Friday, April 30, 2010

Quote of the Day (Alan Simpson, on Rush Limbaugh)

“I never considered Rush-babe to be anything more than an entertainer. He gets people all riled up all day long, get them filled up with gas, ulcers, heartburn, B.O., and fear. Hell, that's pretty good. You really are an entertainer if you can get that done!”—Former Senator Alan Simpson, on his critic Rush Limbaugh, quoted in Weston Kesova, “’No One Forgives Anyone’: The Co-Chair of Obama’s Deficit Commission on Today’s Washington,” Newsweek, April 12, 2010

Do you get the impression that these two guys aren’t on each other’s Christmas mailing list?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Edith Wharton, Chronicler of Troubled Marriages, Enters Her Own)

April 29, 1885—The fiction of Edith Wharton dwelt so obsessively on emotional constriction, the conflict between social convention and freedom, thwarted sexuality, and depression because it reflected her own marriage, which began with an exchange of vows at noon in Trinity Church chapel in New York.

At this distance, the union of Edith Newbold Jones with Teddy Wharton seems so…convenient. The groom was a Harvard friend of one of her brothers; the ceremony took place across the street from the Jones home at Twenty-Fifth Street (Trinity later became the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Sava); and the couple would settle down on a small cottage across from the Jones estate in upper-crust Newport, Rhode Island. Moreover, Edith and Teddy were members of the upper crust.

But all kinds of omens appeared even from the beginning:

* There was a real question from the first if Edith truly loved Teddy. The bachelor, 11 years her senior, was certainly kind and charming. But two summers before—the same period when she met Teddy—Edith had encountered Walter Berry, a lawyer with a literary bent, a man she believed gave her “a fleeting hint of what the communion of kindred intelligences might be.” It sounds reminiscent of what Lily Bart’s would-be suitor, Lawrence Selden, desires in Edith's bestselling 1905 novel, The House of Mirth: “a republic of the spirit.” Unfortunately, Edith and Walter’s relationship, like Lily’s and Lawrence’s, became nothing more than a friendship. Berry preferred women who surpassed Edith in beauty but badly lagged her in intellect.

* The wedding invitations, written by Edith’s mother, Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, never mentioned her daughter’s name—a telling lapse by a haughty matriarch, otherwise concerned about the smallest social nicety, who scoffed when her skittish daughter asked what could be expected on her wedding night—and never provided an answer.

* Nothing did happen on Edith and Teddy’s wedding night. It took weeks for the marriage to be consummated, and then, after a few years, husband and wife stopped having relations altogether.

* Before long, Edith realized that, aside from canines and motoring through the countryside, she and her husband had little else in common—especially when it came to matters of the intellect, where Teddy was utterly at sea among her bright friends.

* Despite having numerous cousins, Edith had no bridesmaids—likely indicating a distance from family members that would prove a handicap when she needed a support network in the years ahead.

* At the age of 35, Teddy still relied on his trust income of $2,000 a year. This was not uncommon at the time for a man of leisure such as himself, but the lack of a profession, along with any real instinct for managing money, would prove problematic.

*Teddy’s father was institutionalized at McLean Hospital, where he would commit suicide in 1891.

Though emotionally empty, the first years of the Wharton’s marriage were amiable enough, as Teddy was physically vigorous and frequently displayed what his wife called in her memoir A Backward Glance “sweetness of temper and boyish enjoyment of life.” After 1903, however, when they moved to a summer house in Western Massachusetts, relations between the two became profoundly troubled. The instability that plagued his father began to manifest itself in Teddy.

Several times, I have visited The Mount, the couple’s gleaming white Georgian mansion in the Berkshire Mountains, now a museum (and one that, like Lily Bart, has, in recent years, found itself in financial dire straits). One especially interesting feature of this home built to Edith's specifications is how she managed the issue of solitude for herself and her guests.

The front door, opening at ground level, contains locks, hinges and handles, a reminder that she believed a door should not only admit but also exclude. To secure privacy, Wharton placed doors not in the center but near the end of the long suite of rooms so that occupants could not be easily observed. Access to her own suite (separate from Teddy’s) was controlled with special care, with the stairway to the upper level set off from the public spaces of the first floor.

The arrangement not only enabled Wharton to linger in bed in the morning, free of care as she read or caught up on correspondence. It also provided an additional advantage she may not have initially sensed.

Unwary guests or nosy servants would be less likely to witness the quarrels and long silences that increasingly typified her relationship with Teddy, whose manic depression and neurasthenia grew in tandem with his wife’s literary success and self-confidence. A writer whose work was filled with secrets, Edith crafted a house that, consciously or not, protected her own.

In 1907, following an idyllic motoring excursion, Wharton believed that she had discovered a “kindred spirit” in guest Morton Fullerton, an American journalist. By the following spring, she had embarked on a passionate affair with him.

An urban sophisticate and aristocrat, Wharton projected her private drama of marital desolation, the yearning for freedom and fulfillment, and frustrated desire onto the impoverished farmer Ethan Frome, in the novel of the same name. Zeena, Ethan’s shrewish wife afflicted by hypochondria, represents a fictional stand-in for the now-quarrelsome, unstable Teddy. Ethan’s would-be lover, Mattie, completes the love triangle. (Ethan and Mattie even share the first initials of the author and Fullerton.)

One passage from Ethan Frome seems especially redolent of Edith’s feelings about her husband: “Ethan’s heart was jerking to and fro between two extremities of feeling, but for the moment compassion prevailed. His wife looked so hard and lonely, sitting there in the darkness with such thoughts.”

The novella’s initially tepid sales did not ease Wharton’s burden in maintaining The Mount. That financial millstone and the strains in her marriage were compounded when she discovered that Teddy had embezzled at least $50,000 of her trust fund to squander on his mistress. The idyllic environment she had created, built with money and an instinct for artifice, was now imploding for the same reasons.

Reluctantly, at the same time she decided to leave Teddy, Edith allowed him to sell the house in 1911. Unwilling ever to view the Mount again as a stranger, Wharton never returned to the Berkshires. She lived the rest of her life in France, dying 26 years later, cherishing memories of gardening, friends and “freedom from trivial obligations” in this rustic retreat.

After the couple’s divorce, Teddy stayed with a sister until her death, then was cared for by a trained nurse. After he died at age 78, Edith wrote a friend, the Cambridge don Gaillard Lapsley, that her ex-husband had achieved “a happy release, for the real Teddy went years ago, & these survivals of the body are ghastly beyond expression.”

Quote of the Day (Joseph Addison, on Having and Wanting)

"A man should always consider how much he has more than he wants; and secondly, how much more unhappy he might be than he really is." – English essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719), The Spectator, July 30, 1714

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Quote of the Day (Helen Keller, on a Happy Life)

“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”—Helen Keller, “The Simplest Way to be Happy,” Home Magazine (February 1933)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (Robert Benchley, With THE Essential Guide to the Opera “Il Minnestrone”)

ACT 3: In Front of Emilo’s House.—­“Still thinking of the old man’s curse, Borsa has an interview with Cleanso, believing him to be the Duke’s wife. He tells him things can’t go on as they are, and Cleanso stabs him. Just at this moment Betty comes rushing in from school and falls in a faint. Her worst fears have been realized. She has been insulted by Sigmundo, and presently dies of old age. In a fury, Ugolfo rushes out to kill Sigmundo and, as he does so, the dying Rosenblatt rises on one elbow and curses his mother.”—Robert Benchley, “Opera Synopses: Some Sample Outlines of Grand Opera Plots for Home Study,” from Love Conquers All (1922)

Monday, April 26, 2010

This Day in Theater History (Sondheim’s “Company,” 1st Concept Musical, Opens)

April 26, 1970—On the short list of productions that changed Broadway, the first non-linear, concept musical, Company, premiered at the Alvin Theater. It was the first of five collaborations in the 1970s between composer Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince that tested audience tastes and stretched the boundaries of musical theater.

In Company, I would argue, Sondheim began to use his musical “voice” with self-confidence and mastery. It was easy to miss in his early work, which was overshadowed by senior songwriting partners Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers, or by crushing failure. (See my post on the cult favorite Anyone Can Whistle.)

