Sense and Nonsense: The Alphabet of Gratitude

On the stacks of books by my computer monitor, I noticed a paperback novel with a black cover. I did not pay too much attention to it, except that I wondered where it came from, as I did not remember buying it nor did I recall anyone giving it to me. Perhaps I picked it up absent-mindedly someplace.

In a fit of straightening things out, I looked at it one day. I read the first couple of pages, always a dangerous thing to do. At the bottom of page two, I read this sentence: “There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.” Here were within two pages the great classical themes, deliberately treated — Beatitudo et Amicitia, happiness and friendship.

This novel was written by a man from Iowa who also lived in Los Altos Hills, California, familiar places to me both. The author was Wallace Stegner. I had heard of Stegner someplace, but I had never read him. My loss. This particular book’s title, Crossing to Safety, came from a poem by Robert Frost.

The book, at first glance, was about academic life, about a young couple, wife pregnant, the husband just beginning his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1930s. He was soon to run into tenure problems. I had been in Madison once or twice so I had seen these places, too.


But this book was rather a special one. Neither wife nor husband, the Morgans, had family; their parents were either recently killed or died early on. Into their lives comes another couple, the Langs, he also, at her insistence, on the English tenure track. The Langs, Sid and Charity, are an extraordinarily engaging and bright couple. Apparently, Sid and Charity have everything — family, good looks, good character, money, lots of children, relatives, estates; they are lovers of good wine and good music. But this is not a book about envy or sex or crime or education, though these things are there in their own way. It is a book about what? — happiness, friendship, the ultimate destiny of each?

Yet, it is a book about sadness, too, as all human books about happiness are somehow. The young professor’s wife, Sally, eventually gets polio and will die. The wife of the wealthy couple, Charity, dies of cancer as the book ends. But she is determined not to bother anyone in her death, not even her husband; especially not her husband, Sid. He is a poet, who never quite succeeds in academia largely because Charity wants him to succeed according to the rules of academia. Charity, whose father is a Harvard professor, plans much of Sid’s life about how to succeed in academia. A hopeless task, as it turns out, as hope is not an academic virtue.

I will not here write a “book review,” not that I have anything against book reviews. Yet I want to describe my reactions to this book, if for no one else but myself. The proposition to be considered in Crossing to Safety, I suppose, if put in Thomistic form, would be something like this: Whether we human beings can be happy in this world?

The book is full of genuinely good people, of singing, picnics, humor, beauty, laughter, hikes, dinner parties, swimming, wisdom, generosity, nostalgia, sentiment, forgiveness. In a moving passage which describes the novel itself, Larry Morgan reflects:

We liked these two from the minute of our first acquaintance. After that shipwreck afternoon we loved them both sometimes in spite of themselves and ourselves. At the time I could not have told them that. I am not sure that either Sally or I was ever able to tell them, though it had to be apparent without telling. Just in case, I tell them now.

The novel is the telling. One feels something autobiographical here.

The plot is not, like Greek tragedy, about the downfall of a good man or woman due to a tragic flaw. Yet there is a tragic flaw. In some sense for Charity and Sid, the most attractive of couples, it is a downfall, we are warned, in her death itself. “Eden. With, of course, its serpent. No Eden valid without serpent. It was not a big serpent, nor very alarming. But once we noticed it, we realized it had been there all along.”

This novel, I think, hints at the old spiritual teaching that the serpent works in the most holy lives and within the most exalted of motives of generosity, of kindness, of considerateness, of understanding. “And there it is. Confrontation. Challenge and response. ‘Why, of course, I will if I want to,’ [Charity] says.” This is a citation almost directly from Genesis, from the Eden that is Battel Pond, Charity’s family’s compound in Vermont where much of the novel’s action takes place.

Crossing to Safety is about four very happy and talented people, generous people, people loveable and extraordinary. It is a book filled with warmth and giving, with good taste and enthusiasm. The four are not gods. Yet, their motives are humanly high, discriminating. The couples are faithful to each other. Children are wanted, begotten, born, loved. Parents are esteemed. So are grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins once removed. In-laws are especially well-loved in the family.

No overt religion is found in the novel. Yet, we hear talk of Paradise, serpents, Eden, generosity that gives without seeking return, even generosity that makes it seem like a happy obligation to receive it. The name of Sid Lang’s wife is again “Charity.” Her younger sister’s name is “Comfort.” When asked why she was not named “Faith or Hope,” Comfort responded, with annoyance, as she did not like her name, that when Charity was born, the parents lost “Faith and Hope.” And Charity is beautiful, vivacious, extraordinary, almost as if to imply that if you have charity, you do not need either faith or hope —  good Pauline doctrine that.

