Friday, 31 August 2012

Tall Tales in the Tennessee Woods

Jonesboro, Tennessee

What is hot and stuffy, perfectly happy, and has 400 wildly clapping hands?

Answer: The 200-plus early birds who crammed themselves into the local Methodist Church here recently for a sample of the story telling to come at the Fifth Annual National Storytelling Festival. For one weekend a year this 1,700-strong community is the “world” capital of the tall tale.

The audience itself was astonishingly ecumenical; on my left were the vice-president of the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) and the founding director of the Southern Folklore Association; on my right, two public librarians from Santa Rosa, California; in front of me, backpacking hippies from Oneonta, New York.

What, one might well ask, has such heterogeneity in common? Simple: a flair for natural foods. Folk tales are the home-baked loaves of our Wonder Bread era.

Another riddle: What has 600 umbrellas, a collective look of pure contentment, and doesn’t want to miss a thing?

Answer: The augmented crowd of folktale hearers on the main rainy day of the festival. They gathered casually at “Swappin’ Place,” a tented-over area where anyone with a tale to tell could try it out on an audience, which alternately thrilled at the skills of a score of professional storytellers and scrunched sympathetically at the tyros who were trying out their acts—off, off, off Broadway.

Within the space of a drizzly half-hour, I relished Doc McConnell’s complex fib about boys who couldn’t go into town till they built two miles of fence, cutting corners by putting frozen snakes into the ground for posts (all went swimmingly until the Tuesday thaw!); a young woman’s tale about an oyster fisherman off Long Island in the winter of 1977; North Carolina librarian Jackie Torrence’s traditional East African tale about the limits of bravery, which she ended with a positively levitating group chant of “Down By the Riverside.” The easy give and take between the skilled and the neophyte, the compete absence of competitiveness, the sheer collaborative joy in one another’s well-doings, were to me a parable of American openness I have been mulling over since.

Demographically, the biggest surprise to me was the high incidence of elementary schoolteachers and librarians. Richard Chase, the wintry yet magically warm doyen of the professional tale-telling fraternity (an inept term since there were so many first-rate female storytellers there too), came early to the festival so he could visit the town’s Boone Elementary School.

The popular conception of the tall tale spinner is the twinkly-eyed backwoods farmer. Only North Carolinians Stan and Ray Hicks, who farm in the western part of the state, seemed to fit this image.

My favorites of the festival were the winsome duo of Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan. Never have your National Endowment for the Arts dollars been better invested. I can hardly wait to see them in a whole concert. The next day, Barbara Freeman rolled us helplessly in the clay-floored aisles with her cautionary tale about getting peanut butter off the roof of your mouth “wiff a thpoon.” It sticks in your mind, that kind of nonsense.

Where did this all come from? (I’m glad you asked, because it’s a tallish tale in itself.) Once upon a time there was a slightly (make that hugely) dissatisfied English teacher at nearby Johnson City’s Science Hall High School. His name was Jimmy Neil Smith. He was taking his journalism class to an out-of-town conference—the kind that is supposed to broaden the students’ horizons but which is really set up to keep English teachers of a certain kind from going bonkers.

On the car radio they heard a Mississippi tale teller. They were enchanted. “Teacher,” they said, “why don’t we have a bunch of those funny folks come to Johnson City?” “I was hoping you would want that,” their teacher replied.

That was in 1973. One thing led to another, and in a triumph of American volunteerism, the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling was born and the Tennessee Arts Commission primed its pumps with a modest subvention.

This year, however, the association was proudly, if somewhat shakily, on its own for the first time. Mr. Smith guessed that at 400 admissions ($10 for the weekend) it would break even. It got its numbers.

The group’s plans are a plausible mix of utopianism and practicality. Knowing they do not stand a chance against the maxibudgeted state universities with their huge staffs and roving collectors, Mr. Smith’s bunch decided to go audio-visual. They have six staff members and immense reserves of goodwill, which seem to be expanding exponentially. For instance the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) video staffers were there on their own time, audio taping the festival for the association’s “archive”—a homely cluster of second-floor offices next to a Jonesboro laundromat. For $3 you can get a tape of the highlights of the storytelling festival. Write the librarian (another defected English teacher), Brad Harrell, Box 112, Jonesboro, TN 37659.

Riddle: Who is 50, completely ignorant of folklore, yet already planning to attend next year’s festival?

From The Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 15, 1977

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sandburg Celebration: His daughters offer new poems, memories, for poet’s centenary

Carl Sandburg would have been a hundred on Jan. 6. 1978. His is not the kind of centennial literary America hungers to celebrate. True, a handsome 13-cent stamp, designed by the poet’s close friend, William A. Smith of Pineville, Pennsylvania, will issue from the Galesburg, Illinois, post office on the literary handyman’s birthday. And the present incarnation of the poet’s own Lombard College (Knox College in Galesburg) has planned a fitting set of symposia.

Most important, two of the poet’s children have produced books that do honor both to his literary reputation and his personal reputation as a truly unique American character—in the non-pejorative sense of that neglected appellation.

His daughter Margaret, sifting through her father’s puzzling literary remains, has edited a small (and decidedly worth saving) selection from his unpublished poems. This volume, called “Breathing Tokens” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), shows the young, fighting Sandburg at his feistiest:

You must expect to be in several lost causes before you die.
Why blame your father and mother for your being born: how could they help what they were doing?
And their fathers and mothers farther back? Can we say they could help what they were doing?
Why rebuke old barns the wind has not yet blown away?

It is a measure of Sanburg’s lasting (and, alas, currently neglected) importance to American civilization that he fought so many good fights and yet never got tired of fighting. That is surely the most unseen side of his personality, a side that the safely eliding anthologists—who like to lock this protean man into a Hog-Butcher, little-foggy-cat-feet song-and-dance-man stereotype for the benefit of high school students—consistently obscure: Sandburg was a social revolutionary. He met his wife-to-be, Lillian Steichen (the great photographer’s sister), on an organizing trip for the Social Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Their quickly blossoming love affair—in less than a month of letters between her teaching job in Princeton, Illinois, and his organizing the workers in Sheboygan, Wisconsin—is the most beguiling mixture of Marx and moonshine you have ever encountered.

Which brings us to the second volume to honor the poet’s centenary: Daughter Helga, married to a surgeon in Cleveland, has written a very moving valentine to her parents’ lifelong love affair, called “A Great and Glorious Romance” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). It is the strongest case for monogamy I have ever read.

In the context of modern American writers, such faithfulness makes Sandburg look like a Boy Scout who has only slightly outgrown his uniform. But that it would seem so is our problem.

Sandburg never stopped writing verse, even though he never aspired to the concordance generating complexity of Eliot or Pound. But every normal man would have felt he had achieved enough with his splendid paean to Abraham Lincoln, a fellow Illinoisan whose soul was as simple and simpatico as Sandburg’s own. Never did a biographee have a more perfect biographer. They were indeed made for each other.

