Saturday, October 31, 2020

Flashback, October 1920: Lewis’ ‘Main Street’ Satirizes Small-Town Life

When Harcourt, Brace & Company published the sixth novel by Sinclair Lewis in late October 1920, it hoped for sales of 25,000. But the novel’s reception by critics and readers exceeded even the publisher’s fondest expectations. Buoyed by widespread attention arising from outrage over its attack on small-town life, Main Street sold 180,000 copies within the first six months of 1921 and narrowly missed being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The novel lifted Lewis—a janitor at Upton Sinclair’s utopian socialist community, Helicon Hall, in Englewood, NJ, 14 years before, and for the past five years author of five novels that, he said, were “dead before the ink was dry”—into the front ranks of American literature. It began a decade that represented his creative zenith, securing for him the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first time that an American had received this honor.

The qualities on display in Main Street—especially, a realistic depiction of everyday life backed by extensive research, and an uncanny “ear” for dialogue—became the hallmarks of Lewis’ style. But much of the attention accorded the novel derived from his willingness to attack a sacred cow—a tendency that made him a favorite of intellectuals and skeptics such as H.L. Mencken but also the bane of more tradition-bound figures such as Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler.

Since the founding of the republic, small-town/rural life had been regarded as an antidote to the multiple evils perceived in cities. In contrast, Lewis—who had loathed his childhood in Sauk Centre, Minn.—depicted fictional Gopher Prairie as a generator of vapidity and conformity. It is entirely too set complacent, provincial, even bigoted to be moved when Carol Kennicott, the idealistic young wife of the town doctor, decides to raise its cultural awareness. Gopher Prairie residents, he noted acidly, were:

“staggered to learn that a real tangible person, living in Minnesota, and married to their own flesh-and-blood relation, could apparently believe that divorce may not always be immoral; that illegitimate children do not bear any special and guaranteed form of curse; that there are ethical authorities outside of the Hebrew Bible; that men have drunk wine yet not died in the gutter; that the capitalistic system of distribution and the Baptist wedding-ceremony were not known in the Garden of Eden; that mushrooms are as edible as corn-beef hash; that the word ‘dude’ is no longer frequently used; that there are Ministers of the Gospel who accept evolution; that some persons of apparent intelligence and business ability do not always vote the Republican ticket straight; that it is not a universal custom to wear scratchy flannels next the skin in winter; that a violin is not inherently more immoral than a chapel organ; that some poets do not have long hair; and that Jews are not always peddlers or pants-makers.”

The three-judge panel to select the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was so taken with Lewis’ devastating satire that they recommended him for the award. Butler’s reversal of that decision and present the award instead to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton was greeted with howls of protest (as was the panel’s decision two years later to overlook Lewis again in favor of Willa Cather’s One of Ours).

Contemporary critics are more likely than those of a century ago to praise Wharton’s anatomization of New York’s 1870s aristocracy: Feminist scholarship has opened many eyes to the precarious position of women years ago, and Wharton’s graceful prose style has worn better than Lewis’ blunter presentation.

In the end, much of this reappraisal is ironic: though the social circles examined by Lewis and Wharton could scarcely be more different, they both feature protagonists who, restlessly eyeing their dutiful but dull romantic partners, are easily maneuvered into compromise and defeat by their community. (Wharton herself felt that, in praising her book’s “wholesome” character, Butler had fundamentally her artistic purpose.)

Since the 2016 Presidential campaign, interest has peaked in a dystopian 1935 novel of Lewis’: It Can’t Happen Here.  Already, the novelist’s alcoholism was undermining his creative power. But, for one brief moment, the specter of European-style Fascism being imposed on the U.S. roused Lewis to something like a return to the creative form he enjoyed with Main Street.

Quote of the Day (Virginia Woolf, on Fellow Diarist John Evelyn)

“The diary, for whose sake we are remembering the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Evelyn, is a case in point.  It is sometimes composed like a memoir, sometimes jotted down like a calendar; but he never used its pages to reveal the secrets of his heart, and all that he wrote might have been read aloud in the evening with a calm conscience to his children….

“Ignorant, yet justly confident that with his own hands he might advance not merely his private knowledge but the knowledge of mankind, Evelyn dabbled in all the arts and sciences, ran about the Continent for ten years, gazed with unflagging gusto upon hairy women and rational dogs, and drew inferences and framed speculations which are now only to be matched by listening to the talk of old women round the village pump.  The moon, they say, is so much larger than usual this autumn that no mushrooms will grow, and the carpenter's wife will be brought to bed of twins.  So Evelyn, Fellow of the Royal Society, a gentleman of the highest culture and intelligence, carefully noted all comets and portents, and thought it a sinister omen when a whale came up the Thames….Nature, it seems, was determined to stimulate the devotion of her seventeenth-century admirers by displays of violence and eccentricity from which she now refrains.  There were storms, floods, and droughts; the Thames frozen hard; comets flaring in the sky. If a cat so much as kittened in Evelyn's bed the kitten was inevitably gifted with eight legs, six ears, two bodies, and two tails.”—English novelist, essayist, and diarist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), “Rambling Round Evelyn” (1920), reprinted in The Common Reader: First Series, edited by Andrew McNeillie (1925)

John Evelyn was born 400 years ago today in Surrey, to a family made wealthy by gunpowder production. Virginia Woolf captures his unflagging activity in the passage above. But it may be even more shocking to contemporary society, revolving around intellectual specialists, to see all his activities listed: writer, gardener, urbanologist, architect, connoisseur, and bibliophile.

