Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Friar Louis: The Silent Yes


Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, poet and religious writer, known as "Friar Louis," was born on this day in 1915 in Prades, France to a New Zealand painter and his American wife.

Despite having taken vows of silence as a Trappist monk at the age of 26, through his writings Thomas Merton became a leader in the revival of Catholic monasticism after World War II, a voice for social justice during the 1950s and 60s and an important Western interpreter of Asian mysticism.

His mother died when he was 6, and his father kept him in school in Bermuda, New York, France and England until his death in 1931. The promising youth received a scholarship to Cambridge in 1933, but after a chaotic year in which it is believed he fathered a child out of wedlock, his guardian removed him from Cambridge and sent him to Columbia University, where he met his future lifelong correspondents, painter Ad Reinhardt and poet Robert Lax, and received his bachelor's degree in English in 1938. Under Mark Van Doren he wrote a master's thesis on William Blake and, influenced by his studies of medieval philosophy, he converted to Catholicism.

After a teaching stint and an attempt to enter the Franciscans, Merton became a Trappist monk, entering the monastery of the Cistercians of Strict Observance, Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky in 1941. Although his vow of silence initially imposed severe restrictions on his writing, eventually his superiors at the monastery gave him writing assignments, permitting him to publish poems and literary criticism during the 1940s, culminating in the administration's suggestion that he write the story of his own conversion. His spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) became a word-of-mouth best-seller, and Merton's living example of prayer, asceticism and contemplative silence was a breath of fresh air for intellectual Catholics embarrassed by the shallow accessibility of media Catholics such as Father Coughlin, Fulton Sheen and, of course, Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944).

Still, Merton was a reluctant celebrity, choosing to focus on monastery activities, attaining the position of master of novices in 1955. He again came into conflict with his vow of silence as his writing began to advocate social justice, pacifism, racial harmony and the need for political activism through the church -- views eventually shared, however, in the attitudes of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on human problems and the needs of secular society. Thus by the late 1950s Merton was virtually free to publish anything he wished -- though at least some of his writings continued to wrestle with the paradox of being the monk isolated from the world yet making a political choice not to ignore its ills.

At that time, his interest in Eastern religion, particularly Zen Buddhism, blossomed. In Zen, he found new modes of expression for his ascetic outlook, which he explored in such works as A Search for Solitude (1952-60), Mystics and Zen Masters (1961) and Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968, including a dialogue with D.T. Suzuki). In the 1960s, he was granted permission to leave the monastery to live as a hermit on the grounds, but his fame interfered with his desire for seclusion as he greeted curious visitors and admirers from Joan Baez to Jacques Maritain and Daniel Berrigan.

In 1968, he prevailed upon his superiors to permit him to travel to Asia, where he met with the Dalai Lama and addressed Buddhist monks in Thailand. Sadly, while visiting Thailand Merton was accidentally electrocuted to death by a defective fan on December 10, 1968 -- 27 years to the day from his entrance to the monastery. Since his death, Merton's socially and politically-tinged writings, including Disputed Questions (1960), Seeds of Destruction (1964) and Faith and Violence (1968) have risen in reputation and influence, along with numerous posthumously published journals.

For more information, see also The Thomas Merton Center.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

FDR


For most of America, during an unprecedented 12-year tenure as leader of the free world, Franklin Roosevelt's decisive action in the face of the 20th century's harshest adversity and his elegance in articulating a vision of America's future were inspiring, making him among the best loved of U.S. presidents; the substance of his vision and the procedural impertinence (even ruthlessness) with which he sometimes advanced it, made him, in certain conservative circles, among the most hated presidents.

Although he did not win all of his political battles, opposition mattered little to Roosevelt the human being: in both public and private life, he operated with the utmost confidence in his own abilities, in the correctness of his purpose and in the inevitability of his victory.

The only child of Manhattan patricians (his father had another son by his first wife), Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 5th cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, and grew up protected in the reflected glory of his highly respected father (a successful corporate lawyer) as well as his famous cousin. He was a bright if careless student at Groton and Harvard, earning "gentlemanly" Cs on his report cards while his smoothness landed him the editorship of the Harvard Crimson.

He married his shy, somewhat plain distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt's niece Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1905; her sharp intellect and social concern were among the qualities which attracted the dashing Franklin to Eleanor, but over the years their marriage became more of a mutually respectful, energetic political alliance, particularly after her discovery of his affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918 and his subsequent affair with secretary Missy LeHand.

He entered Columbia Law School in 1904, stayed long enough to pass the bar exam and immediately entered a prestigious New York firm, where he practiced until 1910, when Democratic leaders persuaded him to run for state senate in a heavily Republican district. He proved to be a charming person-to-person campaigner and won an upset victory, positioning himself as a reform Democrat without ties to the Tammany Hall machine. As an early supporter of Woodrow Wilson (who once referred to Roosevelt as the "handsomest young giant" he had ever seen), he was rewarded by being appointed U.S. assistant secretary of the Navy, where he was pro-expansion and an early advocate of U.S. entry into World War I. He resigned in 1920, at 38, to accept the Democratic nomination for vice president on the ticket with James Cox; and although Cox and Roosevelt lost to Harding and Coolidge in a landslide, Roosevelt's public style earned him a reputation as the brightest prospect in the Democratic Party.

He returned to private practice, but soon was overtaken by his greatest personal trial. While yachting at the family's summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick, Canada, Roosevelt pulled ashore with his sons to help put out a forest fire on a small island, then took a swim in the icy bay to cool off. That evening he was plagued by pain and chills, and by the next morning he could not move his legs. Only a week later did he learn that he had contracted poliomyelitis; and at 39, he suddenly found himself permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He devoted himself to physical rehabilitation for the next 3 years -- exercising, taking water therapy and learning how to stand with heavy braces -- emerging triumphantly in 1924 to take the podium at the Democratic National Convention to place Al Smith's name in nomination for president. Smith lost the nomination to John Davis, but when Roosevelt called Smith the "Happy Warrior," many of those in attendance saw the ebullient Roosevelt gripping the podium and thought the nickname probably applied to Roosevelt himself as well as anyone. His paralysis never had a serious impact on the way the American electorate perceived him (generally, it was hidden from their view), unless it was to enhance their idea of him as a courageous man who could battle the worst and come out surviving.

As Smith left the governorship of New York for his unsuccessful bid as Democratic nominee for president in 1928, Roosevelt was narrowly elected as Smith's successor in Albany. Roosevelt the governor set the patterns which would mark his approach to domestic affairs as president: to combat poverty during the earliest days of the Depression, he was proactive, easing credit, organizing aid and launching public works programs to stimulate jobs and economic activity. As the Depression wore on, his record in New York gave him a platform for running for president, and with some effort (led by strategist Jim Farley) he managed to out-distance Al Smith and John Nance Garner (whom he chose as his running mate) for the Democratic nomination in 1932, promising a "new deal" for the American people.

He won a landslide victory against the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who was popularly blamed for the Depression, and began what was to become the longest presidential administration in American history: Roosevelt won again with Garner in 1936, beating Kansas governor Alf Landon; became the first president to seek a third consecutive term in 1940, inviting Henry Wallace onto the ticket and beating industrialist Wendell Willkie; and won a 4th time in 1944, with Harry S. Truman as his running mate, beating New York governor Thomas Dewey.

Roosevelt wasted no time in addressing the Depression, laying out the basic elements of the New Deal within his first 100 days in office. The day he took office, telling the nation that the only thing it had to fear "was fear itself," the banking industry was in a state of collapse as "bank runs" by nervous depositors caused panic in the streets; Roosevelt countered almost immediately with a 4-day closure of banks nationwide (the "bank holiday"), during which banks were audited by the federal government and were reopened on a showing of soundness, a move which restored public confidence in the U.S. banking system. Regulation and expansion carried most of the orders of the day -- new banking legislation which prohibited speculative investments by depositary institutions; new securities legislation regulating public disclosure by trading companies, and limitations on margin investment; new labor legislation authorizing collective bargaining; the creation of the social security system; the end of Prohibition; and the establishment of major public works programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (for road building and flood control), the Tennessee Valley Authority (for the conversion of the Tennessee River floodwaters into rural electrical power), the Works Progress Administration (for the construction of public buildings and bridges as well as for the encouragement of government-sponsored art projects).

