Sunday, May 31, 2009

Quote of the Day (Reinhold Niebuhr, on Religion and the Just Society)

"Without the ultrarational hopes and passions of religion no society will ever have the courage to conquer despair and attempt the impossible; for the vision of a just society is an impossible one, which can be approximated only by those who do not regard it as impossible. The truest visions of religion are illusions, which may be partially realised by being resolutely believed. For what religion believes to be true is not wholly true but ought to be true; and may become true if its truth is not doubted."--Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Quote of the Day (Clive James, on Benny Goodman, Jazz and Race)

“A man like Benny Goodman, for example, can’t possibly be fitted into a schematic history that would base itself on the white exploitation of a black invention. He carried within himself the only answer to the conflict, and, as things have turned out, he presaged the outcome: a measure of tolerance and mutual respect, and at least a step toward a colour-blind creative world. Being white, he was able to translate his prodigious talent into economic power: the very power to which black musicians, however successful, were always denied access. But Goodman used his power to break the race barrier. Though his mixed small groups existed mainly in the recording studios and rarely on stage—the Carnegie Hall appearance with Count Basie was strictly an interlude—the music they made was the emblem of a political future, and in the aesthetic present it was a revelation.” --Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (2007)

All hail Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing,” born 100 years ago today in Chicago, one of 12 siblings in a dirt-poor Russian emigrant family.

The Clive James quote above refers to Goodman’s integration of jazz, what is often called America’s unique contribution to culture—a full decade before Branch Rickey did the same thing for America’s pastime by hiring Jackie Robinson. The big-band leader had already recorded with the African-American pianist Teddy Wilson as part of a trio (along with regular Goodman drummer Gene Krupa; the three are pictured in the image accompanying this post) when he was convinced by Helen Oakley, a young jazz writer, to have the small group play in concert.

The chemistry on that Easter Sunday in 1936 was perfect—“The three of us,” Goodman recalled, “worked together as if were had been born to play that way”—and the audience in the Urban Room of Chicago’s Congress Hotel clapped and roared approvingly. The later addition of virtuouso vibraphonist Lionel Hampton made it a quartet.

At this point, it becomes necessary to interject with what, to his contemporaries in the music world, was the obvious: Goodman was a driven, excellence-demanding professional entertainer, but not a saint. In a PBS “American Masters” documentary on his life broadcast some years ago, his daughter remembered how, brusquely, even brutally, he had discouraged her from a career as a musician by saying point-blank that she had no talent.

Gary Giddins’ “The Mirror of Swing” essay in the great anthology Reading Jazz, while celebrating his musical achievements, also depicted an ironic juxtaposition: a galaxy of jazzmen, gathered together for a tribute in Goodman’s honor, yet overwhelmingly carping about his “legendary cheapness, absentmindedness, mandarin discipline, rudeness to musicians, and various eccentricities.”

That’s not the end of it, by any means. Dan Morgenstern’s essay in Living With Jazz: A Reader puts the matter within a larger framework by quoting another musician, Mel Powell, that Goodman was “one of the very, very few white people I’ve known who had not a single fiber of racism in him. He was absolutely, authentically color-blind….One of the real giveaways to his outlook was that he could be as rude to a black man as to a white man. He did not get patronizing or suddenly gentle. Not at all. And I always found that admirable.”

Longtime devotees of professional football will recognize the same attitude in a man four years Goodman’s junior, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. “He treats us all alike,” one of his players supposedly said, “like dogs.”

Scions of immigrant families, the two men also burned to succeed, driving themselves perhaps more mercilessly than anyone else. Professional triumph came at something of a price in both cases. Goodman, as we’ve seen, was more admired than loved, while Lombardi’s ferocious, inward-turning anxiety probably fed the cancer that killed him at age 57.

Two last aspects of the James quote are left for me to remark on. The first is race. James was reacting to several critics and musicians who have downgraded Goodman in comparison with black musicians and band leaders. This seems to me churlish. Just as it is inconceivable to deny the central African-American contribution to jazz, it is also impossible to deny Goodman’s part in the story. He excelled on the clarinet in the jazz, pop and classical realms—something that few other musicians of any race could match.

Second, though the occasion for this post is Goodman’s birth, I’d like to close by going full-circle: to his death. His daughter, hurt as she was by her father’s thoughtlessness, could also only marvel at his perseverance in the face of cancer, making sure to practice every day, no matter how awful he felt. Goodman died, in fact, rehearsing for a Mostly Mozart festival in June 1986.

Fans of the jazz legend might want to listen to WKCR, the radio station of my alma mater, Columbia University, as they air, through June, a tribute to Goodman in celebration of his centennial.

Friday, May 29, 2009

This Day in Criminal Justice History (Net Tightens on Leopold & Loeb)

May 29, 1924—Eight days after their “thrill-killing” of a 14-year-old neighborhood boy, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were interrogated separately about their alibis and away from prying newsmen. Forty-eight hours later, with a growing body of circumstantial evidence contradicting their stories and unraveling their attempt at the perfect crime, the two rich, intellectual Chicago youths ended up confessing to what was already being dubbed “the crime of the century.”

The Leopold and Loeb case has served as dramatic fodder for several films and plays:

* Rope (1929 Patrick Hamilton play, 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film)—Hitchcock’s version was, as much as anything, a virtuosic experiment in camera use, consisting only of several long, continuous takes.
* Compulsion (1959 film, based on the Meyer Levin novel)—A roman a clef, the version that most people are most likely familiar with, with Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell as the killers and Orson Welles their attorney.
* Swoon (1992)—shot in black and white, this version viewed case as an example of the public’s hysteria over Leopold and Loeb’s homosexuality
* Never the Sinner (1985)—a play by John Logan that attempted to show that Leopold and Loeb, far from being exceptional, were far closer to the mainstream than anyone could guess.

Leopold, who was freed 34 years after his guilty plea, was sickened by his portrayal in Compulsion--particularly by the suggestion that he killed Frank out of sexual motives--that he sued the producers. In one of those Bleak House-style proceedings that so many in the legal profession love so much, the case took 11 years to wind through the courts—and when it was all over, Leopold’s case was dismissed.

Why did the murder grab the public’s attention so much? Why does it still have a hold on us?

The case, of course, completed the transformation of Clarence Darrow from attorney for the beleaguered and downtrodden (e.g., labor unions, radicals) to defender of the damned (the people that nobody, but nobody, wanted to be associated with). Though not the icon he has been made out to be over the last 50 years or so (midway through his career, he barely escaped being convicted for attempting to suborn a juror), Darrow was in deadly earnest—and at his best—in passionately battling against the death penalty as he tried to save Leopold and Loeb.

But there were other reasons for the horror and rapt interest people have long felt about this case:

* It challenged traditional notions of what caused crime. Darrow himself had long contended that poverty bred criminal activity, and, in the wrenching transition to an industrialized, urban America, there were many reasons to believe so. But the parents of both killers in this case were affluent—Leopold, the son of a millionaire box manufacturer, and Loeb, the son of a retired Sears Roebuck vice president. The youths were privileged and smart, with Leopold even a law student at the University of Chicago.

* The murder demonstrated “motiveless malignity.” The phrase, coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge about Iago in Othello, has come to stand in general for the mystery of evil. But this murder was not a crime of greed, passion or revenge. People could not believe that anybody could do something so heinous simply to get away with it.

* The relationship between the killers smacked of the taboo. Several years ago, I came across a book—published only 25 years or so after the trial—that referred to Leopold and Loeb as having committed “unnatural acts” with each other. That last phrase hints at the far less tolerant attitudes that existed in that pre-Stonewall era. Newspapers at the time left little if any doubt that the two were lovers—and speculated that young Frank had been molested before his murder, though the autopsy did not reveal this.

* The crime was, however, unusually gruesome. Leopold and Loeb killed Bobby Frank with a chisel, poured acid on him, and dumped his naked body in a culvert near Wolf Lake.

* The trial was the first time that forensic psychiatry was used in a court proceeding. After pleading the teenaged killers guilty, Darrow employed a novel strategy of calling on one “alienist” (or psychiatrist) after another to testify about their state of mind. (Ironically, when Judge John Caverly spared Leopold and Loeb from execution, his opinion hardly took account of all this testimony, instead citing their youth—leading Leopold to wonder if they could have simply submitted their birth certificates in lieu of all the evidence.)

