Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Artist in Treason

Patriot, traitor, general, spy: James Wilkinson was a consummate contradiction. Brilliant and precocious, at age twenty he was both the youngest general in the revolutionary Continental Army, and privy to the Conway cabal to oust Washington from command. He was Benedict Arnold’s aide, but the first to reveal Arnold’s infamous treachery. By thirty-eight, he was the senior general in the United States army—and had turned traitor himself.

Wilkinson’s audacious career as Agent 13 in the Spanish secret service while in command of American forces is all the more remarkable because it was anything but hidden. Though he betrayed America’s strategic secrets, sought to keep the new country from expanding beyond the Mississippi, and almost delivered Lewis and Clark’s expedition into Spanish hands, four presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—turned a blind eye to his treachery. They gambled that Wilkinson—by turns charming and ruthless—would never betray the army itself and use it to overthrow our nascent democracy—a fate every other democracy in the Western hemisphere endured. The crucial test came in 1806, when at the last minute Wilkinson turned the army against Aaron Burr and foiled his conspiracy to break up the Union.

A superb writer and superlative storyteller, Andro Linklater captures with brio Wilkinson’s charismatic ability to live a double life in public view. His saga shows, more clearly than any other, how fragile the young republic was and how its strength grew from the risks its leaders faced and the challenges they had to overcome.
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Wilkinson is one of those early fascinating Revolutionary figures that I've always wanted to know more about. I'm glad someone has taken the time to ferret him out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

This just in from the late 1890s














I know it's not the weekend, but was sure this was an appropriately historical photograph.

Meander away.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

21st Century Upton Sinclair?

Mr. Foer writes that the bioengineering of chickens (to yield more meat in a shorter time), combined with horribly cramped living conditions (eight-tenths of a square foot per bird) leads to “deformities, eye damage, blindness, bacterial infections of bones, slipped vertebrae, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia, slipped tendons, twisted lower legs and necks, respiratory diseases, and weakened immune systems.” He says that farmed fish suffer from “the abundant presence of sea lice, which thrive in the filthy water” of their enclosures and “create open lesions and sometimes eat down to the bones on a fish’s face.” And he contends that cattle are not always efficiently knocked out before being processed at the slaughterhouse, and as a result “animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious.”

The journalist Michael Pollan explored some of these issues in his 2006 best seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and now, in Eating Animals, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer takes on a similar task. Because “Eating Animals” remains heavily indebted to Mr. Pollan’s book, along with Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and the work of various reporters, Mr. Foer’s chief contribution to the subject seems to lie in the use of his literary gifts — showcased in the two novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” — to give the reader some very visceral, very gruesome descriptions of factory farming and the slaughterhouse.

Ragtime


In line with what we have been covering, a group reading of Ragtime might be a lot of fun. I loved the way Doctorow contrasted such characters as J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, and had Evelyn Nesbit become a pet project of Emma Goldman. Really great novel on the gilded age. It was made into a musical no less.

Speaking of Mencken

So what exactly does the term Menckenesque mean, and how did the holder of that particular copyright, a figure who was by today's standards exceedingly unlovable, retain his stature as ''a tremendous liberating force in American culture''?

Answers to questions about Mencken's true identity and the nature of his appeal are to be found in Terry Teachout's biography of him, ''The Skeptic,'' which is as brisk and smart, as smooth-as-silk an account as we're likely to find. Mr. Teachout, who is the music critic for Commentary magazine and a contributor to many publications (including The New York Times), has swallowed Mencken whole in this book, warts and all. There's admiration of him but no sanitizing of a man who, in Mr. Teachout's unblinkered view, was not only unequivocally anti-Semitic but, perhaps worse, given what Mencken supposedly stood for, something of a philistine himself.

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from a NYT review of Teachout's 2002 book. There is also a later account by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers.

Monk's Moods

Ordered what appears to be a wonderful book on Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley that explores his many moods and debunks many of the myths surrounding him.

Throughout the book, Kelley plays down Monk’s “weirdness,” or at least contextualizes it. But Monk did little to discourage the popular view of him as odd. Always a sharp dresser and stickler for just the right look, he also favored a wide array of unconventional headgear: astrakhan, Japa­nese skullcap, Stetson, tam-o’-shanter. He had a trickster sense of humor, in life and in music, and he loved keeping people off-balance in both realms. Off-balance was the plane on which Monk existed. He also liked to dance during group perform­ances, but this served very real functions: first, as a method of conducting, communicating musical instructions to the band members; and second, to let them know that he dug their playing when they were in a groove and swinging.

For Jazz lovers it appears this book is a must.

Navajo Code Talkers Break Silence


Many Veterans' Day stories, including the sad events that took place at Ft. Hood, but I found this one about the Navajo Code Talkers the most interesting,

NEW YORK – The famed Navajo Code Talkers, the elite Marine unit whose unbreakable code stymied the Japanese in World War II, fear their legacy will die with them.

Only about 50 of the 400 Code Talkers are believed to be still alive, most living in the Navajo Nation reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many are frail or ill, with little time left to tell the world about their wartime contribution.

"It was all covered by secrecy. We were constantly told not to talk about it," Little said. The Code Talkers felt compelled to honor their secrecy orders, even after the code was declassified in 1968.

The oldest of the 13 living Code Talkers is 92, and the group includes one of the original 29. Many Code Talkers who served in the war were young farmers and sheepherders who had never been away from home.

