Benzonia in 1916: “Requiem for the Homemade”

waiting-train-catton-1987For our Thursday history post today we return to Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train (Wayne State University Press, 1987), the multifaceted story of his life growing up in northern Michigan, specifically, Benzonia and the Crystal Lake area.

Chapter 11 is our next chapter to reference, and in “Requiem for the Homemade” Catton indeed gives us a funeral message (dirge for the dead!) as he sadly reflects on the passing of one era in American history – the “homemade” life of its early settlers, of which his life in Benzonia and his education at its little Christian Academy were a small part and picture – and the entrance of a new era – the “industrial age” with its “applied technology,” ushered in by the lumber barons and WWI. Life was changing, and with keen perception Catton puts his finger on the change. Fundamentally, it was a spiritual one, as he notes in these paragraphs:

I had been growing up with the notion that life’s problems, although often difficult, were at bottom simple. To confront them took courage, ideals, high principles and unwavering faith. The heroes of the 1860s [he is referring to the Civil War men] had these qualities; the crisis of their day had been met and passed, and a permanent gain had been made – which proved that the world was becoming progressively better because the advance of man rested on a simple exercise of a few ancient virtues. This was one of life’s certainties, as revealed on a Michigan hilltop in the early years of this century. But if today’s crisis had to be met in an entirely different way than the earlier one, all certainty was gone.

And it seemed clear that it was being met differently.

War does one thing pitilessly: it holds up, before the eyes of the society that is waging it, the essential reality on which that society is based. It is a cruel mirror, apparently as distorted as the mirrors in an amusement park, actually (on the long cold glance) not distorted at all. And what it showed in 1916, for that and subsequent generations, was that the race had entrusted itself to a new belief. Its highest faith was now in the machine rather than in the spirit; in the mechanical devices man’s brain could invent rather than in the illimitable miracle that originally set that brain free to speculate, to plan, to dream and to hope. The only reality worth mentioning is the one that can be seen, touched, tinkered with, improved – or, at times, exploded. Get into the machine you have made and ride wherever it takes you. There is no other road to salvation; or to damnation either, if that makes any difference.

To which Catton adds these words about this “harsh gospel”:

So man can do anything if he tries hard enough, and to try hard enough is not simply to furrow the brow and flex the muscles but to make unlimited use of every resource at hand. Moderation becomes impossible,and if it were possible it would be regarded as sinful. The new theology had borrowed, without credit, one of the fundamental planks in the old religion: despite his disclaimers, man stands at the center of the universe. It was made for him to use, and the best and wisest men are those who use it most lavishly. They destroy pine forests, and dig copper from beneath the cold northern lakes, and run the open pits across the iron ranges, impoverishing themselves at the same time they are enriching themselves: creating wealth, in short, by the act of destroying it, which is one of the most baffling mysteries of the new gospel.

You don’t have to fully agree with Catton’s analysis to understand his main point. The old era had the religion of faith in God, embracing the supernatural and solid virtues, while the new era had the religion of faith in man, embracing what can be seen and pinning all its hopes on man’s abilities and technologies, while at the same time discarding the old virtues.

And we now know where this “new” religion has taken us. Indeed, we cnm well understand Catton’s “requiem for the homemade.” But, at the same time, we also know the true, abiding, trustworthy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He and His saving work are the source of all our hope and confidence as we face the future. Not man, not ourselves, not our technology, but Jesus is our hope.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice post. I just picked up Catton’s book on the history of Michigan for some reading on vacation next week. As I understand it, he makes many of the same points about modern man and society in that book. Should be interesting reading.

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    • That’s great, Andrew. You will love the book, from several points of view – good history, honest commentary, and funny stories! Enjoy your vacation with a purpose!

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