Monday, June 30, 2008

This Day in Scientific History (Mysterious Cosmic Body Explodes in Siberia)

June 30, 1908—In central Siberia, shortly after 7 a.m., a comet or asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere and exploded between five and 10 kilometers above ground, devastating an entire forest and leaving behind a century-old mystery that haunts scientists to this day.

Why should the so-called “
Tunguska explosion”—an event that happened in the middle of nowhere, practically—concern us? Because similar past disturbances in the atmosphere have had major effects on the evolution of the world, scientists say. Moreover, because the fireball flew through the atmosphere in a largely unpopulated region, the world lucked out then. We might not be so fortunate next time—and, according to the best calculations, “next time” might not be all that far off.

I learned about this event in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American, a magazine that, when I had to read it for some projects in my high school biology class with Larry Chinnock in St. Cecilia High School, really made my eyes glaze over. Something must have happened in the intervening years, though, because the articles made more sense to me. My guess is that they simplified it for the likes of me. (I did, after all, pick this up at a newsstand.) You won’t be able to read the full text online, but even
this excerpt, I believe, will be enough to make you want to read the whole thing.

The atmospheric disturbance registered the largest impact of a cosmic body to occur on the Earth during modern history, according to the article. What was it like to experience this extraordinary event? According to one Russian eyewitness, at the closest human habitation, a trading station:

"I was sitting on the porch of the house at the trading station, looking north. Suddenly in the north...the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire. I felt a great heat, as if my shirt had caught fire... At that moment there was a bang in the sky, and a mighty crash... I was thrown twenty feet from the porch and lost consciousness for a moment.... The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or guns firing. The earth trembled.... At the moment when the sky opened, a hot wind, as if from a cannon, blew past the huts from the north. It damaged the onion plants. Later, we found that many panes in the windows had been blown out and the iron hasp in the barn door had been broken."

Far away, even in lands as distant as Britain, the effects could be felt:

* Instruments recorded seismic vibrations as much as 1,000 km (600 miles) away.

* Closer, around 60 km away, observers were thrown to the ground or knocked unconscious.

* The closest human observers (if they could be called “observers”—maybe were asleep in their tents at the time) were reindeer herders, some of whom were blown into air and knocked unconscious. At lease one man died.

* Londoners could see a pink, phosphorescent night sky.

* An Israeli scientist estimated in 1975 that the explosion was between 10 and 15 megatons in magnitude—the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

Believe it or not, it was 19 years before the authorities could mount a serious scientific investigation into what happened. The lapse is unfortunate, but a bit more understandable when one considers what was happening in Russia during those years. For the first nine years, the country was wracked by internal unrest, mobilization for WWI, then the Russian Revolution. Then after 1917 came invasion by Russia’s former Western partners in WWI, civil war, and the beginning of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The authors of the Scientific American article will be conducting further investigations into the origins of the disturbance this year. By better understanding what kind of event this was, they hope to be better prepared the next time it happens—which could be within our lifetime.

Quote of the Day (Gould)

"It's easy to compare the initial thrill of evoking an immediate response to a blog post to the rush of getting high, and the diminishing thrills to the process of becoming inured to a drug's effects. The metaphor is so exact, in fact, that maybe it isn't a metaphor at all."—Emily Gould, "Exposed," The New York Times Magazine, May 25, 2008

Sunday, June 29, 2008

This Day in Theater History (The Globe Theatre Burns)

June 29, 1613—During a performance of the William Shakespeare-John Fletcher history play, Henry VIII, the Globe Theatre—not only the scene of most of The Bard’s greatest triumphs, but also a stage he had helped build himself and invested heavily in 14 years before—burnt to the ground.

The cause of the blaze was a cannon, jammed with gunpowder and wadding, ordinarily employed for special effects, such as fanfares. In one of the latter, according to an account written three days after the fire, some of the material lit on the thatched roof, "where being thought at first an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds."

No account has come to light of any casualties at the event, though the above description mentioned that one onlooker "had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale."

“A provident wit” and “ale”—how much does that sound like a character so popular even in Shakespeare’s own lifetime that the playwright had to bring him back, after everyone thought he was dead and buried, in a prequel (The Merry Wives of Windsor): Sir John Falstaff?

I read this account of the fire in Stephen Greenblatt’s
Will in the World, .just one in a whole slew of fine recent attempts to come to grips with the life and meaning of Shakespeare. The Bard continues to fascinate, nearly four centuries after his death, for three reasons, I believe:

1) his understanding of human psychology;
2) his infinite playfulness with language; and
3) the lack of abundant documentation, which has invited all kinds of speculation about his life, character and influences.

(My favorite Shakespeare theory—I’m not saying it’s true, mind you—came from the actor
James O’Neill. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, son Eugene, through theatrical stand-in Edmund Tyrone, pours scorn on his father’s insistence that Shakespeare was Irish.

Well, what was wrong with the Old Man’s theory, says I? So much in Shakespeare’s life sounds typically Irish, if you ask me: all that lyrical poetry; the mixture of high comedy and crushing tragedy, sometimes in the same play; the way he made English do his bidding, rather than visa versa; and the considerable liberties he took with real people, such as Joan of Arc, in his history plays, with the last item illustrating my friend Brian’s frequently uttered claim that “It’s every Irishman’s prerogative to stretch the truth.”)

Interest in how Shakespeare was performed has risen along with the speculation about his life. That, in turn, has fueled interest in the Globe. James Shapiro’s
A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599, tells how the theater came into being at Christmastime 1598, when Richard and Cuthbert Burbage—stars in many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays—approached the Bard and four other actor-shareholders in their company, The Chamberlain’s Men, with a proposal to buy a new site for the company, which was going homeless. The site would be in Southwark, just outside the city of London proper.

Even with a relatively cheap 31-year lease, Shakespeare & Co. were taking a huge gamble. For one thing, this was the first London theater by actors for actors, and you know how those creative types are—no head for business. But the entire enterprise was one that would make any modern risk manager break out in hives. Among the problems:

* The monarch’s displeasure—or, rather, the future monarch’s displeasure, since Queen Elizabeth I was aging and had no heir (something that nobody wanted to speak about too loudly, lest word get back to Bess Herself and she stuck you in the Tower of London), and the future royal family might well take exception to how the theater company had portrayed the forebears of the monarch in England’s past struggles over the crown;

* The plague—for obvious reasons, business went south when theatergoers feared catching a disease whose cause and cures they didn’t know;

* The reputation of their profession—Though audiences ate up the shows mounted by the Chamberlin’s Men, there was one significant group of Dissenters—in fact, they often were called “Dissenters” with a capital D—the Puritans. Sure, they were a minority now, but what if they seized power and succeeded in their dearest wish to close arenas of pleasure such as theaters?

* Fire—in Elizabethan times, a word much less metaphorical than real, as London would discover on a grand scale in 1666. And here, the deal proposed by the Brothers Burbage contained a cost-containment idea that looked okay at the time, but ended up costing them more dearly in 1613. The brothers would disassemble and transport all the material from their recently vacated venue, The Theater, as long as Shakespeare and the other four investors covered 10% of the new stage’s operating costs and its remaining construction expenses. o clamp down on the latter, the company dispensed with tile for the roof in favor of thatch, which, they all learned to their dismay 14 years later, was far more flammable.

After 1608, the Chamberlain’s Men began to perform in a second, more intimate setting, the Blackfriars Playhouse. Ron Rosenbaum, master of creative nonfiction, has a fine ironic account of how this second venue was replicated in, of all places, Staunton, Va.—birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, a full 2 1/2 –hour drive from Washington, D.C.—in
The Shakespeare Wars.

Two and a half years ago, on a vacation in the Shenandoah Valley region, I had the pleasure of catching a performance in this newer
Blackfriars Playhouse of The Comedy of Errors, a wonderful opportunity to showcase how Shakespeare used all the resources of a comparatively bare-bones stage, language, the multiple talents of his crew (including singing and playing musical instruments), and close interaction with the audience. I hope to catch another performance again down there someday.

