A toast to … two American artists

This week I considered my responses to a recent visit to the home of Mark Twain and looked forward to an October event celebrating Weirdo, the 1980s comics magazine founded by R. Crumb.

I raise my glass to these two gentlemen today, and in closing the week observe that the work of both of these artists has been reviled and censored in the past — Huckleberry Finn since the time of its publication in 1884/5, R. Crumb’s comics rather more recently. I don’t here want to equate the differing achievements of these two individuals, but offer up a few recent defenses of their work.

Toni Morrison, who left us only recently, examined Huckleberry Finn for the Oxford Mark Twain edition edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin in 1996. “In the early eighties I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools,” she wrote. “These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.”

Along with T.S. Eliot’s essay about the book, Morrison’s essay is one of the most sensitive readings of Huck Finn since the novel’s publication; you can read the entire essay here. It concludes:

The source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear: an imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses — Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child; the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim’s and his relationship; and the secrecy in which Huck’s engagement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted. It is also clear that the rewards of my effort to come to terms have been abundant. My alarm, aroused by Twain’s precise rendering of childhood’s fear of death and abandonment, remains — as it should. It has been extremely worthwhile slogging through Jim’s shame and humiliation to recognize the sadness, the tragic implications at the center of his relationship with Huck. My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race-inflected society, is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain puts that maze, that risk.

Yet the larger question, the danger that sifts from the novel’s last page, is whether Huck, minus Jim, will be able to stay those three monsters as he enters the “territory.” Will that undefined space, so falsely imagined as “open,” be free of social chaos, personal morbidity, and further moral complications embedded in adulthood and citizenship? Will it be free not only of nightmare fathers but of dream fathers too? …

For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.

The jury of course is still out on the endurance of Crumb’s art, but a few months ago Brian Doherty described and discussed in Reason magazine the increasing controversy in the alternative comics community around Crumb. To nobody’s surprise, his work has given rise to accusations of racism (like Twain’s) and sexism (also like Twain’s, but rather less vociferously). Doherty writes:

One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition. Which, as Crumb firmly believes, includes a lot of awful, unacceptable thoughts and behavior. …

Many people understand that art is for expressing and exploring the human mind and soul — and the human mind and soul contain darkness, sexual mania, racism, hostility, and any number of awful truths. To force those things out of the conversation is to unreasonably limit the whole project, they say. Art is a treasured aspect of the healthy human condition, even if what the art says is unhealthy on various dimensions. Many others consider that tradeoff worth it in the name of protecting the status and feelings of previously excluded or oppressed groups.

Crumb’s attempt to open comics to a vast range of human expression was victorious: Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, those working in the field today are his descendants. Like all children and grandchildren, they can choose whether or not to understand their patriarch, whether to emulate him or tell him to fuck off. Their choices may not always be kind or wise, but such is human freedom.

A toast to … the county fair

Though it’s an honor just to be nominated.

This week I bid a fond farewell to Paul Krassner, quoted his response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and scanned my bookshelves for a syllabus for Philadelphia 101.

But today I travel northward, not southward, to the Greene County Youth Fair in Cairo, NY, celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. (You can read a little about its history here.) Set in the midst of upstate New York’s rolling hills and mountains, the county fair is one of those events unique to the United States, and a grand time it is for midsummer: 4-H club members bring their animals — pigs, chickens, rabbits, you name it — for the solemn deliberation of highly regarded, stern, expert judges; you can eat some of their kin (the animals’, not the judges), enjoying excellent pork barbeques, sausages, chicken sandwiches, and fresh ears of corn; and there’s always live roots music from local bands to accompany your meal. It’s a place where screens, celebrities, politics, and religion don’t exist: just good feeling and good eating. So this week I raise my glass — or, rather, my paper cup filled with fresh lemonade — to the county fair, a rare pleasure in these anxious times. I’ll save you some funnel cake.

A toast to … Marilyn Nonken

Last week saw the official publication of Identity and Diversity in New Music: The New Complexities, a new book from Routledge by my lovely wife, Marilyn Nonken. The title is pretty self-explanatory (except for that punning reference to one particular stream of contemporary music), but more to the point the book comes from an insider. Marilyn has been an important pianist on the new music scene since her 1993 debut recital; more recently, and while continuing to pursue a busy performance schedule, she’s been the Director of Piano Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School, where she’s Associate Professor of Music. Her book is a concise and thoughtful but honest and critical look at the roles of identity and diversity in creating new audiences and performers, based upon a survey of important twentieth and twenty-first century musical organizations from both aesthetic and organizational (as well as uniquely personal) perspectives. So a toast to her later today at Cafe Katja.