But now, critics and audiences became fully aware of his technical and emotional range—especially seen through lyrics suffused with intelligence, wit and ambivalence about modern life and relationships. “I prefer neurotic people,” he told Newsweek in 1973. “I like to hear rumblings beneath the surface.”

The marriages in this ensemble piece are, more often than not, emotionally brittle, taking their cue from the city’s nervous energy. You can see it in a song like “Another Hundred People,” and especially in “Not Getting Married Today,” a vocally taxing tune whose breakneck speed conveys its main character, a bride having a nervous breakdown just before the ceremony.

Let’s stop for a second. Even as I write about Sondheim’s “self-confidence,” I can’t help but think how much Company, like other great shows, came together almost as a happy accident.

Start with this: It wasn’t supposed to be a musical in the first place.

Actor George Furth (best remembered for his priceless small scenes as the diehard railway employee Woodcock in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) had written a series of one-act plays, meant to be performed with one actor taking on the lead role in each. When asked what he thought of the idea, Prince said it would work better as a musical.

Then, think of the Man Who Would Be Bobby, the 35-year-old bachelor protagonist who resists his married friends’ urging to commit himself to a relationship. Critics have long noted that Bobby is a rather enigmatic figure. That might be at least partly because his identity has shifted with and been reshaped by the three actors originally associated with the role:

* Furth and Sondheim began to invent scenes and emotional textures for Bobby with the thought that Anthony Perkins would play the part. But Perkins went on to direct a different project.

* Dean Jones was then cast as Bobby. Those who have bought the original-cast album know that he possessed a strong voice. Unfortunately, the musical’s uncertainty concerning marriage hit too close to home for Jones, who was going through a painful divorce at the time. Prince agreed to let him out of his contract if Jones could make it a couple of weeks past the premiere.

* Jones’ replacement, Larry Kert, the original Tony in West Side Story, was so good in his role—and the circumstances surrounding Jones’ departure so unusual—that the Tony nominating committee were persuaded to nominate him for the Tony.

Quote of the Day (Ambrose Bierce, Defining “Brandy”)

“BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the- grave and four parts clarified Satan. Dose, a headful all the time. Brandy is said by Dr. Johnson to be the drink of heroes. Only a hero will venture to drink it.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Quote of the Day (Wayne McDowell, on the Decision to Close His Old Parochial School)

“My faith is being tested. I can’t believe this is my archdiocese doing this.”—Wayne McDowell, board member of Cardinal Gibbons School, Baltimore, formerly St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, where Babe Ruth learned how to play baseball, quoted in Richard Sandomir, “A Fight to Save The House That Built Ruth,” The New York Times, April 18, 2010

McDowell is so incensed at Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien that he is considering wearing a sign saying, “Save Cardinal Gibbons, Fire the Archbishop.” Alumni of other parochial schools that have closed—including the present blogger—will find all too familiar a tale in how the archdiocese has proceeded against Cardinal Gibbons School (in the image accompanying this post):

* insisting that, as a prerequisite for keeping the school open, that the budget be balanced—then closing the school anyway;

* providing parents and administrators no warning that the closing will occur—not even discouraging schools from sending out letters to freshmen;

* turning a deaf ear to entreaties to keep the school open; and

* not revealing an ulterior motive—the possibility of selling the land to a developer.

As far as testing faith is concerned, the closure of a school does not rank with the current sexual abuse crisis. But the two situations do have a few things in common: a failure of foresight on the part of archdiocesan administrators to plan for a future involving massive change and real danger, and paying no heed to the people who comprise the Church in the first place.

Parents raised their children in the Church because they believed it had soul. In the case of the church-abuse crisis, they found that the Church hierarchy had the souls of lawyers and public-relations specialists; in the case of school (and church) closings, the hierarchy displayed the souls of accountants.

As in the church-abuse cases, the hierarchy have been oblivious to the deep resentment they’re causing. Parents don’t take well to religious institutions that act like a multi-state chain retailer closing stores left and right.

Cardinal Gibbons is one of two high schools with a fine athletic tradition now being closed. Another, in New Jersey, where I live, is Paterson Catholic, a powerhouse for the last two decades in football and basketball, now told that it, too, would have to shut its doors—and leaving students and prospective students in a mad scramble to be placed in the remaining parochial schools in the area.

I wish a good history of parochial schools in the last four decades could be written. Its conclusion would be simple and sad: It didn’t have to turn out the way it did, with wave after wave of school closings.

Changing demographics, it has been said, spelled doom for these schools. But remember: the Catholic school system survived even the Great Depression. Now, in an era when Catholics enjoy an affluence unlike any other time in its history, too many schools do not employ the most elemental principles of marketing. But the real fault is the lack of commitment at the highest levels of the archdiocese--the failure to use every ounce of persuasion, eloquence, and inspiration to make Catholics believe in the importance of parochial schools.

Time and again, archdioceses have thought they could save on the bottom line in closing these schools. But all too often, in how they went about the business--in rupturing bonds of tradition that united generations and made parish church, school and community a dynamic whole--they squandered something infinitely more precious: parishioners’ good will and faith.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Quote of the Day (Fran Lebowitz, on a Favorite Fantasy)

"My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature, I had better ring for breakfast. This occurs rather less often than one might wish."—Fran Lebowitz, The Fran Lebowitz Reader (1994)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Saul Bellow, on Intelligence and Illusion)

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." – Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1976)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

This Day in World War I History (Poison Gas Introduced as Terror Weapon)

April 22, 1915—The Second Battle of Ypres began at dawn, as the German Fourth Army peppered French and Algerian divisions with bombardment by 17-in. howitzers. Then, suddenly, a greenish-yellow mist drifting toward the French positions signaled a deadly and terrifying innovation in modern warfare: poison gas.

The Flemish market town of Ypres would witness four battles, more than a half million dead that would fill 40 cemeteries, and the destruction of much of its Old World-style architecture from shelling in the course of World War I. But gas warfare posed a unique horror.

The chlorine gas in the second battle at this dangerous point—5,700 canisters containing 168 tons—was unexpected and, at least at first, effective. Lance Sergeant Elmer Cotton described, in chilling detail, how the gas worked on those exposed to it:

“It produces a flooding of the lungs - it is an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are these - a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. The colour of the skin from white turns a greenish black and yellow, the colour protrudes and the eyes assume a glassy stare. It is a fiendish death to die.”

Across four miles of trench lines, 5,000 French troops fell dead within 10 minutes. The rest, temporarily blinded, coughing, and coughing, broke and ran, leaving a five-mile gap and 2,000 men who were captured.

France and allies Great Britain and Russia had only one consolation that day: German troops were almost as frightened by this new form of warfare as they were. It didn’t escape their notice that this wind-borne weapon could be blown back on them.

For that reason, the Fourth Army’s advance was uncharacteristically tepid. The German high command, which had not ordered reinforcements, believing that no troops on earth could fail to exploit this situation, were, thus, unable to reap the advantage of what turned out to be their best chance to crack open the Western front in 1915.

As awful as it was, the truly terrible thing about poison-gas warfare turned out to be that both sides began to use it. Not even a full year into the war, the Allies eventually decided that, since theirs was a war over the meaning of civilization itself, they could not allow this weapon to be used against them without retaliation.

By the fall, the British were releasing gas canisters at Loos. Later, the French used phosgene, which was even worse than chlorine gas.

But the Allies would tell you that Germany got there first. They introduced not only chlorine gas, but mustard gas, which resulted in blistering skin, vomiting, temporary blindness, and difficulty in breathing.

Both sides eventually came up with gas masks to counteract the danger. Before that, though, the victims were many—and, in a couple of cases, already prominent or about to be so.

It was the misfortune of New York Giants pitching immortal Christy Mathewson to become exposed to poison gas before he even went into battle. His exposure, though only occurring in a training exercise, had the same deadly effect as in other cases, though more slowly: he ended up contracting tuberculosis as a result, dying seven years later.

