Friday, March 30, 2012

Alice Fahs on how Kate Carew tricked Mark Twain into an interview

Guest blog post by Alice Fahs, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author of Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space

Kate Carew
To snare an interview with Mark Twain was already quite an achievement for an ambitious young newspaper woman at the turn of the century. But Kate Carew went one step farther: she interviewed the great author without his knowledge. How? First discovered by Ambrose Bierce in San Francisco, Carew (pen name for Mary Chambers) had already spent a decade developing a reputation as a witty caricaturist for the San Francisco Examiner, when, in 1900, she landed a job in New York working for Joseph Pulitzer's mighty New York World. She was one of the hundreds of women entering newspaper work at this time, with many of them creating fresh "human interest" features such as the new-fangled celebrity interview.


Assigned to do a profile of Twain that would feature her drawings, Carew joined the author—a "fresh, spotless little old man"—for breakfast at his hotel, the Hotel Earlington on Twenty-Seventh street. Unfortunately, however, her editor had failed to tell her one crucial fact: Twain was willing to be sketched but not to be interviewed. Under retainer to his publisher at the time, he was not free to give interviews without approval.

As they chatted, with Carew keeping her pencil and sketch book well out of sight under the table, Twain noticed her apparent "inertia" and asked with a "touch of fatherly reproof" whether she was getting what she wanted? "Only a few notes," she answered.

Carew recorded what happened next:

"Notes!" He half rose from his chair. "Notes!" There was a sudden drawing down of his shaggy eyebrows.

"An artist's notes, you know," I hastened to explain. "Just scratches on the paper—an eyebrow, a wrinkle, a coat collar."

He sank back, much relieved.

"Make all the notes—that kind of notes—you want to," he said. "So long as—you—don't interview me, I—don't care. I won't be interviewed. I don't—approve—of interviews; don't like them—on—principle."
As Carew wryly observed, "this was not a very good omen for further conversation."
Was the interview over? Hardly. Carew wrote about her difficulty in getting Twain to talk, so that her own struggles as an interviewer became a crucial part of her story. Twain had just returned to America after years in Europe. "If I could only get this most taciturn of humorists and philosophers to tell his impressions of America—not a whole budget of impressions, just one or two tiny ones that might escape his determination not to be interviewed!" she exclaimed. But Twain was a "master of the art of silence." "The skyscrapers? Not a word. The torn-up streets? Not a word. Rapid transit? Not a word. Politics? Not a word."

Twain did speak with waiters, however—and Carew secretly recorded these fleeting interactions as part of a portrait that still has a fresh and surprisingly in-the-moment feel.

Reading Carew's full interview, we can easily imagine the somewhat excruciating experience of eating breakfast with America's greatest—and at that moment most silent—humorist. "You can't imagine anything more solemn than the atmosphere he carries with him," Carew ruefully observed.

Yet Carew's October 21, 1900, interview overcame these obstacles to launch a career that over the next twenty years would come to include hundreds of interviews—with literary figures (Jack London, Bret Harte, W. B. Yeats, Emile Zola), theatrical and movie celebrities (Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, D. W. Griffith), artists and inventors (Picasso, Wilbur and Orville Wright ), sports heroes and politicians (Jack Johnson, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt—“De-lighted!” was apparently all he said)—all with sketches so distinctive they came to be called “carewcatures.” Quite an outcome from a breakfast interviewing a most stubborn and recalcitrant subject.

Illustrations from New York World, 1900. Used by permission from Christine Chambers

Also of interest:


Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library (7 books, plus a FREE volume)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Linking the deaths of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin: meaningful or misleading?

For some pundits and commentators, the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida has evoked memories of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi a half-century ago.

Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 shot to national attention when his mother dramatically decided that her son’s funeral should be open casket. Three days after he was taken by two men from his uncle’s home in the middle of the night, Till’s bloated naked body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, a seventy-pound cotton-gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He had been shot in the head, his nose broken and one eye gouged out. The local sheriff wanted to bury the decomposing body immediately, but Till’s mother insisted the corpse be shipped home to Chicago. To let “the world see what they did to my boy,” Mamie Till delayed burial four days so that some fifty thousand mourners could view the body. She also permitted Jet magazine to share photographs of the corpse with its millions of readers.

