Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Mütter Museum Walks Again (on Halloween)

What would you do it you were stuck with a museum that nobody visited, and that had a reputation as a corridor full of organs and other body parts treading eternally in their jars of formaldehyde. If you were a canny creator of new images like curator Gretchen Worden, you’d probably dream up a Halloween Dance and invite people to “join us” with an image from the Siamese Twins that made the earlier Mütter famous.

Well, anyway that’s what Gretchen has done. “Let’s Get Together,” enjoin the most famous twins in American history at the Museum’s Hallow Eve Party, Friday, October 31, 1986. The Mütter connection is that they were autopsied by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1874, and their joint liver (which made it impossible for them to be separated surgically while they were alive) now floats amiably in the Mütter’s collection.

Ghoulishly, the Mütter is reopening on a ghostly night, displaying what the same Boston graphics firm that did up “Miracle at Philadelphia” for the Bi-Cen of the Constitution has done to perk up their holdings. Chang and Eng, who came as together as it’s possible to be, were born in 1811 in Maklong, a small fishing village 60 miles from Bangkok in what was then called Siam (Thailand). In 1824, the British merchant Robert Hunter first saw them and eventually arranged to have them shipped to Boston on Captain Abel Coffin’s ship “Sachem.” He first “showed” them in London, but they decided to exhibit themselves when they got back to America in 1832. They became the centerpiece of P.T. Barnum’s Museum of Oddities in New York City, and toured the country with him during the mid-1830’s.

In 1839, they “retired” to become shopkeepers in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and later farmers in nearby Trap Hill. On April 13, 1843, Chang married Adelaide Yates and Eng married her sister Sarah. They took the surname Bunker, after a friend. The Civil War wiped them out financially so they took to the road again, touring for a season in Europe with Major Henry London and then again with Barnum. In 1870, they returned to America where Chang had a paralytic stroke that affected one side. On January 17, 1874, Chang succumbed to a cerebral clot, and Eng died a few hours later, some think from fright. (Heh, this is a Halloween story!)

What a strange life. The band which joined them, which extended from the junction of the abdominal and thoracic cavities, grew in elasticity as they grew, so they were able to stand side by side and even back to back. Thus physically this allowed much freedom to do many sports and engage in farm work. But alas it did not permit them to avoid each other’s blows in their frequent quarrels. Chang was irascible and a heavy drinker, while Eng was good-natured and not a heavy drinker. (Oddly, Eng never felt the effects of Chang’s mean hangovers!) 

They lived on two farms about a mile and a half apart, three days at each place alternately. When they died, the local physicians kept the bodies in good condition for two weeks by burying them in a coffin encased in tin in Eng’s cellar under a layer of powdered charcoal—waiting for the Philly physicians (Drs. William H. Pancoast and Harrison Allen) to arrive to do the autopsy. A plaster cast of their torso will enliven your Halloween party, which is a costume affair. Double daters might pass as a set of Siamese Twins. You get the idea!

The Mütter is not all ghouls and games, by a long shot. In 1787, twenty-four of the leading physicians of the city banded together to gather scientific and medical knowledge from America and abroad, to promote the use of this knowledge for the public welfare, and to encourage the highest standards of professional practice and conduct among its members and their colleagues.

In 1858, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter formally donated his unique collection to the College, although it was not open to the public until it was installed in the College’s then new quarters at 13th and Locust. Mütter had been a popular professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College from 1841-56, and he gathered this outstanding collection of anatomical and pathological specimens and models to support his teaching. Upon his retirement in 1856, he expressed a wish to found a “pathological museum” open to all physicians and medical students without charge “to serve at once the cause of science and humanity” and to repay the profession which had been so good to him.

The College of Physicians remained true to Mütter’s charge by adding over the years more specimens as well as medical, dental, pharmacological and nursing instruments that illustrate the evolving history of health care in Philadelphia. Its reach extends as well to both folk medicine and quackery. Are you into skeletons? They have a dwarf’s (3’ 6”) and a giant’s (7’ 6”). Are you into crania? Eggheads of the Delaware Valley unit: they have 139 skulls; assembled by a Viennese physician to show anatomical variations. Not to forget the tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw in 1893 (the operation was secret for reasons of state security).

Cocktails (no formalin used) from 6:30-7:45 p.m. cost $25; the dinner and dancing (8 p.m. on, Scott Joplin & Friend provide the music) is $100 per skeleton, $75 tax-deductible. RSVP by October 24, 561-6050 x 42. (Otherwise free, Tuesdays-Fridays, 10-4.)

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Poetry Centennial

Oh how I waited for the University of Chicago Press to send me a review copy of their 100 choices from their century of publishing, so I could enthuse about the magazine’s centennial. What a letdown! Thirty-four I had never even heard of, and only one turned me on: Jacob Saenz (b.1982), a graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, who now works in their library.

Sweeping the States
They move in swift on the Swift
Plants in six states & sift
Through the faces to separate
The dark from the light

Like meat & seat them in
The back of the vans packed tight
Like the product they pack
& who’s to pick up the slack

The black & white can’t cut it
So the beef stacks sell
To feed the pack the flock
Who block passes & clog

The cogs of the machine the process
Not so swift to give & grant a wish
Of a place a stake in the land
Handling the steaks for the rest

To take to sate the mouths
Of the stock who have stock
In the business of beef & beef
With the brown that ground them (p.161)
November 2007

The speed and inhumaneness of the meatpacking industry makes you feel for the “human” beings who keep this process in motion. Probably, the” brown” (Hispanics?) who do the messy jobs regular Americans won’t stoop to. The ampersands reminds us of the speed and bluntness of this industrial process.

It reminded me too of the pleasure of remembering the juvenile joy I had reading the first T. S. Eliot poem that I understood, ”The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (p. 33, June 1915). Written twelve years before I was born! And at 22, not stumbling at love like Prufrock! I also resent now as I did then at his six sentence epigraph in Italian! What implicit contempt for the “ignorant” 99 and 44/100ths of his putative audience whose Italian wad limited to the word for “hello”. That copy cat arrogance in the classroom corrupted the first 100 years of our “Poetry”. So many of these poems are Mystiphysics—reaching for a seriousness that isn’t there. A bad habit Eliot spread like a disease.

LeRoi Jones’ poem “Valery as Dictator” (p.25, December, 1963) reminded me of my first ploy as an English Dept. chair at Arcadia University in 1962. I had him give a talk to the whole student body on the place of poetry in the civil rights dispute then spreading across America. (He would soon rename himself Amiri Baraka.) I must say most of the English Department questioned my judgment that day! 

A very bright Jewish girl (and a promising actress) asked him why he had a Jewish girl friend if he felt the way he had just talked. No answer. A few hours later we treated Jones to a splendid production of “Dutchman” (which won an Obie in 1964). Starring that same Jewish skeptic! Halfway into the play his pal whispered “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Leroi, bless his soul, answered tartly: “No! No! She’s got it just right!”

Another thing that bugged me about the editors’ selections was the absence of the poets who turned me on to contemporary verse, such as Phillip Booth, Karl Shapiro, Tom McGrath and especially Daniel Hoffman, whose “On Crossing Walt Whitman Bridge” explores wittishly the irony of the Camden locals naming everything Walt This, Walt That—but hardly anybody was reading his work! 

Now it happens that Dan went to Columbia with Allen Ginsberg. Fate would have it that The Walt Whitman Cultural Center asked me to introduce a Ginsberg reading and serve as his “gofer” for the day. Before his reading he asked me nastily, “Are you gay, Hazard?” I replied, “No, Allen, God hasn’t blessed me yet!” “Then how can you teach Whitman?” I replied, “Twenty years of teaching him helps!”

Then we walked across the street to his mother’s house where Walt came in 1873 after he had a stroke. I showed Allen all the minutiae that we Walt freaks love, and told him how my girl and I after we had celebrated her 23rd birthday in Cape May, N.J. decided at the last minute (just before crossing the W W Bridge into Philly) to examine his 1890 mausoleum (based on a design by William Blake). Damn! It was falling down! By what we American Lit folks call a providential event, the NCTE was having its annual convention in Philly. They gave me permission to wear advertising boards (Front: SAVE WALT’S VAULT! Back :A BUCK FOR THE BARD’S BONES!) 

