Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Douglas Brinkley on Walter Cronkite’s “most memorable reporting assignment”

Guest blog post by Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, editor of Jack Kerouac: Road Novels 1957–1960, and author of the new book Cronkite

If I were to choose the turning point in Walter Cronkite’s career, it was when a ghastly tragedy occurred in the Heart of Texas and he ambulance-chased to the scene. Two months after starting at United Press, Cronkite was assigned to work at the Dallas bureau for a brief spell, on loan from the Kansas City desk. On March 18, 1937, at 3:05 PM on a beautiful spring day, Cronkite was at his Dallas desk when there was a natural gas explosion at a consolidated public school in New London, Texas, causing 295 deaths, a majority of them children. A gas leak at the two-story school, a steel-formed building only a couple of years old, had caused a bomblike detonation that blew the edifice to kingdom come. Balls of rolling gas shot into the Texas sky like a fiery orange tornado and caused the ground to shake for miles around.

Located in the northwest corner of Rusk County, New London was surrounded by ten thousand oil derricks; eleven had been fatally erected on school grounds. Governor James Allred called up the Texas Rangers, the Texas Highway Patrol, and the Texas National Guard to pull out bruised and battered survivors. The New London boom’s echo, it was said, had been heard a hundred miles away, in the stockyards of Fort Worth. Some students miraculously walked out of the rubble unscathed, dazed and confused but spared serious injuries.

Cronkite received a dispatch from the Houston UP bureau confirming the explosion, and off he raced in his Dodge to New London with Bill Baldwin, the manager of the UP bureau in Dallas. Just how horrific the tragedy was became vividly apparent when he saw a line of cars, ambulances, and trucks parked at the funeral home in Tyler, all unloading corpses. Makeshift morgues had been erected in Henderson, Kilgore, and Overton to accommodate the dead. Cronkite flashed a United Press badge for access to the disaster zone. He hitched a ride on a fire department searchlight vehicle that had just arrived from Beaumont to help out in the impending nighttime rescue efforts. Cronkite searched for eyewitnesses who saw the school’s roof blow off. “It is not easy,” Cronkite quickly learned, “to approach someone in such distress to seek answers to the questions that need asking.”

Nothing in his University of Texas journalism classes or the Missouri Method had prepared Cronkite for this story. Oil roughnecks had rushed to New London from the Permian Basin to look for lost children, to collect the charred and crushed bodies of the young. Cronkite’s harrowing eyewitness UP dispatches offered emotional images of what the reporter saw—and yet kept the reporter out of the articles. His eye for ironic detail—such as a surviving school wall with a blackboard on which someone had written, “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings”—was superb. One of his UP reports read, in part, as follows:
OVERTON, TEX., MAR. 19 [1937]—(UP) 
Take oil from this town and nothing would be left. The last census showed its population to be a little more than 500 yet 3,000 persons receive their mail at the general post office. 
It is the capital of the East Texas oil field, the richest in the world, whose forest of derricks stretch [sic] 90 miles across the Texas hills on a line one to 15 miles wide. 
Week days, its few streets are dotted by the toughest migratory workers in the world—the men who go from field to field where oil is gushing, who work hard and dangerously and live hard and gaily.

Saturday night, dressed in their silk shirts and pleated trousers, a week’s pay in their pockets, the men come in for what diversions the town affords. They are strong men and hard men.

Today they were in town on another mission and beneath the flamboyant shirts, knotted shoulder muscles bent beneath unseen weights. Faces were heavy-jawed and screwed tensely. They stood about in small knots, looking not into passing faces but toward their feet. They gathered at the curbs. From a distance they seemed to be chatting. But closer, the passerby heard men weep, heard rasp-like voices oddly strained in unaccustomed efforts to be tender.
Decades later, even after he was credited with helping end the Vietnam War, Cronkite called the New London tragedy his most memorable reporting assignment. Sleeping at the Overton Hotel, calling CBS Radio News in New York from a pay phone to offer a nationwide listening audience a detailed eyewitness report, twenty-year-old Cronkite earned his spurs that sad March week.