In a Jackson, Mississippi, dateline for The Cleveland Call and Post, Marty Richardson reported what occurred on the Tuesday following the funeral:
In what is perhaps the shortest time on record in this state in a case where the victim was a Negro, two white men were indicted on Tuesday for the lynch-slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till last Sunday. . . . The unprecedentedly swift indictments followed a wave of national outrage which reached a climax Sunday when funeral services were held for the boy in Chicago, his home. He had been in Mississippi visiting relatives.
The Till trial would not have happened but for acts of personal heroism, as Murray Kempton captured in The New York Post in recounting the testimony of one key witness:
Mose Wright, making a formation no white man in his county really believed he would dare to make, stood on his tiptoes to the full limit of his sixty-four years and his five feet three inches yesterday, pointed his black, workworn fingers straight at the huge and stormy head of J. W. Milam and swore that this was the man who dragged fourteen-year-old Emmett Louis Till out of his cottonfield cabin the night the boy was murdered. . . . If it had not been for him, we would not have had this trial.
In “Justice in Sumner,” his account of the trial for The Nation, Dan Wakefield wrote that many of the local residents wondered why everyone was making “a mountain out of a molehill;” they considered the trial a “threat to the racial traditions of the South, and storekeepers set out jars on their counters for contributions to aid the defense of the accused murderers.”

The weeklong trial ended when the all-white jury took one hour and seven minutes to decide that the two men charged with murdering Till were not guilty. Two subsequent grand juries failed to indict the men for kidnapping. Journalist William Bradford Huie later paid the two defendants between $3,600 and $4,000 for their account of the crime. Protected by double jeopardy, they confessed to the kidnapping and murder in a chilling account published in Look magazine in January 1956.

On her MSNBC talk show Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry recalled the murder of Emmett Till when she discussed the shooting of Trayvon Martin:
When we hear Trayvon Martin’s screams we are reminded that we have been here before . . . In the summer of 1955 the entire nation bore witness thanks to one devastated mother who offered up her personal and private grief for public and political scrutiny and launched a movement. Mamie Till Mobley allowed Jet magazine to publish the photos of the brutalized body of her son Emmett Till. He was tortured and killed by a group of Southern vigilantes for allegedly whistling at a white woman, which is no more a crime than walking home in the rain with a bag of candy. Her courageous choice sparked an activist response that would ultimately give life to the contemporary civil rights movement. I thought of her this week as I watched tens of thousands of hooded supporters rally around the parents of Trayvon Martin in Florida and in New York’s Union Square.
Earlier last week in the Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson cautioned about linking the two cases:
Some commentators have sought to liken Martin’s killing to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, an unspeakable crime that helped galvanize the civil rights movement. To make a facile comparison is a disservice to history—and to the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.

When Till was killed in Mississippi at 14—accused of flirting with a white woman—this was a different country. State-sanctioned terrorism and assassination were official policy throughout the South. Today, the laws and institutions that enforced Jim Crow repression have long since been dismantled. Mississippi, of all places, has more black elected officials than any other state. An African American family lives in the White House.

Black America was never a monolith, but over the past five decades it has become much more diverse — economically, socially, culturally. If you stood on a street corner and chose five black men at random, you might meet a doctor who lives in the high-priced suburbs, an immigrant from Ethiopia who drives a cab, a young aspiring filmmaker with flowing dreadlocks, an unemployed dropout trying to hustle his next meal and a midlevel government worker struggling to put his kids through college.

Those men would have nothing in common, really, except one thing: For each of them, walking down the wrong street at the wrong time could be a fatal mistake.
John Blake closes “Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till?” a report on the CNN website, by noting Rosa Parks’s response when she was asked why she didn't give up her seat on the bus in December 1955 when she was threatened with arrest if she refused. She said she thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t go back anymore. Will the death of Trayvon Martin inspire the same kind of resolve?

