Thursday, April 30, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Treehugger Thoreau Accidentally Sets Forest Fire)

April 30, 1844—His early dreams of literary success in New York City dashed, forced to return home to his family, needing to establish himself financially, Henry David Thoreau watched his self-esteem disintegrate further, along with 300 acres of woods in his hometown of Concord, Mass., that he and a companion had accidentally set on fire.

The incident confirmed his reputation in town as a fool, drove him to the periphery of his community—and led to the writing of his classic memoir about living in close harmony with nature, Walden.

I have issues with Susan Cheever’s chronicle of Thoreau, Emerson and the rest of the Transcendentalists, American Bloomsbury. The descriptions of the Concord landscape will make you want to visit posthaste, as I did last fall. But her hints of affairs among the local legends don’t hold up to scrutiny. Even longtime residents—a very liberal lot, with maybe only one John McCain sign out in the front lawn compared with hundreds for Barack Obama—rolled their eyes at mention of the book's unsupported speculation.

But Cheever reminded me, by process of association, of someone who could shed better light on Thoreau: oddly enough, not a biographer such as herself, but a fiction writer—none other than her own father. Geoffrey Woolf’s perceptive review of Blake Bailey’s new biography of John Cheever in The New York Times Book Review illuminated one of the high points in the great short-story master’s work: “Goodbye, My Brother.” The story, Woolf pointed out, makes brilliant use of an unreliable narrator.

You remember the concept from English 101, right? It’s a first-person narrative in the voice of someone who is misleading, unable to make connections between his views of a situation or reality, or both. Think of Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

So how does “Goodbye, My Brother” relate to the unfortunate fire in the Concord woods, as retold in Thoreau’s journal? The events in both are narrated by someone who is telling things at variance with the facts. Moreover, by the nature of how much and what they’re telling, they end up revealing much more of themselves than they ever intended.

Setting a forest fire was the last thing on Thoreau’s mind in 1844: he prided himself on his knowledge of the woods. That’s why, when he did so while on an outing with friend Edward Hoar, he had a tough time facing himself, let alone the citizens of Concord.

Cheever’s narrator writes, “I don’t think about the family much,” then contradicts that in practically the same breath by dwelling on his ancestry at great length. Similarly, in his journal account of the fire—written six years after the event—Thoreau rationalized his behavior when, unable to do anything to stop the blaze, he instead stopped and watched it continue:

“I had felt like a guilty person—nothing but shame and regret. But now I settled the matter with myself shortly. I said to myself: ‘Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein.'”

Of course, Thoreau had not “settled the matter with myself shortly.” After all, it took six years for him to consider the incident—and even then, he confined his thoughts entirely to himself, in the journal.

Second, it was not true that he had “done no wrong therein.” Thoreau stated, incorrectly, in his journal that he and Hoar had burnt only 100 acres. In actuality, as the Concord Freeman indicated four days after the event, he had burnt three times that number, causing $2,000 in damages to the properties of A.H. Wheeler, Cyrus Hubbard, and Darius Hubbard.

Hoar’s father, Samuel—the judge who was the most prominent citizen of the town—is believed by Thoreau biographers to have soothed things over by reimbursing the aggrieved property owners. But that didn’t stop other townspeople from coming to their own conclusions about responsibility for the event.

Yes, it was an accident, they conceded, but Thoreau and Hoar were dunderheads who should have known better. They had borrowed a match to cook fish they had caught, but the match, falling on ground uncommonly dry for that time of year, quickly raged out of control of the two young men.

While Hoar sought help by boat, Thoreau had done so on foot. The exertions of sprinting two miles for help had so worn him out that he sat down on a rock and watched the flames and the townspeople who tried to put them out.

Calling the fire a “glorious spectacle” is an attempt at flippancy toward a reaction by the townspeople that wounded Thoreau in his amour proper. By the time he set down his retrospective thoughts on this curious incident, many townspeople had gradually come to appreciate his knowledge of all matter of plants and wildlife that Ralph Waldo Emerson had suggested that he be named “town naturalist.”

But generations later, just as large a group in town remained annoyed with him. One of the Wheeler girls, still alive in the Roaring Twenties, said angrily, “Don’t talk to me about Henry Thoreau. Didn’t I all that winter have to go to school with a smoothed apron or dress because I had to pitch in and help fill the wood box with partly charred wood?”

Thoreau’s ears must have burned when he heard “Woods-burner” behind his back. While living in Staten Island, Thoreau was deeply homesick for his hometown. The barely concealed resentment of him, however, undoubtedly inclined him to go to a spot where he was less and less bothered: Walden Pond.

Quote of the Day (Jonathan V. Last, on Malls)

“Some of you cosmopolitans are probably horrified, but the mall is a New Jersey child's birthright, like horses for kids in Wyoming and cornfields in Iowa.”—Jonathan V. Last, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” The Weekly Standard, April 27, 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Movie Quote of the Day (John Gielgud, on Downwardly Mobile Women)

“Thank you for a memorable afternoon--usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature.”—Very proper British butler Hobson (played by John Gielgud, in his Oscar-winning role), to Linda (played by Liza Minnelli), a tie-stealing waitress from Queens, in Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From Desperate Housewife to Royally P.O.’d One

"Edie's already slept with most of the guys on the street and has caused about as many problems as she could."—Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, on the creative logic behind killing off neighborhood tramp Edie Britt from his show

"Somebody up there really wanted her dead. I think whoever Edie represented in ["Housewives" creator] Marc's life was somebody he didn't like. And he had a very difficult time distinguishing between fact and fiction."—Nicolette Sheridan, not taking her departure from the show very well at all

Both quotes from Luchina Fisher, 'Desperate Housewives': Drama Behind Nicollette Sheridan's Departure,” ABC News, April 20, 2009

Gee, do you think that Ms. Sheridan is a mite bit upset about her gravy train coming to an end—and that Cherry is mighty relieved at the prospect of one less “creative difference” with a cast member?

Ever since Vanity Fair’s cover story four years ago about the assorted hissy fits and tearful cellphone calls during the magazine’s photoshoot of the five principal actresses on the show, the thought has ricocheted around the blogosphere that more sturm und drang might exist on the actual set of the sitcom/soap opera than on fictitious Wisteria Lane. Then, when the hullabaloo began to die down, what did Ms. Sheridan do but turn it into Hysteria Lane again!

Back in 2005, it was Marcia Cross getting snippy about Teri Hatcher upstaging her with a fire-engine-red bathing suit. Perhaps to placate Ms. Cross, Ms. Sheridan got the spot in the middle of the photo that was supposed to go to Ms. Hatcher.

But once past the offending picture and into the text, you got the distinct impression that Ms. Sheridan shared some bruised feelings with her redheaded colleague. The profile by Ned Zeman revealed that the blonde bombshell was crestfallen that, after auditioning for the role of Bree, Mr. Sherry immediately told her that she was much better suited for…Edie.

What a comedown, making do with the fifth wheel on a gleaming new comic vehicle, as the woman that all the other ladies of the neighborhood scorned. It must have given Ms. Sheridan serious agita to watch the other four actresses get so much attention for their distinctive characters, while she had to accept one that, in truth, is a stereotype.

Mr. Cherry has received many plaudits for writing strong roles for actresses of a certain age. Reading his clips, he might be forgiven for fancying himself the Tennessee Williams of the boob tube—an artist who had fashioned parts of unparalleled craft and complexity for women. But is that acclaim so deserved?

Sure, Desperate Housewives has been awfully sharp at times, particularly in its first season, and, at its best, mixing in a sense of bitter disappointment with life into the mix. But what is Gaby but a gold-digging bimbo? And didn’t many of the story lines involving Bree end up being rather arch and belabored? Okay, she’s a control freak who mangles her kids’ lives because they’re not perfect, even, at times, sexually confused. We get it, okay?

(In the latter case, I think a strong case can be made for Ms. Sheridan’s contention that Mr. Cherry based Edie on someone in his past who had profoundly wounded him. Consider this: he’s already admitted that Bree is based on his mother, who, after he came out of the closet, responded: “I would love you even if you were a murderer.”

Bree has been allowed some human uncertainty, and viewers come to understand how her troubled childhood shaped her need to control. Has Edie? Three-quarters of a century ago, in one of her signature roles, Marlene Dietrich said: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” But how did Edie train for trampdom?