When I added the $100 check from Buckminster Fuller to the English teacher’s pocket money we had nearly a grand to repair his grave. And in 1974 we invited all to a Graveyard he poets in the Delaware Valley to a Graveyard Party, where we read poems to and by Walt while we quaffed nine(for the Muse!) bottles of Great Western Champagne (no tacky French stuff for our hero) and Carmen Gasparri played his guitar suite “Perhaps Luckier” (which is what Walt dubbed Death in “Leaves of Grass”9. National Public Radio carried it live! Our only goof: the lilac bush we planted in honor of Walt’s salute to Abraham Lincoln’s sad death died—because of the ceremonial champagne we poured on it during its planting! The faithful keep alive the custom. I moved to Weimar, Germany in 1999.

Other poets in this collection were not so kind to me. Reuel Denney, my colleague at the East West Center in Honolulu, refused to discuss his poems on my weekly Sunday TV series “Coffee Break”. (I think he didn’t relish having so young a boss!) And in 1960, at the Daedalus conference in the Poconos on MASS CULTURE, Randall Jarrell closed the conference—I was the last lecturer- by waggling his Isaiah beard at me at intoning to the audience of savants, “Mr. Hazard, you’re the Man of the Future, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there!”

Alas, he committed suicide a few years later. And I am, grumbling with a smile, 42 years later. It saddened me because I loved teaching his poem about the B-17 belly shooter. And I must praise you for including Seamus Heaney who is to me what we in Germany call “Mein Liebsling Dichter—my favorite poet. The poem here is not my favorite, however. That’s “Digging”! The highlight of my drab life was spending a week showing him Northeast America, ending at the NCTE convention which that year was in Atlanta. I was proud to introduce him as a third generation Irish American. Heh, don’t miss this book. Nobody gave me a Nobel Prize for Pickety-Pickety.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Globalizing English Studies

Penn’s English chair, James F. English (with a monicker like that how could he be other than universal?), has written a worldwide assessment of our discipline that every doctoral candidate must assimilate! “The Global Future of English Studies” (Wiley-Blackwell,2012, 202pp.) is a profound yet commonsense analysis of the English Major worldwide in the 21st century. It is the 35th title in a series I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of--“Blackwell Manifestos”. Including on my must read soon list titles like Terry Eagleton’s “The Idea of Culture”, Marjorie Perloff’s “21st Century Modernism”, and Wayne C. Booth’s “The Rhetoric of RHETORIC” plus no fewer than six on theological themes.
English” in this context is as universal as it is global—covering literature, language, culture, creative writing and ’other’.” Its down-to-earthiness is evident in sections entitled “The End of the Discipline as We Know It”,” Not a Bust but a Boom,” and “Doing More with Less”. Ironically, the day that the book arrived on interlibrary exchange from the leading library in Berlin, NPR ran a story on academic esteem in the U.S. in which the English Major was at the bottom of the prestige list! But Professor English is not easily discouraged. “69% of English majors in the United States are women, 70% in the United Kingdom, and more than 75% in virtually all the other counties of Europe.” (p.177.)A U.S. Department of Education report notes that males are gaining ground in the past decade—probably ,they argue, from larger male. participation in creative writing.

Outside the U.S. the data are astonishing. I learned in the International Herald Tribune today (October 8, 2012) that the University of Tokio (founded 1837)has just announced a PEAK program (Progress in English at Kamboa!) the first 4 year all English instruction in required courses.” At Sun-Yet Sen University in Guangzhou the largest program in their School of Foreign Languages is English language and Literature:47 full time tenure-stream faculty teaching 2300 students. Their History faculty has 42 tenured but a mere 366 students.(p.179.) If there’s one principle silently reiterated in this analysis is that every class in every country must design diverse teaching ploys to match a changing world with idiosyncratic student bodies.

Which leads me to pretend that I am redesigning the International English course I devised after 30 years of teaching!(See BSR essay.) What have I learned in 30 years of alternative journalism throughoutt the globe. The main idea I have learned is the intellectual crippling resulting from our American Exceptionalist ruse. You remember how the Edinburgh Review (Scots are zany Exceptionalists as well! )sneered “How many see a American play or read an American book.” Too few, indeed! Alas, now that our literature has overwhelming and well earned global respect even fewer Americans possess this heritage. How to lose when you’re almost winning.

So I would seek out foreign response to our native geniuses , say a Nietsche on Emerson, as well as thegeneral reactions of twentieth century immigrants to America. Don’t forget the canonical was first devised to refer to theological opinions you had to believe, or at worst were killed. We should be future oriented, eager to learn how the rests of the world are responding to our ideas and actions about their different cultures-- say, Iran, Iraq. Afghanistan, Palestine, the Arab Spring. 

Our glib assumption that we’re the All Time Number One on Humanities Hit Parade is a self-deluding error that could destroy us. We sneer at the self-destructive behaviors of our closest neighbor, Mexico, mainly oblivious to the nefarious results of our seizing their land as “ours” in the 19th century. How many Americans would flinch at my conviction that Canada is more civilized than most Americans, judging by how we react to our differences with them. How terminally adolescent is the widespread fantasy that we are the greatest country in the present world, perhaps in the whole global history.

The content of our curriculum can vary from state to state, city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family.(Education begins at home—and should never end there) To prepare American Literature professors to oversee such an ecumenical curriculum, they must be taught to handle the future more creatively. I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s “seminar” on CNN yesterday (October 7) on European tactics for reducing unemployment. He grilled the CEOs of Siemens, and other European employers. 

Siemens trains promising high school graduates for three years at full pay and a promise of a job—to replace new retirees. Too much is made in America of college educations. (Too many of those I observed for thirty years are a waste of time and talent.) The Siemens man reminded the audience that apprentice and blue collar were not always a sneerable category. After all, he reminded us memory suppressed Americans, Ben Franklin moved from Boston to Philadelphia to “apprentice” at printing! Better a proud working class than frustrated one. False prestige squabbles has crippled many Americans. By comparing our institutions with other culture’s, we can improve ourselves.

To achieve such pervasive meliorism, doctoral candidates must know more about the disciplines that surround their own. That is why Harvard celebrated its tercentennial in 1936 with an interdisciplinary doctorate. In the 17th century American Lit was theology; in the 18th, politics, it wasn’t until the mid 19th that it “achieved” belles lettres stature. Most of the rest of the world is passing through such development now. We should be the first to identify with them. 

Why does Canada do this so creatively than us? Because they didn’t have the corruption of slavery to enslave them intellectually. Indeed when we have purged our hidden guilt we are ready to, for example, set better examples for the Arab Spring as well as the Islamic last battle with modernism. I am grateful forever to my Western Reserve professors who encouraged my deeper appreciation of American Lit with three complementary prelims in American Art and Architecture, American Philosophy and its European Antecedents, and American Economic History.

Finally, I discovered the an apprenticeship in newer media can give a teacher. (Tom Jones at WFIL-TV encouraged me to shoot cultural films for Temple professor John Roberts’ weekend news).Finally, it led to my first documentary “Moses Land of Promises” on the 1964 New York World Fair. In Hawaii I had a weekly radio series over KAIM-FM, Honolulu called “Pacific Profile”. I would grill a visitor on his expertise. 

As I drove the editor of Kerala, India’s daily paper back to the airport, I asked how he knew that Thomas Jefferson risked imprisonment by stealing a new Italian rice in an hollow cane. He smiled: “You’re no longer a Third World country! Jefferson was obsessed with helping his farmer neighbors to succeed against the kind of problems we now have in India. He was a good man!” Such experiences convinces me that doctorates should include one prelim on media—whether that involved mastering radio or TV, or learning a language like Arabic or Mandarin so she could translate their poetry, essay, and fiction for more open-minded Americans, eager to identify with the rest of the world seeking to be middle class. If I were doing it again, I’d do a Peace Corps type gig as teaching ESL in an Arabic country as I mastered their vernacular.

Those are the kind of thoughts James F. English’s ”The Global Future as English Studies” triggered in my head. A good read. I even encourage you to study English under English at Penn.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Learning to Love William Morris

Re “A dreamer in industrial London,” by Patrick D. Hazard—
The Pre-Raphaelites as a group have been given something of a bad rap because their work found favor with the wealthy. In fact the movement began as a revolutionary riposte to “things as they are” in the world of British art. In their desire to take art back to the days before Raphael, they were in fact championing primitivism, not sophistication.
Also, the pre-Raphaelite movement’s emphasis on the spiritual dovetailed nicely with a growing sense that the materialism of the times was a road to nowhere. The Pre-Raphaelites were the bohemians of their day, and like all good bohos they were petted to death by their social betters.
Andrew Mangravite
Center City/ Philadelphia
October 18, 2012

Patrick Hazard, your essay on William Morris was strong, but if an old colleague of yours and an admirer of Morris can add a note of surprise to your remarks: It took you a hell of a long time to get around to the Morris Museum.
Oh, well, keep poking around in our shared cultural and artistic treasures.
Gerald Weales
University City/ Philadelphia
October 17, 2012

Monday, 22 October 2012

De-Exceptionalizing American Literature: The Un-Monroe Doctrine

In my career long scheme to de-exceptionalize "American Literature" into "Global English," the first public gesture was the seminar I organized at Beaver College in 1978 with future Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, black Brown University professor and poet Michael S. Harper, and Rex Nettleford, the soi-disant Thomas Jefferson of Jamaica’s University of the West Indies. We set out to terminate the “we protest too much” uniqueness of American Culture by introducing American literature teachers to their global cousins.

