Monday, August 31, 2020

Photo of the Day: Reading Garden, Leonia Public Library, NJ


This past weekend, while driving around, I decided to stop at the Leonia Public Library, a mile or so from where I live in Bergen County, NJ. It was a spontaneous act that, like many of this kind, proved ill-advised, as the library’s procedures for opening and checking out materials had changed during the COVID-19 outbreak, so it was not open.

But my trip did not prove a total loss. Sometimes, in the noise and haste of my life, I haven’t stopped to observe my surroundings intently. That certainly holds true over several institutions I love—libraries—since I usually go to them having selected in advance which item I want and I try to limit browsing.

But on this day, I could not go inside. Despite having visited the library a dozen times before over the last decade, I had never noticed this reading garden. I immediately whipped out my iPhone and took this photo.

Reading gardens may not always work in densely populated cities where space is at a premium, but they are welcome amenities in the suburbs. What could be more pleasant than sitting out in the fresh air on a sunny day with a good book?

TV Quote of the Day (‘Batman,’ As The Penguin Waddles Playfully Into Politics)


The Penguin [played by Burgess Meredith]: “Politics is wonderful! I can use all my lowest, slurpiest tricks, but now they're legal! I should have been a politician years ago!”—Batman, Season 2, Episode 17, “Hizzonner the Penguin,” original air date Nov. 2, 1966, teleplay by Stanford Sherman, directed by Oscar Rudolph

Hmmm…this wouldn’t remind you of current events, would it?

Sunday, August 30, 2020

This Day in Southern History (‘Gabriel’s Insurrection’ Foiled at Last Minute)


Aug. 30, 1800—At 2 in the afternoon, Virginia Gov. James Monroe (pictured)just returned to Richmond because of a yellow fever quarantine emergency—received a visit from slaveowner Mosby Shepherd, confirming rumors circulating at least since spring: that a massive slave uprising was in the offing just outside Richmond in the town of Henrico.

This time, though, specific details provided by two of Shepherd’s slaves endowed the reports with a grim new certainty: that the rebellious slaves would kill their masters that night, move on to Richmond and set fire to the state capital, capitalizing on the ensuing confusion to seize ammunition from the penitentiary.

Immediately, Monroe—in his first executive position in the young United States, and two months from a tumultuous national election—moved to quash the insurrection, taking the unprecedented step of stationing militia in Henrico, Richmond and the penitentiary. A torrential downpour that night scotched the revolt before it could be launched.

Capitalizing on this respite, the militia broke into slave quarters in the area, producing a round of confessions or finger-pointing from the terrified inhabitants. Within two days, approximately 70 were arrested and charged.

The ringleader was quickly identified: a 24-year-old blacksmith named Gabriel, the property of plantation owner Thomas Henry Prosser. The incident has been sometimes been referred to as “Gabriel Prosser’s Revolt”—a misnomer, as Gabriel never took his master’s surname during his lifetime.

But, though the name was misleading, the fears that the uprising brought to the surface were real enough. The Virginia gentry did not have to look far for the possibility of violence at the hands of slaves: Ambrose Madison, the paternal grandfather of Congressman James Madison, was allegedly poisoned by two of his slaves and a neighboring one.

An insurrection—quicker than a slow-acting poison, perpetrated by slaves who often outnumbered whites on plantations—was even more terrifying. And it was more worrisome still when led by someone like Gabriel—a commanding physical presence (over six feet tall, well above the average size for that era) who, because of his literacy, also possessed a heightened ability to receive intelligence and communicate with followers.

The year 1800 was already shaping up to be one of unusual tension, with the United States and France trying to back away from a full-scale war; with the Democratic-Republican Party, headed by Monroe’s mentor Thomas Jefferson, attempting to win the Presidency that fall from the Federalists; and with the continuing repercussions of the successful Haitian revolt against their former French masters, led by Toussaint Louverture. But Gabriel’s Insurrection gave more tangible form to this unease.

The man at the center of it had been seething for over a year over the unequal treatment of slaves within the Virginia legal system, especially as it affected him. 

The charge facing Gabriel in 1799—“maiming” (an overseer, in a scuffle arising from another slave’s theft of a pig)—would not have been unusual in the society of his master. Indeed, “eye-gouging, ear-biting, and even more devastating forms of physical combat were common among equals in late eighteenth-century Virginia,” according to a 1982 article by historian Philip J. Schwarz. “It was the rare slave, however, who attacked whites openly and physically.”
 
Gabriel only escaped the death penalty through a quirk of the law called “benefit of clergy” (i.e., he would only be branded rather than executed if he could recite a Bible verse).

Whites had used that same legal system to bust his conspiracy, offering a full pardon to any slaves willing to testify against fellow conspirators.

Although a full pardon was one means of resolving the case, Gov. Monroe had to weigh to what extent any other form of mercy was possible among the multiple cases now filling the Virginia courts. He outlined the courses open to him in a letter to Jefferson:

“When to avert the hand of the Executioner, is a question of great importance. It is hardly to be presumed, [that] a rebel who avows it was his intention to assassinate his master etc. if pardoned will ever become a useful servant, and we have no power to transport him abroad—Nor is it less difficult to say whether mercy or severity is the better policy in this case, tho' where there is cause for doubt it is best to incline to the former council.”