The burning of the Globe probably solidified Shakespeare’s decision to stay semi-retired, and he died three years later. The company rebuilt The Globe in 1614, but another one of the risk factors I mentioned earlier came to pass. In 1642, with Oliver Cromwell coming into his own as the new power in the land, the Puritans seized control and closed all the nation’s theaters. To add insult to injury, Cromwell’s men tore down the structure, leveled it and built tenement housing upon it.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the remains of the Globe were finally unearthed, by which time the dream of the American actor Sam Wanamaker was coming to fruition—the rebuilding of The Globe only 200 yards from the original.

Quote of the Day (Douthat)

“…[T]he new mass-market atheism is following the same pattern as the Christian Right before it, which likewise drew strength from a sense of embattlement and persecution. These mirror-image movements can be seen as backlashes against the genteel secularism of mid-century, with its faintly condescending respect for the idea of Religion, and its studious indifference toward actual belief. This backlash has made debates over religion more polarizing than they used to be—and also more interesting.—Ross Douthat, “Mass-Market Atheism,” in “The 11 ½ Biggest Ideas of the Year,” The Atlantic, July/August 2008 issue

Saturday, June 28, 2008

This Day in Environmental History (Flood Control Act of 1938)

June 28, 1938—Congress passed the
Flood Control Act of 1938, authorizing civil engineering projects such as dams, levees, dikes and other flood control measures. 

The bill also gave the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) the authority to acquire land for flood control, while stipulating that the ACE limit construction. 

Other, more significant events occurred on June 28 in American history, notably the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision. But given the enormous tragedy that has occurred recently with Midwest flooding, I thought that flood control seemed like an unusually timely topic—not to mention one that’s little understood. 

The first fact that took me by surprise in researching this subject was that, unlike other pieces of legislation—Social Security, say—no one date stands out from any other in this area. In fact, the Flood Control Act needed a specific year attached to its name because at one point, one act of this type was being passed annually or biannually from 1917 through the next 25 years. 

Congress was first prompted to act concerning flooding in 1874, with an act providing for relief work after a severe flood along the Mississippi. Even the Johnstown Flood of 1889, which claimed more than 2,200 lives, did not prompt federal intervention in this area. Whatever legislation could be produced had to be justified as improving navigation rather than enhancing flood control, because of the constitutional scruples of a number of Congressmen. (What? Constitutional scruples? Congress? Did I hear you correctly?)

But floods along the Mississippi in 1912 and 1913 exposed the fallacy of the belief that the states were the best actors to handle this. In March 1917, partly as a result, Congress passed the first federal flood control legislation. It took the great Mississippi flood of 1927, however—a disaster which saw the Red Cross caring for almost 600,000 at one point—for the ACE to become convinced that levees alone would not prevent these disasters, but rather levees, floodways and spillways working together. 

With its belief in government and major projects, such as TVA—and particularly with the President’s interest in all matters environmental—the Roosevelt administration made flood control an even more urgent part of its overall program. The 1936 Flood Control Act, the real beginning of comprehensive federal flood control work, now stated explicitly that flood control was a "proper activity of the Federal Government in cooperation with States, their political subdivisions, and localities thereof." 

And, giving a further jab at those who wanted to limit federal interference in what had once been a state prerogative, the 1938 act listed recreation as one of the areas that the ACE should consider in planning these projects. Among the major projects shepherded into existence by this law was Center Hill in Tennessee, Mud Mountain Dam near Seattle, and Deer Creek Lake in Ohio (pictured). 

Disaster relief has become one of the areas most affected by federal government policy and administration. Because of the large numbers of people affected by Hurricane Katrina and the more recent flooding, I’m sure that, no matter which party wins this November, we’re likely to see greater federal supervision in this area. It’s likely to affect even more aspects of how people live—from insurance they get for their properties all the way to whether they will even be allowed to build in flood-prone areas.

Quote of the Day (Carlin)

"Have you ever noticed that their stuff is s--t, and your s--t is stuff?"—Comedian George Carlin (1937-2008)
(Not realizing his own powers of prophecy, Monsignor Stanislaus P. Jablonski, dean of discipline at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, once noted on a detention slip about one of his teenage charges, George Carlin: “He thinks he’s a comedian.” Amen. He could not be bothered with books, but Carlin’s delight in language and its paradoxes, as illustrated in the one-liner above, was almost Joycean in its relish in wordplay, a typically Celtic delight in inverting sense and overturning shibboleths. The one-liner also conveyed his belief that “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” I’m afraid that his use of drugs shortened his life, but I thank God—a being, incidentally, whose existence Carlin denied—that we had him around for as long as we did. Rest in peace, George, and may you be greeted with smiles at the pearly gates.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

This Day in Literary History (Fitzgerald Meets Joyce)

June 27, 1928—Sylvia Beach, co-owner of Parisian library-bookstore Shakespeare & Co., held a dinner party whose guests included two of the most influential novelists of the 20th century: James Joyce, whose Ulysses she had published in the teeth of censorship, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the voice of the “Jazz Age” who was dying to meet Joyce but was afraid to approach him.

Ordinarily, this particular dinner, with such illustrative guests, might have been like a literary-focused version of the old Steve Allen show “Meeting of the Minds.” Wouldn’t you have wanted to have been a fly on the wall as Joyce disclosed to Fitzgerald his ideas on stream of consciousness, or when Fitzgerald explained to Joyce what exactly happened in those missing years to his hero Jay Gatsby when he was apart from his Daisy?

Only it didn’t work out quite that way. It was more like the kind of incident you’d find in the marvelous book First Encounters, a series of ironic chapters accompanied by equally droll color drawings, created by the husband-and-wife team of Edward and Nancy Caldwell Sorel. The pairs chosen for that book include Marilyn Monroe and Isak Dinesen, Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, Richard Nixon and Madame Mao.

Another odd couple in this beautiful volume was Fitzgerald and novelist Edith Wharton, in an episode that foreshadowed what happened at Beach’s. Impressed by The Great Gatsby, the aging grande dame of American letters had invited Fitzgerald over to her estate for tea. Fitzgerald and a friend worked themselves up into a state of liquefied but incoherent courage by the time they staggered over to her home. The encounter did not alter in the slightest Wharton’s hardening belief that the younger generation had lost the moral fiber that hers, though afflicted with restrictive and often arbitrary social codes, had possessed: “To tea, Teddy Chanler and Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist – awful,” she wrote in her diary.

Maybe nervousness drove Fitzgerald to a similar state when it was time to meet Joyce. (Not that it took much to intoxicate him—he was famous for not being able to hold his liquor.) It’s not recorded whether Fitzgerald tried out the usual conversational opener that always managed to puzzle and/or annoy listeners: “How much money do you make?”

In any case, very early on he was acting…unusually, shall we say. Like falling to one knee, kissing Joyce’s hand and saying, “How does it feel to be a great genius, sir? I am so excited at seeing you, sir, that I could weep.” And this was only a preview of the kind of behavior that gets him on nearly everyone’s short list of the most idiotic drunks in history.

Next, according to Herman Gorman, a fellow guest that night and future Joyce biographer, Fitzgerald turned his attention to Joyce’s wife Nora, who normally did not go in for literary soirees very much. Ine, she advised her sister: "There's one thing I hate-- going out to dinner and sitting with artists till 1:00 in the morning. They'd bore you stiff, Kathleen.”

The former Miss Barnacle was used to men clinging to her, sometimes foolishly (like her Jim, especially early in their quarter-century relationship). Sure, and so what if the American was a bit daft—he was calling her beautiful, and what harm did it ever do a middle-aged lady and mother of two with a preoccupied husband to hear talk like that?

Matters took a more daring turn, however, when Fitzgerald saw a window opening, rushed through it onto the balcony, climbed out onto an 18-inch-wide parapet, and announced he would kill himself unless Nora said she loved him.

