Personal plug: If your interest was piqued by what I wrote about the 1924 Democratic Convention here, I was interviewed last week by Backstory on the MSG disaster for their episode on gridlock. (The segment I’m featured in starts at 33:30 — I’m the guy who sounds like Mike Mills from R.E.M. I should probably work on my radio skills.)
Also, FWIW, my dissertation is now downloadable as a PDF from Academic Commons. At some point, I’ll probably convert it here for easier web reading, like I have previous history writings — on Herbert Croly, Al Smith, Harvey Wiley, colonial taverns, William Borah, etc. But that’s a project that’s down the queue at the moment.
“‘The whole era,’ concluded Bourne in disgust, ‘has been spiritually wasted.’” Let’s hope, down the road a-ways from 2012, the last few years won’t feel the same. Anyway, that line’s from the first paragraph of the now completed(!) dissertation, which I sent off to my advisor and the committee this afternoon. It’s been a very long road, and I’m sure the euphoria will take hold in a bit. As for now, I just feel as per the clip above — plus exhausted with a twinge of Comic Guy.
FWIW, the final draft, with footnotes and bibliography and all that, clocked in at 1269 pages. If anyone’s interested on what’s covered and the general layout, I posted the table of contents below. That is obviously far too long for public — or anyone’s — consumption. I mean, I wrote the damned thing and I only read, like, the conclusion and stuff…It’s about the 20′s, right?
Seriously though, I’m sure I could have condensed it more than I did. For example, here’s the part on p. 527 where I talk about how the Harding administration used the Herrin Massacre as a public relations coup against the labor movement in 1922:
“All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy. All work and no play makes Kevin a boring boy.“
That goes on for about 70 pages. And I think, if I’d just worked at it a little harder, I could’ve really gotten that down to 40. Ohhhhh well.
At any rate, I’m way too tired to be blogging at the moment, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Thanks to everyone for putting up with all the navel-gazing posts about this over the past few weeks, months, and years. FWIW, the general GitM readership got a shout-out on the acknowledgments page. With that in mind, work is crazy through election day, but this site should hopefully resume to normal status updates soon thereafter. First I need to sleep for awhile, clean up my paper-, book-, and dog-hair-strewn apartment, do some more sleeping, see all the movies I’ve missed — the only one I’ve seen in months was Looper (I liked it) — take my man Berk to the park, sleep some more, get a life, stuff like that.
Also, there is still the actual defense to consider, which will happen sometime in the next two months. But I am assuming that today was the day I destroyed the Ring, and that will be more of an “I’m a scarred, melancholy badass now, so let’s kick Saruman out of the Shire” Scouring-level event. Also, I’m not counting any chickens, trust me, but I did go ahead and put the batteries in my brand-new sonic screwdriver.
Uphill All The Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism 1919-1929
CHAPTER ONE: THE “TRAGEDY OF THE PEACE MESSIAH” 31
CHAPTER FIVE: THE POLITICS OF NORMALCY 357
CHAPTER NINE: THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA 824
There was also the added bonus that Clint’s speech helps make the old dissertation that much more timely. Since, as it happens, the empty-chair routine was a favorite campaign trick of Burton Wheeler, Robert La Follette’s vice-presidential running mate in 1924. To pull the relevant paragraph:
“Wheeler got particularly good mileage out of debating an empty chair or cross-examining a straw dummy about Teapot Dome and various other campaign issues. ‘You knew all about the oil scandals and the Ohio gang, didn’t you?’ Wheeler would ask. Then, after the ensuing silence, he would add, ‘Well, knowing all these things, you kept quiet, didn’t you? And now you have the reputation of being a strong, silent man, haven’t you?’ Here, Wheeler told voters, was America’s ‘Silent Cal.’“
Clint’s gonzo chair bit also brought to mind one of my favorite chapters to write, on the disastrous 1924 Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden — in which Al Smith and William McAdoo were dead-locked for over two weeks and 103 ballots, before the Democracy settled instead on West Virginia lawyer John W. Davis. To give you a flavor of the disaster:
And, for the first time in history, the convention had all been broadcast nationwide through the miracle of radio.”