Perhaps better than any whites, Monroe knew that extenuating circumstances existed for mercy. Though there was little doubt that Gabriel  led the conspiracy, the early investigation had already established that Presser had, even in a system favorable to a slaveholder, treated his slaves with “great barbarity.” Moreover, as a careful onetime lawyer, Monroe realized that confessions extracted under torture or its threat were not reliable guides to determining innocence.

In determining the varying fates of the accused, however, Monroe was not merely guided by public safety or questions of guilt and innocence, but also by his own self-interest. He would own as many as 250 slaves in his lifetime, making him one of the largest slaveowners in his county. He was a direct beneficiary of the system he was being tasked to protect.

In the end, with Monroe himself attempting to interrogate the captured leader, Gabriel refused to make a statement without a promise to mitigate his punishment. Gabriel would be one of 26 hanged for their complicity in the rebellion, with another dying in custody while awaiting execution. Among the remaining 38 originally arrested, some were transported out of state; some were found not guilty; and a few were pardoned.

As for Gabriel: 207 years after his hanging, then-Gov. Tim Kaine granted him a full pardon, commending his “courage and devotion to the fundamental Virginia values of freedom and equality.”

Those “values” perplexed Monroe, as it did fellow Virginia Presidents George Washington, Jefferson and James Madison, to his dying day. Although Washington arranged to manumit his slaves following the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, fatally entrapped in the lavish, debt-inducing lifestyle of the plantation  aristocracy, freed no more than a handful of their own, despite their grave misgivings about “the peculiar institution.”

If anything, Gabriel’s Insurrection convinced Monroe that ultimately, slavery could not exist in the United States without raising tensions between North and South and posing a danger to the lives of slaveholders (a fear realized 31 years later in Nat Turner's Rebellion and in 1859 in another led by John Brown).

He came around to gradually moving slaves back to Africa as an ultimate solution to the practice, even endorsing the American Colonization Society. During his Presidency, Liberia was established on the African continent for this purpose, even naming its capital, Monrovia, after him.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Martin Luther, on the ‘Pope’s Court’)

“If we took away ninety-nine parts of the Pope's Court and only left one hundredth, it would still be large enough to answer questions on matters of belief. Now there is such a swarm of vermin at Rome, all called papal, that Babylon itself never saw the like. There are more than three thousand papal secretaries alone; but who shall count the other office-bearers, since there are so many offices that we can scarcely count them, and all waiting for German benefices, as wolves wait for a flock of sheep? I think Germany now pays more to the Pope than it formerly paid the emperors; nay, some think more than three hundred thousand guilders are sent from Germany to Rome every year, for nothing whatever; and in return we are scoffed at and put to shame. Do we still wonder why princes, noblemen, cities, foundations, convents, and people grow poor? We should rather wonder that we have anything left to eat.”—German theologian and Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483-1546), Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520)

The argument advanced by Martin Luther in this passage will elicit nods of agreement not just for millions of those who followed his lead in leaving the Roman Catholicism Church, but also theologians who have remained in the hope that the central teaching authority of the Church would eventually accept their thinking.

The vast bureaucracy underlying the Church has been the subject of both humor (Pope John XXIII, asked how many people worked at the Vatican, joked, “About half”) to lamentation (“The Curia does its best to stifle criticism in the episcopate and in the church as a whole and to discredit critics with all the means at its disposal,” German theologian Hans Kung charged in a 2010 “Open Letter to Catholic Bishops”).

But few have matched the extraordinary vigor of the questioning by Luther. It cites striking statistics (those “three thousand papal secretaries”!), historical allusion (sinful ancient Babylon), animal imagery, and tying it all to the condition of his native Germany.

In contrast to another pillar of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, whose presentation and style often reflected his early training as a lawyer, Luther’s prose burned with passion and invective.

Address to the Christian Nobility, issued 500 years ago this month, was the first of three tracts in 1520 that propelled the rebellious monk further towards irrevocable defiance of the Pope. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he called for reducing the number of sacraments instituted by the Roman Catholic Church from seven to two. In The Freedom of a Christian, he continued to attack abuses of the Vatican, only this time he began to explore, with greater eloquence, the essential equality of all believers: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

But Address to the Christian Nobility especially fell on fertile ground. It helped that Luther wrote it in German rather than the Latin common to theological explication of the time. Communicating in the vernacular, coupled with the rise of the printing press (particularly in Luther’s own Wittenberg), meant that his attacks on the papacy found a far wider audience of lay readers than just his own community of theologians.

Within this wider lay community, Luther reached two receptive groups. The first—more important in ensuring he would not be executed like an earlier Church dissident, the Bohemian cleric Jan Huss—was the German nobility. 

Jealous of their prerogatives, they resented especially what Luther called the “three walls” used to safeguard the papacy’s absolute sway: the elevation of spiritual power above secular; the claim that nobody but the pope could interpret scripture; and the assertion that only he could convene a council of the Church.

