Sunday, July 29, 2012

Odd ends

In After the Fact: The Surprising Fates of American History's Heroes, Villains, and Supporting Characters, Owen J. Hurd shows that the past is epilogue, too

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.    

A good idea will take you a long way in the publishing business, and Owen J. Hurd has got one here: compiling a list of epilogues to some of the best-known stories in American history. Pocahantas going to London after her marriage to John Rolfe. Paul Revere flubbing an amphibious campaign in Maine during the American Revolution. A drunken Elliot Ness guilty of a hit-and-run in his post-Untouchables career.

Hurd, a freelance corporate writer who produces breezy prose, takes a workaday approach to the subject. Each chapter in this loosely chronological book consists of three stories from a particular period or covering a particular theme American history, from Columbus's voyages to Watergate. Hurd typically read two or three books on a given subject, as indicated in his bibliography, and has synthesized them into pithy episodes that begin by reminding the reader why a particular person was famous, the sometimes amusing aftermath to his or her story, and then some "loose ends" involving secondary figures in the tale. Many of these stories will be familiar to historians, but any given reader will be glad to reminded of some details and will surely not know of others. Chapters are cleverly batched to cover literary figures, athletes, gangsters and cowboys. Occasionally Hurd will dovetail stories, as in his account of the post of Harry Truman's amusing (and impressively modest) retirement and its parallel with his nemesis, Douglas MacArthur. He's also attentive to the personal foibles of reputed giants (Alexander Graham Bell gets taken down a peg here), and will occasionally express admiration for those, like Salem witch judge Samuel Sewall, who redeem their sins.

As reading fare goes, After the Fact is light to the point of evaporation (you could knock of this paperback original poolside). At the same time, it may well find a reasonably long shelf life in its back-cover category designation of "popular reference." Books like these are a good reminder to historians that a concept and a structure can be half the battle in executing a book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Booms and Busts

In Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians, Robert W. Merry hails -- and flails -- the chiefs

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

It seems that every few years there's a high-profile survey among experts that ranks the presidents, which usually provides cheap content for newspaper stories and radio broadcasts, as well as a source of cocktail party fodder. In this shrewdly conceived and elegantly written short book, Robert W. Merry surveys the surveys and assesses expert as well as voter sagacity in the presidential sweepstakes.

Merry is a quintessential Washington insider, evident in the white collar and cufflinks in his jacket photo. In addition to White House stints at the Wall Street Journal, he has also logged time at Congressional Quarterly and in the right-leaning foreign policy journal The National Interest, where he is now editor. But if Merry wears his political convictions on his sleeve (you won't be surprised to hear he likes Ronald Reagan more than Bill Clinton), he wears them lightly with the mild skepticism that's the hallmark of the classical conservative (he emphasizes that it's too soon to come to any firm conclusions on such a comparison). As such he's good company.

Merry's lodestar is the electorate, which, if not infallible, seem to provide a long-term mean upon which historical/political science/journalistic opinion eventually comes to rest. His gold standard is a president who wins two terms and then hands off power to a successor in the same party. By that standard George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt rank as great. Yet this litmus test isn't absolute; William McKinley meets it, but has never really made it to the pantheon. Bill Clinton met it (if you count the popular vote, anyway), but is unlikely to get there.  And Jackson, even two centuries later, remains a remarkably polarizing figure whose edges do not seem to have been sanded by time.

The real volatility seems to be on the failure end of the spectrum. Merry notes that U.S. Grant's stock with experts has been rising steadily in recent years (he was always popular with voters). Perhaps not surprisingly, he thinks opinion of Richard Nixon is too severe given his foreign policy successes. Merry finds it hard to accept the low opinion of Harding -- did he really do more harm to the country than Woodrow Wilson? -- but reaffirms collective confidence in the failures of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Merry also sides with the growing number of those who view Andrew Johnson -- another polarizing figure -- as a failure. (As with Grant, the racial politics of Reconstruction loom large here.)

Merry, author of a well-regarded Polk biography (A Country of Vast Designs) usefully develops Young Hickory's anomalous place in presidential history as a declared one-termer. As one might expect, he's relatively sympathetic, though he stints the divisive results of the Mexican War and its role as a direct cause of the Civil War. He also seems lenient on James Madison (sure he got re-elected, but did so before the consequences of his wartime policies became downright embarrassing) and asserts Dwight Eisenhower, whom he regards highly, had no major domestic accomplishments in his presidency (what, the Interstate Highway and National Education Defense Act don't count?). He draws heavily on the work of Alan Lichtman and Ken DeCell's 1990 book The 13 Keys to the Presidency, but never spells them those keys (an odd omission given the otherwise admirable appendices). And the book has a somewhat meandering quality, apparent from a table of contents that offers little in the way of a narrative trajectory.

Still, Merry's geniality and lightly worn sophistication go down easy. This is beach reading for wonks that expertly navigates 44 shades of gray.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jim is vacationing in Massachusetts. His recent listening has included Neil Young's latest album with Crazy Horse, Americana. By this point, picking up a Young/Horse album is like slipping into an old shoe: beat-up but irresistibly comfortable. The novelty of this record is that it consists of covers of classic songs that span centuries, from "Clementine" to "Get a Job." Sometimes, as in the case of Steven Foster's "Oh! Susannah," the music is stretched so far to be unrecognizable, and yet it manages to retain its undeniable catchiness. In what might be termed more an act of homage to the Sex Pistols and Queen Elizabeth, the album also includes a version of "God Save the Queen." All in all, a lot of fun.

