Frederick Manfred at the Land of Memories Powwow 1982/photo by Media Mike
Serendipities. What a magical life I live. A few days after my son Michael sends me for my 85th birthday the University of Nebraska’s new edition of Fredrick Manfred’s “Lord Grizzly”, Dan Rottenberg’s illuminating take on our westering ancestors appears in the BSR. Except that Dan’s story commences with the start of the railroads, while Manfred’s drama in 1800.
What a difference those first decades made. For a start, the early starters were not yet after land, but beaver, as in pelts, not rhetorical sneered at human animals. Indeed, unlike their later followers, those later Brits picked and chose squaws as the unending Indian tribe squabbles made them available. You’ll remember their French counterparts were happy with their squaws from the beginning. It was Beaver that had also brought them West first. When that European market crashes, they too settled down for land.
My son happens to have made a film career of being the Muse of Minnesota “minor” writers, revealing them indeed to be essential to an understanding what Manfred named Siouxland. You might say his calling has been to reveal the significance of “his” writers for the history of his chosen region. He left Philly for Carleton and Macalester Colleges after graduation from Boys Central in 1969. (You can sample his regional achievements at the website of his Center for International Education. Start with his DVD on Manfred, also available on Amazon.)
A scene from American Grizzly, a documentary portrait of Manfred.
Manfred (1912-94) was born Frisian-American as Feikema. He first used the Manfred moniker in 1954 with the publication of “Lord Grizzly” which made the best seller lists for his first and only time (six weeks!) It also got this often sickly journalist out of debt for a while. To effect the name change, he polled the streets of Minneapolis and among friends. He discovered that Feikema translated to Freedman. He changed his name legally to Frederick Feikema Manfred, dropping the middle name (or initial) for all his books from then on.
The story of his hero Hugh Glass grew into a nineteenth century legend, the main details of which he found in the South Dakota volume of the WPA’s regional series to give local writers employment during the Depression. As Nebraska scholar John R.Milton explains in his excellent foreword for “King Grizzly”: ”The mountain men were not saints, but their sins were forgotten by the mythmakers, who soon expanded upon the stories of these American heroes that roamed the wilderness, conquered the Indians or made daring escapes from them, slew wild beasts or (like Hugh Glass) survived hand-to-claw fights with them, and in general led a life of peril.”
This was the stuff of legend, and the mountain man became the first western American hero, to be replaced later by the cowboy. Furthermore, the freedom of the trapper, unhampered by society, has come to symbolize the American freedom that is highly touted (although not always deservedly) as the major characteristic of a democratic nation.”(p xvii.)
His writer daughter Freya Manfred has made a beguiling “obit” letter back to Daddy that truly illuminates the novel. In addition to his newspapering, he wrote twenty-two novels, poetry and a collection of letters. Especially pertinent is his 1954 letter about “Lord Grizzly”: ”I tried to conceive /of myself/ as a sort of Homer doing an Odyssey of the American Civilization, a first book of a primitive time in a civilization.”(p.vi.) She remembers when she was nine “surprising him crawling across our backyard on two elbows and one knee, dragging the other leg behind him in a handmade travois he’d constructed out of tree saplings, grape vines and pieces of rope.”
He was simulating Glass’s almost fatal tussle, hand to paw, with a she bear defending two cubs.” A few days later he was tasting ants (“they’re tart, sweet and sour”) and grub worms (“somewhat sweet, like stale white sugar candy”) and canned rattle snake (“stringy”) and the “surprisingly moist” of the prickly pear cactus, “difficult to extract but “worth the trouble”.” And he vowed to her he’d catch a dish with a hook made from a bone and lasso a gopher with a rawhide noose. “Are you going to eat that gopher if you catch it?” she asked. ”I might,” he said. “I bet it’s a lot better than chicken. ” (p.vii.)
He almost did die of TB at 29 in 1941, parked in a sanitarium for two years. Thirteen did die then. His doctor counseled him against a writing career. But he persevered, just like “Lord Grizzly.” Throughout his long ordeal, he fumes away at the two young protégés whom he thinks had abandoned him to die alone. And he had overlooked their treasonal sleeping their last night together when they should have been watching for Indians. He prevails against all kinds of threats—animals, Indians, hostile environments. His triumph over such odds is intellectually thrilling. Oddly, the unreadability of the two page map of his adventures adds to his sense of triumph. “Lord Grizzly” is a once in a lifetime adventure.
Sam Smith: What a pity that Clinton abolished Glass-Steagall. And NAFTA allowed our business "leaders" to offshore their taxes and our middle class. And the justifiers today are "learned" academics. Reagan made it morning in American for greedy millionaires.
They sure hope so—to judge from their latest book, “Bauhaus Global: Collected Lectures of the Bauhaus Global Conference, September 21 to 26, 2009” (Mann Brothers Publishing,2010), 26 academic critics whistling the same happy tune. I went to the public conference that preceded this closed convention, where after a decade of Bauhaus research, I decided these intellectual paragons were whistling in their own darkness, to keep up their flagging spirits.
