Saturday, December 22, 2012

Controversial Classics: 8 Banned Books to Give for the Holidays

Support literacy and give challenged novels to your friends this Christmas.
by Suzi Parker

            The history of banning books dates back to 450 B.C., when Anaxagoras wrote about the sun and moon and his critics thought he was insulting the gods. Challenging the written word certainly hasn’t stopped through the centuries.
            In the 1870s, a wave of book censorship occurred when Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Its mission was to curb obscene material, especially dime novels that could taint the minds of youth. But even now, challenging books still occurs, although the U.S. Supreme Court, through myriad cases, has attempted to balance personal tastes with intellectual freedom.
            According to the American Library Association, 326 challenges were reported to its Office for Intellectual Freedom in 2011.  If you're looking to get a family member or friend a book for the holidays, think about choosing a challenged classic.

Here are eight favorites.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
            J.D. Salinger didn’t start out to write a book for teenagers. Instead, The Catcher in the Rye was written for adults, but teens quickly embraced its themes of teenage angst and alienation. The story of Holden Caulfield still resonates in the 21st century as much as it did in 1951, when it was first published.
            From 1990 to 1999, The Catcher in the Rye was the tenth most frequently challenged book for a myriad of reasons, including vulgar language, blasphemy, and lack of morality, according to the American Library Association. Holden has often been cited as a poor role model for teens because he drinks, smokes, and lies. Regardless of its controversial nature, the book has been listed as one of the best books of the 20th century on various lists.
            Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age story centers around teenager Charlie and the awkwardness of being a freshman in high school. Quickly becoming a modern-day classic, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is told by Charlie in a series of letters to an anonymous stranger.
“So, this is my life,” Charlie writes as he starts to tell his story. “And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.”
            Charlie often cites popular banned books such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby and makes references to 1980s band The Smiths and cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While pop culture weaves its way through the book, the story, which takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, centers on Charlie’s family life and his two new friends, Sam and Patrick. The book is often challenged because of teenage sex, homosexuality and drug use, but in 2012, the film version, directed by Chbosky, was released.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
            It’s amazing that more than 80 years after it was first published, Brave New World continues to be a challenged, and banned, book in the United States. Still, the Modern Library ranked Brave New World fifth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century in 1999, making it a solid classic.
            Aldous Huxley attempts to describe a utopian future where “humans are genetically bred and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively serve a ruling order.” Perhaps it was because Huxley so accurately described the future that it still terrifies people. After all, Huxley—as if peering into a crystal ball—predicted much of what is now part of our daily lives, including drugs to fight depression, babies born in laboratories, and overpopulation.
            Poet and writer Maya Angelou covers a lot of ground in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, published in 1970. Writing from her experience as a young girl who finds herself in the small town of Stamps, Ark., battling prejudice and parental abandonment, Angelou addresses racism, rape, literacy, and women’s rights in a male-dominated world, and in the process creates a book that everyone should read.
            Continually challenged in schools, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has often been praised for its honest depiction of rape and racism and the institution of organized religion. Angelou, now 84, calls herself a “global renaissance woman,” and is known as America's most visible black female autobiographer. Nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Now considered one of the best young adult novels of all time, The Chocolate War tells the story of Jerry Renault, a teenager who attends Trinity School, a fictional Catholic high school where he struggles with teenage angst and a secret society of teenage pranksters known as the Vigils. Because of Jerry’s sexual ponderings, this book is often challenged.
            When the book was released in 1974, The New York Times wrote, “The Chocolate War is masterfully structured and rich in theme; the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful; complex ideas develop and unfold with clarity.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
            To Kill A Mockingbird was the only book that the reclusive Harper Lee ever published, but she captured a complex era in the Deep South of racial inequality and poverty. Every teenager should read the story of Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their widowed father, Atticus, during the Great Depression in Maycomb, Ala.
            First published in 1960, the book received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 but has often been banned because of its plot concerning a black man accused of raping a white woman.  The book is a perennially challenged classic also because of racial slurs, profanity and other controversial content.
            Published in 2007, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was quickly challenged because of its content—alcohol, bullying, poverty, sex, and profanity.
The novel tells the story of Arnold Spirit, Jr., a promising cartoonist and a Native American teenager, who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to attend an all-white, public, off-reservation high school. The novel contains 65 comic illustrations that intertwine with the plot centering on Arnold as he straddles his two lives: dealing with the school’s rich bullying white students and his family’s poverty on the reservation.
The Color of Earth by Dong Hwa Kim
            A beautiful black-and-white graphic novel, The Color of Earth is the first in a trilogy about a girl named Ehwa coming of age in rural Korea during the 19th century. Dong Hwa Kim, a male writer, superbly captures the life of a teenage girl and her trials and tribulations with boys and her body in this Korean manwha, or comic book. The two other books in the series, The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, are equally as compelling.
            In 2010 The Color of Earth was the second most challenged book on grounds of its sexual content, nudity, and suitability for age group. Calisa Brill, senior editor at First Second Books, which published the series, says, “These books are about what it means to grow up—and it’s impossible to have that conversation honestly without dealing with love, and sex.”

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Friday, December 14, 2012

California King

Kendrick Lamar reinterprets Compton’s legacy

          The twenty-five-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar's c.v. is a perfect combination of classic and trendy, which he makes clear on the cover of his major-label debut, "Good Kid, M.a.a.d City." It's a Polaroid of Lamar at age five, on the lap of an uncle who is flashing a gang sign; two bottles, one of malt liquor and one of baby formula, sit on a table in front of them. Symbolic, and a little too pat, the photograph was taken in Lamar's childhood home, in Compton, California, a place that rap made famous, in a way that wouldn't have been possible for Miami or New York. In the late eighties and early nineties, groups like N.W.A. and solo artists like Snoop Dogg made Compton a kind of shorthand for both gangsta rap and violence. Compton's favorite son, the producer and rapper Dr. Dre, has now closed the circle, signing Lamar to his Aftermath label. But Lamar's story is not primarily about gangs or gangsta rap. Instead, it is about a generational shift that he and similar artists like Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown embody-their music is omnivorous. Unlike earlier hip-hop innovators, they haven't killed their idols to move forward-they’ve eaten them. This hip-hop is full of all the other hip-hop, which makes it both satisfying and confusing. Lamar claims Compton, and uses its legacy, but that doesn't tell you much about what his album sounds like.

