Those who read with pen in hand form a species nearly extinct. Those who read the marginal notes of readers past form a group even smaller. Yet when we write in antiphonal chorus to what we’re reading, we engage in that conversation time and distance otherwise make impossible. Coleridge, one of the most obsessive of marginal annotators, those graffiti artists of the book, was so addicted to the practice that any book borrowed became a hostage to fortune. If he ever managed to return it, the margins were likely to be heavily defaced—he crowded his arguments into the forum of the side aisles.
Before the middle of the nineteenth century, reading in this wrangling or reciprocal manner required more preparation—your quills, your knife to sharpen those former pinions, and your pot of ink (India) had to come ready to hand. You needed a flat place to lay these furnishings—a nearby table or a lapboard. For the traveler, there were inkpots with latched tops, because spilled ink in your trunk would ruin your finery. Though the pencil was far more convenient—even Coleridge used one on occasion—most readers preferred ink.
The main abusers now of the pages of a book are probably college students. Months back, I bought a new edition of T. S. Eliot, a volume the seller swore was almost unmarred by notes, by which he apparently meant that the major poems had all been rendered unreadable, words circled or underlined or double-underlined, margins stuffed with explanations and, I suspect, the parroted jargon of some lecturer. Against the line “I sat upon the shore” in The Waste Land stood the sad word “liminal”; near the opening of “The Burial of the Dead,” “speaker is a flaneur.”
Doctors bury their mistakes in the grave, readers in the boneyard of the margins.
Our books read us as we read them. This unnamed reader did not know the words burnished, unguent, clairvoyante, propitious, or demotic (which does not mean, as the lecturer perhaps thought, “imperfect”)—and, more worryingly, not patronising or antique. Though he had never heard of Mylae (“ancient war”) or Tiresias (“blind prophet”), he helpfully reminded himself, next to the lines “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many,” that the lecturer had said “like zombies.” At least I suspect it was a lecturer in one of those fits of idiotic genius, trying to make the text “relevant” at the expense of meaning or sense. Eliot’s dead were not zombies. Still, doctors bury their mistakes in the grave, readers in the boneyard of the margins. Something of this ghostly reader materializes there.
Readers also reveal themselves in the passages they mark, reveal themselves in ways they might do only to someone deeply loved. A decade ago, I chanced to purchase Elizabeth Custer’s copy of Tennyson’s poems, a small duodecimo volume (3 1/2" x 5 1/2") bound in blue buckram, front and rear boards blindstamped, page edges gilt, with gilt decoration to a spine that bore the title Alfred Tennyson’s Poems. The title page, facing a portrait of the clean-shaven young author, read The Poetical Words of Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate, Etc. The book was published in 1859 by Ticknor and Fields, the most famous Boston house of the day, publishers of Dickens, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Stowe, Longfellow, and later Twain. On the front flyleaf, in faint pencil, was inscribed “Libbie Bacon/ Monroe/ Mich/ March 1860,” the earliest marginal note dated September of that year. In the upper corner of the leaf she had written in bold blunt pencil, some years after, “E. B. Custer.”
Such a small volume was meant to be carried about, convenient for handbag or reticule, or a man’s coat pocket. The book shows considerable wear, the edges of the covers having in places rubbed through to the boards, the front hinge separating, many page edges dirtied by a thumb. At some point it suffered mild water damage—Libbie may have taken the book into the field with her husband.
Elizabeth Clift Bacon was born April 8, 1842, in Monroe, Michigan. Two decades before, her father had headed west from upstate New York toward what was then the frontier, intending to make his way by keeping school. Traveling by boat and stage, though later claiming he had walked, the young man arrived in lower Michigan Territory in the fall of 1822. By spring he was teaching in Raisinville, later part of the town of Monroe, which lies on the western shore of Lake Erie. He cleared land for a farm despite recurrent bouts of ague, the major disease endemic to the region, the Mississippi River Valley, the Carolinas, and even Washington. Also called the shaking ague, we know it as malaria. He wrote his parents, “Doctors here? Aye, and good ones, but they hew you to the verry stump, nor is there quinine enough to go round.”
Daniel Bacon did not marry until nearly forty. He raised a family, becoming judge of probate, bank president, and influential man of business. Libbie, his only child to survive into adulthood, was sent as a day student to the Boyd Seminary nearby. After her mother died in 1854, she became a boarder, later returning after three years at a girl’s school in upstate New York. She was headstrong, high-spirited, by turns frivolous and serious, a pretty girl used to getting her way.