First of all, they were “celebrating” the 90th year of the Bauhaus’s founding. 90th? What’s the hurry. Because Bauhaus Weimar wanted another museum. They finally wangled the 30 million euros from the Thuringian parliament because MOMA New York impressed the locals by canonizing their ambitions with a global bonding of Weimar and New York by repeating the Weimar 90th exhibition in New York.
Great minds work deeply and silently! Noticeably absent from the Big Time speakers was Omar Akbar, the Afghani director of Bauhaus Dessau, whose last big conference in Berlin posed the tricky question: What have the first generation of Starchitects done to ameliorate the global housing crisis? The embarrassing answer is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! In spite of the good examples of Habitat for Humanity and the burgeoning idealism of Cameron Sinclair’s Architects for Humanity, whose must read bible is “Design as if You Gave a Damn”.
Let me put this architectural crisis (make that Circus) in the context of Casino Capitalism—of the brand that nearly destroyed the United States in 2008 with the Lehman collapse. Fifty years ago, I “financed” a Ph.D. with the G.I.Bill and three summers in an auto factory and a year as the janitor of the East Lansing State Bank. Today, my counterpart starts a career with incredibly high debt. Why? Because Casino Capitalism took over the universities with million dollar presidents (with stupidly swollen aides), $100,000 professors, and peon ABD’s without health insurance, an adequate wage, and a crack at tenure.
What happened? If bankers need regulation, boards of trustees need but don’t have either prudence or self discipline. And the ART industry has become a casino in which “classics” can be auctioned for millions (of the kind the crooked 1% has “stolen” from the underpaid 99%), and comedians like Damien Hirst can be palmed off as a genius. A similar corruption has inflicted architecture, which picked up steam at MOMA New York when insecure parvenu Philip C. Johnson peddled his insecurity in the “International Style” he and H. Russell Hitchcock characterized to MOMA in 1938. While an architecturally ignorant PCJ sucked up to his architectural teacher Walter Gropius at Harvard while writing scummy letters on how obsessed his dean was in providing well designed housing for the worker.)
It was that Gropian idealism that brought me to Weimar in 1998. Was I ever disillusioned, quickly. He complained bitterly to his mother that he couldn’t “draw”! Why be an architect? My hunch is it was aspiring to the father figure of his great-uncle Martin Gropius, the last best non-modern architect in Berlin. (It was at the Martin-Gropius-Bau that these lectures were delivered.) And he was a lousy architect, who had a secret partner, Adolf Meyer, to do the heavy lifting. Doesn’t it tell you something that the Bauhaus never had a course in architecture until 1928, the year he fled to New York, giving the course and the directorship to the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer, in short closing down the school!
And Gropius had no balls. His wife Alma chided him for not going to the dedication in the Weimar Cemetery of his Denkmal for the Victims of the Kapp Putsch, his last left-wing maneuver. And why did he quit so quickly? Opinions vary. His “creative” staff ignored his pleas to accept a 10% salary cut: he had complied with their gripe that they be plain old “Professors” and not the artsy fartsy “Masters” he dubbed for its medieval tang. And a new Dessau editor was harassing him for double dipping (Bauhaus salary plus Toerten Junker suburb consultancies). I would have taken his architect’s license away for “designing” the ugliest suburb I’ve ever seen—and I lived in Levittown, PA for three years. Come to think of it, I’ve never relished anything he designed, especially his losing entry in the Chicago Tribune 1924 competition.
But Philip Johnson is the real missing link here. He was gay, and believe me I have seen Cleveland gays suffer. So when he started sleuthing “modern” architecture for an exhibition after MOMA’s opening in 1929, he went GaGa over Gropius’s Dessau Bauhaus—all that glass and glitter. He phoned Alfred Barr,Jr, MOMA’s first director in Berlin and said he had just seen the best modern building yet! No so, groaned the professors and students, freezing in the winter, sweating in the summer. Heh, remember, it’s the ART that counts. Ya, Ya. Ya.
But he loved the leather jacketed boys in Berlin which was wide open sexually in the 1920’s. He got on with the New Nazi’s. When he returned to America, he was already a not so Nice Nazi, digging Father Coughlin’s “the Jew Deal” anti FDR slime. And supporting Huey Long until he was assassinated. You got to hand it to PCJ. Whenever he was chided by his fellow architects for his sneaky deals, he conceded he was the “whore” of American Architecture (his phrase), except he kept peddling his Arty ASSthetic until he died at 105. His corruption still poisons the intellectual atmosphere. Perhaps Barry Bergdall, the new Philip C. Johnson Curator of Architecture at MOMA, will purge the atmosphere.
