TrumpShake II: I Am So Sorry

Reporters now say that the big reason Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord is because Macron did that handshake thing and then bragged about it. As he said in his speech, Trump doesn’t like the world laughing at him: “Hearing smack-talk from the Frenchman 31 years his junior irritated and bewildered Trump, aides said.” I am so sorry that I added to the giggles. I now realize that my unthinking mockery may have consigned the human species to extinction.

Now you may say that I am not to blame, that everyone is saying stuff about Trump and at least I didn’t mention tiny hands, and you may be thinking, “What is this guy? Some kind of special snowflake?” The answer is: Yes. I am. But snowflakes make avalanches. I am so sorry, folks.

(But I don’t promise not to do it again.)

The TrumpShake

President Trump’s trip to the G7 and the Middle East has given the world a good look at The Donald. One thing that stood out for many was the TrumpShake. Trump honors old-fashioned business practices, like the Manly Handshake, where you give the shakee a firm grip. If you want to be Macho, rather than Manly, you crush those outstretched phalanges like an empty beer can just to make it clear who is Bull Goose in this barnyard. Watch here as Trump tries to cripple Macron.


That standing handshake bit at the end demonstrates another TrumpShake concept: using a jiu-jitsu move to yank the shakee off-balance. (It would be funny to watch, say, Erdogan lose it and go flying across the room.) But Justin Trudeau has his number:

Check out Trudeau’s smile. Very very sincere, right? [via] Here’s video from The Guardian.

See that hand on Trump’s shoulder? That’s how Justin keeps his balance. Possibly Trudeau coached Macron on the Shake, as they are Besties:

There were many other G7 moments, but they were marred by reporters looking for a reason to diss the Prez. For instance, I don’t believe that Trump really gave Italy the finger. And it’s possible that he ignored the Lithuanian president because he mistook her for Angela Merkel, because all those women look alike. But for sure, he did muscle out Montenegro’s president, so perhaps I’m wrong and the President of the United States of America is reminding Italy and Montenegro just who’s in charge.

President Trump flapping his arms before crowing over the shove. Darko Markovic, Montenegrin president, is on the right. []

I take all the anti-Trump stories with a grain of salt: I don’t believe Trump engaged in water sports at a Moscow Hotel in order to show his disdain for Obama, for example. Water sports, sure, and Moscow would be the place, it’s the motivation ascribed to Trump that I question. The press needs to show a little more restraint.

On the other hand, I sure can’t explain this (unless Trump has joined the League of Super-Villains or something):

[photo: Saudi News Agency]

Pictures I Like: John Decker

The other night I watched a 1940s crime movie, Scarlet Street, on TCM. Edward G. Robinson plays a hen-pecked husband who holds down a stultifying job as cashier/bookkeeper at some sort of company. His only joy is painting, which he does in the bathroom of his run-down apartment. His wife hates his painting — doesn’t like the smell. One day, Edward G. Robinson meets Joan Bennett and is enraptured. Dan Duryea plays the heel who Joan loves (she likes to be smacked around). He persuades her to seduce the old guy. Things lead to a murderous climax. Okay, pretty much standard noir fare, but…

The paintings that Edward G. Robinson’s character creates are derided by his wife and others, but the first one I glimpsed made me sit up. The subject matter is a nondescript white flower in a glass, the painting looks like the artist was using hallucinogenic drugs. This was something special! In the movie, critics and dealers agree. Leaving aside the movie plot, I had to know more about the flower, some street scenes, and an incredible portrait of Joan Bennett, with eyelashes spiky as a psychedelic flower!

Screengrabs from Scarlet Street: the flower, portrait of Joan Bennett, closeup of portrait. The movie is in black-and-white, of course. I don’t know if any color was used in these paintings or not. (At least one of the paintings — that features a snake wrapped around an elevated train support — was in color). Decker has deliberately aimed at a primitive, untrained style — look at the dead-on composition of the Bennett portrait, for instance.

It didn’t take much digging to discover that the paintings had been made by John Decker. I researched him and that’s where things got really interesting, because John Decker was an artist, art forger, and drinking companion of W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, and other famous boozers. He may or may not have been a spy. He may or may not have forged the Head of Christ attributed to Rembrandt that hangs in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He certainly did a famous portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Any of these accomplishments are enough to make a man interesting.

John Decker probably about 1935. [Wikipedia]

John Decker was born Leopold von Decken in Berlin. Or possibly in London. Or Greenwich. One story had his aristocrat father eloping with an English opera singer and the young couple fleeing social scandal to England. An art gallery bio has him born in San Francisco before being abandoned in England. Wikipedia has the more conventional tale: that the child was two when his parents moved to London.

Graf Ernst August von der Decken, son of an artist, worked as a reporter and married Maria Anna Avenarius, an opera singer, in Greenwich in 1898. Their son was born in 1895. Hence the scandal. Maria abandoned the household at some point in what was, apparently, a stormy marriage. Ernst left his son alone in 1908. Decker despised his mother, “That red-headed whore!” “I like John Decker,” John Barrymore once said, “He hates sunsets and his mother.” Sunsets, possibly, because they reminded him of his mother’s red hair. At least that is the legend as recalled by one of Decker’s cronies. It does appear that Decker hated the natural auburn shade of his own hair. Maria died in 1918. Ernst in 1934.

Legend has it (meaning John Decker told a drunken story that was recalled later by someone who had heard it while drunk) that, at the age of thirteen, the young lad began to work for an art forger, whose specialty was conning tourists. During World War I, some of these paintings were shipped back to the continent and some had writing on the back of the canvas that may have been coded espionage messages. And that, according to legend, got the young man interned on the Isle of Man in 1917 or 1918. Later, Decker said that it was a terrible experience; that he had witnessed scenes of depravity too horrible now to relate. One that he did relate had to do with an internee who committed suicide by immolating himself on an electric fence. Since there is no record of electric fences at the Man internment camp, that seems unlikely. Decker also claimed that internees had to eat the corpses to keep from starving.

Internee art for one of the four newspapers published at the Isle of Man camp at Knockaloe. [via, copyright Manx National Heritage,]

Most likely Decker was interned because he had been born in Germany and was still a German citizen. His father may have left him in 1908, but someone seemed to support him, and it probably wasn’t an art forger. Decker was studying art at the Slade School of Art in London (where Barrymore also studied) before his internment, but that factoid was later embellished by naming his teacher as Walter Sickert, who, both legend and Patricia Cornwall claim, was Jack the Ripper.

Released at the War’s end, the young man may have travelled to Europe (or not) but did shift his name from von Decken to John Decker. Using phony papers, at some point he sailed to America, probably in 1921. He hung around New York for a while, working as a newspaper caricaturist and set decorator for stage productions. He tried acting, but, legend has it, he was already a heavy drinker and passed out on stage during a scene with Jeanette MacDonald. In 1928, or possibly 1930, Decker emigrated to Hollywood, where anybody can be anyone they want to be. He left his first wife, Helen, in New York, along with his baby daughter. When he arrived in California, Decker had a second wife, Judith. He never divorced Helen, not even after marrying a third time.

Decker had met John Barrymore in New York (in a bar, of course, where they discovered they had the same taste in beer, the legend says) and soon became part of a drunken crew known as the Bundy Drive Boys. Bundy Drive was the location of Decker’s studio and the boys included, besides Barrymore and W.C. Fields: Ben Hecht, who wrote the dramatic sketch that Decker performed in New York; Gene Fowler, journalist turned script-writer; Sadakichi Hartmann, art critic and poet; and actors Errol Flynn, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Alan Mowbray, and others who drifted in and out. Toward the end of the group’s existence, a few younger men, such as Anthony Quinn and Vincent Price, tagged along. Members of the original group had achieved some success in New York, where several of them first met, and had trekked out to Hollywood where the money was. Most of them hated the place and the film industry. All wanted to be a different kind of artist than they were — the screenwriters wanted to be novelists, the actors wanted to be painters, and so on. Decker was very clear about his art and his motivation: he wanted to make money and he would paint anything, anytime for a fee.

Decker was very gifted and could draw well and paint quickly. Somehow, though, he could not become wealthy, or at least, not wealthy enough. Mind you, he was living the high life through the 1930s, but there was an air of dissatisfaction about him that was revealed in the coat-of-arms that he hung on the Bundy Drive door. It shows his initials on a shield flanked by unicorns and bears the motto: “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic.”

Decker portrait of Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, 1935. [photo from eBay sale of painting. It went for $3250.]

For a time, Decker produced caricatures, the same kind of work he had done in New York. Occasionally, he did a portrait and, one auspicious day, someone — legend varies as to who — requested a portrait in old master style, or as a knight or royalty or something, and Decker obliged. Soon, many of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars had paintings that showed them as a lead character in some historical fantasy. Decker’s forte turned out to be satire and most of his clients understood his work. There were some dissatisfied customers, though — Clark Gable is said to have refused to pay for a portrait that made his ears look big — and there were lawsuits. When one client refused a portrait, Decker painted prison bars over his face and was sued for defamation. Decker counter-sued and the case was dropped.

Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton admire paintings of Cyrano de Bergerac and Hamlet. Note the Army outfit on Durante who was probably on his way to or from a USO gig.

Sometimes Decker worked for himself and not a contracted customer. So he produced a portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Her Majesty, recognizable both as herself and as Fields, frowns at a picture of Johnny Walker. Fields pretended outrage: “Decker has kicked history in the groin.”  Dave Chasen, owner of the restaurant where the Bundy Drive Boys hung out, demanded a copy. Decker dashed one off for him. He claimed to have done many others in various sizes, small copies going for $50 a picture. One would think that there would be more examples on the Internet, but surprisingly few examples of this famous image can be found on line.


Fields/Victoria hanging. [via Movies from the 20’s – 60’s]

Decker continued to create other works besides the caricatures. A few items can be found by googling. A painting of the Normandie on fire in New York harbor is interesting, but a study of black singers is not. Recent auction prices have Decker’s portraits going for $10000 and up, depending on who is the subject, and his “serious” work selling for $2 – 5000.

Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”. Dave Chasen liked this painting so much that he commissioned one with his face on it. The Chasen picture actually was blue and not green.

In 1941, Decker did a series of murals depicting the history of Hollywood for the Wilshire Bowl nightclub. The murals have disappeared, but Decker’s preliminary drawings are in the Smithsonian. Then, in 1942, Decker produced a great piece: a drawing of John Barrymore on his deathbed.