Did Mr. Cherry ever show any sense of Edie as somebody other than a creature of insatiable sexual wants? ‘Fraid not. On this score, at least, Ms. Sheridan was showing True Britt, albeit belatedly, in calling him to task.)

Maybe Mr. Cherry’s reputation as a “woman’s writer-director” is a bit inflated, like Woody Allen’s. Just as The Woodman had a skein of films with female characters as profoundly selfish and castrating as anything this side of August Strindberg (Helena Bonham Carter in Mighty Aphrodite, Demi Moore in Deconstructing Harry, Melanie Griffith in Celebrity), so Mr. Cherry has produced scripts that play up the worst aspects of his women.

In fact, if his women appear strong, it is only in comparison with the men, who are duplicitous, dumb, or, in a major variation, duplicitous and dumb. Imagine Joey Buttafuoco in all his lechery, except that, instead of owning one measly autobody shop, he’s made a fortune running a nationwide chain of auto aftermarket stores—and he’s got the mansion to show for it.

No, I’m afraid that when it comes to depicting women, Mr. Cherry’s closest counterpart is not Tennessee Williams but W. Somerset Maugham, who created a string of women—prostitutes, adulteresses, inscrutable Asian mistresses, clingy British wives—whose only discernible similarity is that they have assured a lifetime of misery to the men they ensnared.

Most assuredly, Ms. Sheridan played up her image with a vengeance, as in the now-infamous promo starring her and Terrell Owens. But what choice did she have? The die was cast for her—Mr. Cherry had made sure of it.

If you’re Ms. Sheridan, you have to wonder if your career is closing in a circle. I mean, what is Edie, after all, but “The Sure Thing” object of lust she embodied for John Cusack in Rob Reiner’s film more than two decades ago—except that now she’s wised-up, with a mind as hard as her body?

Nowadays, Mr. Cusack goes from triumph to triumph, while Ms. Sheridan gets ready for the slag heap Hollywood reserves for actresses who’ve passed their peak of desirability.

In the old days, actresses such as, say, Jennifer Jones or Deborah Kerr would quietly fade off the scene, only to emerge, admittedly somewhat altered from our memory, years later in some award show, commemorative tribute or other.

Today’s Hollywood is far crueler. You can preserve your visibility, all right, but only on a reality show, and one of a particular kind, that exaggerates your faults. Ms. Sheridan’s best hope is to parody her destiny, on one of Saturday Night Live’s better skits in a while: “Cougar Den.”

Quote of the Day (Evelyn Waugh, on Manners)

“Manners are especially the need of the plain. The pretty can get away with anything.”—Perpetual curmudgeon Evelyn Waugh, The Observer, April 15, 1962

Monday, April 27, 2009

Happy 250th Birthday to a Women’s Rights Pioneer

“I love my man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”-- Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

For many people today, the name Mary Wollstonecraft is short for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who, in Frankenstein, created what might be the first great horror story.

Mary Shelley made a lasting contribution to modern thought with her critique of the unintended consequences of science. But her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (who died in 1797 from consequences of giving birth to her daughter) just as admonitory: the price paid by both sexes for what John Stuart Mill, in his own powerful critique of the same phenomenon during the Victorian Era, called The Subjection of Women.

Like the American feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Wollstonecraft (whose 250th birthday occurs today) possessed a relentlessly logical critical intelligence and an incisive writing style that not only swept all before it but also still practically cries out for quotation. But, besides the quote above, over the years I’ve encountered more than one woman who’s echoed another thought of the great Anglo-Irish female radical philosopher:

“It would be an endless task to trace the variety of meannesses, cares, and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion, that they were created rather to feel than reason, and that all the power they obtain, must be obtained by their charms and weakness.”

This Day in Religious History (“Warrior Pope” Julius II Gets Tough With Venice)

April 27, 1509—Summoning the wrath that earned him the sobriquet pontefice terribile, Pope Julius II struck back at the rulers of Venice by putting the entire city-state under an interdict. Thus, all God-fearing members of this center of commerce and culture—whose leaders had recently crossed the Vatican—found themselves under a solemn ecclesiastical edict cutting them off from the sacraments.

Nowadays, we know Julius best through his association with two transcendent artists whose unfortunate lot was to be rivals for his patronage. Raphael painted the pope’s upstairs rooms in the Vatican palace, then did Julius’ portrait—the image accompanying this post.

You’d never know, scrutinizing this image without any knowledge of the subject, that Julius was positively feared—maybe even more than longtime executive editor Abe Rosenthal was in the New York Times newsroom! If anything, the pope’s portrait reminds me of King Lear at the end of his rope—and, indeed, at the time of his sitting Julius had survived one life-threatening illness and was a year away from succumbing to another.

Julius was pretty much what you’d expect in a Renaissance pope:

* Promiscuous—he’d fathered three daughters out of wedlock by the time he became pope in his early 60s, and he gave away one in marriage during his reign.
* Corrupt—he’d resorted to bribery to play kingmaker (or, in this case, pope-maker) for Cardinal Ciba (i.e., Innocent III), then used the same skullduggery to secure his own election 19 years later.
* Cultured—though best known for commissioning the basilica of St. Peter, the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo’s Moses for his own tomb, Julius also issued in 1512 a papal bull establishing the Capella Julia for the study of music and the chant.

Besides Raphael, the other artist most strongly associated with Julius is, of course, Michelangelo. I suspect that, like me, at least some of you have an image of him drawn from Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. In the 1965 film adaptation, one scene lingers, more than 35 years later, in my memory, of Rex Harrison as the pope, raising his voice to Michelangelo (Charlton Heston, naturally) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, demanding: “When will you make an end?”

“When I am finished!” comes the reply, the eternal cry of the perfectionist artist.

Harrison’s casting in the role was doubtless a function of box-office clout—after all, he’d only just won the Oscar for My Fair Lady. But Hollywood execs could not have asked for anyone better suited to this role, because “Sexy Rexy” (he was, like Henry VIII, married six times) was the sole shining light of the 1963 film that launched a thousand Tinseltown nervous breakdowns, Cleopatra.

The cynical wit of Harrison’s Julius Caesar in the 20th-Century Fox debacle represented a thin veneer for a character born to dominate. A life in the theater had prepared the actor exceptionally well for this (particularly so when he scared ingénue co-star and musical newcomer Julie Andrews practically out of her wits before the Broadway opening of My Fair Lady).

How does Julius Caesar relate to Julius II, besides the superficial matter of that first name? Go back to the beard in the Raphael painting. Julius II wore it as a tribute to the destroyer of the Roman Republic, who had gone hirsute as a pledge against his enemies in the field, the Gauls.

If possible, Julius II had even more enemies than Caesar: the French, successors to the Gauls as a troubling presence to the north, but also the Turks and the Bolognese. You can imagine this pope as a chieftain, a commander, even a Carnegie-style captain of industry with his disdain for the hoi polloi, support of culture, and demand for results right now. But you can’t possibly envision him as a successor to St. Peter, the fisherman all too aware of his own frailty even as he became the rock on which the Church was built.

One person who definitely couldn’t see Julius as successor to Peter was Erasmus of Rotterdam. In 1517, four years after Julius had died, the humanist scholar satirized the first pope meeting his most recent deceased successor in Julius exclusus e coelis.

In it, St. Peter, standing at the pearly gates, inquires of Julius what he has done to merit entrance. The reply becomes the occasion for a ferocious (and, conveniently for the author, anonymously published) attack in which the late pontiff is blamed for an entire catalogue of sins—not just simony and sorcery, but also—especially telling for the pacifist humanist—the fact that Julius “kept great armies in the field,” leaving a trail of blood across Italy.

General Sherman had nothing on Julius. In a suit of gleaming silver armor, the pontiff led armies into battle himself, and would leave even cardinals shaking in their boots when they quailed at following his path through snowdrifts that reached as high as their chests--even when they were mounted.

Before assuming the papacy, Julius had been regarded as a good friend of Venice. But before long, by taking various places in the Romagna—territory that belonged in those days to the papacy—by filling various religious offices without input from the pope, and by subjecting clergy to a secular tribunal rather than ecclesiastical courts, leaders of the watery city-state pushed the pope into cooperating with Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and King Louis XII of France in the League of Cambrai.