In fact, one of the first-ever radio catch-phrases emerged from the 1924 convention, when the Governor of Alabama, William Brandon, kicked off each round of voting with the same sentence: “Alabamah casts twenty-foah votes for Oscah Dubya Undawood!” (For years later, a resolute man or woman would be considered ‘as steady as Alabama for Underwood.’) In any case, back then memorable, often un-scripted or badly-scripted Eastwood-esque speeches were the norm. To take just a few notable examples:
James Phelan, nominating McAdoo: “When the roll of states got to California, boss James Phelan gave a florid fifty-minute nominating speech for McAdoo that was deemed by observers ‘the worst speech never heard.’ It, according to others, nearly ‘stampeded the convention of Smith’ and would have killed ‘Thomas Jefferson running on a ticket with Andrew Jackson.’ Long before Phelan got to his closing, the galleries were desperately screaming ‘Name your man! Name your man!’ When he finally Mc’did, McAdoo forces festooned with buttons and hatbands reading ‘Mc’ll do!’ broke out in an hour-long celebration, chanting ‘we don’t care what the Easterners do; the South and West are for McAdoo!’ In response, the galleries bellowed ‘Ku Ku, McAdoo!’ and ‘No oil on Al!’ The situation was only just beginning to get out of hand.”
FDR, nominating Al Smith: “When the roll of states reached Connecticut, the delegation yielded to their neighbor New York, meaning, everyone knew with bated breath, it was time for Al Smith’s official nomination. The deliverer of this good news to the galleries, on account of his relative stardom and offsetting attributes to the candidate, was Smith’s campaign manager, Franklin Roosevelt. (When Joseph Proskauer first pitched the idea to Smith, the candidate asked, ‘For God’s Sake, why?’ Proskauer replied, ‘Because you’re a Bowery mick and he’s a Protestant patrician and he’ll take some of the curse off of you.’)”
“Helped by his teenage son Jimmy, whose arm he gripped so hard it bruised, Roosevelt slowly made his way to the lectern on crutches. Once there – Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania had already tested that ‘the pulpit’ could bear Roosevelt’s weight – he turned on the charm, winning the McAdoo crowd over right away by gently admonishing the galleries above. Then, delivering a speech written by Proskauer (although Roosevelt would rarely admit to it later), Roosevelt praised Al Smith as ‘the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield,’ a moniker, derived from Wordsworth, that would stick to Smith as surely as ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ had in 1920. The Smith crowd loved every minute of it, and the McAdoo crowd was quietly impressed – Franklin Roosevelt was back.”
Andrew Erwin, on the Klan:: “As soon as the anti-Klan plank was read, the floor and the galleries both went into full hysteria…by the time pro- and anti-Klan speakers began making their remarks late in the evening, the assembled Democrats were cheering and hissing with abandon. The wall of noise became particularly intense during the remarks of Andrew C. Erwin, the former mayor of Athens, Georgia. Expecting pro-Klan nostrums from the Georgian, the pro-Smith galleries booed Erwin mercilessly – until the room slowly started to realize that Erwin was actually denouncing the Klan, at which point a lusty cheer erupted from up above even as McAdoo Alley wailed with rage. When Erwin went back to his seat, only one member of the Georgian delegation stood to welcome him.”
William Jennings Bryan, on the Klan: “The last speech on the Klan issue was delivered by William Jennings Bryan, who pleaded with anti-Klan delegates that everyone could agree if only the three words ‘Ku Klux Klan’ were left out of the platform. It went over like a lead balloon. The galleries were so vociferous in their booing of the Great Commoner that Bryan had to stop three times. On the third such interruption, [Thomas] Walsh rose up and began gaveling and screaming in fury to quiet the balconies down. Rattled, Bryan slipped into the cadences of the church and implored the unruly congregation ‘in the name of the Son of God and Savior of the world. Christians, stop fighting and let us get together and save the world from the materialism that robs life of its spiritual values.’ The crowd was having none of it, and Bryan retreated to a chair on the platform, too tired to walk back to his seat with Florida. It wasn’t even his worst speech of the convention.”