Barrymore on his deathbed. He had eczema and clawed at his skin as he died. Decker turns this into a theatrical gesture.

Barrymore was Decker’s closest friend. The actor’s self-destruction was mirrored in that of the painter. Both were very aware of the damage that they were doing to themselves. Later, Decker worked up some finished, sentimental, death-of-Barrymore pieces, but it is the drawing that strikes home. It may have hung over Barrymore’s coffin at his funeral, or that may have been one of the more sentimental pieces that Decker did at the time. Errol Flynn once claimed to have abducted Barrymore’s body and, with some other Bundy Boys, transported it from bar to bar, feeding it booze. Later, Flynn admitted that he made up the story (which has also been told of other dead drinkers).

Hartmann was the next of the group to die. He was also the oldest, 78 at the time of his death in 1944. In some ways. Sadakichi Hartmann was a model for the other Bundy Drive Boys. Born to a German father and Japanese mother in Japan, Hartmann was thrown out of the family (he said) at the age of fourteen and later adopted a Bohemian lifestyle in New York. He met Walt Whitman, quarreled with him, it is said, and eventually moved west to California. He is more known now for his criticism, which took photography seriously, than his other work, which included poetry, painting, and a brief turn as an actor (he appeared in Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad).  Alcohol and other drugs fueled his poetry. He had the habit of pissing himself while drunk. Decker’s daughter found Hartmann repellant and steered clear of him because he smelled so bad. Alcoholics may be fun to read about but aren’t so nice to live with. [pictures by or of Hartmann may be seen here. And here.]

Decker portrait of Sadakichi Hartmann, 1946 [via Laguna Art Museum ]

Born in Japan with two Axis parents meant that, during World War II, Hartmann was a person of interest to the FBI. He escaped internment because of age and infirmity, but was visited several times by federal agents, just to make certain he wasn’t passing information back to the Motherland. Gene Fowler was working on a biography of Hartmann that was never finished. In 1952 Fowler published a book of Bundy Drive tall tales about attempting to write the bio. Hartmann’s daughter was incensed by the fact that her father’s life had been reduced to a bunch of drunken anecdotes, but that was the fate of others of the Bundy Drive Gang as well, including Decker.

At the end of 1946, W.C. Fields died. Six months later, suffering from diabetes and cirrhosis, Decker passed away. His then-wife, Phyllis, had an open bar at his funeral. She also darkened his red moustache with mascara. The drawing of Barrymore on his deathbed was placed on Decker’s casket and a Decker portrait of Barrymore hung on the wall. Legend has it that, when the minister recited the words, “Let us pray”, the flower wreath fell from Barrymore’s portrait into the coffin. John Decker was 51 at the time of his death.

Van Gogh or Decker?

But that’s not the end of the story. In 1949, a Van Gogh self-portrait purchased by William Goetz, Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, was pronounced a fake by experts. Goetz angrily defended the work, which he had bought from a dealer in 1946. The dealer, said to be reputable, withheld the painting’s provenance for “business reasons”. The authenticity of the picture is still being debated and one name that keeps coming up is that of John Decker. According to a drinking buddy, Decker loved Van Gogh’s work and claimed that the Dutch artist sometimes used his penis to apply paint. No one has examined the disputed painting looking for traces of Decker’s organ, but legend has it…

The Fogg Museum says this is a Rembrandt study. Legend has it that the painting was done by Decker.

And in 2003, Stephen Jordan published a biography of Decker in which he claimed that Decker faked a Rembrandt study at the behest of Thomas Mitchell. Whether Mitchell was part of the con or its victim is unclear. According to the story related to Jordan, Mitchell, who was an art collector, bemoaned the fact that he could not afford a Rembrandt. Decker said that he could locate one that only cost $2000. Then Decker bought a piece of 17th Century furniture and pulled out a drawer bottom that he used as a surface. After painting the piece, Decker then cracked it along the back and sent it to Holland for repairs. When the piece returned to the US, it bore Dutch customs papers, which helped provide some provenance. Mitchell may or may not have paid $45000 for it, but it seems to have been part of his estate. That painting is now in Harvard’s Fogg Museum (which bought it for $35000). Harvard and the Fogg maintain that the work is genuine. Some testing was done a few years ago which showed that the wood panel was, indeed, Baltic oak from the 17th Century.

Finally, although not as valuable as Rembrandts or Van Goghs, Decker’s paintings have been a target for thieves.


Bohemian Rogue: The Life of John Decker by Stephen C. Jordan, so far as I know the only full-length biography. The paperback now sells for $90

Hollywood’s Original Rat Pack: The Bards of Bundy Drive by Stephen C. Jordan. Out of print.

Hollywood’s Hellfire Club by Gregory William Mank. Was out of print, now seems to be back in stock.

The books above recycle all the legends and anecdotes that might better be read in:

Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler. Fowler’s account of trying to write Sadakichi Hartmann’s biography. Mostly anecdotes about the Bundy Drive Crew.

Good Night, Sweet Prince by Gene Fowler. Bio of John Barrymore with lots of anecdota.








The US Election

It seems like years since the US began this Presidential election campaign, but it’s only twenty or so months. American voters are hopeful, afraid, and indifferent, as usual. Like everyone else, I have some thoughts that are worth no more than those of your least favorite pundit; like everyone else, I have to voice these thoughts, because otherwise the Internet would just go to waste. Anyways:

Everyone has their reasons. At the beginning of the Trump ascendancy, many folks began asking, “Who on earth is voting for this phony? They must be stupid.” Well, no. Trump supporters have their reasons. For instance, at the beginning of the Republican nomination process, Trump was the only candidate to come out against the invasion of Iraq. While Jeb was trying not to disown his brother and the other Republicans were attempting to support the troops by justifying the mess a Republican administration had created for those soldiers, while this was going on, Trump said that the war was a bad idea. Now let me pause here and say, yes, I know that Trump had been for the war early on, but that is also true for Clinton. The point is that he was the only Republican willing to disavow it. I suppose there may be a few people who still think that invading Iraq was a good idea, but I doubt any of the candidates thought so, they just lacked the guts to say it out loud. And that was an early reason to support Trump.

Then there are NAFTA, the TPP, and other free trade agreements. It may be that the overall impact of free trade on the US economy has been positive, but you try selling that point of view to someone whose job was exported to Mexico. So, another reason.

Then there are the bad reasons, racism and misogyny. You may deplore them, but they are reasons. Racism is particularly prevalent in this campaign: four states are ignoring a Supreme Court decision that found their registration requirements discriminatory. A voter registration drive in Indiana has been busted by  state police, claiming that applications to register were “fraudulent or forged”. It will be many weeks before the investigation concludes, so 45,000 Black men and women may not be able to vote in November. Indiana’s governor is Mike Pence who, of course, is the Republican vice-presidential candidate, but that’s just a coincidence, right? On top of all that, Trump is urging his supporters to hang out around the polling stations, possibly code for “intimidate the opposition”. After all, intimidating Black voters is an American tradition that goes back a hundred and fifty years, to when Blacks were finally granted the franchise. So, a bad reason, but not stupid, if you fear losing your White privileges. It might be worth remembering that Obama has faced a lot of this stuff during his tenure. The reasons behind misogyny are similar to those behind racism: people are afraid of shifting gender roles that may diminish or change their own status. (More below on that.)

Finally, after years of neglect, many voters are just fed up and ready to kick over the apple cart because why the hell not? Similar reasons caused Brexit (IMO). It may be futile, it may be self-damaging, but damn! it feels good to watch the knobs in charge running around in panic.

So quit calling Trump supporters stupid. (Or “basic Rednecks”. Just shut up, Bill.) Once you start name-calling, you’ve lost the debate anyway. (And you do not name-call your opponent’s voters. That’s a basic political precept that Clinton violated with that “deplorables” business.)

“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Jean Renoir

The Republican Clownshow  Beginning in 2008, the Republican nomination process has become stranger and stranger. Usually there are some professional politicians, a business professional or two, and an outlier. There will be a token black, a token woman, but (so far) no openly gay tokens. These categories overlap, of course. Sometimes candidates will take truly outlandish positions, like Newt Gingrich in 2012, who proposed that America create a moonbase so that precious elements could be extracted and sent back to Earth. (Incidentally, I believe he got this concept from the Dick Tracy comic strip, which utilized a similar story line back in the 1960s.) Other extreme statements have been made by Alan Keyes, Michele Bachmann, and Ben Carson, just to take an example from each of the three nominations since the Bush presidency ended. These positions seem to draw the other candidates into making their own platform more extreme. After all, Bachmann was declared the “winner” of the first 2012 Republican debate, so the other candidates had to take her seriously and respond. To ignore what seem to be outlandish positions may mean not recognizing an outside-the-box notion that has resonance with voters. Such as opposition to the Iraq War.

There’s another, somewhat disturbing, aspect to Republican nomination spectacles: Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, Ben Carson — what do they have in common, besides being Black? Well, they have been candidates people laugh at. Not everyone all the time, of course — each of those candidates was quite elevated in a post-debate poll or two in their respective election years — but, by and large, they were the butt of jokes. So, is the Black Fool (cf. Stepin Fetchit) a permanent fixture in Republican campaigns?

Black or not, clowns have become an integral part of Republican politics. Perhaps this has something to do with politics becoming show business. Even so, some Republican voices have been calling for party reform before the GOP is written off as a bad joke. So far, they have been ineffective. The one change that will probably happen is that the Republicans will strengthen the role of appointed delegates, so as to head off another candidacy from someone like Trump.

“The painted grin leers out at us from the darkness, mocking our insane belief in order, logic, status, the reality of reality.”  Terry  Pratchett

Groping The video that has Trump bragging about grabbing women by the pussy has caused a great deal of fuss, but not always (IMO) the way that it should have. Trump has characterized his words as “locker room talk” and “salty” language, and his supporters have brought up “political correctness” as an evil that keeps people from speaking their mind. The problem is, this isn’t a matter of Trump using incorrect language, it’s about repugnant attitudes and behavior. The hypocrisy of the Trump campaign was demonstrated when Trump supporters on a television panel requested that another panelist (a Republican) not use that terrible word, “pussy”. Ana Navarro insisted on repeating the word: pussypussypussy. The panel demanded that she employ a euphemism because the actual word used by their candidate was distasteful. But it’s not the word, it’s the mindset behind the concept of grabbing women that is offensive. Calling this locker room talk and diminishing the words used, is a dodge. Trump belongs to a privileged class that views other human beings as objects for his amusement. He is not alone. Even the Republican male opposition to Trump’s video often began with the words “I have a daughter… a wife…” In other words, “I respect women. Why, I even own a few.”  Mothers were not mentioned, of course. You can’t own your mother.