Another recent acquisition: Mary Chapin-Carpenter's Ashes and Roses. The veteran Brown-bred singer-songwriter continues to craft sophisticated country songs with clear ties to the troubadours of the seventies like James Taylor (who makes a cameo appearance here). Though an air of melancholy suffuses the record, Chapin-Carpenter nevertheless chronicles the quiet joys of middle class life in tunes like "Transcendental Reunion," which oxymoronically makes air travel seem alluring.

Best to all in summer sojourns.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

God, mammon and the self-made man

The following is the last in a set of 3 exploratory posts on the place -- and lack thereof -- of the self-made man in American cultural life. (The other two posts ran on July 9 & 13, 2012.)

While I have said, and maintain, that the essence of the self-made man is plural and diverse at any given time, I also believe that at certain moments in U.S. history some domains of the archetype have been dominant and then have given way to others. In other words, there is a story here. Insofar as that story has been told to date, it has largely focused on tracing shifting currents in the blizzard of self-help literature that blanketed the British North America between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In our time, however, the discourse has been less a matter of formal exhortation than illustration through specific (and sometimes fictive) characters and personalities whose stories in effect become fables of success, which like all good fables, are marked by countercurrents subject to multiple interpretations. I believe I can trace this story, peopling it with a series of biographical sketches, and explain how the self-made man emerged, proliferated, narrowed and appeared to disappear. This will be the heart of the book, whose outlines I will now trace.
As virtually all historians of the topic have noted, the origins of the self-made man in English North America are fundamentally religious. In the colonial era, the concept was, paradoxically, a godly imperative that emerged from the dialectics of Protestant Christianity. Reformation era sects in England marked their distance from corrupt Roman Catholic practices by emphasizing a personal relationship to God. While such sects rejected notions of free will that were later central to the conception of the self-made man, the primacy they placed on the individual conscience proved pivotal in the emergence of what would become an increasingly secular vision of the self in which moral considerations would long linger. Such dynamics can be well illustrated in the career of Roger Williams (above), the essence of the theological individualist and a man widely regarded as the founding father of religious liberty in America. They call also discerned in the philosophy of important evangelists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
            Religious versions of the self-made man would remain important into the eighteenth century. But the coming of the American Revolution opened the possibility of a fundamentally political vision of the self-man, one vividly embodied by Founding Fathers like George Washington and John Adams (who was fond of describing himself as the son of a shoemaker). This model remained important through the development of ratification of the Constitution, receding in centrality thereafter, though there would continue be important figures (notably Abraham Lincoln) who found their calling, sometimes after periods of uncertainty and adversity, in politics.
The very success of the founding generation cleared a literal and figurative space in which millions of ordinary Americans could imagine new destinies for themselves. Some of these people, like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, flaunted their ordinariness even as their singular talents allowed them to write themselves into history. Others, like the powerfully inspiring Frederick Douglass, dramatized the way the concept could expand to encompass even the most unlikely of prospects.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the durable link between the self-made man and economic success had become apparent, dominant, and widely celebrated. A series of figures born in the crucible years of 1835 to 1840 became the barons of their age, defining the imagination of their peers and subsequent generations well into the 20th century. Perhaps more than other self-made men, they also dramatized the ambiguities, even contradictions, involved in such an identity. Crucial figures here stretch from Andrew Carnegie (archetype of the self-made man as immigrant) to Thomas Edison (the scientist as entrepreneur) and Henry Ford (whose rustic sensibilities made him a somewhat ironic godfather of consumer capitalism).
Over the course of the twentieth century, the measures of success steadily shifted from outward achievement to inner satisfaction, variously understood and achieved through a series of sub-cultural movements that have come to be collectively known as “New Thought.” In this psychological age, the terrain shifted back toward more cultural ground. Particularly important here is the new phenomenon of the celebrity, embodied by figures who ranged from Douglas Fairbanks to Clint Eastwood, who defined the parameters of what came to be known as “the good life.” There was tension, even paradox, built into a conception of an authentic self that was often commercially purveyed.  As a result, there was a partial rebellion against this model in the iconoclastic self-made men in the Beat era and the counterculture of the 1960s, both of which rejected the avowedly economic conception of the self-made man as hopelessly atavistic. The intentions of these iconoclasts notwithstanding, they failed to alter many of its underlying premises.
