Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on “The Tyranny of Party”)

“Look at the tyranny of party -- at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty -- a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes -- and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.”—Mark Twain, "The Character of Man," from Mark Twain's Autobiography

The funny, wise—and great—American novelist was born on this date in 1835. A century after his death, he remains all too relevant.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (Elizabeth Taylor, One-Upping Joan Collins Again)

“I'm still ahead by three."—Elizabeth Taylor, in a letter to Joan Collins after the latter’s fourth divorce, quoted in Rex Reed, “Wine and Dynasty: Joan Collins at Feinstein’s,” The New York Observer, November 29, 2010

Back in her youth, Joan Collins won a dubious nickname: “The Poor Man’s Elizabeth Taylor.” They were both what a friend of mine (and he knows who he is!) has termed DHBBs (i.e., “Dark-Haired British Beauties”), and were only two years apart in age. But it was Taylor who got the major studio offer and pictures—first the MGM contract, then Father of the Bride, Giant, Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—not to mention Oscars (Butterfield 8, Who‘s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and the first million-dollar contract for a film (Cleopatra)--while Collins became The Queen of the B’s.

Even in her love life, Collins was trumped by her contemporary from across the ocean. In the late 1950s, after she had barely established a foothold in Hollywood, Collins went through such a staggering spree of lovers (including a reported 14 in one fortnight) that she won the industry nickname “The British Open.”

But for the newspapers, nothing could compare with Taylor breaking up the marriage of America’s then-sweethearts, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher—unless it was Taylor embarking on a tempestuous affair on the set of Cleopatra with Richard Burton, leaving both their spouses (now including Fisher) behind.

As the two actresses aged, they looked elsewhere to make their marks. For Taylor, it was the stage (The Little Foxes and Private Lives, the latter with Burton, now her ex), as well as AIDS activism. Collins finally found a sphere where she couldn’t be one-upped (or, in the case of divorces, three-upped) by Taylor: television, where Dynasty brought her the mega-stardom that had long eluded her.

Collins became notorious, in her Dynasty days, for being difficult. But I find humor, particularly at one’s own expense, to be a significant saving grace, and in her new one-woman show at Feinstein's she relates Taylor's letter (quoted above). In the end, neither lady has to take a back seat to the other in the survival technique of laughing at one's self.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (George Harrison, on Why “This Grey” Will Pass)

“Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It's not always going to be this grey
All things must pass, all things must pass away.”—George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass,” from his All Things Must Pass LP (1970)

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the release of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. If “the quiet Beatle” wanted to be noticed, after half a dozen years of standing in the shadow of bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he couldn’t have picked a more spectacular way of doing so than with this, the world’s first triple album.

The size of this song package surprised everyone, but it shouldn’t have. Lennon and McCartney were such intense rivals that Harrison could get, at most, only two of his compositions onto a single Fab Four album.

In the couple of years before the release of All Things Must Pass, Harrison began to chafe at these creative constraints. Not only were most of his compositions rejected by Lennon and McCartney (ironically so, given that two of the Beatles' best later songs, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Something," were written by him), but the control-freak McCartney also limited Harrison's guitar contributions in the studio, leading “the quiet one” to quit the group for a short while. (By the time he rejoined, of course, the tensions between McCartney and Lennon that finally rent the Fab Four asunder had replaced the McCartney-Harrison faceoff as the principal focus of intragroup unease.)

Was all the material that Harrison mined for this epic work consistently good? Not anymore than another triple album a decade later, by an artist who loved one of his late Beatles songs (“Something”) so much that he covered it himself: Frank Sinatra, whose Trilogy was rightly judged by deejay Jonathan Schwartz as two-thirds amazing and one-third--well, never mind.

But in sheer ambition—something that late Sixties and Seventies rock ‘n’ roll certainly didn’t lack—nothing could top All Things Must Pass, and it was amply rewarded at the cash register. For the first half of the Seventies, you really couldn’t listen to any album-oriented rock programming without hearing one of its tracks--not merely the hits “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life”, but deeper cuts like “Apple Scruffs,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Awaiting on You All,” “Wah-Wah,” “If Not for You,” or the title track.

Heavily colored by Harrison’s belief in Hinduism (he’d persuaded the other Beatles to journey to India to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), the album cried out for otherworldly musical textures. He found these with the help of producer Phil Spector, whose career, before his association with the Beatles on the chaotic “Let It Be” sessions, earned from Tom Wolfe the moniker “The First Tycoon of Teen.” Spector’s style came to be called “the wall of sound,” but in size and the urge to overcome all limits, it might just as easily have been called “the galaxy of sound.” Now Harrison provided him themes commensurate with his Wagnerian aims.

It was inevitable, given the Beatles’ recent breakup, that the title tune would be read by some as an oblique commentary on the end of the great musical partnership of the Sixties. Harrison’s own religious beliefs provide an alternative reading: as acceptance of the universe born out of resignation over the transitory nature of human reality.

But it is also possible to see the song, like two others released that year--The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”--as offers of emotional consolation, outgrowths of a time in which, for Harrison, McCartney and Paul Simon, turbulence with musical partners matched disruption in the larger world. All three songs feel like hymns.

Recent events in my life have led me to see “Let It Be” and “All Things Must Pass,” at some level, as also relating to mortality. McCartney, who lost his mother to cancer as a teenager (a point of emotional connection with Lennon, who also lost his mother in the same period), explicitly notes in "Let It Be" that in “times of trouble,” “Mother Mary comes to me.”

Several days ago, after not having heard “All Things Must Pass” in awhile, I listened to it again, with initial foreboding over whether it would depress me as a reminder of my own recent loss. I was surprised not only that this did not occur, but that I felt uplifted by the closing chords of the song.

Loss does come, Harrison reminds us, but it’s as inevitable as natural events. Death and even love (the singer’s wife Patti had plunged into an affair with friend Eric Clapton that would eventually doom their marriage) might appear, but the darkness of grief--“this grey“--will not linger for good.

Harrison was only in his late twenties when he wrote this, and from all accounts I’ve read, the sense of spiritual peace he expressed on this song and throughout the rest of this album--the bestselling solo work, incidentally, by any of the Beatles--served him in good stead three decades later, when he was dying of cancer.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (Cher, on a Pet Peeve)

“Sonny [Bono] and I still aren’t in the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame, and it just seems kind of rude. Sonny was a good writer, and we started something that no one else was doing. We were weird hippies before there was a name for it, when the Beatles were wearing sweet little haircuts and round-collared suits…. We influenced a generation, and it’s like: What more do you want?”--Cher, quoted in Krista Smith, “Forever Cher,” Vanity Fair, December 2010

What more do you want? Well, Cher, since you’ve asked: Talent, not notoriety or even celebrity.
You talk about influence, but your reference point is style rather than music itself.

Sonny, “a good writer”? Debatable, at best. You can’t really be claiming that he influenced lyrics or composition, or that you, alone or with him, made an impact on other singers or musicians.

Actually, the only comment more preposterous than Cher’s above is the following from Smith: “Cher’s body has remained impressively unchanged throughout her career. She has openly admitted to having had work done on her nose, mouth, and breasts, but…”

Where were Smith’s editors when they got to that second sentence? Didn’t they realize it flagrantly contradicted the first?

