Uncommon sense

“Join, or Die,” a political cartoon drawn by Benjamin Franklin and first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754.

My recent visit to the Museum of the American Revolution led me to Gordon S. Wood‘s brief The American Revolution: A History, one of the volumes in the Modern Library Chronicles series. It’s impossible to cover such a complex period of American history in 166 pages of text, but it’s better than nothing and, for those of us bored to tears by the evocation of the period in our elementary school history classes, necessary. It helps that Wood is one of the foremost scholars of the Revolutionary period and possessed of a felicitous prose style besides (he’s won the Bancroft, John H. Dunning, and Pulitzer prizes). There’s no harm in this refresher course of our origins.

I unconditionally love this country, but a blind unconditional love is a stupid love, and to overlook America’s obvious flaws and dark periods helps nobody. “The history of the American Revolution, like the history of the nation as a whole, ought not to be viewed as a story of right and wrong or good and evil from which moral lessons are to be drawn,” Wood writes. “The Revolution … is not a simple morality play; it is a complicated and often ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not celebrated or condemned.” Among the ironies that Wood emphasizes is that Washington was a rather mediocre battlefield general; that most of the “Founding Fathers” had personal, pecuniary self-interests in devising the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; and, most obviously, that insisting on freedom and human rights in a country in which slavery flourished and women were relegated to second-class status is hypocritical, to say the least, and the legacies of this hypocrisy stain this country to the present day. But we must file this under “bathwater, throwing babies out with.” The American Revolution and its leading actors also nobly struggled against monarchical tyranny, and out of their thinking, debating and writing came one of the most inspiring examples of republican and democratic government the world has ever seen. To say that the revolutionaries failed to fully live up to many of their ideals (many of which I share, like the separation of powers, separation of church and state, freedom of speech and religion, private property, and a means of chucking the bastards out when we need to), and that they failed to foresee some of the unintended consequences of their decisions (such as the recent failure of the Electoral College system), is only to say that they were as human as the rest of us, despite the genius of many of them. A man’s reach, though, should exceed his grasp, even if we never get to heaven. I may not be able to agree with the musical Hamilton‘s suggestion that “New York is the greatest city in the world,” but the United States is certainly the greatest country, even if it’s great in spite of its current leadership, as Donald Trump, his cronies in the GOP, and those who support them destroy and mock the ideals upon which Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the others founded this land. Talk about self-interest.

Slamming the revolutionary generation has become rather the thing these days, and some read Howard Zinn and think they’re the first to find the Holy Grail of Historical Truth. But it’s no surprise that the early Americans failed to solve the issues of race and equality. We don’t seem much closer to solving them ourselves, and this ambivalence has never been far from the surface of the ways we look at early American history. Christ, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone even wrote a song about it, for the Broadway musical 1776. In “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” John Cullum as Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina delegate to the Second Continental Congress, offers a savage appraisal of the slave trade that implicates all of the Americans gathered at the Congress. It continues to implicate us. Below, the song as it appeared in the 1972 film version of the musical.


Leon Redbone.

This week I typed up a review of the fine Temple University Press publication Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City; a few vagrant reflections on my recent visit to the Museum of the American Revolution; and an anticipation of the upcoming baseball season.

I leave you with Leon Redbone‘s 1975 performance of Irving Berlin’s 1938 song “My Walking Stick.” A few years ago Redbone retired from recording and performing due to health reasons, but until then he was among the most popular performers of the songs of early 20th-century music, stretching back to Blind Blake. Redbone cultivated an air of mystery. According to his Wikipedia entry, he may have been born in Cyprus under the unlikely name Dickran Gobalian, but it’s more than possible that he was a Philadelphia boy:

According to a Toronto Star report in the 1980s, he was once known as Dickran Gobalian, and he came to Canada from Cyprus in the mid-1960s and changed his name via the Ontario Change of Name Act. However, an article about producer John H. Hammond in a 1973 issue of the Canadian jazz magazine Coda states that he was a native of Philadelphia who moved to Toronto: “Sitting next to Hammond was a young white musician named Leon Redbone from Philadelphia, but currently residing in Toronto.”

Wherever he’s from, he’s missed, by me anyway. “My Walking Stick” appears on his first album, On the Track. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

The national pastime

The wintry mess that infested New York’s skies, streets, and sidewalks yesterday would indicate that we’re still far from springtime, which is supposed to begin on March 20. I’ll believe it when I see it. But a surer indication of spring’s debut is the start of baseball season, which this year falls on March 29.