With Garner's assistance initially, Roosevelt's plans marched easily through Congress; but the conservative U.S. Supreme Court declared some of his legislation to be unconstitutional, leading Roosevelt to propose a controversial plan to permit him to expand the Supreme Court and appoint 6 additional Supreme Court justices in 1937. Roosevelt's political enemies, those who philosophically disagreed with Roosevelt's paternalistic approach to the economy (even if it seemed, to some, to be effective) saw the "court packing plan" to be further evidence of Roosevelt's maniacal power-grabbing, and even his supporters were appalled by its implications.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt enjoyed enormous popularity, connecting with the average voter in a way in which no previous president had with his periodic "fireside chats," intimate radio broadcasts in which by way of his rich voice, blue-blooded diction and rallying optimism Roosevelt soothed America's worst fears. His voice is what most Americans remembered about December 7, 1941, "a date that will live in infamy" as Roosevelt called it, when Japanese aircraft attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. While Hitler had begun his march across Europe in 1939, Roosevelt followed American public opinion by maintaining neutrality, but after the fall of France he privately met with British prime minister Winston Churchill and pledged U.S. support in destroying Nazi Germany. He had no political leverage for an all-out entry into World War II until Pearl Harbor, but after December 7, 1941, Congress acted quickly to give Roosevelt a declaration of war and a free hand in foreign policy -- a much freer hand than he had ever been given in domestic affairs, and one which incidentally gave him the ability to effect important changes in the domestic scene, including the encouragement of a war-time industrial mobilization which resulted in the strongest economy since before the Depression. Dictating the broad outlines of military strategy in collaboration with Churchill, Roosevelt surrounded himself with able advisors and generals to refine and carry out the plans.

By February 1945, the U.S. war plans resulted in the destruction of the Japanese navy and the liberation of Paris, while in the East the Soviet Union broke the Nazis' siege of Leningrad and pushed them back westward. With the end of the War on the horizon, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta to discuss its aftermath, and Roosevelt and Churchill offered Stalin power-balancing concessions in Europe in an effort to get the Soviets to assist in the final stages of the war against Japan -- a move which left its indelible imprint on the map of Europe and charted the chilly course of East-West relations for the rest of the 20th century. Still, Roosevelt's vision of the new world order and the new United Nations required balance and interdependence, as well as firmness and ongoing consultation, which need not have inevitably resulted in a Cold War; without his optimism and confidence, a long winter did most assuredly draw in.

Roosevelt had been in deteriorating health since before the 1944 election, and on his return from Yalta, he went to Warm Springs, Georgia to recuperate. He died there of a cerebral hemorrhage. Although the White House was left without its leading spark, Roosevelt had transformed the executive office of the president into a kind of well-oiled governing machine with talent and resources to affect policy through White House-led legislative activism, executive implementation and management of public opinion. It would be these earmarks of the modern American presidency which would be Franklin Roosevelt's most significant legacy.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Doing 'a Quick Jackson Pollock'


"He was full of sh*t like everyone else." -- Art critic Clement Greenberg

Jackson Pollock, the catalyzing force of Abstract Expressionism known as "Jack the Dripper," was born on this day in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming.

A student of Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock's early work consisted mostly of nervous figurative paintings, but by 1947, he had thrown away both pencil and brush, constructing spontaneously/intuitively designed networks of lines across drips and splatters on large canvases laid out on his studio floor. His unique approach grew out of his rebellion from his formal training -- by dripping over his canvases, he could avoid thinking about the position of his brush and his wrist and his elbow in an academic way, and could liberate the creative process.

Although he became a poster-boy for the apparent randomness of modern art (in part, through the enthusiastic support of critics like the afore-quoted Greenberg), his canvases were anything but random; at close study they reveal a consistency of plan and personality, with numerous shades of feeling and tantalizing ambiguities. In Pollock's larger canvases, painting was no longer a scene to be viewed on a wall, but a fluttering environment, enveloping the viewer.

His contemporaries certainly found inspiration in his work -- deKooning wrote "[E]very so often a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again."

Pollock died in a car crash while driving drunk, August 11, 1956 in East Hampton, New York, leaving behind his wife, painter Lee Krasner.

Pollock's methodology is probably more famous than all of his individual paintings combined, causing his name to enter the lexicon (sort of), as in the instruction of British TV chef Nigella Lawson to do a "quick Jackson Pollock with the olive oil." Such pop culture sprinklings -- along with increasing sales prices for his works at auction in recent years, and the 2003 revelation that a retired long-haul truck driver who purchased a funny looking canvas for $5 at a roadside thrift store several years ago had suddenly discovered that she might be the owner of a $20 million Pollock original -- have helped to catapult Pollock to a posthumous comeback. Inevitably, Hollywood got into the act as well -- his alcoholism, self-doubt and mercuriality were chronicled in Ed Harris' film Pollock (2000), and were referenced in a cloning fantasy, Pollock Squared (2003).

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Mozart


At age 3, he was playing the keyboard; at 5, he was composing music; and at 6, his father Leopold, music director to Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach of Salzburg and a well-known violin teacher, took little Wolfgang Theophilus ("Amadeus") Mozart and his sister Anna Maria on a grueling tour to display their talents to the crowned heads of Europe.

He was hailed as a master virtuoso, even as he sat in the lap of Empress Maria Theresa and cheekily proposed to her little rug-rat Marie Antoinette. In short, Wolfgang Mozart (born on this day in 1756 in Salzburg) was an 18th century child star who grew up with a child star's typical lack of a fully-formed perspective on real life. Did this lack of perspective cripple his creativity and leave him with a pathologically underdeveloped conscience, driving him, like little Alfalfa Switzer or little Dana Plato, to a miserable, pathetic final chapter of the kind that gets played out, gleefully and often, on an episode of E! True Hollywood Story?

Not even close. For one thing, Mozart's life, while cut short by illness, was not a story of poverty and ruin; he was bad with decisions about money, but had paid his debts by the time of his death and seemed poised to enjoy a period of affluence. Secondly, unlike sitcom kids who show up in police reports, whose brittle fame rests upon a relatively unassuming charm which does not age well, Mozart's talent was genuine, deep and ever maturing.

One of the side effects of spending most of his childhood on the road was that Mozart's sponge-like mind absorbed the best of what he had heard, permitting him to create a composition style that was a synthesis of classical forms as they were variously interpreted around Europe. Stylistically, he was no innovator, but rather he wrote in the modes of his friends and mentors Johann Christian Bach (whom Mozart met in London in 1764) and Franz Joseph Haydn, infusing his music with an effortless balance in which every note is essential. His absolute pitch and his ability to remember, note for ever-loving note, long and complex passages of music are legendary; while combing through the Italian classical style in Rome during his teens, he once wrote down the entire score of Allegri's unpublished Miserere after two listenings, leading the astonished Clement XIV to bestow a papal knighthood on him.

While this man-child's days were filled with noisy parties, flowing wine, flirtatious women and fart jokes, music was in both form and substance the entire fabric of his inner life, and it was as easy as breathing for him. It has often been said that while Beethoven labors to show his listeners every drop of sweat in his music, Mozart makes it all sound so simple that one can easily miss how remarkable his creations are. His work habits, well-illustrated in Milos Forman's film Amadeus (1984, based on Peter Shaffer's 1979 play), often involved composing entire pieces in his mind, sometimes while occupying himself with billiards, and waiting for the pressure of a deadline to force him to put pen to paper. When the pressure came, he might sit up all night scribbling out what he had in his head, fine-tuning his fully-formed passages as though improvising at the keyboard, with barely ever a revision.

By the age of 15 he had composed about 100 pieces, helped along by the indulgence of Archbishop von Schrattenbach, who permitted Mozart to go on tour and find other commissions. After von Schrattenbach's death in 1771, however, Mozart found himself attached to a less understanding master, Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, who didn't think servants ought to have any lives, creative or otherwise, outside of their duties to him. Mozart nevertheless spent as much time away from sleepy Salzburg as he could, settling for a time in Paris, where the 22-year old tried to support himself by teaching and composing. Mozart's restlessness, and his insubordinate attitude, culminated in the firing of both Wolfgang and his father in 1781 (Mozart was actually physically ejected from the archbishop's home) -- just as his first mature stage work, the opera Idomeneo, was opening in Munich to much acclaim.