It seems evident, from most of Cher’s statements here and in her appearance on David Letterman a few weeks ago, that she has a sense of humor, and it’s nice that she’s endured the nasty world of show business with most of her sanity intact. But her sense of self-importance is out of proportion to her accomplishments.

Not that this is a problem in entertainment--or, for that matter, politics, which, as James Carville has memorably reminded us, is “show business for ugly people.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

Southern Travel Journal, Days 1 and 2: Alexandria VA

I write this not at the end of each day of my vacation, but after the conclusion of the trip. I was too busy experiencing everything—or organizing my photos from the trip, or simply falling asleep at the end of the day from exhaustion—to write in anything like real time. Still, I thought my faithful readers wouldn’t mind some sort of personal record of what I saw.

On my first vacation in two years, I found myself with less time than I wanted. I had had so little time to spend researching lodging and itineraries that I needed a day at the start simply to take care of this, along with other important logistics such as going to the bank and—crucially—having my car checked before the long ride from New Jersey to across the Mason-Dixon Line.

The first leg of my drive took me to Northern Virginia—specifically, Alexandria. Before setting out, I had planned to circle back to the region, on the return leg of the trip—this time, to Arlington, where I hoped to take public transportation into D.C.—but I had not figured on The Beltway.

No wonder Washington’s politicians are so fouled up: If they (and their staff members) ever use The Beltway to commute back and forth to Capitol Hill, they’re already in a foul mood before the day begins. And partisan thickets must seem nothing after D.C. denizens have made their way through the vehicular ganglia surrounding the nation’s capital.

I took off for D.C. a little later than I wanted on my first day, but I really lost time on the drive down. Two different sets of directions—seemingly okay on the surface, but actually contradictory—ended up losing me anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.

The next day wasn’t better—actually, it was even worse—leaving me unexpectedly open to a later suggestion that I cancel the Arlington-bound penultimate leg of my trip. (More on that in a later post.)

But there were four reasons to celebrate that first day and a half:

1) My stay at an Alexandria bed-and-breakfast called Yesteryear’s Treasures. The neighborhood was good—a five-minute walk to DC’s mass transit rail system, the Metro; and the B&B proprietor, Ms. Moina Radford, was the soul of graciousness and helpfulness.

2) Alexandria’s trolley system, which takes you for free back and forth on King Street, one of the city’s major commercial thoroughfares. I’m not saying everything was completely okay with this system of transportation, mind you (one of the two trolley drivers was not simply uncommunicative, but downright surly). But recorded messages provided some nice little bits of trivia along the way (e.g., the largest slave auction firm in America has now been converted, triumphantly, into the Northern Virginia chapter of the Urban League). Moreover, these little trips where you see a mass of humanity sometimes startle you. In the trolley in which I rode, for instance, I saw what appeared at first too be look-alikes for Liz Smith and Glenn Beck. (Though a second look convinced me that the latter individual couldn’t be the same person as the Fox News commentator: he looked tired but not bug-eyed--and, by definition, nobody can be Glenn Beck if his eyeballs don't look as if they'll fly toward Jupiter on the slightest pretext.)

3) The beautiful weather. If you’re going to travel a long way, it helps if your windshield isn’t filling up with rain or snow. That was one consolation about my longer-than-expected drive around the Beltway. Temperatures in Virginia were warmer than the last time I visited, in the Charlottesville area, four Novembers before, when I stepped out a couple of mornings to find snow on the ground. The higher temperatures this time (in the 60s) meant that the leaves were still on the trees, and still mostly turning color.

4) Old Town Alexandria. Ms. Ratliff noted proudly that Alexandria was older than D.C. (established in 1749, nearly a half century before our nation’s capital), and I could see vestiges of its Revolutionary and Federal past in the cobblestone streets and Georgian architecture of Old Alexandria. Even though it was twilight by the time I made it downtown, I could still sense the electricity of this community in the abundant coffeeshops (a must for government workers and those lobbyists who work to influence them!), restaurants (I ate at an especially nice seafood restaurant on King Street, not far from the waterfront) and art galleries (an especially unique example of the latter—closed, alas, by late afternoon, when I made it down to the waterfront-- was the Torpedo Factory Arts Center, a former WWI munitions plant saved from the wrecking ball in 1969).

Mount Vernon: The Autobiography Washington Never Wrote

But the reason why I visited Alexandria--George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon--pleasantly surprised me with its changes. From a prior visit 10 to 15 years before, I recalled a shrine familiar to most Americans--but a place that didn’t take more than an hour to tour.

Before leaving on my trip, I’d caught glimpses of the “new Mount Vernon,” if you will, on C-Span—including a tour of the Conservation Lab that featured, for instance, Martha Washington’s ivory fan and needlepoint shell cushion.

Still, I didn’t realize the impact of all these changes until I saw for myself. Mount Vernon’s Official Guidebook advises devoting at least three hours to the house and grounds. But to do it true justice—or, to be exact, to do true justice to the one person more responsible than any other for bringing this republic into being—you really need to view Mount Vernon over the course of a whole day, much like Colonial Williamsburg.

That’s because there’s simply so much to experience here, including, besides the mansion:

· an orientation center;
· a museum-education center;
· shops and bookstore;
· Washington’s whiskey distillery and gristmill;
· colonial revival gardens;
· a four-acre farm site;
· the tomb of George and Martha; and
· a restaurant and food court (if you don't want to be worn out, you need sustenance!).

Visitors will inevitably focus on two aspects of the museum: a) Washington’s teeth (contrary to myth, the great man's choppers weren’t made of wood, but they did cause him all the discomfort you’ve heard about); and b) simulations of what Washington looked like at different points in his life (at age 19, for instance, he stood six feet two inches, weighed a lean 175 pounds, and possessed red hair—which, combined with equestrian skills that Thomas Jefferson claimed were unrivaled, made him the closest thing the colonial period had to a world-class athlete/matinee idol).

In a way, the growth of this vast historical complex merely mirrors the same evolution of the house and estate itself during Washington’s lifetime. In the 45 years in which he either leased the property (from the widow of half-brother Lawrence) or owned it outright, the estate grew from 2,126 acres to approximately 8,000. A founder of an empire on the North American continent, he was something of an empire builder in private life, owning approximately 50,000 acres of real estate at the time of his death in 1799.

The house—the autobiography that Washington never wrote, according to historian David McCullough—remains an impressive emblem of the status, balance and order that America’s first President valued. No matter how many times I’d seen pictures of its famous façade, I was still struck—and I think you will be, too, in the picture I took—of its classical symmetry, extending not just from the house proper but to the outbuildings radiating away from it.

Nobody bats an eye at the thought that fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson designed Monticello; after all, he was rivaled perhaps only by Benjamin Franklin as the true Renaissance Man of early America. But it's more of a surprise to learn that Washington himself designed his own beautiful home.

Washington, a guide told me, did so using so-called “pattern books” of the time that provided models. But, as detailed oriented as he was, the future general and president wanted to leave his imprint on the estate. He did so by choosing as his theme what he probably loved the most: agriculture.

I could go on and on about Mount Vernon—and, in future posts, I hope to do so—but I’ll just confine myself, for now, to the issue of slavery.

It’s been my experience, in visiting historic sites associated with more recent Presidents—notably, FDR’s Hyde Park and the JFK Library in Massachusetts—that a note of defensiveness enters into museum exhibits on controversial aspects of their lives and tenures in office. No such squeamishness enters into Mount Vernon’s explanation of slavery in the life of Washington.

