Saturday, July 31, 2021

Flashback, July 1871: Death of David H. Todd, Lincoln’s Notorious Confederate In-Law

Less than two weeks after Mary Todd Lincoln mourned the death of her 17-year-old son Tad, the widow of Abraham Lincoln had to deal with the loss of another family member.

But the former First Lady felt far more mixed emotions upon learning of the death from tuberculosis at the end of July 1871 of David Humphreys Todd in Huntsville, AL. It wasn’t just that she was not as close to this half-brother 14 years her junior than she was with the third of her sons to die before reaching adulthood.

No, David would have reminded her of a deeply painful split that mirrored a larger division in all too many American families. Of the 14 offspring of her father, the prominent Kentucky lawyer, soldier and politician Robert Smith Todd, six had sided with the Union while the others supported the Confederacy that President Lincoln had successfully but bloodily suppressed. In this “brothers’ war,” two male Todd siblings died fighting for the South, while two of the Todd daughters (including Mary) lost their husbands during the conflict.

From the age of 14, when David had run away from home to fight in the Mexican War, he had troubled family members with his impulsiveness. Matters would not improve in adulthood, when his actions in the Civil War gave the enemies of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln grist for calumny.

Lack of combat in the Mexican War left David’s appetite for adventure and glory unsatisfied, even as he developed a propensity to drink and gamble. After journeying out to California in 1850 for the gold rush, he went down to Chile the following year to participate in its revolution as “freebooter,” or soldier for hire. The only tangible results of the latter were tattoos he had made. Later in the decade, he worked without making any particular mark for a New Orleans carriage company.

The outbreak of the Civil War put David and his siblings in a quandary. Their plantations and the aristocratic style it supported were unsustainable without slaves.

At the same time, they now had a brother-in-law—previously embraced, through marriage to Mary, as part of the family—who, while willing to permit slavery in states like Kentucky, was committed to halting its expansion into new American territories.

As Stephen Berry noted in his collective biography of the Todds, House of Abraham, these bluegrass bluebloods had, in a sense, become Abraham Lincoln’s surrogate family, filling the void left by an abusive father and a sister who died in childbirth. The fact that he seldom if ever spoke of slaveholders with the blistering rhetoric used by so many abolitionists may have owed something to knowing and cherishing some as in-laws.

That did not mean, however, that he was blind to their faults. One legend had him joking, “God Almighty is perfectly content having one ‘d’ at the end of his name. The Todds insist on having two.” Litigiousness and alcoholism ran as heavily in the family as intelligence and ambition.

As First Lady, Mary was prone to extravagance and outbursts of anger, but her husband’s opponents also engaged in guilt by association in charging her with disloyalty because of some siblings’ support of the Confederacy. The more extreme members of the press even accused her of spying, forcing her husband to appear voluntarily before Congress to deny the rumors.

Negative reports by sensationalistic Northern newspapers—particularly about David, and Mary’s attitude towards him—vexed the Confederate contingent of the family, as seen in this excerpt from a July 1861 letter by Mary’s younger half-sister Elodie:

“I see from today’s paper Mrs. Lincoln is indignant at my Bro. David’s being in the Confederate service and declares ‘that by no word or act of hers should he escape punishment for his treason against her husband’s government should he fall into their hands.’ I do not believe she ever said it and if she did and meant it she is no longer a sister of mine nor deserves to be called a woman of nobleness and truth and God grant my noble and brave-hearted brother will never fall into their hands and have to suffer death twice over, and he could do nothing which could make me prouder of him than he is doing now, fighting for his country. What would she do to me, do you suppose? I have as much to answer for.”

Rushing to the Confederate cause after Fort Sumter, Elodie’s “noble and brave-hearted brother” was assigned to General John H. Winder, commandant of Richmond’s prisons—just as the Confederacy pondered what to do with 1,400 Union prisoners taken at the Battle of Bull Run.

Winder, desiring to move captured Union soldiers away from any campaigns for the Confederate capital, wanted David to transport them to Raleigh, N.C. But before that could happen, these prisoners were ensnared in the propaganda war between North and South.

Separating truth from falsehood was difficult enough while David was alive, but it only grew more so after his death. Records often proved elusive, and the children of family members, recalling events more than half a century later, often compounded the difficulties of historians.

