Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Decathlete and the Nazi

Some crazy things went on at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, according to David Clay Large's Nazi Games. For instance, Large tells the story of Glenn Morris, a twenty-four-year-old automobile salesman from Denver who won the decathlon. He quotes the memoir of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who documented the games for the Third Reich:

"The dim light prevented any filming of the ceremony, and when Glenn Morris came down the steps he headed straight toward me. I held out my hand and congratulated him, but he grabbed me in his arms, tore off my blouse, and kissed my breasts, right in the middle of the stadium, in from of a hundred thousand spectators. A lunatic, I thought. I wrenched myself out of his grasp and dashed away. But I could not forget the wild look in his eyes; and I never wanted to speak to him again, never go anywhere near him again."

She did, however, see him again, because she needed his help in persuading the winners of the pole vault, whose last stage she had been unable to film, to vault again for her cameras. Morris complied with her request for help, and he and Riefenstahl went on to have a brief but torrid affair. "Never before had I experienced such passion," writes Riefenstahl.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

You Say /æ/, I Say /a:/

The abstract of "Indexing Political Persuasion: Variation in the Iraq Vowels," an article in the Spring 2010 issue of American Speech:

To determine whether phonological variables are a potential resource for the expression of political identity, this article examines the second vowel of Iraq. In addition to being part of a politically significant place-name, Iraq is particularly well-suited to index political identity due in part to the ideological association between the "foreign (a)" variable with correctness and educatedness in U.S. English (Boberg 1997). Specifically, Iraq's second vowel appears to index political conservatism when produced as /æ/ and political liberalism when produced as /a:/. Results from an analysis of the U.S. House of Representatives show that Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to use /æ/, even controlling for regional accent.

Within the article, the authors quote a blog commenter who puts it a little more bluntly:

I say ee-raq-ee when I'm talking about the helpless children there. I say Eye-rack-ee when discussing the dead, or soon to be dead, shitheels.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tin Pan Alley

From Barry Singer's Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf, a fascinating passage about the legendary songwriting team of Andy Razaf and Fats Waller:

It will forever be impossible to account for those songs that the two men sold outright to various music publishers and to many unidentifiable songwriting peers that [1925] season. "Let me tell you how that worked," bandleader Sam Wooding later explained. "They didn't want blacks down there on Tin Pan Alley in the beginning. Sometimes the (white) songs were good but there was something lacking. Then they had to say, well, we gotta go and get one of those spades to come in here and straighten this out. That's what happened. 'Cause a lot of those white composers, they were fresh off the boat, they didn't know what America was. They were on the right track, they almost had the idea but it wasn't there yet, so they called in Andy Razaf to straighten out the lyrics and Luckey Roberts or Shelton Brooks to straighten out the music, and they were paid maybe fifty dollars for the whole thing and it got the Negro some beef stew and he was satisfied with that."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

All I Want to Do

This passage, from Wallace Thurman's letter to Langston Hughes explaining Thurman's own aims in writing his (unpublished) collection of essays Aunt Hagar's Children, captures the spirit of why I feel compelled to keep this blog, and, I imagine, why other people blog, too:

All I want to do is get some things off my own chest, and perhaps beget discussion, which will be perhaps of some aid to those of us who wish to make the most of our talents. Mayhap I am somewhat of a crusader. It's a thankless task, but if one feels the urge why not?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Fraction Elsewhere

From July 12-30, I'm participating in an NEH Summer Institute at Washington University on the New Negro Renaissance in America, 1919-1941. We're three days in, and it's been really great so far.

The Institute has started a blog to which all the participants are supposed to contribute. Here's my first post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

South Side Wanderings

Urban wandering is my preferred manner of bike riding. I like to explore and get lost and then find my way again. Riding around the South Side, you see some pretty cool things that are tucked away in the neighborhoods that have been bypassed by interstates and made less accessible by one-way and dead-end schemes. Today I went for such a ride. Here are some highlights.

Most people are familiar with the newer face of St. Elizabeth's, a high school for girls that was founded in 1882. This part of the school building faces Arsenal:

But the old entrance to the school is at Crittenden and Tennessee. This part of Crittenden is closed to Grand, where it would otherwise empty out, so it's essentially a cul-de-sac now, very quiet and untraveled, ending with this lovely view:

I turned down Louisiana, heading past Roosevelt High School, another venerable and quite beautiful educational institution whose future may be in doubt. As I approached Connecticut, I noticed a pungent smell. It turned out to be a car on fire. There was a man on the sidewalk alongside the school grounds, yelling at a woman to move her car, which was directly behind the burning vehicle. In this picture you can see her heeding his advice:

I took Louisiana down to Osage and turned there at Marquette Park, another little treasure that's tucked away in a somewhat forgotten neighborhood. There's an outdoor pool there, which costs $2 to swim in for adults, $1 for kids. (I asked.)