Another victim of gas warfare was a corporal in the German army exposed to it under British fire at Flanders in 1918. In an American Heritage article from 1985 on why America didn’t use poison gas in World War II (even though we resorted to the atomic bomb), historian Barton J. Bernstein speculated that the WWI experiences of gas victim Adolf Hitler made him reluctant to expose his troops to the same danger he’d experienced more than two decades ago. The same article noted that Winston Churchill, worried that Hitler would launch gas warfare against Russia, warned that the British would retaliate by using it against German cities, while FDR announced a no-first-use policy.

(The image in this post, by the way, is called Gassed, by John Singer Sargent. The painter created it after visiting a casualty station shortly after a mustard gas attack.)

Quote of the Day (Robert Jackson, on the Dangers of Fanaticism)

“[W]e must not forget that in our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic, and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds – that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.”–Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Robert Jackson, opinion in American Communications Assn. v. Douds (1950)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This Day in Philadelphia History (Ben Franklin Mourned by City, Not Congress)

April 21, 1790—Approximately 20,000 people—half of Philadelphia’s population—turned out to pay last respects to Benjamin Franklin, who came to the city as a runaway 17-year-old indentured servant, going to become an international symbol of the Enlightenment and, in the words of biographer Walter Isaacson, “the first American.” A deist, Franklin privately doubted the divinity of Christ. But he not only never publicly disparaged any religious faith, but whenever the city’s churches launched a fundraising drive, he always contributed—even to Roman Catholic and Jewish houses of worship, when those religions were still barely tolerated. Not surprisingly, then, representatives of the city’s major religions not only paid tribute to Franklin at his passing but led the procession to Christ Church, the Anglican (later Episcopal) Church he attended whenever he was in town—and whose steeple he had financed with three lotteries he organized. Though the mourning for the 84-year-old patriot was intense and widespread, it was not universal. Philadelphia honored a printer, publisher, best-selling author, postmaster, entrepreneur, philanthropist, educator, scientist, inventor, musician, politician, and diplomat who left his thumbprint on the City of Brotherly Love, and even beyond. The Surprising Group of Franklin-phobes But anyone with that amount of energy is bound to cross someone who interferes with all this ceaseless striving, or even calls it into question. One such person with decidedly mixed feelings for “Dr. Franklin” was his illegitimate son, William Franklin, exiled in England and disowned by his father for loyalist sympathies as royal governor of New Jersey at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War favored by Benjamin. Five years after their last, strained meeting, Franklin couldn’t resist dissing his son in his last will and testament: “The part he acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for my leaving him no more of an estate he endeavored to deprive me of.” Somewhat more surprising to today’s Americans, the Congress of the new republic that Franklin helped bring into being did not honor him. According to Gordon S. Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, a resolution introduced by James Madison in the House of Representatives, calling for a month of national mourning for his aged colleague at the Constitutional Convention, sailed through the House. But when the same measure was introduced in the Senate, it was denounced immediately by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. Richard Henry Lee (yes, of the famed Virginia dynasty) had tangled with Franklin in the Continental Congress. Lee’s New England ally, John Adams—who, as Vice-President, presided over the Senate—was even more resentful of Franklin, having not only disagreed with his style of diplomacy in winning the French to the American side in the war and then negotiating the peace with Britain, but also feeling jealous of him and George Washington for the credit they received as the ones crucially responsible for the success of the revolution. Remember, again, that the resolution was now in the U.S. Senate. It’s been said that Willie Mays’ glove is where triples went to die. The Senate is where House measures go to die. And that’s what happened this time, too. The City as Franklin’s Social Science Laboratory No matter. If his son and many colleagues had issues with Franklin, that feeling is not shared today, as I discovered repeatedly on a visit to Philadelphia four years ago. A Boston native, Franklin remained an unapologetic city dweller all his days (including in London and Paris, where he served in crucial lobbying and diplomatic posts for nearly 30 years). While Washington and Jefferson were country aristocrats, Franklin delighted in Philadelphia, refusing to leave it even during its sweltering (and disease-inducing) summers. The issues that Franklin confronted early in his career—safety, health, poverty and education—resulted from his city’s expansion. His solutions--among them fire insurance, inoculation campaigns, and the University of Pennsylvania--represented a pioneering attempt at urban planning— a fresh approach to making the city more livable. If, as many historians maintain, Franklin was America’s first great scientist, then Philadelphia was his social science laboratory. Three centuries of fame and moral injunctions (“early to bed and early to rise…”) turned Franklin for a long time into a figure scorned either for platitude-spinning or for ceaseless womanizing. My tour of Philadelphia’s proudly preserved cobblestone streets revealed a Franklin more vital and complex than either Sunday-school teachers or revisionists acknowledge. Although his tolerance and wit continue to endear him to Americans, his drive and tangled family relationships also remind us of his frailties—a person closer to all of us. The Only Home Franklin Owned The best starting point for Franklin’s Philadelphia is Market Street—called, when he first came here, High Street. Conveniently located near Independence Hall, this section of the city is also where he worked and lived. Delicatessens, Italian restaurants, and service businesses have taken the place filled in the eighteenth century by tailors, saddle-makers, joiners, wig-makers, innkeepers and printers. But Market Street still beckons to newcomers just as it did on the morning of Franklin’s arrival, when he walked up this hothouse commercial district, with one loaf of bread tucked under one arm, a second loaf crammed into a jacket pocket, and a third stuffed in his mouth. Future wife Deborah Read burst out laughing at the sight. Today, on the same street, Franklin Court, run as part of Independence National Historic Park, commemorates the drive that made him rich and famous. Yet it also underscores the fragility of even his dreams for his posterity, for in a city that has gone to enormous lengths to preserve its past, his home was razed only twenty-two years after his death. In fact, the only building associated with Franklin that remains standing today is at 36 Craven Street in London, in the country he rebelled against. When Franklin Court was excavated in the 1950s, it was an alleyway running from Chestnut to Market Streets known as Orianna Street. With no building contract or architectural plan surviving and little physical evidence, the architectural team on the project decided they did not want to make something that was inaccurate or misleading. Instead, they preserved what they could and erected a structure that was frankly conjectural. Behind the alley, a “Ghost Structure” sweeps over Franklin Court. Architect Robert Venturi designed painted steel frames that suggest Franklin’s house and print shop, with quotations set into the pavement. Many items in the reimagining of his home would have been familiar to Franklin: flower beds, gravel and brick pathways, benches, fences, garden walls, and a mulberry tree mentioned in his correspondence. Of 13 houses Franklin lived in, Franklin Court was the only one he ever owned. Building began in 1765, supervised by Deborah, since Franklin was serving in London as an agent for several colonies. It embodied his typically practical maxim, “If you are going to build a house, build it modern.” Franklin, Uncharacteristically, at Rest Nearly a decade as Philadelphia’s colonial agent in London, then nearly another as a diplomat abroad, took Franklin away from the city he loved. During that time, a lonely Deborah died. Following a wearying, two-year battle with pleurisy and gout, Benjamin joined her in death sixteen years later and was laid to rest on Fifth and Arch Streets, in the graveyard of Christ Church. In addition to his own grave and those of his daughter and son-in-law, Franklin’s plot also contains the remains of Deborah and their son Francis, whose death from smallpox at the age of four devastated his father—and, predictably, launched him on a crusade for inoculation against the disease. More than 4,000 people are buried in the graveyard. During my visit, I spotted numerous flags across the soggy ground, indicating the final resting places of generals, admirals, politicians, and signers of the Declaration of Independence. Only 1,400 of the graves bear inscriptions. Many of the sandstone grave markers have disintegrated as a result of weather and pollution damage. The lettering in Franklin’s original tombstone has been retouched at least twice, much like his image has been continually revisited by generations of historians. I chuckled at all the pennies dropped on his tombstone, in homage to perhaps his best-remembered aphorism, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Like his resting place, Franklin’s impact on his city and country is in no danger of fading from Americans’ memories.