“It’s just words.” Donald Trump

Hillary Hatred Hillary Clinton has faced some nasty criticism ever since becoming First Lady of Arkansas. I found it hard to understand the degree of venom directed at her — until a few years ago. I noticed that people changed the reasons they gave for despising her and I began looking for the common thread in their anti-Hillary comments. First, she was attacked for having an over-developed sense of morality; now she is accused of being corrupt and amoral. She was accused of being uppity when she had an office in the White House and she wound up being blamed for Bill Clinton’s failure to bring in universal medical care. It is easy to dislike or disagree with Clinton’s hawkishness, or to say that the Libya intervention was a huge mistake, but it is really beyond reason to accuse her of being a Communist or to claim that she had numerous people murdered. But anti-Clinton folks seem willing to hang any accusation on her that they can, truthful or not. Sooner or later though, these detractors will descend into attacks on her appearance or make snarky comments aimed at her sex or her sexuality. I believe that she makes many people afraid. These same people, male and female, see their worldview threatened. Hillary Clinton challenges gender roles; she challenges a sexual order that does not allow women to openly show ambition or to wield power. So, all her life, Hillary Clinton has been tagged with whatever labels can be used to attack her very femininity. I recall New York Magazine, at that time edited by John Kennedy, jr., running a cover that showed Hillary and Bill in fetish garb. Hillary held the whip. Because, if she is strong, he must be weak. The lesbian tag has been freely applied to Clinton, linking her to this or that other woman who perhaps also deserves a bit of chastisement. Because, if she is strong, she cannot be completely feminine. She must be a perv. I can only marvel at the strength that Clinton has shown when dealing with this. Mind you, women are more used to handling insults and denigration than men. Still, Clinton is remarkably strong.

Recent polls have shown Clinton leading by a wide margin among women voters, while Trump leads among men. According to the polls, he would win if there were no female suffrage. You can analyze this in several ways: women are emotional and all worked up by Trump’s pussy remarks, for instance, which suggests that men are cool and rational when they support Trump. Spin it anyway you want — this election is yet another battleground in in the long struggle for women’s equality.

“Well, that hurts my feelings.” Hillary Clinton

Julian Assange Remember when Information was to be Free? Last interview I saw with Assange, he was wearing a T-shirt that read “truth“, and that was the rationale that gave WikiLeaks its gravity. Now, WikiLeaks serves some strange agenda that is anti-Clinton and, possibly, a Russian initiative. This is a peculiar end for an avowedly anti-authoritarian group. Of course, Assange means to attack what he used to call “the Conspiracy of Governance”, and this may be the immediate strategy he has chosen. But working against one political party hasn’t much to do with ending that conspiracy and doesn’t sit well with folks who would like to be sympathetic. Why no leaks from the Republican, as opposed to the Democratic, National Committee? After all, if the GOP is vulnerable, then why not bring it down? A  decade ago, Assange spoke of reducing the Republican and Democratic parties to “organizational stupor”. So show us, Julian; take down the GOP. WikiLeaks tactics have been ineffective against the Democrats, why not test them against the Republicans? Perhaps the answer is that Assange’s theories are just so much BS. Does this election mark the end of the usefulness of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange? Collateral damage, I suppose.

“Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on.”  Julian Assange



Universal Open Carry

The other day I came across an item on one of my favorite blogs, Nag On The Lake, about a new kid’s book, My Parents Open Carry.

Now this is great because children ought to learn not to despise minorities with peculiar life styles. And then the publisher announced that, right now, you could get a special two-for-one bundle with a book of parental guidance, Raising Boys Feminists Will Hate .

The author says, “Feminists would love nothing more than to take your son and eradicate his masculine uniqueness. …raise your little man into a lion, capable of leading the next generation into a moral culture of God, family and country.”

Which is really special! But it made me wonder how a boy raised like that would handle an open-carry feminist and do you want her to hate him.


Now some reviewers have noticed that the art for My Parents Open Carry seems taken from those kid’s books with titles like Johnny Has Two Dads that tried to spread understanding about gay families. Check this out. Does Dad look gay to you?


Dad is seated. Does he look gay to you? Is the fellow standing with arms crossed, one of Dad's special friends?  Does he belong to a visible minority group? Is that why he's not carrying?

Dad is seated. Does he look gay to you? Is the fellow standing with arms crossed, one of Dad’s special friends? Does he belong to a visible minority group? Is that why he’s not carrying?

There probably are open-carry gays, some of those log-cabin Republicans, I bet, though I believe that this magazine is a phony:


Even so, wouldn’t it liven up your local Pride Parade to have guys in buttless chaps carrying AK-47s marching beside the floats?

So, if feminists and gays start toting weapons, will it become okay for Blacks? The Panthers tried carrying weapons back in the 1970s and wound up being shot to death by the police. Still, there are black gun enthusiasts, like Colion Noir, host of the NRA sponsored Noir program.

That's Colion Noir, who got noticed a while back when he claimed that Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was a gun enthusiast. (Hey! Do you thing his name really is "Noir"? Because, that's French or something.)

That’s Colion Noir, who got noticed a while back when he claimed that Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was a gun enthusiast. (Hey! Do you thing his name really is “Noir”? Because, that’s French or something.)

Perhaps now, after years of battling for equality, Blacks can arm themselves openly. Perhaps we have come that far. And Hispanics and Moslems, too! Perhaps now, everyone can open-carry. Some of you will object, saying that there are folks who can’t afford decent weaponry, and to you I have this reply: it’s time for a National Gun Ownership program that gives weapons to everyone.

No, this isn’t charity, like food stamps, this is a program to provide one of the necessities of life. Some municipalities have even passed laws requiring their citizens to be armed. So, it seems to me, if government is going to dictate your possessions, then it has a duty to help provide them. All the disadvantaged should be armed: Single Moms Who Shoot, Open-Carry Homeless, Locked and Loaded Derelicts — everyone!

Universal Gun Ownership. Because once all the poor and dispossessed are armed, then they, too, can pursue the American Dream.



Good Books: Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

In 1962, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August was published to immediate acclaim. Causes of the First World War had been debated since 1919, when it ended, but Tuchman boiled it all down to this: the European powers had created an aggessive posture as the best defense and, once that defense was triggered, it could not be stopped. Armies could be mobilized, but not easilly made to stand down; treaties between the great powers were often secret, so that there was no clear understanding in Germany, say, that marching through Belgium would immediately cause England to enter the war; the inflexibility of military plans kept any diplomatic solution from ever having a chance.

Barbara Tuchman. "War is the unfolding of miscalculations." [Bob Child/AP via]

Barbara Tuchman. “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” [Bob Child/AP via]

In her research, Tuchman quoted the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, when asked how the war started, “Ah,” he replied “If only one knew.” One of her readers, President John F. Kennedy, was horrified by those lines. He himself was facing the possibility of nuclear armageddon — during the Berlin Crises of 1961 – 62, he asked a general what would happen if the Soviet Union did not back off. The general replied that he would order a nuclear strike. Kennedy now, for the first time, really understood the stakes in the game he was playing and immediately began removing nuclear capability from the military as a tactic. Now he read Bethmann-Hollweg’s words and said:

If this planet 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.”

Bethmann-Hollweg at Versailles in 1919. He requested that the Allies try him for war crimes rather than the Kaiser. He died two years later. []

Bethmann-Hollweg at Versailles in 1919. He requested that the Allies try him for war crimes rather than the Kaiser. He died two years later. []

Shortly after, the Cuban Missile Crisis tested Kennedy and his resolve not to allow global catastrophe on his watch. Tuchman was not the only popular writer to impress Kennedy, but she was easilly the best. Her clear and readable account of the war’s beginnings was excellent but her influence on policy-making was exemplary. Unfortunately, policy-makers ignored her later book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, which described how nations find themselves enmeshed in stupid, self-destructive policies.

Tuchman’s work synthesized research done by others during the previous decades that emphasized the automatic responses of the nations involved when faced with a problem. Previously, most histories had dealt with assigning blame to this or that nation; Tuchman’s book pinned the blame on the system, rather than a specific country. For a while, this concept held primacy, but, slowly and surely, the human need to fix blame re-established itself as the focus of historians.

The first nation to bear the burden of causation was Germany. If Germany had not invaded France via Belgium… Okay, but France was committed to war against Austria, so if that nation had not… And so on. Every country involved, including Russia and England, has been blamed for the First World War, and that multiplicity of blame seems only to strengthen Tuchman’s thesis: once an idiotic hair-trigger policy was generally adopted, it was only a matter of time until someone caused that trigger to be pulled and then all was disaster. My own inclination is, that if a single nation is to be blamed for the war, that nation is Serbia. Which then brings up the question of nationalism, cited by many as a cause of the war, and which was very much in the minds of the Treaty of Versailles drafters, including Woodrow Wilson, who came up with a scheme to prevent future wars of nationalism. Currently, Wilson is thought a fool, and he was certainly foolish in proposing a scheme that involved what we now would call ethnic cleansing, though that fitted the engineer mentality of the best and brightest of his era.

Of course, World War I was only the first act, the second occurred between 1939 – 45. We know that now and that knowledge has kept alive the question of the cause(s) of WWI, which ended the European system inaugurated by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and renewed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, ending one era and beginning another. Perhaps it is a good thing that contemplating this history causes us doubt and confusion, perhaps that provides a lesson to be learned here. And another lesson, as Kennedy put it, people should beware the “stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur” that characterized the leadership of 1914 Europe.