It may very well be that, like Mary, David was more sinner against than sinning. But it is also true that, like her, he was thrust in a situation requiring tact that he didn’t possess.

Before long, David was being accused of cruelty to Northern prisoners at Richmond’s Libby Prison. Although he was not as bad as the notorious Henry Wirz of Andersonville and at least some stories about him appear to have been exaggerated, he angered Union service personnel often: preventing spirits from being brought into the prison, for instance; telling guards in this unventilated, hot converted warehouse to shoot off any part of a body sticking out a window; and, according to Union seaman Lewis Horton, “saber[ing] a poor fellow one day because the prisoner had a small bit of lighted candle in order to see to dress his wound” and executing another for just looking out the window.

By November 1862, David featured prominently in a Harper’s Weekly story on the Confederate ties of Mary’s siblings. The magazine even claimed that Jefferson Davis had fired Mary’s half-brother for inhumane treatment of prisoners after David had been only two months on the job.

If the Confederate President did, in fact, relieve him of this command, David may have felt he was being done a favor. By early 1862, David had had enough, and began to look around to where he could be more useful. 

“Having no duty to perform in this Regt, and nothing to which I can be assigned,” he requested a transfer to New Orleans. He got his wish, at a time when Union forces were pressing hard on the city and the Mississippi, the crucial waterway bringing food, supplies and troops to the Southern cause.

By May he was appearing on the regiment rolls as a lieutenant, and in a few more months he had been promoted to captain in the Siege of Vicksburg. He was gaining a reputation as a fighter, though he would surely not have liked a description of him by a female diarist, Julia Le Grand of New Orleans, as “tall, fat and savage against the Yankees.”

After Vicksburg fell to Ulysses S. Grant in July 1863, Captain Todd was paroled. Any hopes for military glory were fading, as the North consolidated its stranglehold on the deep South and David’s health began to worsen.

It was not true, as some later historians wrote, that David had been “mortally wounded” while defending Vicksburg.

But, in an application for retirement from the army, he explained that he had “been permanently disabled in the service of the Confederate States and in the line of duty, by Phthisis Pulmonulis (i.e. tuberculosis) caused by exposure and from which I have suffered during the past two years with frequent attacks of Hemoptysis (i.e. expectoration of blood). I have been absent from my Command unable to perform duty for the past four months.”

In late 1864, David began to court a young widow, Susie Williamson, in Huntsville, AL. They married April 4, 1865—five days before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, and 10 days before David’s brother-in-law was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.

David was listed as a merchant in the 1870 Census, but he had very little time to succeed in the profession. He died of tuberculosis the following year. As for his half-sister: Throughout the remaining 17 years of her troubled widowhood, Mary Todd Lincoln never saw any of her surviving siblings again.

Quote of the Day (Lord Byron, on ‘The Glad Waters of the Dark Blue Sea’)

“O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts are boundless, and our souls as free,   
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home.” —English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824), The Corsair: A Tale (1814)

I took the image accompanying this post while on vacation in Hilton Head, SC, in November 2014.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Tweet of the Day (Conan O'Brien, on the Two Kinds of Mexican Restaurants)

“There are two kinds of Mexican restaurants. Those that serve fresh authentic cuisine, and ones that serve the cheap, greasy junk I love.”—Comedian Conan O'Brien, tweet of Apr. 11, 2012

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Quote of the Day (J. Geils’ Peter Wolf, on Catching Great ‘60s Acts at the Apollo)

“It was an incredible learning experience of how the artist made himself connect with the audience. The performer and the song became one. They were almost preaching to the audience. If someone was singing a love song, it was like high opera. They’d tear their jacket off, get down on their knees. And you really believed it; it was total credibility.”—Former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, on catching the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, quoted in Rob Hughes, “Maximum R&B,” Classic Rock Magazine, Issue 188 (September 2013)

(The image accompanying this post shows, in performance, Otis Redding, one of Wolf’s objects of veneration.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Quote of the Day (Alice Hoffman, on Writing That Transforms Grittiness Into Magic)

“The idea of magic and reality intertwined is really appealing to me. I lived in a working-class suburb in Long Island, right over the border from Queens, so it was very gritty. Every house was the same. There were no trees. It was neither here nor there. It was the least magical place. And yet it felt magical. If you can view that place with magic, any place can be filled with magic.”—Novelist, short-story writer, and memoirist Alice Hoffman quoted in Hillary Casavant, “How I Write: Alice Hoffman,” The Writer, September 2013