Julius was not at all happy about this alliance—he was a kind of clerical but undemocratic Garibaldi, hoping to unite Italy by driving out hated foreigners such as the French—but he’d do what he felt he had to in order to protect papal prerogatives.

I’m not going to bore you with the multiple switches in diplomatic and military policy that ensued at the papal court during these years—they gave me whiplash just trying to follow it all. Instead, I’ll leave it to John Julius Norwich, summing things up with typical effortless elegance in A History of Venice:

“In scarcely more than four years, the three principal protagonists in the war of the League of Cambria had gone through every possible permutation in the pattern of alliances. First France and the Papacy were allied against Venice, then Venice and the Papacy ranged themselves against France; now Venice and France combined against the Papacy—and, indeed, all comers….Alliances were matters, above all, of tactical convenience; when they no longer served a useful purpose they were broken off and new, more promising ones formed in their place….Ultimately, always, there was only one rule to be followed: that of each man for himself.”

Then as now, armies cost money. Amazingly, Julius left the papal coffers full at the time of his death—but, as a product of the curial culture of the time, he’d perpetuated a cycle of spending, then looking for any ready means to pay for his high art and low wars.

His successor, Leo X, was such a spendthrift that he hired Dominican friar Johannes Tetzel to sell indulgences to raise funds for Julius’ pet project, an entirely rebuilt St. Peter’s Basilica. That sale sparked Martin Luther’s wrath.

The consequences of that righteous anger were spelled out in a sermon I heard some years ago in my parish. An English Jesuit was escorting some friends through the Sistine Chapel. Gaping at the ceiling, they inquired how much the magnificent images had cost.

“Half of Europe,” the priest answered drily.

Quotes of the Day (Norman Maclean and Wendell Berry, on Water and Earth)

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (1976)

"The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most
pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our
only legitimate hope."—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1978)

I took the photo accompanying this post at Ramapo Mountain Reservation in Mahwah, N.J.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

This Day in Legal History (Temporary Insanity Defense Gets NYC Congressman Off for Killing Wife’s Lover)

April 26, 1859—In the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense, a jury acquitted a controversial New York congressman and future Civil War general of murdering his wife’s lover, the son of the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Look, I know what you’re thinking—Congressmen always get away with murder, just as they’re not temporarily insane, but always are.

Well, not always literally. Offhand, aside from the usual duels in the early days of the republic, I can only recall one other instance when a Congressman really got away with a capital (in more senses of the word than one) crime: Last year, I wrote about James Thomas Heflin, a racist Southern congressman who gunned down a black man for heckling him on a DC streetcar 100 years ago.

But the one that occurred in 1859 was something else entirely, involving a legal precedent, a prominent defense lawyer who in a few years would help direct the Union war effort during the Civil War, and three principals, each with a unique fame to contemporary public attention, now each almost totally forgotten.

Dreadful Tragedy,” proclaimed the good, gray New York Times the morning after the shooting, which took place around 2 pm on Feb. 27, 1859.

The paper has gone hot and cold since then in matters related to politicos and sex (hot, in the case of Eliot Spitzer, in a Pulitzer-winning expose that drove the governor from office; cold, in the matter of John Edwards, taking forever to acknowledge that the Presidential candidate had had a relationship with a media consultant attached to his campaign).

At the time, however, the Times had no problem putting this story of “Domestic Ruin and Bloody Revenge” on page 1, though not without a waggish acknowledgement, in the first paragraph, that, though the incident had filled Washington “with horror and consternation, I cannot unfortunately add, with absolute surprise.”

The paper could not, in conscience, ignore the shooting without looking ridiculous. The matter, after all, featured a murder involving a love triangle composed of three of the most prominent people in the political and financial capitals of the antebellum republic. How would you otherwise explain their very visible absence from their social rounds and work?

* Philip Barton Key, the victim, would have had no trouble attracting residual attention as the son of Francis Scott Key, the lawyer who watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812 and went home to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But young Key—actually, 40 years old at his very untimely demise—was also the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., a fellow who had become quite the man-about-town with his sad eyes and charm to spare.

* Teresa Bagioli Sickles, the center of the triangle, became one of the numerous women who fell under his sway. She enjoyed some degree of fame of her own, as the granddaughter of Mozart’s great librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, and daughter of Antonio Baglioli, a successful music teacher, composer, and conductor in his own right. Teresa attracted quite a good deal of attention in Washington because of her youth, charm and beauty. Unfortunately, little of it came from her husband.

* Dan Sickles, the murderer (in the photo accompanying the post), should have known all about the arts of seduction—few had mastered it so well as himself. As a matter of fact, that’s how he had gotten his wife, whom he had impregnated when she was 15 years old. (Years before, as a boarder in the Baglioli household, he had also been rumored to have had a fling with her mom, Maria Cooke Baglioli. Why does he remind me of Warren Beatty’s hairdresser character in Shampoo?)

From the beginning, Sickles attracted attention with his roguish ways. At age 18, he had already been indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses. This only endeared him all the more to Tammany Hall, which probably thought of that as a badge of honor and began pushing him up through the organizational ranks in higher and higher positions.

Even amid politicos with noticeably elastic morals, however, Sickles did things that just could not be abided. His colleagues in the New York State Assembly, for instance, voted to censure him for escorting a notorious brothel owner onto the floor of their august chamber.

Ever since coming to Washington, Sickles had neglected his young wife. His innumerable absences—and pretty reliable reports of his tomcatting around—left her feeling lonely. Key, a friend of her husband’s, had been around to offer tea, sympathy—and a lot more.

The Times reporter who observed that the murder was not a surprise spoke the truth. Everyone in Washington seemed to know that Sickles was being cuckolded, up to, and including, President James Buchanan—who, you would think, would have better things to do, what with North and South at each other’s throats, than pay attention to a love triangle.

Everyone knew about this, that is, except Sickles himself. You have to wonder why he didn’t realize what was going on. Here are some possible reasons:

* Assignations took place in a racially mixed area of DC, outside the normal rounds patronized by Dan and Teresa. Perhaps—except that the meetings were taking place at Lafayette Square, right across from the White House. Lots of people would, and did, see the meetings. The wonder is why word didn’t get back to Sickles sooner.

* Sickles was too busy with affairs of his own to notice anything. A strong possibility.

* Sickles’ enormously high self-regard meant that he never suspected his wife could want anyone else. Again, some possibility of truth in this.

* Key was beholden to Sickles for interceding to secure his position as U.S. Attorney with Buchanan. Politicians are supposed to think in this kind of rational form. But, as the case of ex-Gov. Spitzer shows, when in the thrall of things sexual, they often don’t. Or, as Woody Allen put it, when his own scandal came to light: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

An anonymous note several days before the incident tipped Sickles off to what was happening. He was beside himself. He thought of a duel, which congressmen were still conducting at this point, then decided to take matters into his own hands.

On the Sunday afternoon when the murder occurred, Sickles, from a window looking out on Washington’s Lafayette Square, caught Key using his usual prearranged signal with Teresa: i.e., whirling his handerchief in a circular manner while gazing up at the apartment the two had taken up for themselves. Upon seeing the signal, Sickles grabbed a derringer, caught up with his betrayer, and shouted, "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die."

Sickles’ first bullet gazed his rival. The two men grappled with each other, then Key managed to slip from his grasp and run. I’d have kept on running knowing that a crazy guy was trying to kill me, but Key—who, as we’ve already noted, hadn’t been thinking all this straight to begin with by taking up with Teresa—reached inside his jacket and threw his opera glass at Sickles.

Now the congressman was doubly decided on his mission. He was going to kill him, all right, but if all else failed he was going to put a serious hurt on Key. So he aimed for the U.S. attorney’s groin, the same move that Hollywood producer Walter Wanger had pulled on Jennings Lang when he discovered the agent’s affair with Wanger’s wife, actress Joan Bennett.

Sickles' second shot barely missed its mark, passing through the thigh of Key, who, staggered by the blow, had fallen against a tree, yelling, “Don’t shoot!” Too late: Sickles fired unsuccessfully, then finally found his mark with one through the attorney’s heart.

