My Reading Life (2010)
Thursday, June 17, 2021
Wednesday, June 16, 2021
Brothers William James and Henry James Jr. became famous in their lifetimes for their powers of observation as respectively, pioneering psychologist-philosopher and fiction writer. It took over 70 years after her death, with the publication of her diaries, for the world to know that their younger sister, Alice James, had her own penetrating vision of the world, albeit one experienced from the bed where she languished as an invalid recluse.
The diary entry above conveys her pride in her two older brothers’ literary achievement in the prior year, as well as a gallows sense of humor bordering on stoicism in the face of the declining health that finally claimed her life a year later.
Alice was the youngest child of Henry James Sr., a wealthy, one-legged philosopher whose eccentricities affected, for good and ill, the lives of his five children—perhaps none more so than his daughter.
"In our family group, girls seem scarcely to have had a chance," Henry Jr. wrote. Irritated and uncomfortable because their father felt that women were mere appendages of men, Alice fell ill or sometimes pretended to be ill, with fainting spells or headaches. Some doctors diagnosed the underlying ailment as suppressed gout, others as “wandering womb.”
But the one applied most commonly to her (a particular favorite of male doctors of the time) was known as “neurasthenia,” a form of what European doctors saw as “hysteria.” We know recognize what she had as a depression so devastating that Alice became suicidal. “A hoop skirt is a death trap,” she would observe.
Oddly enough, perhaps because Alice finally felt she could be useful, the one period of her life when these conditions abated was when she had to care for her father when his health started to decline. But with his death in 1882, her condition worsened again.
Even confined to her bed, Alice missed little. The diary entries she began writing in 1889 (dictated to her longtime companion, Katherine Loring) were sometimes sharp, often funny, and usually unconventional.
Anglophilic Henry Jr., for instance, was astonished to discover, when Loring presented to him a copy of the diary after Alice’s death, that his sister “was really an Irishwoman.” It wasn’t simply because she ardently believed in Home Rule, but that she had assessed Britain’s role in fostering the conditions for this rising movement—and found their disclaimers of blame all too wanting:
“The behaviour of the Unionist and Tory is simply the bete carried to its supreme expression. It is truly a great misfortune for a people to be so destitute of inspiration, and so completely without honour, as to be left absolutely naked to itself. If you could read, too, the chorus going up to heaven on all sides over the love of manliness and fairness in the Briton's bosom! — those qualities of which they are always assuring the rest of the world they hold the monopoly. The Englishman, however, should not be held accountable for being mentally so abject before the Irishman; he is helpless, for there is absolutely nothing in his organization wherewith he can conceive of him, and his self-respect naturally has no other refuge save in loathing and despising him. He has no wings to his mind to bear him whither his leaden feet are inapt for carrying him; so that it is only now, at the end of seven centuries, that he is beginning faintly to divine that in Ireland, above all other lands, there are impalpable spiritualities which rise triumphant and imperishable before brutalities.”
Alice James died in 1892 of breast cancer. Although her brothers sensed her keen intellect, even they must have wondered at times what to make of her. We may be only coming to terms with her now.
Tuesday, June 15, 2021
with its new worldwide power, and Franklin Roosevelt taught us to believe that the first thing was for the United States to show that it was capable of living up to its ideals. I learned then — my first political lesson — that this is your true greatness, not, as was to be the norm in my lifetime, material wealth, not arrogant power misused against weaker peoples, not ignorant ethnocentrism burning itself out in contempt for others.
“As a young Mexican growing up in the U.S., I had a primary impression of a nation of boundless energy, imagination, and the will to confront and solve the great social issues of the times without blinking or looking for scapegoats. It was the impression of a country identified with its own highest principles: political democracy, economic well-being, and faith in its human resources, especially in that most precious of all capital, the renewable wealth of education and research.