Also of interest:
  • Learn more about the New London School Explosion at the museum’s website
  • Read an interview with Douglas Brinkley about Cronkite on the Bookish blog
  • Read LOA’s exclusive interview with Douglas Brinkley about Jack Kerouac
  • Eyewitnesses recall the 1937 New London School Explosion


Related LOA works: Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959–1969 (includes a transcript of Cronkite’s February 1968 telecast “We Are Mired in Stalemate”)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mark Statman on how Kenneth Koch continues to teach

Mark Statman, who published his first collection of poems, Tourist at a Miracle, in 2010, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with a memoir of friend, mentor, and father-in-law Kenneth Koch.
Kenneth’s Death
he’s dead and
I still don’t believe:
years later
I’m walking someplace
and I’ll think
this is something
I’ll tell him
when he gets back
when he gets back 
as though where Kenneth’s gone
is simply too far away
to telephone or
send a postcard
which is why we haven’t heard
for so long
from a man who couldn’t stand
not to be in touch 
when he gets back
we’ll be up
half the night
a good bottle of wine
recommended by Sharon
at the liquor store
maybe even one of those
Cuban cigars he’d
stopped smoking
we’ll be up half the night
and Kenneth won’t
get in
a word


from Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose Press, 2010). Used with permission.
I first met Kenneth before I met Kenneth. That is, I was a sophomore at Columbia and the mystery surrounding Kenneth’s by then legendary Imaginative Writing class was palpable. Twelve students allowed based on a portfolio submission. I knew others who had taken the course and they looked at me with some sympathy. They knew my poetry. It was too West Coast. Too Gary Snyder. Or, in the words of one good friend, “a bad version of Louise Varèse’s translation of Rimbaud.”
But I wanted this class. At least I thought I did. So I gathered what I thought were the least Beat, the least Snyder, the least Varèse/Rimbaud and turned them in. And the list was announced. The top twelve. All wonderful poets. But not me. I was number thirteen. 
Except, to my good fortune, one of the twelve, inexplicably, discovered a conflict in his schedule. He wouldn’t take the class. Or he would. Wouldn’t. Or. Or. Or. Finally he decided he wouldn’t. So there I was, number thirteen become number twelve. I was in. And what an education. Reading Williams and Stevens, Hemingway and Stein. And Kenneth’s scribbled notes: “Okay, but why?” “Yes, this will work.” And Kenneth’s enthusiasm. His love for teaching poetry. Of course, he was late to almost every class, saying in that light stutter, “I’ll try not to let it happen again.” But it was easy to figure out why—when it was a good class, he simply held us over—who would want to leave? 
I studied with Kenneth some more. I remember in his Form in Poetry class, Kenneth felt we weren’t getting it. He jumped on the giant conference table around which we all sat. He insisted I jump on the table with him. We read from The Tempest, Kenneth declaiming, me whispering. We got it. This was dramatic verse. This was spoken word before spoken word. This was poetry. 
Kenneth and I grew closer. At a reading he gave with Ron Padgett my senior year he turned to me and introduced a young woman: “This is my daughter, Katherine.” It wouldn’t be for another year when, as assistant to the Artistic Director at the New York Art Theater Institute, that I grew to know Katherine’s paintings. I loved them. We became friends. She came to poetry readings I was giving. Eventually we fell in love. 
And life got interesting. Kenneth was moving from teacher to mentor, older poet to my younger. Now he was to become father-in-law. And over the years, friend. One of my closest. I would show him poems and he would talk to me with honesty, compassion, respect. When I finished writing the manuscript for my first book, Listener in the Snow: The Practice and Teaching of Poetry, I remember vividly the day he read it. I was out at his house in Bridgehampton, swinging in a hammock Katherine and I had bought in the Yucatan years before. Kenneth came over with a funny look on his face, one I don’t think I had ever seen. He said, “I’d like to write the preface for this book.” 
I was stunned. Stumped. For almost two decades of marriage, I had tried to keep my writing relationship separate from our personal relationship. Of course we would have the most passionate debates at dinner, sometimes causing everyone else to leave the table as we went at each other about poetry, fiction, whatever. 
But this was different. I called Ron Padgett who, along with Chris Edgar, was my editor on the book. I asked him what I ought to do. I told him I thought it seemed strange. Ron asked me if I was out of my mind. If Kenneth Koch wanted to write a preface, I was crazy to say no. And Kenneth went on to write a line I value so much: “The teaching of writing may never be the same again.” 
Kenneth influenced me in so many ways. As a poet, he taught me about hard work. That the first and fourth and fifth drafts were only the beginning. That every word mattered and that it was the poet’s responsibility to make sure the reader knew why. Once he said to me, “My problem isn’t writing good poems, it’s writing great poems.” At first I thought that was arrogance. Then I realized how true it was. How easily he could write the wonderful occasional poem—birthday, anniversary, whatever. How he could just flat out write something witty and charming. But the great poems, starting with the second “Circus” and continuing with “Some General Instructions,” “To Marina,” “One Train May Hide Another,” to the poems of New Addresses (how incomplete and inadequate this list feels, and how great at the same time)—these were the poems of a master. 
I miss Kenneth. I still speak with him almost everyday. Of course he fills my teaching. He fills my writing. He tells me when I’m sloppy. Lazy. I wish he’d been alive to see the Lorca book I did with Pablo Medina. To see Tourist at a Miracle. To see Black Tulips, the new book of selected poems of José María Hinajosa coming out this fall. 
One of my students, commenting on the wonderful reading this past March hosted by Charles North at Pace University to celebrate Kenneth—the readers included Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, Anne Waldman, Jim Jarmusch, Tony Towle, Siri Hustvedt, Jordan Davis, myself—noted that, ten years after his death, she felt she too was a student of Kenneth’s. 
And in so many ways, since so many of us still are, she is. 
John Ashbery hailed Poet in New York: A Bilingual Edition (2007), the translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s watershed work by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman, as “the definitive version of Lorca’s masterpiece, in language that is as alive and molten today as was the original.” “Statman has translated Lorca brilliantly,” Joseph Lease writes, “and [in Tourist at a Miracle] he gives us a version of New York that Lorca would recognize and welcome. This book is a delight.” Statman’s other works include two collections of essays about teaching writing: Listener in the Snow: The Practice and Teaching of Poetry (2000) and The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing (with Christian McEwen, 2000). He is an associate professor of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College of the New School and also taught for many years for Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Also of interest: 