(The image accompanying this post, showing Alice Hoffman at BookExpo in New York City, was taken May 30, 2019 by Rhododendrites.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Quote of the Day (Lisa Miller, on Politicians and Humility)

“When politicians start talking about humility, as they do ritualistically after elections, the warning light on the BS detector goes on. Surely no professional group has a weaker claim to that virtue than today's divided, self-righteous, and spin-savvy politicians. And too often the politicians (and religious leaders) who do make a case for humility have the least basis for doing so. In an August 2007 speech, then–New York governor Eliot Spitzer expounded upon Reinhold Niebuhr and the virtues of humility in the public square. ‘What I'd like to reflect on today, and this may come as a surprise to some of you,’ he said, ‘are the inevitable risks that occur when [political] passion and conviction are not sufficiently tempered by humility.’ Seven months later, he resigned, tagged forever as ‘client No. 9.’”—American journalist Lisa Miller, “Humble Pie Eating Contest,” Newsweek, Nov. 15, 2010

Ms. Miller does not mention that, well before Spitzer became “client No. 9,” he could very easily have been nicknamed “Governor Steamroller” for his snarled boast to a GOP Assemblyman.

These days, I don’t think that Spitzer is as eager to brag about his one lasting claim on America’s cultural consciousness: As an inspiration for the long-running drama series, The Good Wife.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Hallie Cantor, on a New Kind of Dating App)

“Are you on that one where you put your name, age, credit-card number, whatever on your profile and it matches you with other users who have bought the same paper towels and other household goods? And then you get the paper towels, too. It’s sort of a dating app meets, well, a Web site where you buy paper towels. But you save money by getting them every week.”—Writer-comedian Hallie Cantor, “Shouts and Murmurs: Are You on the Apps?,” The New Yorker, Oct. 7, 2019

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Charles Spurgeon, on How Christ ‘Pulls Us to Shore’)

“Faith has a saving connection with Christ. Christ is on the shore, so to speak, holding the rope, and as we lay hold of it with the hand of our confidence, He pulls us to shore; but all good works having no connection with Christ are drifted along down the gulf of fell despair.” — English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), Feathers for Arrows; Or, Illustrations for Preachers and Teachers, from My Notebook (1883)

The image accompanying this post is Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1695), by the Dutch painter Ludolf Backhuysen (1630-1708).

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (Stephen Jay Gould, on the Stability Underlying ‘The Mythology of Baseball’)

“Nothing nourishes the mythology of baseball more than the stability that allows us to grasp the accomplishments of past legends because they played the same games under the same rules. I don’t know how to read the records of early basketball heroes who played in the age of the two-handed dribble and the center jump after each basket (and no slam dunks). But when Roger Maris chased and surpassed the greatest of all records in 1961, Babe Ruth’s 1927 mark of sixty home runs in a season, the whole nation watched during a summer of fascination—and understood. Moreover, although baseball is a team sport, all its actions can be dissected into components of personal contest (batter against pitcher, runner against fielder)—and individual performance therefore obtains an irreducible and measurable meaning. By contrast, achievements in other sports have no separable status, and myths about personal heroes cannot take similar root. Wilt Chamberlain once scored one hundred points in a basketball game—but only because his teammates decided to try the peculiar strategy, a grand joke really, of letting him take all the shots. (Does this theme of personal contest and achievement also help to explain why such a brutal activity as boxing also enjoys a substantial literature?)"—American geologist, biologist, historian of science—and lifelong baseball fan—Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), “Dreams That Money Can Buy,” The New York Review of Books, Nov. 5, 1992

Unless it was under a different title, I did not see this piece in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, the posthumous collection of baseball essays by Stephen Jay Gould. The above paragraph is a good example of the author’s clear, even lively writing style and deep knowledge of his subject.

But its romanticism—a term that Gould did little to disclaim—may have already sounded dated by the time of his death, because of the use of the designated hitter in the American League and, we know now, the widespread prevalence of steroids in the 1990s and early ‘oughts.

Many fans like me have been watching other trends of the last two decades with concern bordering on disgust, including work-stoppage threats, batters’ lack of shame over strikeouts, defensive shifts, and the stress on strikeouts that may be taxing pitchers’ arms.