What fascinates me about the case, however, is, at its core, its detective aspects—i.e., how the discovery of the body led to the identification of the killers.

Intelligent though they were, Leopold and Loeb were not the Nietzschean supermen they believed themselves to be. Several clues—mistakes of their own making—tripped them up, leading detectives to break them during interrogation:

* Leopold’s glasses. These small, horn-rimmed glasses belonged not to Bobby Frank but to someone else. At first, it seemed that the prescription was so common that it would be next to impossible to trace. But it turned out that the hinges had only been sold on three pairs of glasses in the Chicago area—and that one of these belonged to Leopold, who’d already been identified by a game warden around Wolf Lake as an avid ornithologist who frequently visited the area.
Leopold had a ready explanation at first—the glasses must simply have fallen out of his breast pocket while he was birding. But, when he was asked to demonstrate how this happened, the glasses stayed in his pocket. Then, after detectives asked him to lay his coat on the ground, they watched it immediately fall out, leading them to reason that this must have been the scenario when he removed his coat to avoid getting blood on him.
(Ironically, Leopold had, several weeks before, stopped wearing the glasses that led to his door. He'd been prescribed these after headaches began to bother him. Once this stopped, he no longer bothered putting them on, and had forgotten they were even in his pocket at the time of the crime.)

*The Underwood typewriter. The ransom letter sent to Bobby Frank’s father led at first to wrong suspects—a couple of teachers at the Harvard School, the prestigious prep school that Bobby attended, outside of which the abduction took place. Eventually, however, detectives figured out that the note had been written on an Underwood Portable—and Leopold’s maid informed them that she’d seen it in the house.

* The car. Leopold and Loeb claimed they had picked up two girls named “Mae” and “Edna” (impossible, of course, to trace) on the day of the murder, had dinner and dropped them off. (In fact, they had rented an auto the day of the crime, the better to disguise themselves as they carried out the thrill killing.) But the alibi came undone through someone who thought he was doing the boys a favor: the Leopold family chauffeur. Nathan couldn’t be the killer, he said, because Leopold’s own car was in the garage all day. This, of course, contradicted the boys’ statements that they had driven the Leopold family car.

With that, the detectives pressed harder and harder.

On the 31st, Leopold and Loeb had signed their confessions and entered the lore of American criminal psychosis.

Movie Quote of the Day (“Get Shorty,” on the Hard Life of an Actress)

Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta): “You had a bad day, huh?”

Karen Flores (played by Rene Russo): “I spent all day crawling out of a grave. The director said that I was incapable of reaching the emotional core of the character.”

Chili: “What? Well, obviously he didn't see you in Bride of the Mutant.”

Karen: “You saw that one?”

Chili: “When you turn to the alien mother, and you tell her that her time on earth is finished, Joan Crawford, on her best day, wishes that she had, in her day, the emotion and the intensity that you brought to that scene.”—Get Shorty (1995), screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quote of the Day (U.K. “Daily Express,” on the Recession-Induced “Credit Munch”)

“Stressed-out Britons have piled on 20 million stone in a year trying to ‘comfort eat’ their way through the recession, according to a report out today.

“The condition – dubbed the credit munch – has seen three-in-five Britons put on weight in the past 12 months, according to research by on-line pharmacy”—“Credit Munch Britons Put on 20 Million Stone,” The Daily Express (U.K.), May 11, 2009

Gosh—this sounds bad….Sort of like how Liz Lemon’s friend Jenna on 30 Rock warns her against an old boyfriend by comparing him to cheese doodles: “You know they’re bad for you, but you eat them because it’s easier than cooking.”

Credit munch….You don’t suppose it can jump across the Atlantic, by spreading through cows or even products of the soil, do you?

Nah…that would be credit mulch, I’m afraid.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Quote of the Day (Lord Mountjoy to Erasmus, on New Hopes for a New Head of State)

“I have no fear but when you heard that our Prince, now Henry the Eighth, whom we may call our Octavius, had succeeded to his father's throne, all your melancholy left you at once. What may you not promise yourself from a Prince with whose extraordinary and almost Divine character you are acquainted? When you know what a hero he now shows himself, how wisely he behaves, what a lover he is of justice and goodness, what affection he bears to the learned I will venture to swear that you will need no wings to make you fly to behold this new and auspicious star. Oh, my Erasmus, if you could see how all the world here is rejoicing in the possession of so great a prince, how his life is all their desire, you could not contain your tears for joy."-- Lord Mountjoy, in a letter to Desiderius Erasmus, May 27, 1509 on promising young English monarch Henry VIII, quoted in Robert Lacey, The Life and Times of Henry VIII (1972)

Well, I guess we all know how that one turned out, don’t we?

Henry VIII (pictured here at the time of his accession to the throne, well before he became the bloated, gout-ridden, perhaps syphilitic-ridden fellow we know today), looked like he’d be such an improvement over those who came immediately before him: his skinflint of a father, Henry VII, and Richard III, the murderous tyrant (I don’t buy the revisionist theory that poor Richard was the victim of Thomas More’s Tudor propaganda) that his father overthrew.

I could go on, offering chapter and verse on how the teenage Henry turned out—but then again, I already have. In any case, Mark Twain, the great enemy of royalty, put it far better than I (or, indeed, anyone else) ever could, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs.”

(Okay, young Huck got a little confused after this—describing the Duke of Wellington, for instance, as Henry’s father—but, as we all know from our English classes, his heart was in the right place, which is more than you can say for Henry.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This Day in Congressional History (Kansas-Nebraska Act Passed in Haste)

May 26, 1854—His legislation had already passed one key hurdle at an hour even more unearthly, so Stephen A. Douglas didn’t mind the lengths he had to go to this time.

At 1:15 in the morning, after an extension of a session from the prior day, the Illinois Senator and Presidential hopeful watched as a Joint Committee of Congress voted to approve his Kansas-Nebraska Act.

A word of advice to politicians: never decide anything important in the wee hours of the morning, when you’re exhausted, hungry and maybe even a bit liquored-up. George McGovern settled on Thomas Eagleton as his running mate at a similar hour, and we know how that turned out.

(Or maybe some of us don’t or have forgotten, given the disasters involving more recent Veep candidates—so, a fast recap: After fighting tooth and nail all the way to the floor of the convention for the nomination—and after having had, oh, at least a half dozen other people turn him down—McGovern offered the running-mate spot to Eagleton. When asked by a McGovern aide if he had any “skeletons in the closet,” the Missouri senator—a fine man, by most accounts—intrepreted the question a bit narrowly as referring solely to political corruption, and said no. He did not mention his past hospitalizations because of depression, and the McGovern campaign had no time to check even if it wanted to. The result: hysteria over a medical condition that undoubtedly afflicted more politicians than anyone realized at the time, then McGovern reversing his statement that he was “1,000 percent” behind his running mate and asking Eagleton to resign from the ticket. In other words, the most disastrous Veep choice until George W. Bush’s Veep-vetter, Dick Cheney, managed to turn up "skeletons in the closet" on all Bush’s other choices until, magically, there was nobody left but himself.)

Now, if you had told those assembled, on that day in the antebellum republic, that dire consequences would follow an affirmative vote, they might or might not go along with you. So, I think you’d have to spell it out for them:

* a region that rivaled 20th-century Beirut and Baghdad in violent mayhem;
* a Union torn asunder by the legislation;
* millions dead in the resulting Civil War; and
* lingering sectional discord and racism that would linger for generations afterward.
And, for those of a particular partisan stamp: anger over the measure led to the rise of the Republican Party.
Douglas must have thought his Presidential stock has soared after approval of the measure, which, before final passage, had already passed a key 5 am affirmative vote by the Senate. The act put into law the doctrine of popular sovereignty originally proposed by General Lewis Cass in the 1848 Presidential election, then championed by Douglas himself. The doctrine stipulated that the issue of slavery would be decided by territorial voters themselves.
Agitation over slavery was exactly what Douglas did not want. As an early proponent of manifest destiny, he envisioned an America stretching from sea to sea, bound together by all kinds of internal improvements—roads, canals, and railroads. He was particularly passionate on the last subject, and his desire to have a railroad built might have led him to change the bill in committee enough to bring matters to a boil about it in the North.