Eventually, the small group convinced Fitzgerald to act sensibly and get down from there, though the episode left Joyce a bit shaken afterward. “That young man must be mad," he later told Beach about his and Nora’s admirer. "I'm afraid he'll do himself an injury some day." (In a few days, perhaps because his ego was stroked, the Irishman displayed more bonhomie when he provided Fitzgerald an autographed copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Earlier, I wrote that dinner at Miss Beach’s did not turn out to be quite the “Meeting of the Minds” that one might expect. But, in his post-hangover period, Fitzgerald somehow recalled enough about the evening to mention to editor Maxwell Perkins that Joyce predicted his own writing project would take another three or four years to complete.

Floundering on his follow-up to The Great Gatsby after vowing he would create “something NEW in form, idea, structure—the model for the age that Joyce and Stein are searching for, that Conrad didn’t find,” the American took comfort in the fact that even a genius such as Joyce could not unleash a masterpiece upon command.

The expectations of both novelists turned out to be overly optimistic. Already at work on his book for four years before meeting Fitzgerald, Joyce would take another 11 to complete Finnegans Wake. It wasn’t writer’s block that sidelined him, though, but life’s vicissitudes.

Glaucoma meant that Joyce required surgery 11 times to stave off blindness, and daughter Lucia ended up confined in a series of clinics and asylums. Fitzgerald’s disease was alcoholism, but the financial drain on him was wife Zelda’s medical care for what was diagnosed as the same medical condition as Lucia Joyce: schizophrenia.

For a long time, Nora Joyce did not share the literary community’s high opinion of her husband. She was given to despair wondering why he ever gave up singing for writing, and on at least one occasion, referring to Finnegans Wake, she asked Joyce: “Why don't you write sensible books that people can understand?"

After her finance-strapped husband died in 1941, however, Nora came to look differently on the man who had taken up so much of her adult life. "Sure if you've been married to the greatest writer in the world you don't remember all the little fellows." At long last, she had come to share the opinion of her late visually impaired husband’s work expressed by his pie-eyed American fan.

Quotes of the Day (Cohen)

“I can’t think of a country that’s benefited from European Union membership more than Ireland. It has catapulted itself in a few decades from beer-soaked backwater to the Celtic Tiger whose growth rates, foreign investment and rags-to-riches story were the envy of every languishing small nation with a thirst for a makeover.”
“Yes, it’s more complicated running a 27-member E.U. than a cozy 12-member club. Yes, Polish plumbers might show up in Western Europe and take a job or two.”— New York Times/International Herald Tribune op-ed columnist Roger Cohen, “
The Muck of the Irish,” June 19, 2008
(I heard about this column in this week’s issue of The Irish Voice, but could not believe that in this day and age—and on the Web site of a newspaper that prides itself on its liberal advocacy for almost any beleaguered group you could name—a piece such as this could appear featuring not one, but two ethnic stereotypes. I decided I had to see it for myself, and in the same spirit I urge you to follow the above link to judge for yourself. At first, I thought it was shameful of Cohen to write this and of his newspaper to print it. Now, I believe it’s shameful for all of us not to denounce the two of them and make our displeasure known in as forceful a way as possible.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

This Day in Cold War History (Berlin Airlift Begins)

June 26, 1948—In the first confrontation between Western and Eastern powers in postwar Europe, Western planes begin to airlift food and other supplies to citizens of West Berlin, who have had surface traffic cut off by the Soviet Union. Eighty tons of supplies—at this point, mainly powdered milk, flour and medicine—were delivered on 32 American C047 flights.

Readers of this blog have gotten used to a mix of posts on both momentous (e.g., the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and the trivial (the premiere of the comic strip “Garfield”). The latter often make people smile, and they’re certainly fun to write and an occasional much-needed respite from an unending diet of serious posts.

But sometimes it’s important to cover the first type, particularly in those instances, as with the
Berlin Airlift, when a major event tilted the balance in 20th century history but is now largely forgotten, or at least overlooked.

Why, for instance, does the Airlift receive so little attention? For one thing, tension in the divided German capital never degenerated into outright war (thank God). But several other factors contributed to the lack of fanfare for this major event, I believe:

1) Television—especially television news—was in its infancy. In our age, if you can’t see it, it’s not even on our radar screen.
2) Baby boomers are too young to remember it. From the Sixties to today, my generation has had one mantra: It’s all about us. Our rage (in the Sixties). Our compromises with the necessity of making a living (the “Yuppies” of the Eighties). Our worries about the viability of Social Security (today). In short, our self-absorption.
3) We didn’t learn history in school. If we know anything about the Berlin Airlift at all, it’s that it was part of the Cold War, and we know what that means: McCarthyism. Blackouts. Nuclear fallout drills in which you hid under the desk. Vietnam.

The Berlin Airlift, in short, was contrary to our ethos and experience. It demanded self-sacrifice, a can-do spirit, and a sense of resolution even when the odds ran against us.

To understand the Berlin Airlift, not just read cold, hard facts on a page about it, imagine the following in the first half of 1948. Better yet, put yourself in the shoes of
President Harry S. Truman—the little man from Missouri who assumed his nation’s highest office because of the untimely death of his larger-than-life predecessor—as all of this was occurring one swift day after another:

* You’re in an uphill election race against a unified Republican Party all the hungrier for being out of power for 16 years. You, on the other hand, are facing challenges from your liberal and conservative wings. (And Al Gore thought he had it bad with Ralph Nader in 2000!)
* Soviet puppet governments have seized power in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. (And a Soviet-friendly regime is thisclose to gaining power in China.) You haven’t been able to do much about it—and the Republicans have been reminding the country about it at every turn. Guess what? Your poll numbers are tanking.
* The Soviets refuse to cooperate with Britain, France and the U.S. in administering their respective military zones and in creating a new national government in de-Nazified Germany.
General Lucius Clay, the military governor of Germany, tells you the western zones in Berlin are “more tense than at any time since surrender.” No surprise—nobody’s eating. Daily rations in Germany are down to 900 calories a day—way below the recommended allowance for adequate nutrition. Winter will only make things worse.
* Berlin has not bounced back on its feet yet. In fact, the Western powers’ attempt to achieve stability via a common currency is spoiled by Soviet intransigence. The Soviets want civil disorder—that’s how they’ve usually come into power.
* The Soviets don’t take the Western powers’ declaration of a common currency—meant to promote stability in the city—well at all. In fact, they insist on searching all cargo traveling through its portion of Germany. The West refuses. Consequently, the U.S.S.R. shuts off all ground and water traffic to West Berlin on June 24.
* The U.S. military creates plans for another invasion of Germany, only three years after the last one. General Clay is thinking about an armed convoy to break the blockade by rumbling through Soviet-controlled territory. Either alternative could spell WWIII.
* In short, are you really sure you want this job, Mr. Truman?

As Truman huddled with advisors and communicated with foreign officials about the crisis, a possibility loomed as a chance to circumvent the blockade without directly confronting the Soviets—an airlift. But it was a gamble—nobody knew how many resources it would take, or for how long.

Major players in the airlift included:

Sir Brian Robertson, the British commander who first proposed the idea.
* General Lucius Clay, who ordered the initial airlift on his own initiative.
* General Curtis LeMay, who became far better known in later years for saying the U.S. could win the war in Vietnam by bombing North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age,” but who in this instance gave his swift, enthusiastic assent to Clay’s inquiry about the feasibility of the airlift;
Lt. General William Tunner, who went after his pet peeves—cargo planes and crews sitting idly, planes stacked up over Berlin’s Templehof Airport—with such a vengeance that he was able eventually to move aircraft in and out of Berlin at two-minute intervals, day and night, in any kind of weather.
* President Truman, who, two days after the first airlift flights, stated that abandoning the city was out of the question—and stuck to his resolve over the 13 months of the operation.
* Germany volunteers, who not only manned the maintenance crews servicing the cargo planes but also became so efficient at their job that they could unload 10 tons of coal in 10 minutes. (It helped that they had powerful incentives to assist in the effort: a positive inducement—productive volunteers were given extra rations—and a negative inducement—the very real fear that the Russian Army would pick up where it left off three years before when it conducted a mass rape campaign as it overran the Third Reich in the closing days of the war.)

