Hey Nelly Nelly!

July 4, 2013

Hey Nelly Nelly, come to the window!
Hey Nelly Nelly, look at what I see!
— Shel Silverstein, 1930-1999
American author and  singer-songwriter

I live less than an hour from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The town and its many historical sites are always crowded in the summer, especially during the first week of July. That crowding is even more pronounced this year, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Thus have Ron and I been comfortably at home performing our Fourth of July ritual, the viewing, over three nights (coinciding with the events portrayed), of the 1993 movie Gettysburg.

My interest in the American Civil War, and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular, was born sometime in my high school years. In 1961 I went with my eighth grade class on a day trip to Gettysburg. I remember buying a tiny address book, about the size of the very smallest Moleskine. It had a red cover and was stamped in gold “Gettysburg National Park.” This represents the first indication of my obsession with notebooks and journals. I hardly needed an address book, since I didn’t know anyone who didn’t live within walking distance of my house.

The centennial of the Battle of Gettysburg occurred the summer before eleventh grade, the summer we moved from the city to Camp Hill. Exploring my new neighborhood, I discovered two cemeteries, one very old with hand-carved markers going back to the 18th century, and one more well-planned, with sections devoted to honoring Camp Hill’s Civil War dead, and here and there a child commemorated as “a soldier’s orphan.” I studied the Civil War in American history that year, and in my senior year toured the battlefield again on school trips. By that time I’d become a devotee of the work of MacKinlay Kantor, whose novel Andersonville, about a Confederate prison in Georgia, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956.

These were the years that the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement and folk music all combined to dominate my sense of history. Some friends formed a singing group they called The Metropolitans. One of their most popular numbers was “Hey Nelly Nelly,” and I can still hear the soprano’s high sweet voice urging me to come to the window, to join the cause, to take action. Because it’s still a hard and a long and a bloody ride.

One aspect of the movie Gettysburg that never fails to move me is Joshua Chamberlain’s speech to the mutineers from Maine whose charge has been assigned to him. I watched that scene over and over again when I was shaping a portion of my stalled historical novel in which a central character explains to his family why he must join the cause. The speech as given in the movie comes entirely from Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, the source material for the script. A contemporary account states only that “…the Colonel shamed some mutineers who felt their obligation was up and they came to their senses.” So perhaps some fiction writer’s license has been applied.

It’s hot here in central Pennsylvania this week, just as it was 150 years ago. Our annual review of the movie has sparked renewed interest in Gettysburg in Ron and in me. It’s ten years now since I presented 6000 words of my historical novel at Bread Loaf, my first experience there. It was, as I told the story in 2007, a disaster, and though I recovered, and took up fiction writing again, I never went back to that manuscript.

I’m a better writer, and a better person, now, and it’s time to revisit that project. In September, after I’ve visited Sewanee and Bread Loaf again and become an even better writer, and the heat and the crowds have subsided, we’ll be paying a visit or two to the battlefield and the cemetery. Because hey Nelly Nelly, I can’t sit around here and talk to you.

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