Skip to main content

The Spirit of Man Goeth Upward

Research by Laura S. McKee, Berea Sound Fellow, regrading how WW-II era radio and personal histories have shaped the development of "From the Diary of Eve", a narrative series of poems set in Southern Appalachia.

I.W. Gabbard Papers 1936-1956 (BCA 0018 SAA 017)

Though this collection contains diaries ranging until 1955, I chose to focus on those within the build-up to and the early years of World War II. Gabbard’s diaries, almost commonplace books in their scope, document not only the seasonal record of farming activities and weather, town events, and genealogy of Gabbard’s family, but also spiritual reflections, daily experiences and extensive doodles.

I found the journals particularly fascinating because of this range; from notebook to notebook and from page to page, we can see the mind of this man at work, whether laser-­‐focused on historical excavation and record keeping, or pondering man’s spiritual place in the world (“The spirit of man goeth upward and the spirit of the beast downward”xv). There is something stream-of-consciousness about reading his journals, following his varying points of focus, from mundane events to those directly involving life and death.

For example, in his record of events for May 1943, Gabbard quickly catalogues, in short, clipped, bulleted phrases, the events of the month. I find not only the events themselves interesting, but also the way the journal traces Gabbard’s imperative to record everyday, ordinary events alongside those of greater import. Part of the remarkable quality of the following excerpt is its cascading quality, how it quickly draws a complex portrait. (Numbers below indicate dates in May; these short entries are quoted in their entirety.)

8. Alma went back to her job in Dayton, Ohio
9. L. Baker came here and stayed all night
10. War news was given by Lowell Thomas that German radio had announced they had been defeated in Africa and Russia.
10. Whippoorwill hollowed
13. Finished gathering corn in the cabin
12. War news given out that Allies had taken 120.000 troops prisoner (Germans and Italians)
15. Jesse (Fuller) Baker died. Was buried.
16. About 78 years old in June 18. I got sick. Had a case of headache
22. Killed one squirrel, saw 5-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐-­‐
22. Andrew (Jack) Gabbard visited over
22. Louise Callahan died with paralysis
25. I killed 2 squirrels

This particular list continues through June and follows the pattern of juxtaposing the mundane with the significant. For example, “The red pig was crippled in one of its hind legs” falls just before “George Smith of Cow Creek got his house burned.” And “Jerry Wilson sent me a truckload of wood” is listed above the unexpected death of a local man: “A. J. Cormack struck paralyzed on the left side while in the barber shop.”

Among other excepts from Gabbard’s journal, I intend to use some of the events listed above as the foundation for a series of narrative poems in Chapter Two that introduce Eve and Patrick to their uncle’s world while establishing the character of Isaac within the larger narrative.

Most importantly, the journals have informed my understanding of one Appalachian man’s daily musings and activities through Gabbard’s record keeping. However, Gabbard’s “marginalia” and doodles are equally revealing: not only was Gabbard a man interested in order and history, but he was also a daydreamer. The clearest evidence for this lies in Gabbard’s doodles: they cover every surface not designated for record keeping. The covers of all the journals (front and back, inside and out) show Gabbard writing his name over and over again like a distracted schoolgirl, or one interested in calling his identity into the physical word.

                  

I would argue his repeated signature echoes his larger project: his impulse transcribe his life, to say, I existed. It is this reflective, introspective quality that will most inspire Isaac’s character in the book. In the following poem, “Notes from a Farmer’s Diary, 1941,” Eve offers a portrait of her Uncle Isaac at this desk.

"Notes from a Farmer's Diary, 1941"

Every evening, his desk. The ratty notebook
flattened beneath his wrists. When it rained
and there was nothing to write: the soil
left blank, he’d count the plants from memory
pointing at the window as if he could see them.
A master of the catalogue he could recall
every birth and death of the town’, of those who
stiffened in the dew waiting for a coffin*, others
“struck paralyzed while in the barbershop” and babies
born fat as turnips. Sometimes, when he was gone,
I’d lift the cover to spy his measurements of rain
and days of drought, where the earth cracked and where
it fell back from his knuckles. Rows divided
and carrots growing to the shape of knives. His ideas
of God. The same as any man’s. “The spirit
of the beast goes downward.” On the cover,
he has traced his name again and again on every
square inch like a schoolgirl, beckoning the self
from oblivion, a way to busy the hand that shakes
when still, when the old mare kneels in the field.