ALLEN GUTTMANN. From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. $12.95.
All Americans talk about sports (endlessly), but nobody does anything about analyzing them except for Allen Guttmann, head of American Studies at Amherst. Disillusioned by the galloping trivialism of the Popular Culture Association (their Big Deal of Summer 1978 was a Rollercoaster Symposium in Sandusky’s amusement park!), I am genuinely heartened by the intelligence of this 161 page essay, and impressed by the (largely unglossed) 22 pages of footnotes which display cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary research of Teutonic thoroughness (a happy spinoff of the author’s Fulbright stints in Europe).
In short, here is a study of popular culture as imaginatively serious as the best humanistic studies in literature and philosophy. And, special blessing, its style is graceful, demotic, witty. One doesn’t talk about not being able to put down a scholarly book, but except for a few rough miles of track between New York and Trenton, I didn’t. It’s that compelling.
Six chapters and a conclusion deal credibly with the following agenda: the distinctions among play, games, contests, and sports in which typology never becomes a Procrustean bed; the transformation of the play instinct from roots in the ritual of primitive cultures to commercialized industries characterized by secularism, equality of access, specialization of roles, rationalization, bureaucratization, quantification, and the quest for records; speculations centering on Marxist, Neo-Marxist, and Weberian models about the connections between capitalism, protestantism, and modern sport; an essay published elsewhere on why baseball was our national game; an attempt to explain the fascination of football; an intriguing series of reflections on why loner America prefers team sports to individual ones; and a short (and perhaps too modest) conclusion discussing the trade offs between freedom from and freedom to opportunities in modern societies.
His concluding sentence is worth quoting, suggesting as it does the easy mix of learning and liveliness which Guttmann achieves in this book: When we are surfeited with rules and regulations [of contemporary sport culture], when we are tired-like Robert Frost’s apple-picker-of the harvest we ourselves desired, we can always put away our stopwatch, abandon the cinder track, kick off our spiked shoes, and run as Roger Bannister did, barefoot, on firm dry sand, by the sea. This is the best of both worlds in many ways: the deft use of fiction to deepen understanding of the place of baseball and football in America, the firm but unpushy display of statistics to reveal differences in the way sports are experienced in diverse non-American cultures, the patient but noncondescending way idees fixes (such as Marcusean notions that sports are safety-valves that capitalism devises to fend off its own deserved Armageddons with the working classes; or the facile post hoc, ergo propter hoc equating of football’s new favor with Vietnam induced fascism) are defused intellectually.
I have only one quibble with this book. It’s almost a tour de force to talk in such detail about sports in America while barely mentioning media. Neither radio nor television makes the index although Mr. Monday Night Football does by virtue of his place in Guttmann’s opening line in the football chapter: Is there an American sportswriter or broadcaster, some mute, inglorious Howard Cosell or George Plimpton, who has failed to comment upon the football boom of the 1960s? (p. 117). No, surely.
But there is at least one reader ready to brandish Occam’s Razor: Instead of fertility rituals hyped up by the need to discharge aggression in routinized societies, television is not a necessary but certainly a sufficient condition to explain football’s eclipse of baseball. Football watches better, is more amenable to commercial insertions, and it’s over more or less on time. (Think of how extra inning ball games muck up the advertising schedules of the Johnny Carson Show.) Besides, summer is ebb time viewing. Even Guttmann’s ingenious use of Sports Illustrated covers is TV-tainted evidence.
For it is a truism in magazine promotion and newsstand sales circles that the cover of almost every general audience magazine below the middlebrow level has become telecentric. Empirical evidence in the form of returned, unsold magazines has led most mass magazines into a lemming-like line up of TV-related covers.
The logic Guttmann uses in explaining the diffusion of national sports like rugby and baseball to foreign cultures is sufficiently explained as a geo-political spinoff (Japan and Cuba admired America at the turn of the century-so they imported baseball) rather than through national character symmetries. I would explain baseball’s hegemony as the national pastime between 1920 and 1960 as a result of the media boom of the 1920’s. Tabloid journalism and radio played hard ball in competing for the newly enfranchised (culturally speaking) blue and dirty white colors. Babe Ruth is as much a media invention as the Tin Lizzie. The point is that just as Detroit has an inter- locking half-Nelson on the nation’s economy and culture, so the Madison Avenue/Radio City axis (and its Freddie Silverman lengthening fields of force) sets the frame of attention for the mass, non-Thoreau public-which is to say all of us at least some of the time.
It’s exhilarating and sometimes convincing to trace baseball and football back to mythic roots, but the bottom line so to speak is the attendance at next week’s game, the circulation of this month’s magazine, and the complex symbiosis that we now see develops in all modernized societies, where the media are, quite simply, the metabolism.
Freedom to change these conditions quickly or radically is, in my opinion, freedom from reality. But these are nit picks engendered by a splendid essay. It is immensely satisfying to know that so pervasive, yet paradoxically so neglected a topic, as sports now has a solid foundation for further research and speculation. A prime theme I’d propose to Guttmann’s followers: What is there about the ecology of imagination in America that sports talk can be as pervasive as the weather while sports analysis is as rare as snow in July. Perhaps a foundation ought to give Newsweek’s Pete Axthelm a sabbatical to look into the issue. (But even he, having done so brilliantly as a sports writer, appears to be aspiring to general punditry rather than to staying a mere prattler about punting.)
PATRICK D. HAZARD Beaver College Glenside Pennsylvania
OLIVER THOMSON. Mass Persuasion in History: An Historical Analysis of the Development of Propaganda Techniques. New York: Crane, Russak; Co., 1977. $13.50.
The promise of historical perspective in media studies is always welcome. The genre suffers traditionally from too little diachronicity. The credentials of the writer in this instance also raise our expectations : a multinational graduate (from the college of J. Walter Thompson) who now heads a Scottish advertising agency and lectures on mass persuasion at Glasgow University. Alas, the high cost and low quality of the illustrations make this reader question the value of the book, intellectually and financially. But it does turn over the soil for the first time (in my reading) in a way that reveals a crucial turf that needs to be plowed by deeper, more controlled minds.
The book is divided into two parts of very divergent size: The Vocabulary of Leadership deals with an introduction, discussion of sources, a typology (objectives, media, message, inhibiting factors, intensifying factors, side effects), criteria of penetration, audience analysis, response analysis, access to media, and media development); and Historical Case Studies, including the Roman Empire, the Papacy, the Reformation, the Revolutionary Period, Nineteenth Century Propaganda, Lenin and Communism, Hitler and Fascism, Modem China, Democracy and the Western World, and Epilogue (which basically is sensible talk about how not to give into apocalyptical interpretations of what he bizarrely calls the octopoidal media).
The second section is by far the more entertaining. The first is mainly potted media sociology, probably in both the British and American senses of that adjective. The second is a tasty plum pudding, cultural history seen through the narrow perspective of a moviola, as if H. G. Wells were a student of Marshall McLuhan’s.
One original idea of Thomson’s deserves a very careful analysis. He argues very plausibly that political rhetoric, which he somewhat capriciously keeps calling social cybernetics, must include the study of things as well as the traditional study of words. Architecture should be included within the umbrella of graphic communication media.
Traditionally, it has been given little attention from the standpoint of its use as a medium of propaganda. It is, nevertheless, of great importance. Buildings are capable of communicating awe, size, assurance, power, or dynamism, and if in a central or imposing position, can do this to a fairly large audience over a long period. Inevitably, in political terms, it tends to be a medium for the establishment, not the revolution, although a rebel hideout or catacomb can become a symbol by contrast (p. 41).
Indeed, they can-as the public demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis announced the end of an era of complacency about welfare culture. But the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki, gave Manhattan the twin-towered World Trade Center. The folk hero who climbed it-because it was there-sends us one message; more likely, it will become in history the tallest mausoleum ever-to the memory of Robert Moses. I was amused in Cairo recently to read in the Egyptian Museum that Rameses I had his name carved covertly on the unseeable bottom of his granite likeness-to discourage Rameses II from converting it to his image!
And when you read line markers in the apse of St. Peter’s in Rome bragging that this is as far as St. Paul’s comes, you know that the Counter Reformation at least was using its buildings to bully its congregations. Thomson is right about the rhetoric of things. We need to become sophisticated in reading the man-made environments-as well as its degradations. Norman Mailer’s touting the defaced New York subway cars as great art is condescending, ignoble savagery. And the blackout looting in New York is a classic text we are only now trying to learn how to decipher.
What is missing from most of that analysis and what is missing from this book is a sense of dynamics. The media are the sum total of their contradictory messages. When Thomson says cinema proper had only a 50-year reign (p. 49), I wonder where that leaves Joan Micklin Silver, Fred Wiseman, and Judy Peiser of the Center for Southern Folklore-not to mention my own introduction to film course, which only a few of the students find dead! Atmospheric level generalizations about media are worse than no generalities at all, I guess.
And while I really enjoyed the anecdotes about media and propaganda over time (that Virgil’s Aeneid was commissioned by the Emperor, for example), I would always want to check Thompson’s stories out with standard histories, especially when I find allusions to Senator Joe McCarthy (p. 21)-does this new firm have no American proofreaders? Or see Dr. Johnson’s famous aphorism come out 180 degrees from where he left it: Patriotism may be the last refuge of a gentleman (p. 22). No matter, maybe it is just one Scotsperson’s way of getting even with another one who said mean things about the country he fled for London. Thomson has identified an important terrain, no small contribution to a field that sprawls and yawns erratically, leaving much of the past unconnected with contemporary media sociology.
PATRICK D. HAZARD Beaver College Glenside Pennsylvania
BERNARD A. WEISBERGER. The American Newspaperman. (The Chicago History of American Civilization.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. $4.50.
The Chicago History of American Civilization contains two kinds of volumes: chronological and topical. Weisberger’s book falls into the latter category, and divides the history of the American newspaper into seven phases: the colonial printer and the public business; politics and press in the infant republic; special-audience papers in the early nineteenth century; mid-century innovations caused by increased democracy, improved technology, and an intensified search for profits; the creation of newspaper empires through the last half of the nineteenth century; the world of reporting and punditry in the early twentieth century; and a final section on the impact of the newer media and conditions on the vanishing newspaper man.