           Lamar has repeatedly cited California's martyr, Tupac Shakur, as his favorite rapper, which seems perverse, considering how many m.c.s he can ably mimic. In fact, he never sounds like Shakur, who was agitated even when pausing, a breathless and fierce enunciator who piled up threats like kindling. Lamar sounds a great deal more like a calm, resonant m.c. whom he rarely mentions-Ishmael Butler, who was in the nineties trio Digable Planets, using the name Butterfly, and is now in Shabazz Palaces, as Palaceer Lazaro. Like Butler, Lamar has a low voice, which moves at an even trot. But Lamar also emphasizes his nasal high end, giving words a hint of sarcastic resignation, which is a very East Coast quality. (California drives with the top down; the East Coast shrugs its shoulders.)

          By any measure, "Good Kid" is a triumph, which is no shock. Since "Overly Dedicated," Lamar's 2010 mixtape, which was a digital-only release, Lamar has sounded preternaturally well rounded and professional. His follow up, "Section.80," from 2011, was widely praised, and slightly easier to find than his previous records. (It did particularly well on iTunes.) "Good Kid" fulfills an implicit promise from his earlier work to revive Compton and to update its sound.

          Lamar's music is rarely as rough as his scenarios. This keeps him in the tradition of West Coast G-funk, as Dr. Dre helped establish it, in the early nineties - it was smooth music for listening to in cars about what happens when you get out of the car. The voices of singers like Nate Dogg and rappers like Warren G blended with each other to make even the harshest lines sound harmonious. While much of eighties hip-hop depended on a James Brown-style locomotive rattle, the mother lode for G-funk was plangent R. &B. by artists like Leon Haywood and William De Vaughn.

          A song like "M.a.a.d City' is in that tradition, a diptych that begins with anxious synths and long-tailed kick-drum sounds before moving into a cracking drum sample that recalls the feel of "Lyrical Gangbang' from "The Chronic," one Of Dr. Dre's-and Compton's-foundational albums. To make his link to the past not just clear but precise, Lamar chose to feature MC Eiht of Compton's Most Wanted-he's not the best-known sovereign, we have to come up with some more hopeful understanding of what people are like, and how they naturally interact with one another. For John Locke, later in the seventeenth century, that meant a strong belief in a • natural law that human beings could apprehend and which governed their actions even in the absence of a state. For Hegel, it meant seeing history itself as a process with a goal, the achievement of a free and equal society governed by a rational bureaucratic state. For Marx, it meant a faith that human beings, liberated from the reign of private property and exploitation, would be able to live together in spontaneous harmony.  

          As Ryan approaches the present, rivals to liberal democracy drop out of the running--above all, Fascism and Communism, each of which gets a searching treatment. The book starts to home in on the challenges that face our kind of society. Since 1945, he writes, we have lived in a world where "there was no alternative to liberal democracy, but liberal democracy aroused no enthusiasm." As an admirer of Mill and Tocqueville, Ryan focusses on the danger that both of them saw in a mass democratic society: the likelihood that individuality will shrink before the onslaught of mediocrity and conformity, that we will settle for a "Persian" prosperity instead of demanding a "Greek'' politics of active participation. The nineteen-sixties, Ryan argues, was the last time when a mass demand for more participatory democracy could be heard: one of the most recent documents he discusses is the Port Huron Statement, issued by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962.

          This emphasis might lead one to expect that Ryan would sympathize with Occupy Wall Street. Yet the political tradition that values personal independence and civil society above regimentation and the state can also give succor to conservative politics: it is no coincidence that the Tea Party draws on the republican imagery of the American Revolution. Indeed, one of the valuable functions of a history like "On Politics" is to show how narrow a slice of the intellectual spectrum American politics currently fights over. It took two thousand years for universal suffrage to become even thinkable; today, anyone who challenged it would be considered silly or insane. It took centuries of religious war before the West arrived at a consensus on the separation of religion and politics; today, the party of the Evangelical religious right can coalesce around a ticket made up of a Mormon and a Catholic. Such consensus is a precious achievement, but it can also curb our sense of political possibility. If we are political animals, as Aristotle said, then we can't understand ourselves without thinking about the way we have lived and might live politically. In that sense, "On Politics," like the great works of philosophy it examines, constitutes a powerful brief against the unexamined life.

Review by Sasha Frere-Jones
The New Yorker magazine, 5 November 2012

Gary Clark jr. – Blak and Blu

A Texas young gun beefs up and branches out on an uneven, occasionally thrilling LP

Review by Jon Pareles 

          How can a serious bluesman thrive in the age of Auto-Tune? That's the question Gary Clark Jr. grapples with on his major label debut. Since his teens, Clark has been the young titan of Texas blues, coming out of Austin in the early 2000s with a smoothly long-suffering voice and one hell of a mean guitar tone, playing solos that claw and scream their stories with ornery splendor. He's a full-fledged guitar hero of the classic school.

          And that's all he would need to be, if he only wanted to spend his career playing for roots music die-hards and recording for his own Hotwire Unlimited, the Austin label that released his albums from 2004 to 2010. But Clark, 28, has a different trajectory and a much larger goal: to reach his own generation, the one that grew up on hip-hop and R&B.

          Clark spreads his musical bets on Blak and Blu. Instead of having one signature sound, he tries a dozen, delving into modern R&B, retro soul, psychedelia and garage rock. A handful of the album's songs are cherry-picked from Clark's Hotwire catalog, remade in studios that make everything sound bigger and tougher. Abetted by producers Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day), Clark is clearly aware that young listeners have heard the Black Keys, Prince and the Roots. Although most songs have a live, hand-played flavor, a few of them- including the title track- tilt toward the static, loop like grooves of hip-hop.