The book is about success and failure. It is about death and sickness, loyalty and faithfulness. In it there are many Catholic allusions — to Mass, to the eyes of Christ, to sacrifice, to the “crown of thorns,” to “‘Hail Mary, full of grease,’ he said, and stepped on the starter,” to the Divine Comedy. Yet, the book almost studiously avoids religion. There are no clergy at death, no prayers. The couples go to Siena and Florence, even to Mass, but only for the music and art. The remains of the Christian problems are there, not the explanations or solutions. Yet, Charity is there. The great modern experiment, as Leo Strauss said, is this: to keep the Christian virtues, especially the greatest of these, without grace, without Christianity. Caritas sine gratia.

An ancient suspicion held that happy people are not interesting people, have no history. Yet, even happy people — and this is the novel’s plot, their tragic flaws — have wills and characters. Even in doing good there is something too possessive. And yet the good is good. Charity asks Larry Morgan and Sid, her husband, both academics and writers, at one point:

Why don’t you just ignore all that stuff so many modern writers concentrate on, and write something about a really decent kind, good human being living a normal life in a normal community, interested in the things most ordinary people are interested in — family, children, education?

And of course, this is precisely what the novel is about. There is irony here, yet it is not cynicism. It is very near to the most subtle of all temptation — why is not the Kingdom of God already here when we have such glimpses of it?

This book is also about “survival,” about how one goes on, why one goes on, when real happiness and good works will end in death, end in not fully resolving the dilemmas that the pursuit of happiness causes us? Death in Charity’s case is faced rationally and soberly, by oneself, with all the atmosphere of modern medicine, of death and dying theory, whose very working out emphasizes its inadequacy.

And the novel is about “safety.” In Frost’s poem, the conflict of time and timelessness is there, time-out-of-time. We could give all to time except what we have “held.” The image Frost uses is that of slipping through the Customs line with things forbidden to us. Once we are “crossed to safety,” we are there. We are lucky. The things we would not “part with,” we “keep.” To love is to keep.

This book is about death, about keeping and dying, about crossing to the safety after death, with the loves we have known that we would not want to part with. The two men in the novel are loyal, honorable men. It is the women who suffer and die. The women wonder if their men can survive the loves that were surely deep and all-consuming to them. The men wonder about this too. Charity, in a fit of rationalism, even plans for her successor to enable Sid, so she thinks, to survive.

Like the Greeks, the men learn by suffering; not their own suffering, but that of those they loved, the dying women. In the end, Morgan, watching his wife Sally with polio and Charity with cancer, realizes that perhaps it was precisely in this vicarious suffering that he learned the most essential things of his life, of life itself. There is a Christian theme here, too.

Over the years Sally’s crippling has been a rueful blessing. It has made her more than she was; it has let her give me more than she would ever have been able to give me healthy; it has taught me at least the alphabet of gratitude. [Emphasis added.]

Sid, Charity’s husband, sees his friend Morgan’s life only as a kind of stoic example that gives him “comfort.” Charity, rationally but selfishly, did not let her husband Sid see her die. Death did them part. She was trying to be reasonable and kind, yet she realized that she was also harsh. The serpent was in her will, the will to order and to “take care.”

“The alphabet of gratitude” — just after Sally has contracted polio, for her recuperation, the Langs, who had already paid the bills for Sally’s polio, invite Sally and her baby to spend a summer in Vermont with them. It is an act of kindness and generosity on the part of Charity and Sid. The penniless Morgans do not know how to repay them. ” ‘As for repaying’ [Charity] said in rebuke, ‘friends don’t have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is.’ ”

Larry Morgan reflects on the theory here. He knows that some theorists postulate that gratitude is a kind of concealed hatred or “festering sore.” But he has just witnessed a generous act done in his favor. Yet the generous people are thanking him for accepting their offer. Maybe friendship is “a festering sore,” he thinks to himself, “if it’s insisted on. But instead of insisting on gratitude, the Langs insisted that their generosity was selfish, so how could we dislike them for it?”

We can cross to safety at many points. No place is completely safe. When we have crossed, there are things we want to hold and to keep. The alphabet of gratitude is made possible by suffering and loyalty. Perhaps Stegner was not wrong to call the two sisters “Charity” and “Comfort.”

James V. Schall


James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.