In this environment, Luther’s call for secular princes to assert their proper temporal authority (“Oh noble princes and gentlemen, how long will you suffer your lands and your people to be the prey of these ravening wolves?”) furnished them with intellectual and theological justification for defying the papacy. 

The second lay audience for Luther’s tract—those outside the nobility—was far more problematic for him. He predicted that Germany would suffer the same fate as Italy, where, to create and maintain cardinals of the Church, “the convents are destroyed, the sees consumed, the revenues of the prelacies and of all the churches drawn to Rome; towns are decayed, the country and the people ruined.”

This baleful prophecy fed anger not only among merchants who might have read his tracts themselves but also German peasants who, though illiterate, would have heard his thoughts spread through the network of preachers already flocking to his standard. 

Five years later, when the “Peasants’ Revolt” erupted and spread in southern Germany, Luther—angry at insinuations that he had provoked the disorder, alarmed that he might lose the protection of powerful princes against the papacy—reacted with another tract whose title conveys better than any commentary the intensity of his feelings: Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

Luther’s appeal to secular authority and his frequent, revolutionary use of the German language arose from his intense identification as a German—an instinct all the more remarkable because that land was still a motley collection of states within the Holy Roman Emperor, not the united nation-state it became after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

But in calling for the overthrow of one form of unequaled authority, he was merely exchanging it for another: the power of the princes. Once he advocated for obedience to these secular rulers—even urging these princes to forsake leniency against protesters (“It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace”)—he was priming the masses for absolute fealty to a political colossus unrestrained by the fear of God that gripped and restrained him throughout his life: Hitler’s Third Reach.

 (For a searching discussion of the consequences of this, please see William Castro’s “Luther and German Nationalism” in the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ “Reformation21.”) 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Photo of the Day: Saturday in the (Empty) Park


This morning, I took the accompanying photo of the park next to the Leonia Public Library, in the next town from me in Bergen County, NJ. Given the unsettled weather at that point in the day, few if any people wanted to risk a downpour sitting outside—or watching their kids play. The loneliness of this scene, though undoubtedly temporary, seemed appropriate for restrictions in the age of COVID-19.

Quote of the Day (Stanley Crouch, on How Charlie Parker ‘Defined His Generation’ of Jazz)


“[His] musical gifts made it possible for [Charlie] Parker to evolve from an inept alto saxophonist, a laughingstock in his middle teens, to a virtuoso of all-encompassing talent who, by the age of twenty-five, exhibited an unprecedented command of his instrument. His prodigious facility was used not only for exhibition or revenge, moreover, but primarily for the expression of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic inventions, at velocities that extended the intimidating relationship of thought and action that forms the mastery of improvisation in jazz. In the process, Parker defined his generation: He provided the mortar for the bricks of fresh harmony that Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were making, he supplied linear substance and an eighth note triplet approach to phrasing that was perfectly right for the looser style of drumming that Kenny Clarke had invented.”— African-American poet, novelist, musical and cultural commentator, and biographer Stanley Crouch, “Bird Land: Charlie Parker, Clint Eastwood, and America,” in Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006)

Charlie Parker, the nonpareil saxophonist and composer who helped pioneer the postwar bebop movement in jazz, was born 100 years ago today in Kansas City, KS.

I have written before on “Bird,” including on his subordinate role in the first recording session of former group member Miles Davis and his early death. But I wanted to post again in a way that captures concisely what he meant to the evolution of jazz as an art form. Crouch’s passage above fulfills that nicely, I think.

Friday, August 28, 2020

This Day in Media History (Beck, Palin Lead Pseudo-Event, ‘Restoring Honor’ Rally)


Aug. 28, 2010—In one of the more curious manifestations of the growing Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck (pictured) and Sarah Palin led a “Restoring Honor” rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial that attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees.

The event, audaciously held on the 47th anniversary of the “March on Washington,” had little discernible content but demonstrated plenty of discontent—principally, with an African-American President whose election two years previously would have been inconceivable without the civil-rights movement that had reached its rhetorical zenith on this spot.

At the time, "Restoring Honor" garnered quite a bit of attention, typified by the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, which devoted three articles in one issue to the rally: William Kristol’s lead editorial, along with features by Harvard government Professor Harvey Mansfield and Lee Harris, author of The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.

Searching the Internet for more recent retrospectives on the rally, though, I came up with nothing significant. You might wonder, then, why I am even writing about something that left so little discernible impact on the popular memory.

But I would argue that it is worth discussing—not only as a demonstration of the amorphous anger that coalesced into the Democratic Party’s midterm drubbing the following November, but also as an example of what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin had, in his 1961 book The Image, termed a “pseudo-event.”

That resentment and the movement’s penchant for such synthetic happenings were integral elements in both the Republican Party’s domination of Capitol Hill through much of this past decade as well as in the rise of Donald Trump and his continued popularity among Republicans.

But back to Beck.

Three years ago while on a tour bus in Savannah, I saw another passenger, a middle-aged man, blinking nonstop. I couldn’t think right away who he reminded me of. Then it hit me: this was a Glenn Beck look-alike. I groaned at even this low-grade, undoubtedly unconscious imitator.