The history of American journalism suffers from unevenly distributed documentation and inadequate conceptual apparatus. The first problem leads to the kind of overminute examination of the few precious scraps of surviving colonial newspapers characteristic of our early histories of journalism. The latter difficulty tends to cause later histories of journalism to break down, shortly after the Civil War period, into a formless registry of changing editors, mergers, and suspensions. Weisberger has avoided both these misemphases; the former through brilliantly written precis of earlier journals, the latter by judiciously selecting typical developments and analyzing them thoroughly. Thus, within the compass of little more than two hundred pages, he has written an extraordinarily good orientation to the complex history of the American newspaper.
Something of his method--an artful blend of generalization and pithy excerpt--can be gained from his summary of the colonial newspaper in 1760, just before it assumed its crucial role in the American Revolution: One could expect to find in it a column of ‘Occurrences, or the History of the Times,’ an essay or two of local or imported origin on any subject from astronomy to turnip culture, a list of advertisements running from prosaic requests to buy so-and-so’s fine laces to a modern-sounding claim for the wonders of some nostrum like Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, the infallible destroyer of ‘Fluxes, Spitting of Blood, Consumption, Small-Pox, Measles, Colds, Coughs, and Pains in the Limbs or Joints.’
And always, poetry, the unfailing recourse of the eighteenth century writer in the grip of mirth or malice--doggerel on the appearances of comets, the visits of dignitaries, the fall in paper currency, or the sins of rival printers. Perhaps the most important of all these rhymed flights of fancy, from a journalistic point of view, was the one which began: ‘A Newspaper is like a Feast; some Dish there is for every Guest’ (p. 24).
The book is based on secondary accounts, and the judicious Bibliographical Essay attests to the author’s catholic reading in this growing literature. Most of his judgments, thus, are standard ones, although his perception of special audience papers for businessmen, religious partisans, farmers, and reformers as the characteristic pattern of pre-penny-press journalism is fresh and useful. His fear that population increases appeared to outstrip circulation growth between 1950 and 1958 seems to me to overlook the fact that a baby boom has necessarily only a delayed reaction in increased newspaper readership.
Similarly, his observation of the irony that responsible monopoly comes awkwardly from the mouths of free enterprise ideologists overlooks the overriding consideration that some of our best papers-Louisville, Milwaukee-come from monopoly situations and some of our worst-Boston, San Francisco-are in fiercely competitive cities. The proof of this pudding would seem to be in the reading.
Finally-and this is more an observation on the state of journalism research than a comment on Weisberger’s shrewd and witty packaging of what has already been harvested-for a really fresh synthesis in journalism history we need more quantitative monographs to establish the relative influence of journalism on the course of American history. We need content analyses of typical papers to chart the changing tides of editorial and advertising content; we need modal leisure budgets of many historic American types to pin down just how much time each spent with newspapers as sources of information, entertainment, and consumership; and we need to relate this influence, over time, with the myriad other media and sources accessible to various classes, regions, occupational groups, and other significant categories of association.
As the spectrum of American media expands and audiences fractionate, it is even more important to describe clearly the total pattern of potential media exposure and the actual configurations of audience attention and influence. Until research uncovers these relationships, a book like Weisberger’s will remain invaluable to non-specialists concerned about the role of mass communication in American civilization.
ROBERT C. O’HARA. Media for the Millions: The Process of Mass Communication. New York: Random House, 1961. $4.25.
It is a truism that a free society depends to a crucial degree on the quality of its communications system. Thus the efforts that have been made since World War II to include communications study in a liberal education must be taken seriously.
The implicit rationale for such courses is sound: If the unexamined life is as worthless as the standard humanist argument says it is, then it is essential that the new institutions of mass communications be examined systematically. Only then will the democratic patron be able to use his freedom to choose wisely and well. The trouble starts when one tries to hit such an amorphous target. Not surprisingly, this area is particularly vulnerable to the sniping that goes on in the cultural cold war between the empirically inclined and the traditionally oriented.
The social scientist is likely to be more permissive to begin with, seeing that genres like soap opera and the western have psychological functions perhaps indispensable to the only partially emancipated members of a complex industrial culture. Their arguments tend to explain away the menace of mass culture. On the other hand, the more traditional English professor would prefer to ignore the Monster, regarding his own explication of high culture as the only sufficient antidote to the puerilities of popular culture anyway. In this reviewer’s judgment, the few really useful responses to mass culture have been those which have avoided the facile polarities of academic politics by creating what amounts to a historical sociology of mass communication.
Leo Lowenthal’s essays on changes in popular biography and the response of eighteenth-century English intellectuals to the newer media of that era-newspapers, magazines, middle-class fiction-are good cases in point. So are the books of English literary critics like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, who unabashedly use the insights of social science in guiding and in part validating the intuitive judgments of their own literary sensibilities. Robert O’Hara’s book is less successful than these because he has not been able to make so convincing an amalgam of traditional wisdom and newer knowledge.
His facile jibes at the jargon in Charles Wright’s Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective seem to me grossly unfair to a brilliantly lucid summary of what sociology has discovered about mass communication. A careful reading of that small volume by every English professor who presumes to prescribe for the ills of our media system would do more to untangle us than any other single thing I can think of-unless it would be these same gentlemen writing books about the American predicament as good as Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and Williams’ Culture and Society. What we need more than anything else is a historical perspective that will silence the pushers of panic buttons.
For media history reveals that the television crisis is simply the latest in a series of adjustments that included Socrates’ suspicion of the new medium of writing-it would destroy the memory and the lecturer’s total authority with one fell stroke of the stylus; the Duke of Urbino’s disdain for having printed books dirty up his manuscript collection; and so on-down to the current egghead clich6 about not owning a television set. Once historical perspective reveals that media change has always disrupted communication monopolies, it is then much easier to formulate melioristic alternatives that save what is essential from the past as the possibilities of the new are explored.
The basic problem with O’Hara’s book, which has grown out of his five years’ experience as director of mass communication studies in the Minnesota Communication Program, is that it does not pose the alternatives. On several occasions he chillingly dismisses as academic just those tough theoretical and historical issues which justify the truly liberating education. By concentrating on what is common to all mass-communication processes, he foregoes the more important area of freedom in which some mass media extend awareness and suggest fresh solutions.
A truly activist approach would analyze the possibilities of unique achievement in the more massive media, whether it be Captain Kangaroo for children on television; the folk music renaissance on the long-playing records; Jules Feiffer in that offbeat weekly, The Village Voice; or the new artfilm traditions. By concentrating on the stereotypes of fact and fiction in the newer media, rather than on the successful and interesting deviants within the system, he ends, in effect, by saying that the system is dull and depressing because most of us are too. I prefer the standard humanist strategy of identifying and explicating excellence in the hope that more, and eventually enough, people will get a taste for it. PATRICK D. HAZARD University of Hawaii
MAX KAPLAN. Leisure in America: A Social Inquiry. New York: John Wiley; Sons, 1960. $7.50.
In the current debate over mass culture, perhaps no issue is more crucial than the presumed relationships between kinds of leisure and the quality of life in contemporary America. For America is taken to be the archetype of a mass culture, and the visible results of the first widespread democratization of leisure in human history have, not surprisingly, attracted the attention of social scientists and humanists alike.
Dr. Kaplan, who describes himself as a humanist-social scientist, professes a greater respect for the masses than is currently shown by the younger crop of social scientists, who (in my own opinion) have unwittingly been defending the values of a departed aristocracy and a feudal way of life. In his judgment, we have no way of telling whether our nation is happier now than it was a century ago, and the decision cannot be made by editorials. On the other hand, he believes that we have incontrovertible evidence that the people of our time have access to a wide variety of things, kinds of persons, ways of thought, and styles of life.
It is possible, Dr. Kaplan believes, that leisure may prove to be a source of human identity and personal values which in former days were obtained from work and religion. This possibility rests largely on our ability to conceive creative values in a way that encompasses more than the arts, for every person, in all ages, from all backgrounds, can set himself a challenge, a possibility of growth, by direct participation in creative values or as consumer and distributor of such values.
The criterion seems to be the kind of rational choice that opens up an individual’s intelligence and sensibility to a wider range and depth of experiences. Thus, we may note a folk wisdom and an intellectual-educational tradition that holds that a nation with 50 million happy gamblers is not as desirable as one with 50 million Jims creating works of art.
Yet it is at least possible to argue that skillfully autonomous poker players are more creative than grimly therapeutic finger painters. In fact, the tension that exists in the cults of creative expression between competence and therapy is an ambiguity unresolved in Dr. Kaplan’s analysis.
At one point he argues that we had better unlearn the professional’s judgment of effort by the criteria of excellence that stems from a long tradition; yet at another, he affirms : The quality of creativity, broadly conceived, remains the paramount issue. It would appear that his ideal for building constructive leisure is implicitly based on his own experiences with the Community Arts project at Champaign-Urbana where he asked: Is there not, among all this effort, some real degree of aesthetic seeking, artistic growth, meaningful new interrelation of persons? These are interesting and, for some kinds of people, important, leisure innovations; but it is often difficult to see the connections between such lively anecdotes and case studies and the general analysis of leisure attempted in this book.
The volume’s twenty-two chapters are divided into five sections of unequal length: Data, Methods and Issues of Leisure- some useful tables and definitions of leisure as a social relationship; Relations and Variables in Leisure-the variables of work, personality, family, social class, sub-cultures, community, the state, religion, and value systems; Types and Meanings of Leisure-sociability, association, games and sports, art, movement and immobility; Processes of Leisure-theory of social control, social roles, structure, and the modification of leisure experience; and a final chapter on creative values and prospects in the new leisure.