Dept. of Great (or Not-So-Great) Beginnings

“I have been given your address by Desmond Elliott of Arlington Books, who I believe has also told you of my existence. Mr. Elliott has also told me that you ‘were looking for a “with-it” writer’ of lyrics for your songs, and as I have been writing pop songs for a short while now and particularly enjoy writing the lyrics I wondered if you consider it worth your while meeting me. I may fall short of your requirements, but anyway it would be interesting to meet up—I hope!”—Aspiring lyricist Tim Rice to future composing partner Andrew Lloyd-Webber, letter of April 21, 1965, quoted in Stephen Citron, Sondheim & Lloyd Webber: The New Musical (2001)

You’d expect that the young-man-in-a-hurry Lloyd-Webber, not laid-back Rice, would have written that letter, or even followed up a few days later, when no reply came, by showing up on the doorstep of the letter’s recipient. This time, though, it was the other way around.

The pair would go on to collaborate on Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Evita—and, separately, with others, go on to create the likes of The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, and The Lion King. Divorces and knighthoods came for the two of them, to boot.

Now you know which one of the two partners to thank for all of this to come—or, if you’re not a fan (I prefer the accent on Broadway to fall on songs rather than falling chandeliers, thank you very much), the one to blame.

Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on Political and Commercial Morals)

“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”—Mark Twain, Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events (1940)

Turn almost anywhere this past week—newspapers, magazines, the Internet—and you were bound to find something on Mark Twain, who died 100 years ago on this date in Redding, Conn. (This time, the reports of his death weren’t “greatly exaggerated.”) It’s difficult to imagine another American writer garnering so much attention.

But Twain’s never really left the public conversation, has he? Somewhere, somebody is quoting him—or mistakenly attributing a quote to him, the general theory being that if you can’t locate the maxim’s source, there’s a good chance Twain said it, because he said or write so much anyway, didn’t he?

One of the more provocative pieces commemorating the event was a review of five books, printed in this past weekend’s Financial Times. In it, John Sutherland squarely poses questions on Twain as artist: “Dickens published 12 novels, any one of which can be argued to vindicate his status as Britain’s greatest. But where are Twain’s dozen? What makes him the ‘father’ of American fiction?”

Few critics would include Twain among such self-conscious craftsmen as Gustave Flaubert or Henry James. On the other hand, how many classics have been perfect? Don Quixote? Anna Karenina? I don't think so. Yet who would deny the richness of these books? Huckleberry Finn is not even half as long as these, but is every bit as memorable as those two.

The easiest way to tackle Sutherland’s questions is to look at genre. Twain’s roots were not in the complex urban environments that fed the novelistic genius of Dickens, Balzac, or Dostoyevsky, but rather from the American West (even the state in which he was born and grew up, Missouri, though ostensibly part of the slaveholding South, was at the western rim of that region). The short “tall tale” was the genre of choice there.

Sutherland’s overview of five books does not address what might be Twain’s most crucial contribution to American literature: his use of language. Other writers (e.g., Artemus Ward) had experimented with dialect, but their attempts were so heavy-handed that they can only be read with difficulty now. Twain used dialect far more delicately, and for a wider range of effects, either for something approaching poetry (Huck’s description of the Mississippi), subtle irony, or uproarious exaggeration.

Twain continues to be read because so much of his subject matter continues to be central to the American experience: racism, violence in the home and in the body politic, the battle of reason and faith, and corruption.

The fast, sometimes slapdash manner in which Twain crafted his work might be best understood by comparing him with one of the great satirists of American cinema, screenwriter-director Preston Sturges, who, at his height in the early-to-mid-1940s, produced seven wildly funny, masterful--if imperfect--films in four years. Read these paragraphs from “The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges,” by Douglas McGrath, in the May issue of Vanity Fair, and tell me if they don’t apply equally well to Twain as to Sturges:

“The Sturges pictures were a jab in the ribs, a sexy joke whispered in church—a wink, a kiss, and a hiccup. His pictures of life in this country are a lot like life in this country: messy, noisy, sometimes tough to take, sometimes hard to beat.”

And, perhaps even more apropos:

“While he does examine issues that are important to what it means to be an American—giving comic (and other) consideration to questions of ambition, money, heroism, and morality—he examines them with a flashing wit and a poet’s gift for slang that offers American English at its most entertaining.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Quote of the Day (Chelsea Handler & Co., on New Jersey)

“[Chelsea Handler’s] nine writers shout out ideas, mostly over one another. ‘Write that down,’ Ms. Handler says, without looking up, to a joke that involves describing New Jersey as ‘New York’s chunky younger sister.’”—Brooks Barnes, “I’m Chelsea Handler, And You’re Not,” The New York Times, April 11, 2010

Chelsea, Chelsea, we gotta talk!

Ever since I started watching Chelsea Lately on the E! Channel several weeks ago, I’ve chuckled at your act. Nearly 30 years ago, Marshall Crenshaw sang that he was “looking for a cynical girl.” With your fast mouth, you might be what he had in mind.

I also have to say that your impromptu banter appeals to the Irish wiseguy in me, whether you’re feeding inexplicable teen pop sensation Justin Bieber the opportunity to explain his strategy for picking up older women (Beyonce--that's aiming pretty high—twice his age and size, and at least twenty times his current net worth!), or ranking on Larry King—right on his own show! —for wearing red suspenders.

(“What’s wrong with them?” the CNN talkmeister said, so alarmed I was afraid he’d have another heart attack. It couldn’t have helped that you speculated aloud, concerning the Tiger Woods and Jesse James scandals, that "Cheating is something going around"—only days before the rumor broke into the open that the 76-year-old King was allegedly tomcatting around with his wife’s sister. It sounded as if he were peeved enough to hope you you’d walk off his show— like that ditzy dethroned Miss California, Carrie Prejean, threatened to do—even though he’d booked you for a full hour to hawk your new book. Maybe that was why he asked if you were good in bed. That, or he was planning ahead for you to become Wife #9, or #10, or whatever it’s up to right now.)

But Chelsea, your acceptance of the one-liner from your staffer—well, it was ill-advised, even—I hate to say it—ignorant.

Oh, I get the metaphorical import of the one-liner, of course—it’s about New Jersey’s inferiority complex, about feeling unloved and slighted.

But as head of your show, you’re supposed to edit and improve staff-generated jokes before you go on the air. You could have made the same point while being truer to reality. In this case, I’m afraid you fell down on the job.

Your sister tells the Times Brooks Barnes that in school, you were “always able to tell some elaborate tale to get out of homework.” One of these uncompleted homework assignments must have involved geography.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw when reading how New Jersey is supposed to be “chunky.” Have you ever looked at an atlas, Chelsea? Have you ever driven across New Jersey and New York? More specifically, have you compared the size of the two states?

Allow me to enlighten you on New Jersey (even though you grew up in Livingston and should know this already):

The total area of New Jersey is approximately 7,800 sq mi (20,200 sq km), only 46th in size among the 50 states; in contrast, the Empire State’s total area is 49,108 sq mi (127,190 sq km)—more than six times as large.

In other words, New Jersey is the exact opposite of what you and your unnamed staffer believe: instead of the Empire State’s “chunky younger sister,” the Garden State is New York’s acne-pocked (think of those oil refineries as pimples), near-sighted (anyone pulling late at night for coffee into those rest stops named after famous citizens of the state is, by definition, bleary-eyed), and—given the size dimensions just outlined—scrawny kid sister.

I’m afraid you and your staffer need Remedial Geography, Chelsea. Your first assignment: using a ruler, estimate the number of miles between Livingston and the Lincoln Tunnel.

Monday, April 19, 2010

This Day in Theater History (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Risky “Carousel” Opens)

April 19, 1945—In integrating all the elements of musical theater into a seamless whole, Oklahoma made possible its follow-up, Carousel. But in gambling on extended characterization to win audience sympathy—and especially in presenting dark situations and themes—Carousel, which premiered on Broadway at the Majestic Theater on this date, was a riskier proposition for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Rodgers was forced to watch the show from a hospital stretcher from an upper-tier box because he had injured his back while carrying his luggage from an out-of-town performance. Morphine might have helped some with the pain, but only marginally with opening-night jitters.