Three hundred slaves worked on Mount Vernon at the time of Washington’s death. Exhibits at the museum make no bones about the fact that he was a demanding boss and that slaves possessed no rights whatsoever. A marker not far from the tomb of George and Martha memorialized these men, women and children.

At the same time, historians—including many African-American ones—have concluded that Washington had turned decisively against slavery by the end of his life, and that he was far better than nearly all other Founding Fathers from the South on this issue. He might have been demanding, but he also possessed a hard-headed sense of realism, making him realize that slaves, with no financial stake in their labor, possessed little motivation to work. But the adverse spiritual and emotional effects of slavery—including breaking up families—also bothered him.

Washington’s careful management of his estate meant that, unlike younger members of the Virginian Dynasty such as Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, he could arrange to free slaves without worrying about his debts. He provided in his will for the emancipation of slaves he owned (remaining slaves, because of the terms of Martha’s dowry, had to wait for her death three years later), and he arranged for a regular and permanent fund for the elderly and infirm among those freed under the terms of his will. He looked forward, he wrote to a friend, when Virginia’s assembly could gradually abolish slavery.

In how he managed his slaves for the early part of his life, Washington was a man of his time. By the end of his life, he had transcended his age. Not too many Southerners (or, for that matter, residents from many Northern states, some of whom still had elderly slaves at the dawn of the Civil War) could claim the same thing.

As I drove away from Mount Vernon on the George Washington Parkway, I could easily understand how the President could fall in love with his sprawling property along the Potomac—and why he couldn’t wait to come home. Two hundred and fifty years after he took Martha to live on the estate, it remains a notably beautiful spot--especially within the godforsaken automobile nightmare that is the D.C. area.

Quote of the Day (Cicero, on “A Thankful Heart”)

“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.”—Attributed to Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Theater Review: “Promises, Promises,” Starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth

I have meant to review this show for nearly three months, but one thing after another got in the way. Now, I have no excuse: What better time to talk about a show, after all, with a musical number called “Turkey-Lurkey Time,” than on Thanksgiving?

You could argue, I suppose, that, given its decidedly tepid opening notices, the continued survival of Promises, Promises has more to do with star power than anything else. But this would be a myopic misreading—just the type of thing that Gotham theater critics provide, without thinking twice.

I almost didn’t see the revival of the 1969 Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 corporate satire, The Apartment. Critical carping was so overwhelming that early on, I figured that, more likely than not, their negative judgment had to be more right than wrong.

But eventually I recalled that as a teenager, during a phase of reading plays as opposed to seeing them performed (the type of thing you do without money of your own), I had been struck, in an anthology of comedies by Neil Simon, by how funny the book he created for the show was. And by early September, given the circumstances of my life, I decided that I could really, really, really use a good laugh or two. So I went to the Times Square TKTS booth and, to my astonishment, not only found that I didn’t have to stand in line long, but that the show wasn’t sold out—and that it turned out to be quite good, in the bargain.

You could practically hear the condescension dripping from New York Times critic Ben Brantley’s review of the show back in April. The gist of it was—you’ll never guess!—that the show was “dated.” Its view of sexual harassment was retrograde, he sniffed. He also couldn’t resist a dig at the Times’ critic from the late Sixties, Clive Barnes, who hailed the show for bringing to the stage “the music of today.”

Just one problem with the review: damn near everything. To start with: maybe the show hadn’t been mounted on Broadway in more than 40 years, but what of it? Neither, before its recently closed production at Lincoln Center, had Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which, by nearly every measure, is one of the half-dozen greatest American musicals.

The current production, now at New York’s Broadway Theatre, under the direction and choreography of Rob Ashford, is hardly perfect. It is, however, perfectly enjoyable, with much less to be ashamed of than Brantley.

We theater fans, according to the critical naysayers, are supposed to feel that we’re not really receiving an authentic version of the original show, since two Bacharach-David hits have been added to boost Kristin Chenoweth’s role as Fran Kubelik: “A House Is Not a Home” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”

But when have musicals—or their creators, for that matter—ever been so purist? None other than Stephen Sondheim (known, to a considerable portion of theater cognescenti, as “God”) has been known to take the chisel to a number of his shows, most prominently Merrily We Roll Along and Bounce. Moreover, a virtual cottage industry—the “revisal”—has sprouted up that has heavily changed the books of musicals. Why are texts considered objects for theater scalpels but not lyrics and music?

As it happens, the two added songs work unexpectedly well in their new context. Very casual Bacharach fans would be astonished to hear that “I Say a Little Prayer” was originally written as an antiwar song, during the Vietnam War era. The lyrics only hint at this in the most indirect way. As an expression of deep, ineradicable romantic longing in Promises, Promises, on the other hand, it works far better in this musical.

A secondary, sillier controversy broke out about the show after a Newsweek critic wondered how openly gay Sean Hayes could play the romantic heterosexual lead, C.C. (Chuck) Baxter. The short answer is: Easy! But let’s indulge the Newsweek fellow for a tad longer:

1) Theater and film require more willful suspension of disbelief than any of the other performing arts except, perhaps, for operas (and even that appears to be changing, as divas become far more aware of how they look on high-definition screens in cinemas). Does anyone familiar with Susan Sarandon’s romantic history find fully credible the idea of her playing a Roman Catholic nun in Dead Man Walking? And who on earth can accept, without considerable laughter, the concept of Denise Richardson--outfitted in tank top and shorts--as a nuclear physicist named Dr. Christmas Jones in the James Bond feature, The World Is Not Enough? Talk about straining credulity! Given all that, is Sean Hayes as a heterosexual really that outlandish?

2) The only way that Hayes might be regarded as unbelievable would be if he played Chuck in the same campy manner as he did Jack McFarland on Will and Grace. Such was not the case here, however.

3) Hayes is a marvel of comic timing and slapstick. Watch the several minutes of comic gold he spins with one prop--one of those Sixties office chairs meant more to be admired for their unusual shape than to be sat in--during Baxter’s scene with his lousy boss, Jeff Sheldrake. Hayes grins nervously, twists, slides, sinks, and finally collapses. He’s a worthy successor to two other comic masters who preceded him in the role of Chuck: Jack Lemmon, who originated the role of Chuck in The Apartment, and Martin Short, who performed in a 1990s revival of the show at Encores!

4) Hayes’ voice is overshadowed by his comic talent, but it shouldn’t be. It’s not just strong and certain, but able to meet the demands that Bacharach’s acrobatic score makes on it. Take the title song. In a memorable appraisal of Bacharach more than a dozen years ago in The Atlantic Monthly, critic Francis Davis noted how devilishly difficult the song “Promises, Promises” was: it “starts off in a 3/4 time too fast and [is] diabolically syncopated to be called a waltz and then changes meter twenty times, often after just one bar.” Yet Hayes handles it all with aplomb.

If there’s any actor miscast here, it’s Chenoweth. Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment played the role of Fran, the office worker who captures Chuck’s heart, in the most appropriate way: as a perky woman still too young and naïve to know when someone is breaking her heart. Given her age (early 40s) and a glamorous hairdo reminiscent of Bacharach’s ex-wife, Angie Dickinson, it’s difficult to view her Chenoweth's Fran as anything but wised-up in matters of the heart.