          The album's core is still the blues. Clark dips into the historical timeline, sampling a juke joint's worth of 20th century styles: from the rural slide-guitar picking of "Next Door Neighbor Blues" to the desolate tidings and incendiary lead guitar of "When My Train Pulls In" to the Cream-y riffing and layering of "Glitter Ain't Gold." But Clark won't be genre bound. "Ain’t Messin' 'Round" is pushy, updated Stax-Volt soul with Clark's fuzztone leading the charge of a horn section. "Things Are Changin"' makes another Memphis move with a fat Al Green-style backbeat.

          As an album, Blak and Blu makes for a bumpy ride. The roaring, distortion-soaked blues of "Numb" - which sounds something like Stevie Ray Vaughan tackling "Come Together" - upstages the falsetto croon and string arrangement of "Please Come Home." The souped-up Chuck Berry boogie of "Travis County" collides with "The Life," which has Clark ruminating over woozy, echoey keyboards: "Can't go on like this/Knowing that I'm just getting high." Clark and Warner Bros. clearly expect listeners to carve their own playlists from the album's 13 tracks.

          Outside the structures of the blues, Clark is still a journeyman songwriter, sometimes settling for easy rhymes and singsong melodies, as he does in "Blak and Blu," which aspires to the thoughtfulness of Marvin Gaye, wondering, "How do we get lifted/How do we not go insane?" Give Clark credit for striving to be something more than a blues-rock throwback and singing from a troubled heart. And hope that he gets through the narrow portals of pop radio. But on this album, it's still his blues that cut deepest.

Rolling Stone magazine, 10 October 2012

Serena Williams

          The United States is rife with improbable, up-by-the-bootstraps tales. We like to believe we have a corner on the market, though surely there are some inspirational success stories in India or Brazil or anywhere other than North Korea or Venezuela.

          Very few would top Serena's, though. The journey taken by Serena (and to only a slightly lesser degree by her sister) is truly unprecedented.  An African American girl trained on the public courts of Compton, California, by a conspicuous whack job of a father becomes the most enduringly dominant athlete of a predominantly Caucasian sport? Come on.

          Yeah, yeah, superficially, one could compare Tiger Woods to Serena. Both began their domination in the late nineties; both continued through the first decade of this century. But at that point their paths diverge.  Three long years into his decline, Woods's dominance seems short-lived compared with that of Serena, who thirteen years after the first of her fifteen Grand Slam singles and thirteen Grand Slam doubles titles-is still entirely, overwhelmingly ass-hipping nearly every competitor she meets.

          There are blips, of course.  Unexplained absences, family members murdered, unusual injuries, the most curious family box at all the slams. As all intensely famous and intensely insulated people are, Serena is weird. But unlike most of the rest of women's tennis, Serena is not crazy. Unlike the best players in her sport, Serena does not have a crippling mental block that prevents her from serving effectively. Unlike the best players in her sport, she has never suddenly lost the ability to play. No. Serena just attacks.

          At age thirty-one, with two more singles Grand Slams and a couple Olympic golds won in 2012, Serena is still rising.

By David Granger
Esquire, December 2012

The Parenting Trap

Forget all the advice. Forget the special tutors, camps, coaches, and therapists.  A father of four argues that the biggest problem kids face is the byzantine education-industrial complex known as school, which ruins the most carefree and memorable years of their lives.

