Monday, May 31, 2021

Flashback, May 1841: Emigrants Push Out on Oregon Trail

With the May 1841 departure from Independence, Mo., of a combined party of about 70 settlers—one half eventually branching off for California, the other towards the Pacific Northwest territory that gave this major thoroughfare its name—the Oregon Trail began a tide of migration that helped transform America into a transcontinental colossus from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Much about this epic journey remains a matter of dispute, starting with its size, with historians offering emigrant estimates in the 1840s to the 1869 completion of the Transcontinental Railroad ranging from 50,000 to hundreds of thousands.

That vast overland migration was the result of “Oregon Fever,” a yearning to strike out for a new life in the West. It was fanned by a near-messianic belief that new lands could allow America to become, to use Thomas Jefferson’s coinage, “an empire of liberty.” “Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free,” Henry David Thoreau would write.

This willingness to break loose from their old economic and political constraints led the emigrants to undertake an arduous 2,100-mile journey from the jumping-off points (e.g., Independence and St. Joseph, Mo.) to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. They took the main fur-trapping route to the Rockies, the Platte River Road, which was renamed the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.

The two main destinations for the overlanders were California and Oregon. Starting out on May 18, the California group, led by John Bidwell and John Burleson, linked up with Oregon-bound emigrants, spearheaded by Jesuit priests and mountain man Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick.

The combined party split off at Soda Springs, Idaho, with Fitzpatrick guiding his contingent towards the Willamette Valley. By the time they reached Fort Hall in present-day Idaho, the emigrants had covered two-thirds the distance to their destination but only half the time. Ahead, beyond the Snake River, lay the Blue Mountains, which they could only scale with the help of ropes, pulleys and winches.

Despite these dangers, in the years before the California gold rush, Oregon tended to be preferred by these first travelers, driven powerfully by “sedulous advertising by missionaries, military explorers, traders, merchants, sailors, trappers, propagandists, and such publicists as Hall Kelley,” according to Bernard DeVoto’s The Year of Decision, 1846. “[Senator Thomas Hart] Benton, [Senator Lewis] Linn, and their fellow expansionists had its history, geography, and statistics by heart — if attractively colored by their private fantasies. [President James Knox] Polk need only send to the Library of Congress for any information he might want.”

Tossed into the mix was good old-fashioned American exaggeration. In one stump speech cited by Robert F. Hine and John M. Faragher in The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), Peter H. Burnett delivered a recruiting pitch by no means untypical: “Gentlemen, they do say, that out in Oregon the pigs are running about under the great acorn trees, round and fat, and already cooked, with knives and forks sticking in them so that you can cut off a slice whenever you are hungry.”

 Time, which might be expected to provide some critical historical perspective, has not markedly diminished this mixture of solid information and myth. Some aspects of the Oregon Trail continue to misconstrued, while others deserve to be better known:

*Indian attacks were not as common as believed. Though Indian attacks, even ones resulting in fatalities, did occur, more emigrants died in shooting accidents or wagon crashes.

*Overall, an estimated one-tenth of emigrants died on the overland passage. Common causes of disease on the trail were typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery (all products of poor sanitation), along with food poisoning, tick-generated "mountain fever" and death in childbirth, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.

*Federal land policy facilitated Native American displacement and lack of racial diversity in the territory. Although an initial 1842 plan by Senator Linn to encourage mass migration failed, it later formed the basis of the Donation Land Law of 1850. The egalitarian chief provision of the legislation—encouraging claims by citizens over the age of 18 to parcels in the territory—came with provisions excluding Native Americans, blacks, Hawaiians, and Asians from this land bounty. Moreover, Native Americans already on the land for thousands of years were forced to resettle through negotiated treaties or executive agreements with the United States.

* Oxen and mules, not horses, were the preferred beasts of burden. Although oxen and mules had their advocates, most travelers, despite the impression left by Hollywood westerns, found out soon enough that horses were at distinct disadvantages on the long trip. Their comparative swiftness could not compensate for what their use entailed: more feed, lighter loads, and susceptibility to injury and theft.

*The movement of settlers left environmental damage in its wake. Emigrants overgrazed grass tribes needed for their horses, depleted wild game, destroyed staple camas meadows, fouled drinking water, cleared trees and cliffs, carved passages through mountain ranges, and left still-visible ruts from the wagon trains. (See, for example, this 2016 Jennifer Billock article from Smithsonian and this Sarah Gilman piece from High Country News.)

The overland movement along the Oregon Trail has so etched itself into the American cultural consciousness (including in the accompanying image, the painting The Oregon Trail by Albert Bierstadt), that it is easy to lose sight of its even wider impact on the nation.