Though I had heard of Evelyn previously, Woolf’s incisive essay made me want to seek out more information on him, even as I pondered her unique vantage point in assessing his literary achievement.

In her fiction, Woolf was concerned with illuminating the interior consciousness of characters. At the time she wrote about Evelyn, she was five years into keeping her own diary—a record she would continue to maintain until weeks before her suicide in 1941. Into what she called her “dialogue of the soul with the soul,” she poured reflections on her work, thoughts of other writers, and her wrestling with the depression that dogged her life—all of which made her more appreciative of the diaries of Evelyn’s contemporary and friend Samuel Pepys.

As Woolf implied, Evelyn was the soul of discretion compared with Pepys. If you want to know what it felt like to be a top government bureaucrat wrestling with financing the Royal Navy by day before getting randy with the family maid by night, then Pepys is your man. If you want to know how an entire society experienced the sights and sounds of a certain day, then you’ll want to read Evelyn, as in this passage recording what happened the day that exiled King Charles II returned to power in 1660:

“This day came in his Majestie Charles the 2d to London after a sad, and long Exile, and Calamitous Suffering both of the King and Church: being 17 yeares: This was also his Birthday, and with a Triumph of above 20000 horse & foote, brandishing their swords and shouting with unexpressable joy: The wayes straw’d with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with Tapissry, fountaines running with wine: The Major, Aldermen, all the Companies in their liver[ie]s, Chaines of Gold, banners; Lords & nobles, Cloth of Silver, gold and vellvet every body clad in, the windos and balconies all set with Ladys, Trumpets, Musick, and [myriads] of people flocking the streetes and was as far as Rochester, so as they were 7 houres in passing the Citty, even from 2 in the afternoon 'til nine at night: I stood in the strand, and beheld it, & blessed God: And all this without one drop of bloud, and by that very army, which rebell'd against him: but it was the Lords doing, et mirabile in oculis nostris: for such a Restauration was never seene in the mention of any history, antient or modern, since the returne of the Babylonian Captivity, nor so joyfull a day, and so bright, ever seene in this nation: this hapning when to expect or effect it, was past all humane policy.”

Ultimately, though not as confessional, Evelyn may prove more suited to the needs of historians and biographies than Pepys.  The latter gave up penning his thoughts in 1669, but Evelyn maintained his habit of diary-keeping from his college days in 1641 to his retirement period in 1704. It’s a prime source for understanding life in 17th-century England.

(For a fascinating discussion on Sayes Court, Evelyn's home in Deptford, and how the author's prized garden there fell victim to the visiting Peter the Great and the Russian Tsar's drunken friends, see Caroline Derry's guest post on the "London Historians' Blog.")

Friday, October 30, 2020

Photo of the Day: Autumn in Earnest: Petruska Park, Paramus NJ

It seemed that that only two weeks ago, fall was taking its time getting here in the Northeast. But these days, turn around and the seasons change suddenly.

And so it was this past weekend that I became fully aware that autumn had arrived. The realization came full force this past Sunday while I was walking around Michael Petruska Jr. Memorial Park in Paramus, several miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ.

I came upon this stretch of green by accident, while trying to get somewhere else. Farview Avenue, where it is located, would, in many other communities, seem quite busy.

But in the borough of Paramus, with a well-earned reputation as the mall capital of the United States, this stretch of green feels like an island of stillness and serenity, a far remove from traffic-clogged Routes 4 and 17. For me, a Bergen County resident for virtually my whole life, it was a delight to come upon something I had never encountered before.

In 1958, North Jersey-based developer Michael J. Petruska Sr. deeded 12 acres to Paramus with the only condition being that the land be named for his son, who had died in a tragic plane crash. In the mid-Sixties, the park came to fruition when borough volunteers responded to a nationwide beautification contest sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson through a 24-hour “plant-a-thon” on the property.

When I came to the park in mid-afternoon, the skies were overcast, with temperatures having fallen to a high of 52 degrees Fahrenheit—a more than 20-degree drop from the prior day. Jackets, sweatshirts and hoodies had become a requirement overnight.

On the courts, two teams were playing on the basketball court and two guys were wielding hockey sticks—though, by this point in the year, the baseball field was empty. On the nearby path circling the park, several parents were out with their children. Social distancing was easier to maintain with the mercury having dropped.

As I circled the park I took many pictures, but I was especially drawn to this scene. Though a good many orange, yellow and red leaves stayed in place, others had meekly surrendered, leaving their trees bare.

I imagine, after several more days of rain, wind and further temperature drops, that Indian summer has now beaten a full-fledged retreat. These days more than ever, when I relish the chance to walk around, autumn has never seemed so beautiful and brief.

Joke of the Day (Will Rogers, on Elections, ‘The Only Advertised and Known Calamity’)

“We have various pestilences every once in a while, but the only advertised and known calamity is our elections. It's just like an operation, the anesthetic is the worst part of it. It's these weeks of putting you under that is the trying part of an election.”—Comedian-actor-columnist Will Rogers (1879-1935), in Will Rogers' World: America's Foremost Political Humorist Comments on the 20’s and 30’s—and 80’s and 90’s, edited by Bryan and Frances Sterling (1993)

Somebody help me, please—wake me when this is all over!!!!