But in the last two seasons, COVID-19 has introduced new elements into games, such as placing men on second base during extra innings. To use an example that Gould might have appreciated: Under these conditions, how, then, can Gerrit Cole be compared with, say, Christy Mathewson?

More so than ever, I think, because of such changes, player statistics can only be compared with their immediate contemporaries rather than those in the past.

(Speaking of baseball “mythology”: the image accompanying this post shows Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in the 1984 film The Natural. Though the movie adaptation changed quite a bit from Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, the Hobbs character drew on elements of Babe Ruth, Bob Feller, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ted Williams, Sal Maglie, and Eddie Waitkus, a Philadelphia Phillies first baseman shot and wounded in a hotel by a crazed female fan.)

Friday, July 23, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Honeymooners,’ As Ralph Tries Out an Anger-Management Technique on Norton)

Ralph Kramden [played by Jackie Gleason][reciting a mantra he’s been given to deal with his anger and nervousness]: “ ‘Pins and needles, needles and pins, it's a happy man that grins.’ Now, what am I mad about?”

Ed Norton [played by Art Carney]: “They raised the rent 15%.”

[Immediately, a dark cloud crosses Ralph’s face.]—The Honeymooners, Season 1, Episode 24, “Please Leave the Premises,” original air date Mar. 10, 1956, teleplay by Marvin Marx and Walter Stone, directed by Frank Satenstein

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jean Craighead George, on the ‘Night Secrets’ of Plants in Midsummer)

“Plants, too, have their night secrets. Moonflowers, water lilies, and many of the cacti of the desert bloom in darkness, to be pollinated by moths and night flies. One plant specially equipped for the darkness is the yellow evening primrose [pictured], found among many country roads throughout the land. It opens just at dusk, so swiftly that it can be seen—and heard! Many an evening in my childhood, as the sun sank, I would sit down in a clump of these flowers to watch. Presently I would hear a noise like popping soap bubbles, and as I looked closer, I could see the swelling buds burst open.”— Children's author Jean Craighead George (1919-2012), “A Midsummer Night,” Audubon Magazine, July/August 1961

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Quote of the Day (Arnold Bennett, on ‘The Great Cause of Cheering Us All Up’)

“ ‘What a card!’ said one, laughing joyously. ‘He's a rare 'un, no mistake.’

‘Of course, this'll make him more popular than ever,’ said another. ‘We've never had a man to touch him for that.’

‘And yet,’ demanded Councillor Barlow, ‘what's he done? Has he ever done a day's work in his life? What great cause is he identified with?’

‘He's identified,’ said the speaker, ‘with the great cause of cheering us all up.’”—English man of letters Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), The Card: A Story of Adventure in the Five Towns (1911)

Cherish such people in your life, whenever you encounter them. The supply of them is nowhere near as close as the demand.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Quote of the Day (Henry James, on Bewilderment and the Tales We Tell)

"It seems probable that if we were never bewildered there would never be a story to tell about us; we should partake of the superior nature of the all-knowing immortals whose annals are dreadfully dull so long as flurried humans are not, for the positive relief of bored Olympians, mixed up with them." —American man of letters Henry James (1843-1916), Preface to The Princess Casamassima (1886)

Monday, July 19, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ In Which a Certain Classic Movie Is Sent Up)

“I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist it!" —“Starlet O'Hara” (played by Carol Burnett), wearing a “dress” she created from pulling down a drape, in “Went With the Wind” (a Gone With the Wind parody), in The Carol Burnett Show, Season 10, Episode 8, original air date November 13, 1976, written by Rick Hawkins and Liz Sage, directed by Dave Powers

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Poet Christina Rossetti, on the Summer Songs of the Skylark and Nightingale)

“When a mounting skylark sings
  In the sunlit summer morn,
I know that heaven is up on high,
  And on earth are fields of corn.
“But when a nightingale sings
  In the moonlit summer even,
I know not if earth is merely earth,
  Only that heaven is heaven.”— English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), “Sing-Song”—“mounting skylark,” in The Complete Poems, edited by R. W. Crump and Betty S. Flowers (2001)

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (H.G. Wells, on Truth and ‘The Forceps of Our Minds’)

“The forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.”—English novelist, historian and futurist H.G. Wells (1866-1946), A Modern Utopia (1905)