Starting out as a radio personality, Beck made the leap to television at CNN’s Headline News. Eventually the libertarian commentator came to the attention of Roger Ailes, who was casting about for an additional ratings magnet besides Bill O’Reilly. After meeting with him, the Fox News head hired Beck.

Debuting the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration as President, Beck was attracting more than 2 million viewers daily within a few weeks. Despite appearing in the 5 pm slot—not even the coveted prime time spot—Beck soon became the third highest-rated personality on the network.
 
He endeared himself to his audience with such pronouncements as that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people” and that Nazi tactics were progressive tactics.

Besides Beck, Fox had also had a hand in promoting Palin. From the moment of her selection as GOP Presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate, Ailes saw her as a natural for his medium with her biting criticism of both GOP regulars and liberal press outlets, or, in a term that has been endlessly and mindlessly retailed on social media ever since, “the lamestream media.”

With mounting legal bills from the election and her new-found celebrity status, Palin stepped down as governor in July 2009. Early the following year, she was on board as a Fox political commentator—as well as a star in the insurgent right wing whose endorsement could catalyze previously moribund candidates.

Although recognizing their ability to boost ratings, Ailes before long found Beck and Palin distinctly high maintenance. That feeling began to solidify with the “Restore Honor” rally, which—particularly in Beck’s case—the news head saw as an attempt at brand building outside the umbrella of the network, according to Gabriel Sherman’s biography of Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room.

In no small part, that explains why Fox made no special attempt to cover a happening by one of its own stars.

Ailes’ suspicions about Beck may have sprung from a conjunction of the rally itself, the anniversary of the civil-rights milestone, and his star’s own venture. Only a couple of days after “Restoring Honor” was held, Beck launched TheBlaze, a conservative cable media company. Indeed, it might be said that the venture arrived amid a “blaze” of publicity for its founder.

Whatever the rally’s shortcomings as actual news, it was certainly the kind of “pseudo-event” that Boorstin had in mind.  Using his criteria, it was planned rather than spontaneous; planned primarily to be reported or reproduced; ambiguous as it relates to the underlying situation; and intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even more obnoxiously, it sparked pseudo-events meant to counter it: on that very day by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and that fall in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”

But in another sense, "Restoring Honor" was not just a pseudo-event but also a daring act of political appropriation. More specifically, Beck and Palin capitalized on the inevitable association with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech without acknowledging the true nature of his challenge to the American political and social order of the time.

In a single sentence, Palin lumped King together with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as having “the same steel spine and moral courage” as the crowd.  Leave aside for a second the blatant flattery of those gathered together, not to mention the fatuity and fallaciousness of grouping them with a trio who risked death for establishing or extending freedom to Americans.

In essence, Palin was conveying that she knew that King was somehow important, but not why. The causes that drew her and Beck to the Tea Party—less government and lower taxes—were antithetical to the aims of Dr. King, who saw the federal government as the necessary guarantor of the rights of African-Americans and who in the weeks before his death was advocating for labor unions and the “Poor People’s Campaign” for jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children.

Does anyone really think that Beck and Palin would regard such measures collectively as anything other than socialism?

Certain aspects of the rally—all mentioned in the trio of Weekly Standard articles—gave it a veneer of non-partisanship: its stress on the non-objectionable “God and Country”; the ban on signs; the lack of specific references to political parties; even proceeds from the event to be designated for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

But all of this contrasts with the lack of progressive speakers who could have balanced the more conservative Beck and Palin, not to mention the use of the “Restoring Honor” label itself, which Professor Mansfield bluntly admitted was “a jab at President Obama.”

In retrospect, the irony of that “jab” is glaring. 

Whatever his real shortcomings as a leader, President Obama has conducted his private life without the sexual scandals that plagued a predecessor (Bill Clinton) and the current occupant of the Oval Office, and his administration was largely free of the ethics violations that characterized administrations of both parties going back nearly 40 years. Beck and Palin would have been better advised to employ that "Restoring Honor" tag now for the individual seeking reelection rather than a decade ago.

The best way to illustrate the fundamental shortcoming of Restoring Honor, though, is to contrast it with the March on Washington

Religious conviction animated most of those on the official program (King, John Lewis, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz) as surely as those at “Restoring Honor,” but they were there to promote concrete objectives—passage of civil-rights measures, ending school segregation, enforcing the 14th Amendment, and minimum-wage and fair-labor legislation.

On the other hand, “Restoring Honor” was centered around themes—God and Country. They were not only unassailable (were liberals really against either?), but also, for that reason, unmeasurable.

Beck, for instance, had proclaimed, "Something beyond imagination is happening. America today begins to turn back to God." How to begin to assess the truth of that? What constitutes turning “back to God”? Who decides what that even is?

In producing a return to God, Beck and Palin might have done better to dispense with smarmy self-congratulation like this in favor of painful self-examination. 

They might have asked how many people might have been turned off by the religious right's near-incestuous embrace of political power, or how so many leaders of religious-affiliated institutions had alienated their faithful through their own financial and/or sexual corruption (seen most recently with Jerry Falwell Jr. and, in the past few decades, with the American hierarchy of my faith, the Roman Catholic Church).

