Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Two College Friends

Rating:
Two College Friends by Fred. W. Loring (Boston: A.K. Loring, 1871) is a brief (about 160 pp.) but extremely intense work that I know few people will read (though I highly recommend that you do). So I'll give a spoiler alert here at the beginning, because I'm going to divulge the ending of this book in the review. 

Friends is the story of Ned and Tom, two friends who attended Harvard at the outbreak of the Civil War. They originally met in the home of a professor, who remains unnamed throughout the novel. The account of this meeting is quite interesting, and comprises the second chapter of the book. Tom comes to the professor's quarters because he is homesick and needs someone to talk to. The professor is surprised to find out that he is the son of the woman he once loved and who turned down his marriage proposal. He never divulges this fact to Tom, but takes him under his wing.
The reader cannot help but notice the descriptions throughout the book of how beautiful Tom is—a fact that is reïnforced by the entrance of Ned on the scene. He "coïncidentally" makes a social call to the professor at the time of Tom's visit, and reveals for the first time his witty personality. As the "boys" (as they're called throughout, though they appear to be about 20) are leaving, the professor takes Ned aside and asks why he'd never revealed his wonderful personality to him before. “It wasn’t for you, sir," said Ned, with a certain frankness that was not discourteous. "It was for Tom, sir; though I like you, and hope we shall be friends. But the moment I saw Tom, I felt drawn towards him; and, as I saw him come up here, I felt that here was a chance to get acquainted with him. Good-night, sir.” [pp. 28-29].

The first chapter Friends actually opens with Ned reporting to the professor how upset he is that his friend Tom seems to be in love with a woman. His distress is made that much worse by the fact that Tom seems to have another male friend in whom he's confiding. The evidence Ned presents is the fact that he has caught Tom and this new friend looking at a picture in a locket. Ned naturally assumes that the picture is of a young woman who's caught Tom's fancy. Ned proclaims that Tom is all he has in life, for he has no family. The professor resolves to call on the two boys later to help sort out this mess, and when he does, he discovers that they are arguing. As it turns out, the locket is a picture of Tom himself, and his intention is to present it as a gift to Ned as a token of their friendship. 

It's at this point that news of the outbreak of the war reaches Harvard, and Ned immediately enlists and is commissioned as a captain in the Union army. Tom enlists only later, and Ned makes him his lieutenant. Ned then receives a letter from Tom's mother charging him with never leaving her son's side. There's some sad foreshadowing at this point, too, however. A boy perceived by his peers to be something of a clairvoyant tells Ned that he had a vision that Ned "was to meet with a dishonorable death for a dishonorable action" [p.52].

We next find Ned hospitalized—not because he's been wounded, but because he has a fever. It is more than a year later, and he has aged due to the war and the responsibility laid upon him (he's now a colonel). Tom is by his side, having refused leave to visit his mother so that he could be with his friend. After Ned is released from the hospital he returns to camp, and his first assignment is to blow up a bridge to prevent Stonewall Jackson's advance. Ned selects several men to go with him, including Tom (now a captain). While carrying out their duties, they are captured by the rebels, but by this time Tom, too, has fallen ill with fever. 

The rebels are otherwise occupied, and Stonewall Jackson himself takes Tom's word of honor that he will not escape, and then leaves him and Tom by the riverside. Ned becomes acutely aware that this has become a life or death situation, and that Tom will not survive captivity—even for a brief time. The scene that ensues is emotional to the extreme. The result is that, to save Tom's life, Ned does the dishonorable thing, breaks his parole, and escapes with his friend back to the Union camp. 

When he awakes the next morning, he fears that Tom is dead. After being told he is alive, he goes to his friend to say farewell:

'O Tom, my darling! don’t forget it. If you knew how I love you, how I have loved you in all my jealous, morbid moods, in all my exacting selfishness,—O Tom! my darling, my darling! can’t you say one word, one little word before we part,—just one little word, if it were only my name? Oh, please, please speak to me! Don’t you remember when we were examined for college together? You sat across the hall. I saw you there; and I wanted to go over and help you. And your picture, Tom, that we quarrelled [sic] about,—I have it now, Tom; it will be with me when they bury me. Tom, don’t you remember that picture? It was the night when I determined to go to war that you gave me that picture; it was just before we enlisted. O Tom! why did I let you come at all? You will see your mother, Tom; and you will go home now, and marry, and be happy, and forget me. Oh, no, no, no, Tom! you won’t do that; you can’t do that. You won’t forget Ned, darling; he was something to you; and you were all the world to him. O Tom! Tom! please say one word to him.' [pp. 128-130]

Having broken his parole to Stonewall Jackson, he returns across the river, and surrenders himself to the rebels, knowing full well that the penalty for breaking his parole is death. But first he asks for an interview with General Jackson—not to ask for clemency, but to explain why he broke his word and why he returned. He gains the general's respect, but is nonetheless sentenced to death. Jackson allows him to write a letter home, and he writes it to the professor, then falls asleep. Ned is awakened the next morning and taken to the place of execution. We are given some last-minute hope when suddenly, just as the rebels are about to shoot him, it is announced that the Federals are attacking the camp. But the hope is quickly dashed:

Ned turned involuntarily. And with these words, in one great sweeping flood, his life came back. No more numbness, no more indifference; but, in that one instant, every drop of blood in his veins seemed charged with electric power, and the morning air was like nectar. He stood there, strong, like a man; and then there was one report, and he fell dead—dead in the dust of the Virginia soil. [pp. 152-153]

Fred. W. Loring 2 days before his death
This little book is as engaging as it is heroic. But I feel that the tragedy of the end is more than doubled by the real message. Ned, who is deeply in love with another man, has no hope of the happiness in life that he thinks Tom will eventually find. His love is deep and pure, and the only way it can be consummated is in the sacrifice of the only thing he has to give: his life. And so for the country he loves and the man he loves, he gives what he can. And it is enough, for in the end, both are saved; both are whole.

After reading Friends, I did a little online research and found a piece by one J. Bowers that told of Frederick Wadsworth* Loring's life at Harvard and his close friendship with William Wigglesworth Chamberlin. Though Loring had dedicated the book to his true love—who had recently announced his engagement—and intended it to be autobiographical, I wonder if he had any presentiment of just how prophetic it would prove. Just as Ned's death was predicted by one of his soldiers in his novel, Loring went west the same year Friends was published (indeed, his uncle published it while Fred was roughing it in Death Valley), and intentionally placed himself at risk in a place and at a time when indigenous Americans were fighting for supremacy in the desert southwest. Opting to ride on the outside of a stagecoach bound for California on November 5, 1871, he was shot and killed by warriors of the Yavapai nation in what came to be called the Wickenburg Massacre. I can't help but wonder if Loring was somehow sacrificing himself, just as Ned did, so that the man he loved could be whole.

The old stagecoach road near Wickenburg AZ,
site of Loring's death
Having learned more of who Loring was, I will probably re-read Friends. For all its tragedy, it was nonetheless entertaining and well written. And though I disagree with his message that only in death could a man such as himself prove worthy of the love in his heart, I will not judge him for it. Friends is probably much more of a monument to the author than he ever imagined it might be. It definitely rolls a ⚅.

A physical copy of this book can be purchased on Amazon for a few dollars. But since it has long been in the public domain, I read the ebook, downloaded for free from the Gutenberg Project.

*He was indeed Longfellow's nephew.