Barbara Tuchman,The Guns of August

On Kennedy and Berlin, see Michael Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Krushchev, 1960-1963




A Half Century of Criticism: The New York Review of Books

It is one thing to see something fifty years old and think “I was alive when that happened!” and something else to see something a half century in the past and say, “I remember that!” One is history, the other, memory. The New York Review of Books recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by reprinting its first issue, which you can read here or buy a paper copy here. I was a (very) young man when this issue was printed — I didn’t read it then; I don’t know if it was distributed outside of New York City at the time, but I did start reading the Review not long after when the Vietnam War became an issue. This magazine was one of the first to oppose that war and nothing that I have ever read since has caused me to think that was a misinformed position. Still, that doesn’t mean that the NYRB was, or is, right about everything. But here, what I mean to do is look at this first issue as an historical artifact and examine what it has to say. Many of these books and writers were known to me at the time and some are still being read.
There was a newspaper strike in New York in 1963 and a business-minded publisher, Jason Epstein, realized that publishers would buy ads in a magazine devoted to books. Epstein was connected in New York’s literary world and soon teamed up with Elizabeth Hardwick, a writer unfairly known mostly for being Robert Lowell’s wife. Epstein’s wife, Barbara, became an editor and Hardwick recommended Robert Silvers of Harper’s as co-editor. Whitney Ellsworth became publisher. This group worked together for years running the magazine. Robert Silvers is the last of the team still alive. He still edits the New York Review.

25th anniversary of the NYRB. Left to right, standing: Robert Silver, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney,Jonathan Miller, James Fenton, Rea Hederman, Alma Guillermoprieto; seated: Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein

25th anniversary of the NYRB. Left to right, standing: Robert Silver, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney,Jonathan Miller, James Fenton, Rea Hederman, Alma Guillermoprieto; seated: Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein

Various lights of the New York literary scene signed on to contribute — Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Dwight MacDonald, Phillip Rahv, and so on. Most of these people knew each other, many had been associated with the Partisan Review. Now they reviewed each other’s books gratis to kick off the new magazine. The result was what the New Yorker called “the greatest first issue of any magazine ever”.

Staff of the  Partisan Review , 1938. Philip Rahv at top center, Dwight MacDonald at right.

Staff of the Partisan Review , 1938. Philip Rahv at top center, Dwight MacDonald at right, FW. DuPee at left.

The lead essay is a critique of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, written by F.W.DuPee, who had been instrumental, as editor of the Partisan Review,  in getting Baldwin to return from France to report on racial matters. It is jarring now to read the word “Negro” when applied to African-Americans, or black people of any nationality. It is even more jarring when the writer refers to “the Negro problem”. Those troublesome darkies! What a problem they pose! I am reminded of 19th Century references to the “problem of the Feminine”. Both terms assume that the person writing is the norm, that Negroes or women are somehow apart from the standard, normal sort of human being.
Baldwin’s book consists of two essays that appeared in magazines toward the end of 1962, “A Letter to My Nephew”, (retitled in the book version as “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation”, DuPee calls this title “ominous”) and a much longer one, “Letter from a Region of My Mind” (retitled for the book, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”). Baldwin describes the problems of the Negro (his term) in America and warns that there is a great deal of anger being suppressed that will, eventually, find some voice. He writes of a meeting with Elijah Muhammed and the Chicago Muslim organization. Black Power, urban riots, and the Black Panthers are yet to come, but Baldwin is prophesying their birth. That is the part of the book that brings a response from DuPee. But Baldwin’s overall message is that blacks should not allow their humanity to be corrupted by the “American problem” while whites try to discover their own souls. DuPee rejects entirely the essay “Letter to My Nephew”, but it has a message for him, one of the “innocent and well meaning people” who have perpetrated a great wrong that they will not acknowledge because they believe that their hearts are Good. Baldwin to his nephew:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

Life is tragic, says Baldwin. Inevitably, it ends in death. The most significant word in the two essays is “love”. Love requires courage because it means directly confronting the tragic nature of humanity:

Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

DuPee never once uses the word “love” in his review. His analysis of Baldwin’s book winds up basically supporting the notion that American blacks need to be non-violent, not because — as Baldwin pointed out — that was more comfortable for American whites, but because anything else would be harmful to the gains he thought that blacks were making. He is also clear on the fact that any kind of black uprising would be crushed. Baldwin is aware of this, too, and suggests that making whites fearful will only cause them to be more violent than they already are. And the angry outbursts of the ’60s and ’70s did wind up being fatal to many black people. Even so, it does not seem to be true that racial progress was slowed by these violent events — it may be that they served a purpose by demonstrating that, however nice the words used by “innocent” whites, they masked a deep-rooted inability to achieve the kind of spiritual state that Baldwin proposes. Baldwin to his nephew:

Many of [the innocents] indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity.

White American racial attitudes show up in other essays. A book review by John Thompson includes these words:
“…all of us need desperately to extend our knowledge of the life of American Negroes.” Then he scurries on to add, “Naturally, I do not exclude Negroes when I say ‘us’.”
Well, no, John, that isn’t what you meant, naturally, to say, because that is incredibly insulting, whereas, without that hurried bit of expiation, your comment is merely condescending and stupid. Of course, being English, you may beg a little bit of excuse.

Frank Tannenbaum,Carleton S. Coon,James Baldwin

Frank Tannenbaum,Carleton S. Coon,James Baldwin

One might ask “just how different are the races themselves”? And that brings up The Origin of Races by Carleton S. Coon which seeks to prove that they are very different and some more advanced than others. Coon said that there are five races and that they each evolved independently into Homo sapiens. Congoid/Negro races evolved some 200,000 years later than Caucasians. Well, that explains so much, doesn’t it! Reviewer of this book is John Maddocks, who is not further identified. Mr. Maddocks, though, is very astute and he recognizes a pile of crap when he steps in it. He mentions that other anthroplogists and geneticists have serious doubts that the five-fold evolution of H.sapiens is at all likely, and he notes other shortcomings of Coon’s work. He is a little taken aback that a scholar of such eminence would promote a thesis that will so benefit racists. Maddocks writes:

No great imagination is needed to see how this conclusion has delighted the theoreticians of apartheid. Professor Wesley C. George of the University of Alabama leans heavily on Coon in a document called The Biology of Race, prepared for the governor of his state. So too does Mr. Carleton Putnam, who specializes in open letters to the President which are then reprinted in Southern newspapers and even as advertisements in The New York Times, with titles such as Race and Reason and Evolution and Race: New Evidence … In these and other ways the campaign to suggest that race prejudice can be given a scientific foundation goes with a more vigorous swing than it has for many years.

And Maddocks sees that providing a rationale for white supremacy is what the book is meant to do:
“…it would be over-generous to think that Coon’s present book could be innocently tactless. The uses that would be made of it were, after all, entirely predictable.” Yes. But it would be a good many years before it was revealed, via the publication of Coon’s letters, that he had been actively seeking to help white racists, especially the aforementioned Carleton Putnam, though Coon was careful to keep his own name out of the segregationist literature except as it referenced his books.
Another article that touches on these matters is a review by William Styron of Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen. Originally published in 1947, a recent reprint is reviewed here. Styron was, at the time, researching his novel about the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia and was familiar with Tannenbaum’s book. According to Tannenbaum, race relations in the US were an outgrowth of the specific kind of slavery there. Other places, with different kinds of slave institutions have less racial discord, said Tannenbaum. So far as that goes, most readers might agree with Tannenbaum. The problem is that some, like Styron, take Tannenbaum’s arguments too far and make far-fetched claims for racial harmony in, say, Brazil which are not borne out by the facts. Still, there are differences between the US and other Western Hemisphere nations in black/white relations and those differences, and why they occurred, are of great interest. Tannenbaum’s book is still a starting point for this discussion, though Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black has shifted the argument.
The main problem with the NYRB‘s handling of race relations is that it is directed toward a very small audience — the White Citizen Councils of Alabama were unlikely to ever read Maddocks’ takedown of Dr. Coon. The NYRB is not a publication that would have been of value at the time for either black or white Americans trying to deal with the great set of problems that confronted them because these problems were not of much immediate concern to the small cultural elite representing there, with the exception of such as DuPee, who helped bring Baldwin back from France to report on the situation. But even these few were apt to lapse into confrontational mode, informed by fear, when having to face the fact that blacks could be harboring great anger. They were, as Baldwin said, innocents who would have to be brought slowly, and with love, to knowledge.

Jules Feiffer, William Burroughs

Jules Feiffer, William Burroughs

The elitism of the NYRB shows up in various ways. Mary McCarthy reviews William Burroughs’ The(sic) Naked Lunch. The review is favorable but includes this puzzling statement: “This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction — the others are entertainment.”
Now it is hard to see how Burroughs’ work is any more science fiction than Gulliver’s Travels, a book McCarthy compares it to, or, say, works by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley that everyone recognizes as serious. The point is, McCarthy is using the term “science fiction” as a derogatory identifier. If it’s good, then it isn’t science fiction, except maybe this one book by Burroughs that can’t easilly be pigeon-holed. But McCarthy’s attitude was widely held. At the same time that this essay was published, J.G.Ballard was writing stories that he claimed were not science fiction, even though they were being published in science fiction magazines. The notion that a genre tag, like “science fiction”, would diminish a work was adopted even by people working in said genres.

Jules Feiffer illustrates how highcult becomes masscult or something.

Jules Feiffer illustrates how highcult becomes masscult or something.

This attitude is especially evident here when a writer uses the term “comic strip” in an essay. It is always derogatory. It is pretty funny to read a review, by John Hollander, Yale English professor, of a collection of comic strips by Jules Feiffer (who also has a strip in this issue of the NYRB) that includes this statement:

There are often non-books on the best-seller lists, and lately they have been appearing for children as well.
It is a deplorable tradition. And yet, it has been almost redeemed by the few cases in which a really unique imagination has found form there. The splendid Gothic Victorianism of Edward Gorey is one of these, I think, and the collections of what are by no means really cartoon-strips by Jules Feiffer are surely another.

“By no means really cartoon-strips”? What the hell? If it’s good, you see, then it can’t be a comic strip. But then Feiffer himself was shortly to publish an article in Playboy, expanded into a book in 1965, that concludes that comics are only “junk”, and kid’s junk at that!
It is startling to hear an artist put down his own work that way, and I do think that Feiffer and Ballard grew somewhat less defensive as they achieved both popular success and critical appreciation. Still, at this time, they adopted the manners of the class that they wished not to alienate, the one where they felt they belonged.
This cultural defensiveness seems to be a common attitude of the NYRB elite and one of them, Dwight MacDonald, tried to turn it into an artistic credo. MacDonald’s book, Against the American Grain, reviewed in this issue, includes an essay called “Masscult and Midcult”, that has achieved classic status. [Read it here]
MacDonald says that you have High Culture, which is for the elite, and Folk Art, which is for the masses. The problem is that Midcult stuff which pretends to be Art but is really mass produced simplifications of High Culture aimed at bourgeois tastes. MacDonald tries to make this distinction clear but only muddies the waters as he displays his own ignorance of, for instance, jazz. But he is most revealing when he tries to say that art aimed at the non-elites is Okay, so long as it doesn’t get uppity:

Folk Art was the people’s own institution, their private little kitchen-garden walled off from the great formal park of their masters. But Masscult breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of domination.