Quote of the Day (S.J. Perelman, on a Dental Visit, or ‘Cuspid's Last Stand’)


“For years I have let dentists ride roughshod over my teeth: I have been sawed, hacked, chopped, whittled, bewitched, bewildered, tattooed, and signed on again; but this is cuspid's last stand. They’ll never get me into that chair again. I’ll dispose of my teeth as I see fit, and after they’re gone, I’ll get along. I started off living on gruel, and, by God, I can always go back to it again.” — American humorist and screenwriter S.J. Perelman (1904-1979), “Nothing But The Tooth,” in The Best of S.J. Perelman (1947)

With dentists like the crew pictured, can you blame the poor man?

(The image accompanying this post shows Moe, Larry and Curly—i.e., The Three Stooges—in one of their shorts.)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Flashback, August 1945: Orwell’s Long-Delayed ‘Animal Farm’ Satirizes Soviet Tyranny


Though now virtually a canonical text of the Cold War, Animal Farm initially encountered significant roadblocks to publication. Secker and Warburg, which released the satire by George Orwell 75 years ago this month, was the fifth house that the iconoclastic left-wing journalist had approached, only to be turned down—including for explicitly political reasons.

At Faber and Faber, poet-editor T.S. Eliot, after conferring with colleagues, informed Orwell although his writing was good, “We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the current time.”

Outside of the context of the original letter, Eliot’s rationale sounds opaque notes that readers of his poetry might appreciate. But Orwell had little trouble deciphering it, for elsewhere in the message, Eliot took note of the “Trotskyite” perspective of the narration. Anyone reading between the lines would immediately understand that this might upset a key partner in Great Britain’s “Grand Alliance” against Nazi Germany: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Orwell conceived his devastating depiction of the Soviet Union as a failed utopia in the form of a beast fable about “Manor Farm”—so called because of the aristocrats who controlled it for years. The granular details of his allegory were inspired by time spent from 1936 to 1940 in a cottage in Wallington, near London, where the journalist kept chickens, goats and geese.

But, for contemporary readers, the primary interest of Orwell’s bitter satire—what led it to be banned in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries now falling under its sway—lay in characters whose motives, decisions and fates resembled the ideological battles among Socialists, Communists and the latter’s Trotskyite splinter faction. In particular, they were modeled on world-famous leaders of the prior three decades dating back to the Russian Revolution:

* Mr. Jones, the failing farmer whose misrule eventually leads to a revolt by his animals, stands for Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who was overthrown in 1917 and, with the rest of his family, put to death a year later;

* Old Major, the pig who organizes the animal revolt and insists on their equality, represents Vladimir Lenin—and, like the Bolshevik leader, dies before many of his ideas can become reality;

* Napoleon signifies Stalin—even to the point of being named for another dictator who used the chaotic aftermath of a revolution as a ladder to absolute power;

* Snowball, who loses out in a power struggle with Napoleon—and then is driven off the farm by dogs acting at the behest of the vengeful victor—is based on Leon Trotsky, who  was driven into exile by Stalin in 1929 and assassinated in Mexico on the dictator’s orders in 1940.

Swiftly, Orwell traces how his bestial revolutionaries become acclimated step by step to erosions of their freedom to the point where they yield to a Soviet-style cult of personality:

“It had become usual to give Napoleon the credit for every successful achievement and every stroke of good fortune. You would often hear one hen remark to another, ‘Under the guidance of our leader, Comrade Napoleon, I have laid five eggs in six days,’ or two cows, enjoying a drink at the pool, would exclaim, ‘Thanks to the leadership of Comrade Napoleon, how excellent this water tastes!”

The infamous Moscow “show trials” of the mid-to-late Thirties, when a paranoid Stalin set in motion trumped-up charges against longtime major Communist Party leaders, are also evoked:

“They had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.”

With Napoleon amending to absurdity one of Old Major’s foundational principles (“All Animals Are Equal But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others”), Orwell anticipated a notion he would explore a few years later in greater depth in Nineteen Eighty-Four: doublethink, or indoctrination-induced acceptance of a patently false idea or of two ideas mutually contradictory to each other.

Orwell hinted in Animal Farm at the major enablers of the new absolutist regime in Europe: the silent intellectuals who could have sparked widespread dissent:

“Several of [the animals] would have protested if they could have found the right arguments. Even Boxer was vaguely troubled. He set his ears back, shook his forelock several times, and tried hard to marshal his thoughts; but in the end he could not think of anything to say.”

This bewilderment over the complicity of the intellectuals—first triggered by Orwell’s service with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, when he was shocked into disillusionment by Stalinist purges in Barceleona—hardened into contempt as he attempted to find a publisher for his new satire.

To fulfill the obligations of a contract calling for the submission of his next two novels, Orwell sent the manuscript to the man who published his first nonfiction title, Down and Out in Paris in London: Victor Gollancz. The old-line left-wing publisher, who preferred to mute any of his own reservations about Stalinism, did not surprise Orwell in the least when he quickly rejected this satire.