On May 12, 1949, Soviet troops began dismantling barricades and restored access to the city. On September, the last of more than 278,000 flights landed in the city, by which time some 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other supplies had been delivered.

Let it be remembered that the flights were not without cost: Seventy-three Allied airmen and at least five Germans died in accidents during the operation. Seldom have military personnel—including Americans—been involved in such a massive, daring, profoundly unselfish undertaking—one that kept the possibility of freedom alive in a fragile democracy and, in the new cooperation between Americans and their former WWII foes, helped ease resentments left over from that earlier conflict.

Precedents Set

The Berlin Airlift became the first international humanitarian effort primarily conducted through aircraft. Moreover, it was the first that did not rely principally on international aid relief organizations such as the Red Cross.

It did not, unfortunately, ease tensions between East and West. Divided Berlin became the preeminent symbol of divisions between the superpowers—and, as President Kennedy correctly noted (see the “
Quote of the Day”), a symbol of their attitudes toward freedom.

Someone should do a study of just how much media outlets covered the anniversary of this event. From what I can see, it hasn’t been much. It’s as if the media are bringing to fruition the “memory hole” predicted by George Orwell in 1984.

Quote of the Day (Kennedy)

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner.”—John F. Kennedy, in West Berlin, June 26, 1963

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This Day in World War I History (Marines Take Belleau Wood)

June 25, 1918—Capping three weeks of combat in the face of enemy machine-gun fire, artillery barrages and poison gas, the Marine Corps contingent of the American Expedition Force’s Second Division finally achieved victory at the Battle of Belleau Wood, stopping the last major German offensive of the war.

Today, the American sacrifice—9,777 casualties, of which 1,811 were fatal—is commemorated by a nearly 100-ft.-tall monument towering over the Aisne-Marne Cemetery (see the picture accompanying this post). Anti-American slogans must ring pretty hollow in the vast stillness here—the first of two instances in the past century when American troops helped save France from falling to an authoritarian German power.

One regret of mine in writing this blog—one I hope to rectify over the next several months—has been the lack of material on the First World War. The conflict might have ended 90 years ago, but we are still suffering from the ghastly wound it opened in civilization.

After four years of trench warfare, mostly on its home ground, France in particular was loosening its grip in the death grapple with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Army. It could hardly wait for fresh American troops to face off against the Germans.

“Belleau Wood” is shorthand for two parts of the epic battle. On June 3-4, 1918, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force,
General John J. Pershing, acceding to the wishes of the French, ordered the Second and Third Divisions to link up with the French Tenth Colonial Division to halt a German advance at Chateau-Thierry, a mere 50 miles from Paris. Only two days after this combined force drove the Germans back across the Marne, the Americans embarked on the second part of the engagement: capturing Belleau Wood itself. Easier said than done.

Slaughter in the Wheat Field

After emerging from a shallow trench, the Marines had to cross an open wheat field to seize their objective. Whatever fleeting thoughts they might have entertained that the shoulder-length wheat stalks might camouflage their advance were immediately dashed by an enemy crouching behind firmly entrenched positions.

They Called Us Devil Dogs, by Byron Scarbrough, an as-told-memoir from the perspective of his grandfather, the Tennesseean Jim Scarbrough, offers an extraordinarily vivid retrospective of that day:

“From the wood line came a constant rain of machine gun fire sweeping left to right and back, clipping off the stalks of wheat and the men in between them. I remember thinking the bullets sounded just like crickets, loud crickets. I also remember the men were falling just like mown grass. There was shouting and screaming near and far. It was hard to make anything out.”

Crossing an open field, completely exposed to enemy fire—does this sound to you at least somewhat like Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg? Me, too.

And though the results were not as calamitous for the Marines as they proved for the Marines as they had been for the Confederates a half-century before, they were bad enough, as weapon advances had heightened defenses’ ability to inflict damage. That day—June 6, 1918—the Marine Corps sustained the most casualties in its history (a terrible record not surpassed until the Battle of Tarawa in the South Pacific in November 1943).

For the next three weeks, the action seesawed between the Germans and Americans, with the woods being taken by the Americans—then recaptured by the Germans—a total of six times.

Reasons for the Marine Victory

Marines had three major assets in the fight:

* Precision long-distance marksmanship. German experience with British snipers did not prepare them for the Americans’ ability to hit targets more than 500 yards away. If the Americans could get that close, the Germans would have the fight of their lives on their hands. They did.

* Experienced leadership. Approximately one-fifth of the 5th Marines and one-tenth of the 6th Marines were "old-timers" (defined as someone with more than one year's service). In contrast, their counterparts in the 9th Infantry and 23d Infantry regiments, could only muster one out of every 20 men with similar experience.

* Tenacity. Marine commanders added luster to their growing legend for toughness in the course of the battle. At the beginning of the three weeks of bloodshed, French forces, exhausted after so much fighting, asked Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion about withdrawing. Williams’ response: "Retreat, Hell! We just got here!" Later, on June 6, with his men pinned down, Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly called "Come on ya sons-of-bitches, ya want to live forever?" and –remarkably, given the chaotic surroundings—induced them to advance again

Perhaps an even more astonishing example of heroism was provided by First Lieutenant Jacob Harrison Heckman, whose actions on June 25 were just one of many examples of courage up and down the line that day that secured victory. His citation reads as follows:

The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Jacob Harrison Heckman, First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving with the 5th Regiment (Marines), 2d Division, A.E.F. in action in the Bois-de-Belleau, France, June 25, 1918 resistance, and captured one officer and ninety men. Each of his men destroyed a nest and captured two of the enemy at each po. With the assistance of three sergeants, Lieutenant Heckman started out to destroy the final stand of the enemy in the Bois-de-Belleau, an impregnable position, where enemy guns were concealed by rocks and heavy shrubbery. Armed with only a pistol, Lieutenant Heckman rushed the nest which was offering the most violent sition. After effecting the complete reduction of the last element, Lieutenant Heckman marched his prisoners in under a severe and harassing fire of the retreating enemy.

Quote of the Day (Orwell)

“As against the Victorian writers, we have the disadvantage of living among clear-cut political ideologies and of usually knowing at a glance what thoughts are heretical. A modern literary intellectual lives and writes in constant dread—not, indeed, of public opinion in the wider sense, but of public opinion within his own group.”—George Orwell, “Writers and Leviathan,” Politics and Letters, Summer 1948
(Eric Arthur Blair, born on this date in 1903, adopted the pseudonym “George Orwell” around 1929, at least partly to avoid embarrassing his family with his writing and his hand-to-mouth existence. His warning about the dangers of conformity either to the right or the left remains as relevant now as it did 60 years ago, even though Communism itself now is dead as an ideological force. These days, it’s one’s counterparts in the blogosphere that flame you for straying outside the strict party line.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Theater Review: Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," at the Broadhurst Theatre, New York

At the beginning of this recently closed revival of Williams' classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gerald Hayes entered, blowing a mean sax. Meant to underscore the sultry if stifling atmosphere of the play, his presence inevitably also brought to mind the inescapable African-American contribution to jazz—and the question of race that provides the reason for being of this production.

Williams set his drama of desire and deceit (inflicted upon oneself as well as others) in the delta area of Mississippi, but Hayes' incidental music raised the question of whether the setting might have worked just as well across the river, either in Louisiana in general or New Orleans in particular. The playwright was certainly familiar with this milieu, as A Streetcar Named Desire demonstrates, but there's even more reason to wonder whether the slight change in locale might have made more sense for this production.