He moved to Vienna, vowing to be a successful freelance composer and not someone's servant, and fell in with the Weber sisters, some singers he had met in Paris; against his father's wishes, after being turned down by the eldest sister, Wolfgang married Constanze Weber in 1782. At that moment, he was the toast of Vienna (and the envy of his rival composers) for his comic singspiel, The Abduction from the Seraglio, with its voguish Ottoman motif. Thus, he began his Vienna period, his final 9 years, as a newlywed with greater responsibilities and debts, and as the ditty-writing flavor-of-the-month.

His Vienna period, however, would represent an unmatched period of brilliance and creativity. In the months following the Abduction, Mozart would display his unique blend of German technical mastery and veiled Italianate passion in chamber works (such as the Quintet in E-flat for Horn & Strings, 1782; the Quintet in E-flat for Piano & Winds, 1784; and the 6 "Haydn" Quartets, dedicated to his old friend, 1782-5), two of the finest concertos for piano (No. 20 in D, February 1785; and No. 21 in C, March 1785) and symphonies (notably No. 35 in D, the brisk "Haffner," 1782; and No. 36 in C, "Linz," 1783).

Opera, however, paid the bills, and Mozart expressed his desire to write a comic opera based on Beaumarchais' notorious play The Marriage of Figaro. Although Joseph II had banned the play, the Emperor lifted his ban for Mozart's benefit, perhaps at the urging of rivals such as Antonio Salieri who hoped to see him fail. Mozart's new opera (1786, with a libretto by the rakish Lorenzo Da Ponte), full of bright, singable numbers, was a success at its premiere, but it was a tad controversial for its jabs at nobility, and it quickly closed. The fact that Figaro played well in Prague was of little financial comfort to Mozart, until he and Da Ponte received a commission from Prague for another opera, Don Giovanni (1787), a heady mixture of mythological allusion, broad comedy and tragedy which was another rousing success in Prague. In Vienna, however, Joseph II supposedly said that the opera had "too many notes," damning it to another short run.

Even in dire financial straits, however, Mozart's inspiration could not be checked: his most famous melody, the irrepressibly charming Serenade for Strings in G ("Eine kleine nachtmusik") came in the summer of 1787; and during 6 weeks in the summer of 1788, he wrote what would be his last 3 symphonies -- No. 39 in E-flat, No. 40 in G minor, and the transcendent "Jupiter," No. 41 in C -- bringing the "[c]lassical symphonic form to the highest perfection it would ever reach" (Swafford).

His last collaboration with Da Ponte, Cosi fan tutte (1790), a comic opera dressed in earnest music, was their least popular; but Mozart would follow it with what some say was his finest stage piece, The Magic Flute (1791). Composed at the behest of one of his freemason drinking buddies, a pop stage hack and impresario named Emanuel Schikaneder, the libretto was based on a fairy tale that appeared in Christoph Wieland's Dschinnistan. Schikaneder planned a slapstick farce, wrapped around Masonic symbolism and a grinning dose of misogyny; Mozart wrote music for it that transcended Schikaneder's cheesy sketches, creating something noble, beautiful and ultimately inspiring.

Nonetheless, before The Magic Flute premiered, Mozart knew he was gravely ill (perhaps from a kidney disorder), a fact that made the arrival of a mysterious guest who wished to commission a requiem mass all the more foreboding. As it turned out, the visitor was not Salieri (as Forman and Shaffer would have it), but a representative of Count Franz von Walsegg, a musical dilletante who planned to claim the Requiem as his own after Mozart's death. To complete it, Mozart indeed wrote himself to the brink of death, and in the fragment, one can hear that it comes from a man who was facing his own mortality. Dictating from his deathbed, with meddling doctors prescribing irritants, he received the news that The Magic Flute was a crowd-pleaser, and died at the age of 35, leaving the Requiem unfinished. (It was later ably completed by his pupil Franz Sussmayr.)

Contrary to legend, he was not buried in a pauper's grave, though it was an anonymous mass grave, in accordance with Joseph II's contemporary health decrees. His memorial service in Prague was attended by thousands, and few of the musical cognoscenti doubted that the world had lost a genius. For awhile he fell out of favor, muffled by Beethoven's pyrotechnics, but composers always understood Mozart's perfection, and by the 20th century, certainly, Mozart's place of honor within the pantheon of the world's great artists (not just the composers, mind you) was unassailable.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

St. Timothy


The feast of St. Timothy -- a 1st century disciple of St. Paul, bishop and martyr -- is celebrated on this day.

Timothy’s story is a study in the tensions Christianity endured in the Jewish world during its earliest days. Timothy's father was a Christian adherent and his mother, Eunice, was a Jewish woman. After studying the scriptures and expressing his desire to follow Paul in his mission of conversion, Paul asked young Timothy, because of his mixed background, to be circumcised so as to make him acceptable to "Jewish Christians" who followed the Jewish hygiene laws.

It was a purely political request on Paul’s part, in that Paul himself did not view circumcision as an essential ritual -- but, man, I mean, it was a little more drastic than when Disneyland used to require me to cut my hair short when I worked there back in the 80s! Furthermore, it is kind of remarkable in that it suggests that perhaps Jewish Christians were in the habit of checking under the tunics of their spiritual guides so they could prejudge their credence and theological validity. Be that as it may . . . in adult males, the bleeding from a circumcision is typically quite extensive, I'm told, so Timothy's sacrifice should be considered to be a significant one due to the pain involved -- just as it was painful for the thousands of adult Jewish males who left the Soviet Union in the 1980s and underwent the same experience after having lived under a regime which prohibited circumcision.

At any rate, after his circumcision, Timothy traveled with Paul and went as Paul’s representative to Thessalonica, Macedonia and Corinth, reminding the locals of Paul’s teaching and sending back reports which occasionally inspired Paul to write epistles (i.e. the epistles to the Corinthians, Thessalonians, etc.). Two of Paul’s letters to Timothy have become books of the New Testament, the first written in Macedonia in 65 and the second written from Paul’s prison cell in Rome shortly before his execution.

Later legend holds that Timothy became bishop of Ephesus and died in a shower of stones as he attempted to stop the celebration of Katagogia, a pagan festival in honor of Dionysius.

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John Major in Pittsburgh


"Fifty years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and -- as George Orwell said -- old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist. And, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read -- even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials." -- John Major, 1993.

Lawrence: You'd be surprised how little power politicians have actually got these days, in the end.
Gina:
Except John Major . . . Enormous sexual power.
Lawrence:
Do you think so?
Gina:
Definitely . . . Dirty, dirty, dirty John.
-- from The Girl in the Café (2005)

Americans get confused about British politicians. We try to place them somewhere within the idiosyncratic American political spectrum -- with its Evangelical Right, Reagan Democrats, Libertarians, isolationist Republicans and Populists – and frankly, we come up empty-handed.

Which is why, perhaps, people were so surprised to hear, during an address in Pittsburgh last night, Sir John Major -- former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and former leader of British Conservatives (1990-7) -- declare that “If it is right and proper to fight and win the war against terrorism, then it is right and proper to fight and win the war against poverty.” Bless me, a conservative talking about world poverty.

When we think of British Conservatives, our minds inevitably drift first to Margaret Thatcher, Major’s political mentor, whose solidarity with our own Ronald Reagan seemed to us to be complete and unshakeable – even if the British held a different view of that same alliance. But Major ultimately represented a more moderate wing of the Conservative Party in some respects – to the point that when he was finished with his tenure at 10 Downing Street, it was the Euro-skeptical/isolationist conservative wing of the Conservative Party who beat the drum of change and ended up in control of the Party machinery. Major was, and is, no isolationist, and though he kept his options open regarding the Euro for most of his term, his vision of the world is one of a global economy.

