Some writers struggle with the unrealized novel, others with the unfinished dissertation. It is my lot to have both kinds of projects and more besides, among my papers and turning over in my cluttered mind. It seems to me now that as with children, there is no perfect time to beget them, and no great amount of time to wait before the opportunity passes.
There was a time in 1993, coming off two incredible years in Africa, when it seemed that my engine had stalled, the helm would not answer, and I drifted in the doldrums. I needed both direction and purpose, and as is often the case found both in an unanticipated place.
I was looking through the volumes in the library at Windrock, a favorite room in my Grandmother's big house by the bay where Jack London and Dickens share shelves with pulp fiction and antiquated field guides. I came across a handwritten volume of original essays and poetry by a J E Tinker, a young man who in January, 1862 declared his desire to be a writer and compiled those of his compositions he felt worthy of preserving in a single volume. In the preface to his book, he writes:
"My highest ambition is a literary fame. If I may ever strive to win the public approval, it will be by the pen. I do not flatter myself that I possess any superior talents for the task. I may perhaps fail; but the field of the future is open before me. It is worthy an honorable ambition. If I should ever reach the goal I can then look back with pleasure on my earliest efforts, however mediocre they may seem. I may lack the fitness and qualifications for a literary life - but I shall not lake the desire for it. And it is a natural desire, one born into my soul with the first dawning hopes of my existence, and which I cannot, and which I would not eradicate."
Here was a puzzle suited to my time and talents and I bent myself to the task of deciphering who this J E Tinker had been and what connection, if any, his volume of writing had with my family or this old house. On the second point, I can still only speculate, but I during that year I discovered from a handful of clues in his writing that his name was James Elijah Tinker and he lived in Maine on Blue Hill Bay. He compiled the first 16 pieces in this volume while a senior at Blue Hill (now George Stevens) Academy in the Town of Blue Hill. The old academy building where he studied is now the local foreign legion post, but James' family were of Tinker Island out in the Bay, with Mt. Desert to the East and open water but a few miles to the South. His story is their story too, and also the story of the Civil War and its impacts on their lives. There is much to tell. Here is a beginning.
Ah, my gray-eyed, earnest James, how much I know about you now and how much I would still like to learn! I started out to solve a riddle and found myself the keeper of a promise first made by James on a New Year's Day with thoughts of war and mortality surely in his thoughts. He enlisted in the 18th ME Volunteer infantry the following August, a regiment that would be re-designated the 1st ME Heavy Artillery and assigned to garrison duty in the defenses of Washington, until Grant put rifles in the hands of these oversized regiments and fed them into the carnage of the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and bloody Petersburg, where the 1st ME suffered more battlefield casualties in a single engagement than any other Union regiment in the war. James Tinker was not among them that day. His service record revealed that he died of disease in September, 1863.
James had an older brother William. This is his story, too, for the volume of writing does not end when the young man goes to war. A preface to the next section of James' book, written in William Tinker's hand, honors and assumes responsibility for the author's promise:
"The following pieces, which are written in this book, were left by my brother when he went to war, from which he never returned; whether it was his intention to have them copied here, or exclude them from this collection is not known; there may be the shadow of a pretense for either. In his own introduction, this volume is mentioned as a future reference, or a reminiscence of early days, compiled only from such selections as were applicable to the circumstances. The pieces which follow might have been thrown to one side by himself, as not considered worthy of the place, or might not have been copied for want of time, but most probably the latter, as they are supposed to have been his latest writings; they are certainly not poorer than the others; but at the solicitations of the family I have concluded to write these down also." - W H Tinker
It was this passage that caught in my throat, that made that long forgotten grief tug the heart afresh. I knew then that I would accept the charge to learn all I could about this young man and honor his wish to be remembered for his writing. It sent me on a quest that continues - in fits and starts to be sure- even to this day. Sometimes I leave "James" and the thick files of research notes, pension records, and correspondence associated with his story for years at a time. I know enough now to craft the story, even though large questions still remain. But for me the problem has never been the road not taken but choosing which of several roads to take to the exclusion of the others. I have yet to make the full commitment to this tale, or the other possibilities.
What seems to be happening through the act of writing this blog, however, is that each of my significant writing projects - those in conceptual form and those half finished - is getting a new airing in the process. My African experiences, fodder for many hundreds of pages of letters and boxes of slides, have made numerous appearances here. The plot for the novel which I knew even then would be my great fictionalized exploration of that experience has taken new and more solid form as a result.
It will be a very different kind of story than the one I wish to tell about James Tinker and his dream of being a writer. Yet he also deserves his due, and my thoughts turned to him on this crisp cloudless day on the verge of the Equinox, as several of his writings deal with fall and all that it presages in life and in metaphor.
The approach of this pensive and beautiful season is now heralded by the rainbow-tinted woodlands, and the mournful wailings of the wind that seems to chant its cheerless anthem as a requiem to the fading glories of the departing year...Who is there, with feelings however vitiated by an intercourse with a heartless world, that does not feel their spirit touched by the pensive solemnity of the season, as they wander forth amidst the 'sere and yellow leaves' which rustle beneath their footsteps? How soothing is their influence, and the heart becomes filled with softer and better emotions. The proud visions of ambition vanish away like the passing clouds. One wonders at the change, and can scarcely believe himself the same individual who, but a few moments before had mingled in the vortex of fashion. And yet it is irresistible to roam through the Autumn woods, and listen to the thousands of whispering murmurs filling the air. There is a feeling of sadness which pervades the mind and although partaking, as it does, of a melancholy character, filling it with emotions of sublime and thrilling nature, which is awakened by no other season in the year. It seems to tincture the feelings with a new inspiration, and awakens the dormant energies of the mind to the dormant spectacle of the woodlands dying like the 'Dolphin' amidst the most gorgeous colors, the last still loveliest, until all has faded into the somber russet garb."
"Oh Autumn, Thou art here a King /And round thy throne the smiling hours/A thousand fragrant tributes bring/Of golden fruits and blushing flowers."
I am reasonably well read and an English major besides, but I wish I understood all of James Tinker's literary allusions. The sere and yellow leaves are likely a reference to Macbeth: "My way of life has fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf…(Macbeth Act 5, scene 3, lines 22-23)." But I am still at a loss regarding the symbolism of the dying Dolphin - a death and resurrection myth, perhaps - and the origin of the final lines of poetry. Perhaps a reader of Walking the Berkshires knows the answers.
This season certainly strikes me in much the same way as described in this passage, as does the fact that I am no longer young and, if not yet in the autumn of life then certainly in its high summer with the cicadas already droning. Today I helped two dear friends with estate planning, and my wife and I have an upcoming appointment to update our wills. There are leaves to rake and flues to clean before the cold sets in. There is also writing to be done, and time now and for who knows how much longer to keep a promise to the memory of a young man, forever young, whose greatest wish was to be remembered as a writer.