By A. A. Gill 

            Under no circumstances are you to cut this out and stick it on the fridge door. Or put it in the file marked "Kids' Stuff." There's nothing here for you. Nothing to do, nothing to act on. No consciousness-raising or attitude-flipping. No strategies or slogans. There is no help. And absolutely no solace. Because, really, what the world doesn't need now is any more advice on raising children. We're done with the finger wagging and the head patting. We've tried everything and we've read everything. We've asked, tweeted, blogged, prayed, and read it all. We've sat up at night and commiserated with other parents when we should have been having sex or at least paying off the sleep deficit. We've done everything, and still it's like a cinnamon-and-lavender-scented Gettysburg out there.
            Why don't we just stop trying and do nothing? Because nothing can't make us and the kids feel any worse than we feel now.
            I have two lots of kids, a boy and a girl and a boy and a girl. They neatly bookend my responsibilities as a parent. The elder girl is in her last year of college. The youngest two are just starting the times table and phonetics, and the older boy is somewhere in Southeast Asia, on what he calls his "gap life," collecting infections and tattoos of what he thinks are Jim Morrison lyrics written in pretty, curly, local languages but in fact probably say, "I like cock."
            Having spent a great deal of money to educate the first two, I realized along the way that I've learned nothing. But then, none of us have any idea what we're doing. That's right, none of us know anything. I stand at the school gates and watch the fear in the eyes of other fathers. The barely contained panic as they herd their offspring, already looking like hobbit Sherpas, carrying enormous schoolbags full of folders and books and photocopied letters and invitations to birthdays and concerts and playdates and football and after-school math clubs. You know my younger kids carry more paperwork than I do? And my job is paperwork. And they can't read.
            In the 100 years since we really got serious about education as a universally good idea, we've managed to take the 15 years of children's lives that should be the most carefree, inquisitive, and memorable and fill them with a motley collection of stress and a neurotic fear of failure. Education is a dress-up box of good intentions, swivel-eyed utopianism, cruel competition, guilt, snobbery, wish fulfillment, special pleading, government intervention, bureaucracy, and social engineering. And no one is smart enough now to understand how we can stop it. Parents have no rational defense against the byzantine demands of the education-industrial complex. But this multi-national business says that they're acting in the children's best interests. And we can only react emotionally to the next Big Idea or the Cure or the Shortcut to Happiness.
            No, scrap happiness-we'll settle for success. We gave up on happiness at about the age of six. Childhood is a war of attrition, like some grisly TV game show where the weak and the kind and the quixotic and the dreamers and the gentle get dumped at the end of each year. Only the gimlet-eyed and the obsessively competitive and the driven make it to the finish line.
            Over-achieving Hillary Clinton smugly told us that it took a village to bring up a child. Oh my God. If only. If all it took were some happy, thatched, smocked village, we'd all have bought villages, have bought 10 villages-we'd have adopted a village. But no dusty, higgledy-piggledy, clucking, mooing, sleepy-town hamlet is going to get you into the only pre-school that is the feeder for that other school that is the fast track to the only school that is going to give your child half a chance of getting into that university that will lead to a life worth living.
            Oh no, we need far more than the village. We need au pairs who speak three languages and musical nannies and special tutors and counselors and professional athletes with knee problems to coach hand-eye coordination. We have to have orthodontists and yoga teachers and voice coaches and judo masters. There have to be camps for creative writing and tennis and swimming instructors and exam strategists. We need analysts and nutritionists and speech therapists.
            We need to stop all this. I can't do it anymore. I can't face the next decade of having conversations about extra-curricular activities and tutors. And I can't go on with the phony, smiling interests in other people's kids' achievements and the seething resentment at their success and the hidden Schadenfreude at their stammers and alopecia. Or the self-deluding midnight belief that my own children are late starters or slow burners. I gave a talk at an educational festival in England this year. They asked me in the way that Methodists glean godliness by exhibiting hopeless recidivist drunks in tents-I am a chronic and inspiring example of academic failure. I asked a roomful of teachers if they'd enjoyed their own school days. About half put up their hands and said they had. Not actually a great average. And then I asked that half if the things that made school fun had happened inside or outside a classroom. And only two said they'd enjoyed being taught. The rest liked school despite schooling. They remembered their friends and getting drunk and feeling each other up and laughing till they were hunched over with hilarity. There is of course the old chestnut of the one teacher, the magic one, the one who let in the light. Introduced us to Keats or Darwin. But that's not much for 15 years, is it? A couple of odes and some finches. 
            If you want to see the absolute proof that we've got it all wrong-that education is really about the fear and guilt of parents projected onto their children, then go to your own school reunion. Obviously most normal people would rather attend a naked consciousness-raising workshop. But do it once and you'll see what the Adonises and the Venuses of your halcyon days actually did with all that promise. The boy who was captain of everything, who strode the halls like a young Alexander; the girl with the glistening hair who memorized poetry and whose golden limbs danced across a stage as a Juliet no one would ever forget. Well, they're both sorry, seedy never-wases now. Their finest moments are behind them. Everything after that brilliant year at school or college was mediocrity. Nothing good ever came from peaking too early. The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn't wishful thinking. It's the rule. My advice to any child reading this: If you're particularly good at the violin or math, for God's sake don't let anyone find out. Particularly your parents. If they know you're good at stuff they'll force you to do it forever. You'll wake up and find yourself in a sweaty dinner jacket and clip-on bow tie playing "The Music of the Night" for the ten-thousandth time in an orchestra pit. Or you'll be the fat, 40-ish accountant doing taxes for the people who spent their school days copping a feel and learning how to roll a good joint.

Vanity Fair, December, 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

8 Ways to Keep Your Student Loan Debt From Crushing You

How to manage loan debt so you don't run into trouble
By Kristin Kloberdanz

Whether you're signing up for your first student loan, trying to manage payments as you move on with your career, or have just realized you're in danger of default, student loans can be overwhelming.

In an interview with TakePart, Lauren Asher, the president of the Institute for College Access & Success, which runs the nonprofit Project on Student Debt, shares her tips for staying out of student loan trouble. She says:

1. Know your loans. “Know what you owe and to whom,” Asher says. “Know what kinds of loans you have, how much you owe and where you are supposed to send your payment. It sounds simple yet it is not for many people.” If you have a federal loan or loans, stay on top of your loans with their online management sites. If you have a private loan or loans, make sure you are aware of all of their rules, which differ greatly from federal. “Federal loans have protections and forgiveness while private lenders aren’t required to carry any protections.”

2. Stay in touch with your lender. “If they send a bill and you don’t get it, you’re still responsible,” Asher says. “It’s on you so they know how to find you and you’re up to date. People move a lot and change addresses and phone numbers. Staying in touch with your lender will really help you stay out of trouble—trouble you may not even know you’re in.” If you have several loans making this difficult, check with an advisor about possibly consolidating them so they are all in one place for one payment. However, Asher says, never consolidate your private loans with federal because you will then lose your federal protections!”

3. Review your repayment options. “The faster you pay your loan, the less you’ll pay in interest,” Asher says. “But if you pick a payment you can’t manage, it will send you down a bumpy path.” A great place to look at repayment options—specifically ones that are income based—for federal loans is, a site created by Project on Student Debt.

4. Contain the cost of your loan. Asher recommends talking to your lender about lowering the principal. You can do this by including a written request to your lender every time you pay extra to make sure this extra money is being applied to the principal rather than future payments (which include fees and interest). Keep detailed records and make sure the overpayment was diligently applied. If you are able to pay off a loan, pay off the most expensive first as well as the private ones, which will generally have a higher interest rate. And always check to see if your profession offers loan forgiveness.

Stay out of trouble. Asher says the best way to do so is simple: Make sure you pay on time. 
If you're concerned about making a future payment or if you've missed a payment:

1. Talk to your lender: “Before it gets any worse, be upfront with your lender,” Asher says. “There may be options you aren’t aware of.” There is information on the federal sites, and you may be able to temporarily suspend your payment (although beware of the costs) or replace with a more manageable loan plan.

2. Explore other options: Look beyond what the lender tells you. Asher recommends checking out and to make sure you understand the full range of options available. Also check out reports from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to see if there are any specific complaints about your lender so you can handle the issues upfront.

