Grinnell's Bastion of Journalistic Integrity

An Evening With Selden Lincoln Whitcomb

By Catherine Terelak Selden Whitcomb 

The Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize, awarded every spring to a promising young writer of the Grinnellian ilk, is a great honor. But what, pray tell, is honor? Is it a shiny trophy for the shelf in your inner room? A bronze plaque inscribed with your name, set out in the town square for all to see? A crisp promissory note for five hundred greenback dollars? 

I, Selden Lincoln Whitcomb, in my wise and agéd state, posit that honor is none of those things. Any distinction without the commensurate sacrifice, my children, is no honor at all. Honor is, rather, the sweat on your brow. Honor is the grit beneath your fingernails. Honor is the smell of hot coals in the morning. Honor is a piss in the cold. Honor is, above all, the loamy afterbirth on the scalp of a child conceived in love. 

Before I present the winner of the two thousand twenty-three Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize, I believe it is only proper to commence with a brief telling of my own personal history, which will illuminate this conception of honor which I have lately elucidated and, more importantly, lend a greater meaning to the award itself. I, Selden Lincoln Whitcomb, consider myself an American of the most original order. A man for the history books. In my one hundred sixty-two years, I have borne witness to—and, aye, committed—every inhumane act known to this thoroughly inhuman age. I have traveled as far as the human spirit is permitted by reason to go, and I have traveled further yet. Be silent and listen, my children. You will learn much, much, much from my tale. 

When I was a child of six months, a mere babe, my mother sold me to the Union Army to be reared in the manners of the military and trained as a bugle boy. Of course, I don’t resent her for this. For one thing, I am in possession of a finely-tuned American conscience, and for another, the times were hard. This much was evident to me, even then. A babe, as I was, does not understand the world with his intellect but with his stomach, and that rundown one-room shack of my birth was a hungry place indeed. 

My father was a tall, lean man with a dirty black beard that rolled down his neck and fell around the knobs of his shoulders like a holy stole. To my knowledge, he did not eat. Never in my six months in that shack did I see him sup at my mother’s table. He was a minister by trade, a roving preacher of his own insipid gospel of love. He appointed himself chaplain, launched himself down into the dark and bloody bowels of America, and was summarily killed or otherwise consumed by the quarrel of wills that is today known as the Civil War. I cannot say I loved him because I did not know him—nay, even if I had known my father, I would not have respected him. Religion, my children, was made to comfort the cripple and mock the man who stands on his own two feet. 

I shan’t say much about my time in the service other than that a toddler’s small fat feet are not suited to marching and that long-term bugling will chap and permanently disfigure his tiny mouth. But c’est la vie, my children. C’est la vie. 

At the age of five, I was honorably discharged with not a shekel of recompense. My Army superior, a glassy-eyed colonel named Jake Mellow, consigned me to the care of the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky whose pecuniary survival was tied up with the production of bourbon and other spirits. The brothers were kind to me, but not excessively so. They understood that my myriad trials were a smithy for greatness. They provided me with robes tailored to my childish dimensions and an old wooden cask in which I slumbered. In return, I committed myself to their way of life. I adopted the name Brother Petrus and took a vow of silence, communicating only in a gestured language of ancient Cistercian origins. I was converted on the Vigil of Easter, eighteen seventy. 

However, my children, religious life was not my vocation—far from it. As I grew older and meaner, I came to respect the brothers’ monkish discipline and revile their sniveling attachment to Jesus Christ as the ultimate arbiter of the souls of man. Like my father, the brothers seemed wholly unconscious of the raw potential for greatness latent inside them. Did not they know what country was theirs by birthright? I could not conceive of any reason why they would willingly adulterate their ability to reap the oil and wheat from this land, all in the name of a god they could not smell or taste. 

When I was twenty, I hitched a train out of Gethsemani with nothing but a bindle of robes, a flagon of bourbon, and the brothers’ fintest golden chalice, which I pawned for cash upon arriving in New York. I found employment as a carriage boy in the house of one Lawrence D. Tindlecott, whose lifestyle I found consistent with my beliefs about cultivating human greatness in the nineteenth century. Lawrie, as I called him, was happily married but prone to making concubines of street women. He could do this, he told me, because his house was so large his wife would never notice. This made an impression on me as a young man and has only become more relevant with time. 