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Appreciations: Ray Bradbury’s Tale of T-Rex, Environmentalism and Fascism

“It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like large, sharp knives. Its huge eyes rolled, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight. It ran with a gliding ballet step, far too poised and balanced for its ten tons. It moved into a sunlit arena warily, its beautifully reptilian hands feeling the air.”—Science-fiction writer and screenwriter Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), “A Sound of Thunder,” in The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman’s Library, 2010)

I picked this passage from Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi story “A Sound of Thunder” to illustrate his enormously vivid powers of physical description--something I don't think I adequately explored in my prior post in honor of his centennial earlier this year. But the story as a whole—about man’s foolish certainty that he can best Nature—also makes for a powerful admonition for our time.

Several months ago, a friend, a retired Florida schoolteacher, told me about this story. It is a great example of why one of my high school English teachers, Sister Margaret Bradley, preferred the phrase “Alternative Futures” to another by which this genre is better known: “Science Fiction.” “Alternative Futures” is concerned less with gadgets than with concerns likely to persist well beyond the present moment.

Bradbury set this tale in 2055, anticipating what life would be like a century roughly from when he was writing, in 1952—when the Cold War was already a decade old, when memories of Fascism were fresh, and when the Broadway hit Inherit the Wind had reminded Americans of the battle over evolution that had occurred in Dayton, Tenn., during the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” In cinema, time travel had begun to be treated by directors, most famously in George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. All these elements—fascism, evolution and time travel—figure in Bradbury’s story.

The company at the heart of this story, “Time Travel Safari,” involves a plaything for the rich: returning to prehistoric times to hunt live dinosaurs. (Remarkably, the tale also foreshadowed by a year the development of Disneyland.)

This Great Misadventure is fraught with danger, but the hunter who signs up for it, Eckels, chafes at bureaucrats who potentially impede his problematic pursuit. So what if a billion mice cease to exist because of one of his actions? A member of the company, Travis, tries to explain what is at stake:

“Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes, a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar, or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life.”

The company that runs Time Travel Safari is terrified that an infraction of the rules may lead to a bureaucratic crackdown of their operation—a fictional illustration of how business has feared the long arm of government for ages. But these seemingly draconian regulations may be viewed another way: that the state has been forced to take such stringent measures now because citizens refused to take voluntary mass action when it could have made a difference.

While Bradbury’s treatment of dinosaurs could be satirical in “Tyrannosaurous Red” (which explores the creatures’ use in cinema), in “A Sound of Thunder” it is prophetic, a warning that man’s weaponization of technology to tame nature, his seizure of godlike power even to tinker with the past, would be severely punished—and for generations.

As I started to read the following even more pointed explanation to Eckels, I couldn’t help but think of how it relates to climate change—but by the end, I heard an eerie premonition of COVID-19:

“A dead mouse here makes an insect imbalance there, a population disproportion later, a bad harvest further on, a depression, mass starvation, and, finally, a change in social temperament in far-flung countries. Something much more subtle, like that. Perhaps only a soft breath, a whisper, a hair, pollen on the air, such a slight, slight change that unless you looked close you wouldn’t see it. Who knows? Who really can say he knows? We don’t know. We’re guessing. But until we do know for certain whether our messing around in Time can make a big roar or a little rustle in history, we’re being careful. This Machine, this Path, your clothing and bodies, were sterilized, as you know, before the journey. We wear these oxygen helmets so we can’t introduce our bacteria into an ancient atmosphere.”

This is not the only warning Eckels receives: he is given the chance to back out, and told bluntly that:

*The Thunder Lizard they are hunting is “the damnedest monster in history”;

*In the prior year, six safari leaders and a dozen hunters had been killed; and

*The company refuses to guarantee that he’ll come back alive;

*If Eckels does survive, he’ll incur a $10,000 fine and possible government action if he disobeys instructions.

But Eckels, not just oblivious to risk but maybe driven by it, blows off this advice as a challenge to his machismo (“Trying to scare me!”). His heedlessness is so enormous that he even uses a proprietary adjective about the hunt (“Shooting my dinosaur”).

The quotation that starts this post conveys dramatically what Eckels has let himself in for. Cascading images follows his discovery of the great beast, but Bradbury avoids a common mistake of other writers—mixed metaphors—because they all revolve around T-Rex’s barely concealed potential for extreme violence: its “arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys,” its “pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior,” its “fence of teeth like large, sharp knives” and its “death grin” mouth,

The story’s denouement—Eckels stepping on a single butterfly as he veers off the path and flees from the threatening dinosaur, with cataclysmic environmental consequences—anticipated by a decade “The Butterfly Effect,” decade MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s theory that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. (See Peter Dizikes’s 2011 article for MIT Technology Review on this landmark contribution to chaos theory.)

But the ramifications of Eckels’ folly extend further. At the start of the tale, a Time Travel Safari employee agrees with him that it’s a good thing that a particular Presidential candidate had just lost:

“We’re lucky. If Deutscher had gotten in, we’d have the worst kind of dictatorship. There’s an anti-everything man for you, a militarist, antichrist, anti-human, anti-intellectual. People called us up, you know, joking but not joking. Said if Deutscher became President they wanted to go live in 1492.”

Yet, upon returning to present time, Eckels discovers that the prospect he had dreaded—a Deutscher victory—has not only come to pass, but even been embraced by citizens. (The clerk behind the desk says, “We got an iron man now, a man with guts!")

The electoral reversal, Bradbury implies, is made possible by breakdowns in education and communication, signaled by a change in the sign greeting visitors to Time Travel Safari, with each word changed—misspelled—from what Eckels encountered before his trip.