Their courtship was not All’s Well That Ends Well, but it possessed the Shakespearean comic impediments.
Libbie met George Armstrong Custer, a captain in the Union Army, at a Thanksgiving party at the seminary in 1862. This somewhat feckless young man, who the year before graduated last in his class at West Point, had begun to prove himself in battle. For some years, he had lived in Monroe with his half-sister. Though the houses stood on the same street no very great distance apart, the families did not know each other. Social circles of the day were often circumscribed by churches—hers, Presbyterian; his sister’s, Methodist. Custer did not become a professing Christian—that is, did not accept Christ as his Savior—until after his marriage. Libbie was cool to him when introduced, he somewhat shy. Soon he was pressing his suit.
Apart from a few weeks in the east, Custer stayed in Monroe from November until the following April. Their courtship was not All’s Well That Ends Well, but it possessed the Shakespearean comic impediments. Judge Bacon did not approve of Libbie’s suitors in uniform, writing that many were “of the mustached, gilt-striped and Button kind”—implying that Union officers were foppish, insincere. Not long after the party, however, the judge met Custer at Humphrey House, a local hotel that served as a social club, finding him a sensible and direct young man, knowledgeable about the war. Bacon had, however, forbidden Libbie from seeking Custer’s company or inviting him into the family home. That did not prevent them from meeting at other parties; once at a supper, when she put her head on his shoulder, he asked to kiss her. She refused. (It was improper for a girl to kiss a beau until he became her fiancé.) On his return to the army that spring, the couple wrote each other surreptitiously, using her best friend as a go-between. Judge Bacon and the young captain meanwhile struck up a warm correspondence.
The long-distance lovers suffered their share of misunderstandings, second guesses, second thoughts. That summer Custer was promoted to brigadier general, at twenty-three the youngest general in the Union Army. It was no surprise that newspapers called him the “boy general of the golden locks.” Having suffered a bullet wound to his lower leg at the Battle of Culpeper Court House, that September he returned to Monroe on fifteen days’ leave. At a costume ball in his honor the twenty-eighth—she dressed as a gypsy, Custer as Louis XVI—Libbie apparently told the new-minted general she would marry him if he could obtain her father’s consent.
A few days later they apparently became engaged, at least in their own eyes, though where and when is not clear. In Cavalier in Buckskin, the historian Robert Utley says that Libbie’s promise on a sofa at the ball was only indirect. Her literary executor and biographer Marguerite Merington claims that the couple “plighted their troth” beneath a tree in the Bacons’ garden, at the house he had been banned from visiting. (She may have heard this from Libbie herself.) In her journal of those years, its whereabouts now unknown, Libbie wrote after Custer’s departure that she had seen him three times a day in the parlor at Humphrey House, but with “no clandestine meeting.” Here the book of Tennyson’s poems casts a raking light. Libbie’s habit was to mark lines by drawing a vertical pencil line in the margin or by enclosing them with square brackets, parentheses, or even hash marks. Of more than a hundred passages she dated only twenty-two, a few of these lacking the year. (All quotations below are from her edition.)
Apart from the last stanza of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” dated soon after she acquired the volume, the earliest lines to receive Libbie’s pencil are “ ‘Come/ With all good things, and war shall be no more’ ” (“Morte d’Arthur”). In the margin she wrote, “May 8, 1863,” a month after Custer had returned east. He had reached the front near the start of the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1–5, which ended in a Union defeat. Libbie had probably read reports of the battle with some anxiety—and sought the comfort of poetry.
The most interesting early dates, however, are clustered in September and on October 3 and 4, 1863. Four passages have been dated September, at least two before Custer received the wound at Culpeper Court House that brought him leave in Monroe. Though she had been conflicted during their months apart, by fall she was certain she and Custer were meant for each other. (She wrote in her journal, “Try as I did to suppress the ‘fancy’ for six months it did no good.”) This conjecture is supported by two passages in “The Lotos Eaters,” dated September 4, 1863 (“To hear each other’s whispered speech;/ Eating the Lotos, day by day,/ To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,/ And tender-curving lines of creamy spray”—she may have marked only the last two or three lines) and September 6 (“Only to hear were sweet, stretched out beneath the pine”). Libbie did not have another serious suitor then, so far as is known, though the idea that she was using Tennyson for a bit of double-dealing would otherwise be amusing.
The next group is dated October 3, five days after the ball and two before Custer left Monroe. A stanza from “The Miller’s Daughter” hints at the atmosphere of this meeting:
Look through mine eyes with thine. True wife
Round my true heart thine arms entwine;
My other dearer life in life,
Look through my very soul with thine!