He could not help but notice that support for his idea of a transcontinental railroad with its eastern hub in Chicago--the major city in his home state--was thin in the South. If he could give the South something it really wanted on something else, he might be able to move this issue forward.

After a meeting with President Franklin Pierce—a Northern sympathetic to the South—and his Secretary of War, the southerner Jefferson Davis, Douglas redrafted his bill, stating explicitly what he had hoped to fudge: that the Missouri Compromise that had governed territorial admittance to the Union for the last 30 years was superseded by the bill. This meant that, if the voters decided it, slavery could be permitted north of the latitude that had prevailed before this.

Another key change occurred in the revised bill: the territory, once simply known as Nebraska, would now be split into two: Nebraska, the northern half, and Kansas, the southern part.

Reaction in the North was furious. The Missouri Compromise had meant that slavery could be confined. Now that was no longer the case. Moreover, the proximity of Kansas to Missouri, a slave state, meant that slaveowners could far more easily populate it than anti-slavery forces could.
At one point in the debate on Capitol Hill, Salmon P. Chase--himself a future Presidential aspirant--accused Douglas of pushing the bill to further his hopes for the White House. In the course of the angry exchange between the two, the phrase "corrupt bargain" was used.
Virtually nothing could cause greater anger to Douglas. As a strong partisan of Andrew Jackson, he knew that this term had been used to describe how John Quincy Adams had snatched the Presidency from Old Hickory: by appointing Henry Clay as his Secretary of State, thereby swinging the latter's key votes when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. The "corrupt bargain" charge had bedeviled Adams throughout his single term and had helped elect Jackson President.

Two little men were responsible for passage of the bill that caused such big problems for America.
One was Douglas himself, nicknamed “the Little Giant” to emphasize his outsized impact on the republic in the 1850s. He was at once the best-known and most controversial politician in America at this time. The “great triumvirate” of Clay, Webster and Calhoun had grabbed the headlines, as they always did, in the debate over the Compromise of 1850, but it was Douglas who was the legislative mechanic behind that omnibus bill. He was short—only five feet four inches—but on the stump, shouting, gesticulating, working his stocky frame into a sweat, he looked like a prize fighter.
Douglas boasted about his own critical role in the legislation: "I passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act myself. I had the authority and power of a dictator throughout the controversy in both houses. The speeches were nothing. It was the marshaling and directing of men, and guarding from attacks, and with a ceaseless vigilance preventing surprise."
The second little man was Alexander H. Stephens, a sickly congressman who weighed no more than one hundred pounds. He resembled a 20th-century Georgian, Senator Richard Russell, in being a lonely lifelong bachelor who spent much of his time out of the office mastering congressional rules and regulations.

On May 22, just when it appeared the legislation was on the ropes, Stephens, a supporter of the bill, invoked Clause 119 of the House Rules—a clause that hardly anybody ever bothered with—to keep it alive after an unfavorable committee vote. After the Joint Committee of Congress pulled its midnight-oil act, the bill went to Pierce, who signed it four days later.

A big mistake all around. Racist Northerners who once denounced abolitionist agitation now found that slavery might not be excluded in any territory to which they might journey—and that, at a stroke, this undercut the value of their own labor.

In his Life and Times (1881), Frederick Douglass recalled how the measure “made abolitionists of people before they became aware of it, and…rekindled the zeal, stimulated the activity, and strengthened the faith of our old anti-slavery forces.” In his newspaper, Douglas himself called for “companies of emigrants from the free States” to be “collected together—funds provided” and to be “sent out to possess the goodly land, to which, by a law of Heaven and a law of man, they are justly entitled.”

The act also brought back onto the political scene a lanky lawyer, well-known to both Douglas and Stephens, who’d been in a five-year funk after he’d left the House of Representatives: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had been on friendly terms with fellow Whig Congressman Stephens and he knew Douglas well from Springfield (Douglas’ friendliness toward Mary Todd led some to surmise that he was a beau of Lincoln’s future wife, though no real evidence has ever substantiated this).

Lincoln was catalyzed by his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a fellow lawyer, T. Lyle Dickey, later remembered that Lincoln, upon hearing news of the passage of the bill, had “discussed the political situation far into the night” with him. That fall, upon hearing a three-hour defense of the act by Douglas at the State Fair, Lincoln leaped to his feet at its conclusion to announce to the crowd that he would deliver a rebuttal the next day.

A speech two weeks later at Peoria was even more powerful, laying out how the Founding Fathers had tried to inhibit the spread of slavery—and how the act now threatened to upset this careful moral and political balance. It served notice that Douglas would have a powerful rival on the local and national scene.

Quote of the Day (George Carlin, With Wisdom for Today’s Workplace)

“Most people don’t know what they’re doing, and a lot of them are really good at it.”—George Carlin, Napalm and Silly Putty (2001)

Monday, May 25, 2009

This Day in African-American History (Bojangles Taps Down Broadway on His Birthday)

May 25, 1939—To celebrate his 61st birthday, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson displayed, to the joy of astonished onlookers, the tap-dancing skills that made him a Harlem legend, capering down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street.

The same year, he demonstrated that age had hardly diminished his versatility when he appeared on Broadway and in the World’s Fair in Hot Mikado, a jazzed-up version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. His solo turn amid an all-black cast in the Michael Todd production led a Theatre Arts critic to exult, “Never … has one note been made to sing and soar, to whisper and to laugh, in such astonishingly complex rhythm.”

Baby boomers are likely to associate Robinson with the Jerry Jeff Walker-penned song “Mr. Bojangles,” which zoomed up the pop charts in a cover version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—then became a Las Vegas staple in the performances by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Neil Diamond and Tom Jones.

It might come as a surprise, then—including, as it happens, to me—that the song has nothing to do with the ground-breaking African-American entertainer. Walker wrote the poignant tune after being jailed for drunkenness in a rowdy Fourth of July celebration in the 1960s, where he met a homeless man who, at one point, demonstrated his soft-shoe instincts to his cellmate.

Those points are pertinent because a) the jail where this encounter occurred was segregated, so the homeless man/dancer was white, and b) the real Bill Robinson had died in 1949, well before this incident. The “Bojangles” of the song, then, is not a reference to the Harlem entertainer of stage and screen, but rather to an unfortunate street person whose nickname represented a tip of the hat to the late celebrity.

I just referred to “the real Bill Robinson,” but, in a sense, even that was elusive, for neither Bill nor William was his given first name at birth. “Luther”—a name he loathed—was it, so, like most entertainers, he simply reinvented himself, borrowing “William” from his younger brother.

I also called him “a Harlem legend.” He was all of that, and yet the truth was more complicated there, too.

The description that novelist Dawn Powell came up with for herself—a “permanent visitor” who made Manhattan her adopted home after coming from the Midwest—could apply equally well to Robinson. He started out in Richmond, Va., where he defied the grandmother who raised him by dancing for nickels and dimes on street corners, then proceeded to Washington, D.C., and only ended up permanently in Harlem in 1928.

If you want to start with the actuality of Bill Robinson, then turn to one of the films he made in the 1930s as Hollywood, exploiting the full possibilities of talking pictures, began to develop the movie musical. Robinson’s partner in several of these dance sequences was child star Shirley Temple, and you can see one of these in this clip from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938).

Much of Robinson’s best work, however, was done for vaudeville, an entertainment form already disappearing by the 1930s, thereby necessitating his foray into Hollywood. While plying his trade on this circuit featuring lightning-fast songs, skits, jokes and dances, the dancer impressed a future white superstar, Fred Astaire.

One of my professors at Columbia University, Ann Douglas, discusses in her book Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (1995) how Astaire borrowed and transformed elements of Robinson’s elegant tap style (Robinson, for instance, kept his torso rigid, while Astaire used virtually every muscle in his body). Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem” solo in the film Swingtime—done, admittedly, in a blackface fashion that will inevitably set off the P.C. alarms of many of today’s viewers—was meant as a sincere tribute to Robinson.

Admired by blacks and whites alike, Robinson made a great deal of money, but he probably could have made much more but for the pervasively racist age in which he lived. The compromises he had to make probably made this proud man grit his teeth.

Like Frank Sinatra, he was a fireball of an entertainer, universally acclaimed for his artistry but unnerving those who weren’t sure if they were about to encounter him at his worst (a gambling addiction, a fierce temper, and a habit of leaving his gold-plated pistol obtrusively out on a table while playing pool) or his best (an extraordinary generosity that led him to perform in 3,000 benefits).