The “Bauhaus Global” lectures won’t help much. There’s an inspiring chapter on how Kibbutzer Arieh Sharon after a summer in Dessau got good ideas moving in Palestine. And a fascinating take on how architecture students from Turkey exploited the secular agenda of Ataturk. And there are episodes in Shanghai, Kalkutta, and Moscow that revealed how widely if not deeply the Bauhauslers moved. And Black Mountain College and the New Bauhaus in Chicago are crisply covered.
But the Bauhaus and World War Two in the USSR flops in two ways . First it ignores what Hannes Meyers did in Moscow after he and his clique were expelled from Dessau. And it blows the case of Albert Kahn compeletely. You don’t mess with my hometown hero. He emigrated from Germany at 11 in 1880, the eldest of a Rabbi’s six children. Architecture School? He couldn’t even afford high school. Yet he was so gifted a designer that the greatest firm in Detroit sent him for a year to Europe to round him out. He became Henry Ford’s architect and remains the greatest factory architect in history. He spent 5 years in Russia designing almost 500 structures. He only went there because the depression killed his building Detroit.
He held an important meeting of architects at the University of Michigan in 1941 (where he designed most of the main buildings). There they all were: Saarinens, Eliel and Eero (Eliel was the director Cranbrook which actually did what the Bauhaus merely hoped to do), Mies and Gropius. They wanted into the defense industry money, but Kahn slapped the wrists of whom he called “the Glasshouse Boys”. He tried to explain that you start with the production process and build a shelter that expedites its processes, not start like Gropius did at the Fagus factory with a glamorous glass exterior (Remember Johnson’s goof at Dessau?). We used to joke on the factory floor that Albert won World War II single-handedly—with the Chrysler Tank Factory in Warren, Michigan and a Soviet tank from Novgorod. (He quit Russia because they got behind on payments.)
My final grumble comes from screening their index. Neither Marianne Brandt nor Wilhelm Wagenfeld—the two most creative designers whose stuff still sells today. And I always resent their ignorance of the greatest architect to come out of the Mies Bauhaus—in 1933: Bertrand Goldberg, the Chicago polymath. He was Mies’s Azubi in Berlin until he got antsy about being Jewish as the Nazis closed in. At our last visit in 1985 (he died in 1987) he talked sadly about how he tried to keep Gropius’s dream of good design for the working class—while most architects still shill Art and Money (shame on you PCJ!).
Until every favela disappears in the trash, I’m a Cameron Sinclair fan.
Western architects by the dozens are fleeing the West today to cash in on the biggest building boom in human history—all over the expanding China. My favorite architect, the German autodidact Albert Kahn (1869-1942), the greatest factory designer in industrial history, finished his greatest work, River Rouge for Henry Ford (1917-28), with 120,000 workers, only to face the Depression. No Contracts. No Matter. It happens to the best of architects.
Stalin called and Kahn set up an office in Moscow with twenty-five engineers to industrialize Russia for World War II. Between 1930 and 32, they built over 521 structures there. (Kahn quit when the Russkis were too slow at paying their bills.) Meanwhile the threat of war made him busy once more at home, designing The Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant(1941) and the Willow Run Bomber plant(1941). In 1949 at his Lincoln-Mercury factory, we World War II vets who had run out of G.I.Bill tuition were working summers for graduate school tuition. We joshed that our mighty Kahn had single-handedly won the war between the pinchers of both his American and Russian factories!
This new Chinese boom is no sinecure. Their national building habits are sloppy. I remember when I spent six weeks in Shanghai in 1982 studying Mandarin that my Connoisseur editor asked me to check out the new I.M.Pei Fragrant Hills Hotel, which was between its soft and hard openings outside Shanghai. Pei had just finished his glorious pyramidal entrance to the Louvre, where precise French craftsmanship made that complex structure possible. Alas, the Chinese workmanship was so foul that Pei, his wife and his daughter were on their knees for several days repairing the slovenliness.
Today it’s the gigantic size of the building boom that is the Chinese problem. New York architect Daniel Gillen(32) is showing New York Times reporter Brook Larmer through an unfinished building in a new instant city outside Harbin in northeastern China.(“Building Boom”,International Herald Tribune, March 17-18,2012, p.14, cols.2-5.)They were gazing at row after row of 20 story towers, almost all of the empty. “When I first came here two years ago, this area was just a bunch of fields covered with construction cranes.” Now those farmlands have been transformed into one of dozens of “insta-cities”throughout China. The consulting company McKinsey predicts they will build 50,000 skyscrapers in the next two decades.
Strangely, the foreign architects are reversing the globalization of American factories. MAD Architects Beijing was mostly Mainland Chinese before Gillen’s exodus in mid-2009. Now nearly half of his 50 colleagues are foreigners—from Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Netherlands,Spain and Thailand. And not all the assignments are drudgeries.