Friday, July 16, 2021

Tweet of the Day (Alyssa Limperis, on a Night Made for Walking)

“ ‘Gorgeous night for a walk’—me moving from couch to chair.” —@alyssalimp, a.k.a. actress-comedian Alyssa Limperis, tweet of Sept. 28, 2020

That amount of activity is especially appropriate for heat waves, such as the ones we’ve been having so far this summer.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Quote of the Day (Joseph Conrad, on Youth Vs. Wealth As Assets)

“The audacity of youth reckons upon what it fancies an unlimited time at its disposal; but a millionaire has unlimited means in his hand—which is better. One's time on earth is an uncertain quantity, but about the long reach of millions there is no doubt.” — Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904)

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Quote of the Day (Aldous Huxley, on Improving)

“There's only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self.” — English novelist/essayist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), Time Must Have a Stop (1944)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Quote of the Day (Marcel Proust, on How the Days in Our Lives Are Not Equal)

“[I]n our life the days are not all equal. To reach the end of a day, natures that are slightly nervous, as mine was, make use, like motor-cars, of different ‘speeds.’ There are mountainous, uncomfortable days, up which one takes an infinite time to pass, and days downward sloping, through which one can go at full tilt, singing as one goes.”—French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Swann’s Way, Vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, translated from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1913-1927)

This past weekend marked the 150th birthday of Marcel Proust, and before the time passed by irrevocably, I really had to take note of it here.

I would not change my basic opinion of the French novelist expressed in this blog post from eight years ago. But the age of COVID-19 has certainly deepened my appreciation for the achievement on which his reputation rests: the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, the result of his massive outburst of “involuntary memory.”

What other major novelist could have not merely survived our pandemic, but thrived? At the height of his powers, Hemingway would have gone crazy without the chance to fish, hunt big game, ski, watch bullfights, or simply drink at cafes. Dickens, unable to tramp the streets of London, would have felt cooped up inside with his wife and kids. Balzac would have bemoaned all those hours not spent in Parisian salons, soaking up social manners. Even Henry James would have withered if he couldn’t have taken afternoon teas with friends.

But Proust? He would have been made for this situation. Asthmatic, he would have been even more determined to shut out the world than he had been when he got down to work in his cork-lined apartment. Though it’s almost impossible to imagine, he might conceivably have produced even more than the 4,000-plus pages and nearly 1.3 million words of his magnum opus. There would have been nothing to distract him from his geyser of memory.

If there is any limit to the devotion of Proust fans, I have yet to discover it. Consider these examples: 

*The presence of multiple blogs paying tribute to him: “182 Days of Marcel Proust,” a journal about reading In Search of Lost Time at the rate of at least ten pages a day; “Proust for All,” with French and English posts; and “Reading Proust for Fun.”

*A book-length analysis of his life and art that functions as a kind of literary self-help manual: Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life; and,

*In a fictional example of this last title, the decision by the title character in Larry McMurtry’s Duane's Depressed (the concluding volume of his “Last Picture Show” Trilogy) to follow his lesbian psychologist’s prescription for his late middle-age melancholy: read Proust. (A remarkable plot development, considering that Duane’s reading to this point in his life has been limited.)

What also fascinates me about Proust is how he represents not just a kind of Mount Everest for readers, but also for filmmakers. For a medium that consists fundamentally of moving pictures, In Search of Lost Time can be a stark challenge: long on leisurely description and rumination, short on dialogue and plot.

But that hasn’t stopped screenwriters and directors from dreaming about bringing the novelist to screens big and small. In 1984, Volker Schlöndorff directed Swann in Love, with Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carrière, Marie-Hélène Estienne, and the director himself taking a crack at Swann’s Way. Raúl Ruiz adapted Time Regained (1999), based on the last novel in the series; and Chantal Akerman's The Captive (2000) focused on the fifth volume, The Prisoner.

Both Luchino Visconsi and Joseph Losey were forced to abandon their plans to adapt In Search of Lost Time when they could not secure enough financing. But in Losey’s case, all was not lost.

In 1978, his collaborator, Harold Pinter, published the unproduced screenplay. Had it been filmed, it would have clocked in at about four hours—pushing the boundaries of visual narrative, just as Proust had stretched what future writers could do with the novel.