When Robinson passed away, a decade after his delighted jaunt down Broadway, the line for the funeral procession for the “honorary mayor” of Harlem stretched for blocks.

Quote of the Day (Karl Shapiro, on Mourning the Military Dead)

“The time to mourn is short that best becomes
The military dead. We lift and fold the flag,
Lay bare the coffin with its written tag,
And march away. Behind, four others wait
To lift the box, the heaviest of loads.
The anesthetic afternoon benumbs,
Sickens our senses, forces back our talk.
We know that others on tomorrow's roads
Will fall, ourselves perhaps, the man beside,
Over the world the threatened, all who walk.”—Karl Shapiro, “Elegy for a Dead Soldier,” in The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, edited by Diane Ravitch (2000)

“Ever since the South Pacific,” one of my uncles told me a few years ago, “I’ve felt that every day I’ve been on borrowed time.”

I--and nearly everyone I know, my age or younger--am fortunate not to have had the kind of feeling that my uncle—who spent World War II on a PT boat—shared with the rest of the Greatest Generation that saved half the world from totalitarianism. Poet Karl Shapiro served as a medical corps clerk in the same theater of that enormous conflict as my uncle. He arrived back stateside having just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for V-Letter and Other Poems, in which “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” first appeared.

We honor the fallen comrades such as those described by Shapiro today with Memorial Day parades across the country, including one in my hometown of Englewood, N.J. (where I took the photo accompanying this post). These events provide opportunities for all kinds of people to be seen in a civic setting—politicians, city workers, ambulance corps volunteers, church workers—but veterans take center stage, as they should.

It’s easy to forget just how much such remembrances used to mean to communities such as mine. In World War II, the U.S. lost 9 soldiers per 1,000 annum; in World War I; in the Civil War (in the aftermath of which began our modern Memorial Day observances), 21.3 and 23 for the North and South, respectively.

A couple of years ago, reading an obituary of a neighbor who had moved away nearly three decades ago, I discovered that he had been one of the “tin can sailors” who had been involved in some of the most desperate combat of World War II, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

My neighbor had never breathed a word to me about it, but really, like most young kids at the time, I doubt this fact would have made much of an impression on me at the time. Today, if he were still alive, I would try to find out every detail of the battle he could comfortably tell me.

The Greatest Generation is now fading from the scene. Their stories, rich and fascinating, deserve to be preserved while that’s still possible. Oral history provides an excellent means of doing so.

One academic who has made a major contribution to the field is Professor Erin McCarthy of Columbia College Chicago. Several years ago, I took an excellent summer course on oral history with her at the Chautauqua Institution. I urge any of my readers who knows a veteran whose story should be preserved to contact her here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

This Day in Scientific History (Racist and Nativist Invents Telegraph)

May 24, 1844--“What hath God wrought” was the message sent by Samuel F.B. Morse in his landmark public demonstration of the telegraph.

But the Biblical verse (Numbers xxiii., 23) also hinted at the religious creed that led the painter-turned-inventor to justify slavery and racism—and, just as bad, to become of the most influential proponents of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fears that inflamed antebellum America.

The story of the telegraph—in the analogy of a recent historian, the 19th-century equivalent of the Internet in the communications revolution it inaugurated—and its inventor has been oft-told, chiefly as a triumph of perseverance (12 years from conception to demonstrated, followed by another decade before the Supreme Court validated Morse’s patent claim).

Those with a slightly more-than-passing interest have taken note of Morse’s ups-and-downs as a painter before he began to pursue, with impressive doggedness, his technological breakthrough.

The men who advance the world through science and technology, however, are far more numerous than those who, like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and John Hume, offer a different vision of tolerance.

Seen in this perspective, Morse did far worse than think according to the precepts of his time—he helped begin a regression from the ideals of America’s founding fathers, not to mention the rich, live-and-let-live commercial tolerance of New York City itself.

Morse had heard his father, a Calvinist minister, rail against Catholics and Unitarians, but even his father was an ardent abolitionist. Morse was not.

As for Morse’s anti-Catholicism, it was a product of genetics as much as of bitter personal experience. His brother offered him a newspaper forum for his ideas. But Morse’s views took on its tone of obsessiveness after he was struck by a soldier for not kneeling when the pope’s carriage passed on the street in Rome.

From then on, over the next three decads, Morse released such titles as Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1835); Eminent Dangers to the Free institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration, and the Present State of the Naturalization Laws, by an American," originally contributed to the Journal of Commerce in 1835, and published anonymously in 1854; Confessions of a French Catholic Priest, to which are added Warnings to the People of the United States, by the same Author (edited and published with an introduction, 1837); and Our Liberties defended, the Question discussed, Is the Protestant or Papal System most Favorable to Civil and Religious Liberty? (1841).

Morse would have been annoyed had he known that his telegraph system would provide significant employment to many young Catholics and Irish, and that the latter two groups would spearhead the rise of the labor movement in the U.S., , including, starting in the 1860s, the Telegraphers’ Protective League, the Brotherhood of Telegraphers of the United States and Canada, the Order of Railway Telegraphers, and the Commercial Telegraphers’ Union of America.

Quote of the Day (Barack Obama, at Notre Dame)

“I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it -- indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory -- the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.”—President Barack Obama, commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, May 17, 2009

Last week, President Obama reminded me of nobody so much as Thomas Jefferson. After a bitter election—and an even more controversial tie-breaking vote in the House of Representatives—Jefferson sought to smooth over the horrendous divisions in the country with a line in his first Inaugural Address: “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.”

That statement not only became one of the notable quotes of his Presidency, but served as the prototype for the conciliatory nod to the opposition that the vast majority of incoming Presidents have used ever since.

In the quiet of his study, however, it was another matter. Jefferson sought impeachment proceedings against a Federalist judge, Samuel Chase; hinted darkly that, if John Marshall issues rulings in the conspiracy trial against Aaron Burr that did not result in defeat for the former Vice-President, then the Chief Justice should himself be removed from his position; and signed legislation that, during the furor over his Embargo Act in Federalist-dominated New England, called for the land and naval forces to be used to suppress insurrections by American citizens.

Jefferson’s lifelong tendency, in the words of biography Alf Mapp Jr., of “taking things by the smooth handle,” went hand in hand with a penchant for pursuing his ends by other means—a kind of Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside game.

In attempting to put to rest the donnybrook over his abortion position at Notre Dame, President Obama provided a contemporary variation on this. For a politician who had won a primary endorsement in the 2008 campaign over Hillary Clinton from the pro-choice group NARAL, his attempt to acknowledge the sincerity of pro-lifers represented something like squaring a circle.

Probably 90-95% of my readers will not like what I’m about to write. So be it. If an essayist can’t take issue with readers because it flies in the face of what they believe, he or she not only does not dare look in the mirror, but also has abdicated any notion that reason and give-and-take can make a difference—ironically enough, the same point that Obama was ostensibly trying to make with his comments on seeking “common ground.”

Most of the commentary in the press focused on that phrase, “common ground,” to the exclusion of everything else in the address. I can’t say I was surprised or disappointed by what the President said, but I was by the reflexive positions that so many Catholics from the liberal-to-left side of the political spectrum took on the speech.

“Common Ground” vs. “Irreconcilable” Views

Contrary to what you might have read, the heart of the address was not in that plea for “common ground,” but in the passage I quoted above. In contrast to much of the rest of the talk, rendered in the second- or even first person, Obama’s stark acknowledgement—i.e., that he will not adjust his position one iota, that “the views of the two camps are irreconcilable”—has been toned down through a weak linking verb.

In the last election, the Democratic Party learned enough to know that it could not stifle the views of pro-lifers, as it did at the 1992 convention, without paying the price in a razor-thin loss.

Seventeen years ago, we had a President who declared that he wanted to ensure that abortion would be “safe, legal and rare,” then concentrated all his efforts on ensuring the second (and, at points, the first—more on that in a minute) and nothing at all on the third point. Yet the Democrat paladins paid a price when they famously sidelined Bob Casey—a lifelong liberal Democrat who happened to be pro-life—while offering speaking time to Republicans who happened to be pro-choice.