Related LOA works: Kenneth Koch: Selected Poems; American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse (includes two poems by Kenneth Koch); Poets of World War II (includes two poems by Kenneth Koch)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lauren Groff on the “profound generosity” of James Salter

Lauren Groff, who has just published her second novel, Arcadia, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with an appreciation of the “deeply sensual, deeply stunning” writing of James Salter.
Like most passionate readers, I have a private catalogue of favoritehood, a floating list of twenty writers who make me want to genuflect when I think of them. The rules are simple for my secular saints: I have to respect the writer’s entire oeuvre, deeply love a few of her books, and feel as if at least one of the bunch has been written directly upon my heart. Marilynne Robinson is one of my saints, and Housekeeping is the book of hers that is tattooed on the very center of me. Vladimir Nabokov is another, and Speak, Memory is it. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; there are more, but not so many I couldn’t tell you about them all, if given a few hours. I feel suffused with joy just writing the titles. 
When I say that I love James Salter, then, I mean that I like all of his books, and love Dusk and Other Stories and A Sport and a Pastime. But Light Years, his 1975 novel, glows in a holy way. I buy it in multiples because I press it into the hands of practically everyone who enters my house, and I reread it a few times a year to reset my expectations of what a great novel looks like. Those nights, I stay up alone in the quiet house, hearing my babies’ sleeping breath in the monitors, and open Light Years to let myself feel the beauty, and the ache of sadness that I’m so careful to modulate in my own domestic sphere. To function, I need my ecstatic experiences controlled, limited to the time it takes to read a book. Light Years sits beside me like a good friend during those sleepless nights, and together we watch the morning dawn with its just-bearable brightness. 
The description of the book belies its power: Light Years traces the unexceptional marriage of Nedra and Viri, a well-off couple with a house on the Hudson, two little girls, a pony, a bunny, a dog, all the accoutrements of a comfortable bourgeois life. They love each other, have lovers, fall apart. But the true story of Light Years is more mysterious and far colder, found in the way it is told, in brief, vivid scenes strung like pearls on a filament of decades. The book has been called impressionistic, but I think that’s false, because impressionism implies a blurred close-view and a cohesive long-view, and every sentence and scene in Light Years is cut by diamonds. It’s more like a series of careful explosions, strobing one after another through the darkness of years. Or it is a deep river glinting in the sun. Salter at times comments on his project, while ostensibly talking about his characters’ lives. He writes of Nedra and Viri: 
Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers. 
In his Paris Review interview in 1993, Salter said, “I'm a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible.” It’s true; Salter’s phrases are deeply sensual, deeply stunning. "We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white," he writes in his first lines. And later: 
She was beautiful, she knew it, her neck, her wide mouth, she felt it as one feels strength. She had been swimming aimlessly, resigned to vanishing in the sea, and suddenly she was at a sunlit meal, the light occasionally gleaming on his glasses. 
When the reader is not being tenderized by the sophisticated undercurrents of emotion in this book, she is being seduced by Salter's language. His dialogue hides more than it reveals; the sudden darts into his characters’ points of view uncover the author’s profound generosity toward them, even when they’re acting terribly. It is this wild generosity that is James Salter’s greatest gift to a reader, the ability to hold within a single character or scene or sentence the precise and the deeply mysterious, the admirable and the dirty, the flesh and the spirit. To look upon it all with clear and warm eye, without judgment or false sentiment. To offer it up in a way as aesthetically devastating as anybody ever has in the history of novels. If such kindness to we hungry, sleepless, aching readers of the world isn’t saintly, I don’t know what is.
Reviewing Lauren Groff’s first novel in The Boston Globe, Karen Campbell wrote, “As The Monsters of Templeton [2008] bounds back and forth in time, Willie and her ancestors tell stories rich in history, painful with deceit and misery, and triumphant in salvation.” “I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end,” commented Stephen King, “and there is no higher success than that.” It was a New York Times and Book Sense bestseller. Delicate Edible Birds (2009), a collection of nine stories, followed, which Joanne Wilkinson in Booklist found “richly conceived” and “finely detailed” from “a young writer who continues to surprise.” Richard Russo describes her new novel as “Richly peopled and ambitious and oh, so lovely, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is one of the most moving and satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s not possible to write any better without showing off.” Groff lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband and two sons.