It can be theorized that Major comes to his internationalism naturally enough. I was surprised to learn last night that Major’s father lived in Pittsburgh during his formative years, while Major’s grandfather toiled away at building Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills. (I guess I hadn’t paid attention to that particular fact before). With Pittsburgh as an ancestral second home, Major indulged the crowd at the beginning of last night’s address by declaring his support for the Steelers as they head to the Super Bowl, and waved a “Terrible Towel” to prove the point. Regarding the formation of Major’s views on globalism, no doubt a more important influence than his Pittsburgh connection was his time working in the British financial world in Africa.

Despite his background in chartered accountancy, Sir John showed himself last night to be a sharper and much wittier character than he is often portrayed to be, equipped with a collection of good Yeltsin and Gorbachev anecdotes (including a description of the first revelation to British intelligence that Yeltsin could speak any English at all, which occurred when Major suggested they have a drink at a local pub near Checquers – “Gin-and-Tonic! Gin-and-Tonic!” was allegedly Yeltsin’s enthusiastic English reply), some quite human observations about the ordeal of “Question Time” in the House of Commons (“The objective of the opposition is to make the Prime Minister look silly; the objective of the ruling party is to make the opposition look like fools who are incapable of forming a government; and the Prime Minister’s objective is to get out alive”), and a few thoughts about his long-standing friendship with Mick Jagger (“He’s older than me, as I like to remind him”; they apparently bonded over cricket).

Cricket is just one of the two passions of his life, however. Major admits to being a political junkie from adolescence, having been brought to the House of Commons to witness debates by the Labour MP from his riding, the impoverished Brixton section of South London, where his family moved when he was 10 after his father suffered a terminal financial setback. Although he grew up among Labourites, he explains that his conservatism grew out of the observation that “here was one group [Labour] that said, stay where you are and we’ll send help soon, and here was another group [Conservatives] that tried to improve conditions throughout the country and make it possible for me to pull myself out of poverty.”

That’s a classic statement of British Conservatism, just as it is a classic statement of American fiscal conservatism. But Major does belie his ideological safety zones when he begins to throw out statistics about world poverty – that, for example, 6 billion people live on Earth, and about half of them live on less than the equivalent of $2 a day; and that while the wealthy nations spend billions on helping the impoverished, they spend a multiple of that budget on agricultural subsidies, or in effect, on making food less expensive for the wealthiest people in the world. These are statistics you are likely to hear coming from the protesters outside the G8 Summit, and not so much from the former leader of the British Conservatives.

Major’s principal point, however, is that terrorism is born of poverty, particularly in a world where there is such a chasm between the wealthy and the poor. Terrorism is ultimately ineffective as a tool for political change, he says, but it does have a life of its own in the face of such economic disparity. As much as we spend our time and fortunes on military and security solutions to address the worst effects of terrorism, we must address the underlying economic issues that produce the breeding grounds for terrorists.

Major doesn’t address the economic solutions themselves to any great degree – here again is where the ideological safety zones envelope him – but he does project that refreshing, if somewhat blinkered, masculine optimism, blended with moist-eyed nostalgia, that no doubt is at the root of both of the quotes at the beginning of this post. “We will succeed -- because we must,” seems to be his message – which at least shows a greater sense of urgency over the issue of world poverty than we hear from most American politicians -- conservative, moderate or liberal.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Pink Flamingos


Don Featherstone, the designer of the original pink flamingo plastic lawn ornament, was born on this day in 1936. He came to Union Products in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1957 as a lowly grad of the Worcester Art Museum School and was asked to design a plastic lawn duck. The flamingo, which he fashioned out of clay, was his second design for Union Products, and it became a classic of suburban kitsch/Americana.

In 1996, Featherstone bought Union Products from his lifelong employers. The company has a catalog of 600-800 plastic products for the home garden, many of which were originally sculpted by Featherstone.

"[C]onverting a sculpture to plastic forces you to be an engineer to some extent, to come to grips with the strengths and limitations of plastic. My pink flamingo would look a lot different if I'd made it out of bronze." -- Don Featherstone

[Read more about Don Featherstone's creation in The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass by Featherstone and Tom Herzing.]

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Heavy Loads



You don't hear much these days about Frank Gehry trying to get his own play produced on Broadway, or about David Mamet designing a retirement villa for the George W. Bushes. In 18th century England, however, creative men weren't as constrained by the expectations of specialization as they seem to be today.

Sir John Vanbrugh, architect and playwright, was born on this day in 1664 in London.

Vanbrugh wrote his hit play The Relapse (1697) in a matter of a few weeks after watching Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and wondering what would happen if one picked up the action where Cibber left off.

Vanbrugh later delved into architecture, co-designing (with Nicholas Hawksmoor) Blenheim Palace for the Duke of Marlborough -- subsequently the site of the birth of Marlborough's descendant, Winston Churchill. The first time I visited the grounds of Blenheim Palace I was 13, and subsequently, it was a mere cycle ride away from my one-time home at Crick Road, Oxford, in the tranquil Oxfordshire countryside. One's instant impression of Blenheim is of its massiveness -- like a filigreed anvil dropped unceremoniously onto a baby's blanket -- although after contemporary jeers, Blenheim Palace has come to be known as a textbook example of the English baroque style. Vanburgh also designed a number of other thick, massive structures, including Castle Howard in Yorkshire (known to many as "Brideshead" in the TV series) and Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland.

Abel Evans wrote a mock epitaph on Vanbrugh which went, “Lie heavy on him, earth, for he/ Laid many heavy loads on thee.”

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Monday, January 23, 2006

'Hands Up!': The Other Silent Griffith


Someone did me a great favor at the end of last year. I was all set to write a letter nominating the 1926 comedy Hands Up! to the National Film Registry, when lo-and-behold, Hands Up! actually turned up on the 2005 list of new additions. We hope this will ensure that this sadly underappreciated film will now have resources devoted to its preservation, and that my former teacher David Shepard will finally convince Paramount to release it on DVD.

The film's creator, silent comedian Raymond Griffith (no relation to D.W.) was born on this day in 1890 in Boston. Griffith -- who came from a theatrical family and had appeared on stage since infancy -- entered films in 1914 and learned his craft at the knee of Mack Sennett. Unlike most of the frantic comedians of Sennett's school, however, Griffith's comic persona was understated, even debonair -- he wore a neatly trimmed moustache and slicked hairstyle in the manner of the leading men of the day, and most often could be found wearing a top hat and opera cape -- and he derived his laughs principally from his grinning, sardonic nonchalance, cunning sleight-of-hand and dry comic timing.

Most of his feature films are lost, but the best of the ones that survive, Hands Up! (1926), is an irreverant comic gem about a confederate spy during the Civil War. Although it pales by the inevitable comparison to Buster Keaton's masterpiece, The General, another comic tale about the Civil War told from the point of view of the South, Hands Up! is an edgier film which dared (in a more innocent age) to depict and poke fun at Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Robert E. Lee and his command center, gambling on Indian reservations and Mormon polygamy. (The latter moment, the film's closing gag, was often cut by censors.) Griffith's dexterity is as smooth as silk, which contributes to the astonishing transformations that provoke some of the film's biggest laughs -- in which a firing squad with one flick of the wrist becomes a skeet shooting competition, or an Indian war dance, with one swift kick, becomes an exhibition of the Charleston.

As the venerable Kerr points out, Griffith's reputation as a taskmaster unfortunately gave rise to the notion that he was a self-centered bully when it came to the production of comedy -- but watching Hands Up! conveys a different story. Some of the best laughs come from Griffith's supporting performers, including Mack Swain (who Yosemite-Sam's his way through the dusty landscape of the film) and Virginia Lee Corbin, the dimmer of Swain's two daughters.

Griffith's last on-screen appearance was as a dying soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which is a little like Greg Kinnear suddenly showing up as a corpse in an episode of CSI. Well, a little like that. The coming of the talkies effectively ended Griffiths's on-screen career, his voice reduced to a hoarse whisper by an old injury to his vocal chords (as a boy, he apparently shrieked so violently while performing a scene in The Witching Hour on stage that his voice never fully recovered), but he switched to film producing for Fox studios, putting his stamp on swashbucklers, musicals and adventure films during the 1930s. He died on November 25, 1957 at the Masquers Club in Los Angeles, having choked on some food.