Indeed, for all their variety, the various iterations of the self-made man finally rested on a core premise that laced through them all. That premise is agency: the self-made man was the master of his own fate. Other societies had made similar claims – indeed, all societies, from Confucian China the Imperial Britain had self-made men – but no society had ever been quite so insistent on this point as the United States. As I began by saying, we have difficulty today taking this idea seriously at face value. And yet, in part because we are uncomfortably aware of the degree to which our lives are determined by factors beyond our control, a presumption, if not an obsession, with agency lingers even as it has receded from the foreground of public discourse, apparent everywhere from colleges we attend to the beverages we order at our local Starbucks.
This seems like a good moment to bring back people who have been missing since the start of this proposal: women. In an important sense, the agency of men was understood, even defined, when juxtaposed by the lack of agency for women. Of course, men’s agency was almost always partial by dictates of race, class, age and health, among other reasons. But in an important sense manliness correlated to the degree a man could call himself the master of his fate. Women, by contrast, were understood in terms of the way their lives were tethered to others, male and female. Sometimes this tethering was understood as chosen; sometimes it was imposed. Either way, it was understood as natural, a gendered default setting.
And yet from the very beginnings of American history there have been women who for various reasons found themselves in situations of perceived self-making. The wealthy widows of colonial Virginia, empowered by their inherited fortunes, are one example (though an example that also illustrates the way their autonomy was still circumscribed by the imperatives of marriage). Anne Hutchinson, articulating a libertarian theological vision far more challenging than that of Roger Williams, was another. The fictive Scarlet O’Hara, determined to maintain her family farm in the face of Yankee conquest, carried the torch of Jeffersonian yeomanry into the post-Civil War era. Madame C.J. Walker, an African American entrepreneur who built a cosmetics empire, became one of the great success stories of American business at the turn of the 20th century. These and other examples will salt the text, providing counterpoint and context for understanding the possibilities and limits of the self-made man beyond its stated gender boundaries.
So while each chapter of the book will have a temporal locus (Founding generation, Industrial Revolution, etc.) each will include multiple examples of self-made men across a series of occupational domains. They will also include examples of self-made women, and sometimes discuss the legacies of these figures in subsequent generations. A particular figure may also surface more than once to illustrate different aspects of self-made man iconography (Washington, for example, was a self-taught military leader as well as an exemplar of the rural gentry.) In so doing, the book will have a clear sense of structure and a narrative arc, but also a sense of texture.  In effect, the self-made man will function as a kind of lens through which American history as a whole can be seen in a new and prismatic light.
To what end? At the simplest level, the purpose of this book is to recover a receding notion of our national identity and to restore its vitality by broadening it. Yet one may plausibly wonder if such recovery is all that useful, given the sometimes unsavory implications of self-made man mythology, like its tendency to inhibit, if not actually prevent, a communal approach toward solving communal problems and an impulse to blame victims for their own misfortunes. Yet a broader look at the historical record also shows that self-made men have been among the nation’s most imaginative and stalwart social reformers in terms of creating personal or protecting opportunity. (President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation with a very conscious understanding that he was making it possible for many future generations of self-made men.) A clear-eyed look at both the advantages and drawbacks of the self-made man mythology may become a useful instrument for charting a future course for ourselves and the nation at large.
Of course, because I’m still at an early stage of writing and research, there are as yet many unasked questions, let alone foreseeable answers. I will say, however, that I embark on this undertaking with a general sense of unease about the direction of the country. To some extent this is a matter of perceived collective denial, if not hypocrisy: while many of us consider the self-made paradigm dated and unrealistic, we continue to embrace many aspects of it. That might not be so bad – indeed, it is, as it often has been, an energizing notion that has spurred innovation and a salutary sense of confidence that generates self-fulfilling prophecies. But I suspect there are times when self-making becomes conflated with self-gratification. This concern is centuries old, and one reason why so much of the literature of the self-made man is rooted in religious discourse. The moral dimension of the equation has largely evaporated in the last century, in large measure because it has been rightfully viewed as unrealistic. Yet one must wonder, given the past and present of societies in which individual citizens are expected to orient their lives around something other than the self, how long the United States can maintain a sense of cohesion and purpose around the self-made man, especially in its narrowly economic formulation. It’s an idea that merits another searching look. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