Sickles surrendered to the highest life-enforcement officer in the land, Attorney-General Jeremiah Black, then got himself some of the top legal talents in the country for his defense, including Edwin Stanton. The Ohio lawyer had made a name for himself by winning a case before the Supreme Court, then had helped Cyrus McCormick won a battle over patent rights to the reaper. (Co-counsel on that case was a lanky Illinois fellow by the name of Abraham Lincoln.)

The defense Stanton devised for his client was novel: temporary insanity. How could you blame the fellow for shooting his rival, jurors were asked—he’d been driven crazy!

In those days, there was no recognition of a double standard that allowed Sickles to fool around but not his wife. The jury came back with a verdict in his favor.

Then, Sickles startled everybody by forgiving his wife. To my mind, the most astounding event in the whole case happened now: the world could absolve him of committing the Fifth Commandment, but not for an act of Christian charity. Society ostracized the couple.
Controversy continued to dog the Congressman, even when he chose not to run for reelection. At Gettysburg, he made a questionable troop-deployment decision and lost a leg in the fighting. He lived for another 50 years after the battle, days as crowded with rumor and scandal as always (bedding the deposed Queen of Spain, removal as chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission for alleged misuse of funds).
And Teresa? The poor, beleaguered woman was taken back by her husband, who continued to have little use for her. She died at age 31 of tuberculosis--nearly 4o years before the husband twice her age and infinitely surpassing her in shamelessness.

Quote of the Day (The Gospel of John, on “My Father’s House”)

“In my Father's house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you.”—John 13:2

If you ever find yourself in the northeast corner of New Jersey and feel like visiting a nice little church, you might want to stop at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which serves the town of Mahwah as well as nearby Ramapo College.

Turning the corner from Route 202 in Mahwah to Darlington Avenue last weekend, I just had to stop and take the picture accompanying this post. Your eye will be caught, just as mine was, by this picturesque corner—a historic town schoolhouse now being restored is just across the street, and Ramapo Mountain Reservation is just down Rt. 202. Once inside the church itself, which dates back to 1928, you’ll find a place of peace, the kind of “place for you” mentioned by John the evangelist.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Theater Review: Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

The word I associate with the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler is “massacre.” The critics would have it that this gruesome act was perpetrated upon Ibsen’s 1891 drama by director Ian Rickson in collaboration with adaptors Christopher Shinn and Anne-Charlotte Hay. Such thunderous invective was hurled at the play that the Roundabout probably couldn’t bring down the final curtain fast enough two weekends ago.

I’m not sure what was eating these reviewers, for they reacted out of all proportion to what I saw onstage. Am I arguing that this production will forever alter how the Scandinavian playwright’s anti-heroine is viewed? Hardly.

But the media did a major disservice by discouraging theatergoers from a revival that was consistently challenging. Critics have expended countless ink praising shows far less competent than this one—and if they rifled through their clips and had some residual grace to go with their more-than-abundant venom, they’d own up to it.

(I’ve seen far worse shows mounted at the Roundabout alone (Paula Vogel’s shrill Red State satire The Mineola Twins, along with A Streetcar Named Desire, with John C. Reilly horrifyingly miscast as Stanley Kowalski and Natasha Richardson—undoubtedly as dear a lady as the obits have made her out to be—just not up, for whatever reason, to the demanding role of Blanche).

Yet whatever criticism accrued to either production paled compared with what happened here. You’d think that poor Mary-Louise Parker had murdered a batch of students rather than her fiercely conflicted modern anti-hero. (In fact, an Off-Broadway revival a few years ago starring Elizabeth Marvel featured acts a thousand times more bizarre than anything here (e.g., a tomato-juice dowsing) – and many critics found no real problem with the proceedings!)

Even the beginning of the play made critics take umbrage, as the audience became aware that Ms. Parker’s Hedda was lying face down in a disheveled red gown, baring her derriere. The fuss was beyond me, given that the past two decades have seen a number of actors and actresses exposing far more of their skin (including full-frontal nudity) than did Ms. Parker—and with far less motivation or realism.

Sexuality and its limits, after all, are at the heart of this drama. It’s not only that Hedda’s beauty is mentioned by more than one character, but that she uses her sexuality as a test. She wants to manage the destiny of others (such as a former lover) but thrashes about wildly at the thought that sex could leave her under the control of anyone else. Remarks that she is “glowing” and that she appears to have put on weight are enough to anger her—a clear indication that she fears pregnancy will bind her further in marriage.

At least Parker came up with some interesting, though not strange, stage business for her intelligent but emotionally constricted character, including playing the piano—hinting at the creative impulses she thinks has been buried in marriage to Jurgen, an academic whose thesis is the drably titled Domestic Crafts of Holland and Belgium in the Middle Ages.

No, I’m afraid that if the show’s depiction of Hedda seemed murky to many reviewers (and, let’s be fair, not a few theatergoers who complained online), the fault lies less with director and actress than with the playwright.

Hedda Gabler is the female counterpart to Hamlet: a character who continually resists being reshaped by others, a figure of great potential but equally great complexity and torment, someone who makes the course of the play deviate wildly away from conventional melodrama with her absolute unpredictability.

Too intelligent and talented for her husband or the proper Victorian society he represents, she turns to mischief. The name of the play itself is itself a tipoff of her dilemma, for Hedda remains the headstrong daughter of a general rather than the dutiful wife of an academic.

I’ve seen Parker in innumerable movie and TV appearances, but never onstage. This performance hasn’t discouraged me in the slightest. Her interpretation of her iconic role—restless, angry—sometimes entirely within the spirit of Ibsen’s text.

With her dark brown eyes and pale white screen luminous in the darkness of the American Airlines Theatre, she vividly embodied a woman who could only find fulfillment in destruction. “I am burning a child,” she says desperately as she tosses the work of a lifetime into the fire.

The other cast members have the thankless task for injecting complexity into characters that Ibsen created as mere foils for his ineffectual female rebel. Michael Cerveris made for a Sweeney Todd you couldn’t take your eyes off of a few years ago, but here, by necessity, he practically fades into the woodwork as Hedda’s clueless husband. (You can imagine her frustration with him—kind of like punching endlessly into a pile of feathers.) Peter Stormare invests Judge Brack with the kind of arrogance that makes you believe him when he says he wants to be “cock of the walk.”

In a post-show discussion with dramaturg Ted Sod, Patricia Denison of Barnard College illuminated the challenges of staging a play that is primarily character-driven as opposed to being a women’s rights manifesto—and, thus, infinitely challenging now as it was more than a century ago.

A few nights ago, one of my friends came up with a measured assessment of the play that did it far more justice than any of the critics did. She thought it was well-done, but not something that people had to rush out to see. That pretty much sums up my feelings, too.

Quote of the Day (Daniel Defoe, on Not Knowing What We Have Till It’s Lost)

“Thus we never see the true State of our Condition, till it is illustrated to us by its Contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.”—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)

In contrast to the 19th century, when it probably achieved its zenith in popularity and, I would argue, its craft, the novel in the 18th century was a genre of the hinterlands—the English countryside or, in the hands of Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, regions at the very edge of the world, where unwary travelers came into uneasy proximity to the elements, their own shifting and uncertain interior geography—and, if they were lucky, as in Crusoe’s case, God.

Defoe and Swift wrote in the midst of the heroic age of exploration and colonization, where fascination with life at the extremes of the world was at its highest. Myself, I’ve never had this particular fascination—maybe because I encounter all the extremes I could want commuting five days a week into the exotic island of Manhattan.

Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe on this date in 1719, and from the start it became popular. It was based partly on the real-life adventure of the Scot seaman Alexander Selkirk, who spent more than four years as a castaway 400 miles off the west coast of Chile, on uninhabited terrain now called Robinson Crusoe Island.

In his own way, Defoe must have felt as beleaguered and God-forsaken as Selkirk at times. In his mid-twenties, he had not only gone bankrupt when he attempted to expand his business, but had also been on the losing side when the Duke of Monmouth rebelled against King James II.

By middle age, the pamphleteer was jailed for his anonymous pamphlet The Shortest Way With Dissenters—and the only reason why he got sprung was because he agreed to become a secret agent and public propagandist for the government, providing shameless support for Scotland’s union with England.