Untouched with any shade of years,
May those kind eyes forever dwell!
They have not shed a many tears,
Dear eyes, since first I knew them well.
The lines “True wife/ Round my true heart thine arms entwine” have been placed in parentheses, the word “wife” underlined. Libbie added “Saturday afternoon,” and then “October 3.,” written around the date “Sept,” which has been crossed through. (The original date might have been “Sept” or “Sept 3.”) This suggests that the couple “plighted their troth” on October 3 while reading Tennyson together. Whatever she had said at the masquerade a few days before became a formal promise. The extraordinary portrayal of these lines—of that perfect oneness between two lovers, the marital bliss to come—made them the more significant, significant enough to be revisited the following day. Probably on this second reading the whole stanza, dated in each margin “Sund Oct 4th 1863” (in one case “/63”), was set off by a vertical line.
Tennyson was among the authors Libbie loved most at seminary. Made poet laureate in 1850, he was popular on two continents, his many poems on love obviously attractive to the young couple. Mrs. Custer’s Tennyson is the private account of a woman of twenty-one finding in lines of poetry the words for her feelings. It may also record—we cannot know the circumstances of what was probably a joint reading—the words that gratified, that answered the emotions of, the twenty-three-year-old one-star general. The following summer, after they were married, Custer purchased a gift for Libbie—Tennyson’s new book Enoch Arden, just published in America.
Two further passages are dated October 3, a line from “Love and Duty” (“In that last kiss, which never was the last”) and a quatrain from Maud:
O that ’twere possible
After long grief and pain
To find the arms of my true love
Round me once again!
(Tennyson’s echo of the lyric “Westron winde, when wilt thou blow” has long been noted.) Over the lines lies the date “September” and, below that, “October 3, 63,” as well as the initials L A (Libbie and Armstrong—or Autie, Custer’s family nickname). In the lefthand margin, the same initials have been intertwined. Though it is difficult to read, on the rear flyleaf she has also written, “Sunday afternoon Oct 4 63,” followed by those same intertwined initials. Recall the line “Round my true heart thine arms entwine,” also read that afternoon—any intertwining had to take place on the page, if the sweethearts were sitting in the Bacon garden, where they might have been observed.
When Custer had returned to Monroe, Libbie and her father were boarding at Humphrey House, having shut up their home while her stepmother was away. Libbie wrote in her journal, the night of Custer’s departure, “for two weeks I’ve been at Nett’s”—that is, at the hotel. (Nettie Humphrey, her best friend, lived there with her father, the owner.) The Bacon house was therefore still unoccupied the days just before, and the couple might have stolen into the garden—a good lawyer might have argued that Custer had not been barred from the grounds.
The September date on this passage could have been after Custer’s arrival the sixteenth or, like the lines from “The Miller’s Daughter,” a possible trace of Libbie’s growing hopes. It might have been wise to erase the date, had she later started reading the book with Custer—unless she confessed that she had been thinking only of him.
In his biography of Libbie, Lawrence Frost says that early the previous February, at a party where Custer pretended to flirt with her rival, he sat with Libbie in the parlor. She gave him her ring unobserved, a ring engraved with the initials “L A.” Frost provides no source—it may be her missing journal—but why her ring possessed those initials is uncertain. They were neither hers nor her late mother’s. Perhaps they were the abbreviation of a phrase like “Love Always,” though I’ve found no similar examples from the period. Again giving no source (perhaps the journal once more), Frost later states that Custer had marked a passage in her Tennyson. This passage. It’s certainly possible, but the writing looks very much like hers—only an expert could determine. Whoever marked the lines and intertwined their initials, the importance is plain. Though the couple did not have permission to marry, they were already seeking permission in the poetry they read.
Facing the page with the stanza from “The Miller’s Daughter,” part of another stanza has been noticed, also dated “Sund Oct 4th 1863”:
The woven arms, seem but to be
Weak symbols of the settled bliss,
The comfort, I have found in thee.
Each individual word is underlined. Apart from the single word “wife” on the previous page, only two other lines are underlined in the scores of passages where Libbie employed her pencil (“sweetly, my heart beat stronger,” in Maud, and a line from The Princess). The intertwined initials and the line in which “thine arms entwine” find further echo here in “woven arms.”
On the following page, in the poem “Fatima,” one of the lovers bracketed another passage:
My whole soul waiting silently,
All naked in a sultry sky,
Droops blinded with his shining eye:
I will possess her [handwritten above deleted him]
or will die.