“Franklin Roosevelt, then, restored America’s self-respect in this essential way, not by macho posturing.”—Mexican novelist-essayist Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012), “How I Started to Write,” in Myself With Others: Selected Essays (1988)
Monday, June 14, 2021
[played by Larry Linville] [to Margaret Houlihan]: “Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.” —M*A*S*H, Season 3, Episode 16, “Bulletin Board,” original air date Jan. 14, 1975, teleplay by Larry Gelbart and Simon Muntner, directed by Alan Alda
Sunday, June 13, 2021
American poet, essayist and memoirist Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993)
Saturday, June 12, 2021
Robert Byrd surpassed Strom Thurmond as the longest-serving member in the history of the U.S. Senate.
By the time he died four years later, at age 92, the Democrat from West Virginia had also become the longest-serving member in the history of Congress as a whole; had cast more votes than any other member; and had won an unprecedented ninth term for his office.
If Byrd had completed only his second, or even third, term as Senator, he might have been remembered far more negatively. In an entry for October 2, 1971 that was posthumously included in The Haldeman Diaries, H.R. Haldeman, chief of staff for Richard Nixon, recorded that his boss, annoyed that a potential Supreme Court nominee, Richard Harding Poff, was withdrawing from consideration for a Supreme Court vacancy, had decided to “really stick it to the opposition now”:
“On the court, he came up with the idea of (Robert) Byrd of West Virginia because he was a former KKK’er, he’s elected by the Democrats as Whip, he’s a self-made lawyer, he’s more reactionary than Wallace, and he’s about 53.”
Byrd indeed was “a former KKK’er,” a recruiter and organizer in the 1940s (though never a Grand Wizard, as some recent GOP misinformation states), as well as an advocate for racial segregation and a supporter of the Vietnam War.
But the need to secure votes among non-Southern colleagues for Senate leadership offices led him over the years to moderate old positions. Eventually, Byrd backed renewal of voting-rights legislation—a stance that won him praise from civil rights icon John Lewis and Barack Obama, the first African-American President—and he opposed both Ronald Reagan's aid to the contras in Nicaragua and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
As alluded to by Nixon, Byrd defeated the incumbent Democrat whip, Ted Kennedy, in 1971, shocking many political observers of the time. Thereafter he was elected twice as Senate Majority Leader.
“I ran the Senate like a stern parent," Byrd recalled in his memoir, Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. He had little time for small talk or glad-handling, as, for instance, the convivial Kennedy had. But his mastery of Senate rules gave him an unrivalled ability to rack up votes.
Unsurprisingly, then, despite his reputation for oratory (with speeches often studded with references to Roman history or literature), Byrd made a more lasting mark as a legislative technician.
Sanford Ungar’s 1975 Atlantic Monthly profile demonstrated how Byrd structured (or restructured) the Senate business on his way up the hierarchy (including shortening the chamber’s “morning hour” and moderating who could speak on the floor).
Were he alive today, Byrd might not recognize the political climate in either his native state or the Senate he had served so assiduously. Joe Manchin has been the only Democrat to hold a statewide office in the last four years, forcing him to tack to the right—a far cry from the days when Byrd regularly romped to landslide victories in the general election, or even ran unopposed. (Donald Trump took the state with nearly 69% of the popular vote in both the 2016 and 2020 Presidential races.)
Particularly during his two decades as chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd earned the nickname “The King of Pork” for the enormous federal largesse he secured for West Virginia--$1.2 billion through the Senate from 1991 to 2006, largely due to his efforts, according to an analysis by the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Though the use of earmarks is now being revived in Congress, the odor of illegality and ethical misdeeds continues to cling to the practice a decade after its use was banned. That complicates Senators’ hopes of proving their value to constituents—and the bargaining leverage for complex, often controversial bills that prior Senate leaders like Byrd would have possessed.
Finally, one suspects that Byrd—an institutionalist who defended the use of the filibuster in the Senate—might have lifted his eyebrows, annoyed at how Ted Cruz and his GOP colleagues have weaponized the practice. Rather than totally ban the filibuster, however, Byrd would probably have tried to punish Cruz for his showboating—perhaps by using an arcane parliamentary rule to stall a pet project—while warning Democratic colleagues against outlawing a procedure that they might find handy to use someday, albeit less frequently.
“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” —Oscar-winning actress and dancer Shirley MacLaine, Don't Fall Off the Mountain (1970)
(The image accompanying this post is a studio promotional photo of Shirley MacLaine, taken in 1960.)