This, after all, was only his second of 16 pairings with Hammerstein, the two were not yet locked in as the most successful songwriting partnership in Broadway history—and, most important of all, their leading male character was a troubled lout who would test audience sympathy like no musical had since Rodgers’ collaboration five years earlier with Lorenz Hart, Pal Joey.

"So fortified was I against pain,” recalled the composer years later in his autobiography, Musical Stages, “that I was also unaware of the laughter and applause, and was convinced that the show was a dismal failure. It was only afterward, when people came over to me - making me feel like an Egyptian mummy on display - that I realized that Carousel had been enthusiastically received."

Oklahoma might have dispensed with the usual chorus-girl opening number and made Agnes de Mille’s choreography a key element of the plot, but its ending was optimistic, and—at a moment when the United States was engaged in a two-front war against the Axis powers—its view of Western expansion and American exceptionalism was, in keeping with the time, decidedly sunlit. But the source material for that show, Green Grow the Lilacs, was nowhere near as dark and pessimistic as the play they were adapting this time, Ferenc Molnar's 1909 play Liliom—a drama that featured domestic abuse and suicide.

The duo switched the localE from Budapest to coastal New England, but, aside from changing the suicide to a death during a robbery attempt and nixing a crisis pregnancy, they made few other attempts to sugarcoat the tragic source material.

The score featured the kind of crowd-pleasing tunes that the songwriting team were becoming famous for (“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), but the two men—and particularly Hammerstein, who doubled as librettist as well as lyric writer—really stretched the limits of the Broadway musical with “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy.”

Both songs were lengthy pieces (clocking in at eight to 11 minutes long) that exemplified the Rodgers and Hammerstein belief that a lovely tune couldn’t simply be shoehorned into any old plot—it had to evolve organically.

“If I Loved You” is, like Oklahoma’s “People Will Say We’re in Love,” a conditional love song—one in which the characters don’t come out and express their feelings outright, but give vent to them supposing they were true. In this case, the audience watches full-of-himself carnival barker Billy Bigelow and innocent Julie Jordan fall in love right before its eyes.

Rodgers and Hammerstein took their time with this sequence not because they came from a less ADD-driven culture than ours, but because the show required that theatergoers come to care about the two characters. Once they’re married, when Billy strikes her, that audience faith will be sorely tested.

Domestic-abuse victims who feel that Carousel glides lightly over Billy’s mistreatment of Julie have every right to feel disturbed and squeamish. The burden of “If I Loved You”—and, even more so, “Soliloquy”—however, rests on the notion that there remains a spark of something else that makes us human and worth redeeming.

“Soliloquy” is, if anything, trickier than “If I Loved You.” When people say that Carousel is “semi-operatic,” this song is probably what they have in mind. There’s no refrain to make it easy to remember, so it resembles an opera recitative.

And yet, I don’t think I’m alone in believing that there isn’t another extended song in the whole rich history of American musical theater more powerful than this one. We watch a man at the crossroads of his life, wanting to be responsible for the sake of his unborn child.

Then, suddenly, all his best instincts turn tragically awry when he imagines the fetus to be female rather than male. “What can I do for her—a bum with no money?” he wonders. How can he protect her from guys like himself?

All of a sudden, the change is as inevitable as Greek tragedy:

“She's got to be sheltered
In a fair hand dressed
In the best that money can buy!
I never knew how to get money,
But, I'll try, I'll try! I'll try!
I'll go out and make it or steal it
Or take it or die!”

I first came across this gut-wrenching song in the 1956 film adaptation of Carousel. Henry King, a competent craftsman, didn’t bring the kind of visual rethinking that Tim Burton, for instance, brought to Sweeney Todd.

But the “Soliloquy” sequence is very fine indeed, with lead Gordon MacRae performing with a voice as big as all outdoors—lending itself all the more, in this case, to filming by the shore, where the hard coastal rocks act as a nice stand-in for the fate impervious to Billy’s eager but foolish strivings.

MacRae wasn’t supposed to be in the picture at all. The original star is someone you can probably guess. Think—perhaps the biggest star, in recordings and in musical films, of the mid-1950s. The Voice.

Yes, Frank Sinatra. At first glance, it might be a bit hard to imagine Sinatra, an ethnic, streetsmart product of New York and its environs (in this case, of course, Hoboken, N.J.), in the role of rural, all-too-simple Billy.

But, not long after the start of his solo career, in 1946—the year after the show came out, mind you—Sinatra was also recording songs from it. Four decades later, near the close of his concert career, he was still singing it.

Dig a little deeper and I think it becomes plain why he felt such a deep, abiding affinity for not just Rodgers and Hammerstein but also “Soliloquy.” Sinatra’s roving eye made him impossible husband material, but from all accounts he was a loving, dutiful, even doting father. In 1946, he was already a two-time parent, with a third coming in two years.

All the joys that Billy felt, he experienced, too. And, I would venture to say, much of the self-recrimination that led to Billy’s downfall was present in Sinatra, too. He was, after all, a self-described “24-karat manic depressive.”

So, a decade after Carousel opened on Broadway, Sinatra had his dream project. He was all set to start when he found out, on the first day of shooting, that all the movie’s scenes would be filmed twice—first for CinemaScope, then for CinemaScope 55.

This was what might be termed a massive failure to communicate on the part of the film’s producers. Following his comeback in From Here to Eternity, producers had to decide whether Sinatra’s box-office clout and reasonable amount of skill as an actor were enough to compensate for a) his high salary demands, and b) his shoot-fast-‘cause-I’m-outta here attitude.

Two prime examples of the latter, but from later in the decade, suffice to explain b):

1) While shooting A Hole in the Head, director Frank Capra was in a real bind—trying to extract the best out of two actors with decidedly different tendencies: Sinatra and co-star Edward G. Robinson. The “Little Caesar” star, methodologically burrowing into a character, would try out different things in the first few takes, finally hitting his stride after several more. This was exactly opposite to Sinatra, a more spontaneous performer whose best take was the first or second. While Robinson was just warming up, Sinatra was already mentally checking out.

2) For Ocean’s 11, director Lewis Milestone had to cope with the fact that Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack would be up each night, performing onstage in Las Vegas. After Sinatra decided it was Ring-a-Ding-Ding time the first few instances when Milestone went beyond two takes, the director realized he’d have to get the shot right the first time.

If Sinatra would act this way toward two veteran directors with peerless filmographies, just think how he would act because of a film process. One day on the Carousel set and he was gone, once he discovered he’d have to shoot each sequence twice.

An emergency SOS went out to MacRae—with Sinatra gone, could he come to the set in a hurry? He could, and did.

Yes fans of film and theater are still, like Billy Bigelow, likely to express regret over what might have been—a Rodgers and Hammerstein film that would have been excellently served by the greatest singer in mid-century America.

Quote of the Day (Jay Leno, on Where You Get Germs)

“Researchers found that you are more likely get germs from money than any other object. … Really? Then how come poor people aren’t healthier?”—Jay Leno, “Tonight Show” monologue, April 15, 2010, quoted in “Laugh Lines,” The New York Times, April 18, 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Quote of the Day (Nicholas Kristof, on the Vatican and the Catholic Church)

“[W]hen you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.”—Nicholas Kristof, “A Church Mary Can Love,” The New York Times, Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Andy Warhol, Describing His Attitude Toward Bad Publicity)

“Don’t pay attention to what they write about you, just measure it in inches.”—Andy Warhol, quoted in Jackie Wullschlager, “Triumph of the Ordinary: Shaped by the Depression, Andy Warhol Created an Art of Transfiguration and Plenty,” The Financial Times, December 5-6, 2009

Friday, April 16, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Feller Tosses Opening Day No-Hitter)

April 16, 1940—Not yet 22 years old, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller gave fans a game for the ages, striking out members of the Chicago White Sox en route to a 1-0 victory—the only no-hitter on Opening Day in baseball history.

The performance, on a cold and windy day at the White Sox’ Comiskey Park, included a bit of wildness from the righthander—five walks—but he got the job done when he had to. More important, it put to rest talk from late in his subpar spring training that Feller would have a terrible year.