It is not hard to imagine how Bradbury, were he alive today, might have viewed a President intent on degrading all rivals and critics as “weak.”

So prolific and varied was Bradbury’s career that a reader is bound to find something of value and interest in at least one of his works—and, in this centennial year of his birth, there can hardly be a more opportune time to introduce him to readers.

My schoolteacher friend admitted that, as much as she admired this particular story, it was not so easy to teach her former high school students, many of whom had only the dimmest concept of what concepts like evolution and the interdependence of species are all about.

Nevertheless, I hope that more teachers will try to teach this story—preferably in print form, but if not, then through playing for their classes a DVD of the 1985-1992 cable TV series Ray Bradbury Theater, in which the novelist adapted this short story for an episode starring Hill Street Blues actor Kiel Martin as the oblivious Eckels.

Quote of the Day (Judge Learned Hand, on Courts, Partisanship, and the ‘Spirit of Moderation’)

“This much I think I do know: that a society so riven that the spirit of moderation is gone, no court can save; that a society where that spirit flourishes, no court need save; that in a society which evades its responsibility by thrusting upon the courts the nurture of that spirit, that spirit in the end will perish. What is the spirit of moderation? It is the temper which does not press a partisan advantage to its bitter end, which can understand and will respect the other side, which feels a unity between all citizens—real and not the factitious product of propaganda—which recognizes their common fate and their common aspirations—in a word, which has faith in the sacredness of the individual."—American Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961), “The Contribution of an Independent Judiciary to Civilization” (1942), reprinted in The Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses of Learned Hand (1952)

Judge Learned Hand, a federal district and appellate judge for more than fifty years, wrote this from a lifetime of experience, but especially with the 1930s in mind, when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled against one New Deal piece of legislation after another, provoking Franklin Roosevelt’s furious “court-packing” attempt in 1937.

It is certainly true, as both Republicans and Democrats have said at one time or another, that “elections have consequences.” But we now face the greatest threat to the politicization of the courts—and a threat to their independence—since the New Deal.

Of the three branches of the federal government, the Founding Fathers devoted the least attention to the judiciary in the Constitution. It has evolved in ways the framers could never have conceived—notably, in the amount of time that justices, enjoying longer life spans and (as Stuart Taylor Jr. and Benjamin Wittes argued in a 2006 Atlantic Monthly article) law clerks who save them the grind of drafting opinions, now serve on the Supreme Court.

For at least three decades, Senate confirmation hearings have been partisan battles. Until the last couple of years, however, the slenderest sense of restraint—the mutual courtesy among Senators, Presidents’ political antenna for recording and responding appropriately to disturbances in both Capitol Hill and the electorate—has existed.

In a media and political environment riven by the propaganda feared by Hand, that fig leaf has now been swept away. Democrats left themselves open to charges of smearing a nominee by not raising accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh until late in the confirmation process.

Worse, Mitch McConnell has successfully rushed the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, in brazen violation of his own rationale four years before for blocking the nomination of Merrick Garland: i.e., that the Senate should not fill a court vacancy in an election year before a new President is inaugurated.

With his smashmouth maneuvering and bizarre sense of priorities (lightning speed on the confirmation, dawdling on COVID-19 relief), the Senate Majority Leader has shown a mastery of parliamentary procedure but a disregard for organizational civility—making him an ideal legislative henchman for a President similarly disinclined towards respecting norms.

McConnell may have placated a party base desiring a dominant right-wing majority on the Supreme Court for decades, but it may be a Pyrrhic victory. Even as Barrett starts her service, he has laid on the back of this respected jurist misgivings about her allegiance to Trump that will cling to her as long as the President stays in office, and apprehension about her background and partisanship that will remain for as long as she remains a justice.

More important, the hypocrisy of McConnell and President Trump has been rank enough to precipitate a grave upping of the ante. Joe Biden now faces enormous pressure from his party base to undo the damage caused by McConnell’s shameless maneuvering by resorting to FDR’s proposal of increasing the court’s size. Even if the Democratic Presidential nominee decides not to seize this expedient, he will have to figure how to proceed if elected in dealing with a court heavily tilted against any of his initiatives.

With both the legislative and executive branches determined to, as Judge Hand put it, “press a partisan advantage to its bitter end,” it may be left to the judiciary to behave responsibly.

In the past, Chief Justices such as John Marshall and Charles Evans Hughes realized exactly how far they could go without endangering the Supreme Court’s reputation for impartiality. There are occasional, flickering signs that John Roberts wishes to operate in the same way.

But these are thin reeds for current observers of the court to grasp. Despite the longtime belief that the Constitution exhibited a farsighted skepticism about imperfect legislators, Presidents and judges in the new nation, the Barrett imbroglio shows that the Founding Fathers may in fact have been too trusting in this group’s ability to rise above petty partisan advantage. What hope for the genius of the system to prevail when its main actors lack wisdom, courage, and these days, even Hand’s understanding and respect for the other side?

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Photo of the Day: Ripples on the Water, Rockland Lake State Park, NY

I took this photo of Rockland Lake nearly two weeks ago, on the same walk when I took this prior picture of the park.

Quote of the Day (John Travolta, on His Irish Ancestry and Talent for Mimicry)

“I’m half-Irish. My mother was Irish. Deadly with imitations. Loved mimicking people. And we all grew up with this fine art of how-well-could-you-get-someone-down.”—Oscar-nominated American actor John Travolta quoted in Steve Daly, “Face to Face in ‘'Face/Off,’'' Entertainment Weekly, June 20, 1997

What Travolta (like yours truly, a product of Englewood, NJ) is talking about, in a sense, is his uncanny “ear” for how people talk. While acting is the obvious vehicle for this talent, others of Irish descent channeled that into writing instead:  John O’Hara, George V. Higgins, and James Joyce.