For a humanist with both respect and curiosity for the social sciences, there were several characteristics of the author’s style that tended to inhibit assent: unseemly name-calling aimed at other traditions of social science--for example, the imperialistic empiricists; gratuitous methodologizing; painful neologisms—“vicinal proximity” for nearness; pretentious capitalizing--Nucleo-Hydro-Technico-Sputnico Age; a tendency to substitute italics for evidence on important points; and a certain lack of integration between loosely strung summaries, lists of data, and barrages of rhetorical questions. In spite of these weaknesses, however, the book is valuable for the number of significant questions it raises about the ambiguities of the new leisure. PATRICK D. HAZARD Annenberg School of Communication University of Pennsylvania
There comes a time in every man’s life when the obituary page becomes the first thing he reads. My regimen at age 79 is to start my online day reading the New York Times op-ed columns. In Weimar, Germany, six hours ahead of New York, the op-eds are there before the daily edition is formally declared, shortly after 7 a.m. Central European Time. My day proper begins with Times obits. The Philadelphia Inquirer, my hometown daily, is even slower getting online, so I don’t get to their obits until the end of my morning read.
Then it’s a walk to the in the Herzogin Anna Amalia (Goethe’s patroness) Bibliotek to peruse the International Herald Trib—not a good obit paper, usually just a few shortened reruns of NY Times obits—followed by the Guardian’s obits, which are the most civilized celebratory essays in print accessible to me. (When I taught summers in London between 1968 and 1974 I remember being stunned by the quality of the London Times obits.)
If some Biggie packs it in, as the 94-year-old Milton Friedman did on November 16, the website Arts and Letters Daily (kindly sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education) will flex its internet muscle and give you links to more than a dozen takes at that life at death. When I migrated to Santa Rosa in 1982, having told Beaver College on Walt Whitman’s birthday to shove it (gently), the first public meeting I attended was graced by Milton and Rose’s presences. Doing the math, I was then 55, and he was 70. He was a noble Nobel, no nebbish of the most dismal of all sciences, and so was his wife. I wanted to take a Keynes to his skull, he so outblathered me, stuck as I was in my dwindling Marxist phase.
The German dailies are prolific in their obits of cultural and political personalities, especially Europe-wide. Not that they’re parochial about the rest of the world. But the history-obsessed Teutons will rarely miss the birthday celebrations of alive characters and the every-decade anniversaries of dead but not to be forgotten Germans. These features dominate the Feuilleton sections of the big dailies (www.signandsight.com) as well as the kultur page (number four) of the two local dailies I read to improve my German (Thuringer Algemeine and Thuringer Landes Zeitung). Memento, homo, Du bist Leser und gibt es keine Zeitungen in Ewigkeit.
As a professional humanist, I admire the tradition of keeping the past alive. As a soon-to-die reader, I have my ambivalences.
The best part of the New York Times obit page is discovering characters you totally missed in your oh-too-busy life. The other day, for example, I learned about one Professor A. Friedman, who coined the term “illiterature” to allude to the popular ballads he collected, following the lead of that 19th Century Harvard Titan, Francis Childs, who made a career of collecting Scottish Ballads.
Today that old semantic punster, William Safire, got off a jewel about a new book on Slanguage. Thank the godlike Sulzbergers for small favors. A good obit not only makes you regret you never ran across its subject, but if it’s really good, you feel like, well, you almost did run into him! The quirkier the better. To disimprove on Ezra Pound’s catchy aphorism, “Literature is news that stays news”: “Great obits are the last news fit to print.”
Incidentally, waiting one day for the bus to take me to the Lu Xun museum, I realized why there were so few museums. There was a splendid photo show at the bus stop. Don’t bring the people to the museum. Vice Versa. It’s something we in the “advanced” West could cogitate when we spend more public money on Gehry-esque Gargantua than on minimum wages for the poorer amongst us. The Red Chinese had that right from the start. Whether they can civilize their current booms? “Wo pu dong!” (“I not understand !”, the only three words I remember from my six weeks of Mandarin! That Chinese Airline Veep would had howled at his successful prediction of No Success.
My re-orientation included short stints in Manila, Seoul, Pusan and Taipeh, and longer serious visit to all parts of Japan. Which adventures I will next summarize. I went to Korea to try to understand the American occupation. I was surprised to find former Alabama Governor George Wallace there, on a trade mission. If there was one Devil in the American civil rights struggle, it was surely this “cracker” who threatened to stand in the doorways of every school to stop integration in its tracks. What a sleeper he turned out to be. He explained how he ran for office for the first time on a very liberal platform—and got creamed by a real segregationist.
He thus explained his slow conversion to integration on the grounds of a voting majority against it until after Lyndon Johnson’s traumatic Civil Rights legislation that has hobbled the Democrats until our own time. Wallace was one of the few blessings of that legislation, a born again integrationist. It was a turning point in my political education. Much more than meets the politically blind eye determines what goes on inside the voting booth.
I was impressed, as a former English professor, that the South Koreans had a national holiday to honor the man who invented the Korean alphabet. I visited the Americanists at the National University in Seoul, and was invited to talk to their graduate seminar about my recent visit to Faulkner Country, in Oxford, MS. They were pleasantly surprised to learn that the Ole Miss of James Meredith had morphed into the ultraliberal Center for Southern Culture, run by William Ferris, later President Clinton’s choice to run the National Endowment for the Humanities.
He had studied folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960’s, with a dissertation on Black Delta Blues. B.B.King has already promised them his archive. Bill and Judy Peiser had used TV at the PBS station in Jackson, MS to spread their agenda of preserving Southern Culture in all its richness, from writers like Eudora Welty to blue singers like James (“Fordson”—“Son”—for the tractor he used chopping cotton) Thomas.
Judy Peiser had invited me to a screening in Memphis of her new film on the Delta Blues. There was a black guy already there to see his pal in the film whom he missed a great deal. That was James “Son” Thomas. Judy had also introduced me to the greatest quilt maker of the time, Pecolia Warner, who lived with husband Sam in Yazoo City, MS. We had spent a visually rich afternoon with the Warners, oohing and aahing over her idiosyncratic quilts. So moved were we that we almost missed our flight on USAirways from Memphis North.
Those were the legendary days when the recently souped up Allegheny Airlines offered a Freedom Fare of $179 for three weeks of unlimited use of their routes. They lost money, big, on us, over those three fall weekends, Nashville, Memphis, and Tricities TN. And we risked temporary bankruptcy as well since we bought so many of her “tops”. I gave my collection to the University of Mississippi Art Museum in honor of Bill Ferris’s appointment as Director of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Bill works his magic now at Chapel Hill, NC.
Thomas had invited me and Andrea to his place in Leland, MS when we were introduced to him during breaks at the Memphis Folk Festival. We went to his favorite bar when we arrived in Leland, and caught our breath when the bouncer at the front door was brandishing a revolver on his big belly. Since I majored in Yellow at the University of Detroit with a minor in avoiding trouble, I was uncharacteristically speechless for a few nanoseconds.
Andrea, who was always summa cum laude in her Chutzpah, explained to the bouncer that we were looking for directions to “Son” Thomas’s house. He explained that, serendipitously, James’s son was standing just behind us.He cordially agreed to “granada” us there. (That verb turned out to be his current make of automobile!) It was our first visit to a legendary shotgun house, and as well our first time being serenaded by a great Delta blues singer. It topped our visit to Faulkner’s Oxford.
A favorite watering hole in Oxford was Smitty’s where young Ole Miss students and faculty often gathered for a traditional breakfast or a beer in the evening. After breakfast, I was whirling the paperback book rack to gauge their Faulkner choices. THERE WERE NONE AT ALL! I playfully chided the waitress about that lacuna, and she tartly replied, “Try the Rexall down the street!”
Rexall, indeed. The pharmacist on duty was a boyhood pal of Mister Bill’s nephew, and recalled, as if it had happened a few days, instead of decades, ago a Faulkner episode.. The novelist had just finished a section of his latest novel and wanted some fast feedback so he read the manuscript to these three nine-year olds! The pharmacist thumbed through a photo album of Faulkneriana and then told me to go across the street to the haberdashery shop if I wanted to know more about the local private press devoted to Faulkner’s work. The proprietor stopped briefly from measuring a pair of slacks a young man needed for the Saturday evening dance to tell us how he got it organized.
And then he passed us on to the local bookstore that began by transforming the town into a Faulkner pilgrimage experience and ended up dazzling the entire country by its intelligent promotion of Southern culture and Faulkner’s part in it. As well as getting behind the success of local writers like John Grisham and Bill Ferris. The day we visited Faulkner’s house, our guide had just finished his M.A. thesis on Faulkner’s joining the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. It’s a small village with international perspective.
The Army PR Office in Korea made it easy for journalists to visit the DMZ. It already seemed madness that the armistice that created the DMZ was over three decades old and still no peace treaty. (Indeed, it’s now going on six decades and still no treaty, but the dysfunctional North was stumbling from one dysfunctional fantasy to another.) And underneath the official “democracy” of South Korea, there were ominous contradictions.
I went from the DMZ to a national American Studies Conference serendipitously scheduled for my visit in Pusan. I had written a piece about the not so covert authoritarian tendencies I had observed as I moved around the country and offered it to an R&R-ing American soldier at the hotel for feedback. When I picked it back up at the registration desk, I was curtly informed that my cut rate privileges as a visiting scholar (my Ph.D. is in American Studies) had been revoked and that I would have to pay the cruelly high regular rate. My critical comments on the as yet fledgling democracy had suddenly made me a persona non grata. I was so pissed (especially by the craven academics running the conference who refused to stand by me) that I went straight to the airport and flew on the first possible flight to Fukuoka.
I was blessed by the serendipitous scheduling of one of the finest jazz concerts I have ever savored: Detroiter Tommy Flanagan was on piano! Compensation indeed for the Korean felony. I was in search of mingei, Japanese folk art, and it still flourished in the lower half of Japan, from Fukuoka to Kagoshima. I fully understood now why Christopher Dresser, that lost to history genius who designed mass produced Bauhaus-like objects in the 1870’s, half a century before Gropius founded the school that aspired to make such objects available. Dresser (1834-1901) had been a popular decorator before he went to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and lectured at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
He then spent several months in Japan. “I went over there a mere decorator,” he remembered,” and returned a designer!” Chinese design is too circusy to my eye, too flamboyant, too fussy. It not only doesn’t give me pleasure. It bugs me, visually. Unlike the Japanese art, both folk and professional and industrial. Indeed, I wrote my first piece for the Asahi Evening News on the annual Industrial Design Festival In Osaka, remarking that the Bauhaus Ideals (good design for the masses) seemed more in play there than design at home in America which was going through a Higher Goofy Ettore Sotsass/Phillipe Starck phase that my eye found regressive. I was elevated by a visit to the Toyota Factory floor where the PR guy was not only eager to palaver highly abstractly about esthetics and design, but the factory was so clean it looked ready for surgical procedures.
