Charleston Gazette, Sunday, April 20, 2014
Chris Chanlett: Reread Perry Mann for spring
By By Chris Chanlett
Perry Mann passed his 93th birthday in Hinton before, the Ides of March still reading ravenously. Although he says, “I’ve taken off the halter,” his mind won’t quit churning out reflections on what he learns and observes. Every so often the Sunday Gazette-Mail publishes his commentary old or new to the delight of many readers and the consternation of others.
We go to prune the Golden Delicious apple tree in his backyard. Last winter’s effort yielded a prolific crop that was converted into scores of containers of applesauce, pies and hand-to-mouth giveaways. This year will probably be less rewarding, except the labor itself is what he loves the most. It reconfirms his persistence to keep working with Mother Nature.
His columns still provoke responses more surely than almost any other commentator’s. Whole op-eds build off his points while letter writers shudder at his apostasy. A Readers’ Voice comment recently charged Mann with invading the airwaves with his doctrines, an impossibility that caused him mirth. What accounts for his ability to stir the pot of public opinion with such relish?
His sheer eloquence gives comfort to his faithful and challenge to his antagonists. He loves the arena of intellectual disputation and maintains a genial demeanor as he skewers fundamentalists. In over 1,500 columns he has sustained a radical critique of modern trends with a synthesis of liberal and conservative beliefs.
His perspective is rooted in his childhood when he watched the Great Depression wrench his family and society, necessitating his spending formative periods on his grandparents’ farm in Summers County. “My father did not need the gift of poverty; for he knew poverty from day one of his life, until after World War I, when he left the farm to seek his fortune,” Mann has written. “The lessons of poverty rather than education helped him to rise to middle class status by 1929, when he and many others had to pay for their hubris and a misplaced faith in the miracles of capitalism and in the marvels of the city …
“The poverty I speak of was country poverty, not street poverty, not the pernicious kind of idleness on concrete. The poverty I remember and lived was that of no money … I learned communal and community cooperation … I am happy to say that I reaped the rewards of the gift of poverty.”
There’s a concluding sentiment that today’s right-wingers would hardily endorse! However it is combined with a deep skepticism of the market place and the value of urban employment:
“When I hear a person who works in an air-conditioned office say that he has worked hard that day, I think of how watered-down the word work has become.”
Serving in World War II broke the mold of Mann’s rural base and opened up the world to him. In North Africa he opened up an Army-issued book by Charles Dickens and suddenly he loved to read. Post-war, the GI Bill made a good education available to him, and thus a double indebtedness to government has informed a liberal premise about its role in society. He sees it as potential corrective to the excessive appetites and accumulations that affluence has engendered.
“The mother of ironies is that the conservatives and religious fundamentalists are aghast at what this professed Christian republic has come to: a nation of materialists, egoists, libidinal freaks and incipient sociopaths; and they cannot believe that what has happened is the result of their worship of the Golden Calf, namely, capitalism, so they lay the blame on liberals, without whose opposition and humane input their economic god would be as dead as their theological god.” There he goes, raising the stakes again.
He embeds humanity in a larger web that leaves us less choice than we often imagine. “Life is illusions. The earth is not flat but global and its relationship with the sun produces night and day and the four seasons. Humans are one of many species. They are not dual in nature. It is one of the illusions. Consciousness is a product of the brain and is not an eternal soul. And conscience is a product of nature designed to perpetuate the species. Further, humans are issue of nature and of the ages since the first of life 4 billion years ago and are thus determined now by history of life in every choice they make.”
His ongoing reading of history and philosophy and literature concludes with a humanism tempered by nature. His studies have produced a world view somewhat at odds with his neighbors. He is a skeptic like Charles Darwin, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Jefferson, who appreciated the teaching of Christ but held little regard or belief in organized religion. He is a social democrat and a liberal in matters of economics. He has decided and preached that capitalism has a downside, ruinous of nature, the source of life.
Mother Nature remains his touchstone. He loves retelling his stories of how he got to know her and marveling how she keeps him alive. Her resilience gives rise to an optimism barely justifiable in face of the threats she faces. Like an old apple tree, she needs to be regularly revisited to have a chance of sustaining the human race.