A New Perspective

This past summer I attended the German school at Middlebury College as a Kathryn Wasserman Davis Peace Fellow. In keeping with the program’s complete immersion philosophy, I spoke, wrote, and read nearly everything in German for seven weeks. Classes in grammar, culture, and literature broadened my knowledge of the language in both content and context. Extracurricular activities enriched my understanding of Germanic history, philosophy, film, and music. My goal throughout was straightforward: to strengthen my ability to read historical research materials by and about Bertha von Suttner in the original language and, when necessary, render a satisfactory English translation. It should come as no surprise that one of my final projects was a ten-minute presentation (auf Deutsch) about Bertha’s life and achievements. 

It should also come as no surprise that I’ve returned to Peace at Last and its related projects with new ideas and perspectives. Now, I’m not much of a fan of “writers writing about writing,” as it too often veers into simplistic instruction or mystical self-aggrandizement. I’ve been doing this long enough to appreciate the varying needs and strategies of individual writers and individual projects. I’ve also learned to distinguish between writing and publishing and, further, to try to keep those two worlds apart for as long as possible when undertaking a project. 

My initial inspiration for Peace at Last inextricably linked Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner, and I felt strongly that their stories, at least in the overarching context of the establishment of the Peace Prize, could not and should not be told apart from one another. That resulted in a “first final” draft approaching 500,000 words, which, according to friends who are agents or editors, was an absolute non-starter for publication. I’ve since cut the manuscript in half, and from there continued to chop away whole sections and chapters. Spoiler alert: the two stand-alone excerpts that have already been published (“Koppargruva” and “The Iron Tower”) no longer appear as complete chapters in the current manuscript.

Having spent a summer away from that manuscript, I approached the ongoing revision process with renewed energy and confidence. As a result, I’ve split the manuscript in two once again. As things now stand, Bertha and Alfred have their own separate books. To justify that drastic change, I had to be sure that each of the two resulting novels would have its own, distinct narrative arc while preserving the idealistic spirit that motivated both characters. In other words, the two books couldn’t simply tell the same story from two different points of view. Bertha’s bold and persistent optimism in a male-dominated society, even within the pacifist movement, interested me from the start, and so I’ve chosen to focus on her book first and will continue to use the provisional title Peace at Last. Alfred’s book will likely focus on his internal battles with chronic melancholia, lifelong “bachelorhood,” and guilt over his younger brother’s death.

“There will always be conflict, but I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature. My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.”

– Kathryn Wasserman Davis

I’ll continue to write and post here about both Alfred and Bertha, but for the weeks and months ahead, Bertha will be my primary focus. I look forward to sharing new insights and ideas about her and her work, particularly as they relate to events unfolding around the world today. Kathryn Wasserman Davis challenged her namesake scholars to “bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.” I remain hopeful that my continuing work on Peace at Last will meet that challenge.

Swords into Ploughshares

 

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“Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” a sculpture by Evgeny Vuchetich presented to the United Nations in 1959 and on display at its headquarters in New York City

God shall judge among the nations, and shall decide for many peoples: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
—Isaiah 2:4

 

For decades now I’ve looked to the literary journal Ploughshares as a symbol of the positive influence that writing can have on establishing a more just and peaceful world. Derived from the biblical quote above, the publication’s name refers to the constructive and creative application of the tools crafted to help civilize the world, language and literature among them.

With that clearly in mind, I submitted the first excerpt from Peace at Last, a chapter entitled “Koppargruva,” to the editors in the hopes that it might find a meaningful home there. I’m ever so thankful that it has.

This conflation of good and evil, construction and destruction, haunted Alfred Nobel throughout his life and features prominently in this excerpt. His patented applications of explosives (nitroglycerin, dynamite, and gelignite most notable among them) led to incredible advances in the mining and railway industries and, in so doing, helped to transform the world at an unprecedented rate. However, military applications of the same technology, at first held at arm’s length by Nobel, caused death and destruction at similarly unprecedented levels.

Throughout his life, Nobel considered ways to balance the destructive power of his explosives with more constructive and unifying pursuits. Working together with Bertha von Suttner, he funded pacifist societies throughout Europe and eventually, also at her insistence, endowed the peace prize that now bears his name. For him, this represented one way to establish a more progressive and positive legacy despite society’s depiction of him as a “merchant of death.”

“Cannot swords be turned to ploughshares?” Ronald Reagan asked in his address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City nearly a century later. He continued, “Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war and the threat of war?”