More than just the Benjamins

This is the second in a series of exploratory pieces on the myth of the self-made man in American cultural history. (See "The Self-Made Man in Hiding," two posts below.)

To a great degree, the erasure of the self-made man from common parlance reflects a shared understanding – or, more accurately, a shared misunderstanding – on the part of defenders and critics alike. This involved a narrowing of the concept to a single archetype: the businessman. Even those who invoked the self-made man in politics almost always credentialed themselves as self-made in the realm of commerce (which has been standard operating procedure in for Republicans in particular). Those who did not, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were not taken seriously as such by their opponents or particularly cherished as such even by many of their supporters.  I’d venture to say Obama’s wonky credentials and slightly noblesse oblige background as a community organizer excites his core liberal supporters more than the fact his mother spent time on food stamps.
Yet even a cursory immersion in seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century U.S. history suggests that the conception of the self-made man was a good deal broader than business or politics. Yes, of course, John D. Rockefeller was considered an exemplar of the self-made man. But so Ralph Waldo Emerson. Benjamin Franklin is widely considered the patron saint of American capitalism. But he was also a self-made scientist, diplomat, and writer. The concept expands far beyond commerce to include the clergy (Charles Grandison Finney to Norman Vincent Peale), the military (Andrew Jackson to George Patton), and other domains.
The other problem with the prevailing economic conception of the self-made man is that it obscures changes in the nature of U.S. capitalism over 250 years. Initially, such capitalism was agricultural, represented by the self-sufficient farmer. Though he is not typically remembered on such a basis, this was an important part of George Washington’s identity and the basis of a fortune that came from far-sighted independence from mono-crop cultivation and British finance. The spokesman for the self-made man as farmer was Thomas Jefferson, who famously described the autonomous yeoman (who may or may not have owned slaves) as those “whose breasts [God] has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Such figures were sometimes imagined as operating outside a global trade market, but it has been a long time since anyone has taken that idea very seriously. Nor do I.
By the late eighteenth century, a competing notion of the self-made man emerged, of which Franklin was widely – and properly – viewed as emblematic. This was a form of capitalism that was mercantile: a pre-industrial, but non-agrarian, basis of wealth creation. This was the self-made man as craftsman, merchant, and eventually manufacturer, albeit manufacturer of the small-scale sort. Such a vision was powerful and durable, so much so that it persisted long after it had been effectively become obsolete. As many scholars of novelist Horatio Alger have noted, his books for boys peddled an early 19th century mercantile vision in an era that had long since been overtaken by late 19th century industrial capitalism.
Indeed, it is this phase – the phase of the industry titan, stretching from Andrew Carnegie through Henry Ford – that more than any other has survived most vividly in the American imagination. This was the self-made man as master of mass production: steel, oil, cars. Though sometimes a subject of scorn, even hatred in their day, Americans on the whole were fascinated by such figures and sought to emulate them – again, long after capitalism had moved on to a new phase.
The next phase, stretching between the 1920s and the 1970s, posed more of a problem for the myth of the self-made man. This was the age of managerial capitalism, in which values like planning, collaboration and coordination were central. In such an environment, the valorization of the self-made man centered on the corporate executive. Perhaps the most vivid examples of the archetype were the so-called movie moguls, with names like Fox and Warner and Disney, who created – but, more decisively in terms of their legacies, managed – enterprises in which they were able to generate a mystique of creativity. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished 1940 novel The Last Tycoon, inspired by the career of cinema legend Irving Thalberg, vividly evokes this particular variation on the self-made man.
The closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a new valorization of the individual entrepreneur, from Sam Walton to Mark Zuckerberg, tirelessly upheld by boosters as role models worthy of emulation. To a great extent this post-industrial phase of U.S. capitalism focused more on services and consumption rather than production. Because of the increasing sophistication of the marketplace, the self-made archetype abandoned the autodidactic model of earlier times and avowedly embraced formal education as a means of upward mobility (even if mass access to such an education increasingly became a fantasy along the lines of an Alger character becoming a pastoral merchant in an industrial age).
I’ve made some effort to delineate phases in the economic model of the self-made man as part of a larger point that even this perceived dominant variation of the myth was itself subject to shifting currents and emphases and often marked by cultural lag.  But again, my larger point is that just as multiple versions of the self-made man jostled within the realm of commerce, multiple versions jostled outside it as well. At any given moment, an economic version, a political version, and a cultural version, among many others, were available and competing for allegiance in a U.S. population whose diversity whose attention united by little else. At the very moment Mark Zuckerberg was embodying the self-made myth of entrepreneurial pluck, Bruce Springsteen was tapping its cultural power and the evangelical minister Joel Osteen was preaching an ethos of self-help that burgeoned into a religious media empire.
 The fact that in an earlier age these men would have been explicitly lionized as self-made does not necessarily mean they (or their predecessors) began with nothing. As noted, Zuckerberg came from a background that was thoroughly bourgeois; Springsteen’s evocatively named hometown of Freehold was more suburban than ghetto; Osteen inherited the pastorate whose size he trebled. They were nevertheless seen, not altogether wrongly, as people who realized objectives that initially seemed unlikely and attributed to their unique talents. Luck was sometimes mentioned, though almost always as a secondary consideration. Almost never in American life has success been considered arbitrary; the implications of such an idea were too troubling to fully embrace.
Which is not to say that the honor rendered a self-made man was always rooted on a moral basis. For every Carnegie or Rockefeller who invoked a moral claim and accepted a moral obligation, there were scoundrels like the railroad magnate Jim Fisk, who was accepted, even honored celebrated, as such. Jessie James, Bonnie & Clyde, Vito Corleone, Tupac Shakur, Tony Soprano: the pantheon of self-made men has a full gallery of rogues, real and imagined (even if there was always some form of code of honor among such thieves, very often one of race or ethnicity that served as a foil for the white, Anglo-Saxon foundation of U.S. self-made mythology).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

Remembering a great poet, and the work of art she wrought from personal disaster, 346 years later.
Even now I can see that house burning. The fire, a huge orange sheet, sweeps up toward the New England night, overrunning that wood, glass and thatching, gray smoke against a black sky. Clothing writhes, curls and blackens amid the overpowering heat. I'm stunned by the quietness of the destruction, which is punctuated by occasional crackling and the songs of crickets. 
I wasn't there, of course. But Anne Bradstreet was. She would have been about 54 years old. She labeled the poem she later wrote with this heading: “Here followes some verses upon the burning of our house, July 10, 1666. Copeyed out of loose paper." The "loose paper" is evocative; it's as if she literally or figuratively grabbed a fragment of the ruins and tried to inscribe her memory on them, to somehow preserve what was irretrievably lost.
She knew she couldn't bring that house back. And deep down, she knew that she shouldn't be trying. In essence, that’s exactly what her poem was about.

And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine . . . .

The problem is that she does repine. She saying all the right things: that the house was never really hers to begin with, that all glory should go to God, that while his ways may be difficult to understand, they are always right – period. And yet as the poem proceeds, it's clear that she can't quite let the matter rest.

Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.

It's a heartbreaking scene – and one that bristles with tension. I picture her as she pictures herself, walking among the ashes. No no, she saying, it doesn't bother me a bit that this place I loved has gone up in smoke. I won’t miss the furniture, or my trinkets, or the company of friends and family that gave it life. More importantly, my faith is so secure that I need not grieve for it. Really.

No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.

Bradstreet didn’t want to come to America. Born in Northampton, England in 1612, she had been a child of relative privilege. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was a skilled manager who had transformed the balance sheet for Earl of Lincoln. Shortly after her marriage age 16 to Simon Bradstreet, she joined her new husband and father in founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 (both men later became governor). But while she thus some real stature in his fledgling community, she nevertheless found it difficult to adjust. As she later explained to her children, "I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country, at which my heart rose [in rebellion]. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the Church of Boston." You get the sense that there’s a lot of personal history compressed between those two sentences, a story she didn’t particularly want to tell at that point, the way parents sometimes don’t.
         To the difficulties involved in moving and the rigors of her faith was added another, which he described in language typical of the Puritans: "it pleased God to keep me a long time without children." She eventually raised eight in the frontier settlements of Ipswich and Andover (which is were the house that burned down as located), making the fact that she wrote any poetry all the more remarkable. Upon learning that she had accumulated a body of work, her brother-in-law brought some of it back to England, which was published in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. These poems, which demonstrate the degree to which Bradstreet absorbed Renaissance history and literature, had a largely public voice; one poem, for example, is a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I.
      But much of her work, especially her later work, has a more personal focus, and at times a startlingly modern edge. “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits,” she complained of those real or imagined figures who complained about her. She could also be a true romantic. "If ever two were won then surely we," she begins a poem "To My Dear and Loving Husband.”
        But the central struggle of Bradstreet's life as expressed in her writing can be described in terms of the Puritan injunction to live in the world but not be of it. “Farewell dear babe, my hearts too much content," she wrote of a grandchild who died in 1665 (she lost four and a daughter-in-law in rapid succession, which broke her heart). This passionate, if somewhat belated, love of the life she had made in America was checked by a higher sense of duty, the very sense of duty that led her and her compatriots to come to a foreign land in the first place.
Indeed, while the house and Bradstreet lived in was an actual structure of stone and wood – its very materiality was a source of its comfort – a "house" is not necessarily synonymous with a "home." If for her, and many of us, the concept of home can notes a series of concentric circles that includes one's family, birthplace, region, and nation, Bradstreet in some respects left home for good at an early age. The Puritans, after all, founded Massachusetts because they believed that King Charles I – a sovereign from the “house” of Stuart – was betraying the legacy of a Protestant Reformation that had transformed the houses, villages and cities of England. While Bradstreet's Massachusetts Puritans called their variety of the Church of England Protestantism “non-separating” (in contrast to the even more disenchanted Pilgrims who founded the colony of Plymouth when they arrived on the Mayflower in 1620) it's clear that they were trying to put as much distance between themselves and the mother country as possible.
Even so, the ties between house, home and nation remained deeply entwined. In the context of the 17th-century world, when English and Dutch renegades challenged the supremacy of Catholic Spain, virtually all sacred and secular striving to place in a world of emerging religion-based nation-states. When future Governor John Winthrop, who arrived in the same boat as Bradstreet did, implored his fellow emigrants to found a fabled "city on a hill" even before they arrived in Boston, he took it for granted that a new Jerusalem could not be born in Spanish Mexico or French Québec. These people went on an errand into the wilderness to found a New England. And they did so – and distinguished themselves from the "savages" they conquered – not by building forts or trading posts, though they certainly did build those, but rather by building houses, far more of them in New England than anywhere else in the “new” world.
So it was by this twisted path that Bradstreet’s house really had become a home as fact and symbol, an emblem of family and nation. And yet a spiritual restlessness would not quite allow her to live there at ease. In her poetry otherworldly commitments always have the last word. "The world no longer let me love," she concludes or elegy to her burned house. "My hope and Treasure lies above."
If, by some magical process, I could be transported into the wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, circa 1666, I would guess that Anne Bradstreet would not be so familiar. The differences between us – of sex, religion, and the sheer weight of history coursing like the Merrimack River near her house – are so great that I wonder if we could really communicate, even if we were both speaking the same language. To say, on the basis of reading a poem about her house burning down, that I understand how she feels, is more likely to trivialize her experience than honor her memory.
And yet I feel drawn to her. Some of this can be expressed in simple geography. I, too, have seen and marveled at “the trees all richly clad, yet void of pride” (as she describes the New England landscape in her celebrated poem "Contemplations"), trees that remain even after the advance of the interstate highway and cellphone tower. But there's more to it than that. Across the centuries, she and her children, literal and figurative, have shared a belief that their destinies would be found on the shores.
This is, of course, a familiar myth, though it isn't quite elastic enough to effortlessly incorporate other Americans, like slaves who didn't choose to immigrate, or Indians who (in this millennium anyway) didn't immigrate here at all and in fact were forced to emigrate further away. Still, for all its obvious shortcomings, the myth of America as adopted home has helped explain – better yet, it has helped unify – a nation that could, and did, find plenty of other reasons to be a house divided.
But I now realize that what may be the most important thing I share with Anne Bradstreet is a sense of shame. Her shame derive from a deep, but not altogether justifiable, love for the house that burned down in 1666. My house – our house – has not burned down. Yet we live in it with a sense of foreboding, because we know it cannot last forever, and we sometimes fear it may be demolished sooner rather than later. But our unease is not simply a sense of anxiety about the future; it also involves a sense of nagging unease about the past. We love the house even as are aware, however vaguely, of the displacements that made it possible, as well as the evasions that allow it to stand even as I sit to write these words. We cannot really expect mercy. But, God help us, we hope for it anyway. Here, for now, for the grace of Anne, we lie in our beds on summer nights.