Also of interest:

Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 (includes articles about the Till murder by Marty Richardson, Murray Kempton, Dan Wakefield, and William Bradford Huie’s account of his interview with the two murderers)

Monday, March 19, 2012

How Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August influenced decision making during the Cuban Missile Crisis

Reviewing Barbara W. Tuchman: The Guns of August, The Proud Tower in the Times Literary Supplement recently, Robert Zaretsky noted that one of the ways to assess the aims and success of her 1962 Pulitzer prize–winning book is to consider “its influence on a man whose job it was to respond to present pressures: President Kennedy.”
Much has been made of the influence The Guns of August had on Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis—and for good reason. Kennedy himself made a point of referring repeatedly to the lessons of Tuchman’s book (which had been published just a few months before that fateful October). In the midst of the crisis, he told his brother Bobby: “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.” 
Given the passions of the moment, this was a nearly superhuman task. Would someone who had not read the book, or who had not studied history (as Kennedy had at Harvard), have been able to resist the advice of military men like Curtis LeMay, who wanted to evaporate the island with nuclear bombs?
In his memoir, Swords into Ploughshares, General Maxwell Taylor recalled how the book came up during his discussions with the president during the crisis:
An avid reader of history, Kennedy has been greatly impressed by Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which he often quoted as evidence that the generals are inclined to have a single solution in a crisis and thus tie the hands of the political leaders by leaving them with the choice between doing nothing and accepting an inflexible war plan. As he read Tuchman’s book, it was the rigidity of the mobilization plans both of the Triple Alliance and of the Triple Entente which made it impossible for the diplomats to avert a world war in 1914.
In his review Zaretsky cites the study Ronald Carpenter makes of the influence of Tuchman’s book on Kennedy’s decision making in Rhetoric in Martial Deliberations and Decision Making (2004), in which Carpenter writes:
Tuchman’s goal was to demonstrate how “miscalculations” by European leaders caused utter carnage. Her narrative was framed rhetorically by using August 1914 as a short span of time to signify synecdochically (by a part representing the whole) years of decision making. Moreover, long-term planning was communicated metonymically (by something tangible representing the intangible) by describing vividly the massive howitzers designed by Germany years earlier to be manufactured in time and transported over specially constructed railroad tracks to specific border locations to reduce Belgian forts at the onset of hostilities. To his brother Robert as well as his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, the president had explained how “miscalculation” in October 1962 was a greater danger than in August 1914, and thus when surviving ExCom members convened in 1987 with historians at the Hawk’s Cay Conference in Florida to reevaluate the decision-making process, Sorensen saw fit to restate the analogy between “howitzers and missiles” as a result of Kennedy’s reading of The Guns of August.
Zaretsky notes other correspondences between 1914 and 1962:
There are, to be sure, intriguing parallels between Tuchman’s discussion of the naval blockade successfully implemented by the risk-averse British Admiralty and Kennedy’s equally successful decision to impose a “quarantine” on Cuba. Is it possible that, in the pages of Tuchman’s narrative, Kennedy found a prescription for action? 
It is tempting to say he did. As Kennedy told his brother Bobby: “I wish we could send a copy of that book to every Navy officer on every ship right now, but they probably wouldn’t read it.” At the very least, Kennedy’s remark hints at the possibility that a certain kind of historical narrative—faithful to fact and expert at exposition—can serve as a guide for the perplexed. Mostly faithful and always expert, Tuchman told a story about August 1914 that not only made sense for the story unfolding in October 1962, but perhaps also changed the ending.
Sorensen reaffirms the view that the lessons of The Guns of August were much on President Kennedy’s mind when, in his biography of the president, he recalls Kennedy frequently referring to
the 1914 conversation between two German leaders on the origins and expansion of that war, a former chancellor asking “How did it all happen?” and his successor saying , “Ah, if only one knew.” “If this planet,” said President Kennedy, “is ever ravaged by nuclear war—if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe—I do not want one of these survivors to ask another, ‘How did it all happen?’ and to receive the incredible reply: ‘Ah, if only one knew.’”
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Barbara W. Tuchman: The Guns of August, The Proud Tower

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ellen Ullman on her “dark kinship” with Edgar Allan Poe

Asking Ellen Ullman to join our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, history, and essays led her to make some uncanny discoveries about the American author who has most influenced her just published second novel, By Blood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Edgar Poe was orphaned before he was three years old. He was taken into the household of a tobacco merchant, John Allan; and although Poe would take Allan as his middle name, he remained a ward, never formally adopted. Poe and his guardian could hardly have been more mismatched. Allan gave Poe a classical education but then withheld sufficient financial support, evidently expecting his foster son to become a man of commerce, to make his own way in the world. Poe, however, was Byronic in temperament, rebellious, determined to be a poet and a writer; a gambler who was wholly unsuited to the making of money.