Pro-lifers got the intended message—their voices weren’t heard and their votes didn’t count. It helped put the Democrats in exile for eight years when it didn’t have to happen.

A False Contest: Obama vs. the Bishops

The analysis and commentary about the President’s speech last week devolved into the question of who won, Obama or the church hierarchy?

With their reliably certain heavy-handedness, the American bishops guaranteed that they would be cast as the heavies here. All too often these last few years, their moves have stigmatized instead of instructed. Their strictures on who is and who isn’t a Catholic in good standing based on one’s position on abortion have been stupid when they haven’t been self-defeating, because, to put it bluntly, they do not in the least admit of the spirit of charity.

But to accept a bishops-versus-Obama polarity is to fall into the same trap that allowed so many Democrats to accept the civil-rights passivity of two 20th-century liberal Presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (and, in the case of the latter, a chief executive who left African-Americans in their most disadvantaged legal and social position between the end of the Reconstruction and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

The justification for the moral blinders of FDR and Wilson is one that echoes today in the progressive movement about abortion: The President is battling against the forces of greed and the enemies of the common good. He has so much to deal with already. Why trouble him about this single issue—and, at that, an issue of such intractable complexity and moral murkiness?

It’s so easy nowadays to forget that this line was once invoked in the old days whenever civil-rights advocates raised, no matter how gingerly, the question about what action would be taken on their issues. Maybe our lack of memory about it reminds us too comfortably how hollow that justification was then and remains to this day.

Advancing the Abortion Debate?

So, instead of considering whether Obama or the bishops won last week, I propose another standard: Other than saying that pro-lifers are really not bad people (a hardly unexceptionable statement—the reviled George W. Bush, of all people, said pretty much the same thing about pro-choicers), did Obama really say or do anything to change the dynamics of the abortion debate?

To answer, let’s look more closely at the paragraph that, in a single concentrated section, seemed to receive the most applause lines in the speech:

* “So let us work to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies.” Did Obama suggest concrete ways for how this could be done? No.

* “Let's make adoption more available.” But Bill Clinton suggested this over a decade ago, too. Really, who’s stopped any Democratic administration from implementing this, either through legislative or executive action—the Republicans? If you said yes, a follow-up question: Are you serious?

* “Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term.” But this is being done already, by one much-maligned force in this debate, and was abandoned—with the acquiescence of a Democratic President, against the advice of a Democratic Senator—by an organization spoken of far more favorably.

Let me start by putting this in personal terms. My parish has a crisis pregnancy center, and I don’t think that it is the slightest bit unusual in that respect among Catholic parishes. For once, I think that the church hierarchy, benighted as it often is, deserves credit on this score, in that the overwhelming majority of archdioceses have something similar.

The Notre Dame audience’s applause at this unremarkable line suggests the forgetfulness about this aspect of the church. (Or maybe not forgetfulness but ignorance—the American media, to its deep and enduring shame, accepts at face value Barney Frank’s contention that for pro-lifers, life begins at conception and ends at birth.)

Indeed, while the Catholic Church has maintained such assistance, the federal government knocked out an old prop for maintaining assistance a dozen years ago. Bill Clinton caved in to the GOP-dominated Congress’ insistence on alleged “welfare reform” so he could say he fulfilled his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” In the process, he ignored Catholic bishops’ contention that only the federal government has the resources to maintain existing welfare program.

Moreover, he gave short shrift to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s blunt warning that time limits on reception of benefits “will produce a surge in the number of homeless children such that the current problem of ‘the homeless’ will seem inconsequential.” Only now, in the wake of the current economic crisis, do we understand what Moynihan meant.

* “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women." Why not leave out the word “sensible”—or, put another way, in what way does a “nonsensical” conscience clause exist? The Obama administration needs to clarify this, because nearly three months ago it was reported that it was seeking to end the “conscience clause” already in place under the Bush administration.

And then there’s that last phrase, “respect for the rights of women.” How would even the smallest restrictions on abortion constitute disrespect for such rights? Another question: do the pro-choice positions of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt qualify them as respecters of such rights? Just asking.

Talk vs. Action

Obama’s call for “common ground” sounded, in all its reasonable-sounding, toothless earnestness, like Bill Clinton’s plea at the start of his second term for a “national conversation about race.” The problem is that without action, talk is meaningless, and without a fundamental rethinking of how one views not only people (Obama’s general point) but policy, talk is actually counterproductive.

If talk about civil rights could have changed anything, America’s national dilemma would have been confronted several decades earlier, when the otherwise hapless Warren G. Harding became the first sitting American President to call for anti-lynching legislation. But far more was required—Presidents who were willing to use the FBI to investigate civil-rights crimes, to send federal marshals into schools and universities to ensure access to equal education, and to use every tool at their command to cajole Congressmen to back legislation.

What could Obama have done or said at Notre Dame to make a difference in the debate? He could have:

* Proposed a ban on partial-birth abortion—a procedure that even past pro-choice Catholic Democrats such as Moynihan and Dick Gephardt opposed.

* Proposed, more generally, a ban on abortion past the first trimester—a stance that liberal blogger Steve Waldman of has suggested would be palatable to most Americans.

* Advocated parental-consent laws (think of it this way—children are lucky to get even the most seemingly banal procedures, like having their ears pierced, without parental consent—why should they not know about something so important to the welfare of their child?)

* Urged bans on abortions pursued for reasons of sex selection.

* Called for a short “cooling-off” period in which counseling and alternatives could have been suggested for confused teens.

It’s ironic that though though many in the progressive movement have applauded Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s interest in foreign judicial rulings, they ignore that America has far fewer restrictions on women’s right to choose than most European countries. (For an example of this, please see the following map for a country-by-country breakdown.)

A Coarsening of Our Moral Fabric

“We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes,” President Obama promised at the start of his speech—but that’s exactly what he went on to do. You can argue that, at this point—May 2009, with an economy in deep freeze and two Mideast wars simultaneously in a state of peril—it’s not the time to put abortion on the front burner.

But there’s a reason why movement toward full abortion rights remains problematic, even as the larger women’s rights movement and the gay rights lobby have made continuing, perhaps now unstoppable, advances: because abortion asks us, in the most essential way, what we will do to sustain life in extremis.

President Obama is right in one sense: Americans do hold contradictory positions on the subject. For all the vociferousness of the pro-life movement, for instance, many activists, if not most, would not return to criminalizing the procedure.

Contesting abortion in every way, such as denying diplomas to pro-choice politicians and lawyers, leads to endless moral confusion and, in a number of instances, to fanaticism and hypocrisy.

But more than 35 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion continues to roil the waters because, at some level, even many who defend the procedure regard it as an unfortunate necessity. They are, in effect, implicitly recognizing that abortion coarsens the national fabric.

The necessity to defend access to abortion at all costs has led the pro-choice movement to accept the unacceptable. A few years ago, an abortion clinic in my hometown had to be shut down temporarily for “immediate and serious” code violations. The trouble was that the clinic had not been inspected in five years, leading to a young woman—at the clinic for her third abortion—to be unconscious for three weeks, to suffer two strokes, and to undergo a hysterectomy. The clinic’s violations of regulatory practice were so many and so serious that if it were, say, a pharmaceutical firm, it would have been picketed and forced to close permanently.

A fight on every point related to abortion is neither necessary nor desirable. But, at some point, a clear, sharp distinction needs to be drawn to emphasize that American society does not regard abortion as the preferred way to resolve all, or even most, crisis pregnancies.

Abraham Lincoln accomplished something similar before the Civil War in promising not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, but in urging that it not be allowed to spread to the territories. That stance was enough to register his moral disapproval. It would do well for us to find a similar point now in the abortion controversy.

A Personal Note

I don’t approve of “fetus-waving,” abortion-clinic bombings or other fanatical actions. I know women who’ve had abortion and men who’ve procured it for them—and they remain friends.

I winced last fall when I heard a high-school classmate of mine offer what was, in effect, a bishop-knows-best denunciation of Barack Obama’s record solely because of his abortion views. I voted for President Obama in the last election and, by and large, approve of his current economic and foreign policy choices. I recognize his extraordinary ability to persuade and, at a more personal level, his commitment as father and husband.