Moving the time of the play from the 1950s—when it would have been impossible to own 28,000 acres worth $80 million, as Big Daddy does here—to a later, more indeterminate period is a necessary minimum, but it's not nearly enough. More than five decades after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, it's still difficult to imagine an African-American so successful in such a racially stratified society as Mississippi. It's much easier to imagine the action happening in Louisiana, where racial mixing dating back to the Spanish and French made for less rigid class divisions.

Aside from Shakespeare productions, the first time I ever heard of color-blind casting was somewhere between 20 and 30 years ago, in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. At first, I regarded that casting decision as disastrous. O'Neill, after all, had written a quintessentially Irish-American tragedy—the name for his family's dramatic counterparts, the Tyrones, referred, after all, to Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, the most famous of the "Wild Geese" who fled Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne led to growing British Protestant control. How could an African-American director and cast understand this, as well as the nuances of Catholic guilt that run through the drama?

Over time, I came to believe that I was mistaken, and for more reasons than just that O'Neill's themes are so universal that they should not be restricted to any one group.

Color-blind casting has become the talk of Broadway this year, with Morgan Freeman (The Country Girl) and S. Epatha Merkerson (Come Back, Little Sheba) taking on roles formerly played exclusively by white actors. This particular production of Williams' classic, however, differs from them in being not so much color-blind as aggressively color-conscious. I'm not sure the producers' gambit paid off artistically.

Not that I don't wish it would. It used to be said that the most segregated hours of the American week were at Sunday religious services.

But several times over the last decade, as I spent an increasing amount of time watching theater (not just on Broadway, be it noted, but in any city or vacation spot where I saw a drama, comedy or musical), I registered a ringing inner dissent to that charge, as I became dismayed by the white, middle-to-upper-class, not-so-young audiences at performances I attended.

"Is the theater really dead?" Simon & Garfunkel asked in "The Dangling Conversations." Not yet, but it wouldn't be long the way things were trending demographically, I thought. In a society growing more and more multi-cultural with each day, Broadway was committing slow but sure suicide by sticking to fare that was alien to a large part of its audience—and, worse, by continually raising ticket prices so high that they could only be afforded on a regular basis by the affluent.

You would think, then, that I would be thrilled by a show with an audience so integrated that the only one I saw so racially well balanced in recent years was Rent. Indeed, I was thrilled that such a large contingent of black, middle-aged theatergoers turned out for the all-star cast including James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and Giancarlo Esposito. (Early in its run, African-Americans comprised 75-80% of the show's audiences, according to an estimate in this
New York Times article on producer Steven C. Byrd.)

Certainly, Rose, the least-noticed of the Dreamgirls trio (Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson grabbed the spotlight), was absolutely correct in noting, during
an interview with WNYC-FM's Leonard Lopate, that classic theater should not lie beyond the range of actors simply because of racial or ethnic issues.

With all of this said, however, I wish that Broadway aficionados, no matter what their skin color, had received a production that lived up the great promise of this stellar cast.

Let's start with the good things about the revival: This was not our parents' Cat. You know the one I mean—the 1958 film version with Burl Ives repeating his Broadway triumph as Big Daddy, with Paul Newman as alcoholic ex-football player Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie. Film censorship in those days, though, was so strong that you couldn't understand why Newman was so uninterested in Taylor, then at the height of her allure—why, in fact, he kept snapping and snarling at her. This revival follows Williams' 1974 unexpurgated stage version starring Elizabeth Ashley, in which no bones were made that sexy Maggie is so sex-starved because Brick can't admit homosexual feelings for his deceased football buddy.

A major fault of the show is that director Debbie Allen's vision contained way too much inappropriate humor. Didn't she realize that the marriage of Brick and Maggie is tragic? You'd never guess as the audience erupted in laughter when Brick threw his crutch angrily at his wife, when the lingerie-clad Maggie wrapped a thigh around a post like a stripper around a pole, or when Maggie told Brick that her doctor said there was no reason why she couldn't have children.

Judging from this production, I'd say Allen saw Maggie as the missing Southern desperate housewife. It's not an unreasonable assumption—the first name of Maggie's husband, after all, not only evokes the rock-solidity stolidity with which he played that most macho of games, football, but also the wall he builds in the way of his wife. Not inappropriately, Brick's mother, Big Mama notes, pointing at their bed, "When you have a rocky marriage, the rocks are there."

The most pleasant surprise by far here, Rashad brought tremendous dignity to the role of Big Mama. (I'm not sure why I'm so surprised—after all, late last year I caught another fine performance of hers in Lincoln Center's version of Cymbeline.) Rashad evinced a fierce love that shows why Big Mamma endures Big Daddy's worst verbal abuse. In the process, she rescued a character usually portrayed as a psychic doormat—and became the only cast member who made audiences fundamentally rethink the play.

Would that the same could be written about Terrence Howard, who was greeted by whoops from female fans when he made his entrance stepping out of the shower. But much of the time, especially in the early going, the Hustle and Flow star could barely be heard. Instead of the liquid stupefaction that Brick seeks, Howard conveyed inertness. Instead of a fire-and-ice confrontation between husband and wife, he made Rose appear to be more like a boxer pounding her fists into a pillowcase.

Hearing a snippet of her performance on Leonard Lopate's radio show, I was initially revolted at the sound of Rose's rose as Maggie. Yet in the theater, that voice sounded more and more natural to me. She brought scads of humor, wiliness, intelligence, and hopeless longing to this most vital of Williams’ heroines. Too bad she had to battle Howard’s near-invisibility and her director’s mistakes.

Most of the first act is essentially a monologue by Maggie, with Brick in little or no mood or condition to respond. Act II is dominated by Big Daddy. The two characters in the drama with the greatest appetites, sexual and otherwise, are Maggie and Big Daddy. It’s easy to see in the interplay between Rose and Jones that their two characters, despite the differences in age, are the most compatible characters onstage.

And yet, for all the wonderful familiarity of that basso profundo voice, I thought that there was something slightly off-kilter in Jones’ performance. It might, again, be traced back to Allen’s peculiar vision for the show.

Fine, demonstrate Big Daddy’s frequent raunchiness (ramped up, like all too much of the humor in this show). But overshadowed in the dirty-old-man persona was the double desperation of this master of all he surveys—suddenly unable, by the cancer slowly taking his life, not only to continue his hold on the estate he has spent years building, but also to establish a bridge with a son who has done his level best, for reasons this most macho of men has trouble understanding, to drink himself into oblivion.

Quote of the Day (Twain)

“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”—Mark Twain, Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events, edited by Bernard DeVoto
(As the events of the last couple of weeks prove, the mighty heartland river remains as impervious to the ways of man as always, much to our heartache.)

Monday, June 23, 2008

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Benedict Arnold’s Wartime Profiteering)

June 23, 1778—Displaying the avarice that helped fuel his later infamous betrayal,
Major General Benedict Arnold of the Continental Army used his new office as military governor of Philadelphia to make a secret profiteering deal with the army’s clothier general and the latter’s deputy. 

I’ve long felt that, as much as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or just about any other patriot you could name, Arnold’s life deserves to be dramatized for film or TV. (In fact, it has been put on stage, in Richard Nelson’s 2002 drama The General From America, starring Colin Redgrave—yes, the brother of Vanessa and Lynn—and the outdoor drama Benedict Arnold: A Brave Revenge.) 

Or maybe I should say, “deserves a satisfying film or TV drama,” because several years ago A&E took a crack at it with a two-hour docudrama, “Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor,” starring Aidan Quinn. I never caught the show, and judging from this review, I can’t say I’m sorry. (Kelsey Grammer as George Washington?) 

In certain ways, Arnold’s covert pact with clothier general James Mease and deputy William West resembled the way the general moved on and off the battlefield: boldly and rapidly. Remarkably, he acted only four days after he had assumed his post as Philadelphia’s military governor. Washington made the appointment hoping to reward a talented but touchy subordinate while enabling him to recuperate from a nasty wound suffered at the Battle of Saratoga.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t his maimed left leg that ruined Arnold, but his service in an all-too-political job that left him naked to his many enemies. 