In early 1719, Defoe came to a particularly rough patch in his life. It wasn’t only that he was hitting 60 years old—an age that then, far more so than now, leads to contemplation of imminent mortality—but that he had to pay for his daughter’s wedding. (The prospect of that, I’ve been reliably told, makes many a father long to become a castaway.) Instead of pulling a Spencer Tracy-style Father of the Bride slow burn, however, Defoe got busy, turning out his 412th publication, Robinson Crusoe.

(I know what you’re wondering: “412th? Is that a misprint?” No, believe it or not—Defoe did not fuss with twittering, Facebook, blogging or other Internet nonsense in those days.

Now, all that writing will get you called “prolific,” if people regard you as literary, like Joyce Carol Oates or Balzac, or a hack, if you’re a genre writer. For a long time, people thought of Defoe in the latter vein, as a guy who’d lucked into writing what, because it was viewed as merely an adventure story, was relegated to children’s literature. To their credit, writers like William Hazlitt and James Joyce knew better and championed it.)

To increase the verisimilitude of his account, Defoe wrote in the first person, in the voice of an ordinary man whose inner conflicts put him at a far remove from traditional epic heroes like Achilles or Odysseus. Instead of their raw courage or cunning, Crusoe only possesses endurance.

Readers approaching this as a mere adventure story, however, are likely to be surprised that its true genre is closer to the faux spiritual autobiography—and that Defoe was one of the first to play with the boundaries between fact and fiction.

By the time he had whipped out this novel (often considered the first in the English language), Defoe had crafted a tale with enduring mythic power. Its brisk sales inspired him to write two sequels before his death in 1731. Over the years, others would also find it a source of inspiration, in the form of parody (Gulliver’s Travels in print, Robinson Crusoe on Mars on film), several cinematic retellings (including a 1927 silent version and one starring Pierce Brosnan in 1997), and contemporary reimaginings (Tom Hanks’ Castaway).

Take a look at this reconsideration from the blog "Bright Lights Film", which notices how the novel creates the prototype of the white man and black sidekick. The blogger’s argument that this relationship is racist is one that can be argued with, but the essay still says much about how Robinson Crusoe still speaks to the 21st century about not only the Protestant work ethic but also loss, alienation and spiritual reintegration.

Friday, April 24, 2009

This Day in Media History (First Long-Running American Newspaper Founded in Boston)

April 24, 1704—As Americans watch an industry that (depending on one’s point of view) is experiencing unusual turbulence or its death throes, let’s take a moment to remember the first continuously operating newspaper on these shores: The Boston News-Letter, founded on this date in Britain’s most theocratic—and fractious—North American colony.

Did you catch the history of American newspapers a few months in The New Yorker that was written by Jill Lepore? If you didn’t, here’s the link—it’s a good way to get acquainted with this Harvard historian, who has a knack for rendering early America in engaging, lightly ironic tones.

True, Lepore sums up, in only one sentence (blink and you’ll miss it!) the story of this landmark American media event. But you’ll find enough context to gauge the peculiar soil in which an entire institution grew—and what is new and what is not so new about its current difficult situation.

Notice one phrase in my first paragraph: “continuously operating.” I inserted it because, technically speaking, the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, also came out of Boston, in 1690.

Only one little problem: It was shut down after one issue, for repeating the rumor that the King of France had cuckolded his own son. (Why this should be a problem in Anti-French, Anti-Catholic British North America is beyond me—but there you go.)

The News-Letter didn’t make the same mistake—it was “published by authorities,” or, as Lepore helpfully translates it, endorsed by clerics (you know which ones—those Puritan divines who, only 14 years before, had gotten themselves all in a knot over witchcraft that didn’t exist in Salem).

I’m afraid that you and I might have found the appearance and content of the News-Letter a bit boring. It started out on a single page, printed on both sides, filled mostly with news of English politics along with a lot of boring lists of ship arrivals, deaths, sermons, political appointments, fires, etc.

Among the only major item it broke that broke this torpor in its first two decades was the news of the death of the pirate Blackbeard. (Ah, pirates—newspapers are going out of style, but pirates are experiencing a comeback, have you noticed?)

But all of this was new in those days, and people sat up and took notice. When the first sheet of the first issue came out, the damp specimen was shown to the chief justice of Massachusetts and the president of Harvard, attracting attention as a real curiosity.

Interest in newspapers became really lively, however, with the arrival on the scene of James Franklin’s New-England Courant in 1721. The printer’s decision to go without a license attracted some unwanted attention from authorities, who threw him in print—twice. On one of those occasions his kid brother, hired as an apprentice, ran the paper in his absence. You might have heard of this cheeky younger sibling who, after his brother came back and started lording it over him, ran away to Philadelphia and into the history books—Ben Franklin.

By the time of the American Revolution, there were 40 newspapers in the colonies. Newspapers were instrumental in aiding the cause of John Adams during the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. Yet once they became President, the two men bitterly complained about the scurrilous attacks by the institution they once welcomed.

From what I’ve seen on other blogs and Facebook, the more heated a denunciation, the more likely these Internet phenomena are to attract attention and comment. In this way, they hearken back to the days of the thirteen colonies and the new United States, where invective carried the day.

More than 10 years ago, a friend who’d written about the early 1860s told me that the mood of that decade seemed closer in spirit to his time than the early 1960s had. I think we’re seeing something similar to that with what Thomas Jefferson called the “contest of opinion,” which now is taking place more in cyberspace than in hard copy.

None of the champions of the old order quite know how to deal with this brand new world—not even the bearer of one of the most storied surnames in American journalism, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. His predicament has been brilliantly captured by Mark Bowden in the new issue of Vanity Fair.

The Boston News-Letter folded when its Tory owners left America for the Mother Country during the American Revolution. They never recognized, until too late, the epic change taking place around them.

“Pinch” Sulzberger, I’m afraid, is kin to them in his vapid managerial clichés, starting with his decision to spend on a very expensive headquarters. Since its much-ballyhooed opening two years ago, The Good Gray Lady has been forced to sell the building off, then rent it back.

If newspapers hope to carve out a place in our new environment, they need to recognize the sense of novelty that made the first real American newspaper so striking when it first appeared.

Quote of the Day (Peter O’Toole, on His Exercise Regimen)

“I've often said that the only exercise I take is following the coffins of friends who took exercise.”—Actor Peter O’Toole, in an interview with Bob Strauss of the Los Angeles Daily News, reprinted in “His Favorite Year: Peter O'Toole on Vanity, Romance and the Oscars,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 9, 2007

Thursday, April 23, 2009

This Day in Baseball History (Jackie Robinson Terrorizes Pirates on the Basepaths)

April 23, 1954—Jackie Robinson put on a virtuoso display of daring, stealing second, third—and, in the final indignity, home—all in the same inning, helping the Brooklyn Dodgers edge the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-5.

I was inspired to deal with this particular game by a New York Times article this past week about one of the Hall of Famer’s great specialties: stealing home. In the course of the piece, New York Mets speedster Jose Reyes expressed a desire to pull off this feat that Robinson had accomplished successfully 19 out of 31 times. 

For all his great athleticism, I don’t believe Reyes—at least from what he’s shown in his career to date—has the kind of smarts within the diamond to do this.

Yes, Robinson could certainly hit—that .311 lifetime batting average, including six straight .300 seasons, proves that. But his greatest assets were his legs and his cunning. In contrast, Reyes might have the first but not the second. 

Robinson could change the course of a game by positively unnerving a pitcher, as he did with the Pirates’ Bob Friend. Just watching him dance off first or second was bad enough. But to watch him do it off of third—knowing that the throw to the plate should be the shortest distance of all, and the hardest base for a runner to steal—was too much for any pitcher to abide. 

Though he continued to contribute key moments to the Dodgers’ great pennant runs in 1955 and 1956, 1954 was the last great year for the lionhearted Dodger. 

He was traded to the crosstown rival New York Giants after the 1956 season when Dodger management concluded he was on the decline. Robinson’s decision not to join his new team was based at least partly on the recognition that the legs that had carried him to greatness were on their way out. 

The two players I admire the most in baseball history were Lou Gehrig and Robinson, partly for all they accomplished on the field, but most of all for their courage—“grace under pressure,” in Ernest Hemingway’s words. 

Gehrig’s was displayed as he coped with the devastating disease that now bears his name; Robinson’s was evidenced, of course, as he braved countless indignities and even death threats to break baseball’s color line. 