But none of that relates in any way to what so many failed to perceive last week: the utter failure, as policy exercise and call to deeper moral seriousness, of Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame. His tremendous gifts—and, at present, his equally high standing in the public polls—are no reason for liberals—and especially Catholic liberals—to give him a free pass on his inability to deal substantively with abortion.

So many are excited about the promise of Obama’s gifts, the meaning of his electoral victory, and his current sky-high perch in the polls that they seem reluctant to call him back to earth. They do him no favors in accepting what, in any other national politician on any other subject, would correctly be seen as pablum.

We have heard much over the last few years—justified all too much by events—that the papacy is not, as given down by church fiat, infallible. We have also heard it said increasingly over this period that the authority of elected leaders, especially Presidents, should constantly be questioned. Again, the contentions of these critics have been constantly borne out by events.

That makes it all the harder for me to understand now why the Notre Dame address should be hailed when it doesn’t measure up to most acceptable political standards, let alone Obama’s prior powerfully effective rhetoric.

Let me put this in as unmistakeably as possible: Not even a Democratic president is infallible. At the height of his influence and power, even FDR could not push across his dubiously motivated court-packing scheme. Americans were right then to hold him to a higher standard, and they should do the same now to the current incumbent who’s been compared with him so often in other ways.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Literati Pay Last Respects to Hawthorne)

May 23, 1864—On a beautiful Monday—“that one bright day/In the long week of rain,” as put by mourner Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the most significant members of New England’s literary renaissance gathered on a hillside to pay their final respects to the friend they loved but couldn’t fully understand, novelist/short-story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Last fall, on vacation in the Boston area, I had visited nearly every major site I had wanted in the metro—Beantown, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord—but before departing for home, I had to make one last stop: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Concord, where Hawthorne, his family and many of his friends are buried.

At mid-morning on that bright Saturday, as I visited “Authors’ Ridge”—the hilltop that serves as the final resting place for many of the area’s best-known citizens—I immediately noticed the graves of Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, who predeceased him by two years. Their graves lay directly across from each other, as if the two forces they represented—the saturnine and sunny faces of American culture—could not leave off their longtime, basic disagreement.
Elsewhere on the hill were Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott and daughter Louisa May Alcott, and their various loved ones. The site, with all its pine-filled beauty, would have made a great field trip for a high school field trip—and sure enough, one was there that day. But, from the expressionless teenage faces in the group, I guessed that they would have wanted to be anywhere else on this weekend morning than up there.

The New England writers who they were studying would have understood their frustration, I think. They were a pretty nature-loving, unconventional bunch.

“Sleepy Hollow,” the youngsters were told, was not the same site as the one that inspired the Washington Irving tale, but rather a place where Hawthorne and his friends, a generation ago, had gathered to picnic. In 1855, the land had been given over for its present purpose, with Emerson there to speak at the dedication ceremony. Now, he was in the same spot for an occasion that hit home far more.

While taking solace that Hawthorne would finally gain badly needed peace in this spot he had once loved so well, his family and friends (including fellow Concordian Emerson, along with Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell) felt a sense of unease.

Their misgivings arose not only because a shadow had been cast the final days of the author of The Scarlet Letter’s, but because his death reminded most of those assembled that it came while he was deeply into middle age, amid a war that was making their own optimism and moral energies look sadly irrelevant.

Hawthorne died in the company of his old Bowdoin College friend, former President Franklin Pierce, who had taken him on a vacation to Portsmouth, N.H., to relieve his mounting anxiety and physical infirmity.

Pierce’s presence at the bedside and graveside of his friend deeply discomfited the vast majority of Hawthorne’s Concord circle, who blamed the Mexican War hero and Southern-sympathizing Democrat for not curbing the slaveowning South’s expansionary desires and secessionist impulses. The sectional demons unleashed during his Presidency, they felt, led directly to the battlefield deaths of millions of Northern men—including many of their own sons.
The blog “Citizen of Somewhere Else,” written by academic Bruce Neal Simon, featured a thought-provoking take on the controversy that broke out over the value of Hawthorne’s life and work at the time of his death. The discussion anticipated something we still deal with today: how to judge creative artists when they become suddenly, shockingly, politically incorrect.
In fact, on the day after his funeral, two New England papers, the Providence Journal and the Springfield Republican, attacked Hawthorne’s politics. Increasingly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, to be anti-abolitionist in New England in a region that, then as now, was probably the nation’s most liberal, was to invite consternation among friends. To be opposed to just about all the reform movements of the day, as Hawthorne also was, required a strong and concerted spin, as Hawthorne’s friends continued to day for the next 19 years, until the Riverside Edition of his collected works appeared.

The leader of the New England writers, Emerson (whose minister grandfather’s house, the Old Manse, became home to Hawthorne and his wife Sophia for a time after they married), wrote mumblingly but regretfully the day after the funeral on the distance between the deceased author and himself: “I have felt sure of him, in his neighbourhood, and in his necessities of sympathy and intelligence,—that I could well wait his time,—his unwillingness and caprice,—and might one day conquer a friendship…. Now it appears that I waited too long.”

Sophia Hawthorne moved to England, dying there six years later. For more than a century, Kensal Green Cemetery in London held the graves of her and daughter Una.

And now, a surprise twist on the Hawthorne saga: another daughter named Rose, a descendant of Judge Hathorne, one of the unrepentant hanging judges of the Salem Witchcraft trials, surprised nearly everyone by converting to Roman Catholicism, eventually becoming a nun (and now, for her work in starting a religious order dedicated to caring for cancer patients, a candidate for sainthood).

The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne (in Rockland County, NY) had been paying to maintain the Hawthorne graves, but the necessity of costly repairs led to the transfer of the remains back to Concord for reburial nearly three years ago. You can see the family plot in the picture I took accompanying this post.

Quote of the Day (Indie Auteur John Sayles, on Why He’s Not a Studio Executive)

“I did this script called Watch the Skies, where the last page is about an extraterrestrial being left behind on Earth. It became the first page of the script for E.T. While I think it didn’t inspire them, I did write the script for Spielberg’s company. They asked if I wanted any credit and I said no, since I really didn’t have any part of the final script. I also thought that it was a nice script and if they kept the budget down it could be a nice little Disney movie. Now you can see why I’m not a studio executive.”—Independent screenwriter-director John Sayles, interviewed by Antonino D’Ambrosio in "John Sayles," in The Believer Magazine, March/April 2009 (full text not available online)

Friday, May 22, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Lincoln Awarded Patent)

May 22, 1849—Patent #6469 was not just any technological scheme. It wasn’t every day, either then or now, that an ex-congressman is awarded this. It’s even rarer when the aspiring inventor is a future American President: Abraham Lincoln.

Jason Emerson’s article in the Winter 2009 issue of American Heritage of Invention and Technology, spotlights in fascinating detail how Lincoln conceived the idea of a “device to buoy vessels over shoals,” a technological solution for a problem he had witnessed himself while traveling by steamboat along the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Chicago.

Amazingly, Lincoln was the first—and to this day, the only—U.S. President to be awarded a patent. The reason for this singular phenomenon is worth a short explanation.

If pressed to guess, I would have bet that Herbert Hoover, trained as an engineer, or Jimmy Carter, a longtime peanut farmer and onetime sailor on a nuclear sub who served under Admiral Hyman Rickover, might have tried their hand at this. But that evidently was not the case.

The most likely candidates before Lincoln, of course, were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. But the Virginia grandees came from a culture in which a disinterested concern for the public weal—or, at least, pretensions to that—dominated. (In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, retired from business and intent on carving out a public career, likewise placed philanthropy over profit.)

Emerson traces Lincoln’s interest in the invention to Honest Abe’s experience as a 22-year-old riverboat hand and captain in 1831, when a flatboat he was handling went aground just below New Salem, Ill. Though that experience gave him a personal sense of the difficulties of transporting goods and people, he had already demonstrated a vital interest in the subject the year before—when, in his first known potential speech—he advocated improving navigation on the Sangamon River.

I wonder, too, if his interest in technology might not have dated back even further, to childhood and adolescence. I’m talking here about his problematic relationship with his father, Thomas Lincoln.

As most schoolkids know (they used to, anyway), young Abe Lincoln read every chance he could get. This did not please his father, who didn’t see the point of it, especially when there were all manner of chores to be done.