I explained to my guests how at the First Negro World Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal in 1964, I breached this subject of Common Weal with Wole Soyinka and Langston Hughes. It was simple enough: stretch the U.S. Canon by slyly introducing first black American Lit, followed by the analogous but disgracefully underknown white Appalachian Lit. Before we could convince teachers that they were unnecessarily ignorant of their English speaking and writing counterparts in the six other continents, they should become ashamed of their hometown anonymities.

I had recently been visiting forbidden Cuba (remember the Jimmy Carter broadmindedness in the late seventies?),Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti and San Domingo .Not the least of my late enlightenments was how imperially and falsely we had abused these nearby neighbors. Our City on the Hill complex needed revision, if not utter destruction. I had played a new Wole Soyinka film at the Commonwealth Educational Conference in Lagos Nigeria in 1966, urging the creation of a global film library of literary first takes on all the English-speaking Commonwealth countries. 

Needless to explain, that we Amies had a lot to learn from the “biggies” like Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—not the least of which expansion would lessen our hubris by seeing what the “new” Commonwealth countries like Nigeria were achieving with the likes of Chinua Achebe.

So I was always on the lookout for new titles that would at the very least instruct us in the uniqueness of their views of our shared global culture. The tense was future: trying to share with “strangers” what we all must share, willy nilly, in a tremendously precarious future, both good and bad, the way serious literature uniquely informs us about the singularities of our common predicaments. So imagine my recent excitement to learn about a new young writer from the Dominican Republic, currently a professor of creative writing at no less a university than M.I.T. In my shallow science awareness, I was pleasantly surprised and could hardly wait for interlibrary loan to deliver Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber and Faber, 2008).

First the brief and not so wondrous career of Junot Diaz. Born in Santo Domingo, the DR capital. graduate of Rutgers, M.A. in Fine Arts from Cornell. His first book, a collection of short stories, ”Drown”, was described by Hermione Lee in Britain’s “Independent on Sunday” as a dazzling talented first book.” And he got a Pulitzer Prize and American Book Critics Circle Award for “Oscar Wao.” (Not from me he wouldn’t have!)

Oscar as a person is the most disgusting loser I have encountered in almost a century of compulsive reading. And the book begins and ends with this fat, sloppy Sci Fi freak would-be, trying mostly unsuccessfully to get laid—until he moves next door to a retired whore “in love” with a cop. There is much (much too much) trash about the sexual gifts of the run of the bed Dominican.( Oscar, the author unendingly reminds us, would get no Oscars for his equipment!) 

When he finally “scores” with her, the whore’s cop sics his colleagues after him to beat him to a pulp in a cane brake which is the favorite venue for dictator Trujillo’s thugs to delete unhappy constituents. In the middle of the “novel” (it’s more like a collection of short stories about the educational sorties of his relatives that are never properly separated—a new genre of run-on short stories!) Now I really want to know the history of Trujillo’s decades long dictatorship as well as American collusions and destructions thereby. 
But Diaz has devised the shtick of almost unreadable footnotes that suddenly appear erratically when Diaz briefly gets” serious”. ( I got more of the details of historical significance from the Wikipedia!) And there are so damn many Spanish phrases, even sentences, interpolated to sustain his ironic poses toward “the Plot”! It’s a verbal tic, simulating seriousness. He is especially enamored of the term fuku, accent grave on the second “u”. Sometimes it seems to mean “fate” (inordinately and universally bad-- in his family), or crudely, “fuck you” for no observable ( by me) significance. Except to give a phoney seriousness to an absurdly “unserious” plot. 

And there are so many made up or at least un-dictionaried Hispasms that I wanted to hit him over the head with my temporarily useless “Spanish Dictionary: An Amsco School Publication”, 1968). The Guardian bleats on the front cover (which features a mindless Oscarless kid surrounded by toys and comic books: “Exotic, original and spirited, it’s written with huge energy and heart.” And no visible brain! It’s “wondrous” that it ever got published, as is. Not to puzzle too deeply over those multiple awards. “Drown”, alas, is already on its interlibrary way. I hope he swims better in smaller pools.

This piece has been published by Broad Street Review.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Pensacola Swabby

Riddle: What is overweight, out of condition, and filled with slightly apprehensive elation? 

Answer: A sixty-one-year-old retired English professor revisiting the scenes of his crimes as a nineteen-year-old sailor. Ah, there is no greater joy than a major wallow in nostalgia.


It began early, early, as I boarded the first bus from downtown to the Naval Air Station. 5:45 a.m. early, so that I wondered aloud to the bus driver where I could find a place to eat breakfast at the civilianly ungodly hour. A black sailor in dress blues and pea jacket (obviously returning from some serious overnight liberty) came to the front of the bus and counseled, “Yo can eat at the McDonalds, right next to the Rec Center. Take the Base shuttle bus.” And, having overheard my palaver with the bus driver about this being my first visit in 42 years, he added this charming inference, “Yo was in the Old War, eh?” The Old War. I guess. Not World War 2.5 (swabby talk for the Korean unpleasantness) or Nam. The Old War. That made me an Old Warrior. Absolutely.

My eager old eyes took in every detail after I transferred to the shuttle bus. Zounds. The aircraft carrier Lexington was in port. I shifted my mind into high gear. I had to get on the Lex if I were to consider my mission a success. Even though my last posting (in an underdistinguished twenty-two month, twelve day career as a sailor) was at this NAS, I had never swung a visit aboard a carrier. The aircraft carrier to me, as an aviation electronics technician’s mate, was the mystery of the twentieth-century. How they got off the ship was marvel enough. But how they managed to land the planes, even in the best of weather, simply confounded all calculation.

So my plotting began at McDonald’s, schmoozing with the civvies and the sailors and Marines pit-stopping, as they munched breakfast. I decided my best bet was to simulate my boy journalist persona, fingering the Philadelphia Press Pass I possess, courtesy of Oliver Franklin. I got directions to the base newspaper, “The Gosport,” named after the device used to communicate within ships. There I picked up the latest copy of the weekly and casually (ever so) got the telephone number of the Lady Lex’s public affairs officer, a certain Lieutenant McCorkle. My heart sunk when I saluted the petty officer in charge of security. Wednesday mornings was “quarters” when the ship’s company was inspected. Yuck. No answer to Lieutenant McCorkle’s phone. I palavered a half-hour away with the petty officer and his friends, learning that McCorkle was a corker, a lady lieutenant who drove the snazzy white Volvo he pointed out to me in the parking lot. And a lively lady to judge from their scuttlebutt.

But wait. There was the familiar wail of the boatswain’s pipe. Quarters was over. And in a few minutes there was the Lieutenant, a smashing brunette English / broadcasting graduate from James Madison College in Virginny. But she was in a foul mood. An admiral was coming. And why didn’t I write ahead? And who did I think I was, showing up as Quarters ended, thinking she could drop everything and show me the ship? I knew it was time for my humble pie mask. I groveled a bit obsequiously, trying a little humor. (“You know the only thing I remember from boot camp?” “No.” “This first-class petty officer from Kentucky told us, ‘I want you to pick your hand up like honey and tho it away like shit.’” She smiled like an angel and said, “Follow me.” Up the gang plank, where I showed the O.O.D. that that cracker salute trainer had not taught in vain. “Aviation Electronics Technician’s Mate 2nd class Hazard, returning from a 42-year retirement, SUH!!” He smiled too and waved me aboard.

McCorkle was a good guide. She explained how the Lady Lex was no longer armed and could only spend seventeen days at sea. They don’t even see the aviators who practice landings and takeoffs, first in daylight and then at night, as the Blue Ghost (it was the only uncamouflaged carrier in World War II and the Japanese thought they had sunk it four times so that Tokyo Rose began to allude to it with that name) heads into the wind to facilitate landings. A line of sailors was pacing the deck with their eyes on the landing surface. “FOD duty,” McCorkle explained. “Foreign Object Damage.” Every foreign object on the flight deck is a hazard to the plane’s jet engines. So they have to sweep it visually frequently. 