Either might have blacked out Tennyson’s “him” and inserted “her”—Custer to show his passion, or tenderly mocking hers; Libbie just the opposite. “Possess” from at least the time of The Spanish Tragedy was used for sexual possession; if that meaning had occurred to the couple, the nearby presence of “naked” might have secured the thrill. In Thomas Bowdler’s Family Shakspeare (1818), Rosalind’s “Now tell me, how long you would have her, after you have possessed her” was Bowdlerized by substituting “married her” for “possessed.”
The lines from “Fatima” are dated that same Sunday, October 4; though above them a stanza is bracketed but undated, beginning, “Last night, when some one spoke his name,/ From my swift blood that went and came/ A thousand little shafts of flame,” and ending, “O Love, O fire! once he drew/ With one long kiss my whole soul through/ My lips, as sunlight drinketh dew.” We are so accustomed to reading poetry with dry ardor, it’s easy to forget how important and how sexually charged words could be for those who found voice through them, who found that it answered a longing in lovers forced to forgo physical passion until marriage.
Passages marked in each other’s presence say what a letter cannot—a different kind of telling and saying.
Such marginal intimations act out the dumb show of romantic communion—the marriage of true minds, the silent bond of understanding, and later reminder of the departed as well as solace for the abandoned. Such gestures serve as shorthand for much unsaid, much that does not have to be said, because when lovers speak they so rarely go beyond clichés. Passages marked in each other’s presence say what a letter cannot—it’s a different kind of telling as well as a different kind of saying.
The couple perhaps leafed through the book, starting with poems already familiar—Libbie may have penciled her approval of some passages in previous readings. (A quatrain from In Memoriam is marked once, lightly; then a heavier pencil has gone over the brackets, the date written heavily as well. Something similar happened to the passage from Maud dated October 3.) Other lines dated that Sunday are similarly besotted: “A man had given all other bliss,/ And all his worldly worth for this,/ To waste his whole heart in one kiss/ Upon her perfect lips” (“Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere”). There are partly legible additions to this thickly annotated passage: “Monroe” in the left margin; beneath the lines a later date, November 3, 1863; and below the October date “I’ sposi” (“the newlyweds”) and “Nan.” Along the right margin Libbie wrote “Dec. 18867 [sic, for 1867]” and, after some indecipherable words, “Leavenworth.” Below this lies a set of initials.
Nan would be Anna “Nan” Darrah, a childhood friend of Libbie’s, who in the fall of 1866 accompanied the Custers across the Kansas plains to Fort Riley, the general’s new station. (Custer’s rank in the post-war army was lieutenant-colonel; but by custom he was still called general, his former brevet rank.) Autie believed Nan’s the “prettiest face in Monroe,” according to Lawrence Frost. T. J. Stiles, a Custer biographer, thinks he may have had an affair with her. The passage, read with Nan in mind, might be damning, though it probably just means that she and Libbie were reading the poems together—“Anna” is written vertically on the front flyleaf.
At the end of a failed expedition against the Plains tribes the following July, Custer was arrested for abandoning his command, having ridden off to see Libbie at Fort Riley, where a Lieutenant Weir may have been paying her too much attention. (The initials next to the lines from “Sir Launcelot” about the kiss seem to be “T. B. W.”—Thomas B. Weir.) The general was also charged with shooting deserters and delaying treatment of the wounded. By December, when Libbie dated the poem, the Custers and Nan were at Fort Leavenworth, where after a court-martial the general had been found guilty. He was removed from command for a year, with loss of pay. Libbie’s recourse to this old passage, first noted during her courtship, could reveal some rapprochement between the couple after what Stiles believes were months of marital discord—but it may fix a moment when she found herself looking back sadly on more romantic days.
Four further passages are dated that Sunday in 1863, at the culmination of their courtship, three from In Memoriam, including
So find I every pleasant spot
In which we two were wont to meet,
The field, the chamber, and the street,
For all is dark, where thou art not.
This might recall their somewhat furtive meetings when Custer had not been allowed to call at the Bacon home. Two single lines are also bracketed: “But half my life I leave behind” and “ ‘More years had made me love thee more.’ ” These are especially touching, the one announcing the end of innocence, the other perhaps looking forward to a long life together. When a reader chooses lines, they assume a character at times different from the work. Context no longer matters.
