“I've been writing songs since age 15, and for me there's always been a big overlap between fiction and song. My style as a novelist comes substantially from what I learnt writing songs. The intimate, first-person quality of a singer performing to an audience, for instance, carried over for me into novels. As did the need to approach meaning subtly, sometimes by nudging it into the spaces between the lines. You have to do that all the time when writing lyrics for someone to sing.” — Japanese-born British Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), interviewed for “By the Book,” The New York Times Book Review, Mar. 8, 2015
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
“There are worse fates than a fluorescent orange head. Wars and natural disasters and world hunger. This is what I told myself, looking in the mirror at the damp strands.
“ ‘Change it,’ Jen said.
‘I can't,’ Gloria said. ‘Her hair barely survived the stripping process. Anything I do now, she goes to brush it, she'll destroy it.’
‘My God, she looks like she's on break from clown college.’”—American mystery novelist (and former TV and film actress) Harley Jane Kozak, Dead Ex (2007)
Monday, February 17, 2020
I have encountered this bronze equestrian statue of George Washington several times while walking near New York’s Union Square Park. My most recent sighting not only led me to take this photo, but to think about why it resonates with me so much.
The oldest statue in New York City’s parks collection, this creation by Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) has withstood a great deal—the elements, of course, and movement from a traffic island at the southeast corner of the square to its central location in the south plaza. But it remains a point of reference for New Yorkers—most dramatically after 9/11, where it became a de facto shrine.
When I did a Google search to find out the number of statues in this country in honor of this iconic figure, the results amounted to a collective throwing up of the hands. You might as well try to count the number of grains of sand by the ocean. Heck, there’s even a monument to the first American President in London’s Trafalgar Square.
That last bit of unlikely recognition might owe something to the same instinct that led King George III to exclaim that the former American commander-in-chief’s renunciation of the Presidency after two terms “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living...the greatest character of the age."
Okay, now how many statues of Benedict Arnold are there in the United States? Less than a quarter of a statue. The national park containing Saratoga battlefield in upstate New York honors the “memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.”
Because Benedict Arnold tried to betray his country three years after Saratoga by handing West Point over to the British, the whole man could not be honored, not even named, only that part of him displaying courage—his boot.
Over time, Americans have become fascinated by our rogues while taking our heroes for granted—even feeling the need to take them down a peg. And so, the man once hailed by one of the men he commanded in the American Revolution, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, as “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen” is having his contributions slighted, when not outright forgotten.
Right-wing Republicans delight in mocking progressives for their politically correct tendency to remove statues. They have a point—until, that is, some of them reveal who their real idea of a hero is.
And so, a few weeks ago, listening to one of the Sunday morning news shows, I heard an admirer of the current White House incumbent hail him as our greatest President—ever.
(By the way, I refuse in this post to include the incumbent’s name. It only feeds his maniacal desire for attention. Instead, I’ll refer to him with an epithet first used by Spy Magazine three decades ago that serves equally well today: “short-fingered vulgarian”—SFV for short.)
No matter how ludicrous, ignorant, insane—okay, downright morally offensive—that judgment might be, this woman is by no means an outlier in the current GOP. A poll this past December by The Economist/YouGov found that a majority (53%) of GOP respondents think SFV is a better president than Abraham Lincoln. If that’s how they feel about the incumbent versus Honest Abe, another Republican, I’m afraid that poor George doesn’t stand a chance.
It's worthwhile, then, going over again why Americans valued the example of Washington for so long—and why Arnold was loathed.
The difference between the traitor and the hero—as well as their motives—are summed up extremely well in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution:
“[Benedict] Arnold had never worried about the consequences of his actions. Guilt was simply not a part of his make-up since everything he did was, to his own mind, at least, justifiable….[But] Washington's sense of right and wrong existed outside the impulsive demands of his own self-interest. Rules mattered to Washington. Even though Congress had made his life miserable for the last four years, he had found ways to do what he considered best for his army and his country without challenging the supremacy of civil authority. To do otherwise, to declare himself, like the seventeenth-century English revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, master of his army and his country, would require him to become 'lost to my own character.’”