The Lady was about to leave for Key West, where she spends the winter months, returning then to Corpus Christi for spring (the carrier’s steam heat is too steamy for the Gulf of Mexico below decks so it ties up for the months of July and August). 1,200 potential naval and Marine fliers use the Lex for their floating school each year. And the ship’s complement as a training facility is 1,400, “100 of whom are women,” McCorkle noted proudly, “and by the mid 1990’s we expect half of the complement will be female.” Since it is no longer a combat ship, this goal is possible.

My next stop was the new Naval Aviation Museum on the base. NAS Pensacola calls itself the “cradle of navel aviation” because it was here in the year-around good weather that they could work out the details of the new technology that they couldn’t at Langley / Virginia. The base is well plaqued, showing, for example, the first seaplane hangars with ramps into the Gulf in 1915-16 (before that, they kept the planes in tents!). I was eager to replay my Nostalgia Tapes at the museum. 

Flying officers had to spend a minimum number of hours in the air to get flight pay, and they used to use us enlisted men for ballast. We loved it. So I looked for the planes I had been flown in. the N25, a primitive biplane, but with an open cockpit giving you a really Red Baron feeling. And the SNJ, the primary trainer where you could feel you were really at war as you settled in sitting on your own parachute and slid the cockpit cover back to keep out the slipstream. But greatest thrill of all, the PBY Catalina, that great dinosaur of a flying boat. I can still remember like it was yesterday the antsy feeling about whether this damn thing was really going to make it into the air as it lumbered ever so slowly down Pensacola Bay. 

There’s a great souvenir shop there too. I got my ex-Navy son Tim (he was a jet engine mechanic in the 1970’s) sweat pants grandly emblazoned NAVY and a pullover NAS aviation technician. I got myself a Lady Lex flight deck cap and a FLY NAVY / PENSACOLA pullover. Plus an ingenious tote that has an expandable ditty bag built into it, almost as if designed for a ratpacker like me. It’s a pricey store, my Visa blinked at the $113 tab. But what the hell. Once every 42 years. And it helps support the museum. As I prowled the outside aircraft park, F-4’s practiced touch and go’s on the other side of the fence. Wowee!

I took the city bus back to town in a state of high exultation. I’m convinced the biggest thrills of the Pre-Senile Period are such wallows in the good old days, however ordinary they were in actual fact. What had prompted me to pit stop in Pensacola on my way to the Key West American Literature seminar was my reading in the Pensacola News Journal’s Sunday paper the month before (when I was Greyhounding to San Francisco by the Southern route on one of those $59 point to point 30 days in advance fares) that they had just opened a new State Museum in the recycled 1909 City Hall.

So I hiked up the main street from the Transportation Center to the T.W. Wentworth, Sr. Florida State Museum. That nonagenarian is the principal benefactor whose heterogeneous collecting has given the curators a run for their very limited money. I interviewed Norman Simon, the director, who said it was costing them $285 a day to keep going, and money is still a big problem. The only classy exhibit so far is on the top floor, a childrens’ “Discovery” show on how you recover the meanings hidden in a shipwreck.

One of the problems in Pensacola seems to be a superfluity of museums and a minimum of money. Within a few minutes walk, in recycled warehouses you can experience a Museum of Commerce and Industry, and a Museum of Transportation, and a city museum in a recycled church. For an inveterate museum nut like myself (with apologies to Will Rogers, I’ve never visited a museum I didn’t like) there are nuggets aplenty. But for the median tourist, the gruel is thin indeed. It’s a chicken and an egg proposition. Once they get enough visitors, they’ll have the money to upgrade the exhibits. I’m not warning tourists away, I’m just establishing reasonable expectations.

On the other hand, I’m thrilled by the Gulfstream Gingerbread houses in this same historic district. And after abandoning their downtown like everyone else for the Siren Song of malls, Pensacolans are drifting back home. Take The Grocery Store (which is what it used to be) where I had lunch. The chatty lady who had just opened it was telling everybody nooning about how the Sunday night piano bar had been a smash. Once the returnees reach a critical mass, Pensacola is going to be off to the races as a major tourist destination.

And there’s no better place to stay than the Hilton, the lobby of which is the old Louisville and Nashville train depot—from which I used to depart on leave for Detroit. What a great idea. Since it had run down a lot before they decided to save it, the “memorabilia” is from all over—Tiffany glass from a Youngstown, Ohio vaudeville theatre, and the delicious cut glass chandelier over the bar’s small dance floor from a Philadelphia movie theatre. The hotel is right across the street from the new state-of-the-art Convention Center, which I didn’t visit in person since the choice during my visit was wrestling or Jimmy Swaggart. (Now, if I could have wrestled Jimmy Swaggart!?!)

Basement Bargains: Public Transportation is sixty cents exact change, with good weekday service and free transfers (and the bus drivers actually wait to make the connections!). You can avoid the high cost of the Hilton by staying at the Days Inn across from the Greyhound depot (six miles out of downtown, near I-10) or Best Western, just kitty corner from the Transportation Center downtown. Taxis are pricey, but plentiful. The new Visitor’s Center is not accessible by foot, placed strategically on the edge of town where cars head for the beaches. But the News Journal has a good weekend guide to what’s current. So you don’t even have to be a superannuated swabby to get a kick out of Pensacola. But it helps!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Anybody's Buddha/The Glories of Walter Sachs

The most beloved sculpture in Weimar, Germany is the sunken Buddha of hometown hero Walter Sachs (born 1954). The black basalt piece is a must visit in the city’s cultural center on the Frauenplan, the site of Goethe’s National Museum. Opas (grandfathers) line up to give their Enkelinnen (granddaughters) a lift to the top of the statue.

Sachs is famous for his other public statues in Heilingstadt, Herbsleben, Erfurt, Pössneck, Fulda, Gotha and Jena. The state of Thuringen, smack in the center of Germany, is Sachs country, with private collections of his work competing for attention. He got his art diploma in 1981 in the Dresden Art School.
Sachs is famous for his other public statues in Heilingstadt, Herbsleben, Erfurt, Pössneck, Fulda, Gotha and Jena. The state of Thuringen, smack in the center of Germany, is Sachs country, with private collections of his work competing for attention. He got his art diploma in 1981 in the Dresden Art School.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Lovers’ Quarrels

A funny (peculiar) thing happened to me on the way to Hudson Bay last month. Two weeks into my month-long Canadian Rail Pass, I called my son Michael in St. Paul to check in from Churchill, Manitoba. “Did Rottenberg print my piece on Anti-anti-Semitism?” I asked him, after running through family business. “Run it?” my somewhat stunned son replied: “You kicked up a firestorm with that one. They’re calling you a Nazi, and not a nice one. The letters to the Welcomat are really pissed.” 

So, on January 6, two pieces by me had appeared—one in “After-Dark” on the Jewish museum boom so that readers could get into New York’s Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue to see the remarkable exhibition on the Dreyfus Affair before it closed on January 14, and the other, the controversial one on my misgivings about Jewish sensitivity to non-Jewish criticism.

As any contributor to the paper knows, Dan is the quintessentially autonomous editor. If something doesn’t teach him anything new, he returns the piece promptly. If it does teach him something new, he acknowledges it as about to appear “in the not too distant future,” as he searches for congenial pairs on his front page.

So the simulcast of the front page piece on Jewish sensitivity and the Hazard-at-Large column on Dreyfus was completely fortuitous. But I was retroactively pleased by the juxtaposition—while because I expected that some readers were going to be shook up by he former (I had been shook up myself by the gradual erosion of unquestioning belief in whatever happened to be current Israeli domestic or foreign policies), it caught me by complete surprise (and not a little dismay) to learn that readers were reading anti-Semitic sentiments into my praise of the Jewish museum boom.

What’s going on? I muttered across the tundra and mountains and plains of Canada, as I strained at the bit to get a look at the “hate mail.” I even went to the Post Office in Winnipeg to see whether Dan expressed me a swatch of the letters on a Thursday, I could formulate a response and have a rebuttal in his office by Monday. But Canadian metabolism doesn’t work that fast. My personal pique had arisen originally years ago from the gross unfairness of a few academics with whom I had policy disputes stooping to unfounded charges of anti-Semitism when they couldn’t meet my arguments fairly, and openly.

I had no idea either when I wrote the piece during Hanukkah week that it would be swept up by another fiercer firestorm in the Gaza and West Bank. All across Canada I read the Canadian and International press (learning incidentally a lot more than I do from the American media which tend to favor the client state statute of Israel) as the crisis deepened. 