The final passage marked that day comes from Maud: “We stood tranced in long embraces/ Mixt with kisses sweeter, sweeter/ Than anything on earth.” (A further pair of lines from “The Day-Dream,” dated simply “October 4th,” undoubtedly goes with the others: “And on her lover’s arm she leant,/ And round her waist she felt it fold.” Beneath the date she has written “Nan!” but the relation to Nan Darrah is unclear—it may be no more than a passage Nan admired.) The quotations of October 3 and 4 suggest the romantic intensity of those two days in October, when the couple probably became affianced, at least in their own eyes. The days were fortunately chosen—the Detroit Free Press remarked later that week, “There never was an October which commenced with more glorious weather than this.” Libbie’s meticulous dating secures their passion in time.
Two additional passages were dated that October. In The Princess, Libbie put parentheses around the line “With lengths of yellow ringlet, like a girl,” dating it October 15, 1863, ten days after Custer’s departure. In April, Nettie had cut one of Custer’s locks for her. Beneath the song “Sweet and Low,” Libbie has written, “Marie sang October — 63” and “Mrs Varian sang Nov 30. 1863.” A contemporary setting of Tennyson’s lines by Sir Joseph Barnby had been published that year. Marie is probably Marie Miller, later one of Libbie’s bridesmaids. “Varian” would be Madame Charlotte Varian (mother of the actress Nina Varian, then still a child), who according to the Michigan Argus had performed in Ann Arbor on October 30.
These nearly exhaust the passages dated precisely, but a melancholy event three years later returned Libbie to Tennyson, the death of Judge Bacon on May 18, 1866. She was in Monroe attending him during his fatal illness, probably a bout of dysentery or cholera. That day, reading In Memoriam, she bracketed the lines lightly marked before:
I cannot love thee as I ought,
For love reflects the thing beloved;
My words are only words, and moved
Upon the topmost froth of thought.
The following day, she drew heavy parentheses around one line from “New Year’s Eve”: “ All night I lie awake, but I fall asleep at morn.” In the margin, she wrote “Norvell & Conant” as well as the date. John Conant was a young man who the year of Ft. Sumter had once walked her home from Bible class, but she also knew his brother Harry. (I have not been able to trace the other name.) Against a passage from Maud (including the lines “But I know where a garden grows,/ Fairer than aught in the world beside”), she has added the marginal comment, “Peace to his ashes!” This, and four short undated passages in “The Lotos-Eaters,” two poems later, may also be related to Judge Bacon’s death. Among them are the lines “Still from one sorrow to another thrown:/ Nor ever fold our wings.”
Libbie dated a few other lines, almost none of significance. On one page of The Princess, however, two passages have been marked: “Two women faster welded in one love/ Than pairs of wedlock” and “A word, but one, one little kindly word.” In the margin next to the first lines, Libbie has written, “Net + Libbie Dec. 13.” These best friends wrote New Year’s Eve letters to each other to be read the following New Year’s Eve. At the end of 1863, as they sat in the same room, each composing such a letter, they “laid a plan to cheat ‘Armstrong’ out of his privileges.” After the marriage, whenever they all stayed together, Nettie wrote, “We will sleep together—won’t we Libbie? — Just think, darling, a year ago, you belonged to me as much as to anybody.” Like other friends of the time, they shared a bed. The second passage might have been about Nettie; but the December date, if it applies, comes near the time of Custer’s brief return east in 1862. The word might have been “love.”
Of the scores of passages marked but undated, most offer insight into Libbie’s character only through content. About a quarter are full of love, passion, desire (she liked lines about kissing), but a few lines suggest she was troubled or in despair. She chose some telling passages in “Locksley Hall”—for example, “Love is love forevermore.// Comfort? comfort scorned of devils! this is truth the poet sings,/ That a sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things.” In the margin she wrote, “Untroubled night gives counsel best,” a variation on a proverb that goes back to Florio. A page later she bracketed the line “I myself must mix with action, lest I wither by despair,” and two pages further a pair of lines beginning, “Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled.” All these may reveal her unease during that unhappy year at Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth—or perhaps she read them during the war, when Custer was on the battlefield. He was a courageous and reckless cavalry commander, always at the front of the charge.
Very few of her selections, however, are martial in character. (She wrote “Je t’aime” against an otherwise unmarked stanza in The Princess beginning “Thy voice is heard through rolling drums/ That beat to battle where he stands.”) The stanza from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” has been mentioned, dated before the war—some lines she may have marked simply because she loved them as poetry. More interesting, however, are lines here and there that pronounce upon—whether they are the poet’s sentiments or not—the proper roles of men and women. She was drawn to lines in The Princess: “Men hated learned women,” (this underlined), “the tender ministries/ Of female hands and hospitality,” and a longer passage:
Man for the field, and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword, and for the needle she:
Man with the head, and woman with the heart.