"Griffith seems to me to occupy a handsome fifth place -- after Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon -- in the silent comedy pantheon, a place that is his by right of his refusal to ape his contemporaries and his insistence on following the devious curve of an entirely idiosyncratic eye." -- Walter Kerr.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Writing History with Lightning


"(H)e was a great primitive poet, a man capable, as only great and primitive artists can be, of intuitively perceiving and perfecting the tremendous magical images that underlie the memory and imagination of entire peoples." -- James Agee.

The man who was most responsible for turning the cinema into an effective storytelling art form was born on this day in 1875 on a farm in Kentucky to a former Confederate cavalryman. D.W. Griffith's Southern beginnings were to mold his films throughout his career, producing his love for rural life, the sweet chivalric traditions of the antebellum South, and his naive political assumptions.

By the age of 21, he was hanging around the theater, "carrying a spear" in a Sarah Bernhardt production which blew through Louisville and playing melodramas in undistinguished traveling stock companies. He left the theater in 1906, moved to New York and began to pursue a writing career, imagining that he was destined for great things but having no idea how he would realize his promise.

Although one of his plays was optioned at the end of 1906, he was still just an unemployed actor when he started working for the Edison Film Company in New York for $5 a day, starring in a couple of films by the most important American filmmaker before Griffith, Edwin S. Porter. In 1908, he moved to Edison's chief rival, the Biograph Company, where he wrote and acted in incoherent films made by a hapless hack named Wallace McCutcheon, son of Biograph's retiring principal director Old Man McCutcheon. Soon Biograph pressed Griffith into service as a director, and Biograph as well as the film medium itself began to be transformed by his work. Directing more than 420 one and two-reel films from 1908 to 1913, he did not invent such devices as the close-up, special lighting effects, cross-cutting and panoramic views, but he managed to turn them in his hands to create film-stories with a level of narrative complexity, thematic subtlety and stylistic fluidity not previously experienced by nickelodeon audiences. Screening a few dozen of these films at one sitting gives one the sense of an artist experimenting with discarded odds and ends and emerging with a powerful vocabulary of film storytelling.

Even before he made his first feature-length films, he had directed a number of enduring classics (including The Lonely Villa (1909), the forerunner of every "woman alone in the house" suspense thriller; A Corner in Wheat (1909), an anti-big business melodrama whose climax was pilfered by Peter Weir in Witness 76 years later; and The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), a forerunner of the James Cagney/Edward G. Robinson-type gangster movie), and had established a solid company of technicians and performers who would go on to make their mark in the world of cinema (cameramen Billy Bitzer and Karl Brown; future directors Mack Sennett, Raoul Walsh and Erich von Stroheim; and actors Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall and Mae Marsh, to name but a few).

As his short films began to grow larger, he moved from Biograph to the Mutual Film Company in 1913 and consolidated his relocation to southern California and began making longer films. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915, based on Thomas Dixon's novel, The Clansman, about the Ku Klux Klan) signaled the potential of cinema in no uncertain terms. Southern-born Woodrow Wilson said it was like "writing history with lightning," but although Griffith softened the luridly racist material on which it was based, the film provoked massive protests, led by NAACP leader W.E.B. DuBois -- the first of their kind against a mere movie in America. Griffith had created a work of art of such power that it became central to American social and political discourse, and cinema would never be the same afterward.

Griffith continued to make major silent films, some artistically successful (including Broken Blossoms, 1919, with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess; Way Down East, 1920, again with Gish and Barthelmess; and Orphans of the Storm, 1922, with the Gish sisters), some were ambitious but flawed (the dizzyingly multi-plotted Intolerance, 1916; and Isn't Life Wonderful, 1924, starring his sadly inept Galatea, Carol Dempster), but eventually his work faded into obscurity and irrelevance.

By the end of the silent era, he was regarded as something of a living dinosaur. He made two talking pictures before retirement was imposed on him. In later years, he twiddled at unfinished projects, drank excessively, emerged to serve as "advisor" to Hal Roach's One Million B.C. (1940) (prompting inside jokes around Hollywood about the unearthing of the "pre-historic" director), and died alone, though not completely penniless, in a Hollywood hotel room.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Roller Derby Queen


Roller derby queen Joanie Weston, known as the "Blonde Bomber," was born on this day in 1935 in Huntington Beach, California. That's her in the accompanying photo, standing next to the little guy.

In the year of Joanie Weston's birth, a Chicago promoter named Leo Seltzer began holding roller skating derbies -- little more than roller skating races around a closed circuit -- to make money in a hall he had leased. Two years later, Damon Runyon of all people would suggest rules which would transform the "roller derby" into a regional auditorium crowd pleaser and a popular TV attraction during the 1950s and 60s (although much like studio wrestling it would never rise above being a poor stepchild to the rest of organized sport): two pairs of rival "jammers" break out of a pack of two 5-person skating teams and sprint around a 100-foot oval banked track, trying to pass as many opponents as possible while their 3 teammates lay body blocks and slowing tactics to frustrate the progress of the opposing jammers. Men would compete against other men in 2 out of 4 12-minute periods, while the female squad would take to the track for the other two quarters.

Joanie Weston, one of the institution's great heroines, was a surfer and softball phenom at Mt. St. Mary's College in Los Angeles who once hit 8 homers in a single game -- although, in the spirit of Christian charity to their hapless opponents, the nuns at Mt. St. Mary's told Weston before she went up for her 9th at-bat that they'd excommunicate her on the spot if she hit a 9th homer. There were few opportunities for a woman to excel in sports in 1954, but the 5'-10", 150-pound Weston managed to find an outlet in roller derby as a member and later captain of the San Francisco Bay Bombers, receiving stacks of fan mail and appearing on 19 consecutive all-star teams. An all-around athlete even during her career in roller derby, Weston also won the 1962 Hawaii canoe outrigger championship.

Weston died on May 10, 1997 in Hayward, California, of Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease.

"She is not only the best skater, but she clearly looks the part as well. With her bleach-blonde pigtails flowing out from beneath her shiny black pivot helmet, Joanie appears like a brave Viking queen in full battle regalia." -- Frank Deford.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Tale of Poe



Edgar Allan Poe -- born on this day in 1809 in Boston -- considered himself a poet and regarded his supernatural tales as nothing more than scribblings for coal money. After his death, however, 30 years before Edison's carbon-filament lamps would minimize the hours of each day we spend in natural darkness, it would be the soul of Poe's darker works that the 20th century would celebrate and endlessly emulate and explore -- as if our electrified, often shadowless culture had been in search of an elemental condition whose power is felt, if not in its absence at the flick of a switch, at least in its magical simulation. The darker aspects of Poe's own life have become irrevocably entwined with this exploration, its fictionalization rendering him, like so many great authors, an apt character from his own pen.

Although his life had its tragic moments, Poe was much more of a success at the peak of his powers than popular history chooses to recall. His parents were minor Baltimore stage actors, but by the time Edgar was 2 his father had disappeared and his mother had died of tuberculosis in Richmond, Virginia, and he was adopted by a childless Richmond merchant's wife. The merchant, John Allan, kept his distance from this child of disreputable parentage and did not adopt him, but as Edgar grew Allan became proud of his intelligence and good looks. Poe studied in England while Allan was there on business.

Back in Richmond during his teen years, however, the distance between Poe and Allan widened, with Poe embittered by his foster father's coldness and Allan disdainful of the lad's apparent ingratitude. In spite of their distance, Allan was willing to send Poe to the University of Virginia in 1826, for which Poe thanked him by excessive drinking and gambling. By way of response, Allan unceremoniously yanked Poe out of school.

Poe left Richmond for Boston, where he published a pamphlet of his first poems which showed the influence of Byron and the English Romantics, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). Penniless, he joined the Army as "Edgar A. Perry," but eventually he broke down and called for a reconciliation with Allan, who purchased Poe's release from his commission. After unsuccessfully publishing another volume of poems, Al Aaraaf (1829), he entered West Point (George Meade was a contemporary there), but soon grew restless and forced his own expulsion by cutting drills and classes -- causing the final rift between himself and Allan.