And yet, most people--and I would count myself among them--wouldn’t care a bit, anyway, that Chenoweth is not exactly suited for this role. By the end of her first song, I could only marvel how such a large sound could issue from such a remarkably petite woman. I suspect that I wasn’t the only member of the audience who felt this way. Hers is the type of voice any composer would clamor to have perform his or her songs.

One other cast member should be mentioned: Katie Finneran, in one of her last performances before she left the cast to have a baby. Her performance as a barfly of easy virtue is hilarious. The role, very funny in the Wilder film, becomes a sheer, giddy delight here.
Promises, Promises, the only musical comedy from the Bacharach-David team, spawned two Dionne Warwicke hits: "Promises, Promises" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." The comic talents of Hayes and Finneran--and the magnificent voice of Chenoweth--were given ample room by the two composers, and it makes one sorry--Ben Brantley to the contrary--that they didn't try more stage productions before their collaboration came to an end after the disastrous musical film adaptation of Lost Horizon.

Quote of the Day (Ray Stannard Baker, on Thanksgiving)

“Thanksgiving is the holiday of peace, the celebration of work and the simple life... a true folk-festival that speaks the poetry of the turn of the seasons, the beauty of seedtime and harvest, the ripe product of the year - and the deep, deep connection of all these things with God.”—Attributed to American journalist and historian Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946)

The image accompanying this post is The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914), by Jennie Brownscombe.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This Day in Southern History (Black Codes Set Freedmen Back)

November 24, 1865--The guns and cannons had fallen silent seven months before at Appomattox, but Mississippi--the state whose favorite son, Jefferson Davis, had become President of the short-lived Confederacy--was determined to gain in its legislature what it could not achieve on the battlefield: permanent subjugation of African-Americans. Starting by rewriting an antebellum law related to vagrancy, the legislature attempted to relegate freedmen to a state of near-slavery over the course of the next six days, becoming the first of the defeated Confederate states to pass Black Codes that helped stymie the success of Reconstruction.

When South Carolina--even more of a hotbed of the Confederacy--followed with similar legislation, aghast Northern Congressmen took note of the racial intransigence taking hold in a region still devastated by war. Radical Republicans, increasingly concerned about the lenient Reconstruction program of President Andrew Johnson (in the image accompanying this post), felt they had no choice but to step into the breech with their own rectifying legislation, including the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866.

That reaction led other Confederate states not to repeat the mistake of Mississippi and South Carolina: specifically referring to African-Americans in the legislation. (The former state’s vagrancy law had been rewritten to cover “freedmen, free Negroes and mulattoes…without lawful employment or business.”) But these latter measures were mere fig leaves over the real intent: to keep freed blacks in as close to the places they had occupied before the war as possible.
Though this blatantly discriminatory legislation was passed in the political arena, its underlying motivation was economic--or, to be more precise, labor relations. As many as 10,000 slaveowners had simply left their plantations at the war’s conclusion, according to Columbia University historian Eric Foner’s excellent history, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

The plantation system was in a state of chaos immediately after the war, and the value of land was in free fall for a long time after that. In Mississippi itself, the value of farm land, which reached $190 million in 1860, had plummeted to $81.7 million 10 years later, according to data from the University of Virginia Geospatial and Statistical Data Center.

Those landowners who, against all these odds, wanted to resume their old lives simply could not imagine a new system based on Northern capitalism in which a worker could not only keep what he earned, but could negotiate (albeit not from a position of strength) for a better wage, or simply leave his job for a better one.

Defenders of vagrancy legislation in Mississippi and the other Southern states noted that many Northern states had similar laws on their books. But Northern judges applied such laws more to petty thieves and prostitutes than to African-Americans. In contrast, Mississippi’s laws started by circumscribing the freedmen’s ability to reap the fruits of their labor, but they ended by restricting their freedom of movement, opportunities to better themselves, and even their ability to defend their lives.

Astonishingly, Mississippi required at the beginning of each year that African-American males possess papers proving that they were employed. If, by chance, they had the misfortune of being laid off later, they were judged in violation of the vagrancy statutes.

One section of Mississippi’s sweeping legislation was titled “An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen, and for Other Purposes.” A century later, that title would have been called Orwellian, since the legislation ended up preventing blacks from:

* serving on juries with whites;
* testifying against whites in trials;
* attending white schools; and
* bearing arms.

In particular, this last point would have devastating implications because of a subterranean movement that would shortly gain sway across the Confederacy. Exactly one month after Mississippi passed its vagrancy legislation, the original Ku Klux Klan was organized in Pulaski, Tenn., with General Nathan Bedford Forrest becoming its head.

Within five years, its all-out campaign of domestic terrorism--including, but hardly limited to, breaking up black prayer meetings, voter intimidation, and murder--became so virulent in reversing the gains made by freedmen in the New South that President Ulysses S. Grant was forced to intervene to crush the Klan. In an op-ed piece for the New York Daily News, Teachers College professor Marc Lamont Hill pointed to Southern restrictions on African-Americans’ ability to protect themselves through arms as a reason why “Strict Gun Laws Are Bad for Blacks.” (I regard this latter view as mistaken, but Hill’s point about the terror and helplessness experienced by freedmen bred by the “black codes” remains undeniably true.)

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, along with the Fourteenth Amendment, overcame the Black Codes. But the latter legal statutes and constitutional amendments enacted by the former slave states served as a marker for later Jim Crow legislation.

Aided and abetted by officials who, at best, were unsympathetic to any notion of black equality, and at worst were former high-ranking officers or elected officials in the Confederacy, the South forced the North to occupy the region for a dozen years after the war. The recent American experience in Iraq demonstrates both the resentment wrought in native populations by such a presence and the growing restlessness at home over the economic and other costs of keeping order in such regions.

Much of the North breathed a sigh of relief when federal troops were withdrawn from the old Confederacy following the controversial election of 1876. African-Americans were hardly part of this chorus. The Black Codes--and the Ku Klux Klan that followed hard on its heels--had already proven to them what the South would do when left to its own devices. For nearly another century, Southern blacks had to live with the baleful consequences that followed the federal retreat from civil-rights enforcement.

Song Lyric of the Day (“Guys and Dolls,” on “The Horse Right Here”)

“I got the horse right here The name is Paul Revere And here's a guy that says that the weather's clear.”—Frank Loesser, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” from Guys and Dolls (1950) 

In his memoir My Prison Without Bars, Pete Rose described a childhood visit to a race track that would lead him, years later, to gambling on baseball. Many film and theater fans such as myself think he could have gotten the same adrenaline rush without such dire consequences by listening to “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser musical that premiered at the 46th Street Theater on this date in 1950. 

The infectious adaptation of work by Damon Runyon (based largely on his short story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown)" ran for more than 1,200 performances and has been a staple of theaters around the country ever since. 

Other songs from the show are better known than “Fugue for Tinhorns” (e.g., “Luck Be a Lady”). But watch this YouTube excerpt from the 1955 film, featuring the wonderful Stubby Kaye (pictured here) as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, and tell me if any song in the vast world of the American musical surpasses this in bravura inventiveness and transmission of unbridled joy. 

Without Playbills distributed at theaters, most people would not, on a first listening, identify the title as “Fugue for Tinhorns.” Growing up, I knew it as “Can Do,” the snippet of the song used for a Gold Medal Flour commercial. I don’t know how often that TV ad was broadcast, but it wouldn’t have mattered: once the groove entered my head, I could never forget it. 