Years ago, a high school social studies teacher I knew impressed on students, when they were responding to essay questions about an event or movement, to consider factors centered around the acronym SPERM: social, political, economic, religious, and military. It’s not a bad way to think about all that followed when the impact of the Oregon Trail. So let’s consider each letter in turn:

*(S)ocial: The Oregon Trail and the larger movement west fostered among the emigrants a risk-taking, entrepreneurial energy that remains central to America’s wealth and power, but also a restlessness and rootlessness that led to what midcentury journalist and social critic Vance Packard called “a nation of strangers.” The distance back home was so vast and the dangers so numerous that emigrants could not simply go home if a farm or a marriage failed.

*(P)olitical: The two main parties of the time, the Democrats and Whigs, were initially divided about pushing on to Oregon. Democrats were more gung-ho while Whigs were somewhat fearful of the tensions this was creating with the other principal claimant to the territory, Great Britain. Polk’s campaign slogan, “54-40 or Fight” (a reference to 54 degrees, 40 minutes, the northern border that would effectively exclude Britain), demonstrated this jingoism. Fortunately, upon becoming President, he sensibly agreed, in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, to a border at the 49th parallel (thus forestalling the possibility that the U.S. would go to war not just against Mexico to the south, but Britain, with all its naval power). Once admitted to the Union in 1859, Oregon provided a bulwark against the expansion of slavery.

*(E)conomic: The nation was still wobbly from the Panic of 1837 as the Oregon Trail migration began. “Oregon Fever” helped kick-start the economy, spur the social mobility of the emigrants, and provide a safety valve for tensions on the East Coast arising from a massive influx of Irish and German emigrants later in the decade. With much of the prime agricultural land already claimed by this time, more and more people were pouring into cities for further opportunity. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the antebellum period began to mount, but it might have reached unimaginable heights without the land in Oregon and out West to relieve the pressure.

*(R)eligious: Religious movements were crucial to fanning settler interest in the Western lands. The Belgian Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jean-Pierre de Smet, contributed his geographic and ethnographic expertise to subsequent waves of travelers. The Protestant missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman generated huge publicity by becoming the first white couple to cross the Rockies in a covered wagon, then helped drum up interest in pursuing the last 500-mile leg of the overland journey along the Snake River.

*(M)ilitary: The need to protect the lives of the emigrants and to provide for their material needs led the federal government to establish several outposts along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 1850s: Forts Kearny, Laramie, Caspar, Bridger, Hall, Boise, and Vancouver. In the years between the Mexican War and the Civil War, these outposts gave many Army veterans their only opportunity to stay active and rise in the ranks. The experience, even if not exactly comparable to what they had faced and would face East of the Mississippi when the Union was threatened, enabled them to command troops.

Other years would see greater movement towards the Pacific Northwest, including 1843 and 1846. But 1841 was when it all began in earnest. America would never be the same.

Quote of the Day (George Santayana, on ‘The End of War’)

Only the dead have seen the end of war."— Spanish-born American philosopher, essayist, and poet George Santayana (1863-1952), “Tipperary,” in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)

The image accompanying this post is the Southwestern Pennsylvania World War II Veterans Memorial, which I visited while in Pittsburgh in June 2019.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

This Day in Film History (Howard Hawks, ‘Great Professional’ of Hollywood Golden Age, Born)

May 30, 1896—Howard Hawks, who developed a reputation as a competent craftsman before being reevaluated as one of Hollywood’s premiere directors toward the end of his five-decade career, was born in Goshen, Ind.

Though associated with a score of Tinseltown’s best-loved, timeless classics, Hawks made little impression on critics for a long time. Holding neither the interests nor the talents of a specialist, he made it difficult to identify what constituted “A Howard Hawks Film,” in the way that some contemporaries made their marks with particular genres or settings, such as Alfred Hitchcock (thrillers), John Ford (westerns, war films, or cinema about Ireland), or Billy Wilder (fast-talking, cynical comedy-dramas).

Instead, Hawks took it as a challenge to create top-flight movies across genres: the gangster film (Scarface), screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby), biopics (Sergeant York), musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), film noir (The Big Sleep), sci-fi (The Thing), widescreen historical epics (Land of the Pharoahs), and westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo). No wonder a 1967 TV summary of his career was entitled, “Howard Hawks: The Great Professional.”

Remarkably, this versatile director was nominated for a competitive Oscar only once in his career, for Sergeant York. (In one of the Academy Awards’ embarrassed annual attempts to honor a film giant before it’s too late, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement in 1974, only three years before his death.)

Yet, in addition to the French “New Wave” critics-directors who began to reappraise his work as an “auteur” in the 1950s, Hawks also influenced such American filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Brian de Palma, John Carpenter, and Peter Bogdanovich (who signaled his great debt to Hawks in his first two major successes, The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc?).

Majoring in mechanical engineering in college, the director was less interested in inventing entirely different methods of moviemaking than in tinkering with a celluloid product until it moved faster and more smoothly.

Even if faced with a script with only the wispiest of plots, he’d sit down on the set, pull out a big yellow legal pad, and scribble down dialogue that made audiences enjoy this scene and forget about the overall lack of a substantial story, recalled Kirk Douglas about a turning point in their 1952 western, The Big Sky.