In his sterling biography, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, Willard Sterne Randall demonstrates, with a kind of narrative energy that might have even captured the restless general’s attention, why his subject was “the best field commander in the war on either side.”

Indeed, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the soldier’s record up through and including Saratoga: seizing Fort Ticonderoga; marching through Maine and making a brave, doomed assault on Quebec in the winter; building virtually from scratch a makeshift, motley naval fleet on Lake Ticonderoga that delayed the British military campaign in New York State for a crucial year; then turning the tide at Saratoga by a charge across the battlefield. 

In short, if you wanted someone who could steal you a ghost of a chance at beating insuperable odds, you couldn’t do any better than select Arnold.

Over the years, historians have tried to answer why this master of the battlefield became the Lucifer of the American Revolution. Biographers such as Randall and Clare Brandt point to such developments as his growing resentment over the Continental Congress’ promotion of inferior officers over him, or his marriage to the beautiful young Tory Peggy Shippen. (Let it be noted in the latter case what guys for seemingly forever have forgotten: that no good comes when a man makes a fool of himself over a woman half his age.)

But you can’t help but notice concern with money as the overriding element in his life—before, during and after his military career. In The Man in the Mirror, Clare Brandt rides this thesis almost to the breaking point, but she still has compelling reasons to trace the seed of his treason to “the great American virus: social insecurity.”

Think about it: here’s a guy forced to leave an elite private academy as an adolescent because his rummy of a father went financially belly-up. (Sounds like what John O’Hara might have concocted if he’d ever written a historical novel.) At the start of the revolution, this apothecary and small-time merchant in New Haven saw the patriot cause—at least at first—as a means of securing glory—and, along the way, padding his wallet.

It wasn’t enough that Arnold’s seizure of Fort Ticonderoga’s cannon helped drive the British out of Boston; he had to submit a bill for expenses that was so high that lawmakers were prompted to do what they do best: talk and investigate without accomplishing much of anything except tick people off.

But already, there were signs of weakness in Arnold. It wasn’t only that he quarreled with almost everybody at one point or another. He saw every financial deal, every promotion as the recognition he deserved all his life. And when he didn’t get something, he usually reacted out of all proportion to the slight.

Washington, normally a good judge of men’s abilities, picked the exact wrong assignment for his physically and spiritually wounded subordinate. With the British just having left Philadelphia, the Supreme Executive Council, led by politician Joseph Reed, was, at least at that time, more powerful in Pennsylvania’s affairs than the Continental Congress itself. The council looked askance at Arnold’s fraternization with Tories, neutrals and those who moved stealthily among these camps, such as the Shippen family.

Arnold began entertaining on a scale wildly out of his salary range as a soldier. Later, he would defend some of his actions as simply carrying out the wishes of the Continental Congress—notably, closing the city’s shops while he inventoried captured goods to see which should be requisitioned by army headquarters.

However, take a look at the agreement among Arnold, Mease and West: “Whereas by purchasing goods and necessaries for the use of the public, sundry articles not wanted for that purpose may be obtained, it is agreed by the subscribers that all such goods and merchandise which are or may be bought by the clothier general, or persons appointed by him, shall be sold for the joint equal benefit of the subscribers and be purchased at their risk.”

The problem with the pact was twofold. The first was admirably summed up by Carl Van Doren in his Secret History of the American Revolution: “Under this arrangement Mease and his deputy might buy whole stocks if they chose, using public credit instead of their own capital, charge the army with what it could use, sell the remainder at whatever profit to them, account only for the sum originally paid, and divide the whole proceeds with Arnold.”

Second, Arnold never disclosed this agreement. In fact, it never saw the light of day until the exposure of Arnold’s treachery a few years later. If Arnold felt he had done nothing wrong, why did he go to such lengths to hide it?

Arnold’s lust for lucre resembled that of Daniel Webster more than a half century later. In both cases, the public never knew the full extent of the financial dealings involved, but sensed enough to suspect something was amiss. And that realization led both men to lose the prizes that their brilliance would otherwise have entitled them to—in Webster’s case, the Presidency; in Arnold’s, a larger command in the Continental Army.

Less than a year after his appointment as military governor, the Council of Pennsylvania lodged eight charges against Arnold, including abuse of power, misuse of military authority, and self-aggrandizing business dealings. Though he was acquitted on most charges, the tribunal found enough evidence to recommend that General Washington reprimand Arnold.

Shortly thereafter, Arnold began the negotiations with the British that led him to become a turncoat. As historian James Hanratta points out, his demand for turning over West Point to the British in 1780 was 20,000 sterling ($1 million in today’s money)—all too typical of the secret business partner of Mease and West, the man whose name has became a synonym in America for "traitor."

Quote of the Day (Rock)

“Women are like the police. They can have all the evidence in the world, but they still want the confession.”—Comedian Chris Rock
(As a longtime bachelor, I have no way of independently confirming this observation. I have little doubt, however, that this quotation will be the most widely circulated of the posts on this blog among my male readers!)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

This Day in Pop Music History ("MacArthur Park" Hits #2 on the Charts)

June 22, 1968—A 7 1/2-minute epic that far exceeded the usual three-minute length of Top 40 radio singles, "MacArthur Park" vaulted to #2 on the Billboard 100 pop chart. Equally unusual for its pedigree as for its ambition, the song was a collaboration between Richard Harris, a colorful Irish actor whose only prior notable singing accomplishment was in the movie Camelot, and songwriter Jimmy Webb, a 21-year-old wunderkind who had written 250 songs in the past four years.

How the song came into Harris' hands is a tale in itself. Did you know that it was originally offered to
The Association—and that they turned it down?

The folk-rock sextet were golden at the moment when Webb came into their studio, in the midst of a three-year run that included hits such as "Along Comes Mary," "Cherish," "Never My Love," "Windy," and (among the songs they were recording for their current project) "Everything That Touches You."

The young composer from Oklahoma had already attracted some notice—Glen Campbell had covered "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and The Fifth Dimension had turned "Up, Up and Away" into a huge hit as well. While working on an album for the latter, he'd gotten the idea for a song that would surpass anything that group had done previously—something that would take up the whole side of an album. In it, he had poured all his inchoate feelings over the breakup of his love affair with Susan Ronstadt, the cousin of an up-and-coming singer on the L.A. music scene, Linda Ronstadt. He decided to shop the piece around.

Webb, brought into The Association's studio by producer
Bones Howe for their upcoming album, Birthday, must have liked his prospects for pitching this latest composition. True, it was a bit long and did feature some lyrics that could be considered slightly out there—something about "love's hot, fevered iron," and especially "someone left a cake out in the rain."

But The Association liked to try daring things in the studio, and as "Along Comes Mary," with loopy lyrics usually construed as drug-influenced ("Mary Jane" being a nickname for marijuana and all that) demonstrated, they certainly didn't mind psychedelic influences. The last track on their third album, "Requiem for the Masses," even included a Gregorian chant opening—something that would surely test the patience of any DJ or teenybopper.

And this was late 1967, remember—the concept album, courtesy of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (not to mention Frank Sinatra's September of My Years, if you wanted to consider the older generation, which nobody under 30 did) was stretching the idea of the song cycle. And, with The Beatles' "A Day in the Life," even a single song could stretch longer than the usual pop single, and even feature several parts.

Now, put yourself into the shoes of The Association, as they listened to this Webb kid at the piano. Yeah, he had got a nice melody, and there were parts of this they really like—and, considering their vocal harmonies, they'd sure do a better job than the songwriter himself, who was really no great shakes in the pipes department.

But he and Bones Howe wanted them to commit to the whole thing – a freakin' four-part, 22-minute pop cantata, with fanfares and orchestral break, for God's sake! Yeah, Webb thought several parts could be split off as singles, but how did you cut and slice that so DJs will pick it up? Besides, what about their creativity? Outside composers had gotten a lot of space on their last album, Insight Out. Since the Beatles and Bob Dylan, credibility lay in songwriting.

