The Picnic Grounds
Monday morning, I went back to my essay on literature and reality. A good many years before this I had decided that the only solution to my personal problem as a writer was to allow nothing where humanly possible to interfere with the daily practice of writing. I have never known the gentle and reflective conditions which it still seems to me the act of literary creation in any full sense requires. Nevertheless, I have managed a good deal of writing under less than the best circumstances, and it was in this spirit that I tackled the essay. I remember that I was going through Emerson then, looking for the particular piece of his in which he speaks of the theory of books as noble; and being unable to find it, I had asked J N to lend me his collection of Emerson. I was wondering this morning whether he would recall my request at this point, when I saw his car through the window. The interruption was particularly welcome, for my critical approach to questions of literature and reality had badly bogged down in a memory of screaming men dancing around a fire of burning chairs, into which they tossed malignant objects known as books.
I went downstairs and thanked him for the book.
"What are you doing now?" he asked.
"Trying to write."
"My own assignment is this Peekskill business. I've got to do a series of pieces on it, so I thought a good start would be to have a look at the battlefield in quiet and daylight. Do you want to come?"
I had never liked cold battlefields and had seen enough of them, but this was the first one on which I had lost thirty dollars worth of eye glasses. "Sure I'll come," I agreed.
J's son and daughter, both of them teen-agers, were in the car, and they reported on the state of the young people in the neighborhood as we drove up to the Lakeland Picnic Grounds. Most of the local boys and girls who had been up on the state road during that night of horror were a little frightened now, a little ashamed of what had happened. They had not known it would be like that. But others were not ashamed and were eager for more. J, on the other hand, had been making a tour of bars and lunch rooms in Peekskill and Verplanck, the latter a physically and morally decaying river port which had contributed a large percentage of the lumpen element to the attack; and his impression was of a tight and controlled silence. No one wanted to say that they had been present; nobody wanted to say what had happened from their own particular point of view. The situation was a new one, and there was something filthy, something morally decadent, if one can place such a construction upon it, in the whole neighborhood. What had come to the surface that night had been festering for years, a fungus growth overlaid by the surface aspect of a reasonably respectable and orderly community, but there nevertheless.... At least that was how J N saw it, and subsequent investigations directed toward social factors involved bore out his conclusions.
When we arrived at Lakeland we parked the car across the road, leaving the boy and girl to watch it while we went into the picnic grounds. On this morning the place was deserted, quiet, peaceful almost a testimony to the incredible character of the events of Saturday night. We walked past wrecked cars however still there and examined the length of fence torn up and used as weapons by the fascists. We went down to the grounds and I looked through the grass where the big fight had taken place, but without finding my glasses. We poked through the ashes of the fire where the books had been burned and counted around it no less than forty used flashlight bulbs. That meant that at least forty pictures had been taken of the book-burning and of the insane demonstration which had accompanied it. But I do not recall having seen even one picture of the incident published anywhere that is, of the book-burning incident. What happened to those pictures? Have the plates been destroyed, or will they emerge some day as a silent witness to the infamous beginnings of American fascism?
Up the slope from the hollow, toward the road, we found the remains of the fiery cross; and then, swinging toward the gully and the embankment which we had chosen for defense, we found a great many empty liquor bottles, some thrown aside, some carefully broken to be used for weapons.
But for the scene of a crime, an unbelievably despicable crime, the place was curiously deserted. It was an attempt which had failed, and thereby to be quickly forgotten. A small and inconsequential incident on the banks of the Hudson River.