That is a pretty amazing analysis of medieval times coming from a communist — or, rather, former communist, MacDonald having passed from Stalin through Trotsky to calling himself an anarchist. Less to do with classical anarchism, like Saint-Simon or Fourier, than an excuse for sloppy thinking, I believe. Anyway, his reviewer, Barbara Solomon:

Somewhere in “Masscult and Midcult” Macdonald finds himself in Ortega y Gasset’s bed—the masses are destructive of civilization, the elite, the preservers of tradition. It is a perfectly valid conclusion, and yet once Macdonald arrives at it he shies away from the implications. A world for the elite? It is not easy for a long-time left-winger who is also American to say: “I am Charles de Gaulle.”

Here, I must say, I have never read a favorable review of “Masscult and Midcult” anywhere, although it still has life — possibly due to the insecurity of people who write for a living, possibly due to the term “midcult” having been selected into the English language.
The important part of the essay for the purpose here is this bit:

The past cultures I admire — Periclean Greece, the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, are examples — have mostly been produced by communities, and remarkably small ones at that. Also remarkably heterogenous ones, riven by faction, stormy with passionate antagonisms.

Dwight wants to be Athenian. Not a slave, of course, but the kind of guy who hangs out with Socrates and Plato and admires beautiful Alcibiades. Okay, but this great phase of Athenian culture lasted only 80 years at best, the second half of that being Periclean and then, around the time Socrates drank hemlock, descended into not-greatness. So, if the period following the Persian Wars but before the post-Periclean collapse is what MacDonald wanted in a contemporary version, perhaps in post WWII America, before the Nixonian collapse, he thought he might find it.
(I have to insert here MacDonald’s comment about Mary (NoSFForMe) McCarthy — “Why does she have to be so goddamned snooty..?” Oh yeah! Takes one to know one, Dwight.)
Race relations and cultural definition are the major topics of this issue of the NYRB, but other matters are discussed: the Cold War, for example. This was a time when Khruschev was attempting to take the USSR from Stalinism into a place more kind to its citizens. There is a review by Philip Rahv of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, now allowed publication after Khruschev’s public revelation of the gulag. Rahv thinks it’s a pretty good book although, he sniffs, it’s too small to be a “great work of art”. (Philip: how big is the “Mona Lisa”? How large a canvas did Van Gogh require for his sunflowers? How many pages does a writer have to fill to have a great work, as opposed to a small one? Aren’t you conflating two different meanings of the word “great”?) But this is interesting:

Thank God, the world is still unpredictable after all. No one, not even the most astute Kremlinologist among us, could possibly have foreseen that the party-hierarchs would be prevailed upon to permit the publication of a work so devastating in its implications.

There is also a review of several works on the Soviet economy, which Khruschev was also trying to reform, bringing in experiments with computer models and profit-making. The review does not mention these but is more interested in the question of how much the USSR is spending on its military — this is, after all, only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Khruschev’s experiments failed and when a great drought devastated the 1963 grain harvest, the USSR was in dire economic straits. Brezhnev and Kosygin replaced him in 1964. The economy went back on a military footing without much regard for consumers. Cultural expression was suppressed and Solzhenitsyn exiled. But in the 1980s a group of Soviet officials took Khruschev’s attempted reforms to heart and, well, the world is still unpredictable after all.
There are a couple of essays on American politics. Dennis Wrong reviews James MacGregor Burns’ The Deadlock of Democracy. Burns has a list of ailments in the American political system and a list of remedies for them. Some of the ailments are familiar: a minority in Congress can stifle legislation, districts are often gerrymandered, there are barriers to voting, and so on. Burns proposes some Constitutional amending to cure these ills. Wrong is not so certain that this will help. What is certain is that no such reforms happened then and are unlikely to take place any time soon.

Arthur Schlesinger and Kennedy [Life Magazine], Dwight MacDonald [Corbis]

Arthur Schlesinger and Kennedy [Life Magazine], Dwight MacDonald [Corbis]

Burns was one of many New Deal Democrats who became boosters for John Kennedy’s New Frontier. Arthur Schlesinger was another and his paean to Camelot, The Politics of Hope, is reviewed here by Dwight MacDonald. MacDonald guts the book with some lovely invective and without much regard for facts. (It wasn’t Lincoln who made that statement, it was Jackson). He presents Schlesinger, who he calls a friend, as a lickspittle toady to power. Seduced by Kennedy glamour, Schlesinger has become a hypocrite who admires a forceful presidency more than a democratic one. Schlesinger sees no reason why a president shouldn’t ignore the Bill of Rights if national security is an issue. “Why is it always the liberals who want to take away individual freedoms?” asks MacDonald. Well, we all know now that it isn’t only the liberals, that power of every persuasion will seek to extend itself, but MacDonald’s concern about the loss of individual freedom remains important. As for Schlesinger, after Kennedy’s death, he became estranged from the White House and wound up writing The Imperial Presidency (1973), warning that the Presidents had used national security concerns to expand their power in a way that made a mockery of the Constitution. Of course, there was a Republican in the White House at the time.
Feminism is not mentioned in this issue of the Review. It is possible that this is due to a Queen Bee attitude — the best-known of the female reviewers here are Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy and both were famously indifferent to feminism. An issue or two down the line and Mary McCarthy’s The Group was reviewed by Norman Mailer, who called it a “lady book”. McCarthy was a woman who the male members of this intellectual elite feared; she could have been remembered as a feminist champion. But people belong to their times and it is hard to demand that they should have responded to issues in ways that reflect the times to which we belong.
There are a good many other items in this issue of the NYRB. There is, for instance, poetry — three poems and reviews of a number of recent books of poetry. With one exception, the reviews are favorable. One might leap to the conclusion that poets are always kind to one another, but if one did so, one would be leaping into the very pit of wrong-headedness. Still, the review by W.H.Auden of David Jones’ Anathemata is very generous.
Auden showed this same generosity in a lot of his criticism, collected as The Dyer’s Hand, and reviewed here by John Berryman. Berryman states that Auden is not by trade a critic but praises him as an informed person who tries to increase the reader’s appreciation, rather than trying to boost himself through negative criticism.
That kind of negative criticism shows in a silly review of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And, to a lesser extent, in one of John Updike’s The Centaur (by Jonathan Miller). The NYRB has had a great problem with Updike over the years — first, he was mid-cult, then he was misogynistic, and so on. On the other hand, the recognition by the NYRB reviewer that J.D.Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction is not at all good, delights me, because I spent money I could not afford on that waste of paper (and on Franny and Zooey, too. Lord! If I could trade all the bad books I purchased when I could not afford them for one good book that I missed out on when it was available…)

Morley Callaghan, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer

Morley Callaghan, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer

There is lots of other material here — forty-four contributors, including great poets, critics, novelists, essayists, but there’s no point going on about that. One last review deserves mention — I suspect it will be the one essay most reprinted from this issue of the NYRB: Norman Mailer’s review of Morley Callaghan’s memoir, That Summer In Paris. Mailer waves aside most of the book as uninteresting — memoirs are an “inferior art” — but it contains “a superb short story”. The story, which has been widely discussed, concerns a boxing match between Callaghan and Ernest Hemingway, refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, that took place that summer in Paris. Hemingway had a penchant for calling smaller men into the ring and showing off by pounding them — later on, he did this with Cuban fishermen — but he made an error by taking on Callaghan, who had done some real boxing. So, Callaghan knocks Hemingway down when Fitzgerald, the time-keeper, over-extends the round. Hemingway over-reacts and snarls at Fitzgerald, who later asks Callaghan to apologize, and so on. A real literary match here, folks. But Mailer gets to the meat of the situation:

It is possible Hemingway lived every day of his life in the style of the suicide. What a great dread is that. It is the dread which sits in the silences of his short declarative sentences. At any instant, by any failure in magic, by a mean defeat, or by a moment of cowardice, Hemingway could be thrust back again into the agonizing demands of his courage. For the life of his talent must have depended on living in a psychic terrain where one must either be brave beyond one’s limit, or sicken closer into a bad illness, or, indeed, by the ultimate logic of the suicide, must advance the hour in which one would make another reconnaissance into one’s death.
… It is not likely that Hemingway was a brave man who sought danger for the sake of the sensations it provided him. What is more likely the truth of his long odyssey is that he struggled with his cowardice and against a secret lust to suicide all of his life, that his inner landscape was a nightmare, and he spent his nights wrestling with the gods. It may even be that the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself. There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.

And that, possibly, is the critical insight that will last longest from this first issue of the great New York Review of Books.
Dwight MacDonald wanted to be part of a small cultural community and the New York Review of Books was put together by a coterie who all knew one another and had worked together and sometimes were passionately riven, just as MacDonald fantasized. Many had published or participated in the Partisan Review. The Partisan Review had several editors among the reviewers here, MacDonald and DuPee among them, and The Partisan Review Anthology, a collection of essays culled from twenty-five years of publication, is reviewed in this issue.
The PR was godparent to the NYRB. But fairly quickly, the New York Review grew to include all kinds of writers from all over the world, many of whom have never met one another. The world is too large for the tiny fiefdoms of MacDonald’s fantasy. A recent article by Timothy Garton Ash [paywall] says that contributors to the NYRB belong to a “republic of letters” and states that the NYRB stands in for a European review of books, of which there are none so good. (Readers of the London Review of Books may need to be reminded that, during the London Times lockout in 1979, the NYRB founded the London Review. First issues were inserts in the NYRB.) And the NYRB has outgrown silliness like typing genre literature, television, and comics as not being worthy of notice. The Fiftieth Anniversary issue includes a review of George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice books and the television series Game of Thrones. Margaret Atwood has reviewed Elmore Leonard (favorably) in its pages and comics artists like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman are taken seriously. (Though the NYRB wound up with a useless clunker of a review when they assigned Harold Bloom to review Robert Crumb’s Genesis.) Right now the magazine has the highest circulation it has ever had — about 150,000 — even as other periodicals are dying. It still produces essays worth reading, whether you agree with them or not, and hopefully will continue doing so for another fifty years or more.

reprint of the first issue of the New York Review of Books
50th anniversary issue
Washington Post article on the 50th anniversary

Some of the books mentioned above:
Dwight MacDonald, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: The Classic Comparative Study of Race Relations in the Americas
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
W.H.Auden, The Dyer’s Hand
David Jones, Anathemata, The
Morley Callaghan, That Summer in Paris
Arthur Schlesinger, The Politics of Hope and The Bitter Heritage: American Liberalism in the 1960s

Good Books: Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

In 1830, at Dawson’s Landing, Missouri, a baby boy is born to a slave woman in the Driscoll household, Roxy; at the same time, a boy is being born to Roxy’s white mistress, who dies in childbirth. Roxy is ordered to nurse and raise both children. One week later, David Wilson arrives in Dawson’s Landing, meaning to practice law there. He enters into conversation with some locals:

…[when a] dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:
“I wish I owned half of that dog.”
“Why?” somebody asked.
“Because I would kill my half.”
The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:
“‘Pears to be a fool.”
“‘Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”
“Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot,” said a third. “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?”