The building they were clambering on—the China Wood Sculpture Museum in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, is a brilliant fantasy of his boss Ma Yangsong,37,”a whimsically torquing tube 600 feet long, sheathed in stainless steel:” The building’s design evokes the natural world, say an iceberg or a stick of drift wood.
Half the old salary, but plenty of opportunities to excel.
And those foreigners are urged to be creative “in a top down system that favors political will over regulatory oversight and public debate”. Such an atmosphere leads to brilliant architecture like the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium of the Swiss pair, Herzog and de Meuron. Green building is encouraged as well. All of this is remarkable as 300 million rurals have become urbans in the last two decades.
Not all “creativity” gets by. Zaha Hadid, that Baghdad born Londoner, with a whimsical devotion to sinuous curves, had to tighten up when the image of a snake was perceived in her design by Chinese eyes—an animal considered bad luck in China. Stuttgarter Stephan Wurster, 38, had to make those tightening changes because their offices are next to a half finished monster south of Shendu called Ocean Park, a single roof covering 25 football fields with hotels, shopping malls, aquariums, amusement parks and a simulated white-sand beach!
Some believe too many out of work Westerners are elbowing too much into this febrile market. International firms are lowballing bids to gain access. Daan Roggeveen, a Dutch architect based in Shanghai who just co-authored a book on Chinese megacities, believes such dickering is killing western firms there.
Still our guide Gillens is keeping his eyes open: his MAD firm has under development the Harbin Cultural Island on the banks of the Songhua River. It will contain an opera house and a performing arts center. He recalls spending a year and a half designing such a complex for his New York firm—and it never got built. Three years into his planned one year Chinese sabbatical, he was asked how long he figured he’d remain orientalized. “How’s the New York real estate going?” he replied. It’s a world architecture after all!
As an American Studies specialist I’ve been mulling the American assumption that our ancestors were chosen by God to set an example to the undercivilized countries for over sixty years. Raised as a Catholic, I was also constantly taught that I was chosen especially! The current Afghan scandals have made me take this long last look.
I would begin by asserting that soldiers who cavort at Abu Grab the ways ours did are exceptionally uncivilized. Pissing on corpses and gunning down sleeping children and cutting fingers off corpses for souvenirs are diabolically evil. Equally amoral are the U.S. Army medicos in Fort Lewis and elsewhere refusing badly wounded soldiers federal pensions. How phoney our Fourth of July praises sound in light of this ugly reality.
We are used to easy rhetoric when our soldiers returned dead to repeat pious platitudes about their sacrifices. As a person who volunteered for the Navy on my seventeenth birthday, I consider myself reasonably patriotic. But I aspire to be rational as well. These are really evil soldiers who get off on what we have been seeing in Afghanistan( and Iraq and Vietnam and the Philippines and Hawaii and Red Indians).
Our military abuse of other cultures has been a landmark of our “civilization” since King Phillips War. When our Puritan Forebears weren’t “excommunicating” other Christian sects (the Sharia Law of the 18th century!) they were abolishing any Indians that got in their way (there weren’t highways yet!) Our first “common man” President, Andy Jackson, perfected this maneuver in the Vale of Tears from Florida to Oklahoma. Without “reservations” we’ve been shortchanging our real forebears, except for the lucky few who get casino licenses.
Not to forget the black slaves who had to wait for Lyndon Johnson to get the right to vote! And anti-blacks are devising ID ploys today for blocking those votes. Don’t forget Thomas Jefferson had a black mistress. And Foundering Father George Washington had slaves at Mount Vernon. So evasive were Southern gentlemen to abolishing slavery, that 600,000 soldiers lost their lives unnecessarily to “free” them. Until the Feds stopped pressure to enforce black freedom in exchange for Rutherford B. Hayes’ election in 1876. The states took over. And Jim Crow thrived until 1965!
Heh, until then our flag should have been white, red and black. And in 2012 the ID counterrevolution is trying to keep blacks and browns vote free! Nice examples we’ve been setting.
As an American Lit professor I was surprised to discover that Mark Twain and William Dean Howells raised hell when America started to expand its rule to Hawaii, the Philippines and Puerto Rico! (They tried in Cuba, but we flopped there.) In 1916 Woodrow Wilson (who loved our first pro-slavery moving picture—Virginian gentleman that he was!) promised to keep the U.S. out of World War I—until he decided to “keep the world safe for democracy” (which was his way of sending the Marines throughout Central America to safeguard American banana farms, et al.) And he had the duplicity to put pacifist Eugene V. Debs in Federal prison for ten years for opposing the war. (Of course it had nothing to do with his founding a railroad union and being a Socialist nominee for president.) Try your neighbors who know these contradictions in our undereducated fellow Americans.
The ID flap is not the only way to steal minority votes. It is an outrage that blacks and browns who sell dope on the street go to jail, but the white sloburbans who take the same dope back to their college rooms go scot free. That is major reason for Americans leading the world in incarceration.