Sandburg defies pigeonholing. He was an early movie critic, and his “American Songbag” (1928) was a well-researched as well as pioneering foray into what has now become the American folklore industry. He took on television in his later years and won—as Howard K. Smith will no doubt attest when he gives the keynote address at the Knox College Sandburg Centennial Symposium on Friday, Jan. 5.

But the proof of the praise is in the reading. At the recent National Council of Teachers of English convention in New York City, I took my tape recorder into the lobby to catch the thoughts and feelings of my peers. It appears that there are more junior high schools named after the poet these days than there are enthusiasts for his work in the teaching profession. Not that I couldn’t find a few who valued the chance to express their joy in his continued presence on their bookshelves and in their teaching plans. But by and large the teachers at the convention seemed to have lost their taste for him.

And this fall, as I wandered, tape-recorder in hand, around Sandburg’s Connemara Farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina; the other visitors’ principal reaction was relish for the splendid scenery there. None admitted to having read the poet recently, though they to a person promised to do better soon, as if I had been chiding them as a martinet English teacher. The goat farm, chosen because the U.S. Weather Service told Lillian that the Asheville area was one of the two best places in the country to raise the animal, is a national historic site which is worth a visit even for Sandburg-denigrating Pound / Eliot enthusiasts.

It is a pleasure to report that the poetic side of the place is being conducted in a very classy way. An ex-drama teacher from Brooklyn has put together a delicious tour of the house using only Sandburg’s words—a sort of one-woman show in praise of the man who means the most in those precincts. And a local lad, having escalated into government service through a history degree at an Appalachian university, re-creates Sandburg’s “American Songbag” with guitar in the open air during the mild seasons. Unmistakably, Carl would have loved the way his memory is being kept green down in North Carolina.

I suppose the purpose of centennials is to force you to do some homework to review how you really feel about the person being honored. To do mine, I checked an old professor’s book out of the college library, Bernard Duffey’s standard work on the Chicago Renaissance in American letters.

The thing that struck me in rereading the section on Sandburg was Carl’s coping with failure. After service in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, Carl was given a shot at West Point. He soon flunked out because his education in the basics was so marginal. (He would have been a classmate of Douglas MacArthur!) The marvelous thing about Sandburg is his unflappability in the face of such setbacks. Needless to say, he had a poem for it:

            There’s no harm in trying.
            Nothing can harm you till it comes
            And it may never come
            Or if it comes it is something else again.
            And those who say, “I’ll try anything once,”
            Often try nothing twice, three times,
            Arriving late at the gate of dreams worth dying for.

Sandburg provides an admirable alternative to the whining and titanic posturing that in my opinion corrupts a good deal of contemporary American literature. His is a tonic voice of sanity, exemplifying, if you will, why decency is better than despair, why steadiness and love are to be preferred to the “good times” of the swinging singles scene. Like Lincoln, Sandburg will always be there for us to repossess.

Let the last words he his:

            “Be what you want to be…
            Be a gong or three gongs in one: a gong of silence;
            A gong of clamor crying hellbells to the satisfied;
            A gong of smooth songs saying yes and welcome.”

From The Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 1978

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Hidden George Tooker

Modernism, per se, is not only dying—it has become deadly to our art life. Take Marcel Duchamp’s playful “make ready” in the form of a urinal dedicated to the urinalysis of one “R. Mutt.” Undergraduate humor. Harmless. But not very bright. And how do we “make ready” nearly a century later? Tracy Emins is a revealing example: her installation consists of a futon on which she has just been fucked. And for the skeptics of her performance, she deploys the used condom that has prevented any other conception from taking place. Sweet, eh? Almost as revolting as Madonna’s recent on-stage masturbation! What contemptible crap.

Switch to George Tooker (1920-), a disgracefully neglected grim realist, who enchanted me in 1950’s graduate school. I just assumed he had died long ago. His latest works are gloriously alive. Just occluded from the public by a generation of abstract inexpressivist blather, led into this esthetic ditch by a mendacious Clement Greenberg, who tried (successfully) to cover up his facile leftiness in the 30s and 40s by “discovering” Jackson Pollock and other drunken barbarians (make your own list of dribblers and pretenders) whom a herdlike esthetic coterie in our art journals, greedy galerists “stuck” with a basement of unsellable Commie Art, and a thoughtless Academy eager to rise to FULL OF IT PROFESSOR on a new wave of nonsense legitimized by a modernist theory of ANYTHING GOES!

Well, it’s Judgment Time, ladies and gents. See for yourself: Dribble City or a grim gallery of the Real America of angst and ambition. The splendid Tooker Retrieval (Revival doesn’t get waste involved for several decades) began at the National Academy of Design and moves early in 2009 to Philly, where along with Alice Neal at Moore and Paul Saul at PAFA, shows us three national treasures we’ve been separated from by a false esthetic and glibly hip art media. 

I relish my annual visits to the National Academy of Design, founded in 1826, 21 years after Charles Willson Peale organized PAFA in Philly, the first art museum in our then semi-civilized state.) There’s a wonderful old fuddiness to NAD, including roundabout sofas, the better to rest your bones absorbing the art would you believe they have over 7000 classics mainly form the pre-Greenberg Flourishing. I’ve just christened the roundabout sofa “the Merry Go Rump” and urge curators to throw out the rectal linear (that’s not a misspelling but a nearly dirty joke which tells you what’s wrong with Mies and Breuer’s “classic” Seats. (For the slow members of class, they’re pains in the buttocks.)

The glorious building which now houses NAD at Fifth Avenue and 89th Street, New York 10128, just before the Guggenheim; at 212 369 4880, Christine Williams will tell you what’s up after Tooker leaves for Philly, beside the always neat swatches of their permanent collection of Americana, the best in the world in my judgment. Their Beaux Arts mansion was the gift of philanthropist Archer Mercer Huntington and his wife Anna Hyatt Huntington, a grossly ignored sculptor, in her own “wrong.” Archer commissioned starchitect Ogden Codman, Jr. to redesign the original 1902 townhouse. It was refitted as a museum in 1940, and in 1959, the adjacent property at 5 East 89th Street became the school. Don’t leave town without it. A good look inside, that is. It’s one of our most neglected National Treasures.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Perverse Preservationism: Must We Save Everything?

On Cape Cod, they’re trying to save shacks which writers put up as provisional shelters after a hurricane. And in Los Angeles the big issue is saving a carwash. In a word, preservationism seems to be going amok.

The seeds for these rank intellectual growths were planted by Columbia University historian James Harvey Robinson in the 1920s with his concept of “The New History”—which is to say historiography which shifted focus from politicians making laws and generals waging wars to the quality of life as lived in the American democracy.

Daniel Boorstin fine-tuned this concept in his magisterial trilogy on American history. He taught us to study the Sears Roebuck catalog with the same care his predecessors had devoted to legal and political documents. And, of course, the French annaliste school perfected the approach to history as a gradual shifting of habits based on itty bitty changes in weather, trade and social power relationships. I remember my elation at using Fernand Braudel’s volume on life in the Mediterranean in the era of Philip II as a vade mecum while spending three months in 1977 circumnavigating that Mare Nostrum. So my heart is definitely with the Newest Historians as they teach us to conceptualize the past in fresher, deeper and more comprehensive ways. It’s my mind that balks at the stranger manifestations of the new historiography.