A notably good recent biography of Anne Bradstreet is Charlotte Gordon's Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet (2005). For a nicely sculpted introduction to Bradstreet's work, I recommend Heidi Nichols's compact paperback Anne Bradsteet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet (2006) Much of Bradstreet's poetry is available online.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The self-made man in hiding

One of my projects for this summer has been investigating the possibility of writing a book about the self-made man in American culture. The following is an excerpt from some notes toward such a possibility. --JC

These have not been good days for the self-made man. The very phraseology offends: in an age when even corporate titans ritualistically affirm the value of teamwork, “self-made” sounds unseemly. “What’s wrong with the ‘self-made’ theory? Everything,” says Mike Myatt, a well-known CEO consultant, in a 2011 article in Forbes. “If your pride, ego, arrogance, insecurity, or ignorance keeps you from recognizing the contributions of others, then it’s time for a wake-up call,” he admonishes. In the 2012 book The Self-Made Myth, authors Brian Miller and Mike Lapham define their phrase as “the false assertion that individual and business success are entirely the result of the hard work, creativity, and sacrifice of the individual with little outside assistance.” And this doesn’t even begin to broach the difficulties of a phrase like “self-made man” in a post-feminist era, which any generic citation of “man” is at best a faux pas. Given the institutional, much less biological, realities that govern our lives, the very idea of the self-made man sounds like a contradiction in terms.
There are realms in which the concept has a bit more currency. It appears to be alive and well in the (male-dominated) Silicon Valley, for example, where the gold rush dream of the killer app lives on in the mythology of Gates and Zuckerberg. More than a half-century after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, libertarian-minded devotees of Ayn Rand, male and female, traverse the corridors of power in Washington. Yet even these exemplars have limited resonance. Gates’s Microsoft empire has long been dogged by murmurs of co-optation, if not theft, of others’ ideas; Zuckerberg’s background as the son of a Westchester dentist is not exactly the stuff of the rugged individualist. (That both men were Harvard dropouts is a pale modern equivalent.) Objectivists of the Rand school are avowedly a minority party; their self-worth depends upon it.
Perhaps nowhere is the concept of the self-made man in less repute than the modern Academy – or would be, if anyone were paying attention. It’s been decades since the subject was given much in the way of sustained scholarly attention. It last had its heyday in the mid-20th century, a time when intellectuals could speak of abstractions like “the American mind” relatively untroubled by the coming wave of particularity that would follow in the wake of the modern civil rights and women’s movements. So it was that Irvin Wyllie, a chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, would pen The Self-Made Man in America in 1954. University of Chicago professor John Cawelti followed with Apostles of the Self-Made Man in 1965. Other important books included Richard Weiss’s thematically similar The American Myth of Success (1969), Richard Huber’s The American Idea of Success (1971), and Kenneth Lynn’s The Dream of Success (1972). To put the matter in 21st century terms, this was the era of Mad Men, when a character like the fictive Don Draper of the much-admired cable television series could adopt a new identity amid the chaos of the Korean War and invent a whole new mystique for himself on Madison Avenue (until it fell apart as part of a complex set of social changes shorthanded by the term “the sixties”).
Tellingly, however, none of these books accepted the concept at face value, or believed it had much relevance in modern life even back then. Cawelti complained, in pale Marxist shades through which much of academic discourse in the last third of the twentieth century was filtered, that the concept distracted Americans from engaging in collective efforts for social reform. Those outside academe who tried to engage the idea unselfconsciously strained credibility. Business writer Isadore Barmash’s The Self-Made Man (1969), which profiled a set of largely forgettable business executives in the heyday of corporate conglomerate, reads like a cheap suit.
The self-made man was subjected to remarkably little formal scrutiny in the decades that followed. Huber’s American Dream of Success, reissued in 1987, is among the few still in print that still comes up on – hardly the last word in research, but a reasonable index of cultural currency. Variations on, or aspects of, the idea achieved some currency, among them books like Sacvan Bercovitch’s classic Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) or Daniel Walker’s Howe’s Origins of the American Self (1995), which looked at self-making from the age of Franklin to the age of Lincoln. But they were also partial or oblique in engaging the idea directly.
The lack of focus on the subject is remarkable when one considers how intensely, and how long, the self-made man has been a central trope of the American experience.
It is generally agreed that the first use of the term to gain cultural currency came from Henry Clay – a politician Abraham Lincoln once described as his “beau ideal of a statesman” – in an oft-cited 1832 speech. Theater critic and essayist Charles Seymour published Self-Made Men, a collection of sixty profiles, in 1858. The following year, Frederick Douglass gave a speech with the same title that he delivered, in varied permutations, for the next third of a century. In 1872, Harriet Beecher Stowe published The Lives and Deeds of Our Self-Made Men, consisting chiefly of antislavery activists and Civil War heroes. In 1897, the newly ex-president Grover Cleveland published The Self-Made Man in American Life. In the coming century, the concept suffused into the marrow of American culture: Jay Gatsby, Charles Foster Kane, Willy Loman: their creators may not have used the term to describe these unforgettable characters, but the generations of audiences who were riveted by them never had any doubt what they, and their successes and failures, represented. It’s all the more ironic that the self-made man largely fell off the national radar after the 1960s when one considers how crucial self-making, and the rejection of institutional authority, have been to all social movements that followed the counterculture. In this regard, the Woodstock hippie and maverick banker agreed.