All this to say, my children—Lawrie saw promise in me and taught me everything there was to know about reaping the oil and wheat from this land. He was a baron of the rail and sold me shares of his corporation on the sly, just before something caused them to increase in value. Today, my children, this practice is tarred as ‘insider trading.’ In the great American yesteryear of Lawrence D. Tindlecott, it was merely friendship.

The brothers’ golden chalice proved a fine starting capital indeed. In fifteen years’ time, the paltry sum it earned me at the pawn shop was worth millions upon millions of dollars. I entered the twentieth century with my head held high—at last, a baron of the rail in my own right. I moved directly from my quarters in Lawrie’s house (I was working, at this time, in the capacity of his confidant and advisor; he liked my good earthy humor, and my bugling was a source of infinite jest) to a larger, more opulently appointed house of my own, taking three of Lawrie’s concubines as a housewarming gift. I purchased a house in Newport and summered there, whiling away the hours with billiards, croquet, and the like. At the poker table, I learned the art of counting cards and bankrupted hundreds of men in their own homes. In the late twenties, I revisited Gethsemani and was delighted to see that the brothers had not given up on their meager little enterprise. I resumed, momentarily, the silence of my youth and dined with them on the meat of birds. I gestured to them in their language that I would like to purchase several casks of bourbon for my own private use (e.g. to sell on the black market), and they gave them to me, gratis, so long as I prayed vespers with them and stayed the night. I awoke the following morning in my boyhood cell with an unbelievable hangover and constellation of gashes on my stomach that spelled ‘BROTHER PETRUS, WHERE IS OUR CHALICE?’ All in good fun, I thought. But I have never, not once, chosen mercy where wrath was feasible—and neither should you, my children. To be American is to take what you want, when you want it. I had every last one of the brothers jailed for the sale and production of liquor, and as the sheriff and his associates put them in the cuffs, gestured to them, ‘Vae, puto deus fio’—that is, ‘Ah, I think I am becoming a god.’

That was only a few months before I received word of my own death. It happened this way, my children: I was lazing about my Fifth Avenue place after a raucous night with the concubines when my messenger boy, a mirthy little Irishman called Gerald, arrived in my chambers with a most curious missive. I snatched it from his trembling hands and commanded him to scurry along, posthaste. It was a letter from a woman purporting to be the helpmate of my brother, written in a corn-fed cursive hand. It said, 

 

Dear Mr. Whitcomb, 

A number of weeks ago, a good friend of mine traveled to New York for a meeting of the National Congress of Women Against Women Operating Automobiles, and while she was there, she saw in the society section of the newspaper a gruesome image of your injured stomach. Upon returning to Iowa, she brought me the clipping and I thought, By George, I know that name! Selden Lincoln Whitcomb is the name of my deceased husband. 

Now, I saw the pale, bloated body of my dear Seldie on the cold iron table of the undertaker. I say this to establish that I know for certain that you, Selden Lincoln Whitcomb, are not the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb of my memories. My dear Seldie did not and, in fact, would not stage his own death merely to slither eastward and become some Manhattan socialite. 

But your name—Selden Lincoln Whitcomb—it is uncanny! Down to the last letter! I cannot help but think you must be some long-lost relation of my husband. A namesake uncle? A cousin, perhaps? A brother, even? 

I won’t be opaque with my intentions, Mr. Whitcomb. I will be exceedingly transparent: I want your money. Not for myself, but for the thinking youth of this country. You see, my husband was a poet and a professor of English letters at the finest college in the whole Middle West, Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. He spoke of establishing the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize, an annual award given to the best and brightest writer in our little corner of Poweshiek County. Hopelessly impotent and childless as he was, my husband hoped that these talented youths would bear the burden of his intellectual legacy and become, in a spiritual sense, his progeny. 

However—As high-minded as he was, my husband, being a poet and a professor of English letters by trade, lacked the requisite funds to make his dream bear fruit in the here-and-now. That, Mr. Whitcomb, is where you come in. I entreat you to entertain this: imagine, for me, the utter thrill of a brilliant young essayist, say, ninety-three years from today, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty-Three, when his labors are rewarded with a cash prize of twenty-five dollars (adjusted for inflation, and perhaps then some). That money—not to mention the encouragement—may very well become the seed that germinates the future of American letters! 