An even more telling example of this is in the sexually charged encounter between Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and Dorothy Malone’s Acme Bookshops proprietess in The Big Sleep. The plot of the film is almost preposterously serpentine (even author Raymond Chandler had trouble recalling the killer), but the fencing between the private eye and the bespectacled but seductive bibliophile in this scene remains fondly recalled three-quarters of a century later.

Hawks got his start in film at the technical end during the silent era as a prop man, then parlayed some training in architectural drawing at school to land a job building a set for a Douglas Fairbanks film. Part of the reason why he commanded so much respect on a film set was that he had performed so many functions before finally getting a chance as a director: assistant director, casting director, script supervisor, screenwriter, editor and producer.

While possessing his own ideas on how a scene would work, Hawks was so self-assured that he allowed those he worked with to arrive at the solution themselves. He encouraged actors to improvise (as demonstrated vividly and brilliantly in “Self-Styled Siren” film blogger Farran Smith Nehme’s analysis of Rosalind Russell’s performance in His Girl Friday).

Angie Dickinson, who worked with him on Rio Bravo, related Hawks’ indirect approach in this interview for the Web site “Ain’t It Cool”:

“Hawks was tough, because he would not really tell you what to do. He would just sort of get around to what he was after, because, and I finally analyzed it, if he told you what to do it wouldn’t come from you, so he had to make you, through osmosis, do what he had in mind, but not specifically.”

Henry Adams’ terse description of Theodore Roosevelt may be applied just as easily to Hawks: “he was pure act.” A racing car and airplane aficionado, he reminded listeners that the essence of movies was motion pictures. Unenthusiastic about sending messages through his work, he was equally unpretentious about working well but swiftly and within budget. (On Sam Peckinpah’s slow-motion death scenes in The Wild Bunch: “Oh, hell, I can kill and bury ten guys in the time it takes him to kill one.”)

Adept at fashioning rapid dialogue, Hawks was a slow, deliberate talker himself. It forced the listener to hang on his every word, only reinforcing his reputation for gravitas.

John Ford, Hawks’ good friend, bestowed on him the nickname “The Silver Fox,” in simultaneous tribute to his exalted reputation as a ladies’ man and his white hair. Though many of his films reflected his Hemingwayesque appreciation for the skill and sang froid required by male professionals such as airplane flyers, racing-car drivers, soldiers and hunters, they never wasted the opportunity to highlight self-confident, wisecracking women too wise to tolerate nonsense.

Three actresses were especially shaped under his direction:

*Lauren Bacall attracted attention in her film debut, To Have and Have Not, as Hawks reportedly based her cool, brassy, athletic persona—even her onscreen nickname “Slim”—on his wife at the time, Nancy Gross.

*Marilyn Monroe took a major step forward in her career by moving from eye-candy adornment to sexy but vulnerable in Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

*Angie Dickinson enjoyed a career-making performance, after only four years in the business, as the traveling card shark who holds her own against sheriff John Wayne through humor, flirtation, and a steely refusal to be wronged in Rio Bravo. (Do I even have to mention that the actress appears on the right, with the director and The Duke, in the image accompanying this post?)

Even after all his late-career attention, “Hawks remained the least understood among the great American directors,” Bogdanovich wrote in Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. “But his films represent one of the most vivid, varied, yet consistent, bodies of work in movies; ironically, too, perhaps the most typically American. Which maybe explains why his pictures don't date as so many do, even the best: he touched some parts of the American psyche that are there forever.”

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. John XXIII, on Jesus As ‘An Example and a Rule of Life’)

“This is the greatest dignity and obligation ever laid on man, and particularly on every Christian: the obligation to do honour to the Son of God, the ‘Word made flesh,’ who gives life to all mankind and all human society. Jesus left us the example of his thirty years of silence, so that we might learn to see the truth in him, and his three years of unwearied and persuasive ministry, so that we might find in him an example and a rule of life.”— St. John XXIII (1881-1963), Days of Devotion: Daily Meditations From the Good Shepherd, translated by Dorothy White and edited by John Patrick Donnelly (1967)

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Quote of the Day (Poetry’s Horace, on How ‘It’s Sweet Sometimes To Play the Fool’)

“Abolish delay, and desire for profit,
and, remembring death’s sombre flames, while you can,
mix a little brief foolishness with your wisdom:
it’s sweet sometimes to play the fool.” — Roman poet Horace (65 BC-8 BC), Odes, Book IV, xii, Spring,” translated by A. S. Kline (2003)

The image accompanying this post comes from “Make ‘Em Laugh” from the beloved (and hilarious) 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, with Donald O'Connor showing how it’s done.

Friday, May 28, 2021

This Day in Rock History (Stewart Becomes Solo Superstar with ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’)

May 28, 1971—The LP Every Picture Tells a Story primarily featured song covers, but it was a tune co-written by Rod Stewartone that he considered leaving off the finished product—that propelled the 26-year-old to solo superstardom, after stints with the Hoochie Coochie Men, Steampacket, the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces.