If you ride around to the front of this complex, on Minnesota, you can see evidence of St. Louis's old public spirit in this fine pool building.

This section of Minnesota, incidentally, is still constructed of brick, so it feels like a time warp back to an earlier era.

Also part of this complex is something called the Thomas Dunn Learning Center, a more recent edifice that is not without its own charm:

I took Gasconade up to Laclede Park, where I noticed this sign on the back of Meramec Elementary School:

I rode toward Broadway, past St. Alexian Hospital, then across Broadway. This spooky-looking abandoned house was on Illinois, between Osage and Keokuk:

I like this house, at Marine and Miami, though I imagine it'd be worth a lot more if it were located somewhere else:

The old Lemp brewery complex, another dramatic and sadly beautiful reminder of St. Louis's past—and perhaps, one fears, a harbinger of the future should InBev decide to close the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

I seem to recall going to this dairy on Cherokee for ice cream with my uncle and cousins when I was about 15, but I might be mistaken. In any case, it's a cool sign:

My friend Ben edited a documentary about this place, which is an assisted-living facility for adults. It's at Utah and Texas, an intersection that is the inspiration for its southwestern theme and name, Silver Spur. I had completely forgotten about this place and was delighted to come upon it unexpectedly.

This leaning house, further west on Utah, looks to be in desperate need of piering:

Even further west on Utah, just past Grand, the homeowners seem to have more resources at their disposal:

I've always loved this urbane little spot on Spring Avenue:

So that was today's hour-long ramble through the south side of St. Louis. Is there any other place in the metro area that features such a richness of architectural beauty, historical evocativeness, decaying grandeur, neighborhood revitilization, and ethnic, racial, and economic diversity?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Shutter to Think

Although I haven't re-read it in years, I would still say that The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker, is one of my favorite books of all time. In my fiction writing classes, I sometimes mention it as an example of a book without a plot—although it actually has more of a storyline than some of Baker's other novels such as Room Temperature or A Box of Matches.

Baker uses a series of mundane events during the narrator's day at the office as a chance to ruminate, often in gloriously extended footnotes, about the tiny details of the world. There's a great section in which the narrator demolishes the rhetorical claims made by the bit of text bolted to the bathroom hand-blower extolling its superiority over paper towels. There's another section in which the narrator weighs the relative merits of two different methods of putting on one's socks—bunching them vs. pulling their entire lengths over the feet. There's a mini-history of the design of drinking straws, and one that compares the evolutionary design of staplers to that of locomotives. This is a novel in which the narrator asserts that one of the key moments in his attainment of adulthood was when he realized that, if necessary, he could put on his deodorant even after he had already buttoned and tucked in his Oxford shirt.

In short, it's a novel that finds wonder and delight in details that might commonly be overlooked.

Toby Weiss, in this recent post (and this even more recent one) at her blog B.E.L.T., does something worthy of Nicholson Baker at his best: she unpacks the history of shutters, with great local examples, explaining how they have evolved from something necessary to something vestigial, and suggesting the atavistic desire some homeowners satisfy by installing them.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More on Faulkner

In this essay, John Cooley discusses Faulkner's evolving and ultimately limited conceptions of race:

As Bernard Bell points out, most of Faulkner's African American characters represent stereotypic categories: the tragic mulatto, the Mammie, the faithful retainer, the rebellious marginal man. Bell and other African-American critics have also observed that Faulkner's blacks are defined in relationship to his whites, and that they frequently express white, rather than black, cultural values. White life and racial perspectives remain the primary orbit of action and thought for black characters, rather than attention to their own goals and strategies. Faulkner's blacks even live in a proxy relationship to some of his white characters, serving and protecting them, saving their lives if not their souls.

Having just finished The Unvanquished, this analysis seems very true to me. The Sartoris slaves are faithful retainers, sticking with their white owners through the war and beyond, even collaborating with them to defraud the occupying Union Army. In Col. Sartoris's estimation, Ringo the slave is a bit smarter than Bayard, the colonel's own son—yet it's of course Bayard who goes off to the university to earn a law degree, and Ringo who uncomplainingly stays behind, content to serve.

The novel begins with one of the slaves, Loosh, exulting in the Union Army's advance. Loosh, we later find out, is literate, and even taught Bayard how to read (Ringo refused to learn). Not surprisingly, Loosh is able to articulate his right to freedom and repudiates his loyalty to the family:

I don't belong to John Sartoris now; I belongs to me and God.... Let God ax John Sartoris who the man name that give him to me. Let the man that buried me in the black dark ax that of the man who dug me free.

He's a Frederick Douglass in backwoods Mississippi. Nevertheless, the entire spirit of the novel (as well as all of the characters, black and white) is against Loosh. He's presented as a dangerous and foolish ingrate. And eventually he ends up serving at the Sartoris estate again after the war.