Next: varieties of the self-made man in U.S. history

Friday, July 6, 2012

Do the 'Right' Thing

Veteran journalist Robert Draper renders a chronicle of dysfunction in Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the House of Representatives

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.    
Texan Robert Draper is a journalist's journalist. A former reporter for the highly esteemed Texas Monthly, in recent years he's worked as a reporter for GQ and wrote a good history of Rolling Stone magazine that I read on a summer vacation some 20 years ago. Draper hit the bestseller list five years ago for his account of the Bush presidency, Dead Certain. In his latest book, he shifts his gaze to the legislative branch in the Age of Obama.

Though it has some important differences – among them a more systematic approach to documenting its sources – this is a book in the vein of Bob Woodward instant, insider history. Do Not Ask What Good We Do (the title comes from a plaintive remark of Founding Father Fisher Ames, lamenting an era of partisanship and obstructionism that seems mild by comparison) is an account of a year in the life of the U.S. House of Representatives. The premise, as Draper explains in the acknowledgments, is that 2011 was not just any year – it marked the arrival of the Tea Party to the House in the aftermath of a 2010 midterm election that put the Republican Party back in the majority. “My intuition was that as the Republicans’ point of the spear against the administration of Barack Obama, the House was sure to be relevant, and at the risk of sounding crass, highly entertaining.”

Draper is certainly not crass – he’s an empathic observer who tried to be fair to all sides as he conducted hundreds of interviews with dozens of members of Congress to write the book – but he’s not exactly entertaining, either. To a great degree, that’s because he doesn’t have much of a narrative arc to work with. The House is a process-driven institution, and while there’s an element of novelty in the arrival of a bloc of 87 newcomers, not all that much happened in 2011. In large measure, that’s exactly Draper’s point: to depict a government institution hopelessly gridlocked by factions, even those in the same party, talking past each other. The Tea Party freshmen sometimes have an appealing idealism, but they seem surprised and flummoxed to find themselves representing districts of people (some of them poor, some of them representing large corporate interests) who actually expect the government to work in ways that defy the hatchet mentality that got them elected. Conversely, seasoned veterans from Republican Eric Cantor to Democrat John Dingell are shown exercising levers of power in ways seem competent but not particularly noble, even when Draper seems to give them the benefit of a doubt. But we kind of already know this story; in one form or another it's been told many times in the mainstream media.

The book is essentially a set of profiles. We get sketches of important players like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi along with the newly elected Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Draper gives significant and recurring space to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, subject of a New York Times Magazine piece last year that formed the germ of this book. He narrates the tragic shooting of Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords and the way it deeply troubled even the most die-hard right-wingers. He also chronicles the rise and fall of Anthony Wiener, a smart, politically effective, and deeply unlikeable person who had no goodwill to draw upon when a sexting scandal erupted and ended his political career. But the heart of the book are the Tea Party freshmen, particularly media lightning rod Allen West, the sole Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus. We also get portraits of the likeable, if misguided, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina as well as the appealingly down-to earth Renee Ellmers of North Carolina.

The climax of the book is the debt ceiling fight of last summer, which makes for competent if not especially riveting reading. One good point that Draper makes here that applies more generally, however, is his observation that party discipline has declined, in part because of political pressure to eliminate much-criticized earmarking. There’s an element of be-careful-what-you-wish-for in such political reforms; people like Boehner have fewer resources than the Sam Rayburns and Dan Rostenkowskis once did. Politics may be less corrupt in this respect, but also less efficient.

One wonders how much longer books like Do Not Ask What Good We Do will be published in hardcover form – this genre of political journalism seems more suited to the e-books of the kind Politico has begun publishing. Whatever form they take, they’ll remain catnip for political junkies. The rest of us may be more inclined to wait for the Caro treatment.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Window

[In honor of our Founding Fathers, an archive edition of American History Now]

So there they are, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, one a youthful 70 and the other a fussy 41, sharing a bed at an inn in New Jersey. They’re on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island, part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress to negotiate with Admiral Lord Richard Howe of the Royal Navy, in the hopes of avoiding a full-blown war between England and her American colonies. Two weeks earlier, George Washington’s fledgling army escaped seemingly certain destruction in Brooklyn and is for now, at least, alive to fight another day. Lord Howe hopes he can talk his American friends out of making a huge mistake. Adams considers Howe a phony, his overtures nothing more than “Machiavellian maneuvers.” That’s why he was chosen to be one of the negotiators. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, a man who had been reluctant to support independence (he has, and will, worry about the preservation of slavery) is another. And old Ben Franklin, who knew Howe back in England, will be the third.