The term “anti-anti-Semitism” I had coined in June at the Academy of Music in a conversation with Earl Abrahamson between sets of the Humor Summit; later that evening I explored it further at the Pen and Pencil Club with David Friedman, TV critic of the Daily News. The NPR piece on JAP-Bashing, then, merely precipitated a point of view that had been focusing for months. (The “simmering, simmering” metaphor, by the way, is what Walt Whitman said reading Emerson did to him—it gave him the courage to articulate his immensely unpopular vision.)

I don’t see how anyone can read the Museum piece and consider me an anti-Semite. But no one was required to read both articles. Still it is a grossly bum rap to infer anti-Semitism because I say Europe is “awash” with demobbed Israeli soldiers on their “Wanderjahrs.” I describe them as “extremely attractive young men.” To see negative connotation in “awash” is simply to invent figments. And to imply that the widely used term Wanderjahrs betrays Nazi sympathies is, to put it bluntly, fatuous.

I repeat: JAP and yenta are not terms invented by the goyim. The Jewish subculture devised them to deal with deviations from their spiritual traditions. I identify with those spiritual traditions. Let me tell you briefly why.

Until I entered the Navy in 1944 at 17, I had never known a single Jew, personally, so cocooned was I in the Irish Catholic ghettos of Michigan. Since I was in a high IQ aviation radar unit, I met a good many Jews in my boot camp company and in tech schools. The nuns who reared me at Holy Rosary were anti-Semitic. (They used to listen to Father Coughlin Sunday afternoons), but I was very early as contemptuous of that lack of Christ-like charity as I was of their racism toward the “colored.”

So, in the Navy, at the risk of parody, I must say that some of my best new friends were Jews.

But that was only the beginning. After a Catholic university education (which perversely deepened my radical rejection of American Catholic bourgeois values) I entered graduate school in Cleveland where my two mentors were Harvey Goldberg, a Marxist historian whose dissertation was a biography of the French socialist Jean Jaures, and Ray Ginger, whose biography of Eugene Victor Debs gave me an aphorism that has centered my life: “Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.” Harvey Wish directed my doctoral dissertation, and if he considered me an anti-Semite, he never mentioned it when he praised my research in his book on the history of American history.

At Michigan State, Herb Weisinger and Adrian Jaffe were the two best English professors I had there, Milton Stern was the graduate student I was closest to, and the Marxist art historian Walter Abell taught me more about looking at art than anyone else has since. And intellectual Charlie Hirschfeld insighted me into his field.

I later chose as my role models two Jewish literary critics, Irving Howe, because he alternated books, one on unions and politics, one on literature, throughout his prodigious career, and Leslie Fiedler, well, because he’s Leslie Fielder, a madcap quirky original. Not to be too boring about it, but my visual tastes ran to Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood and Jack Levine. My ear was in fealty to Aaron Copland and George and Ira Gershwin. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Stan Getz illumined my isolated youth. What rot to impute anti-Semitism. Harvard sociologist David Riesman’s teasing me twenty-five years ago as a certified Philo-Semite is closer to the mark.

When I became Radio-TV Editor of Scholastic Magazines in 1955, senior editors Ken Goldstein and Eric Berger became my mentors there. Al Holman (torchsinger Libby’s bro) gave me my first college teaching job at Trenton State. And when Walter Annenberg gave Penn $2 million while I was a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellow in American Civilization, I helped organize the first Annenberg School. It was I who recommended that Gilbert Seldes be the first dean because he had written the first book on American secular culture in 1924, The Seven Lively Arts.

Finally, my greatest hero in journalism was and remains Isidore Feinstein Stone, the inimitable Izzy. In 1975, when I was on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Free Library, I organized an arts festival, the centerpiece of which was an award for the best undergraduate journalism in Izzy’s tradition. So it’s simply poppycock (and prima facie evidence of the dangers of anti-anti-Semitism) to call me an anti-Semite. 

I may be wrong, I may be impatient, I may even sometimes be arrogant. But I’m no anti-Semite. Any more than I’m a racist when I chide Oliver Franklin for helping to establish an imperial mayoralty in Philly, far from his original Third World idealism; I’m having a lover’s quarrel with Oliver, just as my fear that the garrison state is undermining Zionist idealism deeply disturbs me as a partisan of Israel.

I also disagree with the publisher of this paper’s belief that “outsiders” shouldn’t criticize other subcultures. Every religion, ethnic group, and voluntary association in America has two dimensions—the private and the public. Its private domain is its own business, but when those beliefs and actions impinge on the common weal or ill, it is the duty of outsiders who value pluralism and diversity to have a lover’s quarrel with those they fear are harming themselves and the community at large in the process.

I grant that such external criticism should be done with tact and compassion. And there is at least one aspect of my original statement (implying that Jews were not much help to the NAACP while they made good use of colored ladies as help in their homes) which I feel was intemperate. While not perfect, the American Jews’ support for the beleaguered Negro has been so far ahead of the rest of the society that it was churlish of me to imply less. I apologize for that.

On the other hand, I’ve taken a beating that I didn’t earn. For God’s sake, I’ve even heard the preposterous hypothesis that because my ex-wife ran off (well, walked away, fast) with a Jewish man twenty years ago that I’m ipso facto an anti-Semite. Come on, hate mongers, you can do better than guilt by disassociation.

The publisher, finally, made a very shrewd observation when she noted that not a single non-Jew entered the forum with a letter. Odd, isn’t it? All the more so when the day after my casual encounter with Ms. Seiderman, a letter arrived praising my article on R. Tait McKenzie, Penn’s fabulous doctor / sports sculptor featured at the Calgary Olympics (February 17) and signing itself hate-filled self off with a jaunty “and beware of JAPS.” Yes, Susan, there’s hate out there. But it’s not Hazard’s…

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Right to be Wrong

 Regarding Dan Rottenberg's opinion:

Amen! I still resent the know-nothings who accused me of anti-Semitism and gay baiting in the Welcomat in the early ’90s. The absurdity of so defaming someone whose models were I.F. Stone, Studs Terkel, Herb Gans and Bertrand Goldberg.
As for gays, I still defend infants against destructive free love, straight or gay.
And I honor another tough-minded Jew who stood by me when fools made those absurd allegations. Thanks, Dan. (Damn, another Jewish hero of mine. I must be more open-minded.)

Friday, 12 October 2012

Obsolete, But Not In Vane

Minor genres have always held a special place in my eye. So when I read in the Arles morning paper that le Musee Camarguais was opening a new exhibition on weather vanes (“girouettes,” to the French—hence the hip Anglophoney title GirouEXPO), I headed my rented Fiat 5 south.

It was to be a double treat, since the Camargue region has an aura of its own that I had never paused long enough—in my many comings and going between Marseilles and Barcelona—to savour. But first, the Camargue Museum (in the Parc naturel regional de Camargue at Mas du Pont de Rousty—boy, those French sure love long titles).

New (1979, when it won a coveted European museum prize), it’s so off the beaten track that it attracts only 60,000 visitors a year. A pity, since, in typical Gallic fashion, it gives you a delicious and comprehensible intro to that strange, even mysterious delta of the Rhone River, from geology to the anthropology of life in the “mas”—a regional word for substantial farmhouse. (Many bed and breakfasts sport that moniker, so don’t pass them by if you’re in search of a congenial overnight.)

I’ve loved weathervanes enough to collect a few. My first was a thin, stylized cock-a-doodle-doo I picked up in Wales. And my favorite is a Deco-ish redheaded rooster with blue vanes to make it do its windseeking work that I found in Boone, N.C.

And for several years my backyard has been graced with a girouette from Quebec in which the wind helps a sawyer cut his logs. (I find it all the more beguiling since his sawing mate has long since split—through laziness, or too big a wind, perhaps.)

Like most French visual essays, this lode of 40 photographs of Camargue region weathervanes is anthropological and historical in focus. It begins with the Arabic sage Hafiz’s aphorism 14 centuries before Christ: “Do not try to catch the wind because it blows where it will whatever your wish.”

When you get right down to it, was there anything more magical to pre-scientific eras than the wind, which indeed bloweth where it listeth? It’s positively spiritual in its lack of materiality, a phenomenon of nature that Romantic poets were to make a big thing of many centuries later—duly noted in the wall captions.

The Camargue is as flat as a pancake and bereft of vegetation, so the wind really does have it its own way with mankind in those parts, from the breezes that bring rain to the mysterious mistral, the Santa Ana of the Mediterranean.

“And since Provence is the Kingdom of the Winds, it is good to know which way the wind is blowing.” If certain parts of France need brises-soleils, the Camargue has an architectural subspecialty of the brises-vents, to make it possible for grains and vines and vegetables to take and keep root in the midst of all that turbulent air.