As he had done with his solo studio album from the prior year, Gasoline Alley, Stewart included a composition by Bob Dylan, “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” on this new 10-song Mercury collection.

But the influence of Dylan may have been more strongly, if unconsciously, absorbed when the working-class son of a North London plumber let his creativity flow on what became the album’s monster hit, “Maggie May.” 

Recalling why he had reservations about including this song that he had recorded rapidly in the studio, Stewart remembered in his 2012 autobiography, Rod:

“It didn’t have a chorus. It just had these rambling verses. It didn’t really have a hook. How could you hope to have a hit single with a song that was all verse and no chorus and no hook? And it went on a bit: it was more than five minutes long, for God's sake, which was pretty much operatic by the standards of the pop single."

Perhaps he “should have known from listening to Bob Dylan,” Stewart reasoned, that “the lack of a catchy phrase in the middle,” not to mention a song exceeding the average length of a single, was not necessarily an impediment to significant radio time. (Indeed, see "Positively 4th Street" and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”)

Nor was Stewart’s raspy voice an obstacle to success: Dylan’s vocals, likened to “a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire” by an unnamed Missouri folk singer cited by critic Nat Hentoff, had already proven that unconventional sounds could be tolerated if they were also expressive and evocative. Similarly, in the counterculture’s periodical bible, Rolling Stone, John Mendelsohn, reviewing the album, wrote that Stewart possessed “the most unique male voice in rock, a voice anyone could recognize instantly at five hundred paces through a Dixie cup….He’s got soul to spare.”

To Stewart’s surprise and delight, then, an American DJ (“allegedly in Cleveland, Ohio”) went with playing “Maggie May” rather than the designated single, a cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.” It peaked at #1 on the Billboard U.S. singles chart in early October 1971.

I wonder, though, if there might have been another reason for Stewart’s initial hesitancy about releasing “Maggie May?” I was surprised to learn from Rod that, when recording the vocals on his own compositions, he has sometimes felt so vulnerable over revealing his feelings that he has the studio emptied out “of everyone except the engineer—the producer at a push.”

There could hardly be a more personal song than “Maggie May,” his semi-autobiographical memory of losing virginity at age 15 in the summer of 1961 at the Bealieu Jazz Festival to “an older (and larger) woman” who propositioned him in the beer tent.

It’s hard to believe that the randy rooster who has undoubtedly scored with the ladies in virtually every stop on his world tours could feel this way. But who are we to argue?

The album also conveyed Stewart’s bone-deep appreciation for blues, soul and folk. Produced by Stewart himself, it exhibited a raw, go-for-it quality that crackles with energy, especially on the title track, the singer’s episodic tale of careening across Europe as a teenager and what he learned from the opposite sex—a kind of Tom Jones for the age of rock ‘n’ roll.

“That whole album was done in 10 days, two weeks, about as long as it takes to get a drum sound right nowadays," Stewart recalled in an interview for Mojo Magazine in 1995. He trusted his backup musicians—guitarist Ron Wood, pianist Pete Sears, and fiddler Dick Powell—and they delivered to a man, perhaps none more so than acoustic guitarist Martin Quittenton, who not only co-wrote “Maggie May” with Stewart but contributed its memorable, and ultimately exhilarating, mandolin sound.

In the years since, Stewart has sometimes been maddeningly unmindful of his gifts, whether through roosterish posturing on “Hot Legs” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or his early-millennium ill-advised turn towards “The Great American Songbook.”

But Every Picture Tells a Story demonstrates why fans on both sides of the Atlantic embraced him so ardently near the beginning of his journey. Or, as he put it in his ruminating 2012 song, “Can’t Stop Me Now”:

I stood up straight and sang for the record-company man, my enthusiasm filled the room
I was young and I was keen with that devil in my stream as I hollered out an old blues tune.

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ With an Appeal to an Egocentric Boss)

Alan Brady [played by Carl Reiner]: “I'm NOT impatient... and your time is up!”

Rob Petrie [played by Dick Van Dyke]: “You have the impatience of genius.”

Alan: “Go ahead, finish your thought.”— The Dick Van Dyke Show, Season 5, Episode 19, “The Bottom of Mel Cooley's Heart,” original air date Feb. 9, 1966, teleplay by John Whedon, directed by Jerry Paris

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Photo of the Day: Stranger in a Strange Land—or, Back in Midtown

A week and a half ago, for the first time in 14 months, when COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, I ventured back into New York City. In meeting friends for lunch, I was as curious about what I was about to encounter as I was apprehensive, given the rapidly changing and confusing guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The bus ride through northern New Jersey into the Lincoln Tunnel contrasted strongly with what I saw and heard even only a few weeks ago, though the evidence for a change in ridership habits was still apparent. In the spring of 2020, with the lockdown in place, I walked by buses that, though once standing room only, now had only one or two passengers during the morning rush hour. So few people were on board that it made me feel as if I were viewing a ghost bus.