Eliot’s refusal, less expected because it came from some with more conservative political and religious convictions, was more painful. But the turndown of the manuscript that provoked Orwell the most came at the hands of the British publisher Jonathan Cape, which had committed to accepting it until being warned off by a government official. Orwell included their timorous critique in the preface he eventually wrote for Animal Farm:

I mentioned the reaction I had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think … I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste of the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

Orwell did not name that “important official in the Ministry of Information,” but he had a hunch that this bureaucrat harbored pro-Soviet sentiments—a belief given concrete form in 1949, when the writer included him on a list given to a friend in Britain's Foreign Office of 38 intellectuals who were “crypto-communist fellow travelers or inclined that way.”

Although some names on that list emerged more from Orwell’s prejudices than any real fact, he was correct to be suspicious of Peter Smollett. Only in 1990, a decade after his death, with the brief opening of Soviet intelligence archives, was it confirmed that Smollett, a past London correspondent for several European papers, was in reality Hans-Peter Smolka, part of the Soviet spy ring centered around Kim Philby.

Smollett’s interference delayed publication of Animal Farm for a year, leaving Orwell smoldering enough to blast “the servility with which the greater part of the English intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda from 1941 onwards.” It was safe to print criticisms of Prime Minister Winston Churchill during this period, but not the nation’s Soviet ally, he charged.

Orwell’s denunciation of these abject intellectuals has lost none of its bite with the passage of 75 years, nor has his eloquent defense of the right to advocate the unfashionable and inconvenient: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” 

Worn down by his struggle against tuberculosis, he would continue through the four years remaining to him to raise the alarm against threats to freedom, particularly in his last novel, when he dispensed with the fable form for a searing dystopian nightmare: Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Quote of the Day (John F. Kennedy, on the Contribution of ‘The Men Who Question Power’)


“The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”—John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States (1917-1963), in his last delivered speech, “Remarks at Amherst College,” Oct. 26, 1963

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Photo of the Day: Minute Man at Twilight, Lexington MA


I took this photo in October 2008, while staying just outside Boston. The afternoon light was waning fast when I came to the town green at Lexington, but I wanted to maximize my photos, as I wasn’t sure how many more opportunities I would have at this point in my trip to catch this sight.

Naturally, I would have preferred to have shot this when light was more abundant so the facial features would be more apparent. But in another sense, I like it as is. The essence of the Minute Man, after all, was vigilance, at all hours of the day or night.

In fact, twilight and beyond can be when dangers to liberty can most readily occur, when they are least visibility and when concentration is most relaxed.

This Minute Man statue stands at the intersection of Bedford Street and Massachusetts Avenue. It is commonly called the “Lexington Minute Man” statue to distinguish it from the other one by Daniel Chester French in nearby Concord—featuring on its base a stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” commemorating “the spot where the embattled farmer stood.”

The Lexington Minute Man was created by the English-born American sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson.

Quote of the Day (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on Why Suffering Is Not So Good for Writers)


"You write better with all your problems resolved. You write better in good health. You write better without preoccupations. You write better when you have love in your life. There is a romantic idea that suffering and adversity are very good, very useful for the writer. I don't agree at all."—Colombian Nobel Literature laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1928-2014), quoted in Pete Hamill, “Pete Hamill Interviews Gabriel GarcĂ­a Marquez: Love and Solitude,” Vanity Fair, March 1988

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Photo of the Day: ‘Boy Asleep With Hoe,’ Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA


Three years ago, during the last time I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum, this particular photo took my fancy. The poor boy in this 1919 work for the Saturday Evening Post, when you think about it, doesn’t do anything that adults wouldn’t if they had their way. He’s exhausted, and he’d just feel so much better if he could take off his hat, shoes and socks. Anyway, Rover here will wake him up. Right?

This work  had gone missing in a private home in Cherry Hill, NJ back in 1976. At the time of my visit, it had only been about half a year when the FBI had recovered it. The museum got this as a result of a loan from its current owner. Since 2017, thousands of visitors had the opportunity to see this again!

Quote of the Day (Michael Gerson, on Politics as a Battlefield)


“Those who see politics only as a method to defeat enemies and advance favored aims have lost sight of something important. We should honor democratic values, such as civility, not only because they make our system function, but because they make our system noble. We should treat our fellow citizens with respect because we share a role in, and responsibility for, an experiment in self-government that remains the last, best hope of Earth.”—Columnist and former Presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, “The Power of Civility,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2019

(The image accompanying this post was taken when Michael Gerson was part of the George W. Bush administration.)

Monday, August 24, 2020

Photo of the Day: A Frank Lloyd Wright Commission, Oak Park IL


Sixteen years ago, while visiting the Chicago area, I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in suburban Oak Park, which for a decade at the start of the 20th century was home to two authentic American geniuses: the child Ernest Hemingway and the middle-aged Frank Lloyd Wright.

When he started his own architectural practice, Wright did so in this town where he was raising his family. The Frank Lloyd Wright House and Museum remains a magnet to architectural aficionados worldwide, but the added benefit of coming here to this suburb is that a visitor can still see examples of the early work of this visionary.