Those Cape Cod shacks are allegedly revered as sacred objects because Eugene O’Neill and lesser writers like Norman Mailer worked there. This is a disturbing trend: displacing the arduous task of staging and / or reading the playwright’s works with genuflecting before the false idols of the tourist or real estate industry. Analogously, if I were living in L.A., I’d be concentrating public policy pressure on the reduction of smog in the basin—not the preservation of trivial artifacts.

What we have here is the creation of cadres of curators and museum administrators whose vested interest is not to improve the quality of public life by new analysis and effective policy but to create fiefdoms with tenure built in.

Those canny old Jesuits taught me a motto, “Quis nimis probat, nihil probat” (Who proves too much, proves nothing). Preservationists who want to save everything physically risk saving nothing of historical significance intellectually. One of the saddest paradoxes of contemporary American life is that the preservationist movement and historical consciousness among the general public seem to proceed in inverse proportions. Except for the upper genteels who get off on discreet architectural tours (I consider myself one of them!), the median historical understanding of the general public is on a slippery slope downhill—into the sentimental swamps of Disneylands and Disneyworlds and Disneyuniverses. 

It’s Henry George’s dispiriting old paradox of progress and poverty—only this time it’s not the simultaneous material progress of poverty below; it’s the simultaneous boom in preserving old things for Sotheby’s and the Smithsonian and a baseball card craze among the young. Indeed, the pathetic speculating for Chinese jades, say, and rookie cards is equally loathsome.

It’s not the physical traces we need to save from extinction. That’s relatively easy. It’s protecting the intellectual gene pool of a generation that gets off on lotteries, meretricious entertainers and circus political investigations. Rather than save those writers’ shacks, let’s put our money into a thoughtful “Sound-print” on Eugene O’Neill which is then stockpiled for future use in media-rich English courses. And instead of saving that ridiculous carwash, let’s have a film documentary that analyzes the monstrous over-influence the automobile exerts on civilized values. It’s not the things we need to save. It’s the intellectual discipline and media artistry that can raise historical consciousness among the permanent dropouts in the larger society.

The day National Public Radio ran its story on saving the carwash, the New York Times had a story on how E.G. Marshall and some other Federal Theatre Project grads were putting on a play about Hallie Flanagan’s interrogation by the Dies Committee to raise money to save the FTP’s documents. Now, there’s a valid way to raise historical consciousness.

Alas, perverse preservationism has broken out right here in Philly. Kenneth Finkel, curator of prints at the Library Company, has op-edified in the Inquirer (July 17) about the disintegrating state of the Cannonball House, falling apart gracelessly on the cusp of Fort Mifflin. The house / artifact gets its name from a lucky hit by some British cannoneer in 1777, putting a ball through one side and out the other. In the putatively perfect universe of such perverse preservationists, no such holy house would ever hit the skids into oblivion.

What a crock. Think of all the fine Romanesque churches in Europe that gave way without a whimper.

From Welcomat, November 1, 1989

Monday, 27 August 2012

Everyman in Saddle Shoes

Have you ever wondered why it is our teen-age students seldom share our enthusiasm for literature? And I don’t mean the hand-picked few we often, and unconsciously, find ourselves talking to—the sensitive high I.Q.’s and the future English majors. I mean, why is it that the groundlings of the 20th century are just beyond our reach?

I would like to offer what I think may be a partial answer in terms of one form of literature, the drama. This form is a good point of departure because it traditionally has been a popular form, from the festive celebrations surrounding Greek drama to the open air morality plays of the medieval period through the jostling exuberance of the Elizabethan inn yard to the magic window of the cinema. Drama has been for the people. Yet why is it that even this form finds so much resistance among our young people?

A major reason is the fact that teachers and teen-agers live in two different worlds. Many years ago most of us attained the maturity of judgment that made it inevitable that we pierce the tinsel curtain of superficiality that characterizes so much of American popular culture. We became, in effect, citizens of the world’s cultures, both past and present. 

This is why we can, within a week, enjoy a TV dramatization of Antigone, read a delightful novel of Trollope, view with pleasure with a Titian and a Ben Shahn, and listen absorbed to both Bach and Bartok. Through education and personal sensitivity, we have risen about the limits of popular culture. But our teenagers, with few exceptions, have not. In broadest terms, our job is enabling them to transcend the limitations of this time, this place, to attain that universality that we know art provides.

TV—A New Tabula Rasa
Most of us have figured all along that the way to do this is to present, historically, the best that has been thought and said by men of all ages. Take drama. The way to make young people sensitive to good drama is to be sure that they are carefully introduced to important dramatists. But, in my opinion, scholars in two areas of research—psychology of learning and anthropology—are giving us new insights into the nature of man that make this traditional approach the least effective in most instances. First, psychology of learning indicates that lasting education takes place when what is unknown is related to what is known. 

Yet the extensive experience that our teenagers have in the dramatic form—movies, TV, radio, and stage—is seldom employed as the point of departure in formal instruction in drama. Secondly, anthropology indicates that language is a function of the total culture or way of life. A civilization’s drama then, is intimately linked with both the values and language patterns of that civilization. If a person is unfamiliar with these values and language patterns, that civilization’s drama will remain a closed book. It is my feeling that the resistance we experience in teaching drama and other literary forms hinges on the fact that our students are centuries away, unable to break the sense barrier that prevents their participation in another culture.

Is the case hopeless, then? No. Our strategy should be to find ways of relating our understanding of previous cultures to our contemporary American culture. Starting with the known in the field of drama means alerting students to the best that exists in that form in their own world of popular culture. High Noon in film, The Ways of Mankind in radio documentary drama, Philco-Goodyear Theatre on TV. You can add to this list as well as I can. The major difficulties involved are the usual ones: How can I do more when I am already overloaded, and how does this contribute to the major responsibilities of the English teacher—developing communications skills and cultural sensitivity?

Takes Less Teacher Direction
In my experience, what I am proposing takes less, not more teacher direction, since in this area the students have so much experience that they can assume more leadership than usual. Further, using our teen-agers’ experience in popular culture is a more effective way of attaining our traditional goals—developing communications skills and cultural sensitivity. It is more effective in the first instance because they will be talking and writing about something literary, something they know a lot about and have a deep interest in. it is more effect in the second case because it presents the teen-ager with a realistic responsibility—that of patronizing contemporary drama intelligently.

Here are some practical ways in which we can use the dramatic forms in popular culture—film, TV and radio—to develop sensitivity in this literary genre. Read TV Guide and each Friday take five minutes to preview the most promising offerings. “Listenables and Lookables” in Scholastic is more selective and more critical, and can be used in conjunction with this preview and then posted on the bulletin board with highlights underlined in red pencil. You should also be aware of another Scholastic program, this one beginning in the Feb. 2 issue of Practical English. This semester P.E. will publish a series of 10 articles on “How to Judge Radio and TV Programs.” The series gives background and yardstick questions for evaluation.