Poe moved to Baltimore to live with his impoverished aunt Mary Clemm, and began writing short stories in hopes that they would be easier to sell than his poems. In 1833, his "MS. Found in a Bottle" won the Saturday Visitor $50 prize, which attracted the attention of literary circles and established his reputation as a writer. Two years later he was back in Richmond as the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and soon thereafter he married his 13-year old niece, Virginia Clemm. His work for the Messenger, including his serialized adventure, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (1837), increased circulation 7-fold, but soon Poe was enticed to Philadelphia to become co-editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, for which he began writing some of his more macabre and horrifying tales, eventually collected in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), including "The Fall of the House of Usher."

When Burton's changed ownership, Poe assumed the editorship of its successor, Graham's Magazine, through his efforts making it the most important American magazine of its time. In Graham's, Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), the first piece of detective fiction in American literature, creating the character of detective Dupin, a master of logical deduction who would be the precursor to Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes," among many others. Poe followed this with other "ratiocination" tales, including "The Gold Bug" (1843), which won a $100 prize from the Dollar, as well as additional gothic tales, the most famous of which included "The Masque of Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

In 1844, he moved to New York to work on the Evening Mirror, which published the poem which would bring him his greatest contemporary American fame, "The Raven" (1845), today a favorite for drawing room oral-interp. Despite his successes, alcoholism and the deterioration of his mental health began to emerge in him, leading to outbursts of unreasonable rage, usually reserved for his literary colleagues and not for Virginia or Mrs. Clemm, to whom he was devoted.

One of the finals straws for Poe was undoubtedly the death of his adoring wife at age 24. Afterwords, cared for by Mrs. Clemm and a few loyal groupies, a terminally unstable Poe worked feverishly on the poem "Annabel Lee" (1849), which he addressed to his late wife, and on his final important work, Eureka (1848), then spent his final months wandering, haunting Richmond and Baltimore in an alcoholic stupor. Found seriously ill by an old friend in the streets of Baltimore, Poe died several days later, on October 7, 1849, at the age of 40.

Like Jerry Lewis(!?), Poe's most loyal audience was in France, where Charles Baudelaire translated his work, letting it seep into the consciousness of such writers as Rimbaud, Mallarme and Jules Verne. In film, a medium often preoccupied with horror, Poe's works have often been adapted (or alluded to for effect, as in the series of campy flicks by Roger Corman and Vincent Price during the 1960s which borrowed titles from Poe but little else). Not surprisingly, however, the earliest filmmakers were already transducing Poe's life and work: by 1915, at least two Poe biopics and one version of The Raven with Poe as the main character had already been made; one fairly lugubrious version of his life was made in 1942 as The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, with the far-too-robust Linda Darnell as Virginia.

Sylvester Stallone once said he wanted to play Poe in a film; if that were not preposterous enough, in 1999 it was announced that Michael Jackson would appear in a Canadian film about Poe's life. Thankfully, neither of these projects ever materialized. Oh, the horror, indeed . . .

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972)


A seven-time Gold Glove-winning centerfielder who had batted over .300 in 6 of 12 seasons, Curt Flood (who was born on this day in 1938 in Houston, Texas) balked when the St. Louis Cardinals notified him that they were trading him to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. At that time, teams enforced a "reserve clause" upon all major league players, which gave the teams the right to trade players without their permission. Flood, incensed that he was being treated as a piece of property that could be bought and sold without his say, took his case to court with the support from the Major League Baseball Players Association, writing "I believe any system that produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and inconsistent with the laws of the United States."

The case ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 5 to 3 in 1972 against Flood. Nevertheless, Flood's case, with its underpinnings of being attached to the Civil Rights movement, galvanized Marvin Miller and the Players' Association, which achieved Flood's aims 4 years after his case by introducing the concept of "free agency" for any player with 10 years' service with 1 team. Many have since claimed that "free agency" has resulted in the degradation of fan loyalty and the spiraling of costs, but it is hard to argue with Flood's essential premise in favor of human rights.

Flood himself never reaped the benefits of "free agency." He retired from baseball after one more season with the Washington Senators (close to the Supreme Court) in 1971 to become a broadcaster for the Oakland A's, and to paint. His portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. now hangs in the King family home. Flood died of throat cancer on January 20, 1997.

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Archie Leach


Archibald Leach, better known as Cary Grant, was born on this day in 1904 in Bristol, England.

A juggler-acrobat from his teens who entered films in 1932 from the musical comedy stage, Cary Grant received a career boost as a protégé of Mae West (it was Grant to whom she famously purred "Come up 'n see me sometime" in She Done Him Wrong). In a few short years Grant became the strutting, smiling, tuxedo-wearing personification of the charming, confident, effervescent, elegant male -- a distilled version of one facet of what 20th/21st century women seem to dream of in their mates.

He played comic-romantic leads most convincingly in comedies (such as Topper, 1937; Bringing Up Baby, 1938, and The Philadelphia Story, 1940, both with Katharine Hepburn; and Indiscreet, 1958), probably because it allowed his self-conscious incredulity about his status as a sex symbol to bubble to the surface as he poked fun at the slippery bachelors Hollywood asked him to play. Alfred Hitchcock used him to great effect in several films (Suspicion, 1941, with Joan Fontaine; Notorious, 1946, with Ingrid Bergman; To Catch a Thief, 1955, with Grace Kelly; and North by Northwest, 1959, with Eva Marie Saint), playing his jaunty persona against type and circumstance, and occasionally allowing him to show off his natural athletic prowess in action scenes.

Audiences never tired of seeing him play the youthful romance hero, and he continued to do so, after a fashion, into his 60s; this despite a troubled personal life, marked by parental abandonment and poverty in his early years, 5 marriages (heiress Barbara Hutton was his second wife; his 4th marriage was to actress Dyan Cannon), a rumored flirtation with LSD during the 1960s and a relentless search for an emotional panacea in one faddish treatment after another.

He retired from films in 1966 and entered the business world, but emerged from seclusion to tour the U.S. giving lectures about his Hollywood career; he died in Davenport, Iowa of all places, during the lecture tour, on November 29, 1986.

"In parts that could easily become foppish or foolish in less skilled hands, there is always a suggestion of inner strength which makes believable the 'wary rapacity' with which he approaches his leading ladies." -- Richard Schickel.

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Federal Banker


Nicholas Biddle -- born on this day in 1786 in Philadelphia -- led a life of refined leisure before becoming the third president of the Second Bank of the U.S. at age 37. Notably, as a young man he attended the coronation of Napoleon, he was an amateur scientist like his friend Thomas Jefferson, and he was the first to attempt to edit the journals of Lewis and Clark, published as History of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark (1814).

Perhaps to the surprise of his friends, he turned out to be an able administrator of the somewhat unpopular central bank. His loosening of credit, which was credited with improving the economy during the 1825 depression, earned for the bank a measure of respect and improved its public image.

Feeling his power, Biddle attempted to have the charter of the bank renewed by Congress four years before its expiration, but bank-foe Andrew Jackson (who had an irrational mistrust for all banks, let alone a central bank) vetoed the extension and started to pull government deposits out of the bank. Biddle ill-advisedly retaliated against the formidable Jackson by contracting the money supply. Lending rates increased, businesses started to fail, wages dropped and unemployment rose, and meanwhile Jackson's policies forced Biddle to obtain a state charter for the former Bank of the U.S., now known as the United States Bank of Pennsylvania.

Unable to impose wholesale changes in the money supply with his newly-chartered bank, Biddle nevertheless used the bank to form a syndicate to corner the cotton market in order to control prices in an effort to attract foreign credit to the country. The plan worked, and while the nation began to climb out of financial crisis, Biddle's bank cleared a profit of $800,000 on the cotton scheme. Biddle felt that the role of a central bank in averting financial crises was vindicated with his work, and he retired a wealthy man. (His lavish Bucks County estate, Andalusia, which the Biddle family continued to live in until 1972, is now open to the public.)

Within a few years after Biddle's retirement, however, the United States Bank of Pennsylvania went bankrupt after a failed attempt at cornering the market again. Blind to pure politics, Biddle's faith was in disciplined behavior and rationality, and the groundwork he laid for the wisdom of central control for the nation's money supply would ultimately win the day with the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913; yet for years afterward, Jackson was viewed as a hero for crushing Biddle's bank, and Biddle's central bank, rather than Jackson's policies, was blamed for the U.S. financial decline which occurred from 1837 to 1844.