In fact, Oak Park has the world’s largest collection of Wright-designed buildings and houses—25 of them constructed from 1889 to 1913, in the “Prairie Style” that he pioneered.

The Moore-Dugal Residence, on Forest Avenue, is one of these, designed in 1895 for Wright’s friend and neighbor, Nathan Moore, in the English Tudor style. I photographed it while I was in the neighborhood.

On Christmas 27 years later, the house caught fire, leading Moore to request that Wright design plans for its reconstruction. The new commission surely dredged up painful memories for the architect, as he had left town in a storm of scandal over his affair with the wife of another client. But Wright agreed to take up the work again.

But nothing ever really stays the same, and that proved true in this case, too, as Wright kept the original brick walls but made the roofs taller and more pointed than they had been before—and added elements from homes where he had been inspired since, by sojourns in California and Japan.

Quote of the Day (Joe Queenan, Suggesting Medical Freebies)


“I don't spend thousands of dollars a year at the bookstore or the dry cleaners or the local coffee shop, yet every couple of months or so, the owners throw a freebie my way. On the other hand, I do spend thousands of dollars a year at the doctor's. So wouldn't it be nice if every so often the doctor said: ‘Hey, you've been a loyal customer; this nasal endoscopy's on the house’? It would also be nice if my acupuncturist said, ‘Your money’s no good here, pal. I got this baby covered.’ And I'd love it if my physical therapist said, ‘C'mon, let me grab that check for a change.’ It would also be nice to get every fourth root canal free.”Joe Queenan, “Is There a Doctor on the House?”, The Wall Street Journal, July 11-12, 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Photo of the Day: Longfellow House, Cambridge MA


Even approaching this handsome example of Georgian architecture from the Charles River, as I did when I visited and photographed the site nearly a dozen years ago, Longfellow House commands attention.

With works such as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow remains the preeminent poet of American history. But his career extended far beyond these verses practically baked into Americans’ imaginations for the last century and a half, just as use of his house extended beyond even his long life.

Once the specter of COVID-19 fades, I urge readers who visit the Boston metro area to venture over to Cambridge for a stop at Longfellow House. It offers a chance to engage in history across several eras.

That history began well before Longfellow lived here. The home’s formal name, the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House, reflects its eight decades even before Longfellow got there.

John Vassall, a wealthy landowner, built the mansion as a colonial example of conspicuous consumption in 1759, only to flee it more than a decade later when his Loyalist sympathies made him persona non grata with neighbors.

Once Vassall left, the house didn’t stay vacant for long. George Washington used it as his headquarters for nine months as he successfully planned to drive the British out of Boston at the start of the American Revolution. (In 1844, Longfellow and his wife Fanny acquired a plaster case of a bust of the general by the French sculptor Houdon.)

Washington’s apothecary general, Andrew Craigie, modified the Brattle Street mansion in the early Federal period of the new republic. His renovations—including a large ell addition on the back of the house, as well as two symmetrical verandas on either side—provided the mansion with the basic structure and footprint it’s had ever since.

Craigie House, as it had become known, came on the market just when Longfellow, who had been renting near Harvard Square, needed a home for the family he was about to start with Fanny. The poet’s father-in-law, Boston industrialist Nathan Appleton, bought it for the young couple.

In this house achieved such fame and prosperity that he became the first American poet who could earn a living entirely on his writing. The seemingly easy grace of his literary style was matched by private contentment, as he and Fanny raised five children here.

All of that was shattered by a fire in 1861, when Fanny accidentally knocked over a candle as she was melting wax to seal locks of her children's hair. The resulting burns took her life and scarred Henry’s face to such an extent that he grew a beard to cover it.

In addition to explaining the domestic life and Henry and Fanny, the tour I took a dozen years ago also recounted colorful details in the lives of the Longfellow children. (One son, Charles, survived a terrible wound while serving in the Union Army in the Civil War, going on to write extensively about his experiences traveling in Asia in the postwar period.)

The house’s website also discusses how the family home was preserved into the 20th century—notably through the poet’s grandson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, a preservationist, scholar, pacifist and labor activist, who collected objects, photos, correspondence and other items that have helped guides at the house tell its story to succeeding generations of visitors.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on God ‘Diffused Through All’)


“‘Tis the sublime of man,
Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wondrous whole!
This fraternises man, this constitutes
Our charities and bearings. But 'tis God
Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole.”—English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), “Religious Musings” (1794)

Saturday, August 22, 2020

This Day in Literary History (Ray Bradbury, Lyrical, Starry-Eyed Futurist, Born)


Aug. 22, 1920—Ray Bradbury, who imagined the opportunities and terrors of a science-dominated future in approximately 600 short stories, novels, poems, screenplays, and teleplays of indelible vividness, was born in Waukegan, Ill.

Like other mid-20th century writers in the sci-fi, horror, and crime genres such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Silberberg, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Roald Dahl, Bradbury benefited from two vehicles: first, pulp magazines, and second, anthology TV series. These forums furnished the opportunity for these authors to be productive and to expose their work to mass audiences.