(The image accompanying this post shows Travolta in the movie Primary Colors, in which he played Jack Clayton, a Presidential candidate with a Southern accent and a smooth way with words—surely not like anyone the American people have ever encountered, right?)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Quote of the Day (Fran Lebowitz, on What Different People Talk About)

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”—American humorist Fran Lebowitz, Social Studies (1981)

Happy 70th birthday to Fran Lebowitz. Like Dorothy Parker, to whom she’s often compared, she made her reputation as a sardonic New Yorker but was actually born in New Jersey. And, as with Ms. Parker, many people wish that she could have written more over the years.

Photo of the Day: Sign Noticed in Nyack NY

I took this photo over a month ago in Nyack, NY—many of whose residents, like a great number nationwide, hope to translate this into reality exactly a week from today.

Monday, October 26, 2020

This Day in TV History (William S. Paley, Broadcast Titan and Philanthropist, Dies)

Oct. 26, 1990— Not merely in declining health but something worse for him—growing irrelevancy—longtime CBS chair, philanthropist and socialite William S. Paley died at age 89 of kidney failure in New York City.

For nearly six decades, this son of a Jewish cigar-maker was the broadcasting equivalent of the 19th-century robber barons: leveraging an initially small operation into a multi-unit empire, charming when he could get his way easily and ruthless when he couldn’t, then late in life lavishing cultural institutions with sizable donations that burnished his reputation (in his case, money given to the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Broadcasting, renamed the Paley Center for Media in his honor).  

With an assist from his father, Paley assumed control of CBS in 1928. Contrary to the myth he created, he did not initially see the value of the financially ailing radio stations he was buying, but had to be persuaded to make the transaction. Two decades later, the same pattern of coming around reluctantly to a new medium repeated itself when he had to be convinced that TV would not threaten his radio interests but complement them.

In terms of vision, Paley was no match for RCA/NBC archrival David Sarnoff, who as early as 1916 had predicted in a memo that music, news, sports, and even lectures would be someday be broadcast through "radio music boxes." But NBC’s “General” inadequately defended his network against Paley’s 1950 “talent raids” that brought Jack Benny, Amos 'n' Andy, Edgar Bergen, Red Skelton, and Burns and Allen over to CBS.

Paley built his empire through charisma yet maintained it through caprice. He responded to the passionate advocacy of talented figures but could also leave them so guessing about his intentions that he alienated them. One example was newsman Edward R. Murrow, who became a CBS star with his reports from London early in WWII but left the network over its wavering commitment to the news.

Murrow’s was just case of someone who enjoyed the media mogul’s warm companionship only to see him turn cold. Another such figure was In Cold Blood writer Truman Capote, who would not only enjoy holidays abroad with Paley and his second wife, the glamorous socialite Barbara or “Babe,” but once even had them once transport his beloved bulldog to Europe on their private jet, according to an interview with Kansas FBI agent included in George Plimpton’s 1997 oral biography, Truman Capote.

That all changed in 1975, when the author retailed scandalous gossip about Paley in a notorious Esquire preview of his projected novel Answered Prayers. The CBS head’s claim that he had fallen asleep while reading the article was almost surely false, but it deprived Capote of the attention he craved—and then he followed it up by never having anything to do with the writer again.

Before Capote fell out with his friend, he colorfully put his finger on the acquisitive instinct that dominated Paley from youth to old age: “He looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being.” An avid modernist art aficionado, Paley collected female conquests as much as he did modernist paintings. He could be generous, even gallant (financially supporting an old love, actress Louise Brooks, when she fell on hard times), but also cold enough to drive another to suicide.

It was Capote’s revelation of another liaison by Paley (thinly fictionalized as “Sidney Dillon,” a “conglomateur, adviser to Presidents”) in a hotel room that precipitated the end of their friendship and darkened the last days of Babe Paley, who was dying of cancer at that point.

Like an aging monarch, Paley was unwilling to relinquish his power and perquisites, successively forcing out a pair of men most felt were being groomed to take the helm from him: Frank Stanton, CBS president for 27 years, then anointed successor Thomas Wyman. But the September 1986 coup against Wyman proved disastrous, as Paley’s ally, Laurence Tisch, subsequently embarked on cost-cutting measures that undercut the “Tiffany Network” aura of class it had taken the chairman years to cultivate.

By the end of his life, this once-vital corporate titan owned less than nine percent of stock in the company he had built, so he could not influence events as he once did. By then, too, Sally Bedell Smith’s biography In All His Glory had questioned his pretension to business visions while exposing his aloofness and cunning.

But, if he wasn’t what he wanted the world to think he was, Paley had managed for years to sustain a media empire that, unlike the one overseen by Rupert Murdoch, did not debase Americans’ cultural tastes or undermine their belief in verifiable fact.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Arthur,’ In Which Our Hero Meets the Really Ruthless Rich)

[Much to his discomfort, Arthur is meeting the father of his prospective fiancée.)

Burt Johnson [played by Stephen Elliott]: [smiling broadly] “When I was 11 years old, I KILLED a man.”

Arthur Bach [played by Dudley Moore]: “Well, when you're 11 you probably don't even know there's a law against that. Is Susan here?”