There are other sources of criticism equally helpful. We have developed the habit of clipping John Crosby’s Sunday column from our local paper. Very often this critic takes dramatic programs as subjects for discussion. Students, as I hoped they would, now ask my opinion of his three weekday columns. Time and Newsweek provide other easily accessible sources of criticism of stage, screen, and radio-TV. 

The more advanced student ought to know about the popular critics in the Saturday Review, New Yorker, and The Reporter. Gilbert Seldes, Arthur Knight, Goodman Ace, Hollis Alpert, Philip Hamburger, John McCarten, and Marya Mannes ought be household words in America; they are doing a superlative job of relating their very sensitive appreciation of the humane tradition to the still immature world of American popular arts. Until textbook publishers see the importance of these critics and reprint them in the essay sections of our literature books, we will have to rely on our clippings and ditto machines.

How to Provoke Criticism
This criticism will give teen-agers models for their own written and spoken analyses of current TV fare. Assign a play as part of a drama unit, and sit back and wait for some really interesting class discussions. Recently my tenth grade sections viewed Split Level, a Kraft Television Playhouse production. The title referred to plans for a modern house that an aspiring architect was presenting to New York firms in the hope of realizing his dream of becoming a success in his field. The parents of the young architect’s fiancée wanted the young couple to settle down to the secure life of the small town. In short, the play was a restatement of the perennial problem: idealism or security; inventiveness and creativity or playing it safe with the soft touch. 

The class responded well to a discussion of the theme of the play; it was in their idiom, in their mode of perceiving. But they had missed completely the tight symbolic structure woven into the play. The skyscraper that the young man hoped someday to build symbolized aspiration; the lumber yard job he was offered in the small town stood for boredom and monotony. The split level house in itself symbolized the tension between security (the ground floor) and idealism (the second level) in the young man’s mind. Here is a practical example of how a TV play can enrich the teenager’s understanding of literary techniques.

It is not always possible to foresee a good play. When the class is stuck with a stinker, the teacher can illustrate superficiality and slickness. This is no unimportant thing to do, since it is my experience that students resist quality because they do not see the important differences between the mediocre and the good. Common experience of a bad play, then, has important advantages.

One way to avoid poor plays is the kinescope. Local stations sometimes will lend a kine for educational purposes. Last year in the middle of a drama unit, a good play appeared on the Motorola TV Hour, Judith Anderson and Sir Cedric Hardwicke starring in Black Chiffon. I asked our local TV station for permission to show the kine to my classes. This play was an hour long, making it necessary to show the last act on the second day. I made a virtue of this necessity by asking the students to project in their own minds the outcome of the play in a short paragraph.

Another way to increase the sensitivity of the students to this art form is to ask for comparisons of different dramatic media. For example, I have asked students, as part of a drama unit, to answer a set of questions about the plot, characters, setting, theme, and execution in respect to one movie, one TV play, one radio play, and one written play. This is a useful way of alerting them to the concept of this artistic medium, a method of communication with special assets and special limitations. 

Another approach that is useful is the comparison of similar kinds of drama within the same medium: situation comedy on TV, westerns on radio, musicals in the movies. Whether the criticism takes place over a short period or over a term depends on the maturity and ability of the students. There are advantages in having the best students be “critics for a term” of, say, an outstanding theatre on TV or of the documentary-suspense genres such as Medic and Dragnet. Close attention to the underplaying of the last two programs, for example, is an effective way of teaching the meaning and implications of stereotype.

 If this approach seems to slight the classics, it is only because I feel that emphasis is needed in the other direction. Remember, my point was to find ways of really interesting our teen-agers in our world heritage in the drama and other literary forms. My general method is equally effective, I think, in the teaching of the classics. For example, when MGM’s Julius Caesar played our art house last spring, I distributed cut rate passes to all my classes and gave students double credit for including the movie of Hamlet in their selections. 

I highly recommended Hallmark’s Richard II and rushed to get in line (apparently interminable) for free kinescopes of that production. This fall, my seniors spent the week before Thanksgiving reading Macbeth outside of class, and listening to the Old Vic presentation of it on Victor records in class in preparation for the Hallmark presentation. Many students remarked that these aids to visualization gave more meaning to the plays and helped them shed some prejudices about the “incomprehensibility” of Shakespeare.

Finally, don’t sell TV short as an aid to setting the cultural stage for drama from previous eras. The You Are There series produced a program, “The First Command Performance of Romeo and Juliet,” about the time we were to begin a discussion of Elizabethan theatre. The presentation of Shakespeare’s attitude toward his sources and his audience, the role of the master of revels, the centrality of literary experience to courtly life and many other important historical aspects were so superior to what I could hope for in a lecture, that I asked the local TV station for a kine of that program. Its usefulness as an introduction was amazing.

Sloughing Off Provincialism
It is my feeling that the classics vs. contemporary argument has lost its pertinence. We direct our students to an experience of the best in their own culture because we realize that this is an effective way of enabling them to slough off their own provincialism. Contemporary excellence produces awareness of quality; historical awareness provides depth. 

For most of our students—for the future housewife and the garage-mechanic-to-be—there must be awareness before there is the possibility of depth. And, further, we owe it to our students to make them sensitive patrons of contemporary drama. Shakespeare will endure; I am haunted by the fact that we may lose Philco-Goodyear Theatre because advertisers feel that Americans must have upbeat endings in their drama. If such mature theatre disappears from American popular culture, Shakespeare will lose just that many viewers. In Alice Sterner’s important statement, “We Help Create A New Drama,” (English Journal, November, 1954, pp. 451-52), we find a challenge. 

To be worthy of the humane tradition we cherish, we must help our own age produce its classics—not an easy task when our characteristic institutions, the mass media, urge us to conformity and mediocrity. One way to help create a drama in contemporary America is to bring together the best in TV drama and the teenager, our Everyman in saddle shoes. 

Just as the medieval morality play dramatized the problems of value for the peasant and villager, so the best drama in our TV screens has important things to say to our youngsters caught up in a whirl of dances, studies, and parties and confused by the ominous threats of an atomic world. Drama in the popular arts needs the stability that only we can give; in return, we can expect a new meaning and purpose in our literature classes.

From Teachers Scholastic Magazine, February 1955

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Going Solo

Almost nobody's really all alone.

Only loners.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The So-called “Mystery” of American Gun Violence

 A story in today’s “International Herald Tribune” caught my eye! (Andrew E. Kramer, ”Importing Russia’s Top Gun” , August 14, 2012). It reported that the Izmash, Russia AK47 factory was working around the clock to supply American customers with the famous weapon, shifting from the old police and military market to U.S civilian customers! It was all that was keeping the small town of Izhevsk alive. The US is the world’s largest market for both new and old copies of the gun. Since it started in 1947, a hundred million of these guns have been made, one for every 10 people on earth. Kramer even quotes satisfied American customers!