(Note: For a very funny book-length treatment of the 1924 convention, check out Robert K. Murray’s The 103rd Ballot.)
It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.
With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)
For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.
For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.
Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.
So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.
“Zoot Shooters run through a course they call a ‘caper,’ which is often based on a scene from a famous gangster movie, like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Miller’s Crossing.’ The winner is the person who shoots with the most accuracy in the shortest time. Penalties are tacked on for hitting the ‘good guys.’“
Also by way of a friend, the WSJ looks into “Zoot Shooters,” or what happens when fanboys and gun enthusiasts cross-pollinate. “There are two schools of thought,’ says Steve Fowler, a longtime cowboy shooter going by the name Bat Masterson, a famous Old West gunfighter. He recently took up Zoot Shooting, under the alias G-Man. ‘One is that [Zoot Shooting] is another costuming game and it’s a lot of fun…The other is, if it ain’t cowboy, it ain’t nothing.‘”
“Tully took the president’s dictation for his famous Pearl Harbor speech. ‘Miss Tully had been with Roosevelt since his days as governor of New York,” said David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. ‘And many of his most sensitive letters, instructions, notes and even scribblings passed through her hands.‘”
The National Archives obtains 5,000 pages of new FDR documents, courtesy of the archives of personal secretary Grace Tully. (This video describes the acquisition.) “Archivists hope to have the collection publicly available by November and online by January.“
“‘This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.’ So wrote Albert Einstein in a letter to his one time collaborator, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann in 1920.“
A recent history-of-science paper by a Jeroen van Dongen of Utrecht University looks into the anti-relativity theory movement of the 1920′s, and how it compares to today’s climate change denialism. “Anti-relativists were convinced that their opinions were being suppressed. Indeed, many believed that conspiracies were at work that thwarted the promotion of their ideas.” (See also: Evolution and Scopes.)
“I thought of Gatsby‘s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.“
Defiant and almost combative about the cinematic merits of Australia (“A lot of the film scientists don’t get it“), director Baz Luhrmann announces he’s moving right ahead on a new film version of The Great Gatsby. “If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says, ‘You’ve been drunk on money,’ they’re not going to want to see it. But if you reflected that mirror on another time they’d be willing to…People will need an explanation of where we are and where we’ve been, and ‘The Great Gatsby’ can provide that explanation.‘”
“As the Hurricane Katrina anniversary coverage blows out to sea and New Orleans braces for another year of neglect, it’s worth pausing to consider the fallout from the disaster that was previously deemed the worst in U.S. history — the 1927 Mississippi flood.” Slate‘s David Greenberg takes a moment to remember the big 1927 flood, which significantly altered New Era attitudes about the appropriate duties of the federal government (and will also play a significant role in the latter half of my dissertation.)
Listen up, Cornyn: “There never was a more vicious or insidious doctrine announced for the consideration of a free people than the doctrine that our constitution or any part of it is suspended during a state of war. Our constitution was made for war as well as peace. Equally vicious is the doctrine that you must disregard the guarantees of the constitution and trample upon our civil liberties in order to save the constitution…[W]e can never get anywhere if we resort to the theory that the minority has no rights which the majority is bound to respect or that the constitutional rights of the citizen must give way to some supposed emergency. I think the greatest service the true American can render to the cause of orderly liberty is to demonstrate in this critical situation that we can deal with every confronting situation and meet every emergency without violating or disregarding to the individual citizen any of his rights under our constitution. If we have reached the point where we cannot take care of the situation without resorting to arbitrary methods, to undefined official discretion, then the enemies of this government may well say that our system has proved a failure.” — Sen. William E. Borah, “Letter to Austin Simmons,” January 21, 1920.