Perhaps my most fascinating encounter with Japanese art came from my interview with Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the current heir to the last Shogun. He was a banker by profession, but when his family museum in Nagoya needed a director, he started evening studies in art history at Tokyo University. He became convinced that after the Meiji revolution (which overthrow his grandfather, the last Shogun) that Japanese museology had made a fatal mistake. Aping western ways, they typically destroyed the relationships between ritual Buddhist objects by separating each genre into individual vitrines. I tried for the longest time to get an appointment with him, to better understand his Buddhist esthetic theory—to no avail.
Finally, on short notice, he agreed to a fifteen minute encounter at the Foreign Correspondents Club. He appeared in a black suit with a dour face and began with a hostile question,”What, Mr.Hazard, do you know about the Buddhist esthetic?” noticeably neglecting my honorific doctor, which I didn’t give a damn about, but knew they were besotted with such distinctions. I decided to play humble, and replied, “Not a damn thing, Mr. Tokigawa. That’s why I’ve come to learn from you.”
Our conversation grew more animated and friendly as he perceived I was following his intricate arguments. And two and a half hours later, his black suit was explained. “Dr. Hazard, I’ve truly enjoyed this conversation, but I have an appointment at a funeral.” With a now happy face, he accepted my invitation to a supper/lecture at the Foreign Correspondents Club the following week with the then most respected American interpreter of Japanese art.
There was one other encounter I remember because it reminds me of how inscrutable the Japanese can be, and how misinterpreting American novices like me are, complicating intercultural exchange. On the tram in Hokkaido, I asked a Japanese gentleman for directions to the local museum. In perfect English he said he was headed there himself and would be happy to show me the way. We did the museum together, and he was an expert tutor, very tactful in gaging how ignorant I was before expatiating. He asked me if I would have dinner with him. I began to suspect that he was making moves on me! Never been treated so generously by a stranger before, you see.
My budget was tight, and I knew I could derail any serious moves, so I accompanied him to a memorable sushi dinner. As I thanked him profusely for a stimulating day, he thanked me. “My father died a few months ago, and today is the day we honor our parents. Arrigato for being such a wonderful substitute. My father would have loved to meet you, as I have.”
Chastened, I sortied off to my Youth Hostel, vowing not to make such a facile snap judgment soon again.
My orientation began on the flight from San Francisco to Shanghai. It was an overnight flight, and the plane was crammed to the rafters with tourists bringing home stuff of all kinds and sizes. About two o’clock, when all the stewardesses were snoozing, I decided to sneak up to the first class section. Amazingly,there was only one passenger there, a Mao-suited man who looked to be in his seventies. I asked him if I could sneak a look at the English language newspapers and magazines spread out for the non-existent first class business passengers. He urged me to make myself at home.
Having had a tacky supper back in economy served on plastic plates, I was envious of this Chinese man eating a fancy looking meal off of high class porcelain!.l made a snippy observation that the service up front was a long way from the Long March! He looked at me quizically, and finally reacted: “I was on that Long March, and I don’t find it odd that we eat better up front now than we did back then as colonial slaves. We actually marched so all the people could eat better.” He was not really hostile. I had aroused his curiosity, filling an empty evening.
He asked me where I was headed. 'The Shanghai Foreign Language Institute,” I replied. “For what?” he asked. “To study Mandarin”. “Really,” he smiled, “and how long will you Americans study our language”. “For six weeks,” I told him. He laughed uproariously, making me fear he would wake up some vigilant stewardess. And what will you learn? “Nii hau. Chi Chi.” I wish he could have heard my only Mandarin joke at the end of the course. I still tell Chinese about that episode in which I only learned three words. “Wo pu dong”. (I don’t understand.) Unfortunately the first time I tried my joke I was speaking to a couple from Guangzou. They didn’t get it. Because they spoke Cantonese.
I tried to change this portentiously painful subject by asking him how he learned English so well. He told me he had been on the Over the Hump brigade that flew DC 3’s through Burma during World War II. And he kept his English fresh dickering with Boeing salesmen in Seattle as he negotiated purchases for China Airlines, on which we were now flying. He turned out to the Veep in charge of fleet expansion. A nice serendipitous start to my six weeks. I snuck back to my peasant’s seat and slept fitfully until they announced our landing in Shanghai.
There was nothing unique about our six weeks of learning. The barracks were standard issue. The food was amazingly high class, as if they felt they had to make up for our grim surroundings with classy food. The thirty students were a strange mix of activist Christians and left wing hippies like me. The barracks talk was mostly over grappling with our truly difficult subject matter, for which all of us were very hard working students. The one thing that stands out in my mind was that broken umbrella I left outside our bedroom door with the trash—The next day it was back in front of the door, repaired!
Most of my memorable experiences lay outside the Institute. I eagerly started hoovering the museums scene. My first visit of course was to the Shanghai Art Museum which was hopefully to be the subject of my “cover story” in San Francisco “Focus”. It was in a recycled Art Deco bank! The curator showed me the artifacts he was considering sending to San Francisco. To my astonishment he seemed less interested in esthetic issues than in turnstiling! “Which things would turn the American visitors on?”
I had no idea. I could only tell him what turned me on. Incidentally, the day the class went to visit the Great Wall outside Beijing, I decided to visit the offices of “China Daily”. There was a small cadre of American ex-pats giving the locals an angle on American taste—they were about to expand their circulation in America. I soon discovered it was a Viewspaper not a Newspaper.
Party lines throughout the paper. Except when we got to the sports section. “How big should it be?” they asked me solicitously! (Me,who had lost interest in all sports coverage shortly after realizing at age 14 that my dream to replace Billy Rogell as Detroit Tiger's shortstop was a foolish fantasy.) What I was discovering was that beneath that spartan blue Mao tunic beat the heart of a Chinese businessman. Similarly, when I visited the Fine Arts Publishing House to see their new two volume collection of Long March woodcuts, there were no esthetic discussions. They wanted my advice on how to market the book in America. No idea. Sorry.
One museum I found that interested me was the Lu Xun museum. He was a physician trained in Sendai, Japan, where he picked up his first Marxist ideas. He was also a novelist, perhaps the first important writer to come out of the Chinese Communist movement which began in Shanghai in 1919. I was so taken by his biography that when asked to give a lecture to other foreign students at the Institute, I conceived of him as the Thomas Jefferson of Red China.
In retrospect I have a hunch both sides of the comparison would have been insulted by the comparison! But back in Honolulu where I had been first director of the American Studies Institute at the East West Center, I had a weekly radio interview over KAIM-FM called “Pacific Profile” (everybody interesting and his boring uncle eventually passed through Honolulu, just having finished a unique project or preparing to do one.)
One of my most interesting subjects was the editor of the leftwing daily in Kerala, the notorious Communist enclave in Southwest India. As I drove him to Honolulu International, we somehow got on the subject of Thomas Jefferson. He told me a story about TJ as an international spy. He always was looking out for ways to improved Virginia agriculture.
In Genoa, Italy he got wind of a new variety of rice that was so productive that the authorities put a death penalty on anyone attempting to secret samples out of the country. Jefferson sequestred some in a hollow cane. The story was beguiling, but the real issue was why I, the Jeff buff, had never heard of it. My Kerala man explained it simply: you find what you look for. As a Third World agriculture supporter, he clued in on a story that reflected his culture’s needs. First World scholars of Jefferson would find such an anecdote trivial. Seriousness is a function of agenda.
Shortly thereafter I was able to apply this First Principle of cross cultural interaction: You only get answers to the questions you find significant. We were asked to meet with a group of Indian journalists on a State Department press tour of the United States. (The East West Center was a concept of Phillip Coombs, a State Department policy planner.) We rehearsed the current situation in race relations and Communist power ploys, the two issues, national and international, which dominated the consciousness of liberal American college professors.
To our surprise, the visiting Indians didn’t seem at all interested in our formal presentations: they wanted to know why we slighted our old people! I had noticed, as I walked to the University from our rented house in the Manoa Valley, how many grandmas were herding small children off to elementary school. Our grandmas were mostly in senior homes, able to hug their grand children only on Holidays. We were learning more about America than were the Indians!
In Shanghai, most breakthroughs were similarly serendipitous. I hung out after classes mostly with a girls school headmistress from Portland, Maine. Ann and I were hanging out one Sunday at the so-called Hyde Park Corner, next to the race track. Chinese went there mostly to show off and polish their English, by practicing it. We were immediately struck by a handsome young man in his mid-twenties who turned out to be an middle school teacher. He asked us to dinner to meet his fiance.
We happily obliged, even though when we arrived at their crowded apartment, it appeared that all their kitchen equipment was jammed in the corridor. No matter, the meal was the best we had had in our six weeks in China—Shanghai, Beijing, Suzyou, Hangzhou-- (check spelling of last two places), wherever. But their stories were even more tasty. Both were victims of the Cultural Revolution, 1967-1976. Their fathers were both professionals, a doctor in the case of the girl, an accountant in the case of the boy.
Their professional lives had been trashed by the Red Guards. Both families were now safely abroad—one in Hong Kong, the other in Los Angeles. Towards the end of the meal, when they had heard enough of our political opinions to know we wouldn’t rat on them, they told us they were headed soon for a honeymoon in San Francisco—from which they planned not to return. It told us much more about the still totalitarian China than all the PR the Institute tried to lay on us.
One experience in Beijing still stands out in my memory. I.M.Pei, the Chinese American architect, had just designed a hotel outside Beijing, called Fragrant Hills. Phil Herrera, my editor at Connoisseur, thought there might be a good story there for the magazine, and gave me the name and address of another Conn writer who happened to be studying in Beijing. We gladly went on a larky trip, where we found that Pei, his wife and daughter had been reduced to their knees to redo the floors that the Chinese craftsmen had messed up.