I believe there were only two everyday players who utterly transformed the game. One was Babe Ruth, who almost single-handedly introduced the power game into the sport with his home runs. (Often during his career, Ruth would have more homers in a single season than entire teams would.) 

The other player was Robinson, whose speed revive the aggressive style of play that Giants manager John J. McGraw much preferred to Ruth’s power game.

Quote of the Day (Fyodor Dostoevsky, on the Task of Life)

"Life is in ourselves and not in the external. To be a human being among human beings, and remain one forever, no matter what misfortunes befall, not to become depressed, and not to falter--this is what life is, herein lies its task."-- Fyodor Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother after his arrest and sentencing for his membership in a radical political group, December 22, 1849

Sleeping in his St. Petersburg apartment on the morning of Holy Saturday, April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky was awakened by a sound already familiar to many, but one which would become even more dreaded over the next century and a half in his country: a knock on the door by the police. He, along with his brother and approximately 30 others, was arrested for participation in a group that discussed socialism at its Friday meetings.

For all their secret meetings, the group—adherents of Petrachevski, a Russian political agitator against Czar Nicholas I—was pretty toothless. The young author’s socialist leanings were mild and, unlike the rest of the group, his atheism was non-existent. But that still put him in the path of Russia’s absolute ruler.

For eight months, Dostoevsky was in solitary confident while Nicholas pondered the fate of members of the group. Finally, the Czar hit on a solution, in the form of the cruelest of hoaxes: the would-be revolutionaries would be spared, but not before he would have some sadistic fun at their experience.

On December 22, Dostoevsky and his fellow political prisoners were put through all of the preliminary steps leading up to execution before being told that their sentences had been commuted. Instead, Dostoevsky would serve four years of hard labor in Siberia, followed by four more years of mandatory military service.

By the time he returned, the writer would be utterly transformed—still unable to conquer all the temptations that came his way (notably, an unruly gambling streak that threatened to ruin him), he had lost his youth and seen his health endangered (he experience his first epileptic seizure while incarcerated). He was allowed only one book—the New Testament—and came out of the experience a devout Christian.

Most of all, he had gained the tragic sense of history that would inform the great psychologically driven art of his maturity: Notes From Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Quote of the Day (Chick Corea, on a Miles Davis Masterpiece)

"It's one thing to just play a tune, but it's another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what Kind of Blue did."—Pianist Chick Corea, quoted in Ashley Kahn, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.

Fifty years ago today, the final recording session was held at Columbia Record's 30th Street Studio for what might be Miles Davis’s supreme moment as a jazz icon, Kind of Blue. The great trumpeter’s lineup included musicians who matched the standard set by Davis himself: “Cannonball” Adderley (alto saxophone), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Wynton Kelly (piano), and my favorite of the bunch, Bill Evans (piano).

For an excellent summary of why this recording became Davis’ biggest-selling LP—and one of Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time—please see John Edward Hasse’s account from two weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

This Day in Classical Music History (Handel’s “Fireworks” Leads to Jam on London Bridge)

April 21, 1749—Six days before it was supposed to have its official premiere, a public rehearsal at Vauxhall Gardens of Music for the Royal Fireworks, by George Frideric Handel, drew such a crowd on London Bridge that no carriage could pass for three hours.

I like public rehearsals, don’t you? In contrast to actual concerts, they’re relaxed and cheap. If one I attended several years ago at Tanglewood is any indication, the musicians don’t get dressed up in their finest, but they’re serious and professional, and the conductor—perhaps because he knows outsiders are looking on—doesn’t throw a hissy fit if someone hits a wrong note.

Handel wasn’t keen on the idea of public rehearsals, though. Part of his reluctance related to his own showman’s instinct: he was going to repeat this piece in a month, at a benefit concert for the city’s Foundling Hospital, by which time, he feared, the music would lose its impact.

There was also the little matter of how all the musicians he wanted for the full performance could be shoehorned into the “Music Box” at Vauxhall Gardens.

The venue formed just part of a larger struggle for the composer, however, who, under even the best of circumstances, was wary about having his work tampered with. He got along well enough, all right, with King George II (whose family, the Hanovers, were, like Handel himself, a German emigrant to England).

But the two men representing the monarch’s interests—the Duke of Montague (Master General of the Ordnance, responsible for military music) and Charles Frederick, the “Comptroller of His Majesty’s Fireworks as Well as For War as For Triumph” (honestly, you can’t make these titles up!) were another story.

They were amateurs, and Handel didn’t like their suggestions (the king’s wishes, they insisted) for trumpets and martial music. Handel wanted the trumpets and French horns reduced from 16 to 12, with violins, of all things, added into the mix.

Montague, Frederick, and the king wanted a big to-do made out of this because they felt the occasion—the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession—warranted it. And, like the war itself—an inconclusive affair that didn’t end up settling anything—it’s likely that the three wouldn’t have insisted on getting their way if they’d known how the whole misbegotten affair would turn out.

Most of the estimates I’ve read about the London Bridge traffic jam put the number of vehicles at 12,000, though at least one contrarian insists on something closer to 2,000-3,000. Whatever the case might be, that little traffic jam was a prelude to some real discordant notes over the next week or so.

Handel must have been particularly disgruntled by the fact that—at least from what we can see—nobody made a fuss about his new work at the time. This might have been a blessing in disguise, for everyone else seems to have regarded the eventual April 27 concert at Green Park as a catastrophe.

The fireworks themselves were, according to a contemporary account, “lighted so slightly that scarce any body had patience to wait the finishing.” Even worse, from the musical point of view, were some other—uh, technical difficulties, shall we say.

The enormous wooden building in which the musicians had been performing ended up catching fire (courtesy of a bas relief of King George that collapsed). This enraged Handel’s collaborator, the theater designer Servadoni, who blamed Charles Frederick so much for the nasty turn of events that he drew his sword on him. (Poor Servadoni was taken into custody for his sins, and was only discharged the next day after he asked pardon of Charles Frederick.)

Quote of the Day (William Hazlitt, on Being Right)

“We are not satisfied to be right, unless we can prove others to be quite wrong.”—William Hazlitt, Conversations of James Northcote, Esq. R.A. (1830)

This observation certainly seems applicable in terms of marriage. Increasingly, it also seems to characterize American political discourse—often, on both sides, not just wrong, but loud wrong.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Quote of the Day (Flannery O’Connor, on the Impact of One Trait on Her Vocation)

“I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both."—Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to Betty Hester, June 28, 1956

Over the years, thousands have felt good reason to read the short stories, novels, essays or letters of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)—for bizarre characters, for her precise use of words, for theological concerns that yet never trump the fiction writer’s need to convey humanity in all its crazy complexity. But the best reason of all can be glimpsed in this quote: the lady was a pistol.

At, that voice—so deliciously tart. “She was a lovely girl, but scared the boys to death with her irony,” an instructor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop observed. Their loss. She was born too early for ace pop tunesmith Marshall Crenshaw, who might have found the kindred “Cynical Girl” he longed for in the sickly young woman from Milledgeville, Ga., who never let either her increasingly grave physical condition or a fallen world get in the way of her humor.

In addition to pressing on me Moss Hart’s Act One (recounted in a prior post), my college friend Greg Burke also urged me to delve into O’Connor. While aware of her artistry, I never fell under her sway as completely as Greg did—maybe because, though of Irish-Catholic descent like myself, her milieu was overwhelmingly rural Protestant, while mine was northeastern (northern New Jersey by way of the South Bronx), with my faith neither submerging nor submerged by others in my region.

I think I need to revisit my attitude about her work. The more I have read of her letters (collected in in Habit of Being) and of her life, the more that merging of style and sensibility has captivated me.

Ten years ago this coming fall, while touring Savannah, I visited O’Connor’s childhood home. She is more often associated with Andalusia, the farm in Milledgeville where she raised peacocks (an avocation she wrote about, in typically hilarious detail, in “The King of the Birds,” an essay in the Literary Savannah anthology) and lived most of her life.

Knowing her Roman Catholic background, however, I wasn’t surprised to learn that her family’s home at 207 East Charlton Street on Lafayette Square was located so close to the city’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. (I mean, she could see it, as well as Sacred Heart School, where she was educated as a young girl.)

The brick, stucco structure, dating back to the 1850s, is long and narrow, only half as wide as the neighboring house, where a wealthy cousin lived. But somehow I doubt that O’Connor cared about wealth so much as enough health to do her work. This past fall, the home was reopened after a lengthy renovation.

The writer would probably be chagrined to know that her lifespan would be closer to her father’s, who died when she was only a teenager, than to her mother’s, which extended to 1995, when Mrs. O’Connor was 99 and had outlived her daughter by more than three decades.

One last thing: We don’t have more work from this “Southern Gothic” writer because, at age 39, O’Connor was struck down by lupus—the same disease that claimed her father. The high school English teacher who encouraged me the most to write, Sister Marie Harold, was afflicted with the same condition. I think that these two women would have gotten along very well if they had ever had the opportunity to meet because of their shared love for words and for Christ.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Tommy Hitchcock, Hero Pilot/Athlete Who Inspired Fitzgerald Characters, Dies in Plane Crash)

April 19, 1944—Finally unable to escape the risks he had successfully surmounted to date in his life, Tommy Hitchcock, a WWI pilot who went on to revolutionize American polo playing in the 1920s, died in England while testing a plane during World War II.

The only athlete from the Golden Age of Sports who also played at a high level throughout the 1930s, Hitchcock has, unlike contemporaries such as Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, and Bill Tilden, been somewhat forgotten today, except for the literary immortality conferred on him by Long Island friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who based not one but two characters on him in his most accomplished novels, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

In Tender Is the Night, the aviator Tommy Barban, with whom Nicole Diver has an affair, is a composite of Hitchcock, Edouard Jozan (a young French pilot who had a fling with Zelda Fitzgerald), and, to a lesser extent, even Ernest Hemingway.

Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby is a good deal closer to Hitchcock; both men play polo, come from old money, and convey an impression of physical power held in reserve. 

Yet in real life, Fitzgerald seems to have held considerably more affection for Hitchcock than he did toward Buchanan, who, besides carrying on an affair and going off half-cocked about the latest racist nonsense of the day, is depicted along with wife Daisy, in the novel’s final, memorably scathing judgment, as “careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made."

This demonstrates one of the novelist’s methods of creating character: while many of his figures are drawn from life, his works are not strictly roman a clefs (literally, “novels with a key”), for the imperatives of plot and theme have transformed them into something more than slightly altered reality.

Had Fitzgerald encountered Hitchcock when he was younger, as he had the Princeton athlete Hobey Baker, he would very likely have somewhat romanticized him in his fiction as much as he did in real life. 

Fitzgerald preferred Hitchcock to Charles Lindbergh as a pilot and, according to Andrew Turnbull’s biography of the writer, also admired the fact that Hitchcock, after returning home as a war hero, chose to enter Harvard as a lowly freshman.

Nevertheless, by the time the novelist met the North Shore athlete-aristocrat, money had begun to take on far more ambiguity than it had in his younger days. 

For all his admiration of Hitchcock and fascination with his class, Fitzgerald was also coming to see the potential for destruction in the mix they represented of money and power.

Hitchcock made such a powerful impression during his life that he inspired film as well as literary characters. 

If you like to watch vintage films on TCM, try to catch a 1928 silent called The Smart Set, starring William Haines. The protagonist of this comedy, Tommy Van Buren, is a rich polo player hailing from Long Island. 

It’s a safe bet that only one out of a thousand people nowadays would know the original inspiration for this movie playboy, but audiences of the Twenties—especially if they followed the sports or society pages—would know exactly who was being lampooned.

If your only impression of this real-life polo player were derived from that film, or even Fitzgerald, you would come away with the impression that Hitchcock was immoral and/or idiotic. In fact, he was as good at his sport as nearly anyone who ever played it, and he was a hero of not one but two wars. 

As one of the “careless people,” Buchanan avoided responsibility; Hitchcock sought it out—and paid for it with his life.

One of his WWII buddies, director William A. Wellman, depicted Hitchcock, among other friends, in one of his final films, Lafayette Escadrille (1958). The role was played by Jody McCrea, the recently deceased son of actor Joel McCrea.

While still only a teenager, Hitchcock tried to leave prep school and fight in the American army. Rebuffed as underage, he used family connections to Theodore Roosevelt and enlisted in the Lafayette Escadrille.

He had better luck than T.R.’s youngest son Quentin, a fellow teenage aviator, in surviving: Shot down over enemy lines, wounded, then held for six months, he managed to jump from a train transporting prisoners to another facility, endured eight days of hunger and cold, and eventually made his way to Switzerland. 

When the war was over, he’d been credited with two “kills,” won the Croix de guerre, and achieved a reputation for fearlessness that would last through the rest of his life.

You can sense that fearlessness in the photo accompanying this blog. Hitchcock, on the left, is displaying his aggressive, go-for-broke style in a polo match. His opponent doesn’t stand a chance.

(One aspect of Hitchcock’s game would not survive today: He’d come at an opponent at a sharp angle, bearing down hard—then pull up short. Nowadays, such a tactic would be deemed intimation, and outlawed.)

Polo skills were as much a family inheritance as the money that allowed Hitchcock to attend St. Paul’s prep school and Harvard. 

I don’t think you’ll find three members of the same family in most athletic hall of fames, yet that was the case in the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame, where not only Hitchcock but also his father, Tommy Hitchcock Sr. and his mother, Louisa (one of the first American women to play the game) were both admitted.

“Ten-Goal Tommy,” the sportswriters christened the younger Hitchcock, for achieving the highest rating possible in his sport’s handicapping system—18 times in his 22-year career as an active player.

In terms of dominance, he was the Babe Ruth of his sport—and achieved a distinction beyond The Babe: having the sense enough to retire before his skills declined, still at the top of his game.

After such a career of celebrity (enhanced even further by his marriage to a member of the Mellon clan), you couldn’t blame Hitchcock if he found working on Wall Street a bit dull. So he spiced it up in ways that some (like his passengers) might not have wished: he often piloted a seaplane to his job in lower Manhattan with Lehman Brothers, sometimes in frightening weather.

The day after Pearl Harbor, Hitchcock tried to enlist again. Nothing doing, he was told. The first time, nearly a quarter-century before, he was too young; now he was too old.

Yet, like Little Prince author Antoine de-Saint Exupery (whom I discussed last week), Hitchcock a way to contribute: in this case, becoming instrumental, albeit as a largely deskbound major in Air Intelligence, in developing the P-51 B Mustang, a fighter-bomber so effective that, when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering saw it overhead in the skies over Berlin, he knew “that the jig was up.”

Hitchcock’s desire to get into the nitty-gritty of flight detail—to experience for himself what this plane was like—led to his death. Engineers attached to his group were assigned to figure out why the Mustang wasn’t coming out of bombing dives. 

Hitchcock, testing out his engineers’ theory, crashed near Salisbury, England.

Last year, at a used-book sale, I delayed picking up a copy of a biography of Hitchcock by Nelson W. Aldrich, Tommy Hitchcock: An American Hero. I’m sorry I didn’t buy it when I had the chance: the career of Hitchcock represents a world and a character decidedly foreign to the way we live now.

For those like me who can’t get enough of The Great Gatsby, Hitchcock’s life casts a unique spotlight on how Fitzgerald created a unique blend of character, environment, and theme. The marvel is that Tommy Hitchcock is an even more fascinating personality than Tom Buchanan.

Quote of the Day (Archbishop Timothy Dolan, on His Responsibility—and Ours)

"My mission is to remind New Yorkers that they must welcome God to this ‘capital of the world’ as warmly as they have welcomed so many others."—Archbishop Timothy Dolan, “It's a blessing to be here: Why I'm proud to lead the wonderful Archdiocese of New York,” The New York Daily News, April 15, 2009

Welcome to the Big Apple, Archbishop Dolan. One word of advice: No matter what you might have experienced in Milwaukee and elsewhere, it will be like nothing you’ll experience here. I hope you’ve got a flak jacket under your clerical robes—you’ll need it.

In the meantime, while many will disagree on some or most of your stands, I hope you’ll stick to the more detailed part of your mission that you outlined in your Daily News op-ed:

“Loving the Church here means supporting her indispensable work caring for the poor, the immigrants, the sick and elderly, the lonely, the unborn and the abandoned. It means working hard for her Catholic schools, in many ways the pride of the archdiocese….It means speaking from America's most famous pulpit for justice and peace, for religious liberty and the sanctity of all human life.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

TV Quote of the Day (Seth Meyers, on the End of a Soap Opera)

“After 72 years and over 15,000 episodes, CBS is canceling the soap opera ‘Guiding Light.’ CBS said the show’s viewership dropped in recent months after white people started having real problems.”—Seth Meyers, “Weekend Update” segment on Saturday Night Live, April 11, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

This Day in Civil War History (Grant Halts POW Exchanges With South)

April 17, 1864—Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant announced a change in the Union’s policy toward prisoner exchanges with the South that had extremely important consequences for the future course of the war:

* The end of one-for-one exchanges meant that a practice that had disproportionately benefited the numerically outnumbered Confederacy would end.

* The new policy put the Confederacy on notice that African-American servicemen had better be treated the same as whites, as far as their treatment when captured was concerned—or the South had better be prepared for retaliation.

In Grant’s Personal Memoirs, you can tell that he was still a bit testy about the notion that he enjoyed a manpower advantage over Robert E. Lee. After enumerating all the assets his Confederate counterpart had—a friendly citizenry, familiarity with territory, no need for rear guards or large wagon trains—Grant concluded wearily, “All circumstances considered we did not have any advantage in numbers.”

That was true—but only up to a point. Musing on his successfully strategy for seizing Vicksburg, Grant observed, “As long as we could hold our position the enemy was limited in supplies of food, men and munitions of war to what they had on hand. These could not last always.” Here was a commander who preferred a war of movement and outflanking, but also one who would take the situation at hand, assess his needs and strength, and adapt accordingly.

That spring’s Richmond campaign would subsequently upend Grant’s strategy, but he was already preparing for anything. From past practice, he knew that many of the soldiers who rejoined the Confederate Army would be back in battle in no time.

But the notion of POW exchanges took on a whole different cast after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest captured Fort Pillow, Tenn. News reports began to circulate after the April 12 attack that, in its chaotic aftermath, African-American soldiers serving in the Union Army had been shot after surrendering.

What was the truth? Shelby Foote, in his magisterial three-volume history of the war, dismissed the idea of a massacre, likening what happened to the “Rape of Belgium” propaganda circulated by the British at the start of WWI. At the same time, Foote is honest enough to mention a fact that goes a long way toward contradicting his point: More than 60% of black prisoners were killed after surrendering, while the percentage was only 20% for whites.
The Confederacy’s own words and actions before the battle also foretold a predisposition to deal harshly with Union African-American soldiers, many of whom were escaped slaves. The prior year, Lincoln had had to issue an executive order that, for every Union soldier enslaved, a Confederate would be placed at hard labor. The measure was meant to counteract an order from Jefferson Davis, subsequently endorsed by the Confederate Congress, that captured black soldiers would be turned over to their original states “to be dealt with according to the laws of said states.”

In considering predisposition to slaughter, there is also the matter of Forrest himself. It might be true, as Foote notes, that none of the inquiries initiated by Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, or any other body pursued action against the Confederate general. But in the postwar period, Forrest was elected the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

More telling were the words from Forrest’s own mouth. In his memoirs, Grant cites the following post-battle dispatch from the Confederate:

“The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

For the most part, Grant’s narrative is a model of a clear yet unemotional voice. He also knew how to get out of the way when the facts spoke for themselves. That’s why, in this case, the sentence he appends to Forrest’s account is especially damning: “Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part which shocks humanity to read.”

Grant’s feeling that prisoner exchanges merely prolonged the war, along with the bloody campaign he waged in the summer of 1864 against Lee, has led some to conclude that he decided to end the POW exchange as another means of wearing the Confederacy down. The thinking was that, by saddling the Confederate Army with so many extra mouths to feed, they would have that much less to feed itself, and that that army would not be able to rely again on freed soldiers rushed back into battle.

But in his history Ordeal by Fire, James M. McPherson disputes this contention, noting how Grant reacted to a later Confederate offer for an exchange. Grant was ready to accept Robert E. Lee’s October offer for a man-for-man exchange in Virginia, but insisted that black soldiers be included. The deal fell apart but Lee refused.

It wasn’t until the winter of 1864-65 that movement began to develop on releasing POWs again. In the meantime, some of the most intense fighting of the war had produced a heavy load of prisoners.

The South was already experiencing food shortages (on the same date as Grant’s decision, Savannah had a bread riot to deal with), so in terms of food and shelter, Union prisoners ended up being comparatively worse off than Confederates in Northern camps. By the end of the war, readers in the North would be reading horror stories about the horrors of Andersonville and Belle Isle that would exacerbate already inflamed feelings about Southern culpability for starting the conflict.

Quote of the Day (Reggie Jackson, on the Bronx Bombers’ New/Old Digs)

“It’s the House that George Built.”—Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, on the new Yankee Stadium, the product of two decades of wheeling and dealing by principal owner George Steinbrenner, quoted in Pete Caldera, “Upbeat Yankees Ready to Open Stadium,” The Record (Bergen County, NJ), April 15, 2009

Considering the off-field people who have made the greatest impact on the history of baseball, it’s dismaying how many have been severely deficient as human beings:

* Charles Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox was such a skinflint that he made the “Black Sox” World Series gambling scandal virtually inevitable by underpaying players.
* As I observed in a post last year, Walter O’Malley not only devastated a whole area of Brooklyn with his decision to relocate the Dodgers out west, but also destroyed a Hispanic community in his attempt to obtain Chavez Ravine for Dodger Stadium.
* Even Branch Rickey, rightly celebrated for signing Jackie Robinson to break the color line, was regarded as arrogant and abrasive by other baseball execs—and, as a consultant to the St. Louis Cardinals, undercut GM Bing Devine while the latter was building one of the great teams of the Sixties.

Which brings me to George Steinbrenner. The growing frailty of the Yankees’ principal owner has led many of the team’s fans to an outpouring of affection for him.

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. The fans’ generosity of spirit is to be applauded, but I well remember his bullying of players and managers for the first two decades he ran the team. And, as long as we’re railing against government bailouts of banks, let’s not forget that he essentially blackmailed the city of New York into tampering with a magnificent cathedral of sports—not once, but twice—and all for a pretty penny.

And yet, at the same time, the fans are onto something about The Boss. Steinbrenner’s desire to win was insane, but it was also an outgrowth of a man who couldn’t control himself. He could be powerfully sentimental, too, blubbering like a baby when the Yankees won again in the 1990s—and ensuring that the grave injustice done to Roger Maris by the previous ownership was rectified by honoring him with his plaque and retiring his number.

Like FDR, I side with Dante, who “tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.” I hate $72 average ticket prices as much as the next man, but for sheer cold-bloodedness, The Boss doesn’t even hold a candle to these other Yankee executives:

* George Weiss, who built the great Yankee teams of the Forties and Fifties by paying his players so little money that their whole mindset from spring training was on winning the World Series.

* Jacob Ruppert, the owner who built the original Yankee Stadium, was connected to the Tammany Hall political machine, and would hire manager Miller Huggins while his partner Col. Tillinghast Huston was away in Europe serving in WWI.
* Ed Barrow, the Bronx Bombers’ general manager from the Twenties well into the Forties, might have been the worst of the lot. He embittered Joe DiMaggio in a salary dispute by leaking to the papers the slugger’s request for a raise at a time when American servicemen were going off to war. Worse, when Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS, Barrow told the slugger’s wife that Lou “should look for another line of work” because he was no longer of any use to the team.

Yet, if you go by the inscription for architect Christopher Wren in London’s St. Paul’s—“if you seek his monument, look around you”—then Barrow was the man who made the Yankees what they are today.

Yes, the stadium was the “House That Ruth Built,” but he also built a supporting cast for the larger-than-life slugger: not only signing Gehrig, but making trades for the comparatively unsung pitchers who truly made the Bronx Bombers more than merely an offensive threat: Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Red Ruffing. He also ensured a constant influx of new players to replace stars by organizing the Yankees’ farm system.

Think of this another way: Before Ed Barrow, the Yankees had never won a pennant. In the quarter-century he was associated with them, the team won 14 pennants and 10 World Series, even sweeping five of them. He built them into such a power that other teams were reluctant even to trade with them