(Oh, by the way: There undoubtedly exists a fairly sizable contingent of my readers who wonder what on earth has possessed me the last few days with all the posts on baseball. I could answer that, with the glorious game here again, it’s time to remember the amazing things done and said concerning the sport. But some readers are bound to remain resistant to such logic. To those nay-sayers, I can only repeat the advice frequently provided by the nuns of St. Cecilia of Englewood, N.J., when I was growing up: “Offer it up!”)

“Rapid Robert” is still wonderfully alive at this point, and has been known to sign a baseball or two at the eponymous museum in his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa. A good thing he’s still around to remind baseball fans who are too young to remember that there once existed a fastball pitcher who was fully the equal of Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.

None of the preceding three—perhaps nobody, peri0d—was so good so young as Feller. In September 1936, still only a 17-year-old rookie, he struck out 17 batters. The year prior to his opening-day gem, he won 24 games. If his 100-mile-per-hour fastball didn't get you, his nasty curve would.
Here are there things to like about Feller (aside from his Hall of Fame achievements on the diamond, of course):

* His baseball apprenticeship, which sounds like something out of a book or film. Feller’s lesser-known nickname—“The Heater From Van Meter”—refers to the community 10 miles west of Des Moines, Iowa, where he grew up. There, his father would play catch with him between their red barn (still standing, as part of the museum today) and their house. The scene is reminiscent of The Natural or Field of Dreams (and, indeed, when asked by an interview which of the moments in his life he would want to relive, the pitcher cited these father-son moments).

* His war service. “Strikeouts are boring,” veteran catcher Crash Davis advises raw rookie hurler Crash Davis in Bull Durham. “Besides, they’re fascist.” Feller might beg to differ on both counts—and as someone who spent World War II fighting real totalitarianism, he has every right to do so. His 266 career wins would have been considerably greater if he hadn’t lost three full seasons and most of a fourth to WWII, which he spent on the U.S.S. Alabama. The first major-league ballplayer to enlist after Pearl Harbor, he ended up with five campaign ribbons and being decorated with eight battle stars. Yet he has modestly insisted he’s not a hero—the real ones, he explains, never came back.

* He loathes cheaters. Feller has gone on record as saying that if Pete Rose is elected to the Hall of Fame, he’ll never show up for another Cooperstown ceremony. He’s only slightly less harsh on steroid users, noting: “Those players who have been convicted of using steroids or are caught using them are not going to get the numbers to be elected to the Hall of Fame when they become eligible for that great honor. And I am with them on that."

Quote of the Day (Stewart Francis, on Why He Quit His Job)

“I quit my job at the helium gas factory. I refuse to be spoken to in that tone.”—Comic Stewart Francis quoted in “Laugh!” Reader’s Digest, May 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Taft Throws 1st Prez Pitch on Opening Day)

April 15, 1910—One of the happier days of—and great precedents set by—William Howard Taft occurred when he became the first President to throw out the ceremonial opening-day pitch for the start of the baseball season.

It turned out to be an even better day because the Washington Senators had on the mound Walter Johnson, which was the next best thing for the average baseball fan to having money in the bank. The “Big Train” then proceeded to deliver practically a seminar on big-league pitching—a one-hit, complete-game, 3-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Athletics.

Everybody ended up smiling that day. Probably none needed it more than Taft, who could use the cheers after his morning paper gave him an unpleasant reminder of what happened 24 hours before.

The New York Times reported on the 15th that the previous day, Taft’s address to a group of suffragettes at Washington’s Arlington Hall had started with applause but ended with hisses. It was not hard to see why: he began by saying that as a youth, he’d been persuaded by John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women that adult females should be given the right to vote, but he’d changed his mind since then.

Poor Big Bill (we won’t call him fat in this space)—he just had no instinct for pleasing voters (or, in this case, progressives who believed in extending the franchise). As amiable a man who ever sat in the Oval Office, the President possessed quite a bit of intellectual firepower (eight years after leaving the White House, he got the job he had really wanted all his life—Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), but, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember names and faces. At one rally, he told one voter: “They tell me I ought to remember you, but bless my soul, I cannot recall you at all.”

All this was in contrast to Taft’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, a phenomenon in American politics.

Here’s a wrinkle on this whole affair: In his time in office, TR became famous for either a series of historic firsts or for doing something more than anyone else (e.g., the first President to visit a foreign country while in office—Panama, the first great conservation President, the first President to ban smoking from federal government offices).

Now, here’s the thing: Roosevelt was interested in sports, for sure: Five years before, he had even called together representatives of the “Big Three” college powers (Harvard, Princeton and Yale) and persuaded them to set up rules to make football less brutal.

But baseball? Though sons Kermit and Quentin played the game avidly, and TR was even the first President to be issued a lifetime pass by major-league baseball, he couldn’t bring himself to attend a game throughout his time in the White House. Maybe it had something to do, as daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth suggested afterward, with the fact that he regarded it as a “mollycoddle game”—not as tough as tennis, polo, lacrosse, boxing, and, of course, football.

Yet here was Taft, one year after succeeding Roosevelt in office, having fun at was already the national pastime--a place where (unlike today) it was as easy for the common man to purchase a ticket as, say, a Wall Street tycoon.

So you’re TR, taking this all in. I bet he’d be a bit jealous that he hadn’t come up with such a crowd- (and voter-) pleasing idea, don’t you?

And don’t you think that this reminder of all the opportunities he was missing now that he was no longer in the White House might have contributed to the decision, within two years, to “throw his hat into the ring”—i.e., make a try for a third term and take on his old friend “Will” Taft—a split that presaged the liberal/moderate-conservative divide in the GOP for the next century?

Quote of the Day (George F. Will, on the Perennially Losing Chicago Cubs)

“Some people think it's cute—lovable losers, Wrigley Field is the biggest singles bar in Chicago, yada, yada, yada. I think it's disgusting. I really think protracted mediocrity is not admirable. . . . The Cubs, I think, have something like $111 million tied up in eight players through 2011. That's not funny, that's malpractice."—Political columnist (and lifelong Chicago Cubs fan) George F. Will, quoted in Robert Costa, “The Weekend Interview--Baseball: 'The Right Sport for a Democracy,'” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2010

But George, tell us how you really feel!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Flashback, April 1935: FDR Creates WPA as Key Jobs Program

Last Wednesday marked the 75th anniversary of the creation of one of the most significant pieces of New Deal legislation, the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935, which helped to fund the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Experimental in origin, vaulting in ambition, the WPA quickly ran into controversy, so of course it fell by the wayside, terminating after eight years in operation.

But before it ran its course, the WPA—a “boondoggle,” according to critics—put 8.5 million people to work—not just construction workers but also artists, musicians, theater professionals, and writers.

As the nation continues to cope with issues involving employment and the corrosion of the national infrastructure, it’s useful to remember a government program that decreased estrangement of the people from their government while enhancing all things physically necessary for a modern economy dependent on a transportation grid—bridges, roads, tunnels, airfields.

The WPA was one of what might be thought of as “alphabet soup” agencies that became an increasingly prominent part of the federal government under President Franklin Roosevelt—AAA, NRA, TVA, CCC, for instance. The agency’s first head, hard-driving Harry Hopkins, had already led one such agency, the Civil Works Administration, until his implacable enemy within the administration, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes—who had his own alphabet-soup agency, the Public Works Administration (PWA), contending for the same turf—convinced FDR to kill the program.

But Hopkins didn’t accept defeat easily, and worsening unemployment in the spring of 1935 gave him the leverage he needed to work on Roosevelt.

Besides Ickes, other critics labeled the program(which ultimately spent $11 billion) “make-work.” The record says otherwise, with repair and construction performed on the following structures:

* 125,000 public structures (including—thank God!—1,000 libraries)
* 124,000 bridges
* 650,000 miles of highways
* 800 airfields
* 8,000 parks

FDR also made sure a four (later five)-part arts component (called Federal Project Number One) was included in the package. The aid couldn’t have come at a better time for the nation’s arts scene, because as troubled as it is now, it was in a state near collapse as he took office.