Pei had just finished his glorious Louvre glass pyramid and he was full of comparisons between the highly competent French craftsmen and their slovenly counterparts in China. The hotel was in that highly amorphous state between a soft and a hard opening. We glowed at our first hand contact with a genius on his knees (but Phil couldn’t place such a sad story in his upbeat book!), practiced our Chinese on each other, and snoozed sweetly through the dark Pei night.
I still remember an afternoon cruising on the Whampoo River just off the Bund where the local band tried manfully to swing, but basically couldn’t! Heh, America may not be perfect, but its combos, great and ordinary, swing. The only other time I felt this Americanness of our indigenous music was on a pit stop visit to Linz, on my way to a long sweet visit to Vienna.
It turned out that in their new Gustav Mahler Hall, they were celebrating the 75th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth with a two hour long tribute to his and Ira’s genius. The leading operatic soprano had bravely taken the responsibility of singing his standards. Oh me Oh my. It felt like four hours, that concert they had invited me off the street to witness as a visiting American journalist. A great voice. But no rhythm. Ira’s poetry never made it that night to Linz.
But the key to my serendipitous Memphis experience was a new book on the Mississippi-- by the recently retired the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s diplomatic correspondent, Marquis Childs. (Free copies of the book had been given to the first twenty five families visiting the new museum on its July 4th opening day.)
It was a wonder. Childs was a river rat, from Clinton, Iowa, and he had started the book fifty years ago as he began his journalistic career. An early success, he had to postpone the book's completion—until his retirement! It had this splendidly double vision from the slow maturing of the manuscript. I read it on the bus to Philly, and sent the Chron a review over the transom.
When I got back after Labor Day to my girlfriend Mary’s place in Camp Meeker, CA (outside Santa Rosa, a former Methodist summer camp, now “declined” into a low rent hippie village), my bedroom door was covered with post-its from the Chronicle. They wanted the annual calendar feature I had done for Becky Sinkler at the Inky, which they had peremptorily rejected when I first arrived in the Bay Area in May.
I readily agreed, but asked “How about the Marquis Childs’ “Mississippi”?” “It’s running Sunday,” Alix, Book Editor Pat Holt’s Girl Friday, promised. Whew! I thought. Two assignments, and a promise of more! Things were suddenly looking up. The truly serendipitous angle was that Mr. Childs had passed through San Francisco a few days after my review slipped through Pat Holt’s transom. Otherwise I might have just given up, and enjoyed a passive retirement.
I was thus in an upbeat mood when a few weeks later I read in the New York Times about a study group going for a six week Mandarin course in Shanghai over the Christmas Holiday! Ouch. It turned out to be run by an academic who had been a student Christian activist over China and other international political issues in the 1950’s and the head of Chinese study groups had been his “adversary”.
But he liked the American’s integrity! I signed up immediately. I also had read that the Shanghai Museum of Art was making its first foreign exchange exhibition—in San Francisco in May. Hmmm. How do you spell Scoop, I wondered. S C O O P! I immediately got in touch with the editor of San Francisco FOCUS, the monthly magazine of Jim Day’s KQED-TV, to me the most interesting public television station in the United States.
I got a promise of a cover story if my piece sang. So while I applied myself conscientiously to the metaphysically impossible task of learning Mandarin in six weeks, my real motivation was that SCOOP! (I did get the cover!) And another assignment on the bounced Waco TX preacher who moved to the Bay and opened a library bookstore on Jack London!
As an American Studies Ph.D. I had long been discontented with the navel gazing aspect of that discipline! In my last years of teaching I created new courses at Beaver College on Black Lit, then African Lit, and finally a rubric I called “International English” which in effect was Commonwealth Lit plus U.S.
Alas when I explained this new rubric in the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature, I was accused of acting CIAishly. No matter that it was the exact opposite! I had founded the Center for Internationalizing English in London the summer of 1972 (with the initials CIE) with the alleged purpose of undoing the damage done by our CIA by spreading poetry in International English. That a Canadian would level this absurd Cana(dia)rd was especially painful because I had grown up in Detroit across the river from Windsor, Ontario, and from early and massive metabolisation of CBC radio, considered myself spiritually a Cannuck.
International English motivated me to make study trips to North and West Africa, Oceania, and Anglophone Asia. I wrote an essay on this internationalizing away the parochialisms of American Studies for Marshall Fishwick’s groundbreaking anthology,”American Studies in Transition” (1964). Marshall’s shtick was Mcluhanism, which was all right by me, having met the Master on a Ford Foundation New York fellowship (1955-56) long after reading his visionary pieces in “Commonweal” magazine that led to “The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man”, a formula he said he devised to understand the “foreign” culture of his freshman students at St.Louis University.
My McLooneyism came from my participation in the tiny Catholic avant-garde that surrounded the lay Catholic magazine, Commonweal, a way station on my transition from the Jesuit University of Detroit to the post-Catholic authoritarians of the “National Guardian” as well as inspirations like I.F.Stone.
As I explained before, the first three months of my early retirement in 1982 were harrowing. I had clips from the Christian Science Monitor, the three Philly dailies, and several national magazines. But my queries to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune elicited only form letter rejections! I began to think that my melodramatic rejection of tenure in a letter dated Walt Whitman’s Birthday 1982 was turning out to be a silly and self-destructive gesture.
Greyhound had rejected my Visa card for my trip to Philly for my son Tim’s 26th birthday on August 21. I ran out of funds in Oklahoma City, and Tim wired me enough to get home. I spent a day in Memphis swearing never to patronize Greyhound again! Looking for something to do before the last leg of my trip, I asked what was new in Memphis. “Mud Island” was the puzzling reply. It turns out that the only rock music venue in the Big M was in Overton Park, a blue rinse section. They had told the mayor if he didn’t get that noise out of their ears, they’d do their best to get him out of City Hall.
He called on the city’s most renowned architect (he had done the International Airport to great acclaim) Roy Harrover, a Yalie favorite of Vincent Scully, to get him out of this bind. Roy made a deal: Let me do a walk through museum of the Lower Mississippi on Mud Island (a vagrant swatch of land in the river that ebbed and flowed on its own whims), and he would make a rock venue out of earshot of those blue rinses.
I walked to the river and started asking where MI was. I was stunned by its brilliance. Each river contributing to the final flow was represented by a sculptural waterfall. I still think it is the most original piece of tourist architecture in the country. I had lunch with the director to hear his plans. And spent the afternoon on the top of the National Bank of Commerce Building palavering with Roy over his overall plans for the river’s downtown.
By the way, if the weather’s nice, you’ll want to waltz down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, French immigrant Paul Philippe Cret’s simulation of the Champs d’Elysee. It begins at the PMA “front door”, where there recently was a great brouhaha over placing a statue of Rocky Balboa atop the steps!
On the left, you’ll want to stop at the Rodin Museum, the gift of Julius Mastbaum, a movie theatre mogul who loved the French sculptor. At the first circle you’ll find the Franklin Institute, for science mavens. And to the right, the Moore School of Design (begun when females weren’t allowed in “real” art schools!) Next to it is the Academy of Natural Sciences, a must for geologists and the like.
At the Second Circle, Logan Square, is a marvelous fountain by Alexander Calder’s father. In Philly we say three generations of Calders is not enough, as we try to persuade the want to get rich quick Calder current generation, to let us build a Calder Museum on the Parkway. Esthetic Thugs are also trying to steal the treasures of the Barnes Museum and move it to Center City under a phony banner of tourism. Bah Humbug. Let me tell you sometime the lovely funky tale of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a nutty hero of mine. He invented Argyrol, that winter menace to generations of American children, and used his fortune and his canny eye to create the grandest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionists ever.
I have three must see’s for you in Center City. Begin at the Atwater Kent (an early radio manufacturer)Museum on the East side of 7th Street between Market and Chestnut. It’s the museum of the City. Its main floor has the biggest map ever of Philadelphia. You can actually walk around on it, physically positioning the various sectors of the city. Notice the number of streets with tree names (Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Cherry and so on.) That was founder William Penn’s onomastic solution for his Greene CountrieTowne.
Broad Street is the main North/South thoroughfare; Market, East/West. They cross at that great Victorian monstrosity, our City Hall. Atop it is Alexander Calder’s grandfather’s statue of Willy Penn. For the longest time, no one could build a structure taller than the City Father. When that Cranbrook Academy trained agitator, Edmund Bacon, took over as City Planner, many rules were broken, some good, some bad. But he did prevent Modernoid Architecture freaks from tearing it down, bringing his own Home Town his own Bacon. Yes, that famous movie star is his son.
Now I want you to wander North on Broad Street (that’s the side JFK Boulevard is on) to one of my favorite Philly institutions: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (founded in 1805, Frank Furness building 1876). I used to tell my Am Lit students that the founder, Charles Wilson Peale, was the George Washington of our visual culture. I love it that he named two of his sons after artists, Raphael and Rubens Peale. Both were decent artists too, one better than his father, the other not so good. I’m going to let you decide which was whose! But the Big Story on Action News (TV Channel 6’s theme song) is the great painter Cecilia Beaux. It was tough for a woman in nineteenth century Philly to be any kind of a professional, especially in a “useless” field like art. But she was a tough lady, which is very paradoxical when you look at the gentleness of her oeuvre.
Now turn East on Arch street until you get to Seventh Street. Eight blocks through the heart of Center City . After you pass the Greyhound Terminal on your right, you will soon seen the African American Museum on your left. Take a look. Half the inhabitants of Philly are black now, and they’ve put up a grand museum, filled with local artists as well as traveling shows.
At the end of Independence Plaza, between Sixth and Fifth, between Chestnut and Arch, you’ll find the new National Constitution Center. Kathy, a gifted black actress, will take you through our Constitutional history, in a half hour gig. You are then ready to relax and enjoy “Baseball: the American Experience”. Cooperstown it ain’t, but it is full of details about what we used to call our National Pastime, until football, basketball, and hockey started flirting with bigger and bigger crowds. For those who flinch at the stiff entry price, there’s a fine National Geographic book for $27.
Time to relax. Walk down further East until you hit the river. A dandy seaport museum down there.