I did not know much about Poe's biography until I began writing this blog post about the American writers who have influenced me. I thought it might be enough to say that my attraction to Poe could be explained by my love of Poe’s “dark tales,” which I read over and over as a child; by the seven times in one week I watched the movie The Pit and the Pendulum; the same for The Fall of the House of Usher. In high school, I was forced to memorize “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” and “The Raven.” My classmates groaned; I was happy for this coercion. It gave me lifelong memories of the kingdom by the sea; the bells’ horrid and relentless descent from silver twinkling to iron moaning; the devastation of the line in “The Raven”: “Darkness there and nothing more.” 
Poe’s life, however, may be the deeper explanation for his influence upon me, I can see now. I was born an illegitimate child. I was adopted as a baby into a loving family but one in which my mother and I were like corundum abrading each other. My father, a wonderful man, was dedicated to business. Meanwhile I spent hours locked in my bedroom with my “dark tales”; sat in a dim living room enjoying terrifying movies; lay on a sofa with my eyes closed, gladly suffering the exquisite torture of Beethoven’s late quartets. 
Unbelievable as it might seem, I was not conscious of Poe’s profound effect upon my latest novel, By Blood, until I was some way into its composition. The crows that play such an important role in the book, as the representation of the narrator’s “nervous condition,” were based upon actual crows. After the demolition of a bridge anchorage next to my apartment building, the surrounding bird neighborhood changed abruptly: The mourning doves and tiny wrens suddenly disappeared, and legions of crows took their places. To this day, they land on an electrical pole not a foot from my window, cawing, flapping their slick black wings, hunting with those pinpoint eyes, intelligent creatures watching me too closely.

The crows in By Blood are therefore “real.” And they are also Poe’s creatures: “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt.” And mine. The crows are my inheritance from Poe, passed on to me through what I might call our dark kinship.

Before beginning this piece, I took down my old Penguin paperback of Poe’s writings. The pages are browned; you can tell how old the book is by the price: $2.95. I read one of the few tales I had missed during the many years the book had sat on my shelf. In “The Man of the Crowd,” an unnamed narrator looks out the window of a cafe, noting the many types of people he distinguishes among the throng. Suddenly, he finds himself drawn to a strange man. He follows the man from district to district for a day and a night, trying to understand his attraction to this “incarnation of the fiend.”

I was so startled to see how closely Poe’s storyteller resembled the unnamed narrator of By Blood that I thought I must have already read “The Man of the Crowd.” Both watchers are alone, and hidden, stalking life at a distance, as Poe put it: like “a certain German book that ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen’—it does not permit itself to be read.” But I am sure that, before today, I had never read this Poe tale; that I must have inherited his “Man” as I had inherited his Raven, who came down to me as my narrator and my crows.
Laura Miller has called Ellen Ullman “a rarity, a computer programmer with a poet’s feeling for language.” Constance Hale concurred in her Wired review of Ullman’s 1997 memoir Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, “We see the seduction at the heart of programming: embedded in the hijinks and hieroglyphics are the esoteric mysteries of the human mind.” Computer programmers become characters in Ullman’s first novel The Bug (2003) which Geraldine Brooks found “by turns love story, tense psychological drama, and comedy of (very bad) manners. The Bug is an edgy and irresistible journey into lives all too rarely visited by literary types.” Her new novel By Blood departs the tech world: a psychological thriller set in San Francisco in the pre-tech 1970s. Writing about it in The New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal marveled at “How beautifully this book restores to us the uses, the sensuality of sound—our awareness of how much information we are passively gleaning and unconsciously filing away.” Ullman lives in San Francisco and frequently writes about technology for Harper’sSalon, and The New York Times Magazine.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (2 volumes)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Jennifer Gilmore on Grace Paley and her radical “power of reduction”