Far from being lazy, Abe was just mentally disengaged from the menial tasks of life on the frontier, even though he excelled at many of them (his nickname “The Railsplitter” was not just campaign hype). I’ll bet any money that, as his mind wandered at night before he fell off to sleep, he wondered if there might not be something that could relieve him of his drudgery. This would, among other things:

* free up his time so he could pursue something potentially more lucrative than farming or riverboating, such as the law;
* earn him a considerable sum if the invention caught on; and
* improve the material prospects of his father, a rolling stone who exasperated his son with his inability to get economic traction in his life.

Lincoln’s failure to promote his invention mystifies Emerson. I don’t think this is difficult to imagine—many technical types are more fascinated by how to create a product than how to sell it. But if that is an insufficient explanation for Lincoln’s inaction, here are some other reasons that could account for it:

* The hope that the incoming Taylor administration, ingratitude for his tireless stumping on its behalf in the last Presidential election, would appoint this one-term Congressman as a commissioner of the General Land Office (it didn’t happen—he was tossed the bone of territorial governor of Oregon, which he refused);
* The need to re-establish his law practice in Springfield; or
* The two-month illness and eventual death of his three-year-old son Edward, which would have plunged the melancholic Lincoln into grief—and have an even more devastating effect on his wife.

Though he did not follow up on his own invention, Lincoln became vitally interested in technology, especially patent law, in the next decade. On a few occasions, he delivered a “Discoveries and Inventions” lecture in which he spoke of the importance of patents: “The patent system adds the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” He would take on five different patent cases, including one involving Cyrus McCormick and his reaper.

History aficionados find in Lincolniana an inexhaustible mother lode of arcana about America’s second-greatest President (Washington, I think, ranks first). Honest Abe’s tinkering is just one other aspect of this.

He may not have pursued his dream of technological success, but in the end he came up with a far more important invention: a Second American Republic, free of slavery and open to anyone able to earn whatever he wants by the sweat of his brow, especially young people like himself who dream in the dark about a better life for themselves.

Quote of the Day (Arthur Conan Doyle, in the Voice of Sherlock Holmes)

"'You will not apply my precept,' he said, shaking his head. 'How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. When, then, did he come?'"—Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1890)

James Cagney never said, “You dirty rat!”, Cary Grant never said, “Judy, Judy, Judy!”, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote, “Elementary, my dear Watson!” The closest the creator of the great Sherlock Holmes came to writing the latter was, simply, “Elementary”; the last couple of the familiar words we know, from what Holmes experts say, might have come from one of the innumerable productions staged over the years by William Gillette.

What that phrase was really driving at, in any case, was the impatience that the lightning-fast Holmes felt with his partner and good pal, the more plodding reader’s stand-in, Dr. John Watson. I think you get maybe an even more vivid sense of this asperity in the quote above.

Doyle, born 150 years ago today, much preferred his historical fiction, such as The White Company, to his more famous creation, the fellow residing at 221B Baker Street. And, in truth, if you want an example of literary craftsmanship in your detective fiction, then look to Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, Peter Robinson, or even someone who started writing toward the end of Doyle’s life, Dorothy L. Sayers.

But it’s indisputable that Doyle created one of the most indelible creations in all of genre fiction. Even today, many a reader or moviegoer, such as myself, thrills to the sound of “Come, Watson, come—the game is afoot.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Grant’s Girl Weds Cad)

May 21, 1874—As she was escorted down the aisle by her father, President Ulysses S. Grant, in the most ballyhooed White House social event of the 19th century, 18-year-old Ellen “Nellie” Grant resembled nobody so much as another pretty, headstrong but innocent American girl, Henry James’ fictional heroine Daisy Miller. Fifteen years later, as the marriage concluded in quiet but painful divorce, she had morphed into another Jamesian heroine, Isabel Archer, all too familiar with domination by a philanderer in no way worthy of her.

Nellie Grant was not the first Presidential child to marry in the President’s mansion (that honor belonged to Maria Hester Monroe), but her ceremony set a standard for gaudiness and media frenzy. It also represented a particularly striking instance of what I alluded to in the first paragraph: the transatlantic wedding.

Henry James and Edith Wharton spun many of their plots from romances involving American girls and dashing foreigners (usually British men) who turned out to be emblematic of Old World corruption. This fiction was based on real-life incidents.

The consequence of one such (mis)alliance occurred later in the same year as Nellie Grant’s wedding, when the impetuous young American heiress Jennie Jerome gave birth to her son by rising young British politico, Randolph Churchill. Sir Winston Churchill would become the ultimate example of the “special relationship” between the U.K. and the U.S.A.

The James/Wharton plots often turned on what James called “the money passion”—i.e., the desire of impecunious, desiccated European aristos to fill up their coffers with a favorable liaison with a young American girl. Money was not really the motive here, though: though Nellie’s new husband, Algernon Charles Sartoris, was deemed “minor gentry,” he was also heir to a considerable estate. (Question: if “minor gentry” could get a “considerable estate,” where did that leave “major gentry”—and where are these heirs know that we need them?)

Nellie Grant was as much of an American girl as you could get—not only was her father the President of the United States and the military hero who had saved the Union, but she herself had been born on the Fourth of July. She was the first teenage girl in the White House since Abigail Fillmore, and newspapers—which had exploded in size and sheer noise in the generation since Miss Fillmore—couldn’t get enough of her doings.

The press made much of the fact that Nellie loved parties, but from what I can tell, Nellie wasn’t guilty of anything more than what girls her age then and now loved: a good time.

As the only daughter among the President’s four children, however, she knew how to get around her loving and protective father. Only a few days after being hustled off to finishing school, she’d prevailed upon Ulysses and Julia Grant to take her out, pleading homesickness. Their subsequent plan—to send her to Europe, with chaperones—ended up being undermined, too.

On the return trip home, on a ship called the Russia, the chaperones were confined to their cabins with sea-sickness, leaving Nellie to spend time with the charming 22-year-old Algernon Sartoris.

He had much to beguile a young girl: not just all the polish that comes with affluence, but also a fine singing voice (a genetic inheritance from his mother, a retired opera singer) and undoubtedly a fund of rich entertainment lore, not just from his mother, but from his aunt, the actress Fanny Kemble (who, as I noted in a prior post, had her own disastrous marriage, with a Southern slaveholder).

When he got news of the romance, the President felt considerable consternation. It wasn’t only that Nellie was young or that he and Julia would have preferred an American, but that he felt at least some misgivings about the groom.

Now this is saying something. If Grant—who, historians say, was so guileless that his administration was continually rocked by subordinates’ financial misdeeds, even though he never was personally touched by it—was suspicious, Algy Sartoris must have emitted some bad vibes.

Indeed, the President, not wanting to shilly-shally around, even came right out with it and wrote to his family, asking if the young man a) intended to live in Europe in the event he married Nellie, and b) had a sexual past that would make him unsuitable as his daughter’s swain.

“She is my only daughter,” Grant confided apologetically, “and I therefore feel a double interest in her welfare...I hope you will attribute any apparent bluntness to a fathers anxiety for the welfare and happiness of an only and much loved daughter."

Put yourself in the Sartoris family’s place: Are you going to say, “Yes, Algy’s a dog that no self-respecting girl should be around”? Didn’t think so. Anyway, maybe he hid this failing at the time, or maybe it had not even become an issue yet.

But what Grant learned was enough to fill him with misgivings. Following the wedding, the young couple would live abroad. Oh, and Algy did have one slight issue: a bit of a drinking problem. That last point must have hit home with the President, as he himself had been known to hit the bottle when his beloved wife Julia was away and his career was frustrating him.

A word here: I don’t know if the general read many novels, but if he had been able to get this mismatch put off for another year, alarm bells would have rung even louder if he had been able to get his hands on Anthony Trollope’s brilliant chronicle of financial corruption and ruin in Victorian Britain and America, The Way We Live Now. In particular, in that book he’d have read, with mounting dismay, about Sir Felix Carbury, a attractive young aristocrat like Algernon Sartoris—one with no interest in hard work but plenty in card-playing, drinking and women.

As it was, Ulysses and Julia were not crazy about this whole thing. Yet Nellie was unmoved by her parents’ entreaties. All they could convince her to do was hold off on the wedding for a year.