Burt [oblivious as he reminisces]: “I knew what I was doing. We were poor. He came into our house to steal our food.”

Arthur: “Well, he was asking for it.”

Burt: “I took a knife, and I killed him in the kitchen.”

Arthur [laughing nervously]: “You, uh... probably ate out that night, what with that man lying in your kitchen.”

Burt: “You seem to find humor in everything.”

Arthur [nervously]: “Yeah, sorry.”—Arthur (1981), written and directed by Steve Gordon

Even though Arthur has been out nearly 40 years now, I had only caught bits and pieces of it over the years until this summer, when I viewed it in its entirety on TCM. There are so many aspects of this comedy to savor, starting with the performances of Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud.

But what I think has been overlooked over time is the sheer toughness of Steve Gordon’s screenplay, which pulls off something pretty stunning: Despite its surface sunniness, a throwback to the Cinderella rom-coms that Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert might have made in the Thirties, this film is under no illusions about the rich.  

Released in the first summer of the Reagan Administration, it offers a caution that the men who profited the most in this era would have no one’s interests but their own in mind. They may be different from you and me, as Scott Fitzgerald maintained, but they don't have more charm, just more money--and the muscle to maintain it.

Burt Johnson may be the most dramatic example of the abusive 1% here, but he’s not the only one. While visiting his grandmother, Martha, Arthur shares his feelings for Linda, the thief he had encountered while she was filching a necktie at a department store.

Yet Martha warns him bluntly that he will be disowned if he does not marry longtime rich girlfriend Susan: "We are ruthless people. Don't screw with us!"

Knowing that he is gravely ill, the butler Hobbes likewise warns about the dangers of defying his family, in some of the strongest lines of tough love ever delivered on film: “Poor drunks do not find love, Arthur. Poor drunks have very few teeth, they urinate outdoors, they freeze to death in summer. I can't bear to think of you that way."

When salvation does come nevertheless for Arthur, it comes in the only realistic scenario possible. In church, as Burt Johnson pummels Arthur for jilting his daughter, Martha simply can’t abide an outsider delivering punishment to any member of her family, no matter how wayward she might regard him. Coming to the aid of her grandson, after all, does not contradict what she said earlier. Notice the subject of her first sentence: We are ruthless people. 

So the rich turn on each other, only this time it comes through blows rather than lawsuits.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Quote of the Day (Kellogg’s 1934 ‘Baseball’ Guide, With Fielding Advice That the Dodgers Can Use)

“Good outfielders will tell you not to be too tense. If your wrists and hands are rigid you’ll increase your chances of fumbling. Be relaxed when you catch the ball.”—“How to Catch a Ball,” Kellogg’s “Baseball” Guide (1934)

I was pleasantly surprised when a friend sent me last week the 1934 Kellogg “Baseball” guide you see here. I had just finished writing a post about Jimmie Foxx, and the guide took me back to the world of the Philadelphia A’s and Boston Red Sox slugger of the Thirties. The tips in this pamphlet offered the kind of advice from him and other future Cooperstown greats that American boys would have received at the time.

It was comforting to discover that, before designated hitters, armies of relief pitchers, and sluggers advised by hitting coaches not to worry too much about strikeouts if they could put the ball out of the park, some elements of the game of the past have managed to carry over.

After last night’s game, I’m sure that Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts might have wanted to get the above passage into the hands of centerfielder Chris Taylor. With only one strike to go to secure victory and a 3-1 World Series advantage, Taylor and Dodgers catcher Will Smith committed a cascading series of errors that frightened their fans with what one Twitter user termed “a double Buckner”—a reference to the Red Sox first baseman unfairly tagged the goat of the 1986 World Series for a ball that skidded through his legs.

Maybe the Boys in Blue will recover and this set of defensive miscues occurring in a mere 10 seconds will be forgotten in the ensuing era of good feeling. But if the Dodgers don’t win the series, expect Roberts to be put on the same “Win This Year or Else” clock that Aaron Boone is on following his deeply problematic pitching strategy in Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Bill Bradley, on the Moral Questions That Politics Avoids)

“How can a people that wages war on nature reflect God? How can a society with grating poverty amidst great wealth remain just? What is it that guides one through life? What is it that one yearns and strives for? Politics shrinks from even acknowledging these basic questions. It is easier to give a response based on a poll than one that flows from your heart.”—Former U.S. Senator from New Jersey, Presidential candidate, and New York Knicks basketball player Bill Bradley, Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir (1996)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Flashback, Fall 1980: Righteous Brothers Cover Lifts Hall and Oates’ ‘Voices’

Hall and Oates had already recorded all their projected songs for their album Voices, but they still felt another was needed. An oldies tune they heard on a jukebox near their New York City studio, they quickly realized, was the missing ingredient in their mix.

The only cut on their LP not written by the duo, “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling”—released in late September and climbing the charts rapidly in October 40 years ago—fit perfectly with the aural tone they were trying to achieve in their first self-produced album. More important, it marked a turning point in their careers, launching a string of platinum-selling albums and helping them sell out arenas in the first half of the Eighties.

It marked quite a turn from the start of 1980. After Top 10 hits such as “Rich Girl,” Sara Smile,” and “She’s Gone,” Daryl Hall and John Oates had struggled in their albums of the late Seventies to stay at that level. The best they could manage was the single “Wait for Me,” which only reached No. 18 on the charts.