Biddle died on February 27, 1844.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ben Franklin: Overrated Founding Father

Forgive me if I don't join in the nation's year-long celebration of the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth. My lack of enthusiasm actually runs in my family. One of my great-great-etc grandfathers, a noted Germantown printer and a contemporary of Franklin's named Christoph Sauer, was pretty sure that Franklin was a greedy and selfish man, and he was a victim of some of Franklin's most uncouth prejudices.

To most of posterity, Franklin and his friend Thomas Jefferson were the twin poles of the American Enlightenment, titans of ingenuity and revolutionary thinking. While it is true that Franklin's tinkering led to some interesting scientific advancements (not as many, it would seem, as he receives credit for), and that he was an industrious fellow with a good business head and a charming raconteur, Franklin's outlook was sometimes quite provincial, and his goals were middle-class goals. Much of his activity must be viewed through the prism of personal commercial gain to be properly understood. His greatest contribution to the American revolution was that he found effective ways of clothing middle-class economic grievances as matters of fundamental liberty.

The 15th child of a soap maker, born on this day in 1706 in Boston, Franklin worked in his father's shop until he was 12, when he became an apprentice (under a 9-year indenture) to his brother James, a printer. He read voraciously and, unbeknownst to James, secretly began to contribute a regular satirical column to his brother's newspaper, the New England Courant, under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood." Franklin briefly took over the paper in 1723 when his brother was banned for his supposedly seditious publications, but James was habitually ungrateful and abusive, so Benjamin skipped out on the indenture to Philadelphia later that year and joined another print shop.

At the advice of the governor of Pennsylvania who had agreed to help him start his own shop, Franklin went to London in 1724, but found that the governor had duped him and that he was stuck there without money or leads. He found work with a London printer and set the type for William Wollaston's Religion of Nature Delineated; having had occasion to read it carefully, he prepared an ironic, humorous (and anonymous) reply, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. Its popularity led to his entry into freethinking circles in London before he returned to Philadelphia in 1726.

Continuing to work as a printer while writing columns, Franklin had an affair with Mrs. Deborah Rogers (Franklin later took her as his common law wife, the whereabouts of her husband being unknown). He took over the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1730, founded a subscription library the following year, and began to extend his media empire by the unusual act of starting a partnership with one of his apprentices to open a shop in Charleston, South Carolina; most print shops were local, owned by families, but Franklin sought to expand his "franchise" with invested capital and regional reps.

In fact, Franklin was North America's first vertically-integrated media mogul. He even controlled the colonial paper supply in Pennsylvania, which caused my great-grandfather no small amount of discomfort. "No credit to the Dutch," was Franklin's haughty note to my ancestor. Despite murmuring that Germans were smelly and ignorant, Franklin also tried to set up a few German-speaking newspapers in an effort to compete with Christoph Sauer's popular offerings in the large German market around Philadelphia, but Franklin never figured out how to make them succeed.

For Franklin, the Germans represented not only a ripe market, but a populace in need of secular instruction. Germans would become a thorn in his side for some time to come, however, as a demographic group he couldn't conquer commercially, and as an ethnic group whose separateness and Anabaptist pacifism frustrated his civic goals. Expressing the belief that Germans had swarthy complexions and that Anglo-Saxons were the only "White People" in the world, Franklin wrote:

"Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanicize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion?"

The less he was able to control people like my great-grandfather, the more he felt compelled to villify them.

In 1733, Franklin started to publish Poor Richard's Almanac, for which he created the persona of "Poor Richard" as a disarmingly naive send-up of astrologers, whose pragmatic proverbs and advice outdid the rival almanacs Franklin had intended to spoof in common wisdom. The apparent influence of the popular "Poor Richard" gave Franklin a soapbox, and emboldened his confidence in his own advice, although he saw himself as somewhat undisciplined, privately recording his violations of "thirteen virtues" which he set for himself to improve his conduct. His jocularity was at times a matter for private shame, but it didn't still his pen; some of his literary hoaxes included "Reasons for Preferring an Old Mistress to a Young One," 1745; "The Speech of Miss Polly Baker," in which a woman who is prosecuted for the fifth time for having an illegitimate child convinces a judge to throw out the charges and marry her; and numerous mock biblical parables.

His reputation as a sensible merchant got him elected clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1736, marking his first furtive entry into electoral politics. Meanwhile, it was science which held most of his attention -- particularly the study of electricity. In 1747, he proved, with the use of a Leyden jar as a capacitor, that there were not 2 types of electricity but one, to which he applied the terms "positive" and "negative," and in 1749, experimenting with charged metal bowls, he invented a "lightning rod" for redirecting lightning during electrical storms. In his most famous (and reckless) experiment, he confirmed for the public that lightning was merely electricity when in 1752 he flew a kite into an electrical storm while standing on an insulated surface, drawing sparks from a key tied to the kite string; another scientist, Georg Richmann, died the following year when he was struck by lightning trying to recreate the experiment. The experiment, and Franklin's book Experiments and Observations on Electricity made him an international celebrity, however; even Immanuel Kant called him the "Prometheus of modern time."

In 1747, Franklin faced down the Quaker-dominated Assembly by raising a militia to fight against French and Indians who were raiding Pennsylvania frontier towns and mucking up trade; in 1751, as the dominant cultural figure in Philadelphia, he was elected to the Assembly. As a legislator, he spent of his time trying to diminish the influence of the descendants of William Penn for the benefit of the merchant class. As the war against the French intensified on the borders, Franklin proposed a union of English colonies for purposes of raising a continental militia, but the proposal was shut down (despite his now-famous engraving of a snake cut into pieces with the words "Join or Die!" underneath); otherwise, he concerned himself with converting Pennsylvania from Penn's colony into a royal colony as agent of Pennsylvania in England.

When Franklin returned to London in 1764 after a 2 year absence, the colonies were in the midst of protesting the proposed stamp tax to be imposed on them by the British Parliament. Franklin offered alternatives to the British which were ignored, but when the tax was passed Franklin initially decided that it could be tolerated and offered the name of a friend for the post of stamp distributor in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, on rumors that he had supported the tax, protesters threatened Franklin's home in Philadelphia.

Finding himself on the wrong side of the issue back home, he became a one-man anti-stamp tax propaganda machine in London with letters and pamphlets, and spoke against the tax before a session of the House of Commons. Increasingly, Franklin began to take the position that Great Britain's use of the American economy was repressive, and that America would ultimately need to become an independent nation. In 1773, a letter of Franklin's, in which he urged non-cooperation with British war activities around the world until the British guaranteed the colonists the rights of British citizens, was stolen and presented to the British colonial secretary, who judged it treasonous. He was brought before the King's Privy Council, where he was denounced in a 1-hour diatribe and stripped of his position as deputy postmaster of North America.

Now clearly identified with the independence movement which had been growing steadily in Massachusetts, Franklin returned to Pennsylvania and was chosen as a delegate to the 2nd Continental Congress. In February 1776, he was part of an unsuccessful mission to Canada to convince the Canadian colonies to join in the American resistance, and upon his return in June served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence (with Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston). When the Declaration was passed by the Congress on July 4, Franklin was the oldest of its signatories. Almost immediately afterward, Franklin was elected president of the Pennsylvania state convention and before the end of the year was chosen as an American commissioner in France.

In Paris, he enjoyed a return to his role as a great man of letters, charming the French intelligentsia (Voltaire among them) with his quaintly homespun manner and dress, his flirtatiousness and his wit. He helped direct the American negotiation of commercial and political alliances with the French republican government, and in 1783, at the age of 76, he served with Adams and John Jay as the American team at the Paris peace talks which successfully concluded the American revolution. Upon his return to Pennsylvania 2 years later, he was elected president of Pennsylvania's executive council for 2 years.

He later lent his prestige to the federal Constitution which was adopted by the states in 1787, and worked on his beguiling, self-congratulatory Autobiography (considered one of the finest works of early American literature), although his final public act was to sign a memorial to Congress calling for an end to African slavery in the United States. He died on April 17, 1790 in Philadelphia.