I was reminded that I learned recently that America’s defense budget is greater than all the other industrial societies put together. Imagine. But perhaps not for long? Putin’s Russia is using $613 billions of its new oil money to stay in the offensively defense game. Now one thing that clouds our “thinking” on these matters is the myth that America has been the most peace-loving country on earth since its birth. Tell that to the Arabs after Thomas Jefferson sent warships to the Mediterranean to control their sea lanes. Then tell it to the American Indians from the beginning, until the latest casino maneuver.

And don’t forget the black slaves—to distinguish them from tan skinned Mexicans who came later. Or the Hawaiians. Or the Filipinos, after they had painfully freed themselves from “warlike” Spaniards. Then, after Woodrow Wilson made world safe for democracy—and the Depression which logically followed , he sent the Marines into the Caribbean and Central America. How can we as a people be so deluded? Examine their New England pseudo-theological Creation myths. We have truly gotten away with murder, benumbed by our own fatuous delusions. Most mature democracies reject such lies, as they join the human race. It’s difficult in a culture that was based on slavery.

Now come with me to the 2012 Election, where the Tea Party morons hide their horrible hatreds behind pious piffle. They’re scared silly that black and tan and just poor Americans will vote their historical hysterics out of office. Consider LBJ’s “great society” palaver. Agent Orange for the revolting Vietnamese. But he did sincerely fight for their vote for the slaves who we had falsely presumed were“liberated” since 1865. He knew it would cripple his Democratic party.

But weak as he was to be sneered at by Vietnam War critics, his love for democracy was strong. We know what happened. The Donkeys switched places with the Elephants. The horrible moves that are being made to keep the poor“liberated” Coloreds enslaved is a tactical movement to react to LBJ’s putative liberation. I would go further: The neocon Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” judgment is part of the 1%’s desperate last ditch effort to consolidate the have’s shaky control over the have-nots. That is why the military and police power to become are flexing their muscle more and more against the 99%ers.

The Tea Party counterrevolution is a reaction of terrorized “haves”. They truly believe that they need AK47’s to guard their families and property from rioting colored havenots. Broken families have indeed created a murderous subculture. Alas, it is mostly blacks shooting blacks, as Patrick Moynihan warned us decades ago. And the Supreme Court’s irrational approval of unlimited donations by the haves is a desperate trick to keep the poor in their places, under.

Fareed Zakaria, one of my favorite wise men has a salient view of our predicament in this week’s “Time”(August 20,2012).p. 16. He notes that Congress first passed laws regulating ,licensing, and taxing guns in 1934. FDR’s solicitor general, Robert H. Jackson, argued before the Supreme Court in 1939 that the Second Amendment grants people a right that “is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists when the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided by law and intended for the protection of the state. The court agreed unanimously.”

When the Court changed 180 degrees Chief Justice Warren calls the new judgment “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word fraud –on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” And he was a Nixon conservative. Zakaria concludes: “So when people throw up their hands and say nothing can be done about guns, tell them they’re being un-American—and unintelligent.” And unfair to the 1-%ers!

Zakaria is a 21st century deTocqueville, employing his Indian perspective to clarify a structural blindness that the American myth of Exceptionalism has infected all of US. So that when Lyndon B. Johnson uses his legislative skills to finally give the blacks the legal right to vote(to actually vote remained difficult if not impossible), the South goes GOP overnight, with the liberals flipping to the Dems. The NRA’s successful corruption of the Constitution “legitimizes” whites who fear that blacks will finally revolt so they arm themselves.

Until the false consciousness of Exceptionalism is confronted and rejected, we will betray our expressed ideals and continue to be reviled by the rest of the world never confused by the absurdities of Exceptionalism. We have many ignored “deviants” who can lead us out of this unnecessary darkness, beginning with the likes of slavery hating thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain. Not to forget a century of black American intellectuals leading US out of the sad desert of national self-delusions.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Luther in Weimar

Regarding Luther:

Caught as I am here in Weimar in the Luther decade, I'm very dubious about his value as a thinker. (As an exAltarboy and minor seminarian, the German Dominican nuns of my elementary school acadeny spoiled me as an honorable witness of this evil heresy.)

By an incredible serendipity, I was in Wittenberg (for the first time) to attend an urban planning seminar sponsored by the Bauhaus Dessau in the Melancthon Gymnasium. (I overnighted in the youth hostel of the church on which Luther had nailed his theses.)

I attended the opening ceremony for the Luther decade at which noble UNish sentiments were uttered by eloquent Lutheran bishops from all over the world. The dedication ended with the forced liberation of 500 doves! (A quincentennial occurs, happily for the birds, only once every 500 years.) It was followed by an enactment on the shores of the nearby Elbe of Luther's flight from his Augustinian Catholic promises in Erfurt. Later on that day  I ran into a delightful Cranach exposition about his tenure there as well as a memorable exhibition in the former city hall taken over to exhibit Christian art of the last century. (All these experiences usefully secular).

My five year old son Danny attends the Jonas Falk kindergarten for which my Lutheran wife and I are very grateful. Holidays she often succeeds in dragging me to her church as well as to weekend seminars in the boonies.The folks are civilized and the food is good, but I don't have a nanosecond of interest in theirs or any other theology. They are a not very useful heritage from a prescientific era of competing European nationalisms.

I read Danny new illustrated books on dinosaurs about which he has a commendable passion. He scrutinizes bugs with an energy that makes me hope he will become a natural scientist using the greatest of all allegedly divine gifts, reason. What happens in the allegedly  greater Hereafter is a silly distraction from the unlimited wonders of daily existence.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Michael Feldman, Radio’s Madman

Well, whad’ya know? Two years ago I was so beguiled by the madness of Michael Feldman that I braved the February snows of Madison, Wisconsin, to see how he did his “Whad’ya Know?” radio series. The first thing I learned when I got back to Philly was the WHYY had blipped the series.

Good news, Mikemates. As part of the station’s rehabbing from classical music to news, Mike is returning, on Saturdays, 2 to 4 p.m., beginning November 3.

He’s a delectably nutty mélange of pseudo-quiz show, world-class live jazz, and the feistiest, freshest audience participation extant in American radio. Where does his chemistry come from? He’s a 41-year-old professional failure (English teaching, cab driving, commercial radio-izing). As he hops into the seventh-floor studios of the University of Wisconsin Communications Building, carrying a satchel sufficiently old and bedraggled to have been an M.D.’s carry-all from back when medicos still made house calls, you could mistake him for a custodian.

Thin-lipped, elfin-eared, bespecked, Feldman in the flesh (if I may use that misleading figure in one so bloodless-looking) resembles nothing other than the IRS auditor you have nightmares over—until he picks up a live mike and goes mad right there on the non-set.

Mic-less, Michael is the failure of his family—his elder Milwaukee siblings did what their accountant father wanted them all to do: become doctors (two) and lawyers (two minus Michael). In a great ritual burning, he torched his law school test results in a mixing bowl, burning those too-tight britches behind him.