I’ve already read Marilyn’s book (twice, I think), so I myself am moving on to other books on my bedside table. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction, is the first among a series of books exploring the failure of critical thinking in this country — and so explaining the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his supporters. I suppose it’s hopelessly idealistic of me to think so, but perhaps one day a survey course called “American Stupidity 101” will be added to some university’s freshman curriculum, and as a required course. The reading list selects itself: apart from Hofstadter’s book, there’s also Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Neil Postman, 1985), The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Susan Jacoby, 2008, updated to include an analysis of Trump’s victory in 2018), and Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Charles B. Pierce, 2009). The most recent entries are The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Tom Nichols, 2017) and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, 2018). Hofstadter’s book has stood the test of time; indeed, it enters the pantheon next May when it will be published in the Library of America, the American version of the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Hofstadter’s definition of intellectualism did not conceive of intellectuals as either pointy-headed pedagogues or nattering nabobs of negativism to be found in ivory towers; no, as Nicholas Lemann pointed out in 2014, it was a habit of mind. Lemann cites Hofstadter himself:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

The last thing you could say, I think, about Trump and his supporters. Lemann adds, “It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people. You can see how the all-out quality of fundamentalist religion, or of salesmanship, or of ideologically driven politics, would have been anathema to Hofstadter.”

These books are grimly amusing, if you’re in the right mind. The same can be said of Nathanael West’s novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, which lies next to the Hofstadter book on my bedside table. West’s books are satire that transcends satire; both are set in milieux of popular culture (journalism in the case of the first, Hollywood in the second) and bitterly detail the trivialization of personal experience in American urban life. (West also took on a fascistic Trump-like figure in his more explicitly political A Cool Million, a parody of Horatio Alger’s self-help books.) Miss Lonelyhearts is sui generis; The Day of the Locust is one of my two favorite novels about Hollywood (the second being Terry Southern’s scurrilous and under-rated Blue Movie).

So I’ve got my weekend reading planned. If I don’t see you at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I’ll see you next week.

A toast to … Pride Day and the Declaration of Independence

This week, on the eve of a visit to my old home town, I republished a few essays about my family’s tenancy there as well as a history or two of the City of Brotherly Love.

It’s been a month since my usual Friday audience at Cafe Katja and I won’t be there today, but if I were, I’d be lifting my glass high to Sunday’s Pride Day and the lovely and courageous LGBTQ+ men, women, and others who have contributed an extraordinary amount to our country and who still face so much prejudice from morons and idiots. So prost!

And, of course, I lift my glass as well to the Declaration of Independence, celebrating its 243rd birthday next Thursday, July 4. At the G20 summit in Japan, our Idiot in Chief is enjoying the opportunity to kid around with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “A smirking Mr. Trump wagged his finger at the Russian president and said: ‘Don’t meddle in the election, please,'” according to the BBC, and once again dismissing the idea that he wouldn’t be the Idiot in Chief at all were it not for Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns in 2016. (Of course, he wouldn’t be.) And what will Trump and Putin discuss in their closed door meeting? “‘What I say to him is none of your business,’ he told reporters, bluntly.” And none of ours, apparently.

What’s more, Putin told a reporter for the Financial Times that Western liberalism — of which the Declaration of Independence is a central expression — is dead. “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone,” Putin said (and there’s nothing Putin and Trump love more than dictating).  The BBC reported:

He added that liberalism conflicted with “the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population,” and took aim at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing large numbers of refugees to settle in Germany.

“This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

So it’s worthwhile here to remind ourselves of the contemporary trend to tyranny-as-populism, exemplified in both leaders. In 1921, H.L. Mencken translated the 1776 document from its original English into the American language; that translation first appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun. I reprint that — with his introductory remarks, as well as a few words which may well be understandably offensive to some today (so you’ve been warned) — below. Here’s to Western liberalism after all.

The following attempt to translate the Declaration of Independence into American was begun eight or ten years ago, at the time of of my first investigations into the phonology and morphology of the American vulgate. I completed a draft in 1917, but the publication was made impossible by the Espionage act, which forbade any discussion, however academic, of proposed changes to the canon of the American Koran. In 1920 I resumed the work and have since had the benefit of the co-operation of various other philologists, American and European. But the version, as it stands, is mine. That such a translation has long been necessary must be obvious to every student of philology. And this is Better Speech Week.

