This month's column was published today in the local Daily Hampshire Gazette under the headline, "Finding Uplift in a Depression-era Voice." When submitted, I used the headline, "Trust 'Nobody'"
NORTHAMPTON — In an age of too much information and too little to show for it, it is hard to know who’s wearing the white hats — you know, the good guys, the credible guys, the guys and gals who somehow really deserve trust and support.
Not least with a presidential election in the offing, everyone wants to be trusted. But there is too much information and too little corroborative evidence of trustworthiness. On the political front it is understandable if the reaction might be, “Duck and cover! Here come ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and ‘transparency’ ... again!”
And the same weary observation can be made about personal interactions.
But together with the skepticism that can turn to cynicism if you let it, there is the simultaneous desire to trust, to see in someone an exemplar of something substantive and decent and not just self-serving hot air.
For some, Gandhi or John F. Kennedy or Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr. or Marie Curie or Annie Oakley or Leon Trotsky or the Dalai Lama may be a heart-opening inspiration. And these headliners certainly proved their substance.
But when it comes to guys in the white hats, the human beings who make me want to applaud and offer my thanks and trust, no one stands out more sharply for me than Charles Monroe — a “nobody” whose quiet substance might serve well in these times.
Monroe was born and lived in New Marlborough, a Berkshire County community that boasts today slightly more than double the 500 residents of Monroe’s time. He was the “town mail clerk and philosopher,” according to a 1939 interview housed in the Library of Congress.
Monroe was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, an endeavor instituted in 1935 as a means of putting spaghetti on the tables of teachers, writers, librarians and other white-collar workers who had been stretched thin during the Depression. And Monroe’s is just one of many such interviews with the “nobodies” of America, people who never made a headline even if they could read one.
Described as “a married man of about 50,” the mail clerk had “a twinkle in his blue, intelligent eyes as if he knew a very fine joke about the world which no one else is likely to suspect. He wears a dark Van Dyke beard; he is tall and slender; his clothes, though always clean, are apt to be worn rather carelessly, but this extraneous characteristic fits very well with the calm inner light that shines from his personality.”
The interview ranges from politics to village living to crime — each addressed by Monroe with a wry and gentle benevolence that does not skirt life’s difficulties. And yet one tale stood out for me.
“I try to be a good citizen by performing certain public and personal duties which most of my friends would throw up their hands at if I suggested they perform along with me. In my opinion there’s too much ‘passing the buck’ going on today. I don’t like many of our laws — capital punishment, for instance — but since I’m a voter and a sustainer of our form of government, I of course automatically make myself as responsible as any other individual in the upholding of our laws.
“As a sort of an ‘accessory to the fact,’ I once forced myself to attend an execution down in Sing Sing prison where my brother-in-law holds a good job. It was an ugly business. One witness fainted and another vomited, and it was a big relief to get out of there. I felt like the executioner myself, as I was partly, for the fact that we do not press the button or cut the rope doesn’t let any of us off.
“But if I can’t convince you that I was a killer in that instance, you’ll have to grant that I’m a killer of pigs and cattle, for I’ve often helped farmers butcher their livestock. I’ve done this to satisfy my own conscience, for I’m a meat eater, and being a meat-eater, why shouldn’t I assist with the dirty work? You smile!”
The dirty work, of course, is not always so dirty. But it takes courage to corroborate a personal bias or philosophy. Courage to reflect and act. It’s may not be a popular courage, necessarily, or a headline-grabbing courage, but it is personal courage and I admire it.
I will concede that it is easier to honor and trust the dead who are no longer available to correct the praise or blame that may be heaped on them. But still, I admire what I imagine to be real courage, past or present.
Charles Monroe never promised me anything. He didn’t ask for my trust. He seems to have been a man who was both content and courageous in who he was.
And that is the reason I have chosen to trust Charles Monroe. Not necessarily agree. Just trust.
Thank heavens for the nobodies!
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.