Jennifer Gilmore opens her most recent novel Something Red (2010) by quoting the Grace Paley short story “Faith in the Afternoon.” Today she joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with an appreciation of how reading Paley changed her writing.
I met Grace Paley only once, when, like a crazy person, I ran up to her at a rather large and very literary function. I wanted to touch her hem, only touch it. And tell her, as I have wanted to tell few others, that her writing had meant a great deal to me. 
I wish I could say she looked at me kindly, but, what with me trying to grab at her clothing, and the surely wild look in my eyes, I do think she backed away. “It’s okay!” I said. “I know your neighbor!” 
What? I have no idea why I approached her with such animal ferocity, or why I believed in that moment that my knowing her neighbor would assuage her fears, but I do know there was something physical I wished to take away from her. Subsequently, as I toured for my novel that employs a Paley quotation as an epigraph, writers often approached me on the subject of Grace. More than four—four!—women writers told me on separate occasions that they have the distinct honor of having been bestowed her glasses. 
There is much metaphor to be made in the coveting of a great writer’s spectacles, in relics of any kind, and if these stories are true and not part of the mythmaking writers so often subscribe to, what I find most interesting is that we all want in some way to feel touched by grace.

I came to Grace Paley’s work rather late, in graduate school when a fellow student, frustrated with re-reading a scene I’d revised several times to ill effect, handed me Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974). “She’s really good with dialogue,” he’d said. The subject matter of the stories certainly spoke to me—I was at work at that time on a book about Jewish immigrants on the East Coast. I ate that story collection in a single day, and then devoured her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), and then the last, Later the Same Day (1985). I stuck on certain lines:

Just when I needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.
So begins the story, “Faith in a Tree,” and I often thought about this sentence and others as I walked the snowy streets to class. 
Though it was the late nineties then, and here we are already into the early part of the twenty-first century, still nobody writes dialogue like Paley. The stories took root. I say this as a proud novelist, mind you, but the most excellent stories have a power of reduction, as in a French sauce, all the richer to taste. But there were only those three collections to swallow. 
While Paley’s life outside of her work—her protest against American militarism, her support of nuclear disarmament—are much documented, most recently in the documentary, Grace (2010), the work on the page is also political in its attention to race and class, always filtered through the lens of women’s lives. These stories, comprised of voices I recognized, are the same ones we overhear on our streets and in our kitchens. When Paley published her first collection in 1959, writing about women’s domestic concerns was a radical act. 
And is it not now? The concerns remain immediate, as do her formal considerations. In an interview in The Paris Review—a piece I assign to my students each semester—Paley responds to how she begins her stories. “A lot of them begin with a sentence—they all begin with language,” she says. “It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant. A story can begin with someone speaking.” Later she states, “… everybody says I have no plot, which gets me really mad. Plot is nothing; plot is simply time, a timeline. All our stories have timelines.”

While I wouldn’t call Paley hugely experimental in form, her attention to language, the way her prose acknowledges that a sound can begin a story, and likely end it, and that this sound can be the often-silenced sound of women talking to each other, seemed revolutionary and it was a relief to me as a writer to discover. 
Politics is in everything we do, and yet fiction that is overtly agenda driven does not interest me. Even if its “cause” is one I believe in wholeheartedly, if I can see the gears turning, a discernible agenda revealed behind parted curtains, I would rather read the paper. Politics in art is a subtle and nuanced affair. In her stories, Paley documents lives overlooked—women, immigrants—placing them smack in the center of her stories. That chorus of voices sounds like her, captured, and all these years later, still, it sounds like us.
Writing about her first novel, Golden Country (2006), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Adam Langer wrote “Sharp and funny, Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel roller-coasters through the first half of the twentieth century, showcasing not only her intelligence, her wit, and her intimate knowledge of Jewish culture but also an uncommon depth and humanity.” Gilmore’s second novel, Something Red (2010), was not only a New York Times Notable Book of the Year but a finalist for Salon’s Good Sex Award. “Sharp and contemplative,” were Susann Kokal’s words for it in The New York Times Book Review. “Gilmore has pulled off a remarkable feat: not of fusing the personal and the political but of showing why they’re so difficult to reconcile.” Gilmore currently teaches at Eugene Lang College at the New School for Liberal Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her third novel, The Mothers, will be published by Scribner in 2013.

Also of interest:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on the Battle of Hampton Roads: CSS Virginia vs USS Monitor, March 9, 1862

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

As Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones looked out across the waters of Hampton Roads on the morning of March 9, 1862, he could appreciate what his vessel, the ironclad CSS Virginia, had achieved the previous day. There was the shattered and mostly submerged hull of the USS Cumberland, which the Virginia had rammed in mid-afternoon as the opening act of its reign of terror on the Union squadron; nearby were the smoldering remains of another frigate, the USS Congress, which had been knocked apart by a systematic bombardment before exploding just after midnight. Now Jones was headed to finish up the job by attacking a third frigate, the USS Minnesota, which had run aground.

