After his propulsive novels set in 1950s and 1960s Detroit and Vietnam, The Millions staff writer Bill Morris delivered a memoir about his cub reporter days in rural Pennsylvania, chronicling the “schizo ‘70s” and its “stylistic Sargasso.” In his latest nonfiction work, The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century―From the Civil War to the Cold War, Morris expands the historical scope by painting a portrait of his grandfather John Morris, a man who led an ordinary life—he was a long-time professor at the University of Georgia—but witnessed extraordinary things: “He was born into a slave-owning Virginia family during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War.” The sober philologist could hardly be called an early adopter, but the range of technological advances that occurred during his lifetime was staggering:
He was among the original users of window screens, the telephone, modern plumbing, electric lights, typewriters, radio, automobiles, phonographs, airplanes, elevators, movies, subways, safety razors, television, penicillin, pasteurized milk, refrigeration, antibiotics, and central heat and air conditioning.
Throughout this biography and cultural history, Morris tracks his grandfather’s conflicted relationship with the pace of change: “He must have felt trapped between two worlds, unwilling to go back to an imaginary past and equally unwilling to step into a mad mechanized future.” Whenever events were too overwhelming, though, he could find comfort in his recondite scholarly interests—the development of diphthongs in modern English, for instance—or work on a massive, destined-to-be unpublished German-English dictionary that occupied him for nearly 40 years.
I spoke with Bill Morris about bringing to life his grandfather and the “age of astonishment” in which he lived.
The Millions: In the book, you paraphrase Ralph Ellison, “Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors.” What made you “choose” this ancestor as a subject?
Bill Morris: There is a (now lost) picture of me as an infant in 1952 on my grandfather’s knee, when he was about to turn 90. Even as a teenager, I was thinking, wow, the life this guy lived. The things he lived through and witnessed, and the way his day-to-day life changed must have been a whiplash experience. And then back in 2016, this economist Robert Gordon published The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I read this book and I’m thinking, this guy wrote the blueprint of the things my grandfather lived through. It’s a fabulous book, and Gordon’s saying that the century from 1870 to1970 brought the most amazing changes in the history of humanity. And I thought, my grandfather’s dates were 1863-1955, almost a perfect match. And that finally got me going. I have to write this book. I’ve been thinking about this for 50 years. It’s time to sit down and write it.
TM: And the argument is that the speed and variety of technological advancements of this period dwarf those that any other generation has lived through?
BM: People say, “Oh, the world is changing faster than ever now.” Well, not really, because my life hasn’t changed all that much, except for laptop computers and all that. I grew up with the telephone and electric lights and flushing toilets and paved roads. It was all there when I was born. None of that was there when my grandfather was born.
TM: They didn’t even have the curveball! You mention how your grandfather’s brother is credited with inventing the pitch, called the “drop-shoot,” in the late 19th century.
BM: That’s right. John was the catcher on the first University of Georgia baseball team, and he kept getting his nose broken because his brother would throw these curveballs and they would hit the ground, bounce up and hit him in the face. They didn’t have masks or chest protectors.
TM: Perhaps that’s why he took refuge in the comparatively less bruising world of philology. You describe this as a “mongrel” book comprising various forms. What motivated this approach?
BM: I realized the book couldn’t be any single thing. It was not going to be a biography because the written record is sizable but not really great. It wasn’t like I had thousands of his letters. Late in the process, though, I did stumble on the manuscript of his English-German dictionary, which he spent 40 years working on. But I wanted it to be nonfiction. I wanted it to be factual. I knew there was going to be a lot of reporting involved—research in archives, letters from relatives, leads. A little bit of scholarship, little bit of reportage, and then, as I admit, when the record was thin, I had to imagine a bit, resort to fiction. All of the kinds of writing I’ve done in my life came into play. It’s a mongrel work.
TM: Your grandfather was born into a slave-owning Virginia family. Throughout the book, how do you wrestle with, and what did you uncover about, what you call this “original stain on the Morris family.”
BM: I unearthed a lot of letters that John’s father, Charles Morris, who was a quartermaster in the Confederacy, and his mother, Mary Minor Morris, wrote back and forth during the Civil War. That was the richest historical archive that I found. And from that I got a richer appreciation of what it was like day to day on a plantation where people owned human beings. I think slavery, American slavery in particular, was an abomination. John grew up believing that, too, even though his father owned slaves. Charles was not apparently a vicious slave owner, although he didn’t apologize for it or try to abolish it. It was the world he’d been born into, it was the world his family had been in for many generations, and it was like breathing to him. He was not a man to question it. Now, that doesn’t make him evil in my eyes. And it doesn’t excuse him. But like I said, in the beginning of the book, this project was about trying to find the richer truth about what it was like for people who were born into that world to suddenly have that world crumble.