Part of the problem was how to mesh their interest in “new wave” music with the “Philadelphia Sound” of rhythm and blues that they had grown up with—or, as the title of their greatest hits album several years later put it, “Rock and Soul.”

Hall and Oates and their record label, RCA, could have been forgiven for thinking the first single from Voices, the optimistically titled “How Does It Feel to Be Back,” would mark their return to their pop peak. With its use of a jangly Rickenbacker guitar, it was, as I heard a WNEW-FM refer to it at the time, “The Beatles Meet Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.” But it only made it to the Top 30, down a bit even from “Wait for Me.”

Ultimately, the duo’s instinct for the song they needed to complete their album proved fortunate. Subsequently, they differed slightly on exactly where they heard “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Hall recalled it being played in a downtown nightspot called the Mudd Club, while Oates remembered in his 2017 memoir Change of Seasons that they were in a pizza joint). But each recollected that the Righteous Brothers hit came at the end of their recording sessions, that they recognized how compatible it would be with their own vocal style, and that they recorded the song with the rest of their band the next day in only a few hours.

Only the year before, for his 52nd Street album, Billy Joel had paid lavish tribute to the Righteous Brothers with “Until the Night,” matching his own lyrics and melody to the grandiloquent “Wall of Sound” employed by their producer, Phil Spector. This time, though, Hall and Oates set the classic Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil composition in what Oates called the “punchy and sleek” style of the rest of their LP—one that avoided overdubs.

For all the difference in aural arrangements, Hall and Oates harked back to the vocal style of their predecessors as purveyors of “blue-eyed soul”: Oates emulating the dark baritone of Bill Medley, Hall finding his groove in an approximation of Bobby Hatfield’s falsetto.

Their instinct for the right song for them was justified by events in the fall of 1980. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” climbed to Number 12 on the charts, bettering the performance of “How Does It Feel to Be Back” and giving Voices continued radio exposure—and then the deluge:

*“Kiss on My List,” Hall’s collaboration with Janna Allen, sister of his girlfriend Sara, vaulted to Number 1 shortly after the new year;

*The ebullient “You Make My Dreams” jumped to Number 5;

*Propelled by its four singles, Voices spent 100 weeks—nearly two years—on the Billboard chart.

Having achieved success themselves with a cover song, Hall and Oates a few years later saw a younger artist score a hit with one of their Voices songs: the ballad “Every Time You Go Away,” which British singer Paul Young took to Number 1.

As the British singer Joe Jackson would do in a couple of years with his albums Steppin’ Out and Body and Soul, Hall and Oates felt that their sound benefited from exposure to the polyglot sounds of New York City:

“Living in New York at the time, you had punk and New Wave,” Oates told David Chiu in an interview for the Web site Ultimate Classic Rock. “We were living in the Village. We were in the vortex of all this energy that was happening. And so the music reflected it. It always has reflected where we were at the moment and the environmental and social influences of what was going on around us, because as songwriters, that's all you really have to use as your inspiration.”

The pair continued to record in the same vein in their subsequent LPs in the next few years: Private Eyes, H2O, and Big Bam Boom. Buoyed by MTV videos that, though laughable by their own admission, gave them additional exposure, they achieved superstar status.

“The momentum and success of Voices ushered in the next wild chapter of our career,” Oates recalled in Change of Seasons. “We had done it. We had produced ourselves and in doing so, tapped into the core of who we were as writers, artists, and producers. We’d once again found a sound. There was no turning back, but we had no idea what lay ahead. As it turned out, this new phase was, for many fans, the beginning of Hall and Oates.”

Amazingly, unlike, say, the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates have been able to maintain their partnership unfractured. Each was adept not only at singing, but also at songwriting and playing multiple instruments. Neither, then, felt threatened or jealous of the other’s skills, and they have not differed radically over the direction of their music. The result is that they have stayed together long enough to become the most successful duo in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Quote of the Day (Edgar Allan Poe, on a Jesting Dwarf’s Revenge on a Sadistic Leader)

[Hop-Frog the dwarf-jester said to the king]: “ ‘Just after your majesty, had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face…there came into my mind a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades: but here it will be new altogether….I will equip you as ourang-outangs…. The resemblance shall be so striking, that the company of masqueraders will take you [the king and his seven advisers] for real beasts—and of course, they will be as much terrified as astonished…’.

“And now, while the whole assembly (the apes included) were convulsed with laughter, the jester suddenly uttered a shrill whistle; when the chain flew violently up for about thirty feet— dragging with it the dismayed and struggling ourang-outangs, and leaving them suspended in mid-air between the sky-light and the floor….

" ‘Ah, ha!’; said at length the infuriated jester. ‘Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!’ Here, pretending to scrutinize the king more closely, he held the flambeau to the flaxen coat which enveloped him, and which instantly burst into a sheet of vivid flame. In less than half a minute the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely, amid the shrieks of the multitude who gazed at them from below, horror-stricken, and without the power to render them the slightest assistance….

“The dwarf seized his opportunity, and once more spoke:

“ ‘I now see distinctly,’ he said, ‘what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors,—a king who does not scruple to strike a defenseless girl and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester--and this is my last jest.’