But Jones knew that the Minnesota would not be alone. The previous evening one of his pilots, peering across the water, saw a strange vessel illuminated by the burning hull of the Congress. Word spread that it might be none other than the long-rumored counterpart to the Virginia, the USS Monitor, designed by Swedish inventor John Ericsson and built at Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And so it was: if the Virginia had spent the afternoon of March 8 reducing wooden vessels to splinters, it would now confront a vessel that, in the eyes of one observer, looked like a “cheesebox on a raft,” that cheesebox being a turret that rotated to aim its two guns at its target.

For Lieutenant Jones, who had taken command of the Virginia when its original commander, Captain Franklin Buchanan, had been wounded by rifle fire, it was a welcome challenge. True, his ironclad, built in Norfolk’s Gosport Navy Yard upon what remained of the wooden hull and steam engines of an abandoned Union frigate, the USS Merrimack, found maneuvering difficult and time-consuming. However, he badly outgunned his foe fivefold, and Jones thought he would be able to reduce the Minnesota while fending off the Yankee monster. The two ironclads closed to a few dozen yards, with the Monitor proving far more nimble as it dodged around the Virginia while keeping up a steady rate of fire. At one point the Virginia ran ashore, leaving it an easy target; an effort by Jones to ram its foe proved ineffective.
Battle between the Virginia and the Monitor,
from an 1871 wood engraving
(A.S. Barnes & Co)

After three hours of inconclusive combat the Monitor pulled back into shallow water. Its commander, Lieutenant John L. Worden, had been blinded by fragments from one of the Virginia’s shells, and the crew sought to regroup before venturing forth again. At first the Virginia awaited a renewal of the clash; then, as the tide receded, it made its way back to the navy yard lest it find itself unable to make its way across the bar and return to safety. Upon inspecting the damage Jones saw that the Monitor had done good work on the iron plating of the Virginia; ironically, it had been the thick wood walls of the vessel that had saved the day in a few cases.

Much would be made of the so-called first clash of the ironclads as sounding the death knell for wooden ships. Eventually this would be the case: but these two vessels were not the first ironclad ships afloat. The British and French navies had already deployed ironclads, and ironclad vessels had been used by both Union and Confederate forces elsewhere. Nor would they fight again, although each sought to engage the other over the next two months. Moreover, their existence proved short-lived. The Confederates destroyed the Virginia upon abandoning Norfolk in May 1862; its presence may have provided more telling service in causing an already-cautious George B. McClellan to move deliberately in his campaign against Richmond along the peninsula north of the James River. During that time the Monitor patrolled Hampton Roads, calling forth the following description from Nathaniel Hawthorne: “It could not be called a vessel at all; it was a machine. . . . It was ugly, questionable, suspicious, evidently mischievous,” even “devilish.” In short, it was “the new war-fiend,” but it would not survive the year, sinking on New Year’s Eve in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Not everyone embraced the technological advances embodied in the iron ships. As Hawthorne put it:
How can an Admiral condescend to go to sea in an iron pot? . . . All the pomp and splendor of naval warfare are gone by. Henceforth, there must come up a race of engine-men and smoke-blackened cannoniers, who will hammer away at their enemies under the direction of a single pair of eyes; and even heroism—so deadly a gripe is science laying on our noble possibilities—will become a quality of very minor importance, when its possessor cannot break through the iron crust of his own armament and give the world a glimpse of it.
Yet in years to come, ironclad vessels would prove critical to the success of Union naval operations, both along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and on the Mississippi and other western rivers. In turn the Confederates would develop submarines in an effort to breach the blockade and underwater mines (called torpedoes) to protect their ports. The war on the water proved to be a testing ground for revolutions in naval warfare that lasted into the next century.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes Catesby ap Roger Jones’s account of the battle and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of the USS Monitor in “A Visit to Washington and Virginia: March 1862”)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Terrance McKnight and Franklin Bruno on music in the life of Langston Hughes

As part of last month’s celebration of Langston Hughes’s 110th birthday, WQXR-FM broadcast an hourlong radio documentary, I, Too, Sing America: Music in the Life of Langston Hughes, produced and narrated by Terrance McKnight. While best known as the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes once said that he believed that “words with music could reach more people than words on paper.” The program chronicles the wide variety of music that influenced Hughes and the even wider range of his musical collaborations, which included pop songs, Broadway showstoppers, gospel spirituals, opera arias, and jazz poetry with musical accompaniment.