Though a good deal more people were on board the New Jersey Transit bus I took that Monday morning, plenty of seats remained—even with the four seats behind the driver roped off. (The driver was additionally protected with a glass shield.) I was relieved to have the opportunity for social distancing.

As late as last fall, friends were still telling me that pedestrian traffic in Times Square had diminished markedly—especially during the Christmas season so critical to retailers.

Stepping off the bus and out of the Port Authority terminal, I did not feel as crestfallen as I might have at year’s end—there were a good number of people on the streets. Still, something had changed, in a way that this shot, which I took from Times Square, looking uptown, can’t convey.

I didn’t get my first real sense of how much was different until I met my friends at an English-style pub in the Garment District pub. Though still anxious about being inside, I took comfort in the considerable distance between our trio and the closest customers in the restaurant.

In fact, one of my friends at the table indicated that, in this same restaurant, at a comparable hour, he would have been lucky to get a seat here before the pandemic.

Analysts are talking about the pent-up demand that restaurants will experience from people anxious to celebrate the end of isolation with friends. I am sure there is something to that—and indeed, compared with the desperate situation at this time last year, when so many restaurants were gauging how to move towards a take-out model, the situation is vastly improved.

But I suspect that restaurants in many cities such as New York will still find surviving a difficult matter. Many will depend on lunchtime spending by the white-collar sector to supplement expenditures by friends and families.

Even with tourist bookings accelerating, the damage to the office sector will continue—at least until Labor Day, when many companies will be able to put their post-pandemic plans in place and see how early returnees to old spaces are faring.

I believe that some of the damage to office space will be permanent. Over the course of a year, companies have proven that they can operate remotely if need be. They no longer have the need to have all their employees in their buildings five days a week. Some companies reduced their workforce so dramatically during the pandemic that it will take years to reach their former levels--if even then. This means that fewer workers will be making lunchtime purchases.

In some ways, the post-pandemic city may be better. My friend Rob, for instance, looked forward to fewer people on subways during rush hour. “Who wants to get on trains packed like sardines?” he noted. “After all, there is a quality-of-life issue involved here, too.”

You can forgive New Yorkers who blinked at what they saw all around them as the restrictions came down. Everything looked familiar but wasn’t—much like the post-pandemic city whose dimensions we won’t be able to grasp for weeks, months—even a few years.

Quote of the Day (Lorraine Hansberry, on ‘The Thing That Makes You Exceptional’)

“Eventually it comes to you: the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.” —African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Washington Irving, on Misfortune’s Different Effect on Little and Great Minds)

“Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.” ―American fiction writer, biographer and diplomat Washington Irving (1783-1859), “Philip of Pokanoket: An Indian Memoir," in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1818)

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jack Kerouac, on Fame and ‘The Enthusiasms of Younger Men’)

“Ah the tears of things, incidentally…I've all these two days spent filing old letters, taking them out of old envelopes, clipping the pages together, putting them away… hundreds of old letters from Allen [Ginsberg], [William] Burroughs, [Neal] Cassady, enuf to make you cry the enthusiasms of younger men… how bleak we become. And fame kills all. Someday 'The Letters of Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac' will make America cry.

“Old letters starting ‘Cher, Cher Jean…’ etc. And O all the youngish preoccupations!

“Cassady’s letters are wildly beautiful and full of Irish Celtic verbal zing. Burrough’s old letters contain the same dry humor, like ‘H.C. is sailing away in a boat with a sail to match his blond hair. Enough to make a man spew.’”—American novelist Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), letter to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, May 25, 1961, in Jack Kerouac Selected Letters: Volume 2, 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters (1999)

It was only four years since his On the Road had become the fictional touchstone of the Beats, but in his letter to Ferlinghetti 60 years ago today, Jack Kerouac was already sounding less “beato” (the Italian for “beatific,” his sense of the West Coast literary movement) than beaten.  

The exhilaration of his recent move to Orlando, Fla., had dissipated, and he was now worrying about his mother’s declining health and grousing about left-wing utopianism that he regarded as insufficiently critical of Soviet totalitarianism and inimical to his beliefs as a self-described “Catholic conservative.” (On “Peace Marchers” recently in the news, he grumbled, “I think they should now endeavor to get permission from the Soviet government to march in Russia in the name of the same peace plea.”)

His death from an abdominal hemorrhage caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking was still eight years off, but Kerouac was even now contemplating posterity. He was lamenting the lost “enthusiasms” of him and his companions, the complications of immense success (“fame kills all”), and what time had undone.

But he was also thinking of restoration—of how preserving his correspondence would enable a deeper, kinder appreciation of his circle in all their humor and humanity.

To a large extent, Kerouac’s faith in these letters was justified. They could not arrest his inexorable physical and creative decline, but they have played their part in the more generous consideration of his early work that has occurred in the last few decades. Moveover, they allow readers to see, without the filter of a biographer, the novelist in all the complications and salvific compassion that governed his life.

