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american paradoxThe last clear memory I have of my great-uncle Atwood Putnam (yes, his ancestors were those Putnams, including “Old Wolf” Israel, but we never got any of the money—well, more about that later) was of him chasing several of his great-grandchildren down the gravel driveway that led to his shack, barefoot, floppy red felt hat trying to get off his head, growling and making the kids tremble with laughter, no shirt, at the age of ninety-three. He died at ninety-seven, having told me quite a few years earlier when I was twelve, as he was admiring the sixteen-ounce mug of home-brew with three raw eggs in it that was his usual breakfast, “John, I think I’ve been drunk for sixty-five years.” If he had had better habits, who knows how long he would have lived?

He could build things, lord, how he could build things! A log cabin at our family lake place in New York’s Finger Lakes lasted more than thirty years without replacing the chinking, because he matched the logs so well. Most of one end of the building (it sat on a bluff more than a hundred feet above Canandaigua Lake, and looking out of that cabin was where I wrote much of my doctoral dissertation) was a stone fireplace. No mortar. He believed that whatever God there was (he was ambivalent about that) intended stones to be laid as they came out of hillsides, or lakes, and they defeated you if you had to use sticky stuff to hold them together. About bricks he held a different opinion, and with wood he used nails (many of which he made himself), but he preferred tongue and groove, mortise and tenon. There were true ways to build things. They were supposed to last.

Uncle Put’s architectural legacy was a rambling society of buildings, pathways, stone walls and steps, bridges, woodsheds, and outhouses. They were arranged so that everything led upward from and downward to a shale beach, and presided over by the Big House, a ramshackle three-story that Uncle Put put together over the course of about twenty years. He dug the shale and stone hillside out by hand, carried the structural stone and fireplace stone up the hill from the lake, and built rafts to push down the shoreline to bring back loads of salvage lumber. As far as we know, he never paid a dime for building materials. The under structure of the boathouse he fashioned from 12” x 12” hand-hewn oak beams from a nearby farmer’s barn. The Big House featured a massive eating/sleeping/card-playing screened-in porch. There were two outhouses, one of which we later converted to a flush toilet for the sake of convenience and curiosity. Power tools never appeared at what we called “The Lake” until long after Put was gone.

He lived for many years in a shack, terribly uncharacteristic of his normal building standards, that had three rooms: what we would today call a “mudroom,” where he threw off whatever he had on that day; a kitchen/bedroom, where over his bed were side-by-side pictures of Pope Pius XII and Joe Stalin, symbols to him of complementary types of tyranny, and over his eating table were dozens of pictures of young children, mostly of family or cut out from Life Magazine; and the brew room, a wonderful combination of completely illegal ways of making homemade liquid delights. Outside was a smaller shack, which was strung with a hammock, equipped with a jug of kerosene, and painted on the outside, “Satan, Here I Come!” None of his old friends whom he had recruited to put him in the hammock and light the kerosene survived him. He is laid in the family plot in Colegrove, Pennsylvania, amongst several generations of people who knew that Satan would never have accepted him, anyway.

hudson-river-gorge-602x400Uncle Put was most at home in the woods and the lakes and hills and rivers of western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania. He hunted and fished and trapped. A story that I believed for almost as long as my father’s bragging about going over Niagara Falls in a barrel was Put’s telling me that one of his traps had been pulled partially loose by some critter, and he traced to a hole that he could only see into by crawling right up to it. Well, he said, it turned out to be a skunk, and that varmint caught him full in the eyes. “I was blind for three days,” he told me when I was on his lap, “but after that I never needed glasses the rest of my life!” He took most of us into the Pennsylvania woods at one time or another, usually in the dead of winter, to show us how to find shelter and look for game and figure out directions and the weather. Like James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, he was capable of living without the society of another single person, although he could be the most social of men when he wanted to.

He was married, but the institution didn’t take. He and Aunt Belle rarely lived together, yet their two children turned out well. In one of those peculiarly American ironies, his son became a game warden in the county where his father was easily the most persistent poacher. About religion, as we have seen, he was ambivalent. His brother-in-law, my grandfather, was an Episcopalian priest and his sister, my grandmother, a Christian mystic. He seemed to get along well with both of them, but Uncle Put’s church was probably the Church of the Woods. He cared little for politics, although there is a family story that he joined the Communist Party in 1932 as a protest against a bloated system that could, as Will Rogers said, give us “bread lines knee deep in wheat.” Economics was not even a dismal science; to Put, who didn’t wash his clothes in machines because it “wore them out,” his cabin and the few tools it took to build things right were the only possessions he needed. What he didn’t need he didn’t want. He could grow corn that grew twelve feet high, but “cash crop” would have been to Put an oxymoron (and yes, he could use such words, and he did read books). As a neighbor he might fix your shed and refuse any pay; but he was just as likely to fail to show up for a paying job because he was enjoying his spirits or distracted by a trout stream.

This is one great paradox of the American Republic, when we had a republic. Stable families, a variety of enthusiastic Christian churches, vital towns and counties and states were the foundation, yet our heroes so often have been like Uncle Put, from Daniel Boone to John Wayne; individualists to whom the towns and churches and often even the women seemed dull and confining, sometimes dangerous. It is easily argued that from James Fenimore Cooper to Louis L’Amour the literary character that Uncle Put defines in real life is the authentic American literary character. This cultural contradiction is not unique in the history of the West; one thinks, for example, of the Greek’s love of the polis while at the same time learning so many of his virtues from the travels of the wily loner, Odysseus.

Uncle Put, I am certain, did not think of himself as a literary character. But he was a character for sure, and not one that Americans of this post-republican era appreciate quite as much as when we were confident and strong.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Great essay, John. I knew several Uncle Puts…most are gone, which may be why we’re in such a mess in this country. We never really appreciated how important they were to our way of life.

  2. Enjoyed your story Mr. Willson. Your great-uncle was a true American character in the best sense of the word. Your story put me in mind of my great-grandfather who had a large farm in Pennsylvania and also made and built everything he had. These possessed the character that built this country, and as you say it is little appreciated in our milieu wherein it seems everything must come quick and easy and if not then just give it to us.

  3. Thank you, Professor Wilson. Your essay has given me needed insight as I work on study guides using classic movies to inspire the moral imagination of the rising generation — Overcoming the radical individualism to cultivate anew civic friendship and community in our common life together. It’s a Wonderful Life and Shane and all the rest I have piloted with young people since 1999. Thank you, Onalee McGraw, Educational Guidance Institute.

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