 

I pieced it together in an instant: In her cloudy wartime grief, my mother bore another child—by what man, I do not know; surely some unsavory sluggard from church—and endowed him with my name, a great name, Selden Lincoln Whitcomb. And what did this cheap approximation of myself do with his fleeting time on this earth? He became a poet and a professor of English letters! Pathetic! And now, his helpmate dared ask me for money to support the poisoning of the American youth via the liberal arts? 

Gerald, interrupting my thoughts, called out from behind the velvet curtain that hung over the anterior door of my chambers. ‘Shall I throw the letter in the fire?’ (It was standard operating procedure in my household to burn all missives, lest they fall into the hands of The Enemy.) Just as I was handing the letter to Gerald for disposal, I noticed the P.S. line of the widow Whitcomb’s letter: 

I do not expect you to establish the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize on the basis of charity. The Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize would bear the name that you and my deceased husband share, and therefore the prize would honor you and him just the same. Additionally, you would also be granted full control over the fine print of the prize. If these factors are not enough to convince you, I am in very good shape for my age and would be willing to satisfy you in any number of extracurricular ways. 

Immediately, I sprung from my bed and composed an affirmative response to the widow Whitcomb. I telephoned my real estate connection in Des Moines and inquired about land for sale in the Grinnell area. He knew of a tract of wild prairie that was ripe for development. He called his contractor, who at my urgent behest broke ground on the Whitcomb Compound by the end of the week. Fine Italian marbles and Turkish rugs rolled cross-country in an endless parade of luxury. The concubines, who numbered seventeen in the year nineteen thirty, were outfitted with modest linens and outerwear specialized for traveling by rail. I donned my mink-collared coat and rode first class to Grinnell, Iowa, the Jewel of the Prairie—the site of my greatest and final endeavor. 

The widow Whitcomb was almost beautiful enough to convert me to monogamy, but old habits die hard, my children. I would ask many, many, many more women to lay themselves down beneath the roof of the Whitcomb Compound. And though my house is big enough to isolate every concubine from the others, I—unlike Lawrie, after whom I have styled myself—have not the need to do so. Never, my children, conceal your desires, no matter how strange and perverse they may be. Shout them out, for all to hear! I am Selden Lincoln Whitcomb, I say, a Lord of the Land and a God Among Men! 

So what, you ask, is the meaning of the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize? What honors and privileges does it confer? What sacrifices does it demand? 

All recipients of the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize are expected to join me on the Whitcomb Compound. Female recipients become my concubines and helpmates. Their duties include juicing my prunes, masticating my food, providing song and dance for my daily entertainment, and engaging me in edifying conversation. They will receive my seed, bear my children, and rear those children according to my rigid standards and their own proprietary expressions of maternal love. Female children are made to work the grounds; male children are named Selden Lincoln Whitcomb and employed directly under me in various capacities. Male recipients of the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize become my adoptive progeny. Just as Lawrie taught me over a hundred years ago, I teach my Honorary Whitcombs all there is to know about reaping the wheat and oil from this land, and then I send them forth into the world to manifest further greatness on my behalf. In forty-three states, Honorary Whitcombs are immune to the law, and my fiercest lawyers are working on the remaining seven. 

Like all things, my children, it is a choice to accept the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize. That said, there is a wrong choice, and there is a right choice. One choice will result in unfathomable pain for you, your friends, your family, and your progeny, seven generations over. The other (correct) choice will lead to a life beyond your wildest possible imaginings. To bear Selden Whitcombs and to be an Honorary Whitcomb is the only path to true American greatness, my children. You will want for nothing. 

So—Without further ado, let’s raise a glass of Trappist Kentucky bourbon to [NAME REDACTED], the two thousand twenty-three winner of the Selden Lincoln Whitcomb Essay Prize and the future mother of Selden Lincoln Whitcomb XCIV! 

 

*thunderous applause*

 

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Desmond

    Amazing! Love this

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