Their weathervanes were most often of iron, sometimes of the more perishable or less durable wood, and they indicate the direction from which the wind is coming. The fanciest ones have arrows (even the cardinal points of the compass) to make the direction unmistakable.

There was no specialized weathervane maker in the beginning but rather someone skilled with forging from some other specialty, such as horseshoeing. And needless to say, the artisans of this folk art did their fine work anonymously. Naturally, they’re attached to a high, exposed place, usually a roof or steeple, so they can swing back and forth in response to the wind’s changes. Among its other distinctions, the weathervane was an early form of publicity, trumpeting what was sold underneath its swinging reign.

Up until the Tenth Century, however, the weathervane was a symbolic ornament strictly reserved for ecclesiastic and aristocratic buildings. The right to possess a girouette was the subject of very strict regulation. By the 17th Century, the form was democratized and spread across the countryside. Its shape and materials changed accordingly.

By the 18th Century, they were so widespread that they became the object of disdain, and even the word girouette became pejorative. They were too numerous, “trop populaires.” Despite their low standing, in the 19th Century they became the rage, getting fancier and fancier as gentlemen farmers strutted their stuff by commissioning really elaborate and highly decorated models.

Eventually, this bourgeoisification of the lowly genre turned girouettes into status symbols. La plus ca change, in this case, the more they really did change.

From Welcomat, Hazard-at-Large, March 10, 1993

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Radiant Glories of D.C. Museums

D.C. is always too full of museum delights to do anything but give terminal fatigue to the persevering. This holiday season is no exception. So let me tell you how I recently spent a day and tell you how you can find out what’s going on to pick and choose your own itinerary.

First, pick up a copy of the free weekly, the City Paper, in vending boxes and bookstores all across the city. It gives a week’s forecast of highlights and lists all the galleries and museums with their current attractions and telephone numbers.

I came by Greyhound but was leaving via Amtrak, so I carted my light luggage up First Avenue to Union Station, which is itself a newly rehabbed marvel. They don’t have lockers, but they do let you stow your gear for $1 a piece a day.

My primary mission was to see the art of the Japanese war lords at the National Gallery, so I asked the guy in the subway booth where to get off. He spoke Deep Southern—I mean way down—so it took him three repeats for me to understand he was saying, “Archives.” He was fairly nasty and should have told me to transfer at Metro Center. So I got off at the “Gallery” stop, a faux pas. But lo and behold, when I emerged at Seventh Avenue, there was the National Portrait Gallery.

Serendipitous error, because they’re playing a really interesting show from New York’s Museum of Broadcasting called “On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting.” What a kick.

Edward R. Murrow slouching toward Oxford Circus in his correspondent’s trench coat, aiming to cover the War from London with style and eloquence. And Pat Weaver, the pioneering TV executive at NBC, mugging with J. Fred Muggs the chimp, who kept Dave Garroway from being a ratings chump on the early Today show.

And Jack Paar doing his tricky simper on old Tonight shows. And Rudy Vallee and Bob Hope and Burns and Allen. Oh me, oh my. What an electronic nostalgia farm it is. Through January 2nd.

Also showing there is a gallery of instant Polaroid portraits. And Time sports covers. The NPG has really jumped into the popular orbit lately.

It’s in the same building as the National Museum of American Art, where they’re about to unleash a major Man Ray and Dada exhibition to honor the creative genius’s 100th birthday next year. It’ll be there into spring 1989, but you could catch it over New Year’s just as well.

It makes a fine pairing with the broadcasting exhibition—allows you to speculate on which was the real America in the 1920s, the pop culture or the avant garde.

South on Seventh Avenue, at the National Gallery, I was after the East Wing and “Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185-1868,” a mega-show on how the feudal lords became some of the greatest art patrons in the history of all culture.

You’re probably familiar with their kimonos and their ceramics. But until you’ve seen the great baroque suits of armor made of leather and lacquer, silk and iron, you ain’t seen it all. And the swords.

I’m a peaceful man, but the swords are so elegant in their carving and appurtenances it’s almost enough to send a surge of warlike sentiment rushing through unsuspecting veins. There is a real tea house on site where they perform the tea ceremony, a ritual at the heart of Japanese art and culture.

Great banners with the logos of the lords hang splendidly from the second floor balcony. And there is a delicious corridor of huge, backlit color transparencies of a number of Japanese gardens.

This is so good you may have trouble getting in. It’s free, but you have to get a timed ticket; if you don’t get there early, yours will be for late afternoon—if you’re lucky. For a $2 per ticket fee, you can order by phone from Ticket Center (800-448-9009). I advise you to use it.

There are four restaurants at the Gallery, but I would urge architecture buffs to try the Cascade Café for the sheer water of it. The cascade in question is one of the marvels in I.M. Pei’s many-marveled East Wing. And believe me, you’re going to need rest and refreshment after attending to the Daimyo’s glories.

After lunch, try Raphael Peale’s still lifes, also in the East Wing, just to the left as you come to the door. He was fooling the eyes of the folks with how realistically he painted fruits and fish and God knows what, showing as much wit and irony as fidelity to the surfaces of things.

I call the Peales of Philadelphia the First Family of American culture. The father, Charles Willson, was so confident America had a great artistic future that he named three of his sons after Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt. And you know what? They all turned out to be creditable artists at the beginning of the 19th Century, which was not all that hospitable to the Arts with a capital A.

So there, I’ve primed your pump. Now the bad news: There’s just so damned much art to see in D.C. (I haven’t even dropped the “S” word, Smithsonian) that you will grow to love your fatigue and frustration, as I do.

From Welcomat: After Dark, December 28, 1988

Monday, 8 October 2012

Louis Kahn's First Job

Shortly after FDR was reelected, he ordered the NRA to found 99 exemplary communities throughout the United States to stem unemployment. One such kibbutzim-like village, Roosevelt, New Jersey ,originally called Jersey Homestead, was 50 miles southwest of New York City. Its thousand or so inhabitants this year are celebrating their 75th anniversary. Helen Barth, now 79, moved in with her garment factory parents, aged three, in 1936: it was the promise of fresh air, sunshine ,and the chance to garden that persuaded them to move from New York City. They had read about this planned agro-industrial experiment in the Yiddish language New York paper, the Jewish Daily Forward.

They paid the Feds $12 a month rent and a $500 move in fee. Their homes were 1920 Bauhaus, flat roofs, cinderblock ranchers, with floor to ceiling windows, on half-acre lots. According to their local historian, Michael Tichtin, their planning ideal derived from the British Garden City movement. Alas, because they could often make more money in the New York factories than in gardens off season, outsiders tended to move in to replace them on the farm lots. Their planned on site farm and factory ideal flopped after three years.

The great Social Realist painter Ben Shahn was their most famous citizen. Ben immigrated from Lithuania, aged 7, in 1906. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he apprenticed as a lithographer, studied painting, and early became the lefty with pro-labor beliefs that so influenced his mature work. He first visited the experimental Roosevelt, N.J. in 1937 because he was commissioned to paint a mural for the community center for all those unemployed Jewish needleworkers in New York. 

Alas by 1939, the idealistic experiment had flopped, Ben and his wife Bernada were antsy in their crowded Brooklyn apartment, so they rented one empty house for $14 a month (inflation moves!) but Ben warned Bernada, "just for a year because, you know, these towns can eat you up!” They stayed till he died.

Ben had a creative architecture pal Nakashima who lived in nearby New Hope, Pa. Jonathan recalls that his father gave him a go-ahead, “Do what you want, but don’t spend too much.” It was a oneser! He built another house on top of the one they had at first rented—designed by Nakashima! Mira, Nakashima’s daughter, laughed ,”the only second-story addition on a Louis Kahn base in the history of architecture.” Fresh out of Penn with his architectural degrees, Louie would build anything legal.

The two storey retreat created stories of his own, as Ben invited the heavy hitters of American art to visit him, The likes of Alexander Calder, that third generation Philly sculptor who was knocking ‘em out in Paris with his 3-D circus, and the great photographer Dorothea Lange. Even Albert Einstein had the neighbors buzzing! And Ben had a great eye for furniture so their simple little idiosyncratic home was further enhanced by the Nakashima bed and dining room table they bought on their first visit.