3. Time is of the essence: “If you are delinquent on a federal loan but haven’t yet defaulted, there is time to get out of delinquency,” Asher says. “Once you have defaulted there are fewer options. And your credit rating can be ruined, and it can be hard to get an apartment and car loan or even a job. You can see your wages garnished, your tax refunds claimed and eventually your Social Security may see a bite taken out of it if you default on a federal loan. It takes nine months to default on a federal loan, so talk to your lender as soon as possible before you crash and burn.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

La Grande Illusion

Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is one of the undeniably great films in the history of world cinema – an eloquent commentary on the borders that divide people, classes, armies, and countries. During WWI, two aristocrats – the German commander Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and his prisoner, the French officer Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) – share a mirror image of society based on honor and order, a system of mutual respect and protocol linked to years of tradition.  Though their class is doomed by the changes that produced the war, they must act out the rituals of noblesse oblige and serve a nationalism they don’t really believe in.  Hence the grand illusion that somehow class and upbringing elevate these officers above the commonness of war – when bullets don’t know one bloodline from another.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A UNION MAN - A new biography of an unlikely American statesman

Review by Dorothy Wickenden
Seward came to see himself as the chief conciliator between the rebellious Southern states and punitive Northerners.
            On the afternoon of July 23, 1846, William H. Seward rose to give his closing argument in a local murder case. Recently returned from Albany, where he had spent two terms as governor of New York, he had resumed his law practice in Auburn, a hundred and seventy miles west. He was defending a twenty-three-year-old black man who had confessed to killing a white family of four. A mob had come close to lynching the defendant, and Seward was warned that, as the defense counsel, he could face retaliation. 'There is a busy war around me, to drive me from defending and securing a fair trial for the negro Freeman," Seward wrote to his closest adviser, Thurlow Weed. At sixteen, William Freeman had been wrongly charged with horse stealing and sent to Auburn Prison, where he was beaten with a wooden board until his skull cracked and he lost his hearing. Seward told Weed that Freeman "is deaf, deserted, ignorant, and his conduct is unexplainable on any principle of sanity. It is natural that he trusts me to defend him." Weed urged Seward against it, but Seward's wife, Frances, commended his decision, and assisted him in his research on the insanity defense, a novel legal tactic at the time.
            Seward told the jurors that he was appalled, as they were, by the massacre of "a whole family, just, gentle, and pure," but he argued that Freeman, who was clearly unstable after having been brutalized himself, was "still your brother, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race--the image of our Maker." The jury was unmoved, and the judge sentenced Freeman to hang. Yet newspapers across the country printed Seward's courtroom arguments, and they were applauded by a progressive constituency throughout the North. The case helped re-launch his career in politics, a line of work that he described in his memoir as "the important and engrossing business of the country." He went on to become, as Walter Stahr shows in his masterly new biography, "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man" (Simon & Schuster), one of the most influential and polarizing American politicians of the nineteenth century.
            William Henry Seward, known as Henry, grew up in rural New York, in a slave-owning family, although his parents, alone among their neighbors, allowed the slaves' children to go to school, and, Seward recalled, they "never uttered an expression that could tend to make me think that the negro was inferior to the white person." In 1820, when Seward graduated from Union College, in Schenectady, the students were inflamed by the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery in Western territories south of the Missouri line. Seward gave a commencement address, with Southern graduates on one side of the dais and Northerners on the other, in which he introduced an argument that he developed during the next forty years: the North and the South should agree to pursue the "gradual emancipation" of slaves.
            In 1834, Seward and Weed became founding members of the Whig Party, formed to combat the corrupt Presidency of Andrew Jackson and his followers in the Democratic Party. But, as governor from 1839 to 1842, Seward incited the wrath of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Whigs by increasing funding for public education for all children, advocating citizenship for immigrants, and passing a state law giving fugitive slaves the right to a trial. As a newly arrived senator in 1850, he delivered a three-hour stem-winder before packed galleries, denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act and disagreeing with his illustrious elders Clay, Webster, and Calhoun about the extension of slavery. Appealing to the Founders' principles of union, justice, welfare, and liberty, he announced that "there is a higher law than the Constitution." He led a generational change in the chamber, where Radical Republicans rejected the compromises the triumvirate had forged on slavery. Those compromises, Seward said, arose from "the want of moral courage to meet this question of emancipation as we ought." They would lead to civil war, not prevent it.
            The first shot may have been fired at Fort Sumter, in 1861, but the Civil War had its origins in Kansas, in 1854, when the Illinois senator Stephen Douglas pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing slavery in the vast Nebraska territory north of the Missouri line. "Bleeding Kansas" split in two, with pro-slavery advocates setting up their legislature in a schoolhouse just west of Missouri and anti-slavery settlers gathering in Topeka. Seward had predicted such an outcome four years earlier, and he helped lead the opposition to the bill in the Senate.