After some discussion, the locals decide that Wilson is a “pudd’nhead”. Wilson is unable to shake this first impression and no one hires him as a lawyer. He takes down his shingle and offers his services as surveyor’s assistant and bookkeeper, specializing in untangling confused accounts. So begins Mark Twain’s 1894 novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Mark Twain photo used in the first editions of Pudd'nhead Wilson [Twain Library, U. of Va.]

Mark Twain photo used in the first editions of Pudd’nhead Wilson [Twain Library, U. of Va.]

The two children, one the white heir to the considerable Driscoll estate and the other a black slave, remain in Roxy’s care. One day she and the other house slaves are called before their master who has noticed that some cash has gone missing. He wants to know who has stolen the money. All say, Not I! But only Roxy is telling the truth. The master then says, if the guilty party confesses, that slave will be sold locally, but if no one confesses all four will be sold “down the river” to the new cotton plantations in Mississippi and Alabama being raised on land taken from Indians who had been driven out. This is a terrible sentence, for these plantations are well-known to be harsh and cruel places that use up slaves the same way that cotton uses up soil, wearing it out and working it to death. Immediately, three slaves fall to their knees and admit their guilt. Only Roxy remains standing. Only she will remain at the Driscoll household.
Roxy returns to her cabin, shaken by the knowledge that she could have been sold down the river. And her son might or might not be sold with her, or might be sold down the river in any case, without her. Roxy is 1/16 black (or Negro, if you wish) and looks white. Her race, or “caste” as Twain has it, is revealed only by her speech and her dress. Her son by a white father is 1/32 black and also appears white — in fact, the white baby’s father is not certain which child is his own except that he recognizes that his son is the one that wears better clothes. After wrestling with the moral implications of what she is doing, Roxy switches her baby for her master’s.
Now, before we go any further, there may be those who doubt such a switch is possible — black is black, white is white, and etc. So check out this photograph taken of some freed slave children in New Orleans in 1863 after the Union capture of the city:

pud-white slave children
[More photos and info here] Blacks pretending to be white is a constant theme in America. Of the children fathered on slave Sally Hemmings by her owner Thomas Jefferson, some descendants went north and lived as whites, some stayed in the south and were black. “Passing for white” was a theme in the 1959 movie Imitation of Life. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were legal in some states and life for blacks and whites was so unequal that, given a chance, many people who were legally (under state law at the time) black would pass for white.
There is considerable discussion in the United States right now as to whether such a thing as “race” exists. Twain is making the point that circumstance, not race, decides a person’s place in the world. A white person who is a slave becomes black. Race is created by racism. The fact that Obama is half white is meaningless, his black half defines his race. Roxy is black because she had a black great-grandmother; she and her child are the product of generations of slaves raped by white masters. Twain might appreciate the irony that has both Roxy and and her child played by very dark-skinned actors in the various dramatic and film adaptations of his book. But then, these black people could hardly be played by whites, could they?
So Roxy switches the children: her son becomes Tom Driscoll and her master’s son, Chambers, short for Valet de Chambres, “the fine sound of it had pleased [Roxy’s] ear” — even as she named her child, she was thinking of elevating him in the world.

David “Pudd’nhead” Wilson has a hobby: he collects fingerprints. By the 18th Century some European researchers understood that every individual had a unique set of fingerprints, something that the Chinese had known (but not applied) for a thousand years. The first real use of fingerprints for identification was made in India by English civil servant William Janes Herschel, a decade or two after Pudd’nhead Wilson ends. Wilson takes fingerprints on glass slides, labels them with the name and date, and stores them away. He already has two sets of the infants in Roxy’s care when she brings them around for another printing. She does not see the prints as identifying the boys (nor does anyone else see them as identifying marks); she wants to know if Wilson can detect that she has switched the babies. For Roxy, unlike the local townspeople, sees that Wilson is a very bright man. But he does not notice the exchange (all babies look alike) and Roxy is satisfied that her scheme will succeed. Wilson never compares the slides, just stores them away with the many others he has collected.
The idea of babies switched at birth is an old one, found in many folk tales around the world. The idea that a person might be of royal birth but was switched out for a commoner was current in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries in popular literature. Usually a scar or other identifying mark, perhaps known only to a parent or an old nurse, reveals the true heir to the throne. Occasionally it is a piece of jewellery that was left with the child. Twain reverses that concept by having Roxy take the necklace that belongs to the Driscoll baby and put it on her own boy. Twain mocked the “switched-at-birth” convention in some of his other writings, but here uses it to explore notions subversive of the original idea. Noble birth does not make better people, only more privileged ones. In other words, Twain is a proponent of Nurture over Nature and this shows up in his treatment of the two boys as they grow up.
Tom (Roxy’s own child) becomes the spoiled son of privilege, and Chambers, the true heir, learns humility as a slave. Tom is a nasty sort who enjoys giving pain. Chambers is often the recipient of Tom’s blows but, as he grows older and stronger, is used by Tom to beat up the other boys. The boys’ characters solidify as they become men.
Meanwhile, Tom’s father dies and he is fostered by his uncle, Judge Driscoll. Tom’s father has a disordered estate that is taken over by debt collectors, but his childless brother is wealthy and names Tom as his heir. Roxy is set free by her owner on his deathbed and goes off to work as a chambermaid on the riverboats. Tom spends two years at Yale where he was “not an object of distinction” and returns home.
Now Dawson’s Landing experiences a rarity: something exciting happens! Identical Italian twins take up residence there. The town is quite excited over having such exotic new residents and the twins are well-received.
Roxy also returns to Dawson’s Landing. She has begun to suffer from rheumatism and quit her job on the riverboats, meaning to live off the savings that she has slowly accumulated. Alas, her savings have disppeared when the New Orleans bank where they were held went bust and Roxy is penniless. Her co-workers on the riverboat take up a collection for her — not the last time in the book that people will take up a collection for Roxy, since she is well-liked — and Roxy makes her home in an abandoned building. She calls on Tom and asks him for money:

“My lan’, how you is growed, honey! ‘Clah to goodness, I wouldn’t a-knowed you, Marse Tom! ‘Deed I wouldn’t! Look at me good; does you ‘member old Roxy? Does you know yo’ old nigger mammy, honey? Well now, I kin lay down en die in peace, ‘ca’se I’se seed—”
“Cut it short, Goddamn it, cut it short! What is it you want?”
“You heah dat? Jes the same old Marse Tom, al’ays so gay and funnin’ wid de ole mammy. I’uz jes as shore—”
“Cut it short, I tell you, and get along! What do you want?”

Roxy loses her temper and reveals to Tom that: “You’s a nigger!—bawn a nigger and a slave!—en you’s a nigger en a slave dis minute; en if I opens my mouf ole Marse Driscoll’ll sell you down de river befo’ you is two days older den what you is now!” Unless he helps her, she will reveal all. She is quite aware of the kind of person that Tom is and tells him that if anything happens to her — like someone sticking a knife in her — that she has left a written account with a person who will make certain that Tom is exposed. Actually, there is no such letter but Roxy understands her boy well enough that she knows the threat is all that’s required to keep him in line.
Tom believes Roxy but he has no money to give her. He is a gambler — Judge Driscoll has already bailed him out once but has threatened to disinheirit Tom should he go into debt again. Tom has begun burglarizing houses in the town and selling the stuff he steals in pawnshops up the river. He manages to pay off his debts this way and swears never to gamble again. He shares half of his allowance from Judge Driscoll with Roxy and the two manage to get on for a while.
But Tom cannot stay away from gambling. He wins big, then loses it all and more besides. He engages in some more theft and Roxy helps him set up a scheme to borrow on his expected inheritance from Judge Driscoll. But when Tom goes to St.Louis to sell his plunder, he himself is robbed, and now has nothing. Once again, Roxy comes up with a scheme: Tom is to sell her as a slave to a farm upstate and use the proceeds to clear his debts. When he comes into the Driscoll fortune, he will buy her back.
Although Roxy is a freedwoman, she knows that slavedealers are not particular. Tom can put together some phony documents and she can be sold in an area where she is unknown. So it happens. Roxy is on a steamer, heading toward her new owner, when she realizes that the boat is going with the current. Tom has sold his mother down the river!
There are other crises: a duel between the Judge and one of the twins — the judge is fighting on Tom’s behalf and disowns him for not duelling until Tom weasels out an explanation; the continuing thefts — now reported as being done by a woman who the reader knows is Tom in drag; political hoopla — Wilson runs for Mayor and the twins run for Council: Wilson wins, the twins lose after being slandered by Tom, and they lose all their friends in town, except Wilson. But all this is just prelude to the big event: Roxy’s return.
Roxy is mistreated on the deep South plantation by a cruel overseer. When a child gives Roxy some food, the overseer hits the little girl until Roxy takes his stick away and beats him with it. Then she makes her way to the river where she finds a boat where she had once worked. The crew help her out, she steams up the river, people take up a collection for her, and now Roxy confronts her son — in blackface! Yes, to disguise herself, Roxy darkens her skin and wears men’s clothes. I think that, of all the characters in this book, Roxy comes out the best. She is not perfect by any means, she is imperious and bossy and likes her whisky, but she is also brave, resourceful, and intelligent.
So Roxy confronts Tom. She gives him an ultimatum: buy her back or she will go to Judge Driscoll. Roxy thinks that Tom will beg the money from his guardian, but Tom decides to steal it. Tom has with him a very valuable knife with jewelled scabbard that he stole from the twins, but the knife cannot be sold to a pawnbroker, everyone knows what it looks like and the seller would immediately be identified as a thief. The judge surprises Tom — or perhaps Tom never meant to hide from him — and Tom stabs him with the twins’ knife which he leaves behind.
So the Judge is dead, the twins are accused of his murder, and Tom stands to inheirit a fortune, The only obstacle to this scheme is Pudd’nhead Wilson who now takes up his neglected law practice to defend the Italians. Wilson has noticed a fingerprint on the knife…
The big trial scene: Wilson has compared the print on the knife with those in his collection and made some astounding discoveries. First, he explains fingerprints to the court and demonstrates that he can tell one person’s prints from another’s. Then he tells the story of two babies, switched at the age of ten months, as the fingerprint records show, and how the prints of one of those babies, now grown, is on the bloody knife. That man is a murderer and a slave posing as a white man. That person is… But Tom has already collapsed in a faint and there is no need to continue.
Some readers have criticized this book for its lack of coherence; they think it should have been written longer and read more smoothly and they have a point. Some of the characters — Chambers, for example — are little more than caricatures and there are certain inconsistencies in the narrative, but over all, I think Pudd’nhead Wilson stands up very well.
Twain was in need of money when he wrote the book — his publishing company had just failed — and dashed it off in a month or so of feverish writing. He says that, originally, the work was to feature more of the twins but that he found that he was trying to pour too much plot into too small a book. The book is sometimes titled The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins. So some of the twins’ story was removed to be printed as an addendum. Various critics have remarked on the twinning bits of the narrative — besides the Italians, there is Tom and Chambers, for instance, and other characters have counterparts. Perhaps this is a remnant of Twain’s original plan.