Yesterday I mentioned Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies, and you should still look that one up. But her next book will be Why Baseball Matters, which Yale University Press will pour into bookstores on March 20. “Baseball’s greatest charm — a clockless suspension of time — is also its greatest liability in a culture of digital distraction,” runs the publisher’s blurb for the book. “Jacoby argues forcefully that the major challenge to baseball today is a shortened attention span at odds with a long game in which great hitters fail two out of three times. Without sanitizing this basic problem, Why Baseball Matters reminds us that the game has retained its grip on our hearts precisely because it has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to reinvent itself in times of immense social change.”

You can pre-order the book from Amazon here, but I want to conclude with the book’s epigraph, a particularly apt meditation from novelist Philip Roth, which appeared in the April 2, 1973, issue of the New York Times under the title “My Baseball Years”:

It seems to me that through baseball I was put in touch with a more humane and tender brand of patriotism, lyrical rather than martial or righteous in spirit, and without the reek of saintly zeal, a patriotism that could not so easily be sloganized, or contained in a high-sounding formula to which you had to pledge something vague but all-encompassing called your “allegiance.”

A project for Ken Burns or someone like him

I was delighted with my visit on Saturday to the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which just opened last year; it’s a fascinating and solemn reminder of the ideals and courage required to found a country like ours, and conveniently located near Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. Though established on noble and laudable grounds, my homeland inevitably falls short of these in reality. One can spend the entire day at the museum, so all-encompassing are the exhibits, and when one considers just how far we’ve fallen in grace and courage since then — well, pride is not the word, for I didn’t do any fighting for these ideals myself, but it certainly inspires me to take these ideals more seriously in my private and public lives. Although Joe Biden attended the opening ceremonies last April and delivered the keynote address, nobody from the current administration could be bothered to attend. This should tell you scores about the current administration, too; perhaps the museum’s proximity to the National Constitution Center gave the Trump people the willies.

Of course, the shadow that falls between the idea and the reality is a fertile garden for American satire as well. I hope that one of these days Ken Burns — or somebody like him, but possessed of a sense of humor — creates one of those PBS documentary series about the history of the form in the United States; it certainly stretches from its colonial days (Ben Franklin could be particularly scabrous and scurrilous) to the present. Most neglected recently have been the satires of the pre-World War II era, and surprisingly it was one of the richest genres of American literature of the past hundred or so years. Twain (who died in 1910) kicked it off, of course, with his screeds against the Philippine–American War and the continuing practice of lynching in the south, but it did go on. Ten years earlier, in 1899, H.L. Mencken began writing for Baltimore’s Morning Herald newspaper; in 1920, Sinclair Lewis published his first masterpiece of American satire, Main Street; and in 1931, Nathanael West published the first of his four magnificent satiric novelettes, The Dream Life of Balso Snell.

By 1940 it was all over. West was dead; Mencken’s style and iconoclasm were less popular in a nation just emerging from an economic depression and preparing for war; and Lewis was succumbing to the alcoholism that would lead, in part, to his death ten years later. But those three decades between 1910 and 1940 were rich with this kind of satiric excavation, despite the fact that these authors have been eclipsed by the reputations of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Of the novelists, West and Lewis attacked the fraudulent nature of private and public life. West prophetically saw the catastrophes that a celebrity culture could produce in The Day of the Locust and the tragedy of maudlin sentimentalism and the sterility of New York City’s urban life in Miss Lonelyhearts; Lewis condemned the petty soullessness of the American salesman and his culture in Babbitt and the hypocrisy of cultish evangelical religion (a part of American culture since George Whitefield‘s time) in Elmer Gantry. And both novelists foresaw the dangers of a rank democracy of ignorant masses, leading to totalitarianism, in A Cool Million (West) and It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis).

The satirists of the 1950s, such as William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, and Terry Southern, built upon these foundations for their own masterpieces; without these earlier authors (and a few Europeans such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine), there’d be no The Recognitions, JR, Catch-22, or The Magic Christian.

If you want to follow the road from the ideals and stresses that gave rise to the American Revolution to the situation we’re in today, and you want to understand how we got here, you could do worse than revisit Twain, Mencken, Lewis, and West; to see how their prophecies have come true, I would recommend following these up with Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in America and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (the latter was republished in paperback, with an update, earlier this year). They won’t give you hope — not least because most Americans these days can’t be bothered to read anything that doesn’t appear on a Facebook feed — but they will give you a pretty good idea of how we got here. And if you do indeed want that hope, you’ll have to go to the Museum of the American Revolution yourself, to remember that there was a time when we collectively aimed just a little higher — politically, culturally, and personally — than we do now.

And afterwards stop in for dinner at City Tavern. That doesn’t disappoint, either.

Below, a 1948 interview with that great American H.L. Mencken, conducted at the Library of Congress and the only extant recording of that author’s voice. It was recorded only a few months before a stroke incapacitated Mencken, leaving him unable to speak clearly or write at all — though aware and fully conscious — until his death eight years later, in 1956.