The novel presents a version of Southern history in which blacks fleeing their former slavemasters are compared to herds of animals, blindly seeking a salvation that will never come. In which a heroic pillar of the community (and later elected official) commandeers an election by killing two "carpet-baggers" (ancestors of Joanna Burden, who'll be murdered by Joe Christmas in Light in August) who had the gall to organize blacks to vote.

Reading this novel, which in some ways I really liked, made me reflect on how well, by comparison, Mark Twain is able to create, in Jim in Huck Finn, an African American character with a mind and emotions of his own. Though Huck of course is only intermittently aware of Jim's humanity, Twain's genius is that he allows the perceptive reader to see what Huck does not. And, moreover, Twain's satire in that novel has at its core a point that The Unvanquished never quite gets around to suggesting: that slavery was wrong.

What's great in The Unvanquished, and in Faulkner generally, is the inventiveness of his style, the grandeur and sweep of his imagination, the way his novels and stories flesh out the lives of a people over the course of more than a century, the nuance of character (white characters, at least) the intricacy of plot, and the humor.

The novels of Charles W. Chesnutt, whom I've been reading quite a bit of this summer, can't measure up to Faulkner in these categories. Yet Chesnutt offers an exquisitely precise portrait of race and power in the post-bellum and post-Reconstruction South, one that is like a bucket of bracingly cold water after Faulkner's balmy grandiloquence. For example, Chesnutt's novel The Marrow of Tradition, a fictionalized portrayal of the 1899 riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, shows the destructiveness of the type of white supremacist attitudes that Faulkner takes for granted.

The Chronology in the back of my Library of America edition notes that, as the civil rights movement swept through the South, Faulkner wrote and spoke on more than one occasion about the necessity of teaching blacks "the responsibility of equality," a phrase that calls to mind the Battle Royal chapter of Invisible Man, in which the narrator, after having been bloodied in a brutal fight with nine other young men, is forced to give a speech before the prominent white men of his town. He's shouted down violently when he accidentally talks about "social equality" instead of "social responsibility."

Part of me wants to disagree with W. E. B. Du Bois's famous assertion that all art is propaganda, but on the other hand, when I compare the works of Chesnutt and Faulkner—or when I read Faulkner in the midst of an extended survey of African American history and literature—I understand where Du Bois is coming from. I see very different versions of reality, with concomitantly different political consequences.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Faulknerian Detour

This spring and summer I've been reading a lot of books by African Americans, in preparation for a class I'm teaching in the fall. I watched Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton's 14-hour documentary about the America's civil rights years and aftermath at the racial crossroads. I watched Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina, When the Levees Broke. Next week, I'm starting an NEH Summer Institute on the New Negro Renaissance in America.

But this week I decided to take a slight detour in my reading. I recently bought a Faulkner volume that includes Absalom, Absalom!; The Unvanquished; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem; and The Hamlet. I couldn't resist cracking it open, but I justified it by thinking that it would be interesting to read one of this famous white Southerner's novelistic portraits of reality after having been immersed in works from an African American perspective.

I started The Unvanquished last night. For my project, it's perfect: it's a Civil War novel, told from the perspective of a young boy, Bayard Sartoris, whose father is a colonel in the Confederate Army and whose family life is intertwined with the lives of his family's slaves—especially Ringo, a black boy whom he's grown up alongside.

I know I'll have more to say (and read) about the novel and race when I'm finished, but for now I just want to quote a remarkable passage. This is Bayard's cousin Drusilla, a tomboy who's the best rider in the county, describing how the war has changed her world. As a Faulknerian dramatic monologue, this passage is right up there with the Addie section of As I Lay Dying in its powerful embodiment of an unexpected nihilism in a female character:

Why stay awake now? Who wants to sleep now, with so much happening, so much to see? Living used to be dull, you see. Stupid. You lived in the same house your father was born in and your father's sons and daughters had the sons and daughters of the same negro slaves to nurse and coddle, and then you grew up and you fell in love with your acceptable young man and in time you would marry him, in your mother's wedding gown perhaps and with the same silver for presents she had received, and then you settled down forever more while your husband got children on your body for you to feed and bathe and dress until they grew up too; and then you and your husband died quietly and were buried together maybe on a summer afternoon just before suppertime. Stupid, you see. But now you can see for yourself how it is, it's fine now; you dont have to worry now about the house and the silver because they get burned up and carried away, and you dont have to worry about the negroes because they tramp the roads all night waiting for a chance to drown in homemade Jordan, and you dont have to worry about getting children on your body to bathe and feed and change because the young men can ride away and get killed in the fine battles and you dont even have to sleep alone, you dont have to sleep at all and so all you have to do is show the stick to the dog now and then and say Thank God for nothing. You see?