The last time I watched the film version of Loesser’s landmark musical was a quarter century ago. At the time, Nathan Detroit’s long-term relationship with Adelaide (14 years engaged!) reminded me an awful lot of someone I knew--a fact I couldn’t resist needling this guy about.

Frank Sinatra played Nathan onscreen, much to his chagrin. The role he really wanted--one he felt he owned, practically--was that of gambler Sky Masterson. But the part went instead to the nonsinging Marlon Brando, then, like a gambler, on a a major winning streak of his own. (He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar every year from 1951 through 1954, when he finally won for On the Waterfront.)

Brando was not the Chairman of the Board’s favorite person, even before this film. When Brando was first offered, then rejected, the role of On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy, Sinatra practically grabbed at the role. With his scrappy Hoboken upbringing, the singer-actor felt a deep affinity for the mobbed-up young man trying to avoid “a one-way ticket to Palookaville.” 

Years ago, when I saw On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg at a book appearance at Fairleigh Dickinson University, he said Sinatra might have done very well with the role. But before filming started, the script made its way back into the hands of Brando, who had a change of heart. Sinatra had lost a very real chance for back-to-back Oscars (he had won Best Supporting Actor the year before for his comeback role in From Here to Eternity). 

So here Sinatra was, a couple of years later, still sore, and now peeved again over not getting the part of Sky Masterson. Still, he tried to swallow his disappointment--after all, enough money in a high-profile film would incline you, too, at least somewhat toward acting maturely and professionally. 

But filming, even with long-time pro Joseph Mankiewicz as director, wasn’t all that smooth. Brando’s numbers had to be spliced together from multiple takes--a fact that must have rankled Sinatra, since a) he knew he could have aced each the first time, and b) he hated multiple shots himself, because he was an instinctive actor who became progressively worse after, say, about the fifth take. (For more on this, see especially the awkward meshing of styles with co-star Edward G. Robinson during the filming of A Hole in the Head, as recounted by director Frank Capra in his memoir The Name Above the Title.) 

An episode on the set probably didn’t help matters. For the scene in which Masterson and Detroit first meet, Sinatra was required to eat cheesecake. This required multiple takes because Brando kept flubbing his lines. At last, Sinatra--who loathed cheesecake--had to call it a day because he couldn’t eat another bite. When filming began the next day, this scene was concluded on a single take.

What was Brando up to during the first set of takes? Was he trying out different ways of tackling the scene? For this actor who loved to experiment, that was possible. Did he have trouble remembering lines? That, too, was possible--an uncle of mine, who had occasion to observe the filming of On the Waterfront as a Port Authority cop, said the actor had to repeat scenes because he couldn’t remember lines.

Or was something else at play here? Did Brando, something of a practical joker, screw up the lines on purpose because he knew how much Sinatra disliked cheesecake?

That was the story that went the rounds of Hollywood. Maybe that helped account for why Sinatra began calling his co-star “Mumbles”--or why Brando, when asked years later about Sinatra, replied that he was “the kind of guy who, when he gets to Heaven, is going to give God a hard time for making him bald.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (B.C. Forbes, on a President at Bay)

“Congress no longer coughs every time he sneezes, no longer quails at his slightest bidding, no longer jumps through every hoop he waves, no longer rubber-stamps every bill his amateurish —not to say Communistic—legal henchmen hatch.”—B.C. Forbes quoted in “Thoughts on the Business of Power and Politics,” Forbes, November 22, 2010

I confess to pulling a trick on you with this quote, faithful reader. I’ve withheld a vital piece of information—namely, the identity of the President at the mercy of these congressional jackals.

But a hint at who the President might be lies in the identity of the writer of these words. It’s not Steve Forbes, the rich man who, twice in the last 15 years, decided that a Presidential bid was just the way to spend his boodles of inherited wealth; not even Steve’s father, Malcolm Forbes, who, acting like a combination of Holy Roman Emperor and medieval sultan, flew 800 invitees to Morocco for his 70th birthday, where they were greeted by 600 acrobats, jugglers, snake-charmers and belly dancers, not to mention 300 Berber horsemen.

No, this was B.C. Forbes, Steve’s granddad and Malcolm’s dad. The magazine run by him and his heirs forthrightly declared the date (1937) and President for the quote in question: Franklin Roosevelt, the “uncrowned king of the United States” after his 1936 landslide

At first glance, you can’t blame Steve and the rest of the family brain trust for indulging the temptation to quote this old chestnut of wisdom from B.C. (whose initials, come to think of it, testified to the antediluvian nature of his political and economic thinking). At the time of the quote, FDR, in a mad act of hubris, had unsuccessfully sought to “pack” the Supreme Court with young appointees sympathetic to the New Deal.

See the parallels to today? The younger Forbeses could: In 2010, they saw a Democratic President who, after a period of epic legislation, empowered by an electorate frightened by an economic collapse, had pushed things way too far, only to be dealt a setback by the populace; a chief executive who, if his instincts weren’t exactly “Communistic,” was certainly socialist, as evidenced by the health plan he’d pushed through Congress.

Unfortunately, the Forbes clan didn’t think through the implications of this quote. For starters, most historians credit the supposedly "Communistic" FDR with saving capitalism in its desperate hours during the Great Depression through regulatory reforms that restored people's confidence in the system.

A part of the Forbes quote that I did not cite earlier referred to FDR as the “virtually untrammeled dictator” of the United States at the height of his influence. But by the time he died in office, the President was more responsible than any man alive for rallying his people to drive out of power not one, not two, but three truly “untrammeled dictators”: Tojo, Mussolini and Hitler.

Moreover--and this must have been especially galling for B.C. Forbes (who, I just learned, lived the latter part of his life in my hometown, presumably on the other side of the tracks from yours truly)--FDR achieved all this by overcoming electoral odds far more daunting than those facing Barack Obama in 2012: mass sentiment against a Presidential third term, a decided GOP advantage in fundraising, and, in Wendell Willkie, the most energetic, articulate Republican Presidential nominee since--well, Theodore Roosevelt.

In other words, the Forbes family should have learned by now: don’t count a President out too soon.

But then again, anyone reading their flagship publication--whose favorite form of government, it's easy to see, is the plutocracy--should know by now, when it comes to assimilating the lessons of history, that the Forbes clan are less American or even Scottish than French Bourbon: with them, it's not so much a matter of forgetting nothing as learning nothing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (John Dryden, on St. Cecilia and Music)

“Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees uprooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.”—John Dryden, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” (1687)

For nearly my entire life, I’ve been a member of St. Cecilia’s Church in Englewood, N.J. The Roman martyr from whom our parishtakes its name is the patron saint of music. Her feast day is today.

British poet John Dryden (and, in the image accompanying this post, Italian painter Ortensio Crespi) celebrated the connection between St. Cecilia and the music that forms such an important part of the Mass.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

This Day in Football History (Grange Gallops to Final Collegiate Glory)

November 21, 1925—Harold “Red” Grange ended his college career in typical fashion, leading the University of Illinois to a 14-9 win over Ohio State. But the running back whose blazing speed earned him the nickname “The Galloping Ghost” was about to shake off traditional notions of celebrity and compensation for collegiate stars by signing on for a pro-football barnstorming tour within a week of his final triumph.