He came out of the U. of W. in 1970 with an English / education major, then taught high school English in Kenosha and later in Madison, remembering with scarcely concealed disgust the illiteracies of themes “written in eyebrow pencil.”

He volunteered one depressing Christmas at a local public radio station. Voila. A window pane of opportunity.

Congenital schmoozer that he is, before you could say “Stan Freberg” sideways, he was disc jockeying, then hosting—so well that he Chicago boom-boom boom clear-channel WGN tempted him down to the Windy City to pair his motor mouth (“the fastest lip in the Midwest”) with that of a recently-promoted female traffic reporter.

Michael muses that he was acid and she was base—so they neutralized each other. Ha! Only an X-rated English teacher can fashion a cheap shot out of what he dimly remembers of high school chemistry.

By the 1985 he had abandoned hacking for the glamour and glory of WHA, the oldest radio station in America. A year later, he went National (as in Public Radio), and the rest is fast becoming hysteria.

It’s a rare joy to see him warm up his own audience, 15 minutes before air time. The ten-below February Saturday I dropped in, the 30 “foreigners” with their chairs reserved by name and place of origin—Milwaukee, Chicago, Brookfield, Port Edwards—were given Michael’s little set-piece about drifting off-set whenever Nature calls, because if everyone waited for the one-minute break between Hour One and Hour Two of the two-hour run, the peeing brigade would be stacked up in front of the toilets “like planes over O’Hare.”

He addresses the crowd ever so sweetly. He’s a kind of Don Rickels who has who has earned a Merit Badge in Good Manners. His listeners love to be mocked and milked for his unscripted needles. The only scripted parts of the show are his two two-minute monologues, the jazz pieces and sidekick announcer Jim Packard’s tasty jeux d’espritz researched sallies on the town of the week—chosen at the last minute of the show by a viewer who throws a dart at a jumbled map of the U.S.

Packard picks up neat trivia like the fact that an English teacher named Hoge coined a famous city name by connecting “Minne” (Indian for water) “ha” (a Norsky expletive) and “polis” (Greek for city). The “h” dropped out silently because Minnesotans are just as slurvish as the rest of the country when it comes to enunciation.

Michael is in his (final) element when he’s poking around in the town’s telephone directory for some unwitting local to expatiate authentically about his locale. The FCC hath just decreed that you can’t broadcast a caller until he specifically agrees, and this first day of the ukase didn’t twit Michael a bit. The first call got no answer, the second a curt non-compliance, and the third, a car customizer who didn’t know the local hangouts because he didn’t hang out—he just stayed in his garage with buddies beering it up while they upfiddled their cars.

The quiz is harder to describe. You have to volunteer from the studio audience. Today’s choices were a yuppie lawyer and a winsome 20ish woman with a beguiling giggle who did “brain research.” Then Michael picks a long-distance partner from a list of those who’ve written in.

There are six categories (people, places, science, current events, what you should have learned in school, and odds ‘n’ ends.) You have to win in three categories to get a mock prize—which run to things like pink lawn flamingos. The brainy lady was in a state of delectable (to Michael) panic, fearing she’d make a mess of everything but science.

She actually distinguished herself on a question about the adrenalin glands: “rena” means kidney; “ad,” on top of. The phone-in helper gave her a gold star, and everybody turned euphoric as jazz pianist John Thulin and augmented bassist Jeff Eckels swing into three minutes of Benny Golson’s evergreen “Stablemates.”

The second pairing was the amiable yuppie lawyer from Watertown who said he was in the Good Guys law firm of Ken, Fred, Ray and Bob—a bit of Midwest status deflating that all hands relished. His serendipitous Bell-mate was a sign painter from Cumberland, Kentucky, who was so outrageously idiosyncratic that Mike had a nanosecond when it looked like Bruce was running away with Mike’s wit.

In a 20-minute live interview with Feldman hero / mentor Stan Freberg, shamelessly flogging his memoirs, Michael offered to read the book’s bar code over the air. You almost had the feeling Stan was bestowing his mantle on the young freak.

Perhaps the richest four minutes of the two hours are Feldman’s two two-minute monologues that he sweats over all week long. His second take was a superb lark about George Bush’s clubs, the Bohemian (where they oil themselves and wrestle Greco-Roman—think of Caspar Weinberger “oiled”), the Alfalfa (which Feldman impishly twisted into an “Our Gang” tangent), and the Alibi (“which needs no explanation”).

The mad man returns to Philly’s air. It’s nice to be plugged in again, Saturday afternoons, to Madison, the madcap capital of the Midwest.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 31, 1990

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Nathan Hatch

On  The Democratization of American Christianity:

I doubt that "vulgar language, wicked satire, appealing visual aids, and sharp ridicule of learned clergymen" is an improvement. It sounds like a forecast of Rush Limbaugh and Tea Party Foxiness. And Lorenzo Dow flattering a mob into ecstasy sounds like regression, not bringing beliefs into congruence with the country's new ideal of freedom.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Evaluate your old Treasures at Museum’s Seminar: Adventures in Rare Books

Ever wonder what all those Civil War books granddad collected for 50 years would be worth on the rare-book market? Or the letters your father sent back from Europe during World War II? Or maybe you inherited a cache of photographs that look like they should be in some archive.

Tomorrow could be your lucky day. The Rosenbach Museum and Library will take over the nearby Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St., to sponsor a free four-hour seminar about evaluating and protecting our family treasures. This is the museum’s way of calling attention to its exhibition, “Rosenbach Redux: Further Book Adventures in England and Ireland,” which will, after one more week, move on to the Folger Library in Washington.

Not only is the professional counseling free, but those who attend get a free pass for the final week of the exhibition.

Glen Ruzicka, of the Conservation Center for Art and Historical Artifacts, will lead off the seminar with a 20-minute talk about how to recognize what’s worthwhile and what’s not. Rosenbach’s Leslie A. Morris will follow with suggestions on how to care for family treasures.

Then, for three hours, a task force of several conservators and appraisers will scrutinize the heirlooms you bring in (limited to books, manuscripts and photos) and give you a suggested value based on similar items already marketed, and tell you where to get a firm, official appraisal.

Your participation will honor the memory of the legendary Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach (1876-1952), known officially as A.S.W. Rosenbach, known to his intimates in Philly as “Rosey,” and known worldwide—among those with rare books and manuscripts to sell—as Dr. R. He turned the sale of rare books in the ‘20s into a sort of high-adventure detective story. In the little Fort Knoxes of stately homes in England and Ireland he found treasures, then sold them to freshly-minted American millionaires who wanted some trappings of culture now that they had the cash.

More than once, he endured the controversies his acquisitions stirred in Britain, particularly when the British Museum had turned down treasures he swooped up to buy, and when the British Museum had turned down treasures he swooped in to buy, and when the British accused him of plunder.

Rosenbach got his Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 1901 with an old-style dissertation—the influence of Spanish literature on Elizabethan English. Anti-Semitism in Penn’s English Department at the time made it impossible for him to lead the life of the teaching scholar. So he went for an alternative: He became the wiliest, most financially successful buyer and seller of rare books and manuscripts in America.