Or, as he wrote in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls.”

TV Quote of the Day (‘Game of Thrones,’ on How Olenna Survived ‘A Great Many Clever Men’)

"I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them."— Queen of Thorns Olenna Tyrell (played by Diana Rigg), in Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 2, “Stormborn,” original air date July 23, 2017, teleplay by Bryan Cogman, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire," directed by Mark Mylod

Monday, May 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (Bob Dylan, Looking Ahead to 80 and the Need to ‘Do the Impossible’)

“If I’m here at eighty, I’ll be doing the same thing I’m doing now. This is all I want to do – it’s all I can do . . . I think I’ve always aimed my songs at people who I imagined – maybe falsely so – had the same experiences that I’ve had, who have kind of been through what I’d been through. But I guess a lot of people just haven’t.

“See, I’ve always been just about being an individual, with an individual point of view. If I’ve been about anything, it’s probably that, and to let some people know that it’s possible to do the impossible.

“And that’s really all. If I’ve ever had anything to tell anybody, it’s that you can do the impossible. Anything is possible. And that’s it. No more.”—American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan quoted in Mikal Gilmore, “Bob Dylan at Fifty,” Rolling Stone, May 30, 1991

Bob Dylan may have spoken of being 80 in this interview with Mikal Gilmore, but there surely must have been times when he wondered if he would make it, especially with the brush with mortality that produced his 1997 CD, Time Out of Mind.

Many of us who have listened to the composer of “Forever Young” find it hard to imagine him at such a stage in his life. A poet of the counterculture for nearly as long as baby boomers can remember, he has seen that fringe movement transform into part of the cultural mainstream.

Too bad that Dylan couldn't have paused more often in the “Never-Ending Tour” of live appearances that has ruined his voice to such an extent that it has often hopelessly garbled the delivery of his own lyrics.

But then again, Dylan’s always been about overturning expectations. No sooner had he been labeled “the voice of his generation” than he began to experiment with one genre after another, often trying fans’ patience and loyalty.

For all of these sometimes whiplash-inducing changes in tone, Dylan has remained, Gilmore wrote in Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1998), “a man who isn’t aiming to change the world so much as he’s simply trying to find a way to abide all the heartbreaks and disillusion that result from living in a morally centerless time.”

TV Quote of the Day ('One Day at a Time,’ on Schneider’s Fitness Frustration)

Julie Cooper [played by Mackenzie Phillips]: “Have you been on a diet?”

Dwayne F. Schneider [played by Pat Harrington Jr.]: “No, I've just been workin' out. Me and this young lady been runnin' in the park every morning.”

Julie: “Really? What's her name?”

Schneider: “I don't know. I haven't caught her yet.” —One Day at a Time, Season 3, Episode 9, “Barbara's Friend: Part 1,” original air date Nov. 29, 1977, teleplay by Bud Wiser, directed by Herbert Kenwith

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. John Chrysostom, on Christ’s Word as ‘My Staff’)

“Am I in good heart by my own strength? I hold His written word. This is my staff, this is my courage, this is to me a calm harbour. Even if the world be troubled, I hold that written word; I look up to those words, they are a wall of strength to me. What are they? I am with you always until the consummation of the world. Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? If waves are raging against me, and the fountains of the deep and the passions of princes, all these things are more insignificant than a cobweb.”— Eloquent Archbishop of Constantinople and early Church Father St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407 AD), “Built Upon the Rock” (homily before he went into exile)

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Photo of the Day: Bryant Park, NYC

I took this photo of Bryant Park on Monday just before walking down towards the Garment District to meet a couple of friends for lunch. Since the New York City government did a major clean-up of the park a couple of decades ago, it has become one of Gotham’s favorite places to relax outside, with those trees providing shade and the main branch of the New York Public Library and those skyscrapers serving as an imposing backdrop on the scene.

It was not until a couple of days later that New York announced its dramatic rollback of COVID-19 restrictions, but I think it’s obvious from this photo that many New Yorkers feel more comfortable being out with each other. Over the next several weeks, we’ll see how much of this is premature overconfidence and how much is reasonable certainty that the scourge of this disease is being pushed irretrievably back. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

Quote of the Day (Leonard Cohen, on His Desired Audience)

“I want an audience of inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists, French-Canadian intellectuals, unpublished writers, curious musicians etc., all that holy following of my Art.”—Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), to his publisher in 1960, quoted in Ira Nadel, Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen (2007)

Friday, May 21, 2021

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Spaceballs,’ As ‘Yogurt’ Explains Blockbuster Moneymaking)

Yogurt [played by Mel Brooks]: “Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made! Spaceballs-the T-shirt, Spaceballs-the Coloring Book, Spaceballs-the Lunch box, Spaceballs-the Breakfast Cereal, Spaceballs-the Flame Thrower.”

[turns it on]

Dink, Dink, Dink, Dink, Dink, Dink: “Ooooh!”