In high school one year, I spent an entire quarter on science fiction. The nun who taught the class, Sister Margaret Bradley, did not use the term “science fiction,” but rather “alternative futures,” because she did not want to emphasize gadgetry but speculation on the possibility of changing human nature. Bradbury, I think, was the author who best epitomized what she had in mind.

The best-known work in Bradbury’s seven-decade career is probably Fahrenheit 451 (1953). That warning on the dangers of censorship, coming after the collapse of Nazi Germany but at the height of the McCarthy Era in the U.S., became the basis for a “Read-a-Thon” this Saturday streaming over YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Library of Congress, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, along with other public and university libraries nationwide, joined together for this event.

Bradbury was concerned not just with what human beings might encounter in the future but with how their frailties might lead them to squander the possibilities of all the new vistas opened to them.
Such was the case, for instance, with The Martian Chronicles (1950), in which mankind repeatedly attempts to colonize the Red Planet, only unable to shed longtime prejudices in this new environment.

The fantastic visions of Bradbury’s fiction are manifested through a sensory, even lyrical style, marked by striking metaphors and similes. “Once you hear a metaphor of mine, you won't forget it,” he said in a 1990 interview with Starlog Magazine.  A dinosaur falling in love with a lighthouse, boom, there's your metaphor. Once you hear that, you say, ‘Gee, I gotta read that, I wonder what happened?’"

In the impressionistic opening paragraph of one of his most anthologized stories, “The April Witch” (1952), he conveyed the (literal) flight of fancy of a 17-year-old witch seriously thinking of giving up her extraordinary power if she can only experience human love:

“Into the air, over the valleys, under the stars, above a river, a pond, a road, flew Cecy. Invisible as new spring winds, fresh as the breath of clover rising from twilight fields, she flew. She soared in doves as soft as white ermine, stopped in trees and lived in blossoms, showering away in petals when the breeze blew. She perched in a lime-green frog, cool as mint by a shining pool. She trotted in a brambly dog and barked to hear echoes from the sides of distant barns. She lived in new April grasses, in sweet clear liquids rising from the musky earth.”

Movies started to shape Bradbury’s imagination during the silent-film era, and his education in the performing arts was even more thoroughly grounded in 1940, when he became active in amateur productions of actress Laraine Day’s Wilshire Players Guild for Mormon actors.

From early in his writing career, filmmakers were anxious to adapt his fiction, or even engage him in original work for the screen. But his experiences with Hollywood were frequently unstellar and often unhappy.

It took Bradbury years to see virtues in Francois Truffaut’s first English-language feature, a 1966 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. The Martian Chronicles gave him a case of double agita: first, when a story from it inordinately influenced an early Twilight Zone episode and damaged Bradbury’s relationship with friend and series creator Rod Serling; and second, when NBC ran a 1980 miniseries based on it starring Rock Hudson that Bradbury dismissed as “just boring.”

But the experience that may have soured Bradbury most deeply on Hollywood was his assignment to adapt Moby Dick for the screen for John Huston. The legendary director, impressed with Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” asked that the sci-fi author work on adapting Herman Melville’s novel in Ireland, where the film would be shot on location off the coast of County Cork, Ireland.

The initial high regard that the two had for each other began to erode as they spent more than half a year revising the script. But Bradbury became particularly angry when the director pulled a maneuver that Orson Welles had originally tried out more than a decade before with Herman Mankiewicz on Citizen Kane: i.e., gaining co-screenwriting credit. Huston proved more successful than Welles in that effort, even managing to overturn the Screen Writers Guild’s decision to award sole credit to Bradbury.

Decades later, the two wrote accounts in which their initial admiration yielded to disgruntlement. In his 1980 memoir An Open Book, Huston confessed to bewilderment about an author terrified by airplanes and fast cars even though his fiction inspired authors, astronomers and astronauts to dream of the stars.

Bradbury responded first with the 1984 short story “The Banshee,” which depicted a screenwriter tormented by a womanizing, sadistic famous director on his remote Irish screen, then nearly a decade later with Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), whose title and quasi-fictional format recalled an earlier screenwriter’s account of working with Huston on location, Peter Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart.

Perhaps the most satisfaction that Bradbury derived from adaptations of his work came with The Ray Bradbury Theater, a Canadian-American anthology series that ran for six seasons on cable TV. The series was nominated 10 times and won six for the coveted ACE (Award for Cable Excellence) from 1985 to 1992.

As executive producer and chief contributor to the series, Bradbury took a page from Serling in hosting the show. Unlike his estranged friend, his introductions framed the fantasy elements of the show squarely within his own creative process:

"People ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Well, right here.  All this is my Martian landscape.  Somewhere in this room is an African veldt. Just beyond perhaps is a small Illinois town where I grew up. And I'm surrounded on every side by my magician’s toyshop. I'll never starve here. I just look around, find what I need, and begin. I'm Ray Bradbury, and this is The Ray Bradbury Theater. Well then, right now, what shall it be? Out of all this, what do I choose to make a story? I never know where the next one will take me. The trip, exactly one half exhilaration, exactly one half terror.”