Also of interest:

Related LOA works: Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight (includes an excerpt from James Salter’s novel, The Hunters)

Ron Padgett remembers his friend, the writer and artist Joe Brainard

The poet Ron Padgett, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his most recent book, How Long, recently spoke with us about The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, the new collection he edited for The Library of America.

How did you meet Joe Brainard? Describe your friendship.

Joe and I met as classmates in the first grade in Tulsa in 1948, but it wasn’t until high school that we became buddies. At the age of seventeen we published a small art and literary magazine whose contributors included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and many other luminaries. After high school Joe and I came to New York together, remaining close friends until his death. He was like a brother to me—a good one!

What is significant about this volume? Why from The Library of America?

The Library of America is thought of as the publisher of what is generally categorized as classic American writing. That the LOA has chosen to recognize the life’s work of a writer whose ardent following has been largely underground until now shows an adventurousness and freshness of purpose that are parallel to those same qualities in Joe’s writing.

How has your sense of his writing changed? Why should people care about it now?

Fifty years ago, when I read Joe’s first pieces of writing, I was struck by how Joe they were, really unlike anyone else’s. Later, when I read his book I Remember, it confirmed not only his originality but how in some mysterious way he was speaking for everyone. In collecting his life’s writing for the LOA volume, I realized, for the first time, that all his writing fits together, forming a self-portrait stunning in its honesty, good humor, variety, and depth. I hesitate to tell people they should do anything, but I will break my own rule by saying that people should care about this book if they care about being more fully human. This book is full of humanity.

What strikes you as the most unusual thing about JB as a person?

That a person who seemed so mild and acquiescent—meek, even—in his outward behavior could be so courageous in the way he wrote and made art and determined the way he lived.

Why did he have so many friends?

People loved Joe because he was friendly, kind, generous, gentle, funny, and able to produce art and writing that were utter delights. What’s not to like?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Creating music “too deep for words”—Arthur Miller, Alex North, and Death of a Salesman

In 1975, when George C. Scott directed and starred in the Circle in the Square revival of Death of a Salesman, the producers replaced the music used in Elia Kazan’s original 1949 production with new incidental music by Craig Wasson. Similarly, in 1999 when the Roundabout Theatre revived the play with Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman, the producers opted for new music by Richard Woodbury. The current Broadway revival, directed by Mike Nichols with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, restores the original music by Alex North, as did the 1984 revival featuring Dustin Hoffman. Just how intrinsic is North’s music to the play?