(See Peter Bradshaw’s 2013 essay in the British newspaper The Guardian on “the troubled history of Proust on film.”)

Monday, July 12, 2021

Quote of the Day (Terrence McNally, on Theater as a Refuge for Movie Actors)

“The theater has become the Statue of Liberty for movie actors: Give us your tired, your poor, your washed up, your strung out.”—American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter Terrence McNally (1938-2020), It’s Only A Play (1985)

The image accompanying this post, showing Terrence McNally at a New York City event, was taken Nov. 11, 2013, by ReadingReed43.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Rev. Zina Jacque, on Jesus and the ‘Emergent Moment’)

“Our role is to emerge from the fires of hate, racism, economic injustice and climate change. It is in our DNA to emerge. Like the butterfly, effort is required for us to emerge.

“When we do emerge, we will be like Jesus — bringers of truth, walking humbly and loving mercy. We will have a relationship with the divine and we will share that love with all those we meet. We will stand in the gap for those in need and we will be willing to be put outside to bring others in.”— Rev. Zina Jacque, lead pastor of the Community Church of Barrington, IL, “In an Emergent Moment” sermon delivered July 4, 2021, at the Chautauqua Institution (NY), quoted in Mary Lee Talbot, “To Emerge Requires Transformation in Darkness, Waiting and Struggle, Zina Jacque Says,” The Chautauquan Daily, July 7, 2021

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Quote of the Day (Frank O'Hara, on ‘The Spent Purpose of a Perfectly Marvellous Life’)

“The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous
life suddenly glimmers and leaps into flame
it's more difficult than you think to make charcoal
it's also pretty hard to remember life's marvellous
but there it is guttering choking then soaring
in the mirrored room of this consciousness
it's practically a blaze of pure sensibility
and however exaggerated at least somethings going on
and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected
will not sulk or fall into blackness and peat.”—American poet and art critic Frank O'Hara (1926-1966), “In Favor of One's Time,” Poetry Magazine, May 1960, reprinted in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002: Ninety Years of America's Most Distinguished Verse Magazine, edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young (2002)

Friday, July 9, 2021

Radio Quote of the Day (Bob and Ray, on a Corrupt Mayor of 'Skunk Haven, New Jersey')

Journalist [played by Bob Elliott]: “The story of this man’s trial has been front-page news of most newspapers across the country for the past several weeks. He is the corrupt mayor of Skunk Haven, New Jersey, Mayor Ralph ‘Moody’ Thayer. Mayor Thayer…?”

Mayor Thayer [played by Ray Goulding]: “Thank you…”

Journalist: “…Down through the years, through your various administrations, you've managed to riddle each and every department with corruption, from the top all the way through even to the visiting nurse association. I’d like to ask you a question, and don’t answer right away. Give it a little thought. Would you say it's easier to be corrupt now than it was, oh, ten or fifteen years ago?”

Thayer: “Oh, my, yes! Here ten or fifteen years ago it was a disgrace to be corrupt. Now it's a rich, fertile field. I would recommend it to anyone with a devious mind, who is willing to put in long, long hours without working hard.”—Bob Elliott (1923–2016) and Ray Goulding (1922–1990​), “Corrupt Mayor” routine, in their Bob and Ray: The Two and Only LP (1970)

I came across a transcript of this skit (which I have only reproduced in part) while leafing through Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss, Tom Davis’ 2009 memoir of serving as a writer and occasional on-air performance in the early years of Saturday Night Live. I did a double-take when Davis wrote that he and his SNL partner Al Franken “owe no greater debt than to Bob and Ray.”

I was so surprised because SNL humor, especially in its formative years, has tended towards an edgy, irreverent brand of humor seemingly at odds with the older Boston-originating radio comedy legends. (Indeed, in a 1984 interview with Bill Wedo of The Morning Call, Goulding, in a none-too-subtle slap at this style of humor, noted, “You watch them doing jokes about cripples. I don't see anything funny about a cripple.")

Nevertheless, in an appearance on the TV show, the initially reluctant Bob and Ray were convinced by Franken and Davis to perform a skit mocking Rod Stewart’s “"Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

I have another reason for liking Bob and Ray’s “Corrupt Mayor” skit: It evokes knowing chuckles and nods of recognition from anyone hailing from New Jersey. Despite its small size, the state enjoys a well-earned reputation as one of the most corrupt states in the nation. In fact, a 2019 review of political scandals in the Garden State referred to “A Jersey Tradition,” and Steven Malanga’s article from the same year in City Journal castigated “The ‘Miserable’ State.”