The great majority of Americans now speak a tongue that differs materially from standard English, and in particular from the standard English of the eighteenth century. Thus the text of the Declaration has become, in large part, unintelligible to multitudes of them. What, for example, would the average soda-fountain clerk, or City Councilmen, or private soldier, or even the average Congressman make of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or this one: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise”? Obviously, such sonorous Johnsonese is as dark to the plain American of 1921 as so much Middle English would be, or Holland Dutch. He may catch a few words, but the general drift is beyond him.

This fact, I believe, is largely responsible for the disaster which overtook those idealists who sought to wrap the Declaration around them during and immediately after the war. The members of the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan and other patriotic societies, unable to understand the texts upon which the libertarian doctrines of such persons were based, set them down as libelers of the Declaration, and so gave them beatings. I believe that that sort of faux pas might be avoided if the plain people, civil and military, could actually read the Declaration. The version which follows is still far from perfect, but it is at all events in sound American, and even the most advanced admirers of the Hon. Mr. Harding, I am convinced, will find it readily intelligible.

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: First, you and me is as good as anybody and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day, like them South American coons and Bolsheviki, or every time some jobholder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, Bolsheviki, etc., and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.s would say the same. But when things gets so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal no much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the jump-off, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled:

He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against.

He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgotten about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks.

When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by himself or they couldn’t have it at all.

He made the Legislature meet at one-horse tank-towns out in the alfalfa belt, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things as he pleased.

He give the Legislature the air and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down.

When a Legislature was busted up he wouldn’t allow no new one to be elected, so that there wasn’t nobody left to run things, but anybody could walk in and do whatever they pleased.

He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a wop or one of them poor kikes to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come.

He monkeyed with the courts and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work and so a person had to wait so long for his case to be decided that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him.

He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or holding up their salaries, so that they had to cough up or not get no money.

He made a lot of new jobs and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they wanted to or not.

Without no war going on, he kept an army loafing around the country, no matter how much people kicked about it.

He let the army run things to suit theirself and never paid no attention whatsoever to nobody which didn’t wear no uniform.

He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following:

Making poor people board and lodge a lot of soldiers they ain’t got no use for and don’t want to see loafing around.

When the soldiers kill a man, framing it up so that they would get off.

Interfering with business.

Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not.

When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial.

Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here.

In countries that border on us, he put in bum governments, and then tried to spread them out, so that by and by they would take in this country, too, or make our own government as bum as they was. He never paid no attention whatever to the Constitution, but he went to work and repealed laws that everybody was satisfied with and hardly nobody was against, and tried to fix the government so that he could do whatever he pleased.

He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself.

Now he washes his hands of us and even declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more.

He has burned down towns, shot down people like dogs, and raised hell against us out on the ocean.

He hired whole regiments of Dutch, etc., to fight us, and told them they could have anything they wanted if they could take it away from us, and sicked these Dutch, etc., on us without paying no attention whatever to international law.

He grabbed our own people when he found them in ships on the ocean, and shoved guns into their hands, and made them fight against us, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms and ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which.

Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, he have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out.

When we complained to the English we didn’t get no more satisfaction. Almost every day we warned them that the politicians over there was doing things to us that they didn’t have no right to do. We kept on reminding them who we were, and what we were doing here, and how we come to come here. We asked them to get us a square deal, and told them if this thing kept on we’d have to do something about and maybe they wouldn’t like it. But the more we talked, the more they didn’t pay no attention to us. Therefore, if they ain’t for us, they must be again us, and we are ready to give them the fight of their lives, or to shake hands when it is over.

Therefore be it resolved, That we, the representatives of the people of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, hereby declare to follows: That the United States, which was the United Colonies in former times, is now free and independent, and ought to be; that we have throwed out the English King and don’t want to have nothing to do with him no more, and are not in England no more; and that, being as we are now free and independent, we can do anything that free and independent parties can do, especially declare war, make peace, sign treaties, go into business, etc. And we swear on the Bible on this proposition, one and all, and agree to stick to it no matter what happens, whether we win or we lose, and whether we get away with it or get the worst of it, no matter whether we lose all our property by it or even get hung for it.

A toast to … Leon Redbone

This week I delighted in my daughters’ first launch into the field of nihilistic satire, then explained how it probably had a genetic origin.

Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.

Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.