told Skippy’s widow that she should suppress or conceal her anger.

But, even if we are very mad at them, what on earth can we do to the dead?

Well, we can get rid of the monuments, memorials, statues, and plaques designed and installed to honor them.

So now we find ourselves with an abundance of demolished and/or spray-painted statues, monuments, memorials, statues, and plaques, with each of them reacquainting us with the fact that, in 2020, the relationship between the living and the dead is in very bad shape.

Friction, conflict, tension, disruption, and disturbance in the nation’s reckoning with history appear wherever you look.

But now we can take advantage of a coincidence in setting, and keep our attention focused on the porch. To move from thinking about the widow’s rage at Skippy over to thinking about concerned citizens’ rage at historical figures, we can stay in the same neighborhood, and just move from one porch to another.


The Troubled Relationship between the Living and the Dead Expands in Scale and Moves over to Our Own Porch

In our companionable neighborhood on Livingston Street in New Haven, just one driveway over from Kay and Eileen’s porch, Jeff Limerick and I also had a porch, where I did a lot of reading.

Of all the books I read on that porch, one book had by far the most lasting impact on me:  Francis Jennings’ The Invasion of America:  Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Initially published in 1975, this was a history of the colonization of New England.

To understand how this book kept me as transfixed on a porch as I would have been in a quiet study, look back at that title: The Invasion of America:  Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. The words “invasion” and “conquest” were a world apart (literally!) from the conventional and familiar terms of “settlement” or “introduction of civilization” or “expansion of the English presence across the Atlantic.” And then there was the word “cant,” which gains more force with a quick visit to Merriam-Webster: “cant:  the pretending of having virtues, principles, or beliefs that one in fact does not have.”

Was that a word that applied to the Puritans?

When American schoolchildren played Puritans on Thanksgiving, were they to “pretend to have virtues, principles, or beliefs that they did not in fact have”? This was surely a useful life skill, but not necessarily an appropriate feature of the history curriculum.

Back in the mid-1970s, reading The Invasion of America was, for me and many others, a wild experience. Francis Jennings did not pull punches: “The so-called settlement of America was a resettlement,” he declared, “a reoccupation of land made waste by the disease and demoralization introduced by the newcomers.” Jennings was unrelenting in putting the spotlight on the inconsistency, duplicity, or hypocrisy that separated the Puritans’ highminded rhetoric from their maneuvers and schemes in separating the Indians from their land. And he was unflinching in recounting the brutality and violence that made the invasion and conquest of New England a success.

For the first chapters, I kept thinking, “Does Francis Jennings actually think he will get away with this?”

A decade or two later, I got to know Fritz Jennings, and I never had to ask that question again. This was a man who found only exhilaration in striding into terrain where others could barely bring themselves to tiptoe.

Francis Jennings was very mad at the Puritans, and he was especially mad at Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop. “Persons and groups reaching for illicit power customarily assume attitudes of great moral rectitude,” he said, “to divert attention from the abandonment of their own moral standards of behavior.” He did not follow up that sentence with the explicit statement, “I’m talking about you, John Winthrop.” But for anyone who was reading closely, that statement was hardly necessary. Indeed, Jennings’ anger reached such an intensity in some passages that they could almost be paraphrased as “John Winthrop, if you weren’t dead, I’d kill you.”

photo of John Winthrop

John Winthrop Artist: Unidentified c. 1800, after an original likeness probably painted in England before 1630, Oil on canvas National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Dr. and Mrs. R. Ted Steinbock

To bring our two Porch Learning Sessions together, here is a proposition that is worth considering.

When it comes to intense anger at the dead, the living Anna was to the dead Skippy as the living Francis Jennings was to the dead John Winthrop.

Happily married for nearly fifty years, Jennings made a striking move when he selected a figure of speech to characterize the devastation that the Massachusetts Bay colonists inflicted on the Indian people of New England. Dismissing the tired old idea of North America as “virgin land,” Jennings made this central claim for the grief that the colonists had unleashed: “The American land was more like a widow than a virgin.”

When it comes to revealing encounters with the troubled relationship between the dead and the living, widows and widowed lands register at the center of attention.


Turning Hindsight into Foresight

Francis Jennings’ influence on me is hard to miss. He was a major advocate for using the words “invasion” and “conquest” where his predecessors had used the words “expansion” or “settlement.”

I called my overview of Western American history The Legacy of Conquest.

 Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest and The Legacy of Conquest

The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest and The Legacy of Conquest

Still, I was far from a satisfactory protégé or apprentice for this outspoken man. I followed Jennings’s lead, but I chose a style of expression that was diplomatic and conciliatory, two words that never appeared in any characterization of his work. To illustrate the contrast between us, at one conference reception, Fritz Jennings took me aside to ask me why on earth I was so congenial.

In 2020, I have a better answer than I had when he asked me that thought-provoking question.

Look back at the mid-1970s from 2020, and it is obvious that a big paradigm shift in the writing of American history was underway. In hindsight, it’s clear that I had landed in graduate school just as a much more forthright reckoning with the central roles of slavery and conquest in American history was gaining influence. Comfortable assumptions were losing their power, and much more unsettling assumptions were pushing them aside. While plenty of studies displayed this reorientation in action, The Invasion of America was the book that made me say to myself, “Something is up.”

It is an unusually alert person who realizes that she is sitting on a porch, reading a book, in the midst of a paradigm shift.

I was not that unusually alert person.

Nonetheless, when I read The Invasion of America, I had a sensation, at once very unnerving and very energizing, that the relationship between the living and the dead was on the brink of big change.