These questions and concerns, debated for centuries, still trouble society today. They can inspire us toward aspiration and optimism just as easily as they can lead us to despair and cynicism. They’re the motivation behind my devotion to Peace at Last, for in Alfred and Bertha I see both sword and ploughshare. They’re also at the core of the moral crisis depicted in “Koppargruva,” one of the early “Nobel” chapters from the book.

The Ploughshares “Solos” version of “Koppargruva” is now available directly from the Ploughshares Web site (https://www.pshares.org/solos/koppargruva-solo-52) and can also be purchased and downloaded via iBooks (Apple iTunes) and Kindle (amazon.com, where it’s a dollar more for some reason).

The title can also be found on kobo.com, where new registrants are frequently treated to an instant $5 credit. Might I suggest adding Bertha von Suttner’s Lay Down Your Arms ($2.99) to your cart along with “Koppargruva”? You’d still have two cents left to put toward another purchase…

Continuous Education

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Portrait of Bertha von Suttner (1894) by Adrienne Gräfin Potting. The painting now hangs at Schloss Harmannsdorf, once Bertha’s home in Austria.

In 1912, Bertha von Suttner addressed the National Education Association of the United States of America and declared, “It seems to me that education must be continuous, and that the greatest educators are life and experience.” As she well knew at the time, life and experience were often the only two avenues for learning available to women, who were still barred from pursuing a more formal education in many countries.

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“Martha’s Tagebuch,” published in 1897, was adapted from Suttner’s novel “Lay Down Your Arms” and became “the first work of German pacifist children’s literature” (Roderick McGillis, 2003).

As part of her efforts to spread the message of peace from her landmark best-seller, Lay Down Your Arms!: The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling, Bertha worked with her close friend and fellow writer Hedwig Gräfin Potting (whom she jokingly referred to as “Hex,” from the German word for “witch”) to create and publish a version of the book that might appeal to younger audiences and help educate them about the horrific costs of war. Based on the life and experiences of the original novel’s central character, Martha’s Tagebuch (Martha’s Diary) features several illustrations by Hedwig’s sister Adrienne, who years earlier had painted a youthful portrait of the world-famous author.

With the gracious help of my friend Patty Paige-Pfennig in Wiesbaden, I’ve been fortunate to obtain a first edition of the book, one that had been tucked away in an old barn in Germany. Even though Bertha was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, her resounding calls for peace and disarmament were regarded as a serious threat to the militaristic leaders of her day. Many of Bertha’s published works and personal effects were destroyed by the Nazis and other fascist groups in the decades between World Wars I and II, so the book is a rare find indeed.

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The fictional Martha von Tilling, based in large part on Bertha von Suttner herself, writes in her journal. Illustration from “Martha’s Tagebuch” by Hedwig Gräfin Potting.

Writing a historical novel involves following a number of paths and tangents, some of which can result in an author’s falling “down the rabbit hole” and losing track of the original story and its themes. In this instance, however, I’m thankful to have discovered an important secondary character for the book in Hedwig “Hex” Potting, especially as Hex was one the very first people to learn that Bertha had finally been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. I look forward to sharing more stories of the lives and experiences of such engaging characters as I continue to follow in the footsteps of Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel.

Building Momentum

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After a successful research trip to Europe that included a talk on Bertha von Suttner at the Peace Palace in The Hague (see photo above), I’m excited to share some other good news related to Peace at Last.

For starters, I’ve been awarded a generous grant from the Vermont Arts Council to develop stand-alone excerpts from the novel. The first of these, entitled “Koppargruva,” will be published by the literary journal Ploughshares as part of their “Solos” series in the 2016-17 season. This chapter builds upon some new and intriguing research about Alfred Nobel’s trip to the United States in 1866, shortly after the end of Civil War. The second excerpt, entitled “Le Trac” (a French term for stagefright), will follow Bertha’s frustrated attempts at a singing career during her stay in Paris in the years just prior to the Franco-Prussian War. I am grateful to the Vermont Studio Center for providing me with a scholarship to work on developing and editing these sections during an upcoming, month-long residency.

With news of the project’s increasing momentum, I look forward to updating this blog more regularly and posting more photographs from research trips, especially those that relate to key scenes in the novel. In the meantime, the manuscript continues to grow, revealing new insights into both Alfred and Bertha on an almost daily basis. I look forward to sharing some of these discoveries here in the weeks and months ahead!