Now I don’t believe all of our legislators made those laws to entrap minorities, but many do. You may have missed the fact that more and more correctional corporations are trying to privatize incarceration- It’s a steady business and getting bigger and better. Do you remember the recent scandal in Pennsylvania when several judges were arrested for supplying more and more young defendants to these privatizing jails?
Somehow we miss crucial details in our infantilized media system: CIA and FBI did not share information they had separately gathered that many Islamic citizens were learning how to fly large airplanes. Those “students” ended up 9/11 committing their suicides in lower Manhattan. Yet a fascist sounding TSA is examining old ladies with breast protection. The hypocrisy of politicians like Dick Cheney who prate rhetoric about teaching the world democracy when they really want to keep an oil resource and/or make easy money for their former corporations which are mercernaryizing our armed forces.
In short, Americans have been exceptionally busy confusing themselves about who is chosen for what and why. Americans have been exceptionally hypocritical about Exceptionalism. Me thinks they protest exceptionally uncritically. Let’s join the human race and stop pretending we’re so great. WE AIN’T.
But it would be a tribute to our high ideals if we actually practiced what we’ve been preaching to others who have seen through our contradictory behavior.
One of the most serendipitous paradoxes of galloping senility is the sudden, inexplicable hunger to wonder whatever happened to a Somebody who you gave you unearned or at least underdeserved rungs up the Ladder of Life. One such recent quest: Whatever happened to Bill Siemering?
There I was, the new English Chair at Beaver College (1961) surrounded by hyper-traditionalist women English professors boiling at the insult of their having been ignored for a well-deserved promotion by a mere media nut. It began with WFIL-TV’s Tom Jones (whose tele-career was Sports and More Sports to the Beat of American Bandstand! (Except that Tom had a secret passion for T.S. Eliot and his ilk.) Conversations I had presumed would take place at the Penn Faculty Club unreeled at quick WFIL lunches.
It so happened that my two University of the Air TV series he approved and promoted. It happened that the same crew also did American Bandstand. They used to mock tease me for my mini-Nielsens. I joined the joke by urging them to give me a few South Philly fillies and my ratings would soar. Tom giggled hugely, as only an overweight comic ca, and urged me to learn how to shoot and edit cultural essays for John Roberts weekend News. It was the first step towards my dream of becoming a TV documentarian. Suddenly Tom disappeared and I’ve never found out where he went, or why!
Not so with Bill Siemering. It was the seventies Golden Age of WHYY-TV, in their new Liberty Plaza HQ around the corner from the Afro-American Museum. Terri Gross was taking over nationally with “Fresh Air”, which turned out to be the best egghead radio ever deployed since Norman Corwin. When I shyly offered to do a Travel Talk weekly, he said GO! When I shyly offered to do oral Op Eds, he said DO IT! And got to do live interviews with the likes of Robert Penn Warren from Vanderbilt,on the 50th anniversary of “I’ll Take My Stand”, the bible of Southern literary conservatism.
Where did this mild looking, yet tougher than iron, guy get his cojones? Madison, Wisconsin, a Bob La Follette liberal at heart. His preference for radio began at WHA-Madison. He liked to recall: “My previous summer jobs had included bailing hay and harvesting grain, working in a hotel laundry and sometimes cleaning the lavatories. WHA seemed like an improvement: it was air-conditioned and the job required no heavy lifting.” (Wikipedia.)
He polished his blue collar manners teaching high school speech in Madison. He practiced his working class gospel while managing WBFO-FM at the State University of New York at Buffalo: setting up the first storefront broadcast facility in the African American community in the 1960s when it took more than enthusiasm to innovate that way: the locals produced 25 hours a week indigenous programs. (It’s where he first came across Gross, one of the great combos of early NPR. They both then moved to WHYY-FM, Philly, where together they made media history.
In 1982, when I quit teaching to go global as an alternate journalist, I lost track of Bill. He had gone national as NPR’s programming chief. Perennials like “All Things Considered” attest to his egalitarian imagination. Gone Global? He was, I discovered, now the president of Developing, an organization dedicated to supporting independent radio stations in young democracies through professional development in journalism, programming, station management, and finance. Never was a MacArthur Genius award more productive of humanistic results.
He used his Mac bucks to assist community radio stations in South Africa townships. From 1996-97 he served as president of the Washington, D.C. based International Center for Journalists, More recently he served for five years as a senior radio adviser for the Open Society Institute (OSI) which funds civil society initiatives in more than 50 countries and is among the world’s largest foundations. OSI service took him to Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Moldova. He has spent most of his time in South Africa and Mongolia.
He wasn’t always getting grants and glowing in public praise. In his late 50’s and unemployed, he groaned: "You’ve spent over thirty years practicing the art and craft of your profession and now you have dust. It’s as if a pianist loses the use of his hands.” In a recent “Manifesto” he summed his career up: “While we can always be better, we should never lose sight that public radio is an essential part of the lives of millions of listeners. I know of no other programming that generates such strong feelings. You hear it all the time. Think for a moment what your life would be like without public radio. Amazing, isn’t it? This connection between producers and listeners is unique. Let’s dance with our listeners.” Hear here.