What makes this tradition so long-lasting—and such a rich source of comedy for the likes of Bob and Ray—is its bipartisan. In a 2014 post on the burgeoning “Bridgegate” scandal, I took note not only of the culture of contempt that then-Governor Chris Christie imparted to his aides, but also to the arrogance of his Democratic predecessors over the prior decade, Jim McGreevy and Jon Corzine.

“Skunk Haven,” indeed! Pick any spot on the map and you won’t be far from the home and power base of today’s counterpart to Mayor Thayer!

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Quote of the Day (Niccolo Machiavelli, on Cities and Freedom)

“Cities have never expanded either in dominion or in riches if they have not been in freedom.”— Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Discourses on Livy (1517)

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Quote of the Day (Andy Richter, on the Decline of the Late-Night Talk-Show Sidekick)

“Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon existed unto themselves. There was no late-night war. There was no competition. It was just a leisurely conversation. When you look at some of the old interviews that went on for like three acts, they don’t talk about anything. There just was nothing else on. When it started to be a competition, then it started to be about a personality and branding the show based on this one person.”—Talk-show personality (and Conan O'Brien "second banana") Andy Richter, theorizing on how the late-night tradition of talk-show sidekick declined, quoted in Dave Itzkoff, “The Top Second Banana Moves On,” The New York Times, June 27, 2021

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Quote of the Day (Hollywood’s Tim Burton, on Being ‘The Most Normal Person You’ll Ever Meet’)

"Everybody else is peculiar. I’m normal. I’m the most normal person you’ll ever meet. I do use carrier pigeons, though."—American film director Tim Burton (Batman, Edward Scissorhands) quoted in Jennifer Vineyard, “Party Lines,” New York Magazine, Oct. 13-16, 2016

Well, okay...if you say so...

Monday, July 5, 2021

Quote of the Day (Margaret Chase Smith, on How ‘Freedom Unexercised May Be Freedom Forfeited’)

“One of the basic causes for all the trouble in the world today is that people talk too much and think too little. They act too impulsively without thinking. I am not advocating in the slightest that we become mutes with our voices stilled because of fear of criticism of what we might say. That is moral cowardice. And moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk. The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character. The importance of individual thinking to the preservation of our democracy and our freedom cannot be overemphasized. The broader sense of the concept of your role in the defense of democracy is that of the citizen doing his most for the preservation of democracy and peace by independent thinking, making that thinking articulate by translating it into action at the ballot boxes, in the forums, and in everyday life, and being constructive and positive in that thinking and articulation. The most precious thing that democracy gives to us is freedom. You and I cannot escape the fact that the ultimate responsibility for freedom is personal. Our freedoms today are not so much in danger because people are consciously trying to take them away from us as they are in danger because we forget to use them. Freedom unexercised may be freedom forfeited. The preservation of freedom is in the hands of the people themselves — not of the government.” — Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), Republican Senator from Maine, quoted in NEA Journal: The Journal of the National Education Association‎ Vol. 41 (1952)

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Rev. John Witherspoon, on America's 'Cause of Justice, of Liberty, and of Human Nature’)

“You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely confined to those parts of the earth where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle, from the imperfection of human society, and the unjust decisions of usurped authority. There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”—Rev. John Witherspoon (1722-1794), President of Princeton and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men” (May 1776)

In case that surname sounds familiar: Yes, John Witherspoon was indeed an ancestor of Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon—one of her proudest boasts.

As the only clergyman and college president to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Rev. Witherspoon would have commanded a great deal of attention in the Continental Congress and the early republic in any case. Yet he also exerted influence as the teacher of the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison.

Fifteen years ago, in an essay for The New Criterion, Roger Kimball lamented Witherspoon’s status as “The Forgotten Founder.” Unfortunately, if the minister is better known today, it is not because his views on the impact of virtue on republics have become more widely disseminated, but because his status as a slaveholder led the Princeton Board of Education to remove his name from a middle school last year.