Tomorrow, I want you to invade the University of Pennsylvania. You’ll be astonished at the range of its offerings. They also feature a Loop bus called LUCY. Do I ever love Lucy. Its Green and Gold loops (pick up a schedule when you board) at 30thStreet Station, Amtrak’s main station. Head for campus where you will find the Ross Gallery in the Fine Arts Library. Currently they feature an astonishing achievement. An inspired Army chaplain collected chards of stained glass from bombed European cathedrals, brought them home to America and arranged to give them to artists for creating their own images. It is sui generis. A splendid catalog and DVD are available to take this Good News home with you.
Then it’s time to visit the Institute of Contemporary Art at 46th and Sansom, right behind a Hilton Inn at Penn which might meet your budget. ICA was started during the Bicentennial year 1976, to fight the image of Penn art as esthetically too old fashioned . Their original anthropological Museum, at Spruce and 34th, remains one of the world’s great repositories of antiquities, most of which their scholars have personally found and brought home.
Meanwhile, there’s now there a slightly funky take on Puppets. They proudly declare that Philly was the first place in America to promote this demotic genre—in 1743, of all centuries! Two young female guards were astonishingly eager to confirm whether or not if I really understood what was going on in one filmed sequence: yes, I assured them, I saw that it was penis that was the puppet. Geesh. I’ve seen better. Hell, I have better. Most examples were less salacious! In fact, I came away with a new respect for the astonishing diversity of puppetry.
May I make a luncheon suggestions. On Sansom Street, between 44th and 45th is the White Dog Café. It is notorious for having been the place where Madame Blavatsky began her theosophical adventures. Its current owner is a Eco-nut of great celebrity, Judy Wick. Be warned. I flinched when I saw that the 4 glasses of a very ordinary rouge I had imbibed in a two and half hour lunch (with an old Penn colleague, the distinguished drama critic Gerald Weales) cost $8.80 a pop! I’ve never had a lunch in my life that lasted more than a half hour. But old geezers lose track of time. Nostalgia, I’ve come to believe, is geriatric SEX. Next door, Ms.Eco sells semi-political Tschotchkes. At the Black Cat Café.
As a retired American Lit professor, I wouldn’t be faithful to my craft if I didn’tell you what to read.There are three free weeklies in the honor boxes on campus, the Philadelphia Weekly on Wednesdays (it began as The Welcomat, where I had a weekly column tagged “HAZARD AT LARGE” for ten years, so I’m fond of it for sedimental reasons), The City Paper on Thursdays (where in 1982 I started shedding my academic life as a freelance Art Critic, with a column called EYE 95—when I suddenly moved to San Francisco, I called it EYE 5 in the SF Independent, Interstates being where they are!)
I also wrote a few pieces for The University Review back then, when I found it a rather stodgy rag with opinions too conservative for my leftie soul. Yikes, twenty years later I found it easily the best free sheet in Philly with a long piece this week on an IWW meeting in Philly about the Iraq War. Hell, I didn’t know the Wobblies were still business(IWW stands for Industrial workers of the World!)
Bless Robert Christian for universalizing his sheet! Its advertising section is not fouled like the other two with sex ads. And then there’s The Daily Pennsylvanian, since the 80’s an independent medium free of faculty and administrative control. Given that freedom, it’s not as good as it should be. (Old professors never die; they just go grading everyone!)
Philly’s two dailies, the Inky and the Daily News, have just upped their price to 75 cents. The Sunday Inky to $1.50. Both have superb cartoonists, Tony Auth for the Inky, and Signe Wilkinson for the Noose. The Inky literary critic, Carlin Romano, is the best such in America, with even more interesting and complex essays of his in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Ed Sozanski, their art critic, is a dependable guide. Architecture critic Inge Saffron is as good as any I’ve read anywhere in the world.
One other suggestion: Get a SEPTA travel pass for as many days as you plan to be in Philly. You’ll need one on LUCY. I always ride the front seat on the subway: but then I majored in Yellow at University, with a minor in Timidity. The engineer rides beside you, with his hot phone to the Police. Same with buses.
Good luck, and don’t be misled by snooty folks from New York and Washington. Nor by uninformed Europeans! Philly is a nonstop festival of the arts. I've got fifty one years of pleasant memories to prove it. Pick up the free monthly ART MATTERS if you have any lingering doubts. (I used to write for it too in the good old daze.) It will guide you to galleries galore.
For ten years now, I’ve been living in Weimar, Thuringia (population 60,000, when the university and conservatory students are on holiday) in the so-called Green Heart of Germany. I love its peacefulness, and its rep as the country’s “spiritual center” because the great writers Goethe and Schiller lived here at the turn of the nineteenth century. As a retired professor of American literature, though, I wish more locals read G and S than brag about their literary exploits. And I’m getting mighty tired of their assumption that my hometown for the past half century, Philadelphia, is only a pathetic pitstop between DC and NYC when it comes to the arts.
I moved to Philadelphia in 1957 when the University of Pennsylvania gave me a Carnegie postdoctoral fellowship to create a new course on “The Mass Society” for their department of American Civilization. Two years later I wrote the first curriculum for the new Annenberg School of Communication. We were lucky enough to get the last available house in Greenbelt Knoll, a cluster of 19 houses set in Pennypack Park, through whose trees ran a creek emptying into the Delaware River.
It was the first experiment in racial integration in Northeast Philly, and replete with fascinating neighbors such as the founder Morris Milgrim, Robert N.C.Nix, the first black congressman from the area, and the Reverend Leon (The Lion from Zion Baptist Church) Sullivan, better known world wide as the man who negotiated the so-called Sullivan Principles of economic and political justice in South Africa. And the settlement won an AIA Award for siting when it opened in 1956, set in a rolling park of one hundred fifty foot Oak, Poplar, and Black Ash trees. And imagine our delight last year, during our Golden Jubilee, when we discovered that the great architect Louie Kahn had designed them, a genius to whom major commissions came very late in life.
But I come not to praise Greenbelt Knoll, but to bury the canard that Philly is culturally boring. Let me begin with the Frida Kahlo show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the city’s greatest art attraction. Frida is especially meaningful to me because as a working class boy growing up in Detroit the first art experience I ever had was gawking in astonishment at the then new murals of River Rouge at the Detroit Institute of Art that Edsel Ford had commissioned to Diego Rivera, Frida’s on again, off again husband, the Oddest Couple in twentieth century “American” art.
DIA then had an immigrant German director, William Valentiner, who knew how to bring patron and artist together. Out East, another zillionaire, Nelson Rockefeller, commissioned Diego to do murals for the new Rockefeller Center his family had financed to kick start his New York economy out of the Depression. But to his eternal shame, his spinelessness led to obliterating those murals because they contained an image of Lenin!
Meanwhile out West in San Francisco, another German immigrant, the architect Timothy Pflueger, chairman of the Art Commission for the Transpacific Exposition which exulted and exalted in the completion of the Panama Canal, commissioned the leftie muralist to decorate the lunch room of the Pacific Stock Exchange, thereby giving generations of stock brokers unexplainable stomach aches. Frida mostly followed Diego around at these gigs, trying to deal with her gravely harmed body gracefully, and turning her visible suffering into a glorious victory of the spirit. But that’s all Old Hat.
What is new in this exhibition is the most comprehensive photo collection illuminating her human relations that I have seen in a museum. That, and a veritable Frida MegaMall of Arty Facts as well as unique (and sometimes expensive—I saw a sculpture I was fixing to buy until its $900 price tag quickly brought me back to fiscal earth!) I found out that PMA had an aesthetic detective roaming the world looking for authentic art to spice up the changing exits of his museum. If you don’t leave, grabbed by some Kahlo, you’re a stronger consumer than I am.
But that’s not all, by a long shot. There are two series of shots by two photographic masters, actually a Mistress and a Master. The man is Ansel Adams, who can make a sand dune look like the Parlors of Heaven. Oddly, for me who retired from teaching early, to live in San Francisco for three years, the swatch of AA photos shown at PMA puts to shame the collection of the AA Museum in SF Plan at least an hour, savoring AA.
The lady is Lee Miller, who taught her contemporary Edward Steichen that in fashion shoots, a woman could be on both sides of the camera. Her “album” of her friends in Paris, both famous and infamous, is a painfully exhilarating experience for someone like me born so late in that Jazzy Decade (1927, in case anybody asks you, coincidentally the same year PMA opened to the public.)
That same year, kitty korner across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company built its new Beaux Deco HQ. PMA, with an eye to its expanding horizons, bought it recently, lock, stock, and barrel hoops, and made there an adjunct gallery plus offices plus a teachers auxiliary to help more young students get into the Art Act.
All the current shows are tasty, but the one on Industrial Design especially quickened my heart rate, inasmuch as I’ve spent the last ten years in Weimar, writing a book on Walter Gropius and his ambitions to use technology to bring good design to the working classes. I have just finished “Bauhaus: Myths and Realities” in time for the 90th anniversary next year of its founding in 1919.Thus I can attest to the display’s authenticity, with illustrative examples from its own collection 1920-80.
I especially relished its Marimekko fabrics, since I became a friend of the great Finnish designer, Armi Rahtia, in 1972, when I filmed their hand making her fabrics for Time-Life Films. My only gripe is the absence of the design genius of Viktor Schreckengost, a Cleveland artist who just died at age 102. His reputational problem derives from another Cleveland parvenu, the architect Philip C. Johnson, who was so insecure of his own talents that all his life he mocked artists who worked for the lowly. Viktor designed children’s toys for Sears Roebuck, and had a mock up with a plasticene seat that he paid people to sit on so he could conclude which shape would fit the most butts the best. That is known (by me at least) as “a posteriori reasoning”. Most Bauhaus seating is a priori, which means it’s a pain in the you know where.
Viktor also had the bright idea for Mack Trucks of putting the cab over the motor, a standard practice in the industry ever since. Viktor also made a fabulous “American Jazz” glass vase for Eleanor Roosevelt that Alessi should buy the mass production rights to. Strangely, as I was standing on the corner of 24th and Pennsylvania for the 32 bus back to Center City, I fell into conversation with the very curator of that design show, and he volunteered the American Jazz critique, wondering where he could get $23,000 to buy an American Jazz glass off of E-Bay. Any donors out there?