He and his brother Philip had inherited an antiques business. Philip concentrated on the old furniture and paintings (not too successfully, by all accounts), freeing up Dr. R. to deal books. Dr. R. flashed that doctorate in the way a detective investigating a crime would wave his badge. His first super-sortie in 1928 to England and Ireland is the subject of the current exhibition at the Rosenbach.

What rocketed Dr. R. into orbit was his sly maneuvering to the manuscript of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground at Sotheby’s in 1928. A snooty critic, one I.A. Williams, wrote condescendingly in the London Mercury about the manuscript before the sale, huffing that “its value is largely sentimental, and … there is little doubt that the sum could be spent more profitably on books and manuscripts of a far higher importance to scholarship.”

What Williams didn’t comprehend was Dr. R.’s business acumen. Dr. R. knew that buying the marginally important Alice’s Adventures Underground (for 15,400 pounds, when a pound was worth $4.80), would be worth literally millions in the publicity that would secure his fame as a well-heeled American who gave good, new U.S. bucks for old, unread U.K. books.

In spirited bidding, the British Museum dropped out early, and Rosenbach went head to head with an English book-dealer before winning the prize at what was, for the time, an astonishingly high amount. The purchase raised a storm of protest in Britain, even though Rosenbach immediately offered to turn the manuscript over to Britain for the price he had paid for it.

No wealthy Briton stepped forward to reclaim Alice, and Rosenbach sold it to Eldridge R. Johnson, president of the Victor Talking Machine Co. (Years later, Rosenbach bought the manuscript back from Johnson’s heirs for $50,000, then agreed with a proposal by Philadelphian Lessing Rosenwald to raise money to return it to Britain as an American gesture of good will. It’s now in the British Museum.)

The Mercury reporter, capturing the Sotheby event, wrote afterward that when the sale was finished “and the auctioneer announced the buyer’s name as ‘Rosenbach,’ an innocent gentleman standing next to me remarked: ‘Who is Rosenbach? Is he a dealer?’”

Make that wheeler-dealer. No one with books to “get rid of” in the United Kingdom would ever again ask, “Dr. Who?” The drawing rooms of the stately houses in Ireland buzzed with Dr. R. talk. Tougher inheritance taxes and a failing agricultural economy were turning the Irish gentry into financially strapped ghosts of their former selves. Dr. R. gave them a respectable way out of the fiscal pits recent history had dug for them.

A stroke of serendipity was Dr. R.’s linkup with a minor Irish writer and Catholic apologist named Shane Leslie. Nowadays, no one remembers what Leslie wrote. But in the ‘20s he knew everyone worth knowing in Ireland. After the Sotheby sensation, Leslie and Dr. R. made a beeline for the overnight Belfast boat. (Leslie created a crisis by losing the first-class tickets Dr. R. had purchased ahead of time. Dr. R. was unflappable, as he was said to be, always.)

At the first stately house they visited in Ireland, Dr. R.’s eyes bugged at treasures he knew his best customer, Henry A. Folger, would go ga-ga over. He telegraphed the wealthy American back in the States, and before you could say Western Union twice, Folger wired back a buy-order.

Dr. R. made the traditional 10 percent markup on the Alice manuscript. But he made millions of dollars on the follow-up sales—what the European gentry called “private treaty” purchases, with no public aspect—just hard, quiet bargaining. No one knew what Dr. R. had paid for these mostly mint copies of very old books, so nobody could complain about what he charged. It was a perfect formula for turning Rosey into a millionaire.

You can get the whole story of Rosenbach’s adventures in a 112-page catalogue ($15 for visitors, $12 for Rosenbach members) printed with a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and put together with money from the Pew Charitable Trust. Sotheby’s—ironically or aptly, depending on how you look at it—contributed money to expedite the show.

After he and his 13-year-old brother, Philip, died, Dr. R.’s own collection of early American children’s books was donated to the Free Library of Philadelphia and his collection of American Judaica to the American Jewish Historical Society. His and his brother’s estates, including the family home and its contents, are now the Rosenbach Museum and Library—whose collection reflects the Doctor’s interests in Americana, British and American literature, and illustrated books.

And who knows? Maybe your dusty old books and curled-up letters will turn into a minor inheritance, if not the sort of money the Doctor envisioned when he was eyeing Rosey days ahead for him and his books.

Reprinted from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, Jan. 19, 1990

Monday, 20 August 2012

More Moore



THE BEST THING TO COME OUT OF MICHIGAN SINCE I LEFT!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Miracle and the Glitz

By a delicious coincidence, the Army Blues swing bank (characterized on the side of their tour bus as Black Jack Pershing’s Own—he founded it in 1922) swung into “It’s So Peaceful in the Country” as Chief Justice Warren Burger’s limo pulled up to the rear door of the Second Bank of the United States, central venue through 1987 of “Miracle at Philadelphia,” the city’s $860,000 bid to become a tourist mecca throughout the celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. The band was there to entertain 750 upscale guests ($50 per nosh) attending a preview reception where the cuisine was transcontinental—Wisconsin cheeses. Tex-Mex fire food, California haute and Cajun: by any gustatory plebiscite, New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme would now be president.

The band was not there to drown out the 700 gays and lesbians who had foregathered next door at Independence Hall to hold a simultaneous Burger roast protesting his recent anti-sodomy decision. The protesters’ placards did their special pleadings: “WARNING: THE SUPREME COURT IS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS,” “GET THE GOVERNMENT OUT OF OUR BEDROOMS,” “I’M STILL DOING IT!” or the slyly witty “Uphold the Oral Tradition.”

The signs were no problem for the Army Blues—or the National Park Service’s greens, especially since they were backed up by Jack, a mean-looking 110 pound attack dog. Hobart (Call me “Hobey”) Cawood, Independence National Park superintendent, was furious, pacing back and forth behind the white police barricades: “They promised to be peaceful, so I gave them a permit; now listen to them! Next time they won’t get one.”

What bugged him were the hundreds and hundreds of whistles passed out by the local gay weekly. But the Philadelphia squirearchy has dealt with uppity mobs for centuries. They simply had the help drop a plastic acoustical shield between them and the gays and went on gnoshing and kibitzing.

Alas, their palaver had little to do with the show they had just walked through. The high-tech “Miracle in Philadelphia” aspires to be a “hands-on” show, but it is really a McLuhanish triumph of medium over message, in my judgment. Visitors are, for example, invited to “sign the Constitution” with the gold-sheened ball point pen over a huge revolving drum of paper. Or they are invited to cast their vote on the three crucial Constitutional issues that finally broke up the Union in the Civil War: the Feds’ role in regulating commerce, the future of the slave trade, and counting slaves at three-fifths of a citizen. If you put the polling place type bar in the “proper” slot, the three parts of the country would form a union; if not, chaos and disunity ensue. You press a button to see blow-ups of sad Civil War photos.