I’ve long wanted to write a post about Grange, partly because he remains something of a mythic figure, but also because, unlike so many other superstars in the so-called “Golden Age of Sports”—the Roaring Twenties—his star has dimmed somewhat in the popular imagination. I don’t think it should.

Someone on the scene in this era, who observed all these figures at their apogee, fully agreed with me on Grange’s importance to his time—and, implicitly, ours.

“This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men rolled into one for football purposes," wrote Damon Runyon, a sportswriter who would soon become famous for capturing a substratum of Manhattan in the short stories that would inspire the musical Guys and Dolls. "He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange."

Grange wore the number 77 in his three-year college playing career, but it might just as well have stood for the miles per hour he generated as he blasted past opponents.
His achievements, though cumulatively magnificent, were spread out over those three years.
But, though leading his team to a national championship and being named All-American three times, what really stood out for those who witnessed his on-field mastery was the way he could dominate single games:

* In 1923, in his very first game, Grange scored three touchdowns, including a 66-yard punt return, against Nebraska.

* In 1924, against a Michigan defense that had only yielded four touchdowns across two seasons, he scored that many on runs of 95, 67, 56 and 44 yards within 12 minutes in the first quarter alone.

* In October 1925, on a muddy and miserable field in Philadelphia, he scored three TDs in a 24-2 upset of Penn.

That kind of charisma drew crowds, and that was what Chicago Bears owner-coach George Halas and the National Football League (NFL) badly needed at the time. The NFL did not start its great ascent as America’s favorite spectator sport until the 1960s, but without Grange’s acceptance of a playing offer from Halas, the organization might not have been around at all.

Grange’s on-field specialty was the broken-field run, a combination of feints and lightning bursts that left those around him gasping and bewildered. He was about to employ the same tactic against the collegiate powers-that-be.

The notion of student-athletes is as hard to maintain today among nationally ranked college powers as the possibility of a just, nonviolent, classless society in the waning years of the U.S.S.R. Grange was one of the first to expose the myth.

In the 1920s, college officials, believe it or not, thought they could determine not merely a player’s choices while he was with a school, but even after his playing days were over. Rumors were already flying, on the eve of the Ohio State game, that Grange was about to turn pro.

Only weeks before, the running back had assured the administration at the University of Illinois that he had done nothing to jeopardize his collegiate eligibility. But now that he had played his last game, all bets were off.

The university had forgotten about one elemental fact: Grange would be looking at more money than either he or his family had ever dreamed of. Grange’s father was not a millionaire who could send his son to college with no problem, only the chief of police at Wheaton. Red himself had had to help pay his way by working as a helper on an ice truck during the summer—a stint that won him his first nickname, “The Wheaton Ice Man.”

Three men changed Grange’s life and brought to the fore the inherent contradictions of the student-athlete ideal. In addition to Halas and partner Dutch Sternaman, there was C.C. (the initials stood for “Cash and Carry,” the joke went) Pyle, a theater manager from Grange’s native Champaign, Ill., who signed the star as his first client.

The deal that Pyle negotiated guaranteed Grange $3,000 per game along with a percentage of the gate. The former theater manager, a colorful type given to smooth talk and fancy clothes, also helped his client cash in by having him associated with movies, sweaters, shoes and even cigarettes (Grange, a non-smoker, got around a situation that could have marred his clean image by saying a particular cigarette brand was the type that he would smoke if he had been a smoker.)

The crowds did come out for Grange, as the trio had hoped. (In a case of—almost literally—crying all the way to the bank, Halas was said to have wept with joy as he counted receipts for the Bears game on Thanksgiving.) But the intense, 17-city barnstorming tour resulted in an injury to Grange—the first portent of a far more serious one that would keep him entirely sidelined during the 1928 season.

Grange’s quarrel with Halas over tour profits led the star to form a rival pro football league with Pyle for awhile, but by the end of the 1920s the Bears coach invited the former collegiate sensation back onto the team. By this time, injuries had robbed him of the speed that had made him a legend, but he continued to contribute, this time defensively—as New York Giants fans learned to their regret in 1933, when his tackle in the closing minutes of the NFL Championship Game prevented a touchdown and saved a victory for the Bears.

Quote of the Day (Psalms, on God as “Refuge and Strength”)

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we won’t be afraid, though the earth changes, though the mountains are shaken into the heart of the seas; though its waters roar and are troubled, though the mountains tremble with their swelling.”—Psalms 46:1-3

I took the accompanying photo of the Miller Bell Tower from Palestine Park, on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York.

(Thanks to my longtime friend Diane for the suggestion of this quote and the inspiration of her life.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Tolstoy Dies, a Renegade From Family)

November 20, 1910--Death came for Leo Tolstoy, as it did for the title protagonist of his masterwork Anna Karenina, in a railway station. But the novelist’s occurred not in a major metropolis but a remote area of southern Russia, where he had fled, on a horribly cold night, in a last-ditch attempt to leave behind the trappings of inherited wealth--and the family that came with it--for an ethic of self-denial that he had preached for so long.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve never gotten around either to watching the Christopher Plummer-Helen Mirren film released last year about Tolstoy’s final days, The Last Station, or reading the Jay Parini novel on which it was based. But I can’t imagine more sinewy roles than that of Count Tolstoy and his long-suffering wife, Sofia.

Like many a beleaguered wife from time immemorial, Sofia Tolstoy understandably must have wondered: “What kind of lunatic did I marry?”

Think I’m exaggerating? Then turn to the extracts from her diary in Revelations: Diaries of Women, edited by Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter.

In 1862, at age 18, having just married Tolstoy—16 years her senior—Sofia noted that she had written before “whenever I felt depressed, and I am probably doing it now for the same reason.”

What could have given this still-in-love but disillusioned young woman such a sinking feeling? It might have started with a mistake made by Tolstoy: showing his wife his diaries. This gave her incontrovertible proof—right from her husband’s hands—that before their union, he’d been a hard-drinking, much-wenching soldier, given to bouts of melancholy.

Tolstoy’s anguish over the unease he caused his young bride, his existential despair, and his temporary success in attaining happiness can be glimpsed in the subplot involving Levin and Kitty in Anna Karenina. But his status as literary giant and the 13 children Sofia bore him could not long arrest their deteriorating relationship.

Six years after their wedding, Sofia was still trying to keep up a brave front, writing that her diary was “so full of contradictions, and one would think I was such an unhappy person. Yet is there a happier person than I?”

But before long, she found herself unable to look away from an impossible situation that no other woman, before or since, has ever faced.
Sure, other husbands have saddled their spouses with raising a large family and even the details of estates as large as the count’s 4,000-acre one near Moscow.

But how many of these wives have also been married to a genius whose doorstopper novels she transcribed and on whose behalf she negotiated with agents? And this, I think, is the clincher—how many of these geniuses have also happened to be saints?

After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy plunged into what the father of Henry and William James, describing his own soul sickness, termed a “vastation.” When he emerged from this spiritual crisis, Tolstoy started a journey of faith that began with an embrace of Orthodox Christianity that soon evolved into something far more radical—pacifist Christian anarchism, marked by vegetarianism and sharing labor in the fields with his peasants.

Maybe Sofia might have thought at the start of their marriage that she would have done anything for her husband. But she never reckoned that this might include living in tents on land he had bought to be near the Bashkir, the Turkish-speaking Moslems who increasingly moved him, nor drinking koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) in said tents, nor putting up with his moodiness and complaints about how she ran things.