"The code did a lot of damage to the enemy," said Samuel Tom Holiday, 85, of Kayenta, Ariz., who also is joining the parade. He was a 20-year-old Code Talker when he and two other Marines went behind enemy lines on Iwo Jima to locate a Japanese artillery unit advancing on American forces.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Red Literature

Also interesting are the various literary allusions Schlesinger makes, notably Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos. He doesn't spend too much time on this but notes the growing disillusionment with big business and the flirting with communism that was occurring in America at the time. Babbit became synonymous with the petty small-minded businessman. Dos Passos went much further, turning his back on socialism, which he compared to drinking "near-beer," and embracing communism. Seems this shift got an even bigger endorsement when Lincoln Steffens concluded in his Autobiography that "All roads in our day lead to Moscow." (pp. 207-209) Schlesinger also notes how the Sacco and Vanzetti case galvanized such diverse writers as Edna St. Vincent Millay and John Dos Passos against the conservative paranoia that was sweeping the country.

Schlesinger notes in a later chapter that for many intellectuals in 1932 "the Communist party alone proposed the real solution -- 'the overthrow of the system which is reponsible for all crises.' Here was an ideal worth fighting for, and a 'practical and realizable ideal, as is being proved in the Soviet Union.' " Among those supporting the Communist Party were novelists Sherword Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Erskine Caldwell, Waldo Frank, John Dos Passos, and critics Edmund Wilson, Granville Hicks, Malcolm Cowley, and journalists Lincoln Steffens, Matthew Josephson and Ella Winter. (pp. 436-37)

Health care bill passes House in historic vote

WASHINGTON - -- The House of Representatives late Saturday approved the most sweeping health care legislation in two generations, advancing President Barack Obama's campaign to guarantee health coverage to almost all Americans.

The legislation was passed 220-215 shortly after House members added a provision that prohibits federally subsidized insurance plans from offering abortion services.

The House plan would cover an additional 36 million people by 2019, leaving 4 percent of the nation without coverage, compared with the estimated 17 percent who do not have insurance now, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office."

For generations, the American people have called for affordable, quality health care for their families. Today, the call will be answered," said Pelosi, who rallied her members after weeks of cajoling and dealmaking.
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We'll see how much is left of the bill after the Senate gets through with it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

No Ordinary Time

Here she recounts the war years, 1940 through 1945, from the perspective of the American Presidency. She tells how Franklin Delano Roosevelt coaxed an isolationist, Depression-ridden nation first into supplying arms to England in that country's lonely battle against Nazi Germany and then into taking up arms itself, and how his command of the home front transformed the United States into a mighty industrial power.

At the same time, Mrs. Goodwin has something more intimate in mind than even our personal memories of the war years. She sets out to tell her history through the lives of the Roosevelts and those who occupied the White House with them at a time when that building functioned more as a dormitory for famous personages than the President's official residence. And the details of these people's passionate relations -- their friendships and loves, rivalries and jealousies -- are what make "No Ordinary Time" seem so fresh and alive.
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Sounds like a good read.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Forgotten Man

Here's a NYT review of Amity Shlaes' recent book critiquing the Age of Roosevelt,

The story of the Schechters remains a powerful one, even if it did not mark the end of centralization. By outlawing chicken discounts, Roosevelt overreached, much as he later did in trying to pack the Supreme Court (motivated by decisions like Schechter). But beyond that, his economic meddling failed to accomplish his larger goal of ending the Depression. The “sick chicken case” thus became a useful prĂ©cis of the argument that the New Deal’s reputation deserves to be more complicated than it is.

No wonder, then, that Amity Shlaes, a former editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, has made the brothers heroic figures in her book “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.” Her argument is somewhat more subtle than the usual critique from the right. She sees both Roosevelt and his Republican predecessor Herbert Hoover as inveterate economic tinkerers. Hoover, the engineer turned politician, never lost his instinct to fix things and, as a result, signed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff bill. His biggest sin, and Roosevelt’s, was a “lack of faith in the marketplace,” Shlaes writes. “From 1929 to 1940, from Hoover to Roosevelt, government intervention helped to make the Depression Great.”

Seems the neo-cons after all these years still can't accept that government intervention was necessary during this time of crisis, still adhering to the old "market approach." It was a good thing Bernanke and Paulson didn't think the same way. The book is nicely packaged, which tempted me until I started reading amazon reviews.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Bonus Army Invades Washington 1932


One of the more upsetting stories Schlesinger tells is of the Bonus Army marching on Washington to ask for early payment of their 1945 Bonus, which Congress refused to do. Police Chief Glassford was sympathetic to their cause, a former WWI General, but in the end Hoover called on MacArthur, who in turn had a young Ike clean up the mess, when the BEC refused to decamp.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stuart Chase

Stuart Chase comes across as one of the more interesting thinkers from the period Schlesinger explores in The Crisis of the Old Order. Nice article on him in the Harvard Magazine:

Chase’s growing influence had attracted the attention of Franklin D. Roosevelt ’04, then governor of New York. The men first met in 1931, shortly before the publication of Chase’s book A New Deal. FDR made use of its economic arguments and made a "new deal" the focal point of his 1932 speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. Though not a Brains Truster, Chase later served in FDR’s "kitchen cabinet"; in 1937, the president told Chase’s father that his son was "teaching the American people more about economics than all the others combined." Others concurred: in 1942 a magazine writer noted, "[H]e perhaps more than any other one person has made economics interesting and understandable to everyday people like you and me."