Mira loved to tell the story about how the impulsive Ben wanted to drag the bed and table straight to Roosevelt, even though their car was a convertible. They flipped the roof down—in the depth of winter—and sped home, after George had given Bernada an old woolen hat—and both of them a slug of whiskey. Ben used to say the table was cold for three weeks! Those warm walls were never cold, grace by Ben’s and Bernada’s art, not to forget the art of Rauschenberg, Tamayo et alia on their walls. In 2010 Jonathan and his wife Jeb had the sad experience of auctioning off all this Shahniana. (Vicki Hyman/Newark Star-Ledger, 11/13/2010.)

Indeed, his sculptor son Jonathan had come back to live there after a globally roaming artistic education- living for a time in Italy. He talked the unsuccessful factory brass into renting him gallery space . The factory has housed a variety of businesses besides Jonathan’s gallery: a packaging machinery firm, a T-shirt printer, hat and button manufacturers, even a parts entrepot for the geodesic domes erected in the vicinity. Jonathan also created the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in the village’s amphitheater. 

His other works include a display celebrating the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the NJ Transit Authority in Jersey City. His creations are also in the D.C National Portrait Gallery, the Vatican and Princeton Art Museums. He now teaches sculpture at the Art Students League in New York City.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Warsaw Comes Alive In Its New Age

 WARSAW What a difference a year makes! When I last visited the capital of Poland, it seemed stricken with a case of terminal grungies, beginning with the Central Station itself. Today, chic little portable boutiques have displaced the former Third World-looking lean-tos as the new entrepreneurs flex their economic muscles.

The Poles have ratcheted up the fast-food revolution too, with ubiquitous HAMBURGERY stands. But the logo protectors of Ronald McDonald would go ballistic at the ballsy way fast foodsters have rung variations on Big Macishness.

I especially relished the McRonalds stop devised out of a recycled bus. Faster food, right? (I’m smacking my lips to report that the McKielbasa I consumed there would pass muster at the best of Philly street stands, where the best street food in our country is dispensed. Right?)

Not that the Old Warsaw doesn’t linger on and even occasionally prevail. Intent on visiting the former Baltic Republics, I skittered about from LOT, the Polish airline, to Orbis, the official travel agency, to Intourist, which presumes to still run (ruin?) things as of yore, such as demanding that you get a transit visa ($27, please!—almost twice the train ticket) because the tracks between Warsaw and Vilnius, Lithuania, dip through Belarus. Check before you go, though, for these regs seem to change by the hour.

When I’m talking about the Amtrickiness of night trains in Eastern Europe, I can’t help but recall the nightmare of my trip the night before between Vienna and Warsaw’s South Station. (I’d spent a hard day in Vienna Hoovering the rich museum fare as soon as I got in from Zurich. Just lollygagging by foot is a splendid way to spend a day, especially the Pharaoh art exhibition at the Kunstlerhaus, a marvelous schnitzel in the open-air restaurant in front of the architecture school, and a late-afternoon coffee in Otto Wagner’s incredible bit of Secessionism that began as a subway station.)

For the sleeper, as usual, you give the steward your passport, and he stays up all night to deal with border guards. I should have known something was fishy when the steward refused to take my proffered passport on the Vienna-Warsaw run.

I was rudely, not to say crudely, dragged out of my sack no fewer than six times between 12:40 a.m. and 3:40 a.m.: by Austrian passport control, Czech passport and customs (twice each, entering and leaving their country) and Polish passport control. If they’ve set out to ruin the sleeping-car business between Vienna and Warsaw, they’ve found the formula, all right.

I’d come to Warsaw to see a highly-touted collection of 19th- and 20th-Century Polish paintings assembled by a tennis star and his wife at the National Museum. The couple are national heroes—deservedly so for their good eyes and zealous gatherings. The zlotys he picked up on the pro circuit have surely added to the nation’s patrimony.

But the curator apologized for not being able to give me a catalog of her show, and the “education director” (who, I noted, was first and foremost a world-class classical archaeologist!) could only supply me with a few black-and-white glossies. (No budgets for hip PR departments.)

So there’s extreme fiscal austerity in the cultural sector, but also an honesty and enthusiasm that may more than compensate. It’s a pity they don’t have more resources, because we need to learn about the art of Eastern Europe, about which most of us are terminally ignorant. Perhaps some EC multinationals will start circulating such national treasures internationally—like the modernist masterpieces of the Lodz Museum, recently on display in Lyons.

Everyone seems to agree that downtown Warsaw is a hundred times improved visually, but not all Poles are optimistic about these superficial improvements. For example, the dazzling thirtysomething who owns NATO—a surplus army store, kitty-korner from the gross Palace of Culture, that peddles the uniforms of all the retreating armies of Europe—kept warning me how dangerous the neighborhood (central downtown) had become.

Incidentally, the guy next to me at breakfast this morning is a Peace Corpsman from Atlanta who’s trying to set up a Chamber of Commerce in a small Polish town of 12,000—where the biggest business is the manufacture of those portable boutiques which have so improved the looks of the Central Business District.

The Marriott ($225 a night) is a maelstrom of Americans on the prowl for good business deals. One guy was showing a Japanese company how to manufacture the front glass for TV tubes with Corning equipment. On the other side of me at breakfast sat a Boeing test pilot training LOT crews to fly the 737. Everybody is after an honest zloty, including that knockout on the elevator who was a Hong Kong banker working out of Berlin.

And the cultural life is boogeying with Americanisms. Before hopping on that dreadful train to Vilnius, I stopped by the Akwarium (so called because everyone passing in the street ogles through its big plate glass windows at the jazz patrons eating) to see what they meant by their June Jazz Fest.

Partly, it meant a visit by the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, jazz great Joe Pass. Because the Russkis trapped me into five hours of folderolling for the transit visa, I wasn’t able to hop the 422 bus line, at one end of which is the fabulous Poster Museum in Wilanow and at the other the succulent Caricature Museum.

Next time—but not by train.

From Welcomat: After Dark, January 6, 1993

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Highs In New Castle: A Handful Of Bennies

Ben Franklin guru J. Leo Lemay had an inspired idea for closing his three-day international scholarly symposium celebrating the bicentennial of Ben’s death. After a moveable intellectual feast of two days at various Philly venues, he’d bus the 100-plus symposiasts down to his home turf, the University of Delaware in Newark, for a morning of scholarly papers and a fancy lunch.

Then he’d bus them over to sleepy little New Castle, several thousand contented folks sweetly vegetating 25 miles south of Philly on the Delaware River, have Governor Mike Castle greet them in the town’s vintage Court House and then, and then—ship the folks back to Philly aboard a sunset cruise.

Neat idea, no? Well, almost. Except nature nixed the notion—because the tide would be flowing back to sea, thereby turning a 90-minute cruise into a maddening four-hour slog. It gave a new twist to the term au courant. Still, this fluke of nature was about the only flaw in a tremendously instructive three days, an academic phenomenon as rare as a multi-faceted genius like Franklin.

Almost half of the attendees were Ben buffs, amateurs who followed the scholars around and listened attentively to their high-IQ emanations out of sheer love of the man. Consider my luncheon table: To my left was a 40-year-old male nurse and ethnicist from Glenside who confided in me later that he had hired Philly’s Ben-imitator, Ralph Archbold, to greet guests at his wedding reception.

Next to him was the 40-year-old director of the Illinois Tax Assistance League. I teased him that a Springfield, Illinois, man could be arrested for defecting from Abraham Lincoln worship. His rejoinder was that he had had it up to there with Abe-pushing, and that Ben had become a welcome relief.

Next to him was a half-retired professor of chemical engineering from the University of Florida who confided that he got hooked on the old charmer when he tried to get his sons to respond to Franklin’s autobiography with the same enthusiasm he had felt when he was their age. When they groused and sulked, he reread the book—and got seriously hooked, so much so that he has written a book on Ben’s love lives that Hastings House published a few years back.

Another 70ish amateur, the retired board chairman of Washington’s public TV station, was armed with a sheaf of photocopies of his piece in the Washington Post explaining Ben’s penchant for young ladies. He bristled a bit at the sexy title some hip copy editor had affixed: “Our Founding Flirt.” But I found his essay as perky as the headline.

One of the five international scholars contributing to the symposium, a Frenchman from Lyon’s Jean Moulin University, heads their American studies program. (Jean Moulin was the Resistance fighter who tangled with Klaus Barbie in Lyons.) Next to him was a 40ish exporter of General Electric products from Manhattan. What a bunch of buddies old Ben has accumulated.

The table conversation made me ashamed that I had a Ph.D. in American Civilization yet knew so much less than they did about one of the country’s seminal figures. They talked chapter and verse, footnoting blithely as they swapped their expertises over such arcane topics as the sad fact that Ben in London didn’t know that his wife had died until months later. One informant knew the name and sailing dates of the vessel bearing the bad news to Ben as he sailed blithely past it on his way back to America.