P.S. The last address for Bill is back in Philadelphia! “Hey, Bill. Don’t desert the globe now. They need you more than ever. Listen to what your former colleague in Minnesota public radio, Dennis Hamilton, says about you: "We are the produce of seeds of thinking and action planted by Mr. Siemering. We are disciples who extend his ideas. We cherish knowing him because he gives our lives focus and brings meaning to our work. Tune around the radio dial and I guarantee you will hear Bill Siemering in action.” That's humanism at work! Thanks for the example, Bill.
Living five minutes by foot from the Anna Amalia Library, one of the world’s greatest, founded in 1696 by the eponymous Countess who became Goethe’s patroness, is a great blessing. (Serendipitous discoveries on its weekly New Books rack almost compensates for its dearth of English language titles.) The latest such bibliographic boon is the 12 year labor of love by Fernando Baez, director of Venezuela’s National Library, “A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq” (New York: Atlas & Co.,2008, Translated by Andrew MacAdam.)
Not the least of its assets is a 35 page bibliography of almost 600 titles, getting into the particulars of library history, such as the transitions from cuneiformed clay tablets to papyrus and vellum. And most amazing of all is the ancients’ miserable batting average in passing on the complete works of major authors!
Aristotle, for example, “What we have today of Aristotle are merely class notes gathered together and preserved by bibliophiles or disciples. His first dialogues, miscellaneous writings, letters and poems have all disappeared.” (Baez, p.57.) How precarious the library was as a social institution before printing gave it a survival edge is amazing to this book lover!
More to the point is the map on page 282 entitled “Ten Worst Moments in the History of Books”:
1.Library of Alexandria, 48 BCE
2.Qin Shi Huang, Destruction of Scrolls, China,213 BCE
3.Mongol Destruction Baghdad Libraries, 1258
4.Cordoba, Spain 980
5.Savanarola’s Auto-Da-Fe, Florence, Italy,1498
6.Burned Mayan Writings, Mexico,1562
7.Burning of the Library of Congress, Washington,D.C. 1814
8.Nazi Bibliocaust, May 10, 1933
9.Destruction of Nation Library, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Sarajevo, 1992
10.Libraries Burned in Iraq, 2003
Let’s look at the last first. Basically it was because no plans were laid for protecting Iraq after the crash victory that there was such mayhem. Baez notes sadly that he arrived to participate in a professional review of damages, that exactly 70 years before the Nazi Bibliocast had occurred in Berlin. As the Shock and Awe campaign reached its apex, Baez notes that at the well protected Ministry of Petroleum, not so much as a pencil was stolen. The conquering Army’s values were evident: Oil mattered, Culture not.
“On April 10, a crowd gathered in the unprotected library. First they were cautious and swift, then brazen. Women and children, young and old, took away everything they could.The first group of looters knew where the most important manuscripts were and grabbed them up. Others, hungry and resentful of the old regime, came later and brought on disaster. They took the photocopy machines, the paper, computers, printers and all the furniture.”Baez, p. 269. The vandals returned a week later with the white phosphorous they had stolen from the passive soldiers and set fire to the stacks. (Water cannot quench white phosphorous!) Donald Rumsfeld illiterate reaction:”Stuff happens!” He “reasoned” that “Freedom’s untidy, and free people agree to make mistakes and commit crimes, and do bad things.” So, clearly, are Secretaries of “Defense”.
The only other American participation in the Bibliocaust happened during the War of 1812.
The British burning of the White House, the Treasury, the Capitol and the Library of Congress was a reaction to President James Madison sending American troops into Toronto where they burned the Parliament and its legislative library. The new Library of Congress(1812) was torched in 1814.At least 2,000 books were burned. Jefferson, always near to his last dollar, recommended that the L of C buy his collection of 6,487 volumes—eventually in 1815 for $23, 950, a maneuver that Baez snootily describes as “an act of cynical philanthropy”. In the interim the L of C has grown to one of the most renowned on the planet: 29 million books in 470 languages, 56 million manuscripts,500,000 microfilm documents 4.8 million maps, and 2.7 million recordings! (Including my Folkways recording of the NAEB’s “Ways of Mankind”radio documentaries-“A Word in Your Ear: a Study in Language” and “I Know What I Like: A Study in Art”). Folkways chief Moe Asch wanted to make the entire series accessible on Folkways, but he passed on too soon.
Every quarter I get a sales report from the Smithsonian. Last month they told me I sold $5.70 worth of I-phone pickups!. Next quarter I hope to cash in my first $25.00, the minimum! I’m going to tell them to send it to the Iraqi National Library, a token recompense for Rumsfeld’s barbarism.