            Seward's anti-slavery sentiment was deep enough that he and Frances harbored fugitives in their home. Frances, the well-educated daughter of a judge, had grown up in Auburn, and her political views were even more fiercely held than her husband's. She and Seward gave financial support to Frederick Douglass's abolitionist newspaper and cultivated a friendship with Harriet Tubman. In November, 1855, when Seward was in Auburn and Frances was away, he wrote to her that "the underground railroad works wonderfully. Two passengers came here last night." He had recently won reelection to the Senate and was considering a run for the Presidency. Given his ambitions and his high public profile, flouting federal law in this was a particularly risky enterprise.
            Not long afterward, having decided that the Whig Party was weak and outmoded, Seward became a primary force in the birth of the Republican Party. Its immediate purpose was to arrest the spread of slavery and, as he put it, to unseat the "privileged class" - Southern slaveholders, who still dominated the government. In Rochester, New York, in October, 1858, Seward declared that the slave states and the free states were engaged in an "irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces." The speech caused a frenzy in the press, with one paper applauding it as "clear, calm, sagacious, profound, impregnable," and another denouncing Seward as a "repulsive abolitionist." Four months earlier, in Springfield, Illinois, a forty-nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln had given his remarkably similar "House Divided" speech, to a mostly local audience, and he went on to lose the Senate election to Douglas.
            By 1860, Senator Seward was the country’s preeminent Republican, and a that Southerners could be persuaded to familiar figure around Washington. Fifty-eight
years old, he was invariably disheveled, in an old jacket and trousers that hung limply on his narrow frame. He had keen blue eyes, deep-set and overhung with unruly gray eyebrows, and a nose that jutted out from his face like the prow of a ship. A reporter for the Times of London later described him as "a subtle, quick man, rejoicing in power, given to perorate and to oracular utterances, fond of badinage and bursting with the importance of state mysteries."
            Like many in his party, Seward was shocked when he lost the Presidential
nomination to Abraham Lincoln, whom he furiously described as "a little Illinois lawyer." But some Republicans had feared that his militant reputation would prevent him
from winning in key moderate states, including Illinois. (In the South, he was regarded
as a dangerous foe. A Mississippi congressman warned that, if Seward was elected President, we "will tear this Constitution to pieces, and look to our guns for justice.") Seward, though, had a trait that was rare in Washington: an ability to curb his rancor. He threw himself into campaigning for Lincoln, and, more than anyone, helped secure his victory.
            A month later, Lincoln wrote to Seward asking him to be Secretary of State, shrewdly commending his "integrity, ability, learning, and great experience." When Lincoln arrived in the capital, shortly before his Inauguration, Seward officiously escorted him to the White House to see President Buchanan, took him to church, hosted him for dinner, and gave him a tour of the House and the Senate. A writer for the New York Herald noted, ''The 'irrepressible' senator thinks he has Mr. Lincoln sure, and delights in introducing him to everybody, on the same principle which leads children to display their new toys."
            Seward's buoyancy and his unapologetic indulgence in claret and cigars were almost as much remarked upon as his declamations in the Senate. But, as the country splintered, he assumed a role that belied his reputation as an extremist. After Lincoln's election, South Carolina withdrew from the Union-quickly followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Even at his most provocative, Seward had never advocated immediate abolition. He believed that Southerners could be persuaded to see slavery "give way to the salutary instructions of economy, and to the ripening influences of humanity." Now he infuriated Radical Republicans by working
up until the eve of the war to keep the border states from seceding.
            On January 12, 1861, three days after his appointment became public, Seward
gave a momentous speech in the Senate on the importance of the Union. Invoking Jefferson to explain why he had departed from his "cherished convictions," he said that politicians must consider not only their personal views but also "those with whom we must necessarily act." He even advised amending the Constitution so that Congress could not "abolish or interfere with slavery in any state." Members of the Senate, defying protocol, erupted into applause. Frances Seward, though, disapproved. "Eloquent as your speech was, it fails to meet with the entire approval of those who love you best," she wrote from Auburn. "Compromise based on the idea that the preservation of the Union is more important than the liberty of nearly 4,000,000 human beings cannot be right."
            Lincoln had few of the insecurities that hobble fur more experienced politicians. He surrounded himself with seasoned if fractious advisers, and during his first weekend in Washington he asked Seward to look over his Inaugural Address. Salmon Chase, soon to be Treasury Secretary and a Seward antagonist, had been urging Lincoln to take a hard line with the South. But Seward thought that Lincoln's bristling tone was all wrong. He compiled a six-page list of proposed revisions, including a section on the Dred Scott decision, in which the President deplored "the despotism of the few life officers composing the Court." Lincoln accepted many of Seward's changes, most important his elimination of the bellicose conclusion: "You can forbear the assault upon [the government], I can not shrink from the defense of it. With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of ' Shall it be peace, or a sword?' "Seward urged Lincoln to conclude, instead, with "some words of affection," of "calm and cheerful confidence." Excising Lincoln's last lines, he substituted his own:

Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

            Lincoln took the sentiment, stripped it of its orotundity, and produced one of the most stirring political statements in American history:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

            It was the start of a remarkably successful collaboration between a President and his Secretary of State. Lincoln told Seward early on, "I shall have to depend upon you for taking care of these matters of foreign affairs, of which I know so little, and with which I reckon you are familiar." That meant, above all, keeping a cotton-dependent Britain and France from recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate government. In November, 1861, Seward faced his first test when Charles Wilkes, an intemperate Union captain, fired upon an unarmed British mail ship, the R.M.S. Trent, and then boarded and captured the Confederacy’s envoys to Britain and France, James Mason and John Slidell. In his biography, Stahr describes the immediate aftermath of the incident as "the most dramatic and tense weeks in transatlantic relations of the entire Civil War," and calls the Trent affair "the Cuban missile crisis of the nineteenth century: a moment when the United States faced possible war with the world's other major power."
            Seward knew that the Union could not survive if Britain declared war. He began working the back channels, privately assuring British officials that Wilkes had acted on his own. One of Seward's many influential friends in the press was Henry Raymond, the editor of the New York Times and an active member of the Republican Party. On December 17th, in words that could have sprung directly from Seward's pen, the newspaper editorialized that "the American people do not desire a war with England-that none but secessionists and those who sympathize with them, are disposed to a needless rupture of our friendly relations with any foreign power." Two days later, Seward persuaded Britain's ambassador to turn over an unofficial copy of the British government's demands. Seward promised that he would share the document with no one but the President, and won a little more time to prepare the Administration's response.
            On Christmas morning, Seward presented to the Cabinet his draft response to the British, carefully balancing the conflicting imperatives of foreign and domestic policy. Britain insisted that the Union apologize for violating international law and promptly release the prisoners, but Wilkes was being feted in Northern cities as a hero. The President and the rest of the Cabinet, alert to popular sentiment, were also repulsed by the idea of bowing to Britain's terms. Seward agreed that Wilkes had legally searched the Trent and taken the prisoners. Nevertheless, he said, citing a precedent established by Monroe, Wilkes had improperly allowed the ship to continue to England rather than taking it into port, where the matter could be settled in court.
            Lincoln at first balked, and said that he would prepare his own letter, but the next day he came around to Seward's approach. Stahr, the biographer of John Jay, another underappreciated American diplomat who conducted delicate negotiations with the British, is generally restrained to a fault. Here, though, he concludes that the letter Lincoln had in mind probably would have led Great Britain to declare war on the United States.
            After the Trent crisis, Seward's relationship with the President grew closer, a source of bitterness among Cabinet members already predisposed to resent him. Stahr draws frequently on the spiteful but astute diary entries of Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, who emerges as one of Seward' s most revealing foils. In September, 1862, Welles wrote that Seward "runs to the President two or three times a day, gets his ear, gives him his tongue, makes himself interesting, and artfully contrives to dispose of many measures or give them direction independent of his associates."
            Seward had come to see himself as the chief conciliator between the rebellious Southern states and punitive Northerners. "Somebody must be in a position to mollify and moderate," he wrote to Weed. ''That is the task of the President and the Secretary of State." Yet he often ended up infuriating members of his own party. Charles Sumner, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and an old friend, accused Seward of the "grossest mismanagement" of foreign affairs, and taunted his preening and "prancing." Mary Todd Lincoln told her husband that she hated to see him "let that hypocrite, Seward, twine you around his finger as if you were a skein of thread." In September, 1861, a group of New Yorkers warned Lincoln about Seward's drinking and smoking, a charge that Lincoln waved aside. A year later, a delegation of Radical Republicans from New York went to Washington with ostensible evidence of Seward's leniency toward Southern "traitors." Lincoln retorted, "It is plain enough what you want. You want to get Seward out of the cabinet." He said that every one of them would be content to see the country ruined "if you could turn out Seward."
            As the scheming continued, Seward only rose in Lincoln's estimation, and Lincoln in his. Gideon Welles judged that "the qualities of Seward are almost the precise opposite of the President." But their temperamental differences-Lincoln the brooding, lonely depressive; Seward the gregarious optimist-complemented each other like those of a comfortable married couple. They liked nothing better than to relax together in the evening. Seward's son Frederick, who served as his Assistant Secretary of State, recalled that, as the two "sat together by the fireside, or in the carriage, the conversation between them, however it began, always drifted back into the same channel - the progress of the great national struggle. Both loved humor, and however trite the theme, Lincoln always found some quaint illustration from his western life, and Seward some case in point, from his long public career, to give it new light." Seward, in a tone of mock regret, told a British journalist, with Lincoln present, that he had "always wondered how any man could ever get to be President of the United States with so few vices. The President, you know, I regret to say, neither drinks nor smokes." Seward, like Lincoln, was a practiced raconteur, and Lincoln told one visitor, "Mr. Seward is limited to a couple of stories which from repeating he believes are true." Their over-all agreement about the conduct of the war, and their habit of checking each other's rasher impulses, defined Administration policy.
            In July, 1862, when Lincoln presented the Cabinet with a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, Seward warned that it could prompt foreign governments to intervene on behalf of the South, and said that it should be delivered at a time of military strength, not weakness. "Proclamations are paper," he wrote to Frances, "without the support of armies." Lincoln was persuaded to wait. The preliminary Proclamation was signed on September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam.
            "Nineteenth-century elections were played by rough rules," Stahr writes laconically, and Seward knew exactly how to exploit them. After the New York Draft Riots, in 1863, and a string of defeats by Union troops, many people in the North began agitating for peace. As the election of 1864 approached, even loyal Republicans considered calling for a convention to nominate another candidate. That August, Weed went to the White House to tell Seward and Lincoln that the election was lost. Seward disagreed, and deployed Weed, the consummate party boss, to activate what Gideon Welles aptly described as the "vicious New York school of politics." Welles's Assistant Secretary of the Navy was enlisted to tell workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that if they didn't vote for Lincoln they would lose their jobs. Lincoln did his part, too, appointing "a few Seward-Weed men to key posts in New York City." Welles, meanwhile, scribbled in his diary about the "miserable intrigues of Weed and Seward." Outmaneuvered by his nemesis and undercut by a subordinate, Welles wrote after the results came in, "Seward was quite exultant-feels strong and self gratified. Says this Administration is wise, energetic, faithful, and able beyond any of its predecessors."
            The patronage appointments and the unscrupulous tactics continued in 1865, as Congress debated the terms of Reconstruction. Democrats tried to block the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery. Radical Republicans resisted the reinstatement of Southern congressmen, and pushed for a federal agency to protect former slaves. Lincoln and Seward, who tried to arbitrate between the two extremes, were determined to get the amendment through the House. They offered political positions to editors who supported it, and Seward hired disreputable lobbyists to secure the votes of resistant Democrats and ambivalent border-state Unionists. On January 31, 1865, the amendment passed. Unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, it had the power of law, and Seward predicted, prematurely, that the process of Reconstruction was almost complete.