And possibly more important, what about the people they owned who were suddenly free? And that’s where it got interesting to me. Because they did not take it rolling over. They did fight back. The house [Taylor’s Creek in Hanover County Virginia] burned one time, under suspicious circumstances. The former slaves melted away, many of them, as soon as they were free. But, Charles also donated the land that would become Bethany Baptist Church, a black church that is still in existence today. He helped his former slaves who wanted to stay around, gave them loans, pieces of land. I was hoping that by looking into the family’s participation in this horrible institution of slavery, I would get a deeper understanding of what the slave owners went through and what the slaves went through.
TM: And how did John Morris, a relative progressive living most of his life in Athens, Ga,, throughout Reconstruction and Jim Crow, respond to the racial violence surrounding him?
BM: I ask this question in my book: Why didn’t they get out? Lots of people, Black and white, were leaving the South, had given up on the South as hopeless. And I think the answer is that both John and Gretchen [his wife] had seen enough in the world—he had studied in Berlin, she had travelled widely as a musician—and they came to the conclusion that it’s not any better anywhere else. It might be really bad here, but when you get down to it, during the Red Summer of 1919, there were racial killings from California to Connecticut. I think that they thought that if we stay here and try to be decent to Black people and treat everyone with respect, maybe that’s better than leaving and letting the yahoos take over everything.
Athens and places like Charlottesville and Chapel Hill have always been these bastions of somewhat enlightened culture in not-so-enlightened parts of the South. Georgia in particular was real heavy-duty. Georgia was on a level with Mississippi back in the day. You have the Leo Frank lynching. The riots in Atlanta in 1906 were absolutely appalling. But there again, we see W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter White picking up guns and getting ready to defend their homes in Atlanta in 1906, which was the beginning of the Black resistance to this wave of horror that Jim Crow had brought to the South. John and Gretchen felt they could maybe do a little bit of good if they stayed. I don’t know if they succeeded or not.
TM: There’s one scene near the end of the book in which you recall your aunt showing you the spot outside of Athens where a lynching occurred.
BM: That’s one of those moments in life you never forget. I was visiting my father’s eldest sister in Athens as I was driving cross country. I was a college drop out. One day my aunt said, “We’re going on a drive.” She drove me out to this lone pine tree outside of town and told me the story of a Black man who was lynched by that tree in 1921. And her father, John Morris, had driven her out there one day and pointed to the tree and told her the story of how they burned a man alive there, and that it was evil and that she was never to have anything to do with such things or such people. And that stayed with me ever since.
TM: Your grandfather taught for over half a century at the University of Georgia, devoted to teaching and to abstruse academic studies in which he found a “harbor and a fortress.” Throughout, you try to determine his ambitions and wrestle with how he might have defined success.
BM: I think he made his own little room and pumped in his own oxygen. He spent upwards of 40 years writing a German-English diction that was never published. He was also writing articles in obscure philological journals. He’s writing about where Shakespeare’s name comes from. He decided he was going to do his own thing, and to hell with everybody else. It wasn’t like he was sitting in a room by himself like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, writing the same thing over and over. But he was very much in his own bubble and yet yearning to connect with the world, which never really happened. And I don’t think that makes him a failure. I think that makes him an interesting case, actually, because he pursued a dream with tremendous focus and discipline. And it amounted to absolutely nothing, and I think he was perfectly at peace with that.
That’s my definition of heroic: someone who pursues what they want to do.
But it’s also not like he just retreated from all the horrors of this complicated, confusing world. He loved going to the movies. He loved the radio. He loved to drive. He loved to travel to Europe. He spoke many languages. He was a person who selectively embraced technology. He liked screened-in the windows, which was one of the first innovations he experienced at the family farm in Virginia. He liked not having mosquitoes bite him in the middle of the night. Technology wasn’t all bad to him, but then we get little problems like Hitler and the A-bomb. He was ambivalent about all the progress that was going on. He was an old-school Southern gentleman.
TM: Because you cover the half-century he spent teaching at the University of Georgia, we get a full portrait of that institution, warts and all.