Meanwhile, read Baez’s history of how hard it’s been getting that most civilized of institutions up and running. There’s even a photo from the disastrous Anna Amalia fire (an electric circuit malfunctioned) of 2004, in which Director Michael Knoche became a national hero for going into the flames and saving Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible. My wife was one of the 500 souls who formed emergency lines of retrieval. (I was off in Finland confirming my faith in Alvar Aalto.)
I went to my first library as a five year old first grader in Bay City, Michigan. I’ve been hooked ever since!
Stu Bykofsky: Your latest blast at Mumia is you at your rabble rousing worst. Why don't you write rationally about the disgraceful way our UnJustice System mainly jails the poor and colored but lets most whites go free.
Were you ashamed to be an American when Texas governor Bush smirked on TV when a born again Christian woman asked for mercy, as the "compassionate conservative" went on making a new record as executioner?
Congratulations to Richard Meier for his Hafen City.
When I chided him at the opening of the Gehry in L.A, about the Folk Museum/Frankfurt’s refusal to accept his design because of their dissatisfaction with the Applied Art Museum (it was not “original” as touted but a sorry repeat of the High Museum, Atlanta, crowded ramps and all), he stomped off sullenly.
Good architects learn from their mistakes, if clients refuse to be hoaxed.
In my plea for globalizing the study of American Literature, I cited the recent novel, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” by the Ethiopian Dinaw Mengestu (born 1978) which dealt with the intermingling of Africans and Americans in Washington, D.C. I’m equally eager to recommend the Egyptian dentist/novelist, (born 1957) Alaa Al Aswany’s “Chicago” (London, Fourth Estate, 2008), a lively fiction about how Americans and Egyptians mingled scholastically in Chicago after World War II at the dental school of the University of Illinois/Chicago.
It was an early look at what has recently emerged as “the Arab Spring”. It begins beguilingly with a short history of what became the Second City in America. We learn that the indigenous natives lived for centuries on the shores of Lake Michigan, growing onions and herding cattle. Until 1673 , when a French traveler and mapmaker Louis Joliet, accompanied by a Jesuit named Jacques Marquette ,“discovered” what would come in 1837 to be known as Chicago ( the city’s name is a native allusion to the distinct smell of those onions).
“During the hundred ensuing years they conducted all day long,” Aswany notes,” the white colonists waged horrific genocidal wars, in the course of which anywhere from five to twelve million Native Americans perished throughout North America. Anyone reading American history must pause at this paradox: the white colonists who killed millions of Indians and stole their land and other possessions were, at the same time, extremely religious Christians. But this paradox is resolved once we learn about the prevalent views in that era. Many white colonists believed that “American Indians” even though they were, somehow, God’s creatures, were not created in the spirit of Christ but rather in another imperfect and evil spirit. Others confidently asserted that they were like animals, creatures without a soul or conscience, hence they did not have the same value as white men.
Thanks to those convenient theories, the colonists were able to kill as many Native Americans as they liked without any shadow of regret or feelings of guilt. No matter how horrific were the massacres they conducted all day long, it did not detract from the purity of their bedtime prayers every evening. The genocidal wars ended with a crushing victory for our founding fathers.”(pp.1-2.) It kind of puts a different twist on 9/11, doesn’t it?
The narrative involves all the variants of the Egyptians studying dentistry in Chicago. Pure Islamists, contentious Copts, emerging seculars, aspiring “Americans”—trying to cope with the complexities of their schooling as well as the complications of conflicting religious commitments.
It’s no day at their beach. And unless your memory is much better than mine, jot down the names of the main characters and their evident moral commitments. (Remember how hard it was for the native Chicagoans to follow what was going on in the often befuddled heads of very diverse Egyptians) .It may be your first vicarious introduction to the complexities of globalization.
After Aswany describes the Chicago fire, he cleared the deck for the creation of the great metropolis, the complicated interactions between the visitors and the locals ensue, culminating with a visit of the President of Egypt, with all the secret finagling involved in such a dangerous transaction. Interestingly enough, Aswany’s lawyer father was arrested for involvement in a 1952 politically motivated fire in Cairo. This prehistory of “our” Arab Spring is utterly fascinating as we see these doctors to be (Egypt eventually had 180,000!)try to dispel Murbarak in spirit first and ultimately in reality.
By the way, a 21st century doctorate in International English must have a prelim in a modern language. Imagine how productive a scholar would become for US readers if he knew Mandarin or Arabic or whatever contemporary is under-translated! Backward looking humanism demanded that everyone mastered Latin and Greek. Present-oriented demanded “civilized”French and German.
A future-oriented globalized humanist would have a prelim in a science and a useful contemporary language, useful that is to make its literary achievements accessible to US and our students. (The science prelim is necessary to make us more intellectually humble, able finally to overcome our false secular theology of the Great Books Syndrome: a “great” book is anyone that makes us develop our Reason as fast and broadly as possible. No book is A Bible, even when intellectual lazyness prompts us to “think” so.)