            Stahr writes with understated pathos of the terrible events that carne later that year, when Seward was tested "as few men are ever tested." On April 5th, Seward embarked with several members of his family to meet Lincoln near Richmond, where the prospect of serious peace talks beckoned. Not far from home, the door to the carriage flew open, and when the driver dismounted to secure it the horses bolted. Seward leaped out, attempting to grab the reins. Instead, he fell and was carried back to his house unconscious. He had fractured his lower jaw and his right arm, and the doctor considered his condition "perilous in the extreme." Late one night nine days later, at virtually the same moment that Lincoln was shot in his box at Ford's Theatre, Seward was stabbed in bed by one of John Wilkes Booth's coconspirators, a former Confederate soldier. Seward survived, but his son Augustus was injured, and Frederick, beaten over the head with the attackers revolver, was in a coma for several days. Frances Seward, already frail, was undone by caring for her family and by the assassination of Lincoln. She died two months later, at the age of fifty-nine.
            The following year, Seward's twenty one- year-old daughter, Fanny, died of tuberculosis. Devastated, badly scarred, and noticeably aged, Seward nevertheless continued as Secretary of State. This gives him, as Stahr puts it, "the curious distinction of having worked with and admired both Abraham Lincoln, considered one of the greatest if not the greatest of all American presidents, and Andrew Johnson, generally considered one of the worst." Johnson was a former Democrat from Tennessee, with a boorish manner and blundering political instincts. The Chicago Tribune was not alone in thinking that Seward had "effectually committed political suicide" by agreeing to stay on. A member of the House from Pennsylvania compared him to an old English hunting dog, tolerated because he "never bit the hand that fed him."
            In early 1867, as Radicals in Congress pursued impeachment efforts against Johnson, Seward tried both to heat them back and to persuade the President to tone down remarks in his annual message that berated Congress for forcing Southern states to accept the black vote. But Johnson, who believed that blacks had "shown less capacity for government than any other race of people," ignored his advice. Seward was exasperated by Johnson, but he agreed, Stahr writes, "that the southern states should be allowed to govern themselves, and to rejoin the national government, without undue delay or onerous conditions."
            Seward persisted, too, in order to act upon his long-held ambitions for the American empire. After helping to preserve the Republic, he now set out to expand it. Since the eighteen-fifties, he had been advocating trade with East Asia. On a political tour with Johnson in the summer of1867, Seward told an audience in Hartford, to vigorous applause, that the' people of the United States had before them the "most glorious" prospect "that ever dawned upon any nation on the globe," of a free nation "extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and approaching the shores of Japan and China." He negotiated treaties with Japan, the Sandwich Islands, Madagascar, and Venezuela. "Nothing could be more important in regard to the growth of American influence and the extension of American power in the future." Eventually, Seward was also vindicated in his determination to acquire the strategically important territories of Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, and Alaska.
            Not, however, without engaging in some more diplomatic chicanery. He wanted Congress to pass a treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska, but his power had waned. In September, 1868, he admitted separately to the President and to an American diplomat that the Russian Ambassador, Edouard de Stoeckl, had siphoned two hundred thousand dollars from the Treasury Department's seven-million-dollar check to Russia for the acquisition of the territory. The man had some incidental expenses to square away. The editor of the Daily Morning Chronicle requested thirty thousand dollars in return for his support of the treaty, and Stoeckl paid thousands of dollars to ten members of Congress to win their votes. A few months later, when a House investigating committee questioned Seward about the bribes, he denied knowing anything about them. Stahr finds the evidence that Seward perjured himself "troubling," but reminds us, "Seward was not a saint, he was a practical politician, and he was prepared if necessary to use dubious means to achieve great goals." One of the achievements of Stahr's subtle portrait of this confounding figure is that, in the end, our sense of Seward's charm, and even of his integrity, survives roughly intact.
            Although Seward retired at the age of n sixty-eight, in 1869, when Grant assumed the Presidency, he continued to be, as Frances had described him a quarter century earlier, "the most indefatigable of men." He said, "At my age, and in my condition of health, 'rest was rust,' and nothing remained, to prevent rust, but to, keep in motion." Still suffering from pain in his face and neck, his hands crippled, and paralysis creeping up his arms, he went on a journey with his family on the newly opened transcontinental railroad a cause that he had championed in the Senate - and then on to British Columbia, Alaska, Cuba, and Mexico. He returned home for five months before setting off for Japan, China, and Europe with the two daughters of an old political mend. There had been speculation that he would marry one of them, twenty four- year-old Olive Risley, whom he had been seeing regularly in Washington. (One paper, alluding to the age difference, described Seward as "amiable, sportive, frisky, foxy.") Instead, Seward adopted her, thus preempting any stories about the impropriety of travelling with two very young women. After the trip, he finally settled down in Auburn, where he worked with Olive on a book about their journeys, and received frequent visitors at home.
            Seward's devoted young friend Henry Adams enjoyed observing "the old fellow" at dinner "rolling out his grand broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language." He later wrote of Seward that it was difficult to tell "how much was nature and how much was mask." Seward was maligned alternately as an extremist and as a temporizer. He broke the law to help fugitive slaves, yet made concessions that he found personally unconscionable in order to preserve the Union. A man who literally bore the scars of a violently divided society nonetheless held on to a grandiose vision of American destiny and insured that the contours of a young nation were expanded. He was mocked for his boundless self-regard, but there was one man he came to admire even more.
            When Lincoln returned from Virginia on the evening of Robert E. Lee's official surrender, April 9, 1865, he went directly to visit Seward, who was recuperating from the carriage accident. Frederick recalled that "the gas-lights were turned down low, and the house was still, every one moving softly, and speaking in whispers." Lincoln sat down on the bed. Seward, his face wrapped in bandages, whispered, " 'You are back from Richmond?' 'Yes,' said Lincoln, 'and I think we are near the end at last.' "
            Less than a week later, Lincoln was dead and Seward and two of his sons were struggling to survive. But that night was marked by hope. Frederick recounts how the President, "leaning his tall form across the bed, and resting on his elbow," lay down beside Seward. Lincoln talked about visiting a Union hospital earlier that day and shaking the hands of hundreds of patients. "He spoke of having worked as hard at it as sawing wood," Fanny recorded in her diary, "and seemed, in his goodness of heart, much satisfied at the labor."
            It is easy to imagine the moment: the two canny politicians quietly reassuring each other that the country would soon be reunited and the virulent animosities of the war fade away. A few days after the 1864 election, Seward had addressed a crowd gathered at his house in Washington. According to newspaper accounts, he said that everyone would soon see Lincoln as "a true patriot, benevolent and loyal, honest and faithful. Hereafter, all motive of detraction of him would cease to exist, and Abraham Lincoln would take his place with Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, among the benefactors of his country and the human race." This was not rate political rhetoric. He believed every word.

The New Yorker, October 1, 2012, page 72.