And they even stumped the scholars with deceptively simple posers at the symposium itself, such as, “Did anyone actually call Franklin ‘Ben?’ The professors’ collective response: “Huh?”

Wandering around New Castle, I locked onto the frequencies of some other Bennies. Like a deputy attorney general. A clothing salesman from Newport, Kentucky. A hardware salesman from Baltimore; he was a real revelation. His Ben shtick was collecting all the medals struck in Franklin’s honor—he has an astonishing 500-plus already.

He’s got a deposit down on the most expensive one he’s lusted after to date, the ceramic mold for an Augustus St. Glaudens medal that was never actually cast. It was vetted because the pose of Ben naked to the waist, decorated with laurel leaves (a la Horatio Greenough’s George Washington) was deemed “tasteless” in the 1890s. O tempora, o medals.

But the most interesting Bennie to me was one Knox T (“Call me ‘Bud’”) Long, an American history teacher from Moorpark College, north of L.A. This 54-year-old has turned the loss of detached retinas to the gain of a new career as the Ralph Archbold of the West Coast. What started out as an effort to inject some positive notes into the massive disillusionment of his post-Vietnam, post-Watergate classes has bloomed into a second career. In June, he’ll lay this trip on the First Amendment Conference in Dallas. A few more big engagements like that and he says he’ll risk leaving teaching for good.

Archbold gave Long great encouragement on his visit to Philly. Now into his Franklin gig for 17 years, Archbold displayed the magnanimity that most folks saw in our city’s spiritual godfather by inviting a dozen of the Bennie groupies to a free feed at the Dickens Inn, followed by the dessert of watching Archbold use his Franklin-era press to pump out printed souvenirs.

I asked Ralph if he wasn’t beginning to O.D. on old Ben, especially during this year of wall-to-wall Franklin. “Absolutely not,” was his genial reply. “I’m learning so much from these scholarly papers that I’m too busy trying to figure out how to fit the new material into my act to feel OD’d. This has been Ben Heaven for me.”

Mid Atlantic magazine was preparing a major feature on Archbold, and Ralph was proudly waving advance proofs at me as he sailed off into the sunset. Whoops. Make that got back onto the bus to Philly. Sorry, Professor Lemay. You can’t have everything perfect. That’s one thing Ben surely learned.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December, 1990

Monday, 1 October 2012

Sweat & Small Presses

Small presses are the sweat equity media of our Age of Bloat. So don’t moan about Rush Limbaugh and his righteous-leaning hordes of dittoheads. Don’t flail about TV news squalidly downsizing itself to supermarketable tabloids. Don’t cluck about the sentimental Oprahfication of our afternoons. To every stupid reaction there is an equal and potentially liberation action.

Life-enhancing mini-media springing up gloriously as anti-bodies to this massive mushification of the American psyche. Alternative weeklies. Syndicated radio series like those from Jim Hightower or Erwin Knoll. Fanzines for every conceivable itch to be scratched. And small presses—for poetry and prose.

Some even grow to be continentally overspreading O.K.’s like the Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, the serious hobby of Louis D. Rubin, an American literature professor who could create as well as critique. Sometimes they’re the offspring of activist poets like Robert Bly. Whatever they are, or from wherever they come, they are perennially green affirmations to the gloom that media doomsters are too ready to lay on us.

Take two contemporary writers who would be blooming to blush almost unseen were it not for the clarion calls of our small presses: that Canadian Maritimes Whitman, Alden Nowlan (1933-83), and the Ojibway guru, Jim Northrup (1943- ). The best way to start possessing Alden is to quote his “right to life” poem:

“It’s Good to Be Here”

I’m in trouble, she said
to him. That was the first
time in history that anyone
had ever spoken of me.

It was 1932 when she
was just fourteen years old
and men like him
worked all day for
one stinking dollar.

There’s quinine, she said.
That’s bullshit, he told her.

Then she cried and then
for a long time neither of them
said anything at all and then
their voices kept rising until
they were screaming at each other
and then there was another long silence and then
they began to talk very quietly and at last he said,
well, I guess we’ll just have to make the best of it.

While I lay curled up,
my heart beating,
in the darkness inside her.

From What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread, Nineties Press, Ally Press Center, 524 Orleans St., St. Paul, MN 55107, $10.

Nowlan’s muse stick for the most part to the hard-scrabble life he knew best, blue collar and bruised, but gradually expanding to include his experiences as a provincial journalist, finally a writer in residence at the University of New Brunswick in Frederickton, where, alas, he died at the height of his powers at age 50.

One reason adduced for the decline of poetry reading since the rise of Modernism has been the elusiveness of the allusions that the T.S. Eliots and Ezra Pounds brought to bear on the median imagination. No such excuse to bear on the median imagination. No such excuse to avoid Nowlan. Alden was a big and bulky man who favored “ugly” beasts like the Bull Moose for his muse. His paean to that animal concludes:

            How good it is to share
            the earth with such creatures
            and how unthinkable it would have been
            to have missed all this
            by not being born:
            a happy thought, that,
            for not being born is
            the only tragedy
            that we can imagine
            but need never fear.

What a delectable cheer for the curious dilemma of being alive. William Blake would have loved it.

Jim Northrup is an entirely different feast, although there are similarities of theme: dispirited people living short, brutish lives of violence and abuse. The Vietnam War looms large in Walking the Rez Road, (Voyageur Press, Inc., 123 N. Second St., Stillwater, MN 55082, $15.95. 1-800-888-9653.) The road to and from his reservation is marked by nightmares from that war, as in “walking point,” which begins:

            With his asshole puckered up tight
            the marine was walking point.
            He was hunting men
            who were hunting him.

Then ends:

            The shooting is over in five seconds
            the shakes are over in a half hour
            the memories are over never.

Nor, it seems, is our divided consciousness ever over it, with Ollie North running to great acclaim for Senate, and Tom Marr (WWDB-FM, Saturdays, 8-11 p.m.) repeating himself obsessively about Clinton’s “consorting with deserters in Norway,” marching with the Viet Cong flag in London, and staying at KGB-infested hotels in Moscow. In these United States of Amnesia, Northrup reminds his fellow Americans that the ambiguities of his people fighting their wars didn’t begin at Da Nang. “Ogichidag” (Ojibway for “warrior”) pursues that theme:


            I was born in war, WW Two.
            Listened as the old men told stories
            Of getting gassed in the trenches, WW One.
            Saw my uncles come back from
            Guadalcanal, North Africa,
            And the Battle of the Bulge
            Memorized the war stories
            My cousins told of Korea.
            Felt the fear in their voices.
            it was my turn,
            my brothers too.
            Joined the marines in time
            for the Cuban Missile Crisis.
            Heard the crack of rifles
            in the rice paddies south of Da Nang.
            Watched my friends die there
            then tasted the bitterness of
            the only war America ever lost.
            My son is now a warrior.
            Will I listen to his war stories
            or cry into his open grave?

But I don’t want to leave the impression there is only one arrow in his quiver. He is very shrewd in his comments on the dominant society:

            “brown and white peek”

            What’s it like living on the rez?
            I’m always asked.
            It’s living near a lot of relatives
            ready to help or gossip about our need for help.
            The word reservation is a misnomer
            reserved for who?
            The white man owns 80 percent of my rez, Fonjalack.
            Living there means finding something good in something grim.
            Glad for our chronic unemployment
            when the white guys get lung cancer
            from breathing asbestos at the mill.
            70 percent unemployment on the rez
            go down the road a few miles, it’s 5 percent.

            We have TV, that window to America
            we see you, you don’t see us.

Except when you plug into a small press circuit, and then have a red Virgil lead you through his circles of an American hell.

I didn’t understand why his tribe’s annual ritual of spearing fish (this really bugs the non-Indians) or harvesting wild rice were such big things. Reading his book clues me in: Such spiritual resources keep him from giving in to despair—or cynicism.

The last time I saw such a mechanism at work was in Lithuania, where cherishing their language and repertory of folk arts gave the people strength to endure 50 years of Soviet imperialism. And at a film festival at Fontenoy-sous-Bois, recently, I interviewed a Georgian film director whose feature pivoted around the felt particularities of national anthems and Tbilisi folklore. She saw those traits in the same way: armor against psychological invasion or entrapment.

Ultimately that’s why I’m suspicious of the “harmless” blandnesses of Disney culture. It subverts the particular, erodes the local. Small presses in particular, mini-media in general, support the life-insuring options. Small really is beautiful, bountiful. Keep those circuits open, and massive blah-blah falls of its own fatuities.

From Welcomat, June 15, 1994