Twenty years to the day her husband would die, Sofia confided her depression—and barely suppressed resentment—about her transformed marriage in her diary: “In the old days it gave me joy to copy out what he wrote. Now he keeps giving it to his daughters and hiding it from me. He makes me frantic with his way of systematically excluding me from his personal life, and it is unbearably painful.”

Tired of never-ending arguments in the last year of their marriage over the estate and his manuscripts (exacerbated, some claimed, by his longtime personal secretary, Vladimir Chertkov), Tolstoy finally determined to escape south. The world media followed, recording a flight that turned into a death watch. Sofia followed, but only managed to see him for a few minutes, the encounter ending without reconciliation.

Millions of readers, myself included, have taken Anna Karenina to our hearts over the years because of Tolstoy’s infinite knowledge of the vast complications involved with marriage. In his own life, this brilliant, humane, yet humorless and impossible man was responsible for most of the complications in his own.

In light of the subsequent history of Tolstoy’s country, as well as the violent course of world history up to the present, the sterling British man of letters A.N. Wilson makes a compelling case, in a recent Financial Times commemoration of the novelist’s death, that he was “one of history’s great truth-tellers, the first of the great dissidents, and their patron saint.” But I’m far, far less inclined to join Wilson in believing that it’s “hard not to cheer the old bearded prophet and overlook any unkindness he might have displayed toward his wife.”

Charity, after all—as a reading of the Gospels would have demonstrated to the Christ-centered man he honored so eloquently—begins at home.

Quote of the Day (Anne Bradstreet, on Authority)

“Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.”—Poet Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), Meditations Divine and Moral (1670)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Quote of the Day (Madeleine Albright, on Negotiating With the Russians)

“I had an arrow pin that looked like a missile, and when we were negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, the Russian foreign minister asked, ‘Is that one of your missile interceptors you’re wearing?’ And I responded, ‘Yes. We make them very small. Let’s negotiate.’ Or, after we found that the Russians had planted a listening device—a ‘bug’—into a conference room near my office in the State Department, the next time I saw the Russians, I wore this huge bug. They got the message.”—Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, describing her non-verbal style of negotiating, quoted in Megan Gambino, “Interview: Q&A,” Smithsonian, June 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quote of the Day (Thomas Wolfe, on America Lost and Found)

“I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found. . .. I think that the true discovery of America is before us. I think the true fulfillment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land, is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our democracy is still before us. And I think that all these things are certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon. I think I speak for most men living when I say that our America is Here, is Now, and beckons on before us, and this glorious assurance is not only our living hope, but our dream to be accomplished.”—Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940)

Last week, nearly 35 years after I read Thomas Wolfe’s last, posthumous novel, I finally had a chance to visit the house in which he grew up, Old Kentucky Home, in his hometown of Asheville, N.C. I’ll have more to say about that in a future “Travel Journal” entry on this blog, but a comment from a guide at the house--about why the author has declined in critical favor over the years--made me want to revisit my old opinion of this book that made such an impression on me in my teens.

It is true, of course, that Wolfe could be wildly verbose--a tendency not only at variance with later generations that have looked to Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver for models of concision and even minimalism, but also with shorter attention spans bred by TV and video games.

And yet, the allure of Wolfe--including in this novel that, as I have remarked previously, was probably stitched together far more than the norm by his last editor, Edward Aswell--endures.

It’s not just the extraordinarily vivid word portraits of alcoholic literary lion “Lloyd McHarg” (modeled on Sinclair Lewis) or editor Foxhall Edwards (Maxwell Perkins) but also the lyrically Whitmanesque passages about America, such as the one above.

These passages, let it be said, are not empty exercises in flagwaving, but hard-won assessments of a country still mired in desperate straits because of the Depression. (Indeed, reading the passages about how Wolfe’s hometown had succumbed to real-estate fever in the 1920s brings an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (Paul Simon, on His Camera Brand—And Mine)

“I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph.”—Paul Simon, “Kodachrome,” from his There Goes Rhymin’ Simon LP (1973)

A little less than two weeks ago, preparing to go on vacation, I bought, with the expert assistance of a friend who’s a talented photographer, a new camera so that I could have a record of my trip, as well as any others I might take in the future.

I ended up purchasing the model in the image accompanying this post: a Nikon Coolpix S3000, even down to the green color. (With me being Irish-American and all, how could I resist that tint?) I wanted something a) digital, b) comparatively inexpensive, and c) most important, as uncomplicated as possible given conditions a) and b).

I can’t say that I’ve become the next Ansel Adams, but I HAVE been assiduously taking as many photos as I had hoped a few weeks ago. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to roll out some of the fruits of my handiwork.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quote of the Day (Denis Hayes, on Couch Potatoes’ Contribution to the Planet)

“Listen up, you couch potatoes: each recycled beer can saves enough electricity to run a television for three hours."—Environmental activist Denis Hayes, The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair (2000)

Monday, November 15, 2010

TV Quote of the Day (“30 Rock,” on Liz Lemon’s Choice in Clothes)

"Good God, Lemon. Those jeans make you look like a Mexican sports reporter."—Network exec Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) to head comedy show writer Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey), in 30 Rock, Season 5, Episode 7, “Brooklyn Without Limits,“ air date November 11, 2010, written by Ron Weiner, directed by Michael Engler

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Quote of the Day (“First Things,” on Columbia Univ. and Religion)

“A standard-issue elite university with the otherwise stultifying homogeneity of the dominant secular and progressive mentality moderated by New York City, where anything can be found, including intellectually serious forms of Christianity and Judaism. Students involved in Catholic organizations or the Campus Crusade for Christ are more likely to draw a shrug than a cold shoulder. As one student reports, ‘I became more religious during my time [here].’ An opportunity for an excellent education in an urban culture too busy to harass students with serious convictions.”—“Degrees of Faith: A First Things Survey of America’s Colleges and Universities,” First Things, November 2010

Reading the first half of the first sentence, I chuckled at what appeared to be another reflexive bashing of liberals at First Things, a monthly ecumenical journal of “religion and public life.“ It was founded by the late Catholic convert, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and though its contributors include Orthodox, Jewish and Protestant viewpoints, it still often reads as a sort of Catholic counterpart to Commentary. Too heavy a dose of this and I start reaching for a copy of the reliably liberal (or, to use the word preferred by adherents, “progressive”) America or Commonweal; then, after awhile, I go back to First Things for relief, then repeat the cycle. (It's always good for the left hand to know what the right one is doing, and vice versa.)

But as I finished this excerpt from this magazine's survey of “the place of religion—or lack thereof—on American college campuses today,” I felt a distinct sense of déjà vu. I was glad to see that not much had changed at my alma mater.

I went through 12 years of Catholic elementary and secondary schools, but my knowledge not merely of religion but also of my own faith deepened while attending Columbia University some three decades ago. The in-depth immersion in the foundation texts of Christianity, as part of the required Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities requirements, made me feel, like the anonymous student quoted here, more rather than less religious—certainly an unexpected outcome in this seriously secular institution.

Reading Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels of Mark and John from end to end, rather than in the short excerpts heard at Mass on Sundays, brought me face to face, as I never had been before, with the unexpected connections—and the surprising differences—among these works. Moreover, the treatment by my professors—close, respectful, but without advocating one faith or another (or, indeed, atheism)—also convinced me that there is a way to educate students about these works without resort to proselytizing.

