A toast to …

The Pen & Pencil Club of Philadelphia.

Journalism has been taking a body blow lately, what with accusations of “fake news” and bias, but this ignores the terrific and courageous role that journalism played in much of the twentieth century and continues to play today. From Gareth Jones‘ reportage on the Ukrainian Holodomor in the 1930s to Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka” in 1944 and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946, great journalists have been dedicated to pursuing and reporting events that governments would prefer unpursued and unreported. They do this, often, at great personal risk, and even when the physical risk is minimal, the vast majority of journalists are biased to just one thing: facts, and facts that are verifiable, not those that might be characterized as “alternative.”

I’ve been involved in various kinds of journalism since I edited my college newspaper back in the day; since then, much of this has been arts journalism, and lately here at the blog what I generously call “journalism” has been of the more personal variety. Nonetheless, I’m delighted and honored to end this week as a new, full member of Philadelphia’s Pen & Pencil Club, the oldest private club for journalists in the United States, founded in 1892. It’s going to be a rough couple years up until the 2024 election, and as a free press is the handmaiden of democracy, I raise my glass today to journalism and journalists. And though I’ll be at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I hope to raise a glass or three at the Pen & Pencil Club soon.

A toast to …

Cafe Katja.

I was originally going to raise a glass to myself for actually writing and publishing a substantive post this week, but instead my Friday toast at Cafe Katja will be to the memory of Norm Macdonald, who departed these earthly shores all too soon a few days ago. He’d been a great favorite of mine for years (even on The Norm Show, his 1999 sitcom). Rather than burden the internet with yet another heartfelt memorial, I thought I’d post one of his best talk-show appearances — and there were many — in the below clip from a 1997 Late Night with Conan O’Brien, when Macdonald hijacked an interview with Melrose Place star Courtney Thorne-Smith to offer a savage takedown of the prop comic Carrot Top in just a few well-chosen words.

So here’s to Norm. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

A toast to … slow comebacks

Cafe Katja.

This week I noted the recent release of a few books by and about R. Crumb and the upcoming release of a new recording of Scott Joplin rags, performed by my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken.

Like everyone else, I’ve been easing back into things, including this blog, after an extended period of admittedly intermittent activity. Along with the recent Plague-Year-and-a-Half (apologies to Daniel Defoe), we’ve been in medias res between living spaces as our recently purchased new apartment has been undergoing renovation. Private time has been tricky for all of us, and though Virginia Woolf insisted that a room of one’s own was a necessity, it’s not always a possibility. Still, a light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and I hope that we can open up at full capacity soon, masks not required.

Fortunately my usual Friday watering hole is now permitting bar seating. I’ve come to believe that the first mark of a civilized society is the ability to walk into a bar, pull up a stool, and sip quietly at an adult beverage as one considers with a bartender and a friend (or in solitude, if that prospect pleases) the events of the day and the mysteries of life on this earth. Without this liberty, all is chaos. See you at Cafe Katja later today.

A toast to … cynical pessimistic dads

I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that several of the writers and artists I admire, angry and cynical misanthropes nearly all of them (and there’s plenty to be angry and cynical about, especially these days), are nonetheless parents — an odd choice, adding more people to the world they hate. Joe Heller, R. Crumb, William Gaddis, you name ’em; they’ve got spawn running around even as we speak. Even W.C. Fields had children. I’m here to tell you, it ain’t easy, bearing these two contradictory experiences in mind. And kids themselves, being human, ain’t necessarily so innocent and pure either.

I’m not sure you can say that parenting inspires hope, or vice versa. It could be just a way for us to say, “Hey, at least we’re trying.” Some days it’s easier than others — and all too often we get caught up in the contradictions inherent in the situation. I think Crumb put it best, catching a bit of the self-pity involved when laughter fails us, below: and its ambivalent final panel is possibly all that can be said.

See you at Cafe Katja later today.

 

A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!