Incidentally, and this is a larger and badly neglected aspect of American art history and patronage, Viktor was a potter’s son. He learned to love clay as a boy. Johnson was the nouveau riche son of a steel company lawyer, where status meant more than authenticity. And Viktor was uncorrupted by the bourgeosity of the Bauhaus—he went to school in Vienna in 1929, where he rubbed tools with the likes of Josef Hoffmann and Johannes Maria Olbrich, those titans of the Austrian Secession. By the way, that 32 bus on JFK Boulevard, across from City Hall, is the same one that drops you off at the back door of PMA. You see, Frank Gehry is causing all that hassle around the old structure, digging into his underground expansion.
The Inky's Chris Satullo recently made the absurd allegation in defense of saving the Dilworth faux colonial that Venturi is the greatest living American architect! What a joke. For lack of commissions anywhere (except for his mother's house in Germantown!), Venturi, faute de mieux, became a pamphleteer urging us all to learn from Las Vegas.
Well, just look at what he learned: a stodgy, plattenbau-like Guild House, a Seattle Museum of Art with a kitschy "grand" staircase, a pseudo-classic addition to London's National Gallery, and the spookily goofy Franklin ghost house, and on and on into the greatest muddle of Post-Modernism. It's understandable to root for the home boy, but not when you're talking world history!
I have never seen a Venturi which levitated my eyes and spirit like, say, Kahn's Kimbell, Wright's Falling Water, Saarinen's St. Louis Arch, Timothy Pflueger's Oakland Paramount, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina Towers in Chicago, Kevin Roche's Oakland Museum. He creates Blahrchitecture. In short, Venturi is blind as a bat as a designer and his PoMo bad habits will come to haunt us long after we've exorcised his Las Vegas fantasies out of architecture schools. There was plenty wrong with tight ass Bauhausery, but Venturi's facile cliches were no remedy.
It is useful to remember that Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus to bring good design (housing and its contents) to the German working classes. (Their newly big cities were then a Big Mess.) When he and Mies fled to the United States, they ultimately dumped that still valid ideal for becoming Facade makers for the Fortune 500.
It was painful to see Gropius stumble. (Perennial architectural weather vane Phillip Johnson used to mock his Harvard teacher for always talking blue collar at Harvard Graduate School of Design.) Grossly neglected Charles Goodman was already designing great cheap housing for National Homes of Lafyette, IN. (Our first house in 1954, when I was finishing my PhD at Michigan State was a brand new Goodman--three bedrooms for $6000, $400 down and $40 a month.) And William Levitt after the war took over on the East Coast.
The first thing Gropius did was to rent an expensive Park Avenue office for his collaborator Konrad Wachsmann, the pioneer wooden prefab designer who first gained notoriety designing Albert Einstein's summer home outside Potsdam (just rehabbed for the centennial of Einstein's theory). The scientist and the architect got the Jew Wachsmann a visa to flee Germany at the last moment. Alas, he rented an abandoned aircraft factory in California to make prefabs for their General Panel Corporation, not realizing that transportation costs could kill them compared with Lafayette, IN's central location.
Neither he nor Gropius had a clue about private financing (European cheap housing had been publicly financed by Social Democratic politicos.) or U.S. building codes And the snooty New York intellectuals condemned Levittowns without ever bothering to see one, a still unacknowledged trahison des clercs even greater than Corbusier's silly notion that high rise apartments would liberate the land below for park like greenery. (Not drug pushers.)
The great Columbia U sociologist Herbert J.Gans proved this in his classic "The Levittowners"--which he wrote when he taught at Penn in the early sixties, while living in New Jersey's Levittown, renamed Willingboro to placate the New York eggheads.
How Corbu and Mies are still revered beats me. I guess architects just have to want to do the right thing! Mies' only single residence in America, the Farnsworth House, was unliveable. The Barcelona Pavilion type glass made energy costs prohibitively high. (Heh, it wasn't rocket science to perceive that Barcelona was not a Chicago suburb.) Dr. Farnsworth sued him when their romance cooled! Like other unlivable icons of Modernism, it's now a Visitor Center where Mies's genius is celebrated for posterity. (Like Corbu's uninhabitable apartment in Weissenhof!(1927) Mies' dream of a modern community outside Stuttgart.)
Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lueders, Germany's first feminist, nailed Mies in Form magazine for making apartments no one could raise kids in. But what did a mother know?! The Bundestag has belatedly honored this prescient pioneer by naming its new Library on the Spree after her. It's about time, patriarchs! Mies wanted to create ART not architecture, and failed at both in Plano.
The squabble over Dilworth's house shows us how far the architecture/ preservation community has drifted from the social idealism of Gropius. The hoopla over Cesar Pelli's MegaMirror next to 30th Street Station (see July 31 Inquirer Commentary page) is just more poudre aux yeux. Venturi's architectural "thinking" has led to a generation of starchitects, each with a showoff shtick to make his architecture a sellable brand (Gehry's titanium, Meier's Men's Urinal white tiles).
The sad truth is that Venturi's PoMo piffle about Las Vegas has led to our Potemkin Village Center Cities, where we think our cities' problems are solved by a Pelli level icon every generation or so. So silly.
These PV's just temporarily obscure the escalating collapse of urban infrastructure behind their Oh So Fine Facades. Good restaurants do not a viable city make. Great neighborhoods do. Read what Sister Mary Scullion says in the Inky SimplePose-um. The Wal-Mortification of our economy is the final step in this self-destruction. Blue collars at least used to be able to afford Levitt's houses (Unless of course they were blacks--for the first 25 years.)
Building Big is just an infantile program. Leave that to the Chinese in Pudong. And get to work on the neighborhoods, architects, and not just the rich ones in Society Hill either. Join the London-founded Architecture for Humanity, which hates Las Vegas! (Like I do!) Walt Whitman didn't write "Leaves of Grass" 150 years ago to inspire such crap.
A SHORT HISTORY Born in an empty Kellogg Corn Flakes Carton, Battle Creek, Michigan. 8 February 1927. Mother puzzled.
Moved to Detroit, 1930.
Boarded at Holy Rosary Academy, Bay City, Michigan. 1930-40. Sister Felicia, O.P., virtual mother.
Entered Sacred Heart Seminary, Fall 1940.
Expelled Easter Vacation, 1943, allegedly for the Rector Monsignor Donnelly catching me and Jim VanSlambrouck smoking (or trying to learn how to) after midnight in the Gothic Tower. Jim not expelled. Ambiguous justice. (I didn't inhale, either.)
Joined the U.S.Navy on my seventeenth birthday.
Entered Edwin Denby High, from which I graduated the following year, 2nd in a class of 482. Ive been looking for that over-achiever ever since, to no avail.
Boot Camp at Great Lakes, IL. Company 1818, September 18, 1944.
Xmas Vacation Liberty, traipsed around Detroit in my dress blues to no improvement in my sex life, of which there was, alas, none.
Naval Air Training Center, Gulfport, MS, January through March, 1945.
First Liberty in New Orleans, dead drunk horizontally for the first and last time. Shore Patrol picked me up and took me to the Morgue at Huey Longs Charity Hospital. Laid out on a stone slab. Never have had a drinking problem since.
Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi TX, April 1945 to September 1945. Aviation Electronics Technicians Mate 2nd Class.
First and Last and Only Posting, Pensacola Naval Air Station, October 1945 to July 12, 1946.
Entered University of Detroit Engineering School to become Electrical Engineer. Got a D in Mechanical Drawing. Decided I needed a profession in which it was an asset to be godawful sloppy. Decided to become an English Professor.
Worked Nights, Summer of 1949, Stamping Press, Chrysler, Highland Park.
Graduated University of Detroit, Philosophy major, June, 1949.
Worked Lincoln/Mercury Production Line, Dearborn, Summer 1950
Worked Fisher Body as Rubber Cement Squirter, Cleveland, 1951.
Entered Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Fall 1949, to start a Ph.D. in American Culture.
Married Mary Elizabeth Schneider on December 30, 1950 at Guardian Angel Parish. Honeymoon at Dearborn Inn. Moved into Mrs. Goldberg's Apartment, Cleveland. First Contact with Kosher Culture.
M.A. John Fiske as Evolution Popularizer, 1952.
Moved to Michigan State to get cheap in state tuition. Bank Janitor, East Lansing Savings Bank.
Diverse Courses from Aaron Abell (Art History), Richard Dorson (U.S.Cultural History), and several English Professors who shall remain as nameless as I was in the Classrooms.
Started Teaching English/Social Studies, an experimental mishmash at East Lansing High School. Best students I've ever had, especially after I graduated to teaching 10 and 12th grade English, straight. Children of MSU professors or GM executives, with a few blues whose parents did the dirty work. First TV program, Everyman a Critic, over MSUs UHF station. Highlight: on site coverage of drag races. 1953.
First publication, Everyman in Saddle Shoes, in Scholastic Teacher magazine about using TV original dramas in the English classroom. Paddy Chayefsky's A Catered Affair was my most thrilling day in a classroom, ever. 1954.
Won Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1955 to spend a year in New York studying new ways of using TV in the classroom. Met Roy Larsen serendipitously at a White House Conference on Education where he offered me an office at Time/Life to facilitate my media contacts. Times call back phone number got me numerous interviews with the likes of Pat Weaver, NBC , and Don McGannon of Westinghouse.
Became Radio-TV editor of Scholastic Teacher, 1955-61. Shared duties with my wife, Mary.
Freshman English convention speech, Liberace and the Acts of Cultural Criticism, led to a job at Trenton State, 1956-57.
Postdoctoral Carnegie Fellowship to organize a new course on The Mass Society for the American Civilization department at the University of Pennsylvania. Research it first year, teach the second. Greatest sinecure of my career. 1957-59.
Walter Annenberg gave Penn two million dollars to found a graduate school of communication. I recommended that Gilbert Seldes, who wrote the first serious book on American popular culture, The Seven Lively Arts (1924), become its first Dean. I was his gofer, crisscrossing the nation telling other Us and many media how good we were going to be. Created a weekly TV program for University of the Air on WFIL-TV, Walters station. Manmade Landscapes dealt with the built environment. High point was Louie Kahn's electric enthusiasm over the Salk Center in La Jolla, CA.