It is the evening of September 9, 1776. The negotiators pause in their journey to spend the night in Brunswick, New Jersey. Unfortunately, there’s not much lodging to be had in the local taverns. Franklin and Adams agree to share a tiny room, no fireplace, with a single bed and a single open window. It is chilly, and Adams, a self described invalid, is “afraid of the air in the night” and shuts it. “Oh!” says Franklin. “Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated.” When Adams relates his fears of coming down with an illness from the bad night air, Franklin, ever the scientist, replies by saying that the air in the room is far more likely to be a problem than that outside. “Come!” he tells Adams. Open the window and come to bed and I will convince you. I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”

Adams complies and joins Franklin in bed. He is curious, even at “the risqué of a cold,” to hear Franklin’s reasoning. Lying there in the dark, side by side, Franklin begins his explanation, which, while apparently of some interest to Adams, literally puts him to sleep (“I left him and his Philosophy together,” he will later write, hearing Franklin trail off just as he does.) They will argue the point again, and in his account of their exchanges Adams will muse on Franklin’s reasoning but remain unconvinced.

At this point in his life, Adams admires Franklin. He likes to say that had Franklin done nothing more than invent the lightning rod, the world would justly honor this “great and good man.” But the next time they team up again, this time in Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French government
a phase of the two men's careers brilliantly captured in the 2008 HBO series, John Adams, from which the above photo was taken Adams begins to have his doubts. Mr. “Early to Bed and Early to Rise” sleeps late all the time. (He slept through a lot of the Continental Congress, and though Adams will not be there to catch him, Franklin will sleep through a lot of the Constitutional Convention as well.) He drinks too much; he spends too much. And his behavior with French women is downright embarrassing. Adams feels self-conscious about his French, but as he learns it himself he begins to realize that Franklin understands a lot less than he lets on. And when Adams – once again playing bad cop, albeit a bit over his head – annoys the French foreign minister, Franklin writes a letter to Congress telling them that Adams is foolishly tampering with Franklin’s own delicate diplomacy. Adams will never forget or forgive Franklin for that.

Franklin is probably right to dump Adams. Adams probably knows Franklin is right, too. He is over his head. Adams is an intelligent and decent man. But he’s too stubborn, moralistic and vain to be a successful diplomat. He’s honest to a fault – he can’t play the game the way Franklin, who laughs right along when the King puts his image on the bottom his courtesan’s chamber pot, does. He tries not to lie, even to himself.

Part of the reason why someone like Franklin is such a trial to Adams is that he understands that the man really does exhibit traits Adams himself would be lucky to have. Franklin’s cool cheerfulness is a rebuke to Adams’s repressed stolidity. But a hunger for recognition, a hunger that’s never really sated, will not give Adams rest. His wonderfully acidic expression of resentment in 1790 encapsulates his frustration: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thenceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.” (It was Adams who had proposed Washington take command of the Continental Army – an excellent idea, and one he can’t help but at least partially regret.)

Adams had about as successful a career as any person could ever rationally hope. From modest beginnings as a shoemaker’s son, he became a self-educated lawyer, political activist, and diplomat. He collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence, and his work on the Massachusetts constitution was a major influence on the federal one. He managed to spend eight years generally keeping his mouth shut as vice president (no small achievement, particularly for him), and went on to become president himself. And he had the good sense and good fortune to marry Abigail, who brought wisdom, humor, and joy into his life. He lived to see his son John Quincy, become president. We should all be so lucky.

But somehow, you rarely get the impression that John Adams was happy. To be sure, he had legitimate sorrows, among them a son who drank himself to death and a daughter who died of cancer. He had powerful enemies, notably Alexander Hamilton and his erstwhile friend Thomas Jefferson, who, despite hating each other, worked to deny Adams a second term as president. (It’s to their credit that Adams and Jefferson were later able to patch things up – though perhaps it’s no accident that they did so while remaining 500 miles apart.) Still, you get the sense that the hardest single thing about John Adams’s life is that he had to live with John Adams. Feeling that way is hard enough. But it’s even harder when you’ve got people like Franklin, so seemingly self-assured, by your side.

Adams recorded the scene of his night with Franklin in the autobiography he began writing after his forced retirement from politics following his failed bid for re-election in 1800. Though he had a diary to draw on, the editor of the Adams Papers, L.H. Butterfield, reported in 1961 that he wrote this scene “from unaided memory.” I see him at his estate, Peacefield, in Quincy, Massachusetts, an old man remembering himself as a younger one, with Franklin, who had been dead for years, alive and likeable. Adams had been upset earlier that September day when he saw what he regarded as the indiscipline and “dissipation” of the American soldiers he had seen on the road (my guess is that he was being prudishly unrealistic). But he was “determined that it should not dishearten me.” I can’t be sure, but it seems like he’s succeeding, and that the memory of that night brings him pleasure and maybe even comfort in the long twilight of his life. Writing it down gives him something to do.

And us something to celebrate. Thank you, Mr. Adams (and Mr. Franklin).