You can read more about this decision in this August 2020 article in the Daily Princetonian. It is instructive, however, to note one of the names proposed to replace Witherspoon: Paul Robeson. If the school board hoped for someone with fewer blemishes than Witherspoon for this honor—or for an avoidance of reckoning with a painful past—they were mistaken.

For all their expressed concern about shielding students from a “hostile environment,” the 1,000 signers of the anti-Witherspoon petition and the board of education that supinely followed their lead in removing the cleric’s name only left these youngsters woefully unprepared to survive in a contentious, complicated world—afraid to debate with skillful persuasion the racists of today who pose a real threat, and lacking the traditional adult understanding that even the best of humans are intellectually, emotionally and spiritually disjointed and damaged. 

Sadly, they are as unable to grapple with dissent as hard-right politicians, who—dreading even want a hint that the prominent Texas Revolution members (including Alamo defenders) might have died for the right to own and trade in slaves—have created bills to restrict how this foundational state conflict is taught.

Despite all his legendary achievements as athlete, singer, actor, and activist, Robeson also, as blogger and commentator Andrew Sullivan noted in 2003, eulogized Joseph Stalin, “one of the worst mass murderers in human history,” upon the dictator's passing in 1953. Robeson did not denounce the anti-Semitic campaign that would claim the lives of poet Itzik Feffer within the Soviet Union, nor the Stalinist “cult of personality” revealed by Nikita Khrushchev, nor any aspect of this totalitarian regime.

Certainly Robeson was complex, and a man caught in the uncomfortable coils of his age. Yet the same is true of Witherspoon.

By all means, the manner in which historical figures have fallen short of ideals of justice and equality should be addressed, as it will help the mass of today’s human beings work to surmount their own faults and failings.

But such disclosures about the past should not encourage extremes of lionization and demonization of such legends. Otherwise, the search for elusive blemish-free heroes only repeats what revisionism aimed to avoid in the first place: a continual whitewashing of history. 

That was a mistake that Witherspoon, vitally concerned with “the imperfection of human society,” would never have made.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Quote of the Day (Thomas Wolfe, on Americans’ ‘Almost Quenchless Hope,’ Even Amid the Great Depression)

“It is also true—and this is a curious paradox about America—that these same men who stand upon the corner and wait around on Sunday afternoons for nothing are filled at the same time with an almost quenchless hope, an almost boundless optimism, an almost indestructible belief that something is bound to turn up, something is sure to happen. This is a peculiar quality of the American soul, and it contributes largely to the strange enigma of our life, which is so incredibly mixed of harshness and of tenderness, of innocence and of crime, of loneliness and of good fellowship, of desolation and of exultant hope, of terror and of courage, of nameless fear and of soaring conviction, of brutal, empty, naked, bleak, corrosive ugliness, and of beauty so lovely and so overwhelming that the tongue is stopped by it, and the language for it has not yet been uttered.”—American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), You Can’t Go Home Again (1940)

Friday, July 2, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Addams Family,’ As Morticia Demonstrates Her Knowledge of American History)

Morticia Frump Addams [played by Carolyn Jones]: "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.'"

Gomez Addams [played by John Astin]: “Lincoln?”

Morticia: “Jefferson.”— The Addams Family, Season 2, Episode 10, “Gomez, the Reluctant Lover,” original air date Nov. 19, 1965, teleplay by Charles R. Marion and Leo Rifkin, directed by Sidney Lanfield

What better intro to the Fourth of July weekend than this unexpected morsel of U.S. history?

I would love to see Morticia Addams on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. True, she might need an English major (especially one familiar with the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson) as a lifeline. But it would be so much fun to watch this delicious matriarch of the offbeat Sixties sitcom hobble over to the podium in those tiny steps in that black form-fitting gown.

Her answers would be so loopy that fans would boo the real ones offered by the host as dreadfully uninspired. And, with the devoted but delightfully demented Gomez cheering her on in the audience, anything could happen. (How about Lurch as the next host, with Thing silently but visibly providing the answers?)

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Quote of the Day (David McCullough, on History As ‘Something Someone Would Want To Read’)

“There should be no hesitation ever about giving anyone a book to enjoy, at any age. There should be no hesitation about teaching future teachers with books they will enjoy. No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read."—Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian David McCullough, The Course of Human Events” (National Endowment for the Humanities, Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, 2003)

This is an especially important consideration as we enter the Fourth of July weekend…