Taught History of Communication (from Cave Painting to Comic Strip) for Annenberg and The Mass Society for Am Civ. Started writing for scholarly publications. Regular book reviews for Penn's magazine. Articles in Television Quarterly and Journalism Quarterly.
David Riesman recommends me for the first director of the Institute of American Studies at the East West Center. Heaven. Pacific Profile on KAIM-FM, the QXR of the Pacific, was my weekly radio interview with VIPs (very intelligent persons) passing through Honolulu. Did a TV talk show with my wife on Honolulu Star Bulletin's TV station, called Coffee Break to characterize its casualness. Highpoint Alfred Franenstein (art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle) on his new book about folk art in churches on the Big Island.
Wife hated Paradise. (We had just bought an AIA award winning house in Philly, and the dinky poo house of a friend on sabbatical that our English Department provisional IAS director dumped on us was tacky), and after promising a $13,000 salary, the UH President pleaded poverty and reduced it to $11,000 in high priced Hawaii, and so we returned to Philly where I was appointed chairman of the English Department at Beaver College. Twenty years later I took early retirement to become a free lancer, with only modest but satisfying publication in the Nation, the New Republic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Inquirer, Daily News, Connoisseur, Civilization, American Heritage, the Indianapolis Star, San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Museum Magazine, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Independent. Two jobs were semi-permanent and really stimulating: Herb Larsen of the San Francisco Business Journal was amazingly ecumenical in the way he allowed me to cover culture in the Bay. It was a chain based in Dallas and he wrote all the other editors to encourage them to run my stuff when not too SF parochial. I remember him as the best boss I ever worked for.
The second best, and very very good, was Derek S.B. Davis, the arts editor of The Welcomat, a superb weekly with a goofy name. The chief editor was Dan Rottenberg, one of the brightest journalists I have ever watched close up. Derek gave me free reign for my weekly Hazard at Large column. So did Doris Brandes, editor of Art Matters, for several years. I loved the hit and sometimes miss character of journalism compared with grade book rigidity of teaching. I also had a great short run at the Philadelphia Daily News when Gil Spencer was editor and Rich Aregood did the editorial page. His assistant moved on to New York, but before she did she taught me how to take professor out of Op Eds for a funky tabloid. Ive forgotten her name but not her beauty and her moxie. That was the People Paper with Nels Nelson on jazz and Pete Dexter on everything else. It's still very good, probably even better, but editor Zack Stahlberg did a Beruf Verbot on me and that was that. His manners are still pretty plebey, but he runs a good paper. Can't have everything.
I was unlucky enough to have my father abandon us when I was three: he opted for bigamy with his secretary. I was lucky enough to inherit 150,000 dollars from him and his almost wife, which I have wasted creatively on poetry projects and other non-essential necessities.
I have been traveling the world since I took early retirement at 55. I'm 77 now. I've studied Mandarin in Shanghai, interviewed in Tokyo Toshinobu Takagawa, the lead descendant of the last shogun , written for the Japanese Times and other Asian dailies, I've covered the first World Negro Arts Festival in Dakar, and the Commonwealth Education Ministers Congress in Lagos. Reviewed jazz festivals everywhere. Fallen in love with Scandinavia. My life would be perfect if my wife were Finnish.
Now I live in Weimar, Germany with a German wife, finishing a book on the Bauhaus, writing an autobiography, Dumb Irish Luck: A Serendipitous Memoir, and writing a coming of old age novel mocking Goethe's The Sorrows of the Young Werther, with the working title, Sorrows of An Old American Geezer, about a 27 year old Jewish girl who foolishly falls in love with a 77 year old goyim geezer. (They both love architecture more than themselves!) Mrs. Goldberg would never approve.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2006, the intrafamily squabble over his Center for Non-Violent Change reminded me of my visit there in 1982. I had Greyhounded to Atlanta to attend a press conference at the Center. But I had assigned my Afro-American Lit Class a TV assignment, Maya Angelou’s Sunday evening appearance on PBS. She’s far from one of my favorite writers, even black writers, but her exemplary life had motivated my white students to get into the meaning of the Civil Rights Revolution.
So I checked into the pricey Westin Peachtree Plaza, a jazzy John Portman open high rise atrium topped by my favorite watering hole in America, The Sun Dial. But first I checked out the TV in my upscale room. No PBS channel. I couldn’t believe it. I went down to the lobby to buy TV Guide or the Atlanta Constitution.
Both were sold out late on Saturday afternoon. So in desperation I called a hotel engineer to see why there was no PBS on my set. Alas, he had put a sizable bet on the football game being televised on CBS, and I had to finally manhandle the search myself. I fiddled the manual dial until—Lo and Behold, the supercilious brow of William F. Buckley, Firing his Usual Lines, suddenly materialized on the TV set. I was ready for Maya.
I decided to play tourist on Peachtree for an hour or so before dark, and finally at dusk retired to The Sun Dial. For visitors it had marked each sector on the dial with sites of interest: it appeared to me that anything more than ten feet high had been marked for outsiders—with one notable exception: nothing Afro-American had made the cut. Amazing, especially for Andrew Young’s now calculatedly friendly capital of the New South. I went back to my room to ogle Maya.
Pooped by the long bus ride, I went to bed early, and awoke as I usually do in the wee hours of Sunday morning. I decided to kill some time creatively by sneaking a look at the Sun Dial with no sun. To my amazement, there was another person already there, looking with great deliberation through a pair of binoculars at what looked to me like completely deserted streets at five o’clock of a Monday morning. He was a young black man, and I joshed him about being an early riser. “Heh,” he joshed in reply,”it’s my job. My first job out of Medill School of Journalism up in Chicago. I’m a traffic reporter for radio station WATL-FM. Things will pick up pretty soon. I just wanted to get used to it up here.”
I told him about my hassle getting Maya Angelou on my room TV, and he acidly replied: "Not too much interest in PBS with the businessmen and tourists stopping at the Peachtree.” His friendliness prompted me to tell about my surprise at the fact that there were no black institutions marked on The Sun Dial. “You can be sure they don’t miss that lack of information either. As long as they can see in which direction the Braves play, they’ll be content.”
I told him I was here to do a piece on the King Center. “Ah, yes. Today’s the big day,” as he pointed in the darkness in the direction of the Center. I talked to him briefly about my writing the first curriculum for the Annenberg School of Communications at Penn, and how I was planning to retire from teaching at the end of this semester and try free lancing.”Well, that can be a tough row to hoe, but good luck.” “You, too, on your first media job. I get the same kind of kick I used to get from teaching from getting a piece published in another newspaper or magazine. My mother just died so I’m free to wander around.” We shook hands, and I split to order breakfast at the nearby McDonald’s.
The press conference wasn’t a very big affair, and I found myself seated in the front row, just a few feet from Jesse Jackson on my left and Coretta Scott King on the right. I waited patiently as they did the main business of explaining how the King Center was doing and what their current plans were. As the conference rumbled to a close, I raised my hand and observed. "As a journalist from Philadelphia, I was astonished this morning to find not a single trace of Black Atlanta along the periphery of the Sun Dial. Why is that?”
There was a painful pause, during which Jesse Jackson laid the most baleful look on me I had had in a long time! Finally, Mrs. King broke the awkward silence: "I’m glad you brought that up. Six months ago I raised the same question with the manager of the Peachtree Plaza and didn’t get a very satisfactory answer. I thought of going to the Westin management in Seattle, but I got tied down with other things I couldn’t put off. I really wanted them to list the Center there.”
When I got back to Philly, I wrote an irate letter to the president of the Westin chain with copies to their Peachtree man. First I told him how hard I had to work to get a TV which played PBS, and then how disappointed I was at how completely the Sun Dial ignored the black side of Atlanta. In due course I got a very fulsome letter in which the Westin head said he and his chain were great supporters of Public TV and that the next time I used a Westin hotel you can bet there’d be PBS access, and that he would contact their Peachtree man and see if they couldn’t make the Sun Dial shine on all aspects of Atlanta, white, black and whatever.
I popped into the hotel the next February to take a pitstop at the Sun Dial on my way to Montgomery for the dedication of the new Maya Lin monument to Dr. King. Hmm. Still no black Atlanta University. And no King Center. Hmmmm. Aha. Here’s one mark—Ebenezer Baptist Church, the congregation that three generations of Kings headed. You can see how the PR thinker thought: no Cracker Aristocrat is going to have his drinking upset by a Baptist Church with a strange name. Well, Mrs. King, you can’t win them all! On the positive side, there was the most intellectually and aesthetically attractive Black History exhibition in the hotel’s lobby that I have yet seen. Little steps. In the right direction.
The King family squabble, a function of Mrs. King’s disabling stroke, is very sad. I met Yolanda in 1976 when I was interviewing people for my San Francisco weekly radio show, “Museroom West" over KALW-FM, the public station of the Unified School District. I had flown down to the opening of “Selma!” at the Huntington Hartford Theatre (strangely situated on Vine and SELMA street)!
I was disappointed that this musical on the crucial episode in King’s fight for rights did so poorly at the box office. Groucho Marx, leaning on his girl friend/nurse’s arm, had arisen from a sick bed to pay honor to his friend King. One young fool was bugging the sick Groucho for an autograph. I crudely shamed him to flee.
After the premiere performance, there was an after party at the Brown Derby. I asked Redd Foxx why he was investing his hard earned “Sanford and Son” money in this very speculative “Civil Rights Musical”: "So the black entertainers coming after me won’t have to put up with the shit I had to,” he replied tartly, half friendly and half pissed. Yolanda, sitting next to him, was more even keeled. “We have to use any and all means to keep my Father’s message in focus and continuing to make for non-violent change.”
It is so sad that their father’s great movement seems to be guttering out with an $11 million neglected rehab bill while two of his children got six figure salaries. For Tommy Taylor, the Vegas song and dance man who was the star of “Selma!”, it was a chance for him to Do Good with his entertainer’s talents.
On my serendipitous bus trip to Montgomery it was my good fortune to sit next to a Rosa Park ringer. There is a kind of moral grandeur in those kind but tough black women who suffered through the transitional generation from DuBois to King. I’m always amazed at how humble and deep they so often are. Theirs were the kind of daily lives that nurtured the Kings who changed so much.