So the answer came back: No thanks. As a matter of fact, one musician even said, "Any two guys in this group could write a better piece of music than that."

Well, what they could do and what they did were two separate things. "Everything That Touches You" ended up being The Association's last big hit. Though they had performed a set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 that was tight and harder-rocking than their radio-friendly hits, they were now caught up in one of those tsunamis in pop-music taste changes that give record industry professionals gray hair before they think they have a right to. By 1969, they were giving film audiences the soundtrack to Goodbye, Columbus at just the moment when Woodstock was exploding. Goodbye, Columbus, and Goodbye, The Association, too.

Enter Harris. My Pittsburgh nephews revere the late thespian as the first Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies. My generation, however, knows him for this song, or for his numerous talk show appearances over the years in which he regaled audiences with rollicking tales of his drinking misadventures with the likes of Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Oliver Reed, and other wildmen of stage and screen. Film buffs know him as one of the leading lights of the "Angry Young Man" cinema of the early 1960s with his appearance in the rugby film This Sporting Life.

(Speaking of this last movie: It was his first major success, and it won him Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. The fallout from the award might also have contributed to one of his most quoted lines: “If I win an award for something I do, the London papers describe me as 'the British actor, Richard Harris.' If I am found drunk in a public place, they always refer to me as 'the Irish actor, Richard Harris.'”)

His King Arthur role in Camelot led Harris to believe that he possessed singing talent—a thought that perhaps stretched the limits of reality, given that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote the songs for original Broadway lead Richard Burton in the same way that they had for Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, another nonsinging leading man in a musical.

A drinking pal (admittedly, not in the older man's league in consuming vodka) of the actor's, Webb, fresh from his rejection by The Association, responded to Harris' telegram urging him to come to London and make a record. Perhaps not as high on his project as before, he groaned but acceded when the actor reached the bottom of his satchel of sheet music and expressed enthusiasm for the last song left in it: "MacArthur Park."

The pop symphony that Webb originally envisioned—an entire LP side—was trimmed back in the version he produced for Harris to one-third its original length. To everyone's surprise—except, perhaps, the actor-singer’s—the song shot to #2 on the pop charts.

In the years since, Webb has become the
Thomas Wolfe of pop music—a wildly prolific writer whose headlong romanticism has won almost as many detractors as enthusiasts. Case in point for both groups: “MacArthur Park.” There are many, many people out there who can’t get their head around that image of the cake left out in the rain.

Yes, it is a metaphor for wasted happiness and lost love. But, in
an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Webb pointed out that the image was inspired by direct observation of an actual occurrence in the Los Angeles park in which the song is set:

"Those lyrics were all very real to me; there was nothing psychedelic about it to me. The cake, it was an available object. It was what I saw in the park at the birthday parties. But people have very strong reactions to the song. There's been a lot of intellectual venom."

There sure has. Readers of Dave Barry’s column voted it the worst song of all time. While disagreeing with that assessment, Joe Queenan wrote a hilarious piece in which he called it “among the most baffling hits in the history of pop music. It has no antecedent, and it has no sequel.”

If you want to know my attitude toward the song, think again about that comparison with Thomas Wolfe. I prefer the far more controlled lyricism of his near-contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I think William Faulkner was not entirely wrong when he named Wolfe the greatest American writer. “We all fail," he observed, "but Wolfe made the best failure because he tried the hardest to say the most."

Like Wolfe, Webb has stretched the most to come up with a vocabulary—in his case, a musical as well as lyrical one—to encompass the nature of experience. Despite the derision of people like Dave Barry, I suspect that many musicians share my affection for the song, since it’s been covered by, among others, Frank Sinatra, Michael Feinstein, Maynard Ferguson, The Four Tops, and Waylon Jennings. Like Burt Bacharach, whose "This Guy's in Love With You" blocked Webb's path to #1 on the pop charts, Webb looks as if he's among the few composers of his generation who'll join Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Mercer, Porter and Berlin among the creators of the Great American Songbook.

Several years ago, on the radio, I heard a live version of "MacArthur Park" featuring none other than Glen Campbell, using his guitar as a substitute for the massive orchestral break in the middle of the song. Like so much of the history behind this song, it surprised, stunned and moved me.

Quote of the Day (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

“But I want first of all — in fact as an end to these other desires — to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints — to live 'in grace' as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony.”—Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea (1955)

(It was the lot of Anne Morrow, born on this day in 1906, to share her fate with her dashing but complicated aviator-hero husband, Charles Lindbergh. She fascinates me not just because of this marital association with “The Lone Eagle,” however, but because she came from a prominent family in my hometown, Englewood, N.J.—her father was at various points in his career a lawyer, J.P. Morgan partner, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and Senator from New Jersey, while her older sister Elisabeth founded a private elementary school in town that still stands. Moreover, she interests me as a case of a quiet and shy person who achieved distinction in her own right.

Though in youth she shared many of her husband’s adventures and, of course, tragedy and turmoil, by middle age she had chafed at his controlling nature, and embarked on a short-lived affair. In turn, Lindbergh embarked on separate, longer-lasting emotional relationships of his own while traveling in Germany, resulting in the birth of three children by a German mistress—facts unknown to his family until DNA testing proved it nearly 30 years after his death.

No matter the unsettled state of her own private life in the last two decades of her marriage, Anne certainly achieved the “grace” she sought in her writing, as not only
Gift From the Sea but a series of diaries won her considerable critical acclaim. In fact, so accomplished was her writing that for awhile, some suspected her of ghostwriting her husband’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, The Spirit of St. Louis.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer Quotes of the Day

“Summer has set in with its usual severity.”-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letter, May 9, 1826, by essayist Charles Lamb. Quoted in Letters of Charles Lamb, vol. 2, ed. Alfed Ainger (1888).

“People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy." – Anton Chekhov

“O light! This is the cry of all the characters of ancient drama brought face to face with their fate. This last resort was ours, too, and I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”—Albert Camus, “The Return to Tipasa”

“The summer wind came blowing in across the sea,
It lingered there to touch your hair and walk with me.”—“The Summer Wind,” lyrics by Johnny Mercer, melody by Henry Mayer

“Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right
I wanna blow ‘em off in my first heat
Summer’s here and the time is right
For racing in the streets.”—Bruce Springsteen, “Racing in the Streets”

“But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.”—Robert Frost, “The Silken Tent”

“Summer afternoon--summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”—Henry James, quoted by friend Edith Wharton, in A Backward Glance

Friday, June 20, 2008

Quote of the Day (Fred Allen, on Ed Sullivan)

“Ed Sullivan will be around as long as someone else has talent.”—Attributed to radio comedian Fred Allen, in TV Guide (June 21, 1958 issue), commemorating the 10th anniversary of Sullivan’s variety show that week.

This quote fascinates me for a couple of reasons. 

First, because of the mordant comic genius who supposedly uttered it (he had died two years before it appeared in print)—John Florence Sullivan, better known as Fred Allen

I remember the first time I went to visit my grandparents’ grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY., and was startled also to find, not too far away, not only a headstone for my grandfather’s hero, labor leader Michael J. Quill, but also one for a man far more famous in the same era—Allen. 

I’m afraid that more than 50 years after his death, Allen has been forgotten by a couple of generations of comedy fans. He deserves a far better fate. 

If you can’t visit the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan to listen to a tape of one of his shows, then turn on Saturday Night Live, which, in its spoofs of advertising, satire of current events, and still-often brilliant sketches, essentially possesses the same comic DNA.

But second, as Allen’s sardonic quip indicates, entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan possessed little talent himself—but he sure had a way of recognizing it in others. 

The Ed Sullivan Show—initially called The Talk of the Town—premiered June 20, 1948, and ran until June 6, 1971. He never really got over its demise, dying only three years later. By the end of his life, he surely felt out of sorts with the cultural changes taking place in America. 