I was more impressed by plain old-fashioned words and data, supplied by the six-year-old New York specialty firm, American History Workshop. (The graphics are from a Boston firm, Krent / Paffett Associates.) The precariousness of the Confederation period is caught in quotes from a letter to the Philadelphia Freemason’s Journal: “An anti-federalist and a tory are held to be one and the same.” And Washington argues that If Georgia, a weak state “with Indians on its back and Spaniards on its flank,” won’t vote for ratification, what can we hope for? And John Quincy Adams warns, “We shall in a short time slide into an aspiring aristocracy and finally tumble into an absolute monarchy …” Plain old historical documents are worth thousands and thousands of dollars of technoglitz. Television’s brutal reducing of the attention span would have most confounded the Founding Fathers. Gone is James Madison’s character and capacity to concentrate: “I chose a seat in front … and was absent not a single day.”

Another discouraging aspect of the entertainment is what I must call the True Cross Splinter Syndrome. The media have been blitzed with stories about how much time and money went into making secure borrowed pages from Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention. You can’t read Madison’s tiny script (it was as tiny and orderly as he was physically) anyway, but you’re meant to genuflect mentally before this icon. If our ancestors had been as sanctimonious, we’d still be without a Constitution. The triumph of filiopietism over political wisdom is not a hopeful portent.

But the meaning is there for those not hoodwinked by the razzle dazzle. Benjamin Rush: “The American War is over but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution.” All those Mainline nabobs under the buffet tent reminded me of John Jay: “The better kind of people will be led to consider the charms of liberty as imaginary and delusory.” Even George Washington harrumphed gloomily: “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature forming our confederation.”

I was impressed most (and then depressed to realize how far federalese has sunk in two centuries) to read that Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris’s Committee of Style reduced the first draft from Seven pages to four, and from 23 articles to seven! Superintendent Cawood unreeled for me a little parable that complemented Morris’s prosaic achievement. 

Two centuries ago where we now stood, there were three buildings—Independence Hall (which doubled as a state house), Congress Hall (which doubled as a county court house) and Old City Hall. Local, state, and federal—in three buildings. Now he alone superintends 50 buildings just in the National Park, which was created in 1948. and the local research community dreams out loud about a National Center for the Constitution, price tab $15 million! Meanwhile, back on earth, only $5 million of a hoped-for $14 million to fund the 100 projected Bi-Cen events are in the kitty.

Life in a constitutional democracy, of course, is never perfect—a condition experienced when Mayor Goode arrived to greet Burger. Goode’s basketball-center-size bodyguard refused to budge when the affirmatively-actioned but short women photographers and TV camera people tried to nudge him for pictures of the mayor. The imperior mayorality is the last thing this city or country needs. But such is the ebb and flow of power once denied overcompensating.

Perhaps that old tinkerer Ben Franklin deserves the last word. (His is the coda you read as you leave the good, solid bookstore full of meanings to be taken home for a year-long pondering): “Now you have a Republic, if you can keep it.”

Reprinted from Center City Journal

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Socking It To Socrates: Carlin Romano’s Revisionist Pragmatism

What’s a former philosophy major to do when his favorite literary critic writes a 672 page book denigrating the most beloved philosopher in history as an authoritarian wuss? In his magisterial “America the Philosophical” (Knopf, 2012) he genuflects before a thinker, Isocrates, that I’ve never even heard of, contending that this “unknown” Greek I-Socrates’s anti-authoritarian meliorism is a forerunner of American pragmatism, the movement that has made America the philosophical model for the world, forever! Well, as I-Socrates didn’t say, an unexamined philosophy is not worth touting. Besides, Romano slyly undercuts my initial skepticism by reminding me that my secular saint, I.F.Stone’s last book was a putdown of Socrates.

The heretofore adored Socrates was anti-democratic and always pursuing “ultimate truths,” a mortal sin in Romano’s ethic. He prefers genial consensus, the secret of American pragmatism. How do I proceed? A philosophy major from the Jesuit University of Detroit who won the Midwestern Jesuit essay contest in 1949 with “Needed: More Red-blooded American Catholics”, by which I meant lefties who believed more in social justice and racial integration, two qualities Detroit sorely needed before it collapsed. Then off to graduate school in Cleveland where the brilliant Western Reserve Mortimer Kaddish (sadly dead in 2012) wiped out my galloping Thomism with his 3 credit course in logical positivism.

My dissertation was a study of the minor philosopher John Fiske, the popularizer of Social Darwinism. Fiske wrecked his prospects for a job teaching philosophy at Harvard by being caught reading August Compte in required Sunday chapel. After a short Harvard librarianship, he devised a national career of lecturing about American history to middlebrow audiences which could be assembled by the new “mass Medium” of the national railroad. He got softer and softer in his generaliations thereof, until he earned my scorn as the first president of the American Immigration Restriction League.

A postdoctoral Carnegie grant at Penn to create a new course in Mass Culture in American Civilization plus a serendipitously simultaneous $2 million grant from Walter Annenberg to create a graduate school of communication made me, faute de mieux, the “Gofer” for the new school including my choice for first dean, Gilbert Seldes. Romano has a splendid summary of Gilbert’s development as a philosophically meliorist innovator in mass culture criticism.

But his strongest argument for the importance of pragmatism for the rejection of the Socratic tradition of cocksure certainties is his description of how African Americans, women, Native American and gays painfully conquered the philosophy association’s initial rejection of their diversities. Especially harrowing were the stories of recent grads lining up for the few jobs available in a career hassle for getting an interview for a job. What a difference a generation made: my problem was deciding which job to take: from high school teacher to full professor/chairman with tenure between 1957 and 1964.

But Carlin’s amazing contention that America is the most philosophical of cultures ran smack into my failure to influence the high school/college agendas in making media meliorism effective. Marshall McLuhan’s utopianism had connected with me in the lay Catholic weekly “Commonweal” where he previewed “The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man” (1951). By 1982 I was persuaded to abandon Academe for alternative journalism as I flinched at the emergence of formidable enemies of emptiness like Rush Limbaugh. How could America the Philosophical be taken seriously after the infantilization of our media and public schools?

Finally I got it after a very tough read. The meliorism of consensus that emerged with the Pragmatism that prompted John Dewey to get involved with mass education (not to forget innovative businessman/philosopher like our own Dr. Barnes, or thoughtful dogooders like Hull House Jane Adams). The key was Isocrates’ anti-authoritarian meliorism. No final answers for eternity. Only thoughtful consensus for the present.

Romano has a gift of deep gab. His visit to Paul Fussell’s house is itself worth all the painful grappling with his deeper hassles. And his visit with Hugh Hefner at his Holbey Hills playpen reminded me of my wide-eyed visit there with a TV conference party. There is a list of his almost 200 visitees, as catholic as Susan Sontag and Bill Moyers.

May I recommend that his next book be a coherent gathering of those encounters. This volume is indeed ragged but rewarding. But what enlightening disorder. As Carlin Romano settles down in his profession, we can look forward from the fecundity of his “Inquirer” and “Chronicle of Higher Education” quick takes to a plenitude of deeply coherent speculations.

This essay is also published in Broad Street Review.