“Owing to the high combustibility of both the flax and the tar to which it adhered, the dwarf had scarcely made an end of his brief speech before the work of vengeance was complete. The eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass. The cripple hurled his torch at them, clambered leisurely to the ceiling, and disappeared through the sky-light.”—American short-story writer, poet, and essayist Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), “Hop-Frog” (1849)

Years ago, I read numerous tales by Edgar Allan Poe for my high school and college English classes. But I had never focused on this late story until I read an essay on the horror and suspense maven in Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction collection, The View From the Cheap Seats (2016)

Gaiman hailed this story’s “terrible and appropriate cruelty,” and it has taken on other implications than those suggested when it first appeared in print. (Some critics believed at the time that this was Poe’s vicarious vengeance on those who questioned his courtship of a couple of women; others thought it arose from the revolts that had occurred in several European countries in 1848.)

Contemporary readers might point to other elements of the central characterization here: a leader who is caustic, abusive towards women, and mocking the disabled, who at length goes too far, triggering a spontaneous retaliation against himself and his corrupt toadies.

A chain, once used to facilitate oppression, becomes a means of liberation. The king’s counselors, who enable his sadism and abuses of power by cheering him on, share in his downfall.

Their fate also mirrors their relationship to the king and to each other while they were alive: “a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass”—a warning that retribution, though coming late to men who exploit the marginalized and defenseless and to the circle that excuses these crimes, will surely arrive nonetheless.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Quote of the Day (Roald Dahl, on the Presence of a Ghost)

“The best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them. At least you don’t see the ghost. Instead you see only the result of his actions. Occasionally you can feel it brushing past you, or you are made aware of its presence by subtle means… If a story does permit a ghost to be seen, then he doesn’t look like one. He looks like an ordinary person.”— British novelist, short-story writer, poet, screenwriter, and wartime fighter pilot Roald Dahl (1916-1990), introduction to Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (1983)

(The image accompanying this post shows Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in the Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House. Believe me, the atmosphere of this movie is about as far as you can get from the one Wise would make only two years later, the box-office smash The Sound of Music.)

Joke of the Day (Becca Kohler, on Fantasy Football)

“When my boyfriend plays fantasy football, I play fantasy new boyfriend.”—Canadian comedian Becca Kohler quoted in “Laughter: The Best Medicine,” Reader’s Digest, September 2015

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Photo of the Day: Rain Garden, Mahwah NJ

I took this photo at the start of this month while in Mahwah, at the northern edge of Bergen County, NJ. This rain garden, next to Winter’s Pond, filters rain water coming off hard surfaces such as roadways, driveways, parking lots and rooftops. The wildflower meadow here, seeded a year ago, filters and absorbs stormwater runoff and its pollutants before they enter groundwater and waterways. 

Quote of the Day (Roy Blount, Jr., on the Fine Art of Yodeling)

“In the abstract, yodeling may make us think of Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yawp,’ but a good streak of yodeling is elevated. It’s ageless, classless, beyond gender. Male yodelers come from deeper down and make a bigger jump into falsetto, but when any yodeler, young or old, commences gargling melody, he or she seems possessed, transported—not in a swoony American Idol way but as if the yodeler is channeling a bouncy, olden spirit. It’s not the yodeler doing the tonsil-juggling, it’s the yodel. An Aeolian harp being dragged by a horse—pleasingly— over washboard terrain. Steel guitar blended with locomotive chugga-chugga. Dozens of Easter eggs tumbling down a chute.” — Southern humorist and all-around man of letters Roy Blount, Jr., “Gone Off Up North: American Yawp,” Oxford American, Issue 58, Fall 2007 (Southern Music Issue Vol. IX)         

Since childhood, I had heard yodeling on TV and in movie theaters. But it is a whole different experience to hear it live, as I did 34 years ago when I first set foot in Switzerland. That night, several middle-aged men in lederhosen carried on vocally in the most carefree, merry fashion.

According to this piece by Roy Blount Jr., the Alpine version of yodeling did not derive from such close, intimate company, but rather from communicating over distances, where “your voice goes way up high….People addressing one another, or their goats or whatever, from Alp to Alp would have to shift way up high. They would have to use their clutch….And then, lacking many other forms of entertainment, they’d fool around with it some, yo-ohhh-d’ly-o’dly.”

You may have guessed, from what I’ve just written, that I’m hardly a longtime aficionado of this vocal form. But, after reading and listening (in guest appearance on NPR’s quiz show, Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me!) to Blount over the years, I was eager to discover what he had to say on the subject. I was not disappointed.

Few writers can match Blount for his rollicking, energetic gusto. I particularly love how he conveys the tactile experience of listening to yodeling that you get from this passage. It’s great how he juxtaposes ethereal words (“elevated,.” “falsetto,” “transported,” “swoony”) with decidedly earthier ones (“gargling,” “tonsil-joggling,” “chugga-chugga,” “tumbling”).

At the same time, he gives a concise, fun history of the great (Jimmy Rodgers, Cliff Carlisle, Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky, Caroline Cotton, Emmett Miller) and the not-so-great (Johnny Cash and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) practitioners of yodeling.

(Yes, as you might suspect, the image accompanying this post depicts the singer Jewel, who, as Blount notes in this article, can “yodel her buns off.” When she performs “Chime Bells,” he observes, “It’s like seeing somebody who’s been drifting around on a big lilypad suddenly catch hold of a ski-rope and take off boogity-shoot over choppy water. All right! Now we’re hooking onto something!” If you don’t believe me—or Blount—then listen to her in this YouTube clip and judge for yourself.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Photo of the Day: Bent Trees, Rockland Lake State Park, NY

Over a week ago, heavy wind and rain had an effect on these trees I photographed while visiting Rockland Lake State Park this past Sunday. This 1,133-acre space is ideal for walking, and despite the threat of COVID-19, many people turned out to take in the lovely post-storm weather.