Hughes’s obsession with music started early. In his semi-autobiographical novel Not Without Laughter Hughes offers a virtuoso riff on what ten-year-old Sandy witnesses when his babysitting aunt sneaks him into a Kansas dance club in 1912:
“Whaw! Whaw! Whaw!” mocked the cornet—but the steady tomtom of the drums was no longer laughter now, no longer even pleasant: the drum beats had become sharp with surly sound, like heavy waves that beat angrily on a granite rock. And under the dissolute spell of its own rhythm the music had got quite beyond itself. The four black men in Benbow’s wandering band were exploring depths to which mere sound had no business to go. Cruel, desolate, unadorned was their music now, like the body of a ravished woman on the sun-baked earth; violent and hard, like a giant standing over his bleeding mate in the blazing sun. The odors of bodies, the stings of flesh, and the utter emptiness of soul when all is done—these things the piano and the drums, the cornet and the twanging banjo insisted on hoarsely to a beat that made the dancers move, in that little hall, like pawns on a frenetic checker-board.
In his essay “When the Negro Was in Vogue,” looking back at his nineteen-year-old self, freshly arrived in New York City, Hughes describes his reaction to seeing the musical Shuffle Along (1921), with music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and a yet-to-be-discoverered Josephine Baker in the chorus:
Shuffle Along was a honey of a show. Swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. . . To see Shuffle Along was the main reason I wanted to go to Columbia. When I saw it, I was thrilled and delighted. From then on I was in the gallery of the Cort Theatre every time I got the chance. . . . I remember Shuffle Along best of all. It gave the proper push—a pre-Charleston kick—to the Negro vogue of the 20’s, that spread to books, African sculpture, music, and dancing.
In the radio program, McKendrick relates how Hughes yearned to bring black history and black folklore to the opera stage. When the Gershwins beat him to it with Porgy and Bess in 1935, Hughes’s responded with the poem “Note on Commercial Theatre”:
You’ve taken my blues and gone—
You sing ’em on Broadway
And you sing ’em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed ’em up with symphonies
And you fixed ’em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.
But later in the poem, he predicts:
. . . someday somebody’ll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Me myself!
Hughes’s breakthrough came in 1945 when Elmer Rice invited him to join in a collaboration with Kurt Weill on Street Scene. The result was what is still Hughes’s most frequently performed song “Lonely House.” In 1949 Hughes realized his dream when he collaborated with William Grant Still on Troubled Island, an opera about the Haitian revolution, for New York City Opera. The first opera composed by an African American to be produced by a major opera company, Troubled Island received twenty-two curtain calls on opening night but negative reviews caused it to shut down after only three performances and it has never been revived.

On the Poetry Foundation's website, Franklin Bruno offers an appreciation of the musical comedy Simply Heavenly, Hughes’s 1957 collaboration with Dave Martin, based on the long-running character Jesse B. Simple in Hughes weekly column for the Chicago newspaper The Defender. Comparing it favorably to the recent hit musical In the Heights, Bruno finds many of the numbers in the show “magnificent”:
They added escape, affirmation, lament, complaint, and a challenge to the reduction of rhythm to clock-time. The show’s best songs are distinctive, witty, and touching, combining Martin’s idiomatic sense of melody and phrasing with Hughes’s own predilection for “composed” urban blues over Southern “country” styles.”
Bruno cites the blues number “Broken Strings” sung by Brownie McGhee as “the score’s undiscovered gem” and McKnight’s program includes McGhee’s version. Despite a few short-lived revivals since, Simply Heavenly never became popular and Hughes abandoned musicals in favor of the tremendously successful genre of gospel plays he launched with Black Nativity in 1961.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set; includes Not Without Laughter); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes “When the Negro Was in Vogue”); The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion (includes one of Hughes’s Simple pieces, “Simple Prays a Prayer”)
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