This could have been my epiphany on the porch. If I had been a smarter twenty-five-year-old, I could have finished reading The Invasion of America and said to myself (or to any passing neighbor), “There is mounting evidence that we are at the beginning of a very rough ride. Unless historians become a lot more diplomatic and persuasive in their style of communications, there will be hell to pay when the paradigm shift, encapsulated in this book, gets recognized and taken seriously. A significant number of Americans are going to embrace and champion this changed perspective, and a significant number of Americans are going to hate it and put everything they have into resisting it.”

As it happens, I didn’t say that, to myself or to anyone else.

For a while, this paradigm shift stayed inside the academic world, with an occasional break-out kerfluffle over “political correctness” or over efforts to remove “dead white men” from centerstage in historical studies.

But now, in 2020, with omnipresent conflict over monuments, memorials, statues, and plaques, the moment when that paradigm shift goes public is upon us.

And, yes, there is hell to pay.

In this historical moment, some people are enraged with the dead, and some people are enraged with the people who are enraged with the dead.

It is not easy to predict who is going to prevail, but it looks like rage wins either way, unless we move fast to draw on the Best Management Practices that got their start on the porch.


Best Management Practices for the Troubled Relationship between the Living and the Dead

Best Management Practice #1:  Control the temptation to become so angry that you berate the other people for being angry.

The porch conversation, when Anna talked about Skippy, provides the essential case study for this guideline.

It never occurred to Kay, Elaine, or me to say to Anna, “We can’t begin to figure why you are enraged with Skippy, and we think you should just drop that anger, since he is gone now.” If we had said that, she would have surely been almost as mad at us as she was at Skippy. But more to the point, we would have been of no use at all to her, or to anyone else on the planet.

This observation translates very directly to the national scene today.

People who are indifferent to, or only mildly vexed by, the historical figures who played central roles in creating our complicated nation, can contribute to building a better future by refraining from telling others that they have no right to be angry. It is a better course of action to recognize that living people often have good reasons to be mad at dead people, and feeling that emotion can be legitimate and evidence-based. Unless you are explicitly and purposefully committed to making a bad situation worse, restrain the impulse to tell the infuriated that they should get over it.

Best Management Practice #2:  From time to time, ask yourself (and others, if they are amenable) if we are actually dealing with a troubled relationship between the living and the dead. Or are we, in fact, dealing with a troubled relationship among the living, into which the dead are drafted as unwilling recruits in a proxy fight.

When the relationship between the living and the dead seems to have become totally unmanageable, there is a good chance that the dead have become bit-part players in a drama in which the living fight each other. There is a chance that calling attention to this pattern might make the struggles even more intense. But there is also something inherently calming about the moment when people have to pause to ask themselves, “Who exactly am I fighting?”

Best Management Practice #3:  When conditions start to look promising, try a test run to see if everyone has reached a point where it would be tolerable to shift the discussion to the pragmatic and practical question: How will we deal with the legacy we have received from complicated historical figures of the past, about whom we hold such disparate feelings?

In the best-case scenario, when you attempt this shift, everyone will say, “That’s a good idea; let’s figure out what we can do with our difficult inheritance.” But the right timing here can be very hard to estimate. This leads to an important amendment in this Best Management Practice: If you try to make this shift and it proves premature, back off fast and wait a while. Maybe repeat Best Management Practices #1 and #2. Better yet, maybe have everyone play a guessing game, or have a good-spirited quarrel over which ice cream flavor is the best, or tell a little about their favorite and least favorite subjects in high school (if history gets mentioned as a favorite, have everyone cheer).

And then give Best Management Practice #3 another try and see if it works better this time.

Best Management Practice #4: When you are thinking about the troubled relationship between the living and the dead, never forget that you are going to change sides in this relationship.

In 2020, we have innumerable ways of dividing ourselves up into opposing and antagonistic pairs of categories. These categories can seem fixed, but changes can happen with nearly all of them. If you are a Republican, you may turn into a Democrat. If you are an atheist, you may turn into a religious believer. If you are a socialist, you may turn into a property rights advocate. But there is nothing the least bit inevitable about those changes, and you will only make them by conscious choice. So you can be secure in thinking that you will stay in control of your placement in these arrangements of “us” and “them.”

The categories of “the living” and “the dead” are in an entirely different configuration.

If you are in the category of the living, it is absolutely certain that you will transfer into the category of the dead. At some point, all of us, who are at this moment living, will cross over and join the dead.

The two conditions are not opposites. They are sequential.

So here’s a theory to consider.

Some people can be infuriated with the dead, while others respond to that anger by being very protective of the dead, defending them—ardently and passionately—against condemnation or even mild criticism.

Why such intensity in both groups?

Maybe because we are all unnerved and rattled by the knowledge that we will join the dead. With that knowledge, we live with the awareness that this fight will finally be about us.

It’s a thought that might be worth pursuing, and also a thought that might go nowhere. But it has one solid virtue: it arose from that optimal learning environment called a porch, where thoughts can move in all directions.


Omissions to be Rectified on Future Occasions

In this already very lengthy essay, I have never said a word about “Untroubled—and Even Warm and Affectionate–Relationships between the Living and the Dead.” Of course, there are innumerable historical figures who do not make us mad and who, on the contrary, carry our gratitude and guide our aspirations. And all of us have predecessors and ancestors whose memories we treasure and who serve as models for our own conduct.

We’ll get back to them on a future occasion.

And there’s the entirely unaddressed question of life after death, where I would be so far over my head that no life preserver could reach me.

But, before sinking beneath that surface, I must move on quickly, because we still have the course evaluation to complete.

student evaluation chart

patty limerick's signature

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John Winthrop photo courtesy of: