Monday, August 31, 2009

Quote of the Day (Chris Offutt, With Advice for the Aspiring Writer)

“I’m proof that it’s not about talent or intelligence or formal education. My writing career is that it’s about commitment, discipline, and endurance. And that’s what I do here (at Iowa Writers’ Workshop). I maintain the discipline that I committed to twenty years ago and I’m still enduring, maintaining the stamina of a writing life, which is extremely difficult….Writing saved my life as a child and as an adult. And continues to.”—Chris Offutt, in conversation with Anthony Swofford, “An Interview With Chris Offutt,” Tin House, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Summer 2004—The Fiction Issue)

Ten years ago, I took a fiction-writing class with Chris Offutt at the Wesleyan Writers’ Workshop. Those morning sessions mirrored the passion in the above quote, as well as a wildly (probably life-saving) sense of humor not so much in evidence in it.

In this interview with Jarhead author Swofford (another former student), Offutt alludes to his background growing up in some of the poorest areas of Kentucky, a part of his life transmuted into short story collections (Kentucky Straight, Out of the Woods), novels (The Good Brother), and memoirs (The Same River Twice). His writing is precise, flinty and, I believe, durable. His work is a joy to read, and his dedication is an inspiration.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Henry James Returns to America, Shocked and Awed)

August 30, 1904—Catching his breath before his upcoming cross-country lecture tour, Henry James disembarked from the Kaiser Wilhelm II onto the Hoboken waterfront, blinking at an America that had changed astonishingly since the last time he had been back more than two decades before.

Except for brief visits in 1881 and 1883 for business reasons and deaths in the family, the 61-year-old novelist had not stopped foot in the United States since he went to England, to live freely and cheaply, in 1875. The sight of the Manhattan skyline now confronted him with the shock of the new, so much so, according to biographer Leon Edel, that he was “deaf to the questions of his friends.”

But that was nothing compared with the expatriate’s disorientation over the nation’s physical, commercial and demographic transformation, as well as séances that intrigued his brother and sister-in-law in Cambridge, Mass., the philosopher William James and his wife Alice. These cumulative experiences jolted James into writing one of his most significant nonfiction works, The American Scene, as well as a ghost story with uncharacteristic autobiographical overtones, “The Jolly Corner.”

In some quarters, critic Van Wyck Brooks has come in for abuse for suggesting that James did not necessarily emerge as a better artist by going abroad. They have a point in one sense: James would never have been so massively immersed in the art, culture and corruption of Europe that serves as the leitmotif of his work from this point on if he had stayed in New York or Boston.

On the other hand, I don’t see how anyone can deny that James missed out on perhaps the greatest subject of the late nineteenth century: the rise of a reunited United States to a world power. In addition, living in Europe limited his exposure to the vast array of emerging ethnic groups that were making the United States a more vital, if sometimes crude, force than the world had seen to date.

Maybe prolonged exposure to these groups might not have led James to soften the attitudes toward, for instance, Jews in The American Scene. But the example of another literary-minded representative of Old New York, Theodore Roosevelt, is instructive.

T.R. continued to believe to his dying day in the notion of Anglo supremacy that was propagated by Darwin’s The Descent of Man, but meeting members of other groups in the West, at San Juan Hill, and even in the New York state legislature forced him to work through his feelings of what it meant to be an American. For all his persistent return to the theme of American innocence and continental corruption, James never really arrived at this recognition.

The literal issue of his arrival was confusing enough. Rather than heading straight up to see his brother and sister-in-law, as planned, James was persuaded to come to the Jersey shore home of Colonel George Harvey, his publisher at Harper & Brothers, who had suggested this tour in the first place.

There the novelist met Mark Twain, also enjoying Harvey’s hospital. I don’t know about you, but I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at dinner that night—not just to hear Twain regale his host and guests with his hilarious conversation, but to get a load of one of his lifted eyebrows as he attempted to make sense of one of James’ convoluted sentences.

(By the way, is there an author less suited to Twitter than James, particularly in this rococo phase of his career? Forget putting an entire sentence of his on Twitter—he’d have been lucky to get halfway to his first semicolon!)

In Henry James: The Mature Master, Sheldon Novick points out that the author had regretted the lack of specificity about current American commerce in his portrait of tycoon Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl. James now became more familiar with the landscape the real-life Adam Ververs of the turn of the century had created. He wasn’t thrilled by what he saw.

At his childhood home, on Waverley Place, within sight of the Washington Arch that now dominated Greenwich Village, he felt only an intensification of the traits of antebellum New York that had not endeared it to him in the first place. As he recorded it in The American Scene:

With this melancholy monument it could make no terms at all, but turned its back to the strange sight as often as possible, helping itself thereby, moreover, to do a little of the pretending required, no doubt, by the fond theory that nothing hereabouts was changed. Nothing was, it could occasionally appear to me--there was no new note in the picture, not one, for instance, when I paused before a low house in a small row on the south side of Waverley Place and lived again into the queer mediaeval costume (preserved by the daguerreotypist's art) of the very little boy for whom the scene had once embodied the pangs and pleasures of a dame's small school. The dame must have been Irish, by her name, and the Irish tradition, only intensified and coarsened, seemed still to possess the place, the fact of survival, the sturdy sameness, of which arrested me, again and again, to fascination. The shabby red house, with its mere two storeys, its lowly "stoop," its dislocated ironwork of the forties, the early fifties, the record, in its face, of blistering summers and of the long stages of the loss of self-respect, made it as consummate a morsel of the old liquor-scented, heated-looking city, the city of no pavements, but of such a plenty of politics, as I could have desired.

Oh, that “plenty of politics.” The Irish might have been okay as servants for the James family, but the idea of an Irish-dominated Tammany Hall filled him with more horror than the ambiguous ghosts of The Turn of the Screw.

If anything, James recoiled even more from the “the Hebrew conquest of New York.” The writer might have had his problems with Catholics, but their churches with their magnificent art appealed to the aesthete in him.

On the other hand, Jews—in large and growing numbers, in such abject poverty that labor unions and socialism were increasingly bruited around—held no such advantage. Their physiognomy led James to indulge in the worst kind of pseudo-scientific racism, as he likened them to bottom fish "of overdeveloped proboscis" and compared their capacities to survive assimilation to that of worms who live despite being cut up into segments.

“There is no swarming like that of Israel where once Israel has got a start.” Thirty years later, Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher would have nodded approvingly at that awful sentiment.

You can find all of James’ alienation—and, in fact, the issue of identity and an alternative life that was later raised by Brooks—in his 1908 short story, “The Jolly Corner.” I prefer Edith Wharton’s ghost stories to James’, but this one is not without interest—particularly, as I’ve indicated, because of the autobiographical elements in the work.

Like James, the protagonist, Spencer Brydon, has forsaken America to live abroad, at least partly for reasons of aesthetic appreciation. Like his creator, he’s not enamoured of the changes he’s seen: “the ‘swagger’ things, the modern, the monstrous, the famous things, those he had more particularly, like thousands of ingenuous enquirers every year, come over to see, were exactly his sources of dismay.”

Spencer’s back to look after two properties that have come into his hands following the death of two of his brothers—just as Henry had lost a brothers Wilkinson Garth (Wilkie) James, and his parents years before.

Henry had a sister who had also died, Alice. Not coincidentally, the short story splits her identity between Spencer’s deceased “favorite sister” and his sympathetic female friend, Alice. In a way, it parallels the doppelganger theme that serves as the climax of the story.

The “jolly corner” is the Washington Square building in which Spencer grew up and of which he has such fond memories. Already, however, James has introduced a small symbolic detail meant to undermine his mental stability: “the mere number in its long row, having within a twelvemonth fallen in, renovation at a high advance had proved beautifully possible.” Psyches, like supposedly solidly built physical structures, are about to cave in.

And that’s what happens when Spencer makes the mistake of walking around his empty childhood home, thinking of the road not taken. Suddenly, he glimpses in the corner what he believes to be his alter ego: “Rigid and conscious, spectral yet human, a man of his own substance and stature waited there."

Spencer collapses from the shock, awakening to find himself in the arms of Alice. Like May Bartrum of his earlier novella, The Beast in the Jungle, she is there to attempt to save the aging protagonist from the “peculiar destiny” that he dreads yet inevitably is forced to confront.

This ghost story reflects how late middle age had brought James, just like older brother William, face to face with issues of mortality and existential dread. Their works dealt increasingly with the supernatural and what William called “the varieties of religious experience.”

William and his wife had attended Boston séances conducted by Leanora Piper. Mrs. positively believed—and William felt himself increasingly gripped by the possibility—that Piper might have the power to bring, from beyond the grave, communications from their son Herman. Henry was well aware of all of this, and was loath to dismiss it. The paranormal merely confirmed his increasing interest in the fractured self.
James did not make out badly at all on the trip—his literary lectures only allowed him to cover his expenses, and he came out with an incredible variety of compelling material. It’s too bad, however, that he did not come away with an expanded view of the country he left behind.

“The money passion” had lurked underneath the surface of most of his great works over the years. James had grown so skeptical of this force that he was utterly unable to see how it could figure positively in history.

All about his native country, James could only see a crassness bred by pursuit of the dollar, and came away even more convinced that America had little in the way of civilization to recommend it. A bit more historical perspective might have shown him that even the Europe he worshipped had evolved through the same often-ugly capitalist instincts.

New York had nothing on Venice as a city in which corruption and commerce were intertwined. Yet Venice had evolved into a force for aesthetic appreciation. James could not see that the same process was at work in New York, and that the same type of grasping mercantile captains who had made Venice possible would, within a few more decades, make New York a cultural as well as commercial capital of the world.

Quote of the Day (Lyn Holley Doucet, on the Desert and God)

“Once the experience of wilderness and desolation moves us past our own small egos, we can truly learn what it means to love ourselves and others. Self-acceptance becomes possible as we understand our humble but vital place in God’s great plan. As we release our rigidity and perfectionism, we can open ourselves to the beauty all around us—in the natural world and in the amazing glory and diversity of the human race.”—Lyn Holley Doucet, Water From Stones: An Inner Journey (2001)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Sullivan Defeats Indians at Battle of Newtown)

August 29, 1779—In the Battle of Newtown, near Elmira, N.Y., Continental Army Major General John Sullivan won the principal battle in a punitive campaign meant to, as a Fourth of July officers’ toast went, bring “Civilization or death to all American Savages.” How efficacious the Sullivan Expedition was, however, has become increasingly a matter of historical debate.

Just about every history you’ve ever read about the American Revolution says, rightly, how undermanned the army of George Washington was. It had to have taken much, then, for the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief to feel that he needed to part with any badly needed troops, let alone 4,000 for John Sullivan, the Irish-born soldier whose energy and ardent patriotism were only exceeded by his vainglory and impetuousness.

As a matter of fact, there was something that warranted the detachment of Sullivan’s forces at such a critical time: attacks by combined British-loyalist-Indian forces on American settlements. A veto by the Oneidas prevented the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederation from joining the British as a united group, but enough entered on the side of the redcoats to make a difference.

Here were some of the strategic factors that combined to lead Washington to detach a full third of his entire army to the force led by Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton:

* A planned redcoat attack through Western New York, abetted by the Iroquois, that could split the colonies in two—in effect, a more successful counterpart to Barry St. Leger’s 1777 swing from Canada to the Mohawk Valley that had been designed to combine with the forces of Generals Howe and Burgoyne.

* Massacres at Wyoming in Pennsylvania and Cherry Valley in New York, which produced such fear that many Continental soldiers were reluctant to leave their families unprotected.

* Destruction of the redcoat “breadbasket”—British forces in North America were being largely fed by farms and orchards along the Finger Lakes and Genesee Valley.

Originally, Washington had offered command of the expedition to General Horatio Gates, but the man publicly acclaimed the hero of the Battle of Saratoga (the honor should, more truthfully, have gone to future American traitor Benedict Arnold) had developed a swelled head, so he turned it down.
Washington then turned to Sullivan—a subordinate he had previously described as “active, spirited, and Zealously attach’d to the Cause,” though not without “a little tincture of vanity, and…an over desire of being popular.”

Washington got right to the point in his instructions to Sullivan: "Lay waste all the settlements around, so that the country may not only be overrun, but destroyed."
If the Native-Americans expressed a desire to negotiate an end to hostilities, Sullivan had to tell them to attack Fort Niagara, then in British hands, as proof of their bona fides. Otherwise, Sullivan was to pay no mind—his commander had had enough of what he saw as broken Indian promises.

(It would not occur to Washington until after he was President, when he became aware of massive swindling of Indian land in the Southeast U.S., that Native-Americans might not view kindly the broken promises of whites, either.)

Nearly 100 years later, William Tecumseh Sherman conducted a similar campaign that laid waste to the enemy. It did what he had proclaimed it would do—make the Confederacy howl. It also effectively crippled the Confederacy for the duration of the war.
Sullivan’s expedition certainly laid waste, but for a long time white historians weren’t interested in whatever howling the affected tribes made—and the expedition had more short- than long-term effects.

Sullivan proceeded from Easton, Pa., through the Pocono Mountains and up the Susquehanna River. When he and Clinton got to the Chemung River, their scouts discovered that they were about to walk into an ambush laid by Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant and his Loyalist ally, Colonel John Butler. Once Sullivan and Clinton discovered the plan, they used their advantages in manpower and modern weaponry to beat back the Indian challenge, then proceeded on the campaign of destruction envisioned by Washington

It’s fascinating to see how the difference in just a few decades has altered the attitudes of historians—and, let’s say right now, fiction- and screenwriters—toward the Native-American opponents of the patriots.

(In the Stephen Vincent Benet tall tale “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (as well as the marvelous 1941 film adaptation starring Walter Huston as Satan), the jury enpaneled to decide the fate of Jabez Stone—and, Ol’ Scratch hopes, to ensnare the poor farmer’s lawyer, Webster—includes a veritable rogues’ gallery of those who live in American infamy, including Brant.)

In a biographical essay on Sullivan as “Luckless Irishman” in George Washington’s Generals and Opponents, the historian Charles P. Whittemore referred to “the redmen.” Whittemore believed that Sullivan’s campaign “had accomplished much,” citing the 40 villages destroyed and 160,000 bushels of beans and corn seized. (Whittemore does not say so, but this occurred on the eve of a notoriously bad winter. The Continental Army, at Morristown, reached a nadir not even glimpsed during its much-better-known Valley Forge trials. The crop devastation on the Indians would have been even worse.)

In A People’s History of the American Revolution (2002), Roy Raphael, a more recent historian, much influenced by leftist historian Howard Zinn, has a far different view—one that, on balance, I tend to agree with: “If the object of the Sullivan expedition was to make the Indians suffer, it was an unqualified success, but if the object was to subdue the warring Iroquois and secure the frontier, it was an unqualified disaster.” The Six Nations only ended up more dependent on their British allies than before, he argues persuasively.

As in the French and Indian Wars, the Native-Americans had been forced to choose sides—to decide, in effect, who would be best able to serve their long-term interests of preserving their land. In the American Revolution, most of them ended up on the losing side.

Quote of the Day (Galileo, on His Re-Invention of the Telescope)

“You must know then that about two months ago a report was spread here that in Flanders a spy-glass [telescope] had been presented to Prince Maurice, so ingeniously constructed that it made the most distant objects appear quite near, so that a man could be seen quite plainly at a distance of 2 miles. This result seemed to me so extraordinary that it set me thinking. As it appeared to me that it depended upon the laws of perspective, I reflected on the manner of constructing it, and was at length so entirely successful that I made a telescope which far surpasses the report of the Flanders one. As the news had reached Venice that I had made such an instrument, six days ago I was summoned before their Highnesses, the Signoria, and exhibited it to them, to the astonishment of the whole senate. Many of the nobles and senators, although of a great age, mounted more than once to the top of the highest church tower in Venice, in order to see sails and shipping that were so far off that, without my spy-glass, it was two hours before they were seen steering full sail into the harbor; for the effect of my instrument is such that it makes an object 50 miles off appear as large as if it were only five.”—Galileo Galilei, in a letter to his brother-in-law Luca Landucci, August 29, 1609

As his letter indicates, Galileo didn’t invent the telescope (the unnamed man of Flanders was an optician named Johannes Lippershey). But the instrument that he ingeniously constructed on his own, then applied to a vastly different use—studying the heavens—dramatically reshaped the world, the relationship between science and religion, and his own life.

I’ve been itching to write about Galileo for awhile now. Reading some of his better-known works in college, for a course called Contemporary Civilization, was more fun than I expected for a work of science. You got a sense not only of what the man discovered, but of himself—of why he was interested in these particular phenomena, as well as of a combative streak that came out even when he tried to disguise it—a quality, of course, that got him in trouble.

You also get something of the flavor of the man in this letter talking about the beginning of his greatest scientific achievements. He not only reports about his marvelous new instrument—that it can make an object appear far closer than before—but also its impact (“to the astonishment of the whole senate”). The note of pride is impossible to ignore.

In the above quote, there’s an important phrase that one mentally translates into “telescope,” but that we should consider as it was originally written and meant: “spy-glass.” I can’t say that I would have noticed this without considering the chapter on Galileo in Jacob Bronowski’s coffee-table companion to his 1973 PBS series, The Ascent of Man.

Galileo grew to manhood in the closing years of the Renaissance, and I think he should be seen in the same light as earlier figures from that period of Italian history such as Leonardo and Michelangelo—as a multi-talented figure who had the potential to create things of practical value, including military designs.

This was of enormous value in Venice, not only to maintain its position as the informal capital of the capitalist culture struggling to be born at the time, but also to maintain its standing among the city-states on the Italian peninsula. Galileo had already worked on what he called a “Military Compass,” which was really akin to the modern slide-rule, printed and promoted a manual for it, and sold the whole shebang out of his own workshop.

So, back to “spy-glass.” Obviously, that would be great for catching glimpses of far-off vessels that could threaten Venetian supremacy of the seas. To me, anyway, the “astonishment” of the senators takes on an added dimension: the telescope was not only a fascinating curio but also a military intelligence breakthrough.

Galileo communicated such infectious, almost childlike, excitement about the telescope that he seemed unaware he’d moved into a dangerous new orbit for which all his studies in “natural philosophy” (as he called science then) couldn’t prepare him: politics.
The Venetian Senate was so excited about his discovery that they gave him a life professorship with an annual salary of one thousand florins. But then the Grand Duke of Florence, a former pupil of Galileo’s, topped that—not only matching the salary but freeing him from teaching.

Galileo elected to take the offer from Florence—as any college professor worth his salt would do today. But in the process he had made enemies of the Venetian Senate, which felt badly used.

In the vicious court politics of Italy of the time—which, Bronowski reminds us, also gave rise to Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice—the first modern scientist could ill-afford foes who scrutinized his every word for a slip-up, with even more care than he had used in peering through his new telescope.

Friday, August 28, 2009

This Day in Entertainment History (Judy Holliday and Fellow “Revuers” in Show-Biz Start)

August 28, 1939—Attendees at the Westport County Playhouse saw The Revuers, a satirical musical act that had been together less than a year, but were already performing with a wit and skill that would play out over the next several decades.

Two of the five-member group would become songwriter partners in Hollywood and on Broadway: Adolph Green and Betty Comden. Another was an 18-year-old who perfected a dumb-blonde act that was exactly the opposite of her frighteningly talented and intelligent real-life persona: Judith Tavin, better known to vintage-film aficionados like myself as Judy Holliday.

The group—whose members also included Alvin Hammer and John Frank—got its start in December of the prior year at the Village Vanguard. Its owner, Max Gordon, had no liquor license but thought the youngsters’ satirical skits, dances and songs (with words and music by Comden and Green, since they couldn’t afford to pay for anyone else’s) would give his place the bohemian ambiance that had existed in Greenwich Village only a few decades before.

For the next five years, the Revuers went on a whirligig of engagements—uptown theaters, nightclubs, and radio—where they performed their collaboratively created material. They even managed an extended run at Radio City Music Hall. Sometimes they were even joined by recent Harvard alum Leonard Bernstein, a friend of Green’s from summer camp a few years before, who got into the spirit of the enterprise by playing the piano for the hell of it.

The group was infused with a sense of camaraderie. Even the most serious obstacle in the face of their progress—Frank’s heavy drinking—was resolved as amicably as could be expected, with Frank leaving the group but still retaining a financial interest.

That mutual loyalty stood the group in good stead in their brief Hollywood stint, and in the sometimes-troubled years beyond. Agents tried to sign Holliday separately from the rest of the group, but she refused, until a compromise was worked out: the Revuers as a whole would be cast in one picture, but only Holliday would be granted a standard multi-year contract.

The group’s single scene in its single film—Greenwich Village—ended up on the cutting-room floor. The contracts for Hammer, Comden and Green were not renewed—pretty amazing lack of foresight, when you consider the incredible contributions the latter two made to the movie musical within the next 16 years (e.g., The Barkleys of Broadway, On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, It's Always Fair Weather, and Bells are Ringing).

Holliday wasn’t used in much better fashion, making only three films before she, too, had to decamp back east. Her breakthrough came on Broadway, when she replaced Jean Arthur—afflicted with an attack of the nerves—before the opening of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday.

Stefany Anne Goldberg has a fascinating take on Holliday and her Born Yesterday character Billie Dawn as the epitome of “the dumb broad,” as opposed to the “dumb blonde” epitomized by Marilyn Monroe. I think that comparing the two women yields these interesting similarities:

* Both experienced difficult childhoods (the mental illness of Monroe’s mother meant that Marilyn was sent to an orphans’ home, while Holliday’s parents split);

* Both were afflicted at points with depression (Monroe’s, obviously, far more disabling than Holliday’s);

* Both had film careers that lasted for roughly the same period, 1949-1960;

* Both died young, in the 1960s.

And yet, Marilyn has become an American icon, celebrated in song (Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”), while Holliday—possessed of looks, talent, and intelligence (an I.Q. of 172!!!!)—does not have anywhere near the same mass recognition. What a shame.

Back to the Revuers. I mentioned that the group had some troubled years. One of these came in the midst of one of the high points of Holliday’s career, her Tony-winning Broadway triumph in Bells Are Ringing. (The character—an employee at a telephone answering service—was one that she could identify with, since she’d worked as a switchboard operator for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater before she took up with The Revuers.)

Holliday’s love affair with co-star Sydney Chaplin provided a year’s worth of backstage drama. Early on, she championed Charlie Chaplin’s son—a charmer who, unfortunately, did not have much of a singing voice—when everyone else (starting, but by no means ending, with Comden and Green) insisted he would not do.

Later, when their affair ended and she made clear she not only she wanted no part of him but also no part of anyone who continued to socialize with him, her two longtime songwriting friends found their relationship with Holliday sorely tested. After all they’d been through, Comden and Green had come to like Chaplin, and wouldn’t hear of disinviting him to parties.

Holliday bristled at Green about her feelings of betrayal, but continued with the show's run—as well as the movie, the last one she would make. She died after a horrific struggle with breast cancer, at age 43.

Once you’re done looking at some of the best of Holliday on film (I’d recommend the hilarious card scene with Broderick Crawford in Born Yesterday or her emotionally lacerating discovery that her son has just died, in the incredibly underrated The Marrying Kind), go back a little further in time, and listen to these audio clips of her with the other Revuers, and see how she got started. After you've stopped laughing, wipe away a tear for what we've all lost.

Quote of the Day (Ernest Hemingway, on a Disastrous Boxing Match)

“Knew I would be asleep by 5—so went around with Scott [Fitzgerald] to get Morley [Callaghan] to box right away—I couldnt [sic] see him hardly—had a couple of whiskey’s enroute—Scott was to keep time and we were to box 1 minute rounds with 2 minute rests on acct. of my condition…Morley commenced to pop me and cut my mouth, mushed up my face in general—I was pooped as could be…Can still feel with my tongue the big scar on my lower lip…I slipped and went down once and lit on my arm and put my left shoulder out in the first round and it pulled a tendon so that it was pretty sore afterwards.”—Ernest Hemingway, letter to his Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins, August 28, 1929, in The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest Hemingway/Maxwell Perkins: Correspondence 1925-1947, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, with the assistance of Robert W. Trogdon (1996)

A good deal more was injured than Ernest Hemingway’s left shoulder and lip in this incident, one of the most famous non-professional boxing matches of all time, at the American Club in Paris, a month before the account to Perkins. His pride also suffered a blow. The macho writer, a pugilist far more enthusiastic than skilled, hated the idea of losing, let alone losing badly, let alone losing badly to another amateur with a somewhat pudgy physique.

Instead of blaming his insufficient skills, or even his stupidity in drinking when he needed his reflexes, Papa blamed F. Scott Fitzgerald for not keeping proper time.

I’m not sure about the data of the photo accompanying this post, but my guess is that it was some years later than Hemingway’s now-legendary bout with 26-year-old Canadian expatriate writer Morley Callaghan. Hemingway himself had just turned 30. Gray would not have seeped into his beard at this point, nor would his weight have become so problematic. (By the time he liberated the Ritz Bar 15 years later, Hemingway weighed 250 pounds on his six-foot frame.)

The future Nobel laureate was always testing himself against somebody else. If he was writing a war novel, it was against Tolstoy. If it involved boxing, it would be whoever was at hand. He almost come to blows with Budd Schulberg a decade later after challenging him with, “What makes you think you know so much about prizefighting?”

Underlying tensions among Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Callaghan were brought to the surface by this match. Their friendships would never be the same.

Hemingway and Callaghan had become pals when they were correspondents for the Toronto Daily Star. This wasn’t the first time they’d fought, nor even the first time Callaghan had made him bleed—which should have taught Hemingway to be careful. Hemingway had become internationally known with his novels and short stories a mere three years before, but now the younger Callaghan was receiving attention. In other words, Hemingway had a rival.

The relationship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald was, by this time, even more fraught than that between Hemingway and Callaghan. When they first met, Fitzgerald was the older, more successful writer, and he lent Hemingway money and some excellent advice on The Sun Also Rises.

But Hemingway was surpassing Fitzgerald and had begun to view his friend cynically. Zelda Fitzgerald and Hemingway formed a mutual hatred society. Nor did it help that another in their expatriate circle, gay author Robert McAlpon, had spread a false rumor that the two men were lovers.

Fitzgerald made the mistake of agreeing to become the timekeeper in the match. He became so enthralled by the action that he forgot the prescribed limit, letting the round in which Hemingway was KAO’d go longer. “Oh my God!’ he cried out after Hemingway went down. “I let the round go four minutes!’

“Alright Scott,” Ernest said. ‘If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

It’s almost comical, this notion of a literary version of the Dempsey-Tunney “long count” fight, isn’t it? Only the results for the friendships turned out not so funny. The grievous blow to Hemingway’s pride was worsened when somehow the incident made it into the newspapers. Fitzgerald quarreled with Callaghan and, worst of all, Hemingway now had it in for Fitzgerald.

Really, that’s the only thing you can conclude after reading Papa’s A Moveable Feast. I didn’t think it possible that the highly effective malice on display in the originally published version of the memoir could be exceeded, but it appears to be now in the new version of the book.

Yes, yes—Hemingway allowed that Fitzgerald was a fine writer. But he also included an anecdote that 99 people out of 100 who’ve read the book will remember—i.e., Fitzgerald’s fear (pushed by Zelda) that he wasn’t—well, well-equipped.

The new account of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald friendship includes this conversation between Papa and son John, or “Bumby”:

“Monsieur Fitzgerald is sick Papa?”
“He is sick because he drinks too much and he cannot work.”
“Does he not respect his métier?”
“Madame his wife does not respect it or she is envious of it.”
“He should scold her.”
“It is not so simple.”

The beauty of this conversation is that Bumby, at only about five or six years old, would probably be too young to remember it years later—or, more important, dispute its truthfulness.

Hemingway did not write about the Callaghan bout in A Moveable Feast. The Canadian did, however, in his memoir, That Summer in Paris (1963). In old age, he was annoyed at the amount of attention this incident received at the expense of his work. “I want to be remembered for some story I wrote, not for this nonsense,” Callaghan said, in a clip included in the CBC documentary, The Life and Times of Morley Callaghan.

Hemingway should have kept away from boxing and literary assassination and stuck to fiction. There he really was a champ, as he was about to prove again with the novel he was proofreading at the time of his encounter with Callaghan: A Farewell to Arms.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This Day in Political History (RFK Steals Show From LBJ at Convention)

August 27, 1964—Lyndon Johnson had shelved the tribute by Robert F. Kennedy for slain brother Jack to the last day of the Democratic Convention, when the President’s nomination would already be assured and he couldn’t be stampeded into naming the Attorney-General as his running mate.

But that still did not prevent the new bearer of the Kennedy legacy from stealing the President’s thunder in Atlantic City, as the 6,000 delegates gave RFK a wild ovation before he even spoke—22 minutes of clapping, foot-stamping, hoarse shouting, and crying.

I’ve seen this speech labeled one of the greatest in American political history. Judged strictly by content and style, it was not.

Much of Bobby’s 20-minute address was, in fact, political boilerplate—a thank-you to the delegates, a litany of the party’s great Presidents, a list of Jack’s achievements in the Oval Office. For better examples of Bobby’s oratory, turn to his 1966 “Day of Affirmation” speech in South Africa or his impromptu speech on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died.

But one look at this YouTube snippet—the way the applause cascaded just when it seemed that it would finally die out, swelling to the point where the Attorney-General could not speak—is enough to show this was undoubtedly one of the most electrifying moments in the television era of American politics.

Kennedy said later that he understood the applause was meant for Jack, not him—but he would spend his last four years aiming to make it for all of them—Jack, himself and, later, brother Ted.

In a way, it is fitting that Ted Kennedy died almost 45 years to the day that Bobby introduced the convention film about Jack. Countless biographers have recorded the months of emotional devastation that JFK’s younger brother and closest political adviser experienced after the assassination in Dallas.

But the image of Bobby on the podium—appearing, before the world, so unutterably sad and haunted that many TV viewers must have wanted to hug him—conveys better than any words the loss and terrifying burden of carrying on—something, we have been reminded of again this week, that afflicted Ted later.

For anyone interested in the interplay between the light and the dark aspects of historical figures, Bobby is the most fascinating of the Kennedy clan. He’s the one that you can imagine as other occupations besides politician or lawyer: priest, hard-driving businessman, revolutionary—all vocations requiring levels of untold passion, concentration and commitment. That mixture also contributed to a not-entirely-unearned reputation for ruthlessness.

The Bobby captured on film is something else entirely—nakedly vulnerable and shy, grief clinging to him nine months after Dallas. Part of his discomfort may have resulted from puzzling out how these traits could allow him to project his brother’s charisma on the stump, but much of it also surely also lay in his persistent fear that Operation Mongoose--the plot he had urged to destabilize Fidel Castro's regime while Jack was alive--might have led to a hit on the President.

After four years at the center of the political world, Bobby was also feeling sidelined. The grief he displayed for months after Jack’s death was so all-pervasive that close associates feared for him.
But now, the one politician he simply could not abide had the office that belonged to his brother.
“The basic fact is those two men simply didn’t like each other,” recalled LBJ assistant George Reedy in an interview aired in the PBS documentary The Kennedys. “That’s all there was to it. Everybody has seen two dogs come into a room together and, all of a sudden, there’s a low growl from each one and the hair starts rising on the back of the neck. That was a real situation between Bobby and Lyndon Johnson.”

After everything that had happened between them—notably, Bobby’s last-minute campaign to drive LBJ from the Vice-Presidential slot at the 1964 Democratic Convention—it would have been insane for RFK even to think the Vice-Presidency would be offered to him, let alone that he’d enjoy occupying a position subservient to Johnson.

When Bobby went to the White House to discuss his future, LBJ tried to let him down easy. Opposition to Bobby was so strong in the South and West that he’d do better simply to take himself out of the running, the President said. Then, taking out one of the most potent weapons in his vast arsenal of persuasion—flattery—Johnson told Bobby he had “a unique and promising future in the Democratic Party.”

Bobby didn’t take the hint and withdraw, which led Johnson to announce that he would not consider any present cabinet members or anyone meeting regularly with them as running mates. It was so absurd on its face that it’s a wonder how two seasoned political pros like LBJ and Clark Clifford (who proposed the idea to the President) expected that anyone would buy it. Everybody knew who it was aimed at.

But LBJ’s decision to bypass Kennedy (at one point, he really got Bobby’s goat by floating the possibility of in-law Sargent Shriver as a running mate) rankled RFK’s pride. All of that came to a head in the decidedly perfunctory (one sentence) exhortation to the delegates that “The same effort and the same energy and the same devotion that was given to President John F. Kennedy must be given to President Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.”

I was surprised to learn from Evan Thomas’ biography Robert Kennedy that Bobby had four journalists contribute to this speech. I wasn’t surprised that they did so (lines between journalists and those they covered were far more porous in those days than they are now), but that their effort proved so ineffectual.

If there was any moment in the speech when Bobby achieved something like emotional liftoff, it came not from his speechwriters, but from a powerfully evocative quotation, suggested by the fellow poetry-lover to whom he had drawn closer in the months after the assassination, sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy. He applied these lines from Romeo and Juliet to Jack:

And when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

There it was—the magic of Jack, the deceased President now as much a cultural archetype as Shakespeare’s risk-taking youth. By his innate association with the fallen President, Bobby, as well as Jack, now blocked out “the garish sun”—Johnson.

LBJ and Humphrey delivered their acceptance speeches this same night, and in Humphrey’s case gave an impassioned performance. But the insecure President had been served notice that a sizable number of the delegates regarded him as an impostor. His Presidency would be overshadowed, and the rivalry between LBJ and RFK--one driven more by reasons of ambition than ideology--would split their party four years hence.

Quote of the Day (Conan O’Brien, on the Postal Service)

“The United States Postal Service says they might lose $7 billion this year. Apparently, the post office will lose the seven billion when it mails the money to itself.” – “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien, quoted in “Laugh Lines,” The New York Times, August 9, 2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This Day in French History (“Declaration of the Rights of Man” Adopted as New Model for Revolutionaries)

August 26, 1789—Before it degenerated into war, terror, reaction and dictatorship, the French Revolution reached its zenith when the newly formed National Constituent Assembly formally adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

Certain words and phrases spring out at you in both the French declaration and the one that inspired it, America’s Declaration of Independence: “free,” “equal,” “liberty,” “sacred,” and “nature/natural.” The American "self-evident" principles become the French "simple and incontestable" ones. Another word from the French document, “imprescriptible" (rights prior to the state, government and society) is a more intense version of the American “inalienable” (rights that not only cannot be taken away but cannot be given up).

If it sounds at points like the French document echoes America’s, two reasons might explain it:

* Both documents reflected Enlightenment philosophers’ thinking on the relationship between liberty and the state.

*France’s declaration involved two people deeply associated with the United States: the Marquis de Lafayette, onetime general under George Washington, now part of the 30-member committee that drafted the French declaration; and Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, now the American minister to France—and a keenly interested reader of the new document.

And yet, there are signal differences between the two. Start with length: the American document is more than 1,300 words, while France’s was merely 300—short enough to fit on one side of a single paper, virtually guaranteeing that it would be disseminated not only in France, but in every major European language.

Second, France’s declaration reads as a more impersonal document. No person is held responsible for the poverty and lack of freedom that produced the storming of the Bastille the month before, largely because many leaders of the Revolution still believed that, if they could sever King Louis XVI from ministers offering bad advice, they could maintain a functioning constitutional monarchy. (This proved to be a forlorn hope when Louis plotted to escape from France to his royal cousins to the east.)

In contrast, despite a stated need to keep in mind “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” (a necessity, given that it wanted to secure France as an ally in the struggle against the crown), the Continental Congress spent more time reviewing the middle part of their document—King George’s “long train of abuses”—than the now far more famous preamble (“we hold these truths to be self-evident…”).

Though products of revolutions, both documents were written by men who were anything but the have-nots of society. For every aristocrat like Thomas Jefferson in the Continental Congress, there was a self-made man such John Adams or Ben Franklin, middle-class bourgeois who bitterly resented the encrusted privileges and corruption of a British elite.

Similarly, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was imbued with an upper-middle-class sensibility. It even mentions a word left out of the list of rights enumerated in the American document: property. (Ironically, it did not matter at first to the great majority of Frenchmen, most of whom owned no property when the Bastille fell.)

There are other rights not enumerated in the French document, either: to employment, women’s suffrage, subsistence, public relief, or education. Neither slaves nor freed blacks are mentioned (indeed, though slavery was outlawed in France in 1794, it was re-introduced under Napoleon, and was not finally abolished in the nation and its possessions until 1848.)

The American Revolution, for all the stunning change it introduced in North America, did not influence Europe as decisively as France’s. The National Constituent Assembly produced not just a change in governance, but the overthrow of an entire social order—one based on feudalism and manorial privilege. The great sweep of this change posed a threat to every European monarch.

Declaration of the Rights of Man was the high point of classical liberalism—a movement that
stressed the sanctity of property, individualism, and the universality of its principles. It was a
powerful document.

But, as the French were about to learn, in more ways than one, so much depends on execution.

Quote of the Day (Lucille Ball, on Helping Others)

“I have a theory about the assists we get in life. Only rarely can we repay those people who helped us, but we can pass that help along to others.”—Lucille Ball, Love, Lucy (1996)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

This Day in Jazz History (Miles Davis’ Arrest Sparks Near-Riot)

August 25, 1959—Last month, Henry Louis Gates asked the policeman responding to reports of a break-in at his Cambridge, Mass. home if he was being questioned “because I’m a black man in America.” For all his outrage, whatever indignities the Harvard professor experienced on that now-famous night pale next to what happened to Miles Davis outside Birdland 50 years ago.

Here was another case in which a white cop in a metropolitan area failed to recognize one of the most famous African-Americans of his day—only this time, the civilian, Davis, ended up on the ground bleeding before being arrested, brought to police headquarters, then forced to run a months-long legal gauntlet.

The Gates case provoked weeks of cable TV rants, blogger battles, and a beer summit at the White House; the Davis incident nearly started a race riot, at a time when U.S. credibility as a beacon of liberty was being questioned abroad because of the continuing American apartheid.

It happened only months after what might have been the professional highlight of the trumpeter’s life: Kind of Blue, his bestselling album and, as The Wall Street Journal noted earlier this year, still considered “for many, the quintessential jazz album.”

Three decades later, in the autobiography he co-wrote with Quincy Troupe, Davis still couldn’t get over the outrage that “changed my whole life and my whole attitude again, made me bitter and cynical again when I was really starting to feel good about the things that had changed in this country.”

Just before midnight, near the end of a triumphant two-week run at the jazz club promoting the release of Kind of Blue, Davis, between sets, had just escorted “a pretty young white girl named Judy” to her cab. Tired on this steamy summer night, he paused outside Birdland to take a drag on a cigarette when a white cop told him to move along on the crowded sidewalk.

“Move on, what for?” Davis asked. “I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis.”

The officer repeated his command, then decided to make an arrest when Davis gave him a hard stare. The cop claimed that Davis pulled away, then tried to grab his nightstick; Davis, who’d taken boxing lessons, said he was moving forward to cushion the force of any blow that might come.

One of three detectives passing by saw the cop falling forward, then rushed toward the musician, pounding him repeatedly on the head with his nightstick.

The beating occurred in a terrible moment in New York, when a deeply racist police force was bringing to the surface long-simmering anger among African-Americans. Not long before, the arrest of a drunken woman in Harlem had led to a riot that required the intervention of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson to quell.

This time, with more than 200 people yelling for the cops to stop beating Davis, the potential for trouble seemed just as great. Hauled down to the 54th Street precinct headquarters, the musician was, he said later, constantly provoked by cops, then booked for disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer. A doctor from St. Clare’s Hospital put five stitches in his scalp.

The next day, columnist and TV personality Dorothy Kilgallen, a friend of Davis, had a front-page story in the New York Journal-American about the beating, and pictures of the musician bleeding while in police custody flashed all across the country.

After two separate court appearances, Davis was acquitted on both charges. He had threatened to sue the police department for half a million dollars, but the suit fizzled out. (According to the musician, his lawyer had failed to file in time to beat the statute of limitations requirements; biographer John Szwed repeats rumors that Davis was amenable to dropping the case, lest the incensed police “make even more trouble for him.”)

Davis had expected racist treatment in his native East St. Louis, but not in supposedly tolerant New York. “But then, again, I was surrounded by white folks and I have learned that when this happens, if you’re black, there is no justice. None.”

Just how much the incident seared the musician can be seen in You’re Under Arrest, an LP released just over a quarter century later, in which Davis mixed denunciations of police brutality and Reagan foreign policy.

Like Frank Sinatra, Davis was a man whose belligerence often camouflaged a sensitivity that came out most piercingly in love songs. It’s an open question how much of the trumpeter’s moodiness and irritability over the years derived from insecurity, how much from the effects of substance abuse, and how much from the pain of living in a country where he felt marginalized by the color of his skin.

Davis was particularly incensed at accusations that he was racist and irredeemably angry. Just how complex a personality he was can be seen on You’re Under Arrest. Side by side on the album, next to songs of volcanic pain and rage, are ones where he reached for another emotion. How well he could achieve this, even in his final years of physical decline, can be seen in one of the latter songs, Cyndy Lauper’s “Time After Time.” It was as if he had achieved a transcendence, through his instrument, that he couldn't find in life.

Quote of the Day (Ernest Hemingway, on the Allied Liberation of Paris)

“I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world.”—Ernest Hemingway, “How We Came to Paris,” Colliers, October 7, 1944, reprinted in Reporting World War II, Part Two: American Journalism 1944-46 (Library of America edition, 1995)

If you want a sense of the jubilation on the streets of Paris on this date in 1944, when French troops walked into their city at last, having put (with the help of the Allies) the Nazis on the run, then Irwin Shaw’s essay, “Morts pour la Patrie,” is the one to read. And you can’t read Ernest Hemingway’s return to war correspondence without feeling that his work had become less about the world he was encountering and more about him.

Be that as it may, the love affair that “Papa” Hemingway bore for Paris, from his young manhood all the way to his death, makes this must reading. Knowing that relationship—one he celebrated in A Movable Feast—will leave you, too, with a lump in the throat by the end of the piece.

Hemingway had had it in for “the Krauts,” as he called them, for commandeering one of his favorite bars and turning it quarters for Nazi generals. He couldn’t wait to liberate the bar at the Ritz hotel.

Legend has it that the lubricated author jumped out of his jeep, saying he’d come to liberate the Ritz. Manager Claude Azello, who’d known him for a long time, got him to leave his gun by the door and celebrate with champagne.

Monday, August 24, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (British Torch D.C.)

August 24, 1814—In a day of terror and destruction that would not be repeated in the nation’s capital until September 11, 2001, British troops easily defeated an American force at the Battle of Bladensburg, then reached Washington, D.C., putting the torch to the White House, the Capitol, and other federal buildings.

Only a violent storm that was the worst in memory—a hurricane, actually, that blew the roofs off houses—finally tamped down the fires.

Despite what some historians think about responsibility for the burning of Washington (e.g., Henry Adams, claiming that the two British commanders, “alone among military officers, during more than twenty years of war, considered their duty to involve personal incendiarism”), the real crime lay in lack of preparedness, fostered by an American administration that went to war believing it would be a cinch to make Canada an American state, that staffed its highest military ranks with superannuated veterans of a conflict nearly 40 years before, and that passed on the opportunity to fortify Washington while it still had the chance.

In the Maryland town of Bladensburg, James Madison, wielding two borrowed dueling pistols, became the only American President to personally command troops in battle while he was in office. But with a weak voice and a stature that made him the shortest Chief Executive in our history, the image he presented, I’m afraid, would have sparked more ridicule than Michael Dukakis in a tank.

When the day was over, Madison groaned: “I could never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force had I not seen the events of this day.”

Yet the President had nobody but himself and his Democratic-Republican Party to blame. They had believed you could fight the world’s greatest navy with not much more than riverine gunboats, and that militia called together with barely a moment’s notice would stand against exhaustively trained professional troops.

Most of all, Madison had only to look in the mirror to glimpse the man responsible for disastrous personnel decisions that made the Bladensburg defeat and the grand DC fire inevitable.

The most disastrous appointment was John Armstrong, a Revolutionary War veteran who became Secretary of War. Indolence hadn’t proved fatal in Armstrong’s prior stints as U.S. Senator from New York and minister to France, but in his new job, that weakness—combined with a refusal to believe that the British would strike Washington rather than Baltimore—proved catastrophic.

Further hampering the cabinet officer was his fraught relationship to James Monroe, the Secretary of State. Monroe would not have minded at all assuming a military post that would have given him even greater renown than his rank of colonel during the American Revolution. But Armstrong would have none of it, and Monroe would, when the opportunity presented itself, force Armstrong’s ouster.

From August 19 through the 23rd, the British expeditionary force, having landed on the Chesapeake Bay, took their sweet time (a summer heat wave was on) heading toward Washington. Armstrong’s adamant insistence to Madison for the last several weeks that the nation’s capital need not be strengthened left the city wide-open and vulnerable.

If Madison didn’t particularly distinguish himself, either in planning or personal command, then the First Lady, Dolley Madison, did—or at least the public did, judging by the popularity she enjoyed for rescuing Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington before she fled the White House.

More recently, the possibility has emerged that even this feather in the Madisons’ cap was not quite what happened at the time. It depends on who you believe—Dolley or a family slave who adored his master but resented the First Lady for breaking a promise to free him.

The slave, Paul Jennings, would, in a 19-page memoir, claim that the story that made Dolley beloved with the American people was false:

“She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Susè [Jean-Pierre Sioussat] (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it [the Washington portrait] down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.”

For a long time, historians tended to side with Dolley rather than her slave, for three reasons: a) his account had the distinct tone of sour grapes; b) while Dolley was white, her slave was an African-American and, in the racist view of the time, not worth taking into account; and c) Dolley’s account, a letter to a sister, was written contemporaneously, while Jennings’ was written in old age, when memories tend to be less reliable.

Though the first of these reasons remains intact, the second has come under heavy attack since the civil-rights era. Even the third is now at issue. It turns out that Dolley didn’t write the latter after all at the time of the fire, but instead copied out the message 20 years later. The letter is also far less chatty than her usual style, perhaps because she expected it would reach a wide audience.

Perhaps, as Jennings indicated, Dolley did not take down the portrait herself. There seems no reason to think, however, that she didn't direct that it be properly disposed of. She certainly possessed more foresight than her husband and his commanders on the same day.

Song Lyric of the Day (Billy Joel, With a View of Pete Rose Overturned by History)

“Rose, he knows he's such a credit to the game
But the Yankees grab the headlines every time
Melodrama's so much fun
In black and white for everyone to see.”—Billy Joel, “Zanzibar,” from the 52nd Street album (1979)

Time has shown how radically Billy Joel’s ripped-from-the-headlines judgment on baseball and morality needs to be revised.

In the late Seventies, it was hard to argue with him: Pete Rose was coming off a 44-game consecutive hitting streak with the Cincinnati Reds, proving that sheer willpower could lift a ballplayer of average skill to the height of his profession. Meanwhile, the Yankees were dismaying longtime fans, as bullying owner George Steinbrenner, combative, alcoholic manager Billy Martin, and egotistical slugger Reggie Jackson engaged in a daily triangular psychodrama.

It all changed on this date 20 years ago, when Rose’s fall from grace was dramatically confirmed. Baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti announced that the owner of the record for most lifetime hits was being suspended for life for “conduct not in the best interests of the game,” related to betting on contests—including those in which he was involved as manager of the Reds. Subsequently, Rose went to jail on charges of income-tax evasion.

Hank Aaron’s recent support of Rose’s reinstatement—actuated partly by his disgust for the drip-by-drip stain left by the steroids scandal—comes from a man far better than his statement’s beneficiary.

If Rose sits now on the sidelines of the game he loved, it’s his own fault. I’m not referring here strictly to his original sin, the betting itself, but also to the 15 years of stonewalling on which he embarked as soon as he was implicated in the scandal.

Americans, a forgiving people, would have embraced someone who confessed to a gambling addiction so powerful that it even caused him to ignore the enormous risks associated with violating Major League Baseball Rule 21(d), the ban on betting on one’s team—a restriction that’s posted in every clubhouse.

In 2004, Rose finally copped to what the 225-page Dowd Report had documented in damning detail at the time of his banishment: not only had he bet on the Reds, but he’d wager as much as $10,000 per game.

The former hits leader and his defenders say that he never bet against the Reds, but they ignore the following:

* Even a decision to abstain on the part of an habitual gambler can be read by others as a signal that the team will be in the tank that day.

* The possibility of debts too steep to be paid would have opened Rose to severe pressure from the underworld and possibly affected the course of a pennant race. This happened to Denny McLain in 1967, when the young pitcher’s involvement in a bookmaking operation led him to be visited by a mob operative who, while threatening far worse, dislocated two toes on McLain’s left foot. Had the pitcher not missed several starts down the stretch, he might have helped the Tigers win the pennant that year instead of falling one game short. (Incidentally, Rose and McLain collaborated on a book two years later: How to Play Better Baseball. I wonder if they traded betting tips? Actually, on second thought, I don’t.)

Rose stained the game and betrayed his players with his misconduct, as Giamatti noted with his grave but spot-on summary of the case. In his autobiography, the pathetically titled My Prison Without Bars, the banned ballplayer had the gall to write: “I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done something wrong. But you see, I'm just not built that way."

As he elaborates, Rose demonstrates only that, in his transparent lack of remorse, there’s one career he might still be suited for, if a job in baseball (increasingly remote, given not only his dangerous gambling addiction but even his professed lack of interest in managing compared with the thrill of hitting) remains outside his reach: politician. “So let's leave it like this: I'm sorry it happened, and I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family that it hurt. Let's move on."

It might be just as well that Rose allows people like Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt make the case for allowing him back into the game and onto the Hall of Fame ballots, because every word he says or writes is a self-indictment that reveals his profound callousness and lack of concern for the damage he caused.

At the same time, with each passing year, the ’78 Yankees look better and better. Disregard their crazy owner and the even crazier manager he dumped halfway through the year (then re-hired for the next year), and concentrate on the 25 players (yes, even Reggie).

Remember this about that sometimes brawling, always mentally tough squad: When everyone else had them counted out at 14 games down (including Jim Rice of the Red Sox, who, with his recent comments on Derek Jeter, proves he remains clueless about character), they refused to give up.

When making the playoffs at all, without the option of a wild-card slot, was far harder then than it is now, the Bombers became the exemplar of determination and perseverance against all odds.
They, my friends, represent a “credit to the game,” not an irresponsible, skirt-chasing, records-obsessed, gambling-addicted, felonious has-been who might be 68, but has the moral sense of a six-year-old. In fact, that last statement might even be an insult to children.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

This Day in Diplomatic History (Nazis, Soviets Conclude Nonaggression Pact)

August 23, 1939—In an act brazenly cynical even by totalitarian standards, the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed an agreement forswearing military action against each other.

The Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact removed the last obstacle in the way of Adolf Hitler invading Poland and starting World War II. At the same time, both he and Joseph Stalin agreed, in secret protocols not officially revealed until 50 years later, on spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.

The two dictators, in effect, set about carving up most of Continental Europe between them.

The stunning move required ideological somersaults of almost Olympian proportions from Hitler, who, more than a decade previously, in Mein Kampf, had called for the dissolution of “Russia and her vassal border states”; Stalin, who, only four years before, had pushed the organization of international Communist parties known as the Comintern to forge broad antifascist coalitions in the Popular Front; and American Communists, who, having seen Stalin as the only Western leader unreservedly committed to containing Hitler, now found themselves forced to toe a new line enforced by the Kremlin.

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin never met. Instead, these two men, bent openly on destroying each other for years, deputized their principal foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and V.M. Molotov (here pictured with Stalin in the middle), to ink the agreements.

Anthony Read and David Fisher’s revealing history, The Deadly Embrace (1987), offers many dramatic details concerning the motives and maneuvers behind the pact.

Hitler pressed hard to have an agreement in place before his planned September 1 invasion of Poland, even going so far as to send Stalin a personal letter on August 20. The German dictator later called the following 24 hours the most agonizing of his life, with his doctors waiting anxiously in case something happened.
When he finally received the phone call that Stalin had agreed to have Ribbentrop fly to Moscow, Hitler cried out jubilantly, “I have the world in my pocket!”

It certainly must have seemed that way. Once again, Hitler’s remarkable skill in outguessing opponents—in gambling that they would not be able to mount a defense against his most outrageous maneuver—served him well. A non-aggression pact with the U.S.S.R. would allow him to achieve several purposes:

* assure him that a German thrust against the West, unlike in WWI, would not have to be countered on an Eastern front;

* convince naysayers among the German high command—including Luftwaffe head Herman Goering—that the military would not face a protracted conflict;
* unnerve the Western powers, who could no longer count on the Soviet Union as a counterweight to the Nazis on the Continent.

What did Stalin hope to gain from the agreement? Certainly, the pact would allow him a free hand not just in carving up Poland with Hitler, but also in bringing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to heel.

But more might have been involved. Two weeks before Hitler and Stalin startled the world, the Soviet dictator had sent representatives to a meeting in which officials from France and Great Britain had exchanged military information to show their level of preparedness should war break out with the Nazis.

Before leaving, a British representative had been told to triple any estimate he offered about his country’s force levels: it would be discounted by a third, anyway. When he did as he was told, he was astonished to find his Soviet opposite number startled—not at the thought that the higher number was too high, but that it was too low.

Stalin confided to Nikita Khruschchev that the Soviet military force was in no condition to take on the now-well-oiled Nazi machine. Learning that the force levels of his would-be allies were in a state as parlous as his own, if not more so, could not have been reassuring.

The fact that the dictators concluded the agreement didn’t mean that all suddenly became well between them. In addition to Ribbentrop, Hitler sent, as his personal emissary to Stalin, an old acquaintance, Heinrich Hoffmann, who was instructed to take special photographs, “which sometimes give a much clearer clue to a man’s character than all the reports of some silly fathead in the Foreign Ministry!”

What Hitler had in mind: the shape and size of Stalin’s earlobes—details, the race-obsessed Fuehrer believed, that would indicate whether the Soviet leader possessed Jewish blood.

The well-known antipathy of the two leaders for each other provided all the cover they needed to move ahead with their plans in something close to broad daylight. U.S. intelligence, tipped off by a spy, warned Britain’s Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax—as far as they could without revealing their source—that he should prepare himself for a dramatic turn in relations between the two countries.

Halifax not only refused to believe it, but saw no reason to delay or even shorten his planned hunting trip in late August. That incident serves as a handy symbol for Britain’s willful state of illusion on the brink of war.

All of Europe would pay dearly for their leaders’ gamesmanship and lack of foresight.

The agreement caused unbelievable consternation in the West. It was savagely disillusioning to idealistic students who saw the Soviet Union as the only credible force against Hitler. In the early 1980s, one of my history professors at Columbia University recalled how the pact had led the scales dropping from his eyes in how he viewed the Communist Party.

In the Anti-Nazi League, one of Hollywood’s favorite political organizations of the period, the day after the pact was a disaster, a staff member, Bonnie Clair Smith, remembered, according to Nancy Lynn Schwartz’ The Hollywood Writers’ Wars. “The phones didn’t stop, and telegrams of withdrawal poured in. I don’t even think the Daily Worker came out that day.”