More than two-thirds of Manhattan playhouses, for instance, were shut down in 1931. This meant that, when Hopkins presented his case for support of the arts, he found a receptive ear in Roosevelt, a theater buff.

(Please note that FDR, like fellow Presidential icons Washington and Lincoln, loved the theater. Maybe the next time we elect a President, we should investigate more closely the frequency of his or her playgoing!)

The Federal Theater Project, headed by Hallie Flanagan of Vassar College, gave rise, among other talents, to Orson Welles, whose versions of Dr. Faustus and especially Macbeth caused sensations.

In the form of the Federal Writers’ Project, the WPA made a particularly significant contribution. It produced 1,000 works, 380 of which found commercial publishers. Among the writers who became famous in later years who passed through the program were John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Eudora Welty (who did double duty, since the WPA also used her skills as a photographer).

The Federal Writers’ Project represents, more than 60 years later, a particular goldmine for the study of history. Most famous were the “American Guide” series, books written on each of the (then 48) states and the District of Columbia, replete with all kinds of lore and still much loved by book collectors. Less heralded, but also important, were 2,000 interviews with former slaves who were still alive, 70 years after the destruction of the “peculiar institution.”

The WPA was not a perfect program: in some cases, there was a suspicious rise in its rolls just before elections, giving rise to concerns that its recipients were becoming overly beholden to the federal government. Moreover, controversies flared from time to time: concern popped up, for instance, in the making of the WPA's guide to New Jersey over what to say about the state's union strikes, and Ms. Flanagan was forced to listen to appear before red-baiting Congressman Martin Dies' committee over alleged Communist influence in the theater project.

Nevertheless, when it was over, Americans of all different varieties could look back on works that had enriched their lives and were often of enduring value.

Quote of the Day (Walt Whitman, on Lincoln’s Passing)

“Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop'd flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crepe-veil'd women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour'd around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs - where amid these you journey,
With the tolling bells' perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you a sprig of lilac.”—Walt Whitman, from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865)

John Wilkes Booth’s shooting of Abraham Lincoln on this date in 1865—the first time an American President died from an assassin’s bullet—plunged the nation into an abyss of grief, all the deeper and symbolic because of the date—Good Friday. The extended mourning also inspired this magnificent Walt Whitman elegy, one of the greatest poems in the English language.

As a schoolchild, it’s very likely that you had to read another Whitman poem on the death of Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” Even an otherwise very fine anthology, The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, edited by Diane Ravitch, includes “Captain” instead of “Lilacs.” My guess is that you see the former more often than the latter because it is a) shorter and easier to permit many more pieces in the anthology, and b) rhyming, which is easier for young minds to remember.

But “Lilacs” is a far superior poem. Put it this way: almost anyone could have written “Captain,” but only Whitman could have created “Lilacs.” It is the tribute of one distinctly American literary voice to another.

“Lilacs” bears comparison to the most famous Lincoln speech, the Gettysburg Address, because both:

* honor those who died as a result of the war (Lincoln speaking of the Union dead, Whitman of a President felled by a fanatical Southern sympathizer);

* derive from ancient forms (Lincoln, as Garry Wills noted in Lincoln at Gettysburg, from Greek Revival oratory; Whitman, from the pastoral elegy, used by poets as diverse as Virgil, Milton and Shelley);

* achieve their great symbolic power through the movement from death to rebirth (Lincoln, going from the carnage of the battlefield to the “new birth of freedom” he hoped for the reunited nation; Whitman, progressing from the “black murk” surrounding the martyred President to the lilac, which blossoms with the return of spring);

* use parallel clauses to create their hypnotic rhythms (Lincoln preferred short phrases, most famously “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; Whitman employed enormously long but grammatically correct phrases beginning with “With”); and

* progress from anguish and loss to reconciliation (Lincoln, toward a national reunion of North and South; Whitman, to renewed joy in life).

Though the assassination occurred on April 14, Lincoln’s funeral procession only began its 1,600-mile journey by rail a week later, finally ending with the President’s interment back home in Springfield, Ill., on May 4.

Like just about every American, Whitman could recall, in Specimen Days, where he was when he learned of Lincoln’s death: "The day of the murder we heard the news very early in the morning. Mother prepared breakfast—and other meals afterward—as usual; but not a mouthful was eaten all day by either of us. We each drank half a cup of coffee; that was all. Little was said. We got every newspaper morning and evening, and the frequent extras of that period, and pass'd them silently to each other."

Whitman, a longtime supporter of the President, had also volunteered as a nurse during the war, so the phrase “bind up the nation’s wounds” held literal as well as symbolic meaning as he listened to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. (Another listener in the audience that day, ironically, was Booth.)

An enthusiastic but subpar balladeer, Lincoln established a new standard in American oratory by putting aside florid, allusive rhetoric in favor of concise, sinewy language that—like the Old Testament verses he knew by heart but probably did not believe—built to moments of stunning power. Whitman’s poems—especially this one—were every bit as revolutionary and liberating in impact as Lincoln’s speeches.

Both men, devout believers in what Whitman called Democratic Vistas, also freed Americans of their thralldom to borrowed, foreign literary forms. They left listeners and readers changed, moved, blinking in astonishment at what they had just experienced—voices that sounded like themselves, but grander, summoning what Lincoln termed “the better angels of our nature.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quote of the Day (Tony Robbins, on Life as a Gift)

“Life is a gift and all of us who have the capacity must remember that we have the responsibility to give something back; a small but consistent commitment of time and caring can make a measurable difference in the world.”—Motivational speaker Tony Robbins, quoted in Chip Boyce, “Tony Robbins Delivers Personal Power,” The Harbus (student newspaper of the Harvard Business School), March 2, 1998

Monday, April 12, 2010

This Day in Presidential History (FDR, “Soldier of Freedom,” Dies)

April 12, 1945—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, worn out from a dozen years of facing unprecedented challenges from the Great Depression and the Axis Powers, died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage at age 63 in his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Ga.

Chances are, the only thing many Americans today know about his death is that FDR was in the company of onetime mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherford that early afternoon when he was stricken. That historical amnesia is well and good, if it makes people aware that the President was human like the rest of us.

(While we’re at it, let’s stipulate that FDR was in his element that day, because he was in the company of several women who thought the sun, moon and stars revolved around him. Not only was Lucy there at his cottage, but also devoted cousins Margaret “Daisy” Suckley and Laura Delano, along with Elizabeth Shoumatoff, a rock-ribbed Republican who, like countless others over the years, became absolutely charmed by him as she painted his portrait.)

But what gets forgotten today is that Americans reacted with a shock and grief not experienced again for another generation, on an afternoon in Dallas. James MacGregor Burns subtitled his biography of the President during the war years “The Soldier of Freedom,” and Americans were now suddenly, painfully, aware of how much he had expended of himself in their service. He had served so long--winning an unprecedented four terms--and fought so many political battles that Americans had a difficult time even conceiving of anyone else in the Oval Office. In Preston Sturges' cheeky 1942 romantic comedy, The Palm Beach Story, Mary Astor's character, "Princess Centimillia," observes: "Nothing is permanent in this world - except for Roosevelt.”

Now even that certainty was gone. Here’s just one example of the general shock and sadness, part of a marvelous piece by film critic-novelist James Agee in the April 23, 1945 issue of Time:

“At home, the news came to people in the hot soft light of the afternoon, in taxicabs, along the streets, in offices and bars and factories. In a Cleveland barbershop, 60-year-old Sam Katz was giving a customer a shave when the radio stabbed out the news. Sam Katz walked over to the water cooler, took a long, slow drink, sat down and stared into space for nearly ten minutes. Finally he got up and painted a sign on his window: ‘Roosevelt is Dead.’ Then he finished the shave. In an Omaha poolhall, men racked up their cues without finishing their games, walked out. In a Manhattan taxicab, a fare told the driver, who pulled over to the curb, sat with his head bowed, and after two minutes resumed his driving.”