Yogurt [reacts to Dinks]: “The kids love this one.”

[A Dink hands him a doll that looks likes Yogurt.]

Yogurt: “And last but not least, Spaceballs the doll: me.”

[Pulls string]

Doll: “‘May the schwartz be with you!’”

Yogurt [kisses the doll]: “Adorable.”— Spaceballs (1987), screenplay by Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan, and Ronny Graham, directed by Mel Brooks

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Quote of the Day (Albert Camus, on ‘Refusing to Bow Down to Pestilence’)

“He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record or what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence, strive their utmost to be healers.”— French Nobel Literature laureate Albert Camus (1913-1960), The Plague (1947)

Camus wrote his novel The Plague as an allegory of the authoritarianism that had enveloped so much of the world in the era between the world wars. In 2020 and 2021, what he saw as metaphor became reality, as COVID-19 often seemed to encourage the fear and ignorance underlying reactionary movements.

With restrictions against the disease increasingly crumbling this week, it is important to absorb Camus’ lessons: that we forget what happened in this mortal struggle at our peril, and that the only way to check both disease and authoritarianism is through eternal vigilance born of the need for unillusioned, unblinkered truth.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Photo of the Day: ‘Pin Cushion,’ Garment District, NYC

Earlier this week, on my way to a lunch appointment, I came across this art installation at the Garment District’s Information Kiosk. I think you can see why it caught my eye, even from down the street.

Patricia Gonzalez and Carlos Franqui of Floratorium, a Wood-Ridge, NJ-based flower and art studio, created the giant Pin Cushion. To say that it is made of wisteria branches and silk flowers doesn’t begin to convey what it took to put this together: more than 50 bales of curly willow, nine wisteria bales, and hundreds of faux hydrangeas, poppies, greenery, and butterflies.

This is one of the street sights that I used to see regularly on my way to and from work, and what I may begin to see more of if COVID-19 loses its grip at last on the tristate area.

Quote of the Day (Jane Smiley, on the Hidden Life)

“Most of your life is hidden from people you see every day, day after day, for years.” —Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Jane Smiley, “It’s Funny What You Remember…”, Reader’s Digest, December 2014-January 2015 issue

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Quote of the Day (Poet Robert Francis, on ‘Who Comes As Light’)

“Who comes as light
Need never wait outside.
Who brings the day
Always has right of way

“To enter here,
Has leave to pass
Instant as light through glass.”—American poet Robert Francis (1901-1987), “Who Comes As Light,” in Collected Poems 1936-1976 (1976)

I took the photo accompanying this post 14 years ago this month in a park in Montclair, NJ.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Photo of the Day: Good Advice on an Outdoor Table Sign

In my hometown of Englewood, NJ, I glimpsed this sign on one of those restaurant tables increasingly popping up with the weather getting warmer. 

But the advice it offers, I think, is evergreen—good at all times, no matter what the season, though remembered more forcefully now than at any other point in most of our lifetimes.

TV Quote of the Day (‘SNL,’ on Tom Cruise’s Return of His Golden Globe Awards)

“It was reported that Tom Cruise protested the lack of diversity at the Hollywood Foreign Press by returning his three Golden Globe statues, which was tough for him because they were sitting on pretty high shelves.”—Michael Che on “Weekend Update” segment, Saturday Night Live, Season 46, Episode 19, original air date May 15, 2021

He didn't have trouble reaching them if he bounced off his coach!

(The attached photo was taken of Tom Cruise speaking at the 2019 San Diego Comic Con International, for Top Gun: Maverick," at the San Diego Convention Center, by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ.)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Photo of the Day: Carnival, Overpeck County Park, Bergen County NJ

This afternoon, I took the attached photo while visiting—or rather, for the longest time, attempting to visit—Overpeck County Park, not far from where I live in Bergen County, NJ. That effort proved so fruitless that I had to park quite a way off, in a lot near a theater.

I thought at first that the throngs outside were merely there to enjoy the warm spring temperatures. But I soon learned otherwise: Unbeknown to me beforehand, this was the third and last day of a carnival being operated to benefit the Teaneck Armory.

In years past, the sight of a crowd at this kind of event would not have bothered me in the slightest. With COVID-19, however, I could not view so many people close to each other, even outdoors, without feeling some residual dread, even after last week's much-trumpeted (if ambiguous) easing of restrictions.

I dearly hope I’m wrong, but we shall see. Somehow, that gray, cloudy sky in this picture seemed an appropriate background for my fears.

This Day in New York History (Seward Senate Speech Marks Him as Prime Anti-Slavery Foe)

March 11, 1850—In his maiden speech as U.S. Senator, the New York Whig William H. Seward denounced the Compromise of 1850, an omnibus legislative package that eased secessionist sentiment in the decade before the Civil War. 

The phrase he coined—“a higher law than the Constitution”—thrust him to the forefront of opposition to slavery, proved a stumbling block to his Presidential ambitions, and posed an enduring question about the relevance of faith- and morality-driven action in American politics.