Arthur Miller described his first meeting with North in an interview with Sanya Shoilevska Henderson for her book Alex North, Film Composer:
It was [Elia] Kazan’s idea to put Alex on the Death of a Salesman project. It was a brilliant idea. I met Alex in Kazan’s house in Manhattan where we were preparing the production of the play. At our first meeting he played some music of Death of a Salesman on the piano. I was very touched by that. It was very moving music. It was the first time in my experience that I heard of a symphonic approach to the theater. In other words, each of the main characters had a theme as they would in a symphony. And those themes were combined, they were fugal, all kinds of forms created around those themes. I don’t think we changed very much of what he first initiated. 
In the first line of his stage directions to Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller calls for a single instrument:
A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises. . . . From the right, Willy Loman, the Salesman, enters, carrying two large sample cases. The flute plays on. He hears but is not aware of it. 
North added more than a flute but he had constraints. The original theater, the Morosco, had no orchestra pit. The duration of the music and the number of musicians he could use were determined by the regulations of the Musicians Union: no more than twenty-four minutes and no more than four musicians. North chose an ensemble of alto flute, cello, trumpet, and clarinet with occasional change to alto clarinet. He scored twenty-two-and-a-half minutes of music. The music was not taped; it was performed live at every performance, which required North to create a new sound stage technique, which Henderson describes:
[North] required the musicians to perform from an off-stage room of the theater, a so-called “padded cell,” located way up at the top of the stage. Since they could not see the scene, the musicians had a red light flash in the room, which the assistant stage manager would turn on when they were supposed to start playing, and turn off when they had to stop. The music was transmitted through a microphone to the speakers in the theater with the volume controlled behind the stage. The musicians unfortunately never had a chance to see the play. 
Critics immediately registered the impact North’s music had on the play. Death of a Salesman opened in New York on February 10, 1949. In the March 27 issue of The New York Times Howard Taubman hailed North’s “brilliant, imaginative score” in an article devoted almost entirely to the play’s music:
Willy’s death takes place off stage and here Mr. North’s music builds up a shattering climax that takes the place of words and action. The requiem music gives a pathos to the scene that is perhaps too deep for words. Here music serves a function for which there is probably no substitute in all the theatre arts. 
Miller acknowledged his debt to North in his interview with Henderson: “You can’t separate the music from the play, or the play from the music.” Asked by Charles Isherwood why he chose to restore the original music, director Nichols responded: “For one it’s a very good score, and oddly it’s the one thing I do remember from seeing the play [when he was seventeen].”

North collaborated with Kazan again in creating the score for the film version of Death of a Salesman (1951) and the path-breaking, jazzy score for the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Both received Oscar nominations for Best Music. He would work with Miller again in composing the music for the John Huston film The Misfits (1961). However, North may be best known today as the composer of the ballad “Unchained Melody,” a song from the film Unchained (1955) before it became a global sensation as the theme song to the hit film Ghost (1990).

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944–1961 (includes Death of a Salesman and the screenplay for The Misfits)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

John Tewsley on American history books you may have missed—but shouldn’t

Guest blog post by John Tewsley, history book buyer for Borders for 15 years 

Be honest. Do you still browse? I fear the joy of book browsing, both in store and online, is in danger of extinction. Blame economics. Large “superstores” that offer a broad selection of titles are getting harder to find. The online sites that seek to replace them deploy algorithms that can get you to what you want—but isn’t the appeal of browsing not knowing what you want?

Fortunately, even in hardy indie stores, the American History section has mostly been spared. The key topics—the Revolution, the Civil War, WWII—continue to get ample representation. But for how long? As numbers get crunched will more stuffed pandas and book lights replace key backlist titles? Some online sites have tools to help you drill down into niche subjects, but those pesky bestsellers keep popping up to distract you.

Let me dig for you, and unearth some treasures that market forces may now be conspiring to bury. Soon we may need metal detectors to find them. All the more reason to call these titles “under the radar” gems of American history.

King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias
Extraordinary events and large personalities fill the 150 years between the landing of the Mayflower and the American Revolution, but this period hasn’t nearly been covered enough. This excellent book examines the war between the New England colonists and Native Americans in 1675–76. This war established the model on which the colonies and the Federal government would deal with the Native American populations. An essential title for any American history lover.

Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer
Fischer takes this incident, cuts away the Longfellow propaganda, and gives us a lucid narrative of the beginnings of the Revolution. In addition to analyzing the “ride,” Fischer also examines the political situation in Boston in the 1770s and the subsequent battles at Lexington and Concord.

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt
A comprehensive look at the rough and tumble world of nineteenth- century American politics featuring an amazing cast of personalities including Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren and John C. Calhoun. Don’t wig out at this 1296-page brick; it may seem to take as long to read as the entire existence of the Whig party (22 years), but you’ll be rewarded with a brilliant analysis of Antebellum America.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 by Edward L. Ayers
Ayers examines the Civil War through the eyes of two small communities on each side of the Mason-Dixon line; one in Pennsylvania, the other in Virginia. This unique approach immerses the reader in a very accessible narrative of the daily life along the divide. Most Civil War books are built around the major battles or key characters. This book dramatizes the impact of the war on the home front and how waves of emotion crested and crashed there.

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
This extraordinary biography provides an all-encompassing view of the Gilded Age. Carnegie’s real-life rags-to-riches story parallels the explosion of the industrial age and America’s rise to a global economic power. His battles and confrontations with the people and policies in his path are not only riveting reading, they are also surprisingly pertinent to contemporary quandaries about business and government and the role of the one percent. The reader is left to decide whether Carnegie’s donation of much of his fortune to libraries and the pursuit of higher education redeems what he did to achieve his status as one of the great titans of American business.

The Bonus Army: An American Epic by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen
In 1932 a group of 40,000 disgruntled WWI veterans set up a tent city in Washington, DC to demand payment of the bonus money promised them after the war. President Hoover eventually ordered Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur to evict the protesters (with tanks). Ultimately, however, the marchers succeeded when their efforts led to the signing of the GI Bill of Rights. A well-researched account of a mostly forgotten episode in American history, The Bonus Army should be required reading for all sides of the current Occupy movement.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest: 
Related LOA volumes: The Founding Fathers Set (12 volumes plus a FREE book); The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Friday, May 4, 2012

David Crystal on Americanisms, coinages of a new nation

Guest blog post by David Crystal, author of The Story of English in 100 Words 

The United States hadn’t been born five years before the word Americanism was invented. It was coined by John Witherspoon, a Scottish minister who had become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Writing in a Pennsylvania journal in 1781, he says he made the word up on analogy with Scotticism. Any usage different from what was used in Britain he would henceforth call an Americanism.

The word caught on and was soon applied to everything American–behavior, custom and institutions. It was all part of the process of forging a new national identity. When Noah Webster compiled his Compendious Dictionary in 1806, he emphasized the word’s general meaning, defining it as a “love of America and preference of her interest.”

This was the first dictionary to contain words specific to the USA. We find in its pages such local terms as butternut, caucus, checkers, chowder, constitutionality, hickory, skunk and succotash. Skunk is an early Americanism. It was one of dozens of words that were borrowed from the Algonquian language in the early 1600s. Many of them didn’t last. Nobody today (except possibly in some dialects) talks about a sagamore (“chief”) or a pocosin (“swamp”). But several words did survive, such as caribou, moccasin, moose, opossum, persimmon, powwow, tomahawk, totem, and wigwam.

It is sometimes difficult to recognize Indian words in early writings. The indigenous languages were very different from anything Europeans had encountered before, and they had no idea how to spell the words they heard. Captain John Smith arrived in Virginia in 1606 and explored the new territory at length, writing an account of the meetings between the colonists and the local tribes. He sent an account of the colony back to England, where it was published in 1608.

His book contains many Amerindian place-names, and at one point–during a visit to the Powhatan Indians–a new noun:
Arriving at Werawocomoco, their Emperour proudly lying uppon a Bedstead a foote high, upon tenne or twelve Mattes, richly hung with manie Chaynes of great Pearles about his necke, and covered with a great Covering of Rahaughcums.
Rahaughcums? A little later in his book he spells it Raugroughcuns. These are the first brave attempts to write down raccoons in English.

Also of interest: 
Related LOA works: Capt. John Smith: Writings, with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America (includes A True Relation, the account of his meeting with the Emperour covered with Rahaughcums)
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