The mourning was international as well. New Yorker Paris correspondent Janet Flanner quoted an editorial from the French newspaper Le Monde: “Let us weep for this man and hope that his wise and generous conception of the human communities remains like a light to brighten the path for all men of good will.”

(The Agee and Flanner articles are reprinted in the Library of America anthology, Reporting World War II, Part Two—an absolutely indispensable tool for understanding how Americans perceived the tumultuous war years while they were happening.)

Roosevelt certainly had his faults—notably vindictiveness and a tendency to prevaricate in an effort to charm. It’s also true that he could have done far more to aid Holocaust victims and, as Burton Folsom Jr. and Anita Folsom contend in today’s Wall Street Journal, that his economic policies didn’t end the Depression.

And yet the thousands of ordinary Americans like the stunned barber and taxi driver in Agee’s article were right to mourn the passing of the Hyde Park patrician.

No other President so made it the government’s business to safeguard the economic and military security of the nation.

No other President preserved so much—forests, infrastructures, capitalism itself.

No other President broadened opportunity for so many Americans—not only the largely urban-based African-, Jewish-, and Irish-Americans who formed part of the so-called “New Deal coalition,” but also millions of others who joined the middle class as a result of the Wagner Act and the G.I. Bill of Rights.

FDR died in Warm Springs, but it’s equally correct to say he experienced a second life there after his devastating bout with polio two decades before. Visiting this rural community for its recuperative waters, he came in contact with people from all walks of life brought low by the dreaded disease. He and they taught each other how to hope again, and he eventually transmitted his hard-won optimism to a nation desperately in need of it.

In choosing the image for this post, I thought seriously of using either Ms. Shoumatoff’s “Unfinished Portrait” or another photo from 1945 depicting the careworn face of the President. Ultimately, I decided that this one—the man of charm and cheer that Americans grew to cherish—was preferable.

Quote of the Day (George Carlin, on Wedding Vows)

"'I am' is reportedly the shortest sentence in the English language. Could it be that 'I do' is the longest sentence?"—Comedian George Carlin, quoted in The New York Daily News, June 24, 2008

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Quote of the Day (Lord Acton on Heresy, Apropos to the Current Church Crisis)

“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”—British historian Lord Acton, Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton (April [3? or 5?], 1887) published in Essays on Freedom and Power (1972)

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton—better known, simply, as Lord Acton (1834-1902)—is best remembered for the quotation, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Today’s Quote of the Day comes from the same source as his more famous remark, a letter to fellow historian—a Church of England bishop—Mandell Creighton—that weighs the sins of popes as well as princes. The epigrams virtually fly off the page, and the temptation is irresistible to quote them all, at length, about the current situation facing the Roman Catholic Church.

Much of Acton’s historical research was done under the pressure of current circumstances, and perhaps none more so than the declaration of papal infallibility promulgated in 1870 by reactionary Pope Pius IX.

A devout Catholic, Acton could not look away at what his own work demonstrated a thousand times over—that popes, no matter their good intentions, were, like all human beings, prey to the temptations of authority. He only backed down from his relentless campaign against infallibility when it became clear he faced excommunication.

The failed campaign of Acton, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and other 19th-century Catholic opponents of papal infallibility bears crucial relevance to the current storm besetting the Church. Their inability to bring about a papacy that practiced collegiality both toward the archbishops and the larger community of the faithful means, more than a century later, that the Church abuse scandal has, like heat, nowhere to go but up.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of my fear that the pedophilia crisis now implicating the pope was likely to worsen. That has now come to pass with The New York Times’ revelation this weekend that Benedict XVI—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1985, the time of the event—had not a) merely been copied on a memo about the transfer of an abusive priest while serving as Archbishop of Munich, and b) failed to defrock an ailing, aging cleric who had molested youths at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, but c) had written—in Latin, no less—that the case against a California priest needed more time for consideration, for “the good of the Universal Church.”

The most thankless job in the world these days is spokesman for the Vatican. And sure enough, the Rev. Federico Lombardi sounds flustered by the increasingly rapid, serious and substantial accusations directed at his boss.

Scandal, it seems, runs an increasingly predictable pattern. First comes outrage at even the possibility of truth in an accusation. Next comes denial of a particular document’s import. Then comes a moan that the whole thing has been wrenched out of “context.” And so we now have Fr. Lombardi groaning about the latest news report, “It’s evident that it’s not an in-depth and serious use of documents.”

The denials are becoming wearier and—you can even see it in the sentence structure—passive. It’s one thing to claim you didn’t read a memo you were cc:d on, as occurred in the 1980 Munich case involving Ratzinger. You can, too, even claim, as some have, that there’s no point in defrocking proceedings when the priest-perpetrator is too sick survive a trial, such as in the case of Fr. Murphy of the notorious Wisconsin deaf school.

But what are we to make of it when, four years after receiving a complaint about Rev. Stephen Kiesle, Ratzinger still hadn’t acted on a request to laicize the California priest; that, instead of excusing the inaction because of the accused’s advanced age and illness, it was the accused’s youth (38 at the time) that was cited as a consideration for proceeding slowly; or that Ratzinger/Benedict’s signature, testifying to his knowledge of the situation, appears blown up, for all it’s worth, on the front page of the Times?

Cardinal Newman’s prayer over Pius IX’s rigging of the First Vatican Council to secure the declaration of infallibility—“Save the church, O my fathers, from a danger as great as any that has happened”—now seems prophetic, as does another epigram from Acton’s letter to Archbishop Creighton: “If the thing be criminal, then the authority permitting it bears the guilt.”

In the two-millennia lifetime of the Church, the doctrine of infallibility is of relatively recent vintage. Look in the Nicene Creed for evidence of papal infallibility. You won’t find it anywhere. There’s a reason for that: the papacy as we know it grew out of a set of historical circumstances that are not eternal.

But infallibility’s very existence now hangs like an albatross around the Church. The identification of Benedict with the abuse scandal has assumed such danger because, in the minds of so many within and without the Church, the Pope stands for Catholicism, crowding out so much else.

My fellow blogger Delia Boylan has written on “Why I Could Not Go Back to Catholicism.” I can provide her with any one of a number of reasons why, for instance, I and so many others remain in the Church, and hope she’ll return someday—that the Church is not the pope or his archbishops, but the community of all the faithful; that from the hard-earned (hardly simple) piety of those in the pews comes the faith that sustains the saints who make gentle the life of this world; that the sacraments offer visible signs of God’s presence in our lives at moments of transition; that the entire literary and visual culture of the faith—the sacramentals, the hymns, the stained glass and statues—testifies to the deepest yearnings of the human heart for something outside itself and makes others know that we are not alone in our spiritual striving.

But it becomes harder and harder for people like Delia to accept such explanations—or for the likes of me to offer it—when every day comes an increasingly flustered, feeble attempt at stonewalling from the Vatican.

The Church most assuredly has enemies, as the Curia believes, but in the end, so what? The current problem would not exist in such stark dimensions had the hierarchy sought to live in truth instead of skulk in evasion. (For God’s sake, what does it say that Vatican II theologians Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx were called on the carpet far more quickly—and with no justification—than the likes of Fathers Murphy and Kiesle?)

Acton’s letter to Creighton speaks much of “crime” and the “historic responsibility” of temporal and spiritual leaders. In her Wall Street Journal column of a week ago, Peggy Noonan noted three sets of victims of the scandal: the abuse victims themselves, the larger community of the faith, and the vast majority of “good priests and good nuns” now unfairly stigmatized.

To survive the scandal, the Church must, at long last, at minimum, purge itself of the notion of a papacy that can impose its will even on the archbishops, let alone the larger infrastructure of priests and nuns--and, of course, the laity--that hold it together.

Exposure and expiation of the abuse scandals will leave a church chastened—no longer a patriarchal, pontiff-centric structure of elders coweringly dependent on a single person, sometimes with little to recommend them but blind loyalty--but a more collegial institution looking out for the interests of the faithful—far closer to the Nicene Creed’s “one holy Catholic and apostolic Church,” as well as to the vision of Acton and Newman.