“The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” Psalm 90:9
Geraldine Brooks’s novel March recounts the harrowing Civil War testimony of Mr. March, a character notably absent from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the father of the girls at the heart of that novel. Brooks used Alcott’s own father as a prototype, the legendary
England transcendental idealist Bronson Alcott.
March’s abolitionist views prompt him to enlist into the Union army as a chaplain, but war is never kind on idealists. By the end of his testimony, he’s dying.
His wife, Marmee, who, throughout her life, has known little more (or less) than the comforts of small-town New England patrician culture, finds her disease-stricken husband amid the horrors of a Civil War hospital, where he’s near death.
At one point in the novel, Marmee, who is searching for a black nurse, walks into a hospital laundry, and finds herself suddenly in a “dead house,” surrounded by mutilated naked bodies of Civil War soldiers. There she finds “an elderly negress,” washing the “abbreviated body” of a double amputee, “singing as she worked, which struck me as unseemly until I realized what she sang was a hymn.” In the billowing clouds of steam from the laundry, Marmee says that woman appeared to be “a large black angel serenading the men to heaven.”
I know the song, even though Geraldine Brooks doesn’t give a title. I’m guessing it’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” If it isn’t, it’s another from that memorable book of Negro spirituals, because, well, what else could it be?—a black woman, born a slave, doing a job no white folks want in the bowels of dreaded darkness.
Brooks doesn’t give the hymn a title because in all likelihood, Mrs. March, an early feminist, an affluent white, educated woman from New England, simply doesn’t know that music, not from the soul To be truthful, neither do I, not from the soul.
Confession: I don’t know the suffering required to create Negro spirituals. I don’t know the horror that would prompt human beings to beg deliverance so desperately from life itself. I have never known oppression, only freedom. I’ve not watched people die when it wasn’t their time. I haven’t buried a child. I’ve lived a good, good life.
And that’s why, in part, I’ve never known the despair required to utter a verse like this one: “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”
I’ve never known life to be so pitiable a master as to turn my face toward death, but I know what Mrs. March senses when she walks in that dead house and hears the music. She’s beginning to sense that others certainly have.
The Bible is a big book. There’s room for far more than me and Marmee in its loving grasp. When I consider a verse like this one, I’m struck by two things: first, thanksgiving—how blessed I’ve been not to have known so much suffering; and second, fear—how just because I haven’t doesn’t mean I won’t.
I’m thankful for Negro spirituals and Psalm 90, not because I can identify, because I can’t. I’m thankful for hymns like “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot” and “I Fly Away” because those old songs teach me—teach us—about both heaven and earth.