John Adams, who was no great admirer of what he took to be Franklin's lax morality, correctly predicted that Franklin would be given inflated credit for his role in the American revolution.

Meanwhile, today I'll refrain from attending any parades or cake-cuttings in Franklin's honor. Instead I'll hold my own private celebration in honor of my swarthy, stinky great-grandfather Christoph Sauer. Franklin does get the last laugh on us, however, for out of necessity, I'll have to conduct my private ceremony in English, just as Franklin wanted.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.


It has often been observed that the African-American civil rights movement was left leaderless and in disarray with the assassination of Martin King, and it is no wonder. King -- who was born on this day in 1929 in Atlanta -- was a total athlete, something the movement hasn't really had since: he was an intellectual who nevertheless had enough of the common touch to be able to move the crowd with his words, as well as a man of faith whose unfolding sense of mission was much larger than the time in which he lived.

His grandfather and father were Baptist pastors at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, so King grew up steeped in the gospel rhythms and cadences of the black church. An accomplished student, he entered Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania as one of 6 blacks among 100 students, where he not only enthusiastically studied the progressive theology of Walter Rauschenbusch (who advocated that churches had an obligation to undo social injustice) and graduated at the top of his class, but was for the first time exposed to the racial ambivalence of Northern, politically moderate whites. From there he went to Boston University where he received his Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955 with a dissertation on the concept of God in the writings of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and where he met his future wife Coretta Scott.

The year before he received his Ph.D King accepted a position as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where segregation was more pronounced than it was in the comparatively cosmopolitan Atlanta. Shortly after his arrival, Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for violating segregation laws by refusing to yield her seat on a city bus to a white man. King quickly jumped into the fray, organizing an African-American boycott of city buses that lasted 382 days -- a nonviolent course of action King adapted from the example of Mahatma Gandhi and his struggles in South Africa and India. While Parks' case worked its way through court machinery, intransigent whites retaliated against King, arresting him on a trumped up speeding charge, indicting him along with other supporters for an illegal conspiracy to boycott and firebombing his parsonage. With the international media descending upon Montgomery to report on the passive defiance led by King, in November 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional, and by mid-December blacks and whites were sitting side-by-side on city buses.

The end of Montgomery bus segregation was a landmark for both African-American civil rights and the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience in America, and it made King world-famous. As president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King was anointed the de facto leader of the civil rights movement. Using a strategy of sit-ins (a method of noviolent resistance used by unions and pacificists early in the 20th century) and peaceful marches, King called attention to the cause, revealed the beligerence of the white South for all the world to see, and succeeded in drawing the federal government in as a partisan on his side.

This approach provided him with some of his finest moments in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 as the SCLC attempted to integrate public facilities there. Both officially, under the direction of racist city comissioner Bull Connor, and unofficially, by the acts of racist hooligans, white Birmingham did everything it could to shut down the SCLC protests. In addition to the reported murders, arsons and bombings leveled against King's supporters, Connor played into King's strategy by permitting TV cameras to show the world as the Birmingham police assaulted peaceful African-American protesters with cattle prods, attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses.

As John F. Kennedy's administration reached the limits of its passive embarrassment about the tactics of the city of Birmingham, King himself was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement, where he was confronted with a published letter from local white clergyman praising the "restraint" of city officials and pleading with King to end the protests. While in captivity, King wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail in response, an elegant expression of the goals of nonviolent protest which many have compared with the Epistles of Paul in terms of their moral and emotional clarity. Ultimately, the SCLC protests led to a federally mediated agreement to desgregate lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms and drinking fountains.

In August, King led a massive demonstration (250,000 people, 1/4 of whom were white) in the nation's capital, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- once also the site of Marian Anderson's defiant public concert -- and delivered a speech which perhaps the best known of all 20th century speeches. "I have a dream," King said, "that my 4 little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"; with quotations from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, King painted a picture of a new promised land and roused America to dedicate itself to a new birth of freedom 100 years after Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation."

In 1964 he became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite receiving international acclaim, the final years of his life were marked by conflict. Although his voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama led Lyndon Johnson to risk the political capital necessary to get the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 passed, King broke with Johnson over U.S. involvement in Vietnam. King's increasingly vocal opposition to the war was just further evidence to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover of King's supposed amorality and communistic tendencies; King was avidly targeted by Hoover's surveillance. At the same time, more militant African-American groups began to criticize King's nonviolence and gradualist approach.

In April 1968, King went to Memphis to support a sanitation strike. On April 3, King obviously felt the breath of his enemies on his neck, perhaps with a recollection of an attempt made on his life in September 1958 when an insane black woman stabbed him in Harlem during a book-signing, as he told his audience at Mason Street Temple: "I've been to the mountain top . . . and I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land." The following evening King was shot in the head with a high-powered rifle as he left his motel room to go to dinner.

The assassination of Martin King touched off African-American pain and anger around the nation, with severe riots breaking out in 76 American cities. After an extensive manhunt, police captured petty crook James Earl Ray, who was eventually convicted of King's murder. The trial left many questions unanswered, and King's family and associates continually maintained that a conspiracy was likely. In 1999, the King family successfully sued cafe owner Loyd Jowers, who had claimed in an ABC television interview in 1993 that he had participated in a conspiracy among white Memphis businessmen that resulted in King's death.

"Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Lorrie Moore and Tillie Olsen


Author Lorrie Moore was born on this day in 1957 in Glens Falls, New York. The winner of a Seventeen magazine short story contest who grew up to be a writing professor at the University of Wisconsin, Moore's novels and stories are crisp mixtures of comedy and sadness, one-liners and confessions. Her female protagonists, in such books as Self-Help(1985; a collection of stories poking bitter fun at personal growth manuals), ANAGRAMS(1986; a "novel" in which Moore "rearranges characters to make new worlds," the same characters reappearing in different roles and environments) and the novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?(1994), are intelligent, perceptive and painfully self-aware of their disconnections with those closest to them -- including the clueless men stumbling around in Moore's fictional world, who sometimes read as though they've just wandered over from a Frederick Barthelme suburb in a late model Chevy. The combination of wisecracks and pathos in her work seems to prompt critical comparisons with the films of Woody Allen, but her voice is distinctly more sedate, cleverly suggesting the bone-chilling turmoil beneath a barely controlled surface.

Author Tillie Olsen celebrates her birthday tomorrow, born Tillie Lerner around 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska to Russian Jewish immigrants. Tillie Lerner enjoyed writing as a young girl, but left high school early to support her family as a slaughterhouse worker, and soon followed her family's leftist instincts as a member of the Young Communist League. She was jailed in Kansas City for trying to organize packinghouse workers; moved to California; participated in the San Francisco Warehouse Strike of 1934; and in 1936 met and married Jack Olsen, a union printer. Tillie had 3 daughters and worked to support them as a waitress and secretary -- living, in her own words, as "the essential angel (there was no one else to do her work)," desiring to return to writing but finding the "habits of years -- response to others, distractability, responsibility for daily matters" -- infringing on her ability to do so.

In 1955, Olsen nonetheless enrolled in a creative writing course at San Francisco State, and within months won a Stanford University creative writing fellowship. The fellowship gave her the time and economic freedom to begin the stories which would make up her brilliant book of stories, Tell Me a Riddle(published in 1961, when Olsen was 48), the title story of which won an O. Henry Award for best short story of 1961. Following the lead of her literary heroine, Rebecca Harding Davis (whose Life in the Iron Mills, written in 1861, was rescued from oblivion by Olsen and republished with Olsen's commentary in 1972 for the first time in 111 years), Olsen's stories highlight, in compelling vernacular cadences, the interior lives of ordinary people who are not often heard in literature: a working mother; a rudderless sailor, long in years and without family; an elderly Jewish wife with no community to support her, and no time to find refuge in reading. Olsen's life and work play out as variations on the theme of women silenced by duty, both demonstrating the impossibility of woman-as-writer and giving the lie to the argument. Her literary output has been small (other works include a novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, and a self-reflective book of criticism, Silences), but accomplished.

"[W]omen are traditionally trained to place others' needs first, to feel these needs as their own . . . their sphere, their satisfaction to be in making it possible for others to use their abilities . . . motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity." -- Tillie Olsen.

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