I doubt if one out of a thousand people who pass the statue accompanying this entry have stopped for more than a couple of seconds to think about its subject. Now in the midst of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s collective biography of Abraham Lincoln’s wartime cabinet,
Team of Rivals, I’ve come to appreciate, maybe for the first time, the opponent-turned-friend of the President, and how much he contributed to the politics of his time, and even of what he means to ours.

As governor of New York in the early 1840s, Seward promoted economic and educational policies meant to open greater opportunities to African-, German- and Irish-Americans who were already forming part of the Democratic coalition. Like John McCain today, he excited a horde of noisome nativists to insane frenzies—in Seward’s case, through a proposal to divert a part of public school funds to parochial schools where Catholic immigrants would not have to worry about Protestant proselytizing. 

(Take note, today’s Republicans: the path to success lies away from fear-mongering about immigrants and the dispossessed. Take note, today’s Democrats: at least some of your “wall of separation” rhetoric about church and state derives from very poisonous roots.)

After a brief hiatus out of office, Seward came back to win a Senate seat, just in time to face the most divisive question of his time: the suddenly real possibility that divisions over slavery could spell the end of the Union.

The Compromise of 1850 was meant to forestall these questions by not giving either North or South entirely what each wanted. The North would get admission of California, almost certain to be a free state, and an end to the slave trade within Washington, D.C. Two other provisions favored the South: the creation of two territories in the Southwest, New Mexico and Utah, with no restrictions on slavery; and strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.

The squall over the Compromise of 1850 is usually remembered as the last hurrah of the Senate’s “
Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, all of whom would be out of the chamber they dominated, even dead, within three years. Webster’s three-hour March 7 oration in support of the package—an action that revolted his anti-slavery base and doomed his flickering Presidential chances but which also turned the tide toward enactment—was celebrated in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and was long memorized by generations of American schoolchildren.

However, the extensive legislative debate, I would argue, also brought to the fore a new generation of political leaders who dominated the antebellum and Civil War eras.
Jefferson Davis assumed the role of Calhoun (so ill that he could not read aloud his fiery speech opposing the bills) as spokesman for the South. Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant” best remembered now for his debates later in the decade with Abraham Lincoln, acted, like Clay, as legislative magician by crafting the legislation and rounding up enough votes to ensure passage.

And Seward took on the part that Webster, in his zeal to preserve the Union, had relinquished: champion of “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Beginning in a low voice decidedly removed from the great tolling bell that was Webster’s, he soon transfixed the Massachusetts Senator and his colleagues.

He could not support the proposals, he said. Strengthening the Fugitive Slave Law was unworthy of “true Christians or real freemen”; not just the slave trade, but slavery itself should not be permitted in the District of Columbia; and he could not abide the introduction of slavery anywhere in the new territories.

Not only the spirit of the Constitution was incompatible with slavery, Seward claimed, but “there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same purposes. The territory is a part…of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe.”

Even though he lost this legislative battle, Seward became the foremost spokesman for free-soil forces in the Senate. But he had provoked so much fierce opposition in the South that his enemies began to approach his friends in number and vehemence.

Political mentor
Thurlow Weed’s confession that Seward’s speech “sent me to bed with a heavy heart” proved all too prescient in 1860. With the Whig Party dead by then, Seward sought the Republican Party nomination for President. But his long public anti-slavery record left such a long public trail that it opened the door to a relative dark-horse candidate: Abraham Lincoln.

Seward’s loyal and able service as Lincoln’s Secretary of State is how posterity fundamentally recalls him, and it’s certainly not a bad claim on our attention. But the “higher law” that this usually affable, conciliatory statesman invoked has, in one fashion or another, convulsed American politics throughout the republic.

In one sense, Seward’s appeal derives from the concept of
natural law that has found advocates from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Jefferson. It also meshes with the theory of civil disobedience formulated by Henry David Thoreau only a year before the Seward speech and perfected as a political tool by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 20th century.

But a “higher law” also has the potential of angering people who might not share one’s religious faith or even notions of morality. Applied to certain issues—Prohibition, abortion—it has polarized the American electorate for decades.

And yet, it would be a mistake to call, as some have done in this election year, for the marginalizing of moral calls to action in the political arena. Refusal to appeal to morality produces consequences in the populace that necessarily reflect the Darwinian atmosphere of politics. Does anyone think that the United States would have been a better nation without the backing that the civil rights movement received from African-American ministers or that the unionists gained from the Roman Catholic Church?

Spiritual Quote of the Day (N. T. Wright, on God As ‘The One Who Satisfies’)

“God is the creator and lover of the world. Jesus spoke of God as ‘the Father who sent me,’ indicating that, as he says elsewhere, ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). Look hard at Jesus, especially as he goes to his death, and you will discover more about God than you could ever have guessed from studying the infinite shining heavens or the moral law within your own conscience. God is the one who satisfies the passion for justice, the longing for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, the yearning for beauty.”— Biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (2006)