Yet there still remained some who were so committed to the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise that they sought any excuse to explain away the astonishing event. One was the screenwriter Maurice Rapf, who,in his memoir Back Lot: Growing Up With the Movies, recounted his self-justification: “How did I accept the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 which led to the Nazi invasion of Poland and the start of World War II? (I had a hard time with this but became convinced that Stalin was just buying time to prepare for the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union, which, in fact, was what Churchill and his European allies had wanted all along.)

Ideological U-turns remain the order of the day concerning the nonaggression act in Russia to this day. The current line being pedaled by Vladimir Putin is that the agreement—resulting from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s desire to direct Soviet territorial designs to the East—entitled Russia to the “near abroad” Soviet republics, and that these Baltic states acquiesced in their takeover.

Seventy years after the event, the brazenness of dictators continues.

Quote of the Day (Fr. Michael Place, on the Right to Health Care)

“In Catholic theology, access to health care is a fundamental social good, because health is essential to human flourishing and the preservation of human dignity; as such, health care is an aspect of the common good. Society and the state have a dual obligation to protect the right to health care and to provide the means necessary for its fulfillment.”--Fr. Michael D. Place, “A Time for Reform: How the Catholic Tradition Can Shape the Health Care Debate,” America, August 17-24, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bad Flashback: Woodstock

The Woodstock music festival ended 40 years ago this past week with an estimated half a million of America’s youth having tried, in Joni Mitchell phrase, to make their way “back to the garden.” My family, stuck on the New York State Thruway, would have been just happy to get back to New Jersey.

Neither I nor anyone else from my family attended one of the defining musical events—okay, let’s use the term of the time and call it a “happening”—of the Baby Boom Generation. We were vacationing elsewhere in upstate New York, in East Durham.

So, if you want the lowdown on what it was like to get stoned, frolic in the mud, line up at the Port-o-Sans, you know where else to look—unless, that is, you’ve been hiding under a rock the past few weeks while self-congratulatory reminiscences flooded through the media from participants.

Typical of this swelling latter genre: Arlo Guthrie’s remark to the reliably snarky Deborah Solomon of The New York Times a week or so ago, about whether the event was overrated: “No. We’re still talking about it. How many other events from 1969 are we still talking about?”)

More realistic was one of my favorite musicians, Creedence Clearance Revival leader John Fogerty, who told USA Today: “When Yuppies and Reagan Democrats came along, I'd say, 'Where's my Woodstock generation?' … A lot of that original fervor has been lost. Perhaps I made it more important than it really was."

I hate to say it, but yes you did, John.

If you want to know a handy way to think about Woodstock—something that really defined it—just remember this: It began as a business deal and ended as a massive traffic jam.

Let’s look at the business deal first.

Peter Aspden, writing in The Financial Times, notes that the improbable genesis of the self-styled “Aquarian Exposition” came through an ad placed by two TV writers, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, that was, in fact, looking for fodder for a sitcom they were working on concerning financial investment.

They made the mistake that so many other boomers have done over the years: they became starry-eyed about the chance to make a quick dollar—in this case, in the form of Michael Lang, who wanted to build a recording studio in Woodstock. By the time they were done, it turned out to be quite a bit different from what anyone had planned. I’m amazed the organizers didn’t have heart attacks by the time it was over.

Yes, I’m as grateful as anyone that Woodstock didn’t degenerate into an Altamonte-style tragedy, so on that point, at least, I agree with the tiresome hippie Rip Van Winkles coming out of the woodwork these past few weeks. (Come to think of it, Rip was in the Catskills, too, wasn’t he?)

But Woodstock doesn’t remind me so much of, say, the Monterey Festival two years before, but of an event 39 years later.
Yes, I’m talking about last fall’s meltdown of the financial markets.

I’m surprised that Woodstock wasn’t a jazz festival, because its organizers were surely into improvisation. Let’s see—their idea went from a recording studio to a rock festival, from holding it in Woodstock to moving it to Bethel, from running it as a paid event to declaring it free.

The last action was a large reason why the festival didn’t turn violent, but it also meant that Lang, Rosenman and Roberts would have to wait for the documentary to come out before they made money. They had to sweat things out—kind of like Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson last fall.

There are other resemblances between Woodstock and the Wall Street collapse:

* Think of the public assurances that everything was under control…when in fact, of course, it wasn’t.

* Think of the transition from free-market capitalism to…what, socialism?

* Think of the common demographics. We know Lang was 24 at the time of Woodstock, putting him at the vanguard of the boomers. How about Paulson and Bernanke? Well, Paulson’s 62 and Bernanke 54. That makes them Lang’s contemporaries.

* Now, let’s find out if the latter were at Woodstock. If the answer is yes, that explains everything: they must be still having bad flashbacks from the “brown acids” those public-service announcements were warning about up at Max Yasgur’s farm.

If you want to know the truth, I think the boomers fell down on the job when it came to the environment at Woodstock, too. Forget all the debris left after the crowd—how on earth was the human waste of approximately 400,000 people disposed of?

If the baby boomers were so smart, why didn’t they think of better, cleaner methods of getting to the festival? Why didn’t they have buses? Why didn’t they carpool?

What I haven’t read about all week is the number of Woodstock fans who ended up way off course—yes, even in East Durham, where the boomer-hippies asked directions of the locals and nonplussed tourists like my father.

If anything, East Durham was the anti-Woodstock. Dozens of bungalows, boarding houses, motels, pubs, restaurants and gift shops lined both sides of Route 145, with names like Mooney’s, Gavin’s, and O’Neill’s. Shamrocks in windows were redundant indications of their Celtic ownership and clientele.

No wonder the hamlet was variously nicknamed “The Irish Alps,” “The Emerald Isle of the Northern Catskills,” or “Ireland’s 33rd County.”

My parents had been coming here for nearly 20 years. In fact, this was where they had first met. Like most other working-class Irish and Irish-Americans who could not easily afford a plane ticket across the Atlantic, they found in East Durham not only an escape from the noise and nastiness of the New York metropolitan area, but a place where they could dance and catch up on news from “the other side.”

It was a resort with wholesome family entertainment resort, far different from the rumored Prohibition-era site of many a still. It provided continuity, a link to the way things were and the way they always would be. Or so it seemed.

(Geographic note: Bethel is in Sullivan County; East Durham, in Greene County. The towns are on opposite sides of the thruway—in other words, far apart. Does anyone know how stoned you have to be to think that Bethel is close to East Durham?)

Normally, on the way home from “the mountains,” my brothers and I would spend the two-plus hours counting woodchucks on the side of the road. This time, we counted the number of cars with peace signs, or—something that seemed just as plentiful that day—the number of cars that were overheated, even abandoned.

It was getting easier to count these cars because we were slowing down. Eventually, we came to a complete standstill going south on the New York State Thruway.

“Lord save us and guard us!” my dad moaned. “I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years—not even driving into the city every day.”

“Must be that concert--Woodstock,” John explained helpfully.

“The one with all the hippies? Great, just great—we’ll never get home, at this rate!”

Eventually—after God knows how long—the traffic began to inch forward again. While cars with peace signs passed us in the other lanes on our side, a military convoy--undoubtedly carrying soldiers getting ready for training--traveled northbound. John--who, at 16, would be eligible for the draft, if the Vietnam War continued that long--noticed the juxtaposition.
My thoughts moved back and forth from the week that had just passed to the one I expected to experience again the following summer.

But the events of the great wide world were about to alter the course of our lives. The next year, my father was laid off from his job at the A&P plant.

When he could afford to go on vacation, my brothers’ interests lay elsewhere—in summer jobs, in teenage girls who would be at the Jersey shore but not at our family-friendly resort, and in the loud, challenging music that electrified the Woodstock Nation and made the parents of East Durham recoil. Not surprisingly, this ended up being our last vacation together as one family.

In its way, Woodstock still made its impact on my dad—25 years later, when a reunion concert—not quite as convulsive, but still massive—was held. My parents, having booked their trip to East Durham weeks in advance, did not have the slightest idea of the upcoming event.

When they returned home, I asked my father how the trip had gone. “All right,” he said, “till we started home. Then we hit traffic. I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years!”

I smiled. “You did,” I answered. “At least once before. Think back, twenty-five years ago…”