POLITICS FEBRUARY 22, 2011
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, West Point cadets were permitted to check books out of the library only once a week: “On Saturday afternoon,” the 1857 regulations state, “any book that a Cadet may have been reading during the week, may be taken to his quarters, on the approval of the Librarian, and shall be returned on the succeeding Monday. If not then returned, he shall be reported by the Librarian.”
Decades of Saturday borrowing activity are recorded in handwritten ledgers now preserved in the archives. I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking through them, following the activity of a given title or tracking the reading habits of an individual cadet. There are storied names in the books: Lee, Sherman, and Grant, who refers in his memoirs to the “fine library connected with the Academy from which cadets can get books to read in their quarters. I devoted more time to these, than to books relating to the course of studies. Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of a trashy sort. I read all of Bulwer’s then published, Cooper’s, Marryat’s, Scott’s, Washington Irving’s works, Lever’s, and many others that I do not now remember.”
But usually I end up trailing an unknown through the records. Most recently, hunting for a wartime reader who might have something to say to my current class of wartime readers, I discovered John T. Pitman, Jr., who graduated in 1867. Pitman was an unpredictable borrower, his name absent for weeks at a time, before reappearing in the ledger next to Bossut’s General History of Mathematics, the second volume of Goethe’s Werke (in German), or a Dickens novel: David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, Barnaby Rudge. In fact, the first book he took back to his quarters, in the fall of 1863, was Great Expectations, which I’ll read with the plebes later this spring. I don’t know why he chose it—perhaps because he was beginning a new phase of his life and found something of moment in the story of a young man reckoning with the murkiness of “great expectations.”
A little research revealed that Pitman served in the Union Army before coming to West Point. In July 1861, only three days after enlisting as a private in the First Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, he had fought with the rest of the innocents in the chaotic Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the Civil War. Two years later, having been promoted to second lieutenant—the rank at which graduates are commissioned—Pitman became the oldest member of West Point’s newest class.
I’ve introduced John Pitman to the plebes, and his ghostly presence in class has led us down a path of inquiry we might not otherwise have followed: How will future generations know who these current cadets were, how their minds worked, what moved them, where their passions led?
When I put such questions to the plebes, they agreed that the clues about their lives and interests probably wouldn’t be found in library records. Indeed, they marvel that checking out a book was such a rare treat for their predecessors. As privileges go, this one doesn’t seem all that decadent: “But aren’t books a good thing?” Eli asked, “An educational thing?” Today, plebes are more likely to download recreational books or buy them online. And they have so many more sources of diversion than Pitman had. If it survives at all, the record of the plebes’ curiosities, of the subjects that excite them, will probably be virtual: Michael’s online purchases, Trip’s Netflix queue, Eli’s iTunes library, R.J.’s Mustang forum posts. Mary and Alex predicted with some disappointment that maybe their traces would consist largely of emoticon-filled Facebook status updates.
E-mails might also reveal something about the life of their minds. I get those kinds of e-mails all the time. Recently, I received one from Liz, a lieutenant running a battalion aid station in Afghanistan, who wrote to me about the reading habits of her soldiers, to whom she is clearly devoted and whose abilities she greatly admires: “I am amazed at the amount of books some of my Soldiers plow through. Some read biographies, other[s] historical fiction, others light-hearted ‘beach reads’ (as I call them); it is fun to see their personalities matched alongside their reading choices.”
Liz has long been interested in the relationship of war and writing. At West Point she wrote a thesis on American soldier-poets of World War II, whose voices are often neglected in favor of their novelist contemporaries. She argued that the poetic traces of these soldiers—visceral, frank, irreverent—can enrich our understanding of the Greatest Generation. In Afghanistan, Liz, a soldier-poet herself, reads and writes constantly: “I have been keeping a written record of the books I have been reading over here,” she reported in a letter that arrived at the beginning of the semester, just as I was getting to know John Pitman and the plebes, “and have been considering writing an article about [how] reading/being a reader … affects our war-time experience. It may not go anywhere except my journal but it is a concept that keeps grabbing my attention.” I hope Liz does write her article—that a record of her reading might disclose to future generations something essential about an early twenty-first-century soldier at war.
The last book John Pitman checked out—the last trace I could find of him in the ledgers—was volume one of Thackeray’s The Virginians. I don’t know if Pitman ever finished the novel, nor do I know what books he read after graduation. But I like to imagine that he remained an eclectic reader throughout his career in the Ordnance Corps, which was long and successful—he retired as a brigadier general in 1906—yet largely uncelebrated outside of friends, family, and weapons experts. Pitman became a “powder specialist,” who, as his nomination to the Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame explains, made “significant contributions … in the fields of explosives, propellants, and the history of small arms.” Among those contributions were a series of volumes on weaponry, The Pitman Notes, and the production of a variety of “smokeless powder”—ammunition that replaced the black powder that for centuries fouled weapons and obscured battlefields with clouds of smoke.
The Virginians, a historical novel, opens with the narrator expressing the desire to recreate “bygone times and people” by “poring over” the documents they have left behind: “They are hints rather than descriptions,” he admits, “indications and outlines chiefly,” yet, from such traces, one might still try “to imagine the situation of the writer, where he was, and by what persons surrounded.” I’ve done such imagining about John Pitman, with the help of the library records, and I’ve asked my plebes to join me in that experience. Later this semester, with the example of Cadet Pitman before them, each plebe will record an MP3 of a literary autobiography—part commonplace book, part playlist; old school and new—in which they discuss the books, poems, or stories that have had the greatest impact on them. One day, maybe, some twenty-third-century English professor hunting around in a virtual West Point archive will light on these serendipitously preserved artifacts—these “hints” and “indications”—transmit them by whatever undreamt-of technology is then at her disposal to a new class of plebes, and they, too, will try to penetrate the inner lives of their predecessors.
Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.