BM: He went to law school there and then became a professor until the end of the Second World War. When he got there, it was really just a glorified academy, not a serious university like they had in the North. Mencken said the only true university in the South was the University Virginia. But as the 20th century rolled along, the University of Georgia did become more modern, more progressive, more seriously academic. But there was always this thing about sports—and the military. Those are big things in the South. So when Stanford Stadium was built in 1929—with convict labor, by the way, because they couldn’t afford to build it with “real” workers—they built this huge 30,000-seat stadium. And John hadn’t gotten a raise in 10 years. There was no pension. He had no health insurance. The football coaches made more than he did, and he’d been there for 35 years. So he wasn’t thrilled about these things. He thought making money through sports was the height of vulgarity. Big-time college sports made a deal with the devil, and he saw it in 1929, and I think that’s exactly how it played out. And it’s funny, because the week I finished writing the book, UGA won the national football championship. Of course, I thought, “Ah yes, if only John were still around to appreciate this moment!”
TM: He also distrusted what you call the “boosterism” of Henry Grady and the New South.
BM: Henry Grady was the big proponent of the New South. He was a newspaper editor in Atlanta. John certainly would have known him. And John was very put off by the New South, the notion that if we could just get a cotton mill in this town, everything would be great. And this created these sprawling ugly mill villages. It was supposedly salvation for the white man. They’d go to work at these mills at a young age, and this was the progress that Grady was preaching as the salvation of the South after Reconstruction. And John wanted no part of it. Grady’s vision did bring some progress and raise the standard of living, but it also brought a lot of misery. There was nothing romantic about it. It was an act of desperation.
TM: This book surveys a wide range of social, political, and cultural movements from the 1860s to the 1950s. American wars from the home soil to the Philippines to Europe. Electricity: efforts to install street lights, its use as a method of execution. The transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal, and the interstate highway system. The rise of the KKK and Nazism. Given the breadth of the research involved, what were some of the more surprising discoveries you made?
BM: Well, during the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu pandemic, everybody in the Morris family but Gretchen got sick. When I was doing the research, I learned that the town fathers in Athens had very strict rules and mandates, quarantines, and everybody in town just obeyed. Atlanta got hammered by the flu, but Athens was barely touched because people cooperated with the local government. While out in San Francisco, they were practically having riots because they had an Anti-Mask League in California during the pandemic, and people didn’t want to be told to wear a mask. There’s one for you.
And then I was learning about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the immigration laws of the 1920s, and I started thinking, Trump’s wall is nothing new. Anti-vaxxers and people who don’t want to mask are nothing new. I started to realize that if you start to dig into the history, there’s truly nothing new under the sun. This has all happened before. And it’s happening again. And it’s almost comical that we keep doing the same things over and over again. Actually, it’s kind of tragic.
The great joy of writing this book was that every day, I learned something like that. It could be something like the Confederacy imposing a draft in 1862 after one year of fighting because everyone had signed up for one year. And Jefferson Davis passed what came to be known as the 20-Slave Law. If you had 20 or more slaves, you could get an exemption and stay home to take care of your farm, and your slaves and your family could grow food for the Confederacy. And it wasn’t until a year later that Lincoln imposed the draft of 1863, which caused riots in New York and elsewhere. Wow, the Confederacy had a draft before the U.S. Army? I learned something like that every day. It was really the joy putting this book together.
TM: Personally, I had no idea about Teddy Roosevelt wielding his bully stick to try to institute phonetic spelling, which your grandfather also endorsed.
BM: When I was growing up, my father told me that his father was a big proponent of phonetic spelling. And I have a cousin also named Jon Morris, but it’s spelled J-O-N in honor of my grandfather’s passion for phonetic spelling. So this was in the family lore. And then I found some letters, and my grandfather was writing in the phonetic, like “luv.”
And when Teddy Roosevelt became a proponent of this, he was ridiculed by the press. They suggested he spell his name “Butt-in-Sky.” Teddy Roosevelt? Who knew that he was briefly a proponent of phonetic spelling and then got mocked into submission. Andrew Carnegie also spent a lot of money on the movement, but gave up on it right before he died. Carnegie was hoping that English could become the global business language. But the big impediment was that English had words like “through,” “tough,” “thou,” and there are all these exceptions. With German, what you see is what you get. Every word is pronounced exactly as it’s written. Carnegie was thinking, if you could change “through” to “thru,” anybody in the world would know how to pronounce that word. For Carnegie, this was a business thing. For John, I think it was an intellectual exercise, because he had read all these philologists and linguists, and there were a lot of brilliant people—George Bernard Shaw among them—who wanted to make the written language follow the spoken language. And I agree with them. But it didn’t work out that way. People resisted. Once people learn to read and write a language, they are very resistant to change.
TM: As you write in response to one of your grandfather’s phonetically spelled letters to his sons: “Wize werds.”