Such “fixt” roles, as the old king in the poem calls them, Libbie for the most part accepted.
The nineteenth century cared more about these roles than the century before or after.
She must have been particularly affected by these lines, as she wrote them on the inside of a rear blank leaf, dating them “Nov. 7. 1867.” (The poem “Love and Duty” is headed with the same date.) This falls a month after the close of Custer’s court martial, while he awaited General Grant’s review of the guilty verdict. It may be a sign of her independence of mind that both quotes stop short of Tennyson’s next lines, “Man to command, and woman to obey;/ All else confusion.” She marked an even longer passage later in the poem, the passage that begins:
For woman is not undeveloped man,
But diverse: could we make her as the man,
Sweet love were slain: his dearest bond is this
Not like to like, but like in difference.
That extract ends, “Till at the last she set herself to man,/ Like perfect music unto noble words.” The one line she failed to include lies just between these: “Nor lose the childlike in the larger mind.” The vertical mark in the margin simply skipped it—by accident or design.
The great curiosity of the undated passages is how many refer to death. Libbie seems to have combed Maud and In Memoriam for lines about grief. From the latter, she marked the passage beginning,
And if along with these should come
The man I held as half divine;
Should strike a sudden hand in mine,
And ask a thousand things of home;
And I should tell him all my pain . . .
Other lines chosen in the same poem are even darker: “ ‘But brooding on the dear one dead’ ”; “My paths are in the fields I know,/ And thine in undiscovered lands”; “And I shall know him when we meet”; “These two,—they dwelt with eye on eye,/ Their hearts of old have beat in tune,/ Their meetings made December June,/ Their every parting was to die.” The two dozen undated passages that speak of love are matched by an equal number on death. These could have been chosen in the wake of her father’s death; but their fierce passion suggests that she may have read them after her husband was killed at the Little Bighorn in June 1876. In a line from The Princess, “And had a cousin tumbled on the plain,” she crossed through “tumbled” and wrote “fallen.” If the poetry doesn’t quite fit, the office of the reader is to rewrite it.
Officers’ wives of the day were allowed to join their husbands at the outposts and sometimes in the field. In their twelve years of marriage, Libbie accompanied the general to posts in Texas, Kentucky, and at last Dakota Territory. When Custer had led his troops out of Fort Lincoln on the expedition against the Sioux, she approached the captain of the steamboat Far West, then loading supplies to be ferried upriver for the troops, and begged him to take her as a passenger. The captain politely refused.
After her husband died in the massacre, Mrs. Custer found herself in financial straits. Though he had purchased a $5000 life-insurance policy, equivalent to a few years’ salary, the general had lost a great deal of money in rash stock speculations. After paying his debts, Libbie was almost bankrupt. She survived at first on a small pension and a series of menial jobs. Eventually she took to writing memoirs of her years with the general. Boots and Saddles (1885), titled after a cavalry trumpet call for mounting, proved a popular success, followed by Tenting on the Plains (1887) and Following the Guidon (1890). Unfortunately they brought little in royalties. Her finances at last restored by lecture fees and an inheritance, she became a canny investor in real estate. Libbie bought a house in New York City, where she died in 1933, days short of ninety-one, defending the reputation of her husband to the last—and leaving an estate worth $13 million in modern dollars. She was buried at West Point, near the bones that might be those of the general.
Thoughts of Tennyson remained with the couple. Custer had his own copy of the poems and a decade after their marriage wrote some light verse declining a dinner invitation. The last quatrain read,
This being written his duty might end,
With no fear of being called Alfred Tennyson,
He simply desires, however, to send
You, the accompanying—Leg of Venison.
Custer was not the only soldier or politician who could dash off verses when required. The poem is dated June, 1874, at Fort Lincoln, from which two years later the general and the Seventh Cavalry departed for the fatal rendevous on the Little Bighorn.
Libbie’s battered blue book of Tennyson gives a small glimpse into a once crucial role of poetry. Coleridge touched upon it in his “homely” definition of poetry as the “best words in the best order,” but that is just an off-the-cuff turn on Pope—“True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,/ What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest.” Poetry gave voice—and more than voice, expression—to thoughts difficult for young lovers to put into words. Such passages found a language more elevated than most could manage. It might be tempting to celebrate what we have gained by forgetting that sense of purpose, but it is more interesting to remember what we have lost.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 15
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