Mark Twain contemplates twins. Some think that, originally, Twain had meant the Italian twins to be conjoined.

Mark Twain contemplates twins. Some think that, originally, Twain had meant the Italian twins to be conjoined.

Twain had a bitter streak that shows up in many of his writings. Human beings always fall short of the greatness  of which Humanity is capable. This bitterness shows throughout the novel. All events, all opinions are delivered with Twain’s characteristic dry humor but there is a bite here not found in some of his other books. Several chapters end with a bit of harsh satire that the reader may or may not find funny. For instance, at the end of Chapter Two, when Driscoll demands that the thieving slaves confess or all will be sold down the river and the guilty parties say, “I done it!—have mercy, marster—Lord have mercy on us po’ niggers!” The master replies:

“I will sell you here though you don’t deserve it. You ought to be sold down the river.”
The culprits flung themselves prone, in an ecstasy of gratitude, and kissed his feet, declaring that they would never forget his goodness and never cease to pray for him as long as they lived. They were sincere, for like a god he had stretched forth his mighty hand and closed the gates of hell against them. He knew, himself, that he had done a noble and gracious thing, and was privately well pleased with his magnanimity; and that night he set the incident down in his diary, so that his son might read it in after years, and be thereby moved to deeds of gentleness and humanity himself.

Each chapter begins with a quotation from Puddn’head Wilson’s Calendar, a collection of thoughts by the man himself:

Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want
the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it
was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the
serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent. —Pudd’nhead
Wilson’s Calendar

Less amusing perhaps, is this one:

Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is,
knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first
great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the
world. —Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

But the bitterest comments of all close the book. The townspeople admit they were wrong to call Wilson a “pudd’nhead”. Yes, they say, he has turned us all into pudd’nheads. Now he is elevated but Wilson remains estranged from his fellows. His friends, the twins, return to Italy, having had enough of America. Roxy finds solace, as much as she can, in her church. Chambers supports her. Poor Chambers is now a wealthy free man, a white man, but his speech and manners are those of a slave. He can find no place in society, but Twain has little more to say about him. Twain winds up with these words about Tom:

The false heir made a full confession and was sentenced to imprisonment for life. But now a complication came up. The Percy Driscoll estate was in such a crippled shape when its owner died that it could pay only sixty percent of its great indebtedness, and was settled at that rate. But the creditors came forward now, and complained that inasmuch as through an error for which THEY were in no way to blame the false heir was not inventoried at the time with the rest of the property, great wrong and loss had thereby been inflicted upon them. They rightly claimed that “Tom” was lawfully their property and had been so for eight years; that they had already lost sufficiently in being deprived of his services during that long period, and ought not to be required to add anything to that loss; that if he had been delivered up to them in the first place, they would have sold him and he could not have murdered Judge Driscoll; therefore it was not that he had really committed the murder, the guilt lay with the erroneous inventory. Everybody saw that there was reason in this. Everybody granted that if “Tom” were white and free it would be unquestionably right to punish him—it would be no loss to anybody; but to shut up a valuable slave for life—that was quite another matter.

As soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river.


There are several editions of Pudd’nhead Wilson on line. I used the one at

Stephen Railton’s Mark Twain in His Times, is a valuable resource on Twain that includes a complete digitization of the first edition, a link to Those Extraordinary Twins, a number of illustrations, and some critical articles.

Pictures I Like: “A Walk To The Paradise Garden”, W. Eugene Smith (1946)


My Story: Isn’t that sweet! Those two kids and that wonderful light. All is joy and hope at an age when everything is new! No wonder that this photo was the final shot, the coda to Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit.

The Facts: Eugene Smith was an ordinary photographer before the Second World War, handling routine assignments for Life, Newsweek, and Parade magazines. After Pearl Harbor, he tried to join Steichen’s Navy photography unit but was refused because of his small size and an injury that hampered his movement. Smith persevered and managed to contract with Ziff-Davis Publishing and was assigned to the Pacific. He photographed combat at Rabaul, Tarawa, and in the Marianas. After his contract with Ziff-Davis ended, he got Life magazine to send him back in time for the fighting on Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa.
Smith’s father had committed suicide in 1936 and…:

…the sensational­ism of the local newspaper’s coverage of his death caused Smith to bitterly hate dishonest journalism. Smith almost decided to quit journalism, but a friend convinced him that, “honesty is not of a profession, but within the individual and what he brings to his work.”

This passion for honesty caused him to despise sentimental depictions of war’s glory (such as the Iwo Jima flag-raising); Smith was determined to show the gritty realities. These included dying soldiers caked in mud, and civilians caught up by chaos and fear.

Saipan, 1944. Smith: "They burst out through the opening, stumbling, dazed, choking, and nearly blinded by the fumes, trying to lurch and claw their way past the still warm body of a man, and another of a boy. Trying for an escape when there was no escape."

Saipan, 1944. Smith: “They burst out through the opening, stumbling, dazed, choking, and nearly blinded by the fumes, trying to lurch and claw their way past the still warm body of a man, and another of a boy. Trying for an escape when there was no escape.”

The Pacific war was brutal and nasty, and the battle for Okinawa was a horror show. This was the bloodiest battle Americans had fought since the Civil War and it included mass suicides by civilians who feared capture. Smith photographed it all. He hated what he saw but:

If I could photograph powerfully enough… If my photographs could grab the viewer by the heart, making the enormity of the terribleness of war lodge heavilly, they might also prod the conscience and cause him to think. [Smith]

Okinawa, 1944. Smith: "In his first action he had been quickly hit and was now lying on a stretcher... The blood had sprayed the length of him and behind him as he ran... it now was mixed with the muck of Okinawa from his boots to the head wound from which it had come... As he lay thee he touched the tips of his fingers together... The last I saw of him...two men running and creeping with the recent replacement between them... I think the boy on the stretcher was already dead."

Okinawa, 1944. Smith: “In his first action he had been quickly hit and was now lying on a stretcher… The blood had sprayed the length of him and behind him as he ran… it now was mixed with the muck of Okinawa from his boots to the head wound from which it had come… As he lay there he touched the tips of his fingers together… The last I saw of him…two men running and creeping with the recent replacement between them… I think the boy on the stretcher was already dead.”

While photographing the fighting, a shell hit near Smith and shrapnel tore through his body. One shell fragment passed through his left hand that was focusing the camera, and then ripped through his face, shattering parts of his skull. Smith was shipped back to the US and spent two years having metal and bone splinters removed from his face. His skull was reconstructed and his hand rebuilt, but fluid constantly dripped from his nose and he could not fully close his hand. For a time Smith thought he would never use a camera again.

Two years after he was wounded, Smith determined to make an effort to create a photograph. He decided to photograph his youngest children who were too small to recognize the struggle he was undertaking. He got his wife and oldest child out of the house, not wishing witnesses to what might be a failure. Once they were gone, Smith faced his first trial:  he had to load the camera with film.

I struggled to tear open the cardboard container, and then struggled to open the camera and insert the roll. This, at the beginning, almost proved my undoing, for as I fought to give my mangled left hand a strength and a control it did not have…the pain and the nerves and the fear and the inadequate fumbling left me trembling, sweating, and coldly hunched in cramp. [Smith]

Now, with the camera loaded, he and the children went outside. It was a lovely day and the children scampered about as Smith walked behind, trying to work the focus with his ruined hand. Whenever he brought the camera to his face, nasal fluid splashed on the glass viewfinder and obscured his vision. He struggled along, forcing his hand to work and swallowing the vile, bitter, seepage from his wounds.

Then Smith saw the opening in the trees, full of light, and thought his children might walk into it. It was the shot he hoped for.

I became acutely sensitive  to the lines forming the scene and to the bright shower of light pouring into the opening and spilling down the path toward us. Pat saw something in the clearing, he grasped Juanita by the hand and they hurried forward. [Smith]

Smith struggled with the camera, pain ripping from his hand through his arm as he focused, sucking down the “ugly tasting serum”, gauging the light and composition, and trying to determine exactly when to press the shutter to make up for his slowed reaction time. He squeezed off a shot and knew that he had something. He forced himself to take another. Then he turned away from the children so that they would not see him weep.


Life photographs by Smith
a biographical essay
the lengthy piece by Smith excerpted above
Photography Made Difficult, American Masters documentary

Lynd Ward

The story goes that when Lynd Ward, as a child, discovered that his name spelled backwards was “draw”, he determined to become an artist.

Ward self-portrait from the 1930s

Ward self-portrait from the 1930s

God’s Man, the first of six pictorial narratives that Ward completed, was published in 1929 and became a best-seller. The story is that of an artist who signs a contract with a mysterious stranger who gives him a magic brush. Using this tool, the artist creates paintings that win him wealth and fame. [The first ten pages of God’s Man are reproduced here.] But the artist becomes disenchanted with the emptiness of his fame and the falsity of the things offered him. He strikes out, is arrested, breaks free, and escapes the city.