In this same First Things survey, Columbia places sixth among institutions “least unfriendly to faith among the top secular schools." That sounds like damning with faint praise, but—at least in my time at the school—it was accurate.

Elsewhere in this November issue, Columbia is mentioned again—or, rather, its interdenominational chapel, St. Paul’s, is, in Joseph Bottum’s essay “Mandatory Chapel.” St. Paul’s is listed, along with similar institutions such as Syracuse’s Hendricks Chapel and Pittsburgh’s Heinz Chapel, as being reminiscent of “Jefferson’s Monticello meets the Pantheon, by way, probably, of Latrobe’s 1806 cathedral for Baltimore.” That sounds snarkier than it really is, about a beautiful little spiritual oasis amid a big city and a smaller—but still significant—admittedly secular institution.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Quote of the Day (William Least Heat Moon, on the Lure of the Open Road)

“On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.”—William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America (1982)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quote of the Day (Keith Olbermann, With a Different “View” Than Today)

“I don’t vote. It’s the only thing I can do that suggests that I don’t even have a horse in the race.”—Keith Olbermann on “The View,” November 2008

Look what comes from playing the political ponies—a near-death experience. Or, at least, the modern media equivalent—having a camera and microphone withdrawn for several days, and probably advised by lawyers to shut up until the storm blows over.

The image accompanying this post appears to have been taken in 2008, some months before the Countdown host’s appearance on The View. But judging from the look, it suggests a sense of quiet relief, meaning it could just as easily have been snapped earlier this week, when Olbermann received the news that his “indefinite” suspension for violating an NBC ban on journalists making campaign contributions without prior permission had been lifted.

The other night, aimlessly channel-surfing, I came across Olbermann, back on MSNBC, providing a teaser to an upcoming segment of his show: “Should journalists make political contributions?” Given what he’d admitted to in the last few days, his answer to this question was as obvious as whether he regarded George W. Bush as a war criminal.

The right-wing blogosphere, with some exceptions, chortled while Olbermann roasted on a spit last weekend. That glee was not only short-lived but, in view of the even more egregious support provided conservative candidates by Fox News, horribly myopic.

Oh, to be sure, there has been tut-tutting from traditional journalists about the ethics of contributing to candidates being covered.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, for instance, was particularly outraged at what happened: “A journalist who has a financial stake like Olbermann, or stakes an entire career on achieving a certain political outcome by any means necessary like [conservative blogger and provocateur Andrew] Breitbart, forfeits any expectation of being taken seriously by serious people—and yes, that applies even to a pundit.”

Olbermann tilts toward the leftist wing of the Democratic Party as surely as Bill O’Reilly veers toward the hard-right wing of the GOP. Why shouldn’t he back up what he says on the air by putting his money where his mouth is?

Well, it’s because Olbermann himself makes a pretense of being “impartial,” just as much as O’Reilly, the circus master of the right-wing media, constantly talks, ludicrously, about being “fair and balanced.” Olbermann was being more than a little hypocritical by claiming he didn’t vote because of that need to show he didn’t “have a horse in the race.” Quite obviously, he did--or, in the case of the contributions that got him temporarily in trouble, three political horses.

Olbermann’s initial troubles appear to have been practically foretold by his employment history. I imagine that he, like O’Reilly, was vain enough to have enjoyed making the top 10 in Newsweek’s recent list of the “Power 50”—the highest-earning politicians, ex-politicos, media personalities, and media consultants.

But one section seems eerily prophetic about Olbermann’s run-in with his NBC bosses: “Most of his previous career stints have ended bitterly. He was the only host of SportsCenter not invited back for the network's 25th anniversary.”

And in the desperate hours of this past weekend, the following point in the Newsweek article must have seemed very, very frightening indeed: “Nearly all his income [an estimated $7.5 million] is believed to come from his contract with NBC.”

In other words, a nice little independent blog of his own, free of corporate oversight, simply would not have compensated him for the loss of his big payday.

Make no mistake: Olbermann dodged a bullet when his “indefinite suspension” was lifted. Think he learned anything from this, like the virtues of humility and honesty?

Doubtful. What he discovered was that, if he took positions without compromise or nuance, his base would support him even through the consequences of his own mistakes.

Come to think of it, that’s the same thing learned by the most successful politicians Olbermann covers—even the ones he makes no bones about despising.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Quote of the Day (George Washington, on America’s Happiness)

“To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it.”—George Washington, wondering if he should risk his great reputation by leading the proposed Constitutional Convention of 1787, quoted by Thomas Fleming, “What Studying the Women in the Founders’ Lives Reveals,” History News Network blog, November 2, 2009

We all know what our first President did next: the risky thing—and the right one.

God knows, the man wasn’t perfect. (Who is?) But when push came to shove, he put his country first. How many of our leaders today can claim to do the same?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Quote of the Day (Saul Bellow, Letting an Ex Have It)

“You damn near killed me. I’ve put that behind me, but I haven’t forgotten the smallest detail. Nothing, I assure you. I made something [in ‘Herzog’] of the abuses I suffered at your hands.”— Saul Bellow to ex-wife Sondra, quoted in Letters (2010), edited by Benjamin Taylor

Maybe in 1964, the future Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning novelist could get away with that admission. Nowadays, though, ex-wife Sondra would march over to her attorney’s brandishing this missive in triumph, virtually assuring a nice little court settlement of any suit she might want to file for defamation of character.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Quote of the Day (Frankie Boyle, Disputing Harry Potter’s Powers)

“If Harry Potter’s so magical, why can’t he cure his own eyesight?”—Comic Frankie Boyle, quoted in “Laugh!”, Reader’s Digest, June/July 2010

Friday, November 5, 2010

Quote of the Day (Ambrose Bierce, on Ancient vs. Modern Schools)

“Academe, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
Academy, n. (from academe). A modern school where football is taught.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)

Something to think about if you, like myself, graduated from a high school where football was all the rage...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Quote of the Day (Christopher Buckley, on Glenn Beck)

“[Glenn] Beck's annual paycheck, according to Forbes, is around $32 million. By day he rails about the Obama Administration's secret concentration camps for political dissidents. By night he sleeps behind fortified walls in New Canaan, Conn. Nice work if you can get it.”—Christopher Buckley, “The ‘Mad as Hell’ Marketing Strategy: Whether Clever or Cuckoo, Glenn Beck Is Raving All the Way to the Bank,” Bloomberg’s Business Week, November 1-7, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Quote of the Day (Adlai Stevenson, on Mudslinging)

“When you sling mud, you lose ground.”—Attributed to Illinois governor and unsuccessful Presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson Jr. (1900-1965)

If that were true, mudslinging would have been retired as a practice after the election of 1800, when supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson retailed the worst kinds of rumors about the two friends-turned-Presidential rivals.

No, mudslinging still exists today because, used carefully, it works. Now, they simply call it “opposition research”--the same principle, only dressed up in a white collar.

What doesn’t work is using your own filthy-rich campaign funds to assault the airwaves. Voters don’t mind the subtly planted false rumor that can take on a life of its own (the electorate loves hearing preposterous stuff that helps them exercise their imaginations).

But they really object to hearing the same darn thing 10 million times a day. That might explain why we’re not hearing more, the day after the election, from the likes of Carl Palladino, Meg Whitman, etc.