Paul Hendrickson: Reading about your new Hem book, I noticed the Detroit youth. I graduated from U of Detroit (1949) with a long forgotten pal, Bill Hendrickson. Are you related?
I got a Carnegie Post Doc Fellowship in 1957 to create a new AmCiv course on Mass Culture at Penn and became my mentor Gilbert Seldes gofer at the new Annenberg School. Did departments ever file course descriptions? I'd enjoy seeing what I wrote on Mass Culture as I relish my senility in Weimar, Germany, writing an autobio,"Dumb Irish Luck: A Serendipitous Memoir". I write for the Philly U of the Arts website.
You might enjoy my recent piece there on "My life in Luceland." Look forward to reading your Hem, who killed himself the week I took over as the first director of the Institute of American Studies at the EastWest Center in Honolulu. It paralyzed me for a week. PH (Your "phendric" signature puzzled me for a while, assuming it was some obscure psychic shtick!)
For years my favorite German cousin, Dr.(Medical) Elisabeth Hintzsche has been bugging me to help her support the scientific society she founded in Halle (Saale) for one Georg Wilhelm Stöller (1709-1746), a botanist involved in the second Russian exploration of the Kamchatka Peninsula,1737-44.)So when she gave me for my 85th birthday the latest book on him, Ann Arnold’s “Sea Cows, Shamans, and Scurvy: Alaska’s First Naturalist” (Farrar,Straus,Giroux, 2008), my interest perked up.(If it was good enough for FSG, it couldn’t be that bad.) So I sat me down to speed read to expedite a thank you note. Boy was I surprised!
To begin with, the explorations were generated by Peter the Great’s compulsion to make Russia a great European power. Before taking over the Empire, he had scoured all over Europe to find intellectual and cultural models to emulate. The second Kamchatka probe was led by no less a leader than Vitus Jonassen Bering, the Danish sea captain who would later be immortalized by the Straits between Kamchatka and Alaska.
The program was directed from the new capital of St.Petersburg (which the emperor had moved from Moscow to expedite both battles and expeditions through the river Neva and the Baltic Sea). Power was shared by the Military and the Academic, with maneuvering for power within and without so mean and unending that it would take a saint’s character to survive, let alone be an effective soldier or scientist. Twice Stöller was falsely convicted, to endure ultimate justice only when faraway St. Petersburg intervened! To give you an idea of how primitive the justice system was, officers captain and higher in rank could not be punished physically, and the lower orders connived endlessly to make the safe grade—or not lose it!
The first problem was survival supplies. Thousands of kilometers by land and by seas in all seasons threatened life with death daily. Scurvy was a constant threat. The rougher the winter weather, the longer a ship was without fresh vegetables with Vitamin C. Stöller was always alert to indigenous meats and plants that could control the disease. Indeed, in addition to his botanical training he had the makings of a cultural anthropologist forever uncovering survival tactics from the locals.
And there were islands completely bereft of trees so that what wood still extant had to be discovered buried under many feet of snow. When their ships were wrecked they had to dig into blue fox burrows and use them for protection from the snow. Most of his “science” time would be stolen by sheer survival tactics in the worst weathers: map making, plant collection (whose survival uses had to be extracted from the natives and their shaman),and animals captured for their meat and their furs, and their oils—for cooking.
He sailed for America in July 1741 with a crew of 78 (after 9 months of mapping the Kamchatka Peninsula). On 15 July he sights the Alaska shore and on 20 July they land on an offshore island. The next day the start to return to Kamchatka. On 29 August they reach an island group where an officer dies of scurvy. Stöller collects antiscorbutic herbs. It’s the first European contact with native Alaskans. On 6 November, the St.Peter shipwrecks on an island. (They build a smaller ship out of what is still seaworthy!)
On 8 December, Captain Bering dies. After thirty-two men die, the rest recover on “Bering” Island (where he’s buried!) by eating fresh sea mammal meat and herbs Dr. Stöller recommends. In 1743-44 he explores more Kamchatka. On 12 November he dies of fever on his way back to St.Petersburg. His invaluable notebooks and specimens are lost in the shuffle.
Until Dr.Wieland Hintzsche (Liz’s husband) discovers them in 1990 in the St.Petersburg’s Academy of Sciences Archives. (He has been busy ever since publishing them in a German edition.) “Stöller’s History of Kamchatka” wasn’t published until 1793. Careful readers will have noticed the missing Steller spelling. (There is no “ö” in the Cyrillic alphabet.)
To make it short Ms. Arnold’s book is a fascinating intellectual adventure, during which you see Russia Europeanize itself. Beginning with simple collecting of curios and customs, unknown plants and animals, the “museum” of organized memories enriches the curious. Unsung intellectual heroes is what Stöller and his colleagues are. Thanks, Liz. It was a kick observing reason at work so steadfastly.