 God's Man Arrest, Imprisonment, Escape, Pursuers gloat after the Artist falls from a cliff.

God’s Man: Arrest, Imprisonment, Escape, Pursuers gloat after the Artist falls from a cliff.

Outside the city, the artist finds artistic completion, love, and family in a wilderness paradise. One day, the mysterious stranger returns and asks the artist to fulfill the contract by painting his portrait. The artist complies but when the stranger removes his mask, he is revealed as Death and the artist dies.

 God' Man : block and print.

God’s Man : block and print.

Susan Sontag called God’s Man kitsch and Art Spiegelman, though sympathetic to Ward’s work, has said that he finds the depiction of the wilderness idyll unconvincing. Part of the problem is the nature of Ward’s medium, wood engraved prints. The printed images are stark black and white and the carved blocks leave little scope for individual nuance — the images are direct and symbolic, the pictorial language is dramatic by its nature. The artist’s eye has been influenced by silent movies, which in turn were influenced by histrionic stage drama styles of the late 19th Century. Gestures are exaggerated and every pose exudes meaning. German Expressionist cinema further developed, but refined, this kind of vision.

Frans Masreel from The City or or any of a lot of translated titles.

Frans Masreel from The City.

Ward engraved his images in the dense endgrain of maple blocks, an exacting process that, as Spiegelman has pointed out, often results in bloody fingers. Still, it was a process that Ward loved, even though he was also proficient in other techniques. Ward spent a year in Germany, 1926-27, studying the work of Flemish master Frans Masreel and others who had pioneered wood-cut stories. This work was largely unknown in the United States and God’s Man became a bestseller, popular enough so that, a year later, Milt Gross published a parody, He Done Her Wrong, which was called the second American all-graphic novel.

Milt Gross parody of Ward in He Done Her Wrong

Milt Gross parody of Ward in He Done Her Wrong

Ward’s second novel told in woodcuts was Madman’s Drum, [many illustrations here] an incredibly ambitious undertaking that sought to examine the corrupting influence of accumulated wealth over time. The story opens with a man stealing a magic drum in Africa. He uses the drum to enslave people and these slaves are the foundation of his wealth.

Two poages from Madman's Drum. As I understand it, the woman is reading of Justice but sees that, applied to her family, Justice = Death.

Two pages from Madman’s Drum. As I understand it, the woman is reading of Justice but sees that, applied to her family, Justice = Death.

We see the family’s history over three generations as its members disintegrate. But it is not the drum itself that is the agent of this family’s difficulties, rather it is profiting from enslaving and exploiting other human beings that corrupts them. The great problem with Madman’s Drum is that the limits of wood-cut mean that it is difficult to tell the characters apart over three generations. Ward’s art was better suited to symbolic narratives where the main character was The Artist or The Woman or some other typed person, rather than an individual with nuanced personality.

Wild Pilgrimage The lynching.

Wild Pilgrimage The lynching.

Ward returned to this concept with Wild Pilgrimage, where a young man escapes the city and the crushing demands of industrial society. He wanders into the idyllic countryside and is kneeling to pick a flower when he witnesses a lynching. Ward’s is not a simplistic back-to-nature story. The title is derived from a quote from Arturo Giovannitti, poet and activist, organizer of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike:

…thinking things that cannot be chained and cannot be locked, but that wander far away in the sunlit world, each in a wild pilgrimage after a destined goal.

Wild Pilgrimage: The Young Man is introduced to political theory; he thinks that he is pulled from the pit of ignorance; he sees the cause of all injustice (echoing the lynch scene);he and the Philosopher will change the world!

Wild Pilgrimage: The Young Man is introduced to political theory; he thinks that he is pulled from the pit of ignorance; he sees the cause of all injustice (echoing the lynch scene);he and the Philosopher will change the world!

The man runs away and, after a clumsy attempt at love, stumbles onto the farm of a backwoods philosopher who introduces him to leftist thinking. The young man, now full of ideas to shape his passion, returns to the city, meaning to effect change. He is drawn into a confrontation between police and strikers that becomes a riot. At one point he grabs a policeman by the throat and is strangling him but he sees the man’s face as his own and suddenly recognizes their shared humanity. Too late! He is killed in the riot and we close with a view of his corpse.

Wild Pilgrimage: The Young Man sees the factory floor as Hell; company police break up a workers' meeting; the Young Man realizes that he is assaulting his own humanity.

Wild Pilgrimage: The Young Man sees the factory floor as Hell; company police break up a workers’ meeting; the Young Man realizes that he is assaulting his own humanity.

One innovation Ward tried in this book was printing some pages in red that show the thinking of the main character. He sees a young woman and imagines them making love in the moonlight, but in black-printed reality, she pushes him away and he runs from rape charges. Factory life becomes a scene in Hell presided over by a whip-wielding demon foreman, after the young man (or The Young Man) reads a bit of socialist literature. The scenes of urban industrial life as Hell inspired Allen Ginsberg’s notion of Moloch in “Howl”. In 1978, a reprint of “Howl” was illustrated with a brand new Lynd Ward woodcut.

Ward's illustration for the 1978 reprint of Ginsburg's

Ward’s illustration for the 1978 reprint of Ginsberg’s “Howl”

Ward had similar political beliefs to those of his father, Harry F. Ward, a Methodist minister in the days when Methodism was deeply involved in social issues. Harry Ward was leader of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1920 until he resigned in 1940 because the organization banned communists.

Ward's hand with graver. Photo from The Complete Printmaker by Romano et al. All of the wood engraving photos in ths manual were of Ward and his work.

Ward’s hand with graver. Photo from The Complete Printmaker by Romano et al. All of the wood engraving photos in this manual were of Ward and his work. (For a look at Ward wielding his graver see the film trailer for O Brother Man).

After Wild Pilgrimage, Ward created two graphic novels not meant for a general readership. Prelude to a Million Years was a collection of thirty woodcuts that showed Ward’s more developed ideas about art and artists since God’s Man. It was printed directly from woodblock onto rag paper and hand-bound in a very small printing.

Prelude to a Thousand Years: A bitter commentary on the ephemeral nature of art? Perhaps.

Prelude to a Million Years: A bitter commentary on the ephemeral nature of art? Perhaps.

In 1936, Ward and many other people could see that the future looked grim. Lynd and his wife, May McNeer, were debating whether to have another child. This is the old “how can I bring a child into existence in a world like this?” problem. So Ward did a series of twenty-one blocks that showed one woman facing the prospect of death and destruction as she considers having a child. The blocks were published as Song Without Words. In the end, life triumphs over death, as always, and a child is born. The Wards’ child was their daughter Robin, who has become a keeper of her father’s legacy.

Song Without Words: The Woman desires achild; but the future seems terrible; life triumphs over fear.

Song Without Words: The Woman desires a child; but the future seems terrible; life triumphs over fear.

In 1940 Ward published his last completed novel in woodcuts, Vertigo, [sixteen examples plus a bit of synopsis here] where he attempted to apply all the lessons he had learned over a decade. There are three main characters: A Boy, A Girl, An Old Man. There are three time periods, shown in periods of years, months, and days: in the first, we see The Girl, a violinist, sacrificing herself to care for her father while The Boy yearns for her; in the second, The Girl takes up with The Old Man, a capitalist who is presented in terms quite different from the top-hatted, pot-bellied stereotypes of Ward’s earlier work — here he is simply old and lonely, with no purpose other than clipping his stock coupons; then, The Old Man is out of the picture, The Boy and The Girl are reunited and we are left to wonder how successful their union will be. Spiegelman considers this the best of Ward’s Novels in Woodcuts, though personally, I prefer Wild Pilgrimage.

Vertigo The young couple.

Vertigo The young couple.

During the years that Ward did his woodcut novels, he also did other work — a lot of other work. He illustrated Alec Waugh’s Book of Women… and Hot Countries, a series of ghost stories, and Frankenstein [all of the Frankenstein illustrations here] in woodcut but he also did other kinds of illustrations for work like Beowulf. And, like many illustrators of the era, he worked on children’s books.

Illustration for Waugh's Most Women.... Note the incredible textures produced by Ward's graver. [via thomas shahan 3's photostream on]

Illustration for Waugh’s Most Women…. Note the incredible textures produced by Ward’s graver. [via thomas shahan 3’s photostream on]

“Sanctuary”, 1939. The ivory tower above the fray. An artist is one of the residents.

from Beowulf

from Beowulf

“The Beast with Five Fingers”

from The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge

from The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge

Lynn Ward’s children’s books deserve a post or two all by themselves. Over the years he illustrated books by his wife, May McNeer, his daughters, and himself as well as those of other people. He won numerous Newbery Awards and finally a Caldecott for his own book, The Biggest Bear. In all, he had six Newbery Honor Award books and two Newbery Award books besides the Caldecott award books that he illustrated. No other illustrator has matched this record.

The Biggest Bear

The Biggest Bear

Ward was working on a new Novel in Woodcuts. The Silver Pony, when he died in 1985 at the age of 80. The extant prints were issued as a limited edition to a lucky few. Robin Ward has collaborated in a documentary on her father’s work, O Brother Man, the title taken from a Whittier poem later set to music as a hymn:

O brother man! fold to thy heart thy brother;
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

If you can’t find it at your local theater, O Brother Man; The Life and Work of Lynd Ward will probably turn up on PBS’ American Masters. And that is a fitting title for Lynd Ward.


The Library of America has issued Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcut with an introduction by Art Spiegelman.
If you can find it, the Out of Print Storyteller Without Words has the same six novels, a few extra illustrations, plus intros by Ward (also in the LoA version).
Dover has reprinted Gods’ Man: A Novel in Woodcuts, Mad Man’s Drum: A Novel in Woodcuts, Wild Pilgrimage: A Novel in Woodcuts, Prelude to a Million Years and Song Without Words: Two Graphic Novels, and Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts at rather cheap prices.
The illustrations for the unfinished The Silver Pony: A Story in Pictures is available. Also, the illustrated versions of Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition and numerous children’s book illustrations have been reprinted.
If you are an aficionado, you may find original printings of God’s Man or Wild Pilgrimage at your local used book dealer. Other titles are more expensive.
A Lynd Ward bio.
A very good essay here.
Art Spiegelman on the Wordless Book.
Chris Lanier blogs on the artists featured in the exhibition “Silent Witness”
As always, for more Ward picyures Google Image Search and are your friends.