By the way, since people often ask me about it, and since I’ve been working on grant writing of late anyway, I’ve written up and html’ized a brief executive summary of my dissertation project. As always, subject to change…particularly the title. (Left-of-the-Colon probably isn’t the best place for a The The pun.)
“[B]elievers in science are now wondering how the rejection of Darwinian evolution, once presumed to be discredited, keeps returning to claim a place in high-school biology classrooms and in popular thinking. The answer is that we’re in thrall to the powerful legend of the Scopes trial. For anti-Darwinist beliefs aren’t returning; they’ve just never gone away.” Slate‘s David Greenberg invokes the misunderstood legacy of the Scopes trial to explain the persistence of creationist thought among Americans today.
As seen in the NYT Science Times, a volunteer at the Smithsonian discovers a forgotten cache of photos from the Scopes trial, which took place eighty years ago this month.
Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson (a writer-director I like a lot less than most people, although I caught Magnolia again on IFC recently and didn’t loathe it this time) announces his next project — Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, possibly starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Hmmm…looks like I had best write that dissertation chapter on Teapot Dome sooner rather than later.
If it’s post-MLK day, it must be the beginning of the spring semester here at Columbia…and this term I’ve returned to America’s shores from East Asia. (How McArthur-esque.) So, for the next few months I’ll be TA’ing “The Radical Tradition in America” for the inimitable Prof. Eric Foner, which I’m greatly looking forward to (despite ending up with Thursday night section times that are less than ideal…but ah well. I can’t blame anyone but myself for that.) Since most of my work this term on the dissertation (on, put very simply, Progressive persistence in national politics, 1919-1928) is going to involve senators, governors, magazine editors, and other inner-circle types (“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within“), I’m hoping the objects of study here — individuals and movements working to effect change outside the confining parameters of legislative politics — will make for a nice, dynamic, and thought-provoking counterpoint, and one that will help me shore up my own thoughts on civic republicanism, both in its persistence and its possibilities for renewal.
Jack Beatty of the Atlantic Monthly surveys the effects of a Great Depression on Calvin Coolidge.
Slow and steady wins the race, I hope:
|George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920.
More grist for the orals mill:
|Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism.
William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction: 1869-1879.
Matthew Josephson, The Politicos.
W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition.
“He is the actuality of the schoolboy notion that anybody has a chance to be President.” Dubya? No, Warren Harding, but close enough. Hey y’all…sorry it’s been quieter than usual around here lately. Most of my time right now is spent in my summer research employ, which basically involves going down to the NYC Public Library at 40th St. and reading as many TIME magazines from the early 1920′s as possible. (In effect, I’m blogging 1923 at the moment.) I’ve also started getting serious with the orals prep, although not so serious that I didn’t create a goofy subsite to monitor my progress (and impel me to read faster.) Either way, I expect updates here will remain lighter than usual for the next few weeks, but y’never know.
Sent to me via one of my students (we discussed the Scopes trial last week), this NYT editorial has some perhaps-surprising poll numbers about Americans and evolution. Apparently, 48% of Americans – including our crusading President – believe in creationism (although I would like to see how the question is worded.) Reminds me of middle school back in the day, when I was one of three students in my 30-person history class that believed in evolution. Yes, Virginia, things are different outside of BosWash.
Used in section this week: J. Edgar Hoover hones his later anti-civil-rights strategy as the FBI goes after Marcus Garvey. (In fact, the first black FBI agent was hired by Hoover to infiltrate Garvey‘s UNIA…what a victory for progress.) Speaking of which, if you haven’t been reading Caught in Between lately, CiB’s been collecting superlative black history links all month long, including items on Reconstruction, the Middle Passage, Juneteenth, Lynching, Harlem, and the Dred Scott Decision, among others. All worth a look, in February as in any other month.
Sketching an eerie parallel to Ashcroft’s current war on libraries, Derrick Jackson surveys the FBI’s long and ignoble history concerning Black America.