When it finally came off and the Marine Band played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” the wedding was covered in breathless detail by a press that had been given greater access to the President’s family than at any time in history. If you’re peeved by all the coverage of Michelle Obama and her cute daughters, don’t blame the current White House—blame the Grants, who fed the media’s obsession with their children, their horses, and even the White House as a home. (Julia was the first First Lady to grant occasional interviews.)

The press really outdid themselves covering the wedding. If you want to read all the orgiastic details, I can refer you to William Seale’s authoritative The President’s House. Suffice it to say that the bride’s white satin gown, “trimmed in rate Brussels point lace,” was supposed to be worth thousands of dollars (a big sum at the time), and that, for the reception, the Grants’ wedding planner, Valentino Melah, turned to a Washington caterer whose clientele were the richest of the rich.

When the East Room festivities were over, the President lay on his departed daughter’s bed and wept. And well he might, because Grant was not only losing his favorite child but gaining someone who would give her no end of troubles.

The four children that Nellie and Algy Sartoris had in quite succession were not the best indication of the couple’s relationship. Those indications would be the increasing amount of time they spent apart, Algy’s growing inability to handle his liquor, and, beginning in the 1880s—when the Grants were, thankfully, out of the White House—his public appearances with females who were not his wife.

A few years after her father’s grueling death from cancer, the Sartoris family took pity on Nellie. Knowing that she was not to blame for her wayward husband’s problems, they settled a nice sum of money on her, let her depart for America with the children, and arranged as amicable a parting from Algy as was possible under the circumstances.

The divorce and Algy’s death in 1893 left Nellie a free, and still young, woman, but she was reluctant to tie the knot again anytime soon because of the responsibilities of raising four children. It would be nearly twenty years, on her 57th birthday, when she finally remarried, to a childhood friend that she probably should have been with from the start.

Her happiness was short-lived. Three months after the wedding, she was paralyzed, and remained an invalid for the last 10 years of her life.

When she finally died, the peculiar Victorian norms that surrounded her romance and ensured her longtime unhappiness would have been incomprehensible to the generation then coming of age in the Roaring Twenties.

Quotes of the Day (Eudora Welty and Gary Giddens, on Fats Waller)

“Of course you know how he sounds--you've heard him on records--but still you need to see him. He's going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book.”—Eudora Welty, “Powerhouse,” in A Curtain of Green, and Other Stories (1941)

“His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask as fixed as that of Bert Williams or Spike Jones. It consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian moustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”—Gary Giddens, “Fats Waller (Comedy Tonight),” in Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998)

My exposure to the joyous songbook of Thomas (Fats) Waller—born on this date in 1904—dates back to a 1992 performance of the revue based on his work, Ain’t Misbehavin’, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. If you love jazz, it’s almost impossible not to come across at least one cover version of one of his standards, especially “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” and “Keeping Out of Mischief Now.”

But Waller’s death at the all-too-young age of 39 deprived us of more than a chance to experience additions to an already sizable songbook. It also deprived white America of the opportunity to see him under the circumstances he deserved, free to play his music before audiences undivided by race or class. (In her short story “Powerhouse,” Welty’s eponymous musician—a very thinly disguised version of Waller—plays before an all-white crowd in the segregationist South.)

Nobody who saw the elegance of Duke Ellington or the easy banter of Dizzy Gillespie is likely to forget those jazz masters anytime soon. Even the photo accompanying this blog misses something captured by Welty and Giddens in print—the insouciant artist in motion, whirling like a keyboard dervish, weaving his magic over audiences. For an idea of that, please see this clip from Stormy Weather.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Sondheim’s “Frogs” Performed in Yale Swimming Pool)

May 20, 1974—In four years, three amazing musicals that turned Broadway upside down. Think Stephen Sondheim could rest after all of that? Not a chance. But in writing the incidental music for a modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy, The Frogs, the songwriter might have bitten off more than even he could chew.

After all, it’s not every day that a play with music is staged in a real, live swimming pool.

Faithful reader, how do you spell “logistical nightmare”? Because in embarking on what might have seemed like a lark on behalf of an old, dear friend, the new toast of Broadway was embarking on an adventure that neither he nor anyone else could forget.

At first, I thought that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. In certain ways, many people might still feel that way, for reasons that I’ll describe shortly. But in reviewing the history of the show, I think it might be better viewed as an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.

A good friend of Sondheim’s, Burt Shevelove, had first conceived the idea of adapting Aristophanes in 1941. Everything went, if you’ll pardon the pun, swimmingly—so much so that there was even talk about transferring the show to Broadway, until Pearl Harbor intervened. Nothing more came of the idea for another 30-plus years.

At this point, Shevelove approached Sondheim requesting two favors. The first was to appear in a show he was doing for PBS’ Theater in America series, a revival of the Ring Lardner-George S. Kaufman comedy, June Moon. Shevelove needed someone who could play a wisecracking piano player.

Sondheim got the piano playing down, as you might expect, but he tended to bite off the punchline. If you watch it today (and you should—besides Jack Cassidy, the cast includes a very young Susan Sarandon as a mantrap), you won’t notice the composer’s discomfort unduly because of a bit of stage business he adopted for the role: a fedora.

Though Sondheim was a bit embarrassed by his acting stint, the next request might have made even him, a man who loved intellectual and theatrical challenges, gasp. Shevelove, fresh from turning No, No, Nanette from a misconceived ‘20s nostalgia sendup into a Broadway triumph, had been approached by the current head of the Yale Repertory Theatre, Robert Brustein, to return to the school to restage his earlier Frogs.

Have you ever known someone who takes a perfectly good idea, then complicates it endlessly? Such was the fate of Frogs. Before long, a show that began with an 18-member company had grown to include:

* a singing-and-dancing chorus of 28;
* a swimming chorus of 18;
* an orchestra of 12; and
* a backstage support group of 35.

Yes, the Yale pool was Olympic-sized—but it needed to be to accommodate these crazy stage arrangements.

Sondheim didn’t realize things were going to get even this crazy—he just knew that Shevelove had pulled together a benefit involving him the year before when it looked like a disaster was in the offing. He owed his friend one, the composer f(who had become the toast of Broadway over the last few years with his musicals Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music) figured.

As he looked around at the cast, Sondheim would have been glad to see that this was one aspect of the show that would be fine. Broadway star Larry Blyden, fresh off a Tony, was the lead. More intriguing were the supporting players: future playwright Christopher Durang, and future film superstars Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. But after that, matters became even more manic.

After all, how would you characterize a production in which:

* Not enough rehearsal time was scheduled, meaning that Sondheim and Shevelove were still revamping songs three days after opening;
* The “frogs” in this show were undergraduate swimmers, who appeared in green mesh and jock straps for their parts;
* When the “frogs” emerged from the pool, they naturally dripped water all over the stage, making the dancers fall;
* With a chorus at one end of the pool and an orchestra at the other, reverberations were nonstop, meaning that much of the play was rendered inaudible. (It was probably just as well for all concerned that an original cast production wasn’t made at this time.)

The show made it through eight performances. Flash forward nearly 30 years later, when The Frogs is one of the few Sondheim theater pieces never recorded. At this point, it finally was, by the Library of Congress, with Brian Stokes Mitchell, Davis Gaines, and Nathan Lane in the cast. (No pool this time—everyone sensibly decided to use the stage directions for an alternate to the pool.)

This story keeps getting better and better. Now Lane decided to take a crack at the play, this time adapting it even more freely than Shevelove.

I wish I could have been in the room when Lane pitched this idea to Sondheim. I had witnessed what this brilliant comic actor could do when he decided to riff on a comedy classic. It came in the middle of the Roundabout Theatre’s production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, when Lane, as waspish critic Sheridan Whiteside, joked about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby?”

In the post-show “talkback” I attended, two people associated with the comedy’s playwrights—Kitty Carlisle Hart, widow of Moss Hart, and Anne Kaufman Schneider, daughter of George S. Kaufman—related that the line had not been part of the original script, but had been inserted by Lane. He did so despite protests that saying something like this at the time (the 1930s) was the equivalent of touching a third rail. The two women shrugged—there was little they could do, since the reason was the show was being done at all was, precisely, because of its star, who put the fannies in the seats.

I’ve listened to the cast album of the millennial version of Frogs. Compared with much of Sondheim’s other work, it just did not possess magic. But I could only imagine what would have happened to the show once Lane got his hands on it. I doubt if it was pretty.