"Recess" is the name of an estate in Virginia to which the young John Hartwell Cocke moved, with his bride, in about the year 1807. He left the Tidewater region of Virginia and moved to the ancestral lands in Fluvanna County, deeded to his ancestors in 1725.
I have told Cocke's story in my book, Stewards of History: The Covenant of Generations in a Southern Family, a book which I have made several unsuccessful attempts to publish. This book was an effort to propose a model of American spirituality that would be neither Puritan nor Transcendentalist (the two poles of American spirituality, according to a history professor I once had in college) but embracing the concept of stewardship. Cocke was an outstanding agriculturalist, and the stewardship of the land is easy to understand in his case. But there is more than that - it was particularly a stewardship of history that I was attempting to discover, enunciate, and describe.
Upon the loss of his wife in 1816, Cocke became a devoted Christian. He was active in the antislavery cause, even to the point of establishing a plantation in the deep South on which some of his slaves could work toward their own emancipation. It was a 20-year project only brought to an end by the onset of the Civil War. But some of his emancipated slaves became founding members of the new colony in Liberia, and the letters written by them to their former master are compiled in Randall Miller's book, Dear Master.
There is perhaps nothing quite like this story anywhere elsewhere in America. Sadly, it seems, publishers today only want to hear the politically correct versions of history. It doesn't fit their notions that Cocke, a white slave owner, was honored during Black History month a few years ago in Norfolk, Va. Nor why he became so deeply Christian after the loss of his wife - this too goes against expectations. It breaks the pattern. Many people, when they lose a beloved person, turn against God - like William Styron, the novelist, who used material on Cocke as the prototype of Samuel Turner, the slave master of his novel on the Nat Turner rebellion. Maybe that is why there is little religion in that book.
Cocke broke the stereotypes all the way. A younger contemporary of Jefferson (who thought highly of Cocke, once remarking that he is "rich, liberal, patriotic, judicious and persevering") Cocke esteemed the elder statesman but was quite aware of older man's irreligion. Cocke wrote to his son - "I would rather know that you were a disciple of the meek and lowly Jesus, and destined to pass your life in virtuous obscurity, than to have the assurance of your rising to the Presidency of the United States... and die an infidel."
I am in the process of changing my views on my life, and perhaps that "virtuous obscurity" is beginning to offer an appeal to me. Call it my own version of going to Recess, my own sense that I have arrived at a parting of the ways with the "intellectual life." Not that I will stop writing or thinking. It is an ingrained habit with me. But I also feel that the intellectual life needs to become grafted to a structure, what could be called a paradigm of stewardship. And if I feel opposition to intellectualism today, it is because I sense that "it doesn't matter" - it is unfolding in an abysm of void, it has lost accountability... it's in freefall, or worse, a Satanic plunge. Intellect unhinged from life becomes toxic. It is decreating the world.
What is the next stage of the journey? I am looking for the road.