By a stroke of luck, Arnold narrowly evaded being brought to justice for colluding with a foreign power. Boiling with resentment, set on recrimination, he felt unleashed as a newly commissioned Brigadier General in the British army, laying waste to Virginia.
In the end, it did him no good. The British lost. Reviled alike by the countrymen whose trust he betrayed and the foreign handlers whose favors he bargained for, Arnold died, feeling more unappreciated than ever, two decades later, unforgiven for wildly conflating the public interest with his own private one.
That “sense of right and wrong” that mattered so much to his old commander—well, for a certain part of the populace that once hailed the stress on "characters" only a couple of decades ago, it seems so old-fashioned, much like the 110 “Rules of Civility,” which Washington copied out as a schoolboy and spent the rest of his life practicing.
We are going to see soon if we continue to live in Washington’s America or the one desired by Arnold—animated by greed, dancing to the tune of outside forces who abominate democracy.
If we ever erect a statue in honor of the SFV so preferred by so many Republicans, I suggest that it be, in the manner of Arnold’s at Saratoga, not a Washington-style equestrian figure but something more appropriate—an upraised middle finger.
“That Lincoln ’grew’ is a cliché, and is vague, and—if the metaphor is taken literally—is misleading. Plants and animals and human beings grow without effort or thought; suddenly in one's middle teens one shoots up to six foot four….But Lincoln’s important changes did not unfold through the working-out of a pattern of nature; they came by his own intent, through thinking, and might otherwise not have happened. Although it is another cliché to say that men ‘grow’ in the presidency, James Buchanan did not ‘grow’: Andrew Johnson did not ‘grow.’
“This Lincoln was a learner. He was in particular a moral learner. If the term ‘self-improvement’ did not now have such banal associations, we might use that term for Lincoln's own serious lifetime undertaking.
“He learned what it took for his ambition to serve his virtue: it took subordination to a worthy end, and self-restraining generosity in seeking it.”— American religious scholar, journalist, and historian William Lee Miller (1926-2012), Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (2002)
“Growth”—or, to use Miller’s concept, moral learning—should figure not only into how historians rank Presidents but also how voters should evaluate candidates—including incumbents vying to continue to be the occupant of the most powerful office on earth. It involves not merely changing a position but explaining when and how one came to do so.
Books (particularly Shakespeare’s plays) formed only one part in the moral evolution of Abraham Lincoln. Also important were encounters, large and small, that this greatest American example of the “self-made man” had with individuals who made him reflect, reevaluate and sharpen his own beliefs in practice.
I had known about Frederick Douglass, who observed years later that he had “never [been] more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln.”
But it was not until I read Miller that I heard about how, three decades before he met the great abolitionist orator and editor, a 22-year-old Lincoln had also been impressed by the aspirations of a down-and-out Haitian, William de Fleurville. The young man urged his friends to give their business to “Billy the Barber,” and, when the up-and-coming lawyer-politico moved to Springfield, he continued to get his hair cut by the now-thriving immigrant—and continued to maintain a friendly correspondence with him while in the White House.
On the other hand, flatboat voyages Lincoln made to New Orleans in 1828 and 1831 left him with a bone-deep abhorrence of slavery, the institution that would have denied the right to self-improvement exercised by Billy the Barber and Douglass. Slavery, he said during his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, was “founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it in his love of justice.”
That love of justice was the “self-restraining generosity” hailed by Miller. Americans would be well-advised to consider—especially in this Presidential election—which candidate best embodies this principle. One thing is for certain, though: a candidate utterly devoid of it risks nothing less than the survival of the republic that Lincoln worked so tirelessly to save.
(There were no painters ready to create Lincoln’s portrait when he was coming to manhood, let alone photographers. So I am supplying the best visual substitute I can think of for “The Railsplitter’s” homely, raw-boned, but earnest youthful image—the accompanying still of Henry Fonda in the 1939 John Ford classic, Young Mr. Lincoln.)