Can you imagine one small episode in his life--the impresario inviting Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits--whom, he had learned, had been raised Roman Catholic--out for Sunday mass with him on the morning of his big appearance? I can't.

For a long time, Sullivan seemed ready to join Allen among the annals of the forgotten in the entertainment industry, remembered dimly for Jackie Mason’s hysterically funny hooded-eye, hunched-over impersonation. 

More recently, however, segments of his must-see variety show have been released on DVD, so a new generation of fans can experience what it must have felt for the first time to see Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, The Doors -- who were banned from the show, lest we forget, after refusing to bowdlerize “Light My Fire”-- and a host of other new acts too numerous to mention.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

This Day in Cartoon History (“Garfield” Debuts)

June 19, 1978—Fat, caffeine-addicted, unrepentantly lazy, the orange cat Garfield debuted in 41 newspapers.

The comic strip’s creator,
Jim Davis, latched onto the idea of a cat character after an editor told him that his initial inspiration, a bug, was not a creature that humans could relate to. Instead of the usual canines, Davis chose felines.

Currently, Davis’ creation is the most widely syndicated comic strip in the world, running (or, I should say, “appearing”—the energy-conserving cat never “runs,” of course) in thousands of papers worldwide.

The strip has made a ton of money over the years for its owner, Indiana-based
Paws Inc. The cat likes to think he, not ostensible owner Jon Arbuckle, is lord of the manor, and he’s encouraged in this belief by his worldwide empire: licensing, TV, books, video games, movies, and more.

If all of this sounds reminiscent of
Charles Schulz’ “Peanuts,” it’s no surprise. Davis admits that the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, etc. inspired his clean, simple lines. By the time the cat had come on the scene, Schulz’ strip had lost zip of its joy de vivre, due not only to a level of creativity and philosophical sophistication nearly impossible to sustain over a prolonged period, but also due to Schulz’ bouts with depression. In contrast, Davis’ strip has not changed as radically over the years. The big cat is fully matured—perfect, he would say.

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” mad silent screen star Norma Desmond declaims in Sunset Boulevard. As a marketing phenomenon, at least, Garfield is about to become even bigger this year, with a brand-new direct-to-DVD feature, Garfield’s Fun Fest, due this August; the debut of 26 all-new TV episodes in France (coming to other parts of the globe early next year); even a free Website, , benefiting students, teachers and parents.

Though I’ve been a dog rather than a cat owner, I do feel one point of identification with Davis: like him, I suffer from asthma. (My experiences with it did not occur until adulthood.) Like Theodore Roosevelt, Davis’ medical condition pushed him, while still in childhood, into a lifelong avocation. In TR’s case, he not only, at his father’s urging, built up his puny body through boxing, but also, in the times in which he was confined to the house (all too frequently, because the future president was entirely home schooled until he went off to Harvard), took to reading and writing his thoughts down in journals—excellent preparation, of course, for a literary life.

On the other hand, Jim Davis’ mother encouraged him to draw—something that did not require much physical exertion. Perhaps without knowing it, the future cartoonist began to understand the thinking behind his exercise-averse creation. (“Some call it laziness. I call it deep thought.”)

Quote of the Day (Pascal)

“Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”—Blaise Pascal
(The French mathematician-philosopher, born on this date in 1623, presented this famous logical deduction in his Pensees. To me, it is so inspiring because it is so simple and so irrefutable.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

This Day in Literary History (Joseph Conrad Lands in England)

June 18, 1878—Just months from involvement with gunrunning for Spanish rebels, steep gambling debts, and a suicide attempt, 20-year-old Polish sailor Jozef Teodor Konrad Naiecz Korzeniowski stepped off a British freighter at the seaport of Lowestoft, knowing only six words of English. By the time of his death 46 years later, Joseph Conrad had produced a host of novels and short stories, many sea-related, that led him to be hailed not only as a shrewd psychologist of the human heart but also as one of the great masters of English prose.

Those of Irish descent, such as myself, know that often the greatest practitioners of the King’s tongue hail from the fringes of the English world—outcasts not so enthralled by the language that they can’t make it rise up, sing and dance to their delight and those of readers.

Still, Conrad’s is a remarkable case. The great propulsive element in his character was imagination. You cannot live in a landlocked mass like Poland, then run off to sea, without this quality. You cannot learn a notoriously difficult language in adulthood—not only well enough to motivate and command men, or even to write in your adopted language, but to do so at the highest levels in both capacities—without this quality, either.

One of my college American Literature professors once related to our class how, after reading Melville’s Moby Dick, he had been seized by such a strong desire to sail the seas that he promptly went down to register for the local merchant marine station. “Oh, you romantic college boys!” sighed the recruiter, rolling his eyes before chasing away the future English professor and Ivy League dean.

Surely something of the same impact must have registered on young Korzeniowski when he read English translations of such novelists as Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Thackeray, and Capt. Frederick Marryat. (The last of these in particular must have fired his imagination.) A youngster with the kind of background Jozef possessed needed as much distracting as possible—he already knew too much about loss.

The Russian arrest of his father, an aristocratic poet-translator who did nothing to hide his Polish patriotism, proved catastrophic for the family. Count Apollo Korzeniowski was arrested for his activities, then exiled along with his wife in Siberia. With both parents dead by the time he was 12, Jozef was taken in by his uncle.

Joseph Conrad’s fiction reverberate with guilt, the promises of life, the lashings of fate, loneliness, and physical and spiritual displacement, themes given their greatest resonance in the most elemental of environments—the sea. At age 17, desperate to avoid conscription by the Russian authorities who had crushed his country and his family, the young man journeyed, with his uncle’s blessing, from Poland to France, where he joined that country’s merchant marine.

The next four years were a blur for the young man, concluding with an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. (The wild nature of that attempt –shooting himself through the shoulder, just missing the vital organs—was so bizarre and clumsy that biographers have divided since then on whether he really was despondent over losing his money or whether this represented a crazed scheme to escape the clutches of creditors.)

In any case, Conrad’s decision to leave the French merchant marine for the British merchant navy conveniently relieved him of the possibility of being drafted into the Czar’s army. Eight years later, he would become a British citizen and earn his Master’s certificate as a seaman.

Conrad’s life on the seas was nearly as dramatic as any of his fictional tales, such as Heart of Darkness, The Nigger of the Narcissus, The Secret Agent, or my favorite, Lord Jim. Consider what befell him in his 19 years at sea:

* A back injury on the Highland Forest;
* being burned out on The Palestine when the cargo caught fire in the South China Sea and sank; * a trip on the Congo River in which he endured the wreck of his ship, fever, and dysentery, before being shipped home with a profound (and understandable!) nervous condition.

While recuperating, Conrad (he had so renamed himself by this point) turned to a manuscript on which he had worked for years. This time, he was able to complete Almayer’s Folly. Having tired of the day-to-day lifestyle of the sailor, he was happy to take up the literary life.

Though not, as it happened, thrilled with the stresses of it. The need to feed his wife and two sons—and, beginning in 1904, the need to provide medical care for his wife, now a permanent invalid—left him chronically broke and desperate.

Even the approval of friends such as John Galsworthy, Stephen Crane, H.G. Wells, and Henry James only went so far to relieve his anxiety. “It appears to me that I will never write anything worse reading,” he wrote at his lowest. After 18 years and 15 novels, he finally achieved success in 1913 with the bestselling Chance.

For prose writers like myself, F. Scott Fitzgerald set the bar high for crafting shimmering sentences that induce open-mouthed admiration, envy and joy; Ernest Hemingway provided an example of relentless self-discipline; but Conrad became an exemplar of courage—someone who, despite terrifying depths unknown and sights unseen, still casts off to chart the landscape of experience.

So, how did this native Pole come to stand on the pinnacle of English letters at his life’s end? The answer might lie in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, in which he observes: “The light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words; of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.”