The president and the detective novel
The President Is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Coming to your physical and digital bookstore in June. Watch for it. Pre-order from Amazon if you like.
This won’t be the first time that a president has ventured into the mystery/detective/thriller genre, as Clay Fehrman points out in an interesting and enlightening article in the New York Times. The Mystery Buffs in the White House – The New York Times
Presidents from Abraham Lincoln (who could quote part of Edgar Allan Poe’s Gold Bug) have loved mysteries and detective stories. Some have even ventured into the genre itself. Franklin Roosevelt had a half-formed plot that he gave to an author to develop — in fact, several authors tried to collaborate on it — but the result was disappointing.
The leader among the Detective-Story-Readers-in-Chief, however, was Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson had spent most of his life as a professor and author, steeped in history and political science. He also adored detective stories, keeping a volume on his nightstand and with him on train trips. After Wilson’s terrible stroke in 1919, his wife read aloud to him. “I read so many detective stories that one day I told Woodrow in a state of alarm that I had suddenly found myself thinking in terms of crime,” she later wrote. “This amused him very much, and he said that he thought for his own safety we had better turn to something else.”
Wilson spoke publicly about his love for detective stories, particularly those he liked, and his endorsement was actively sought. Some thought that Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilson were the two men most responsible for the popularity of the detective story in America.
Reading note: The Times of London and the rise of Hitler
Author William Manchester called it “unfathomable.”
Manchester’s magisterial three-volume biography of Winston Churchill (The Last Lion) contains an interesting description of the attitude of The Times of London toward the rise of Adolph Hitler in volume 2, Alone. While Churchill in the mid-1930s was the single voice among the upper reaches of the British ruling class to sound the alarm against the rise of Hitler, The Times stood firmly on the side of appeasing the German leader.
Editor Geoffrey Dawson was adamant in insisting that the newspaper print nothing that would offend Hitler. The Times’ editorial columns were filled with praise of Hitler’s reasonableness and his wish for peace while rebuilding his country.
Manchester points out that Dawson followed this policy despite having a first-rate correspondent in Berlin who filed dozens of reports about Hitler’s erosion of civil liberties, his persecution of Jews and dissidents, and his military buildup.
Norman Ebbutt, the paper’s Berlin correspondent, filed accurate, perceptive dispatches on Nazi Germany for over three years until the summer of 1937 until the Nazis . . . expelled him. Ebbutt’s editors read his stories; they knew what was happening in the Third Reich, though their readers often did not; his dispatches were often re-written or suppressed by Dawson . . . (p. 144)
Dawson changed his tune, finally, in March 1939 and called for military preparations for war. He remained editor of The Times until 1941 and died in 1944.
Manchester is right — the actions of The Times editor were “unfathomable” — and the peace-at-any-price aura that infected the era provide only a partial explanation. The evil of Naziism broke forth early and often when Hitler came to power. It took a staunchly willful ignorance, combined with a contempt for his profession, to do what The Times editor did.
Dostoyevsky and the true-crime craze
Interest in true-crime and the justice system is not a new thing. It dates back to Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was a victim of the judiciary system of his time.
That’s the view of Jennifer Wilson, who has an interesting article in the New York Times:
Dostoyevsky was obsessed with the judiciary. He spent considerable time watching trials, debating with lawyers about the nature of innocence and guilt, visiting the accused in prison and trying to sway public opinion about certain cases. So enmeshed were Dostoyevsky and his writing in the legal consciousness of czarist Russia that defense attorneys were known to invoke Rodion Raskolnikov, the charismatic murderer-protagonist of “Crime and Punishment,” when seeking sympathy from the jury. Source: Opinion | How Dostoyevsky Predicted the ‘True Crime’ Craze – The New York Times
Dostoyevsky was actually sentenced to death in 1849 because of an intellectual society to which he belonged. He escaped execution at the last minute.
That experience got his attention, and that attention never wavered, particularly in the classic novels he produced.
Which president said these things?
“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose…and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”
“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.”
“The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.”
“I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.”
Answer: John F. Kennedy
This week saw the passing of the birthday — almost without notice — of John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, and there was no special reason to note his birthday. He was in office for less than three years, and one could argue that his death — the assassination on November 22, 1963 — had more impact on American history than anything he did while he was president. Immediately after the assassination, there was a wave of adulation for Kennedy. Much of that was directed by the Kennedy family themselves.
Then there was the inevitable backlash — the reassessment of just about everything that Kennedy had done or had tried to do. Most of the conclusions then were negative or made with the patronizing caveat that he wasn’t in office long enough for us to know what kind of a president he really would have been.
Though flawed politically and personally, Kennedy was a young and powerful voice in the early 1960s, and he was a gifted and eloquent speaker. (He also had a gifted and eloquent speechwriter in Theodore Sorensen.) On many topics, Kennedy articulated the best of what America was or could become.
Below the signature of this email are more of the speeches from which the above quotations are taken.
Tod W.: Nice commentary on Mencken, Impressionism, and Roth. We studied Mencken briefly in 12th grade English, a bohemian friend introduced me to Impressionism (Monet in particular) in the 60s, and reading Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy were ways to avoid getting too bored while serving in Berlin in the late 60s. If your interest in art intersects with steam trains, you might find The Train with Burt Lancaster, Jeanne Moreau, and Paul Scofield an evening’s entertainment worth watching.
Sunny S.: Thank you for the tidbit on “How the Impressionists Got Their Name”. I may have known that at one time, but I definitely enjoy knowing it now. I also downloaded “The American Language”, and look forward to reading it. Your dulcimer is lovely.
Denise G.: Your dulcimer is amazing. I was really interested because I have a friend that makes bagpipes. I am going to forward this to him. His name is Ray and he teaches in an ADN nursing program. So, keep on being so interesting! I love the stories.
A.J.N.: Thank you for reminding me about the Gutenberg Project website. 57,140 free books! Wow! I’ve downloaded some in the past, and could spend many happy hours just browsing through the options. Thanks to you, I have now downloaded THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE (Kindle version, with illustrations) & hope to find time to read it soon.
Julie M.: I can’t tell you how much I love receiving your newsletters. The snippets of art, history and literature are such a welcomed joy to read compared to the daily “buy this” or “pay this” emails that I believe most of us have grown accustomed to seeing. Thank you for continuing to share these gifts and insight with all of us!
Vince V.: One of the best newsletters yet. You had me on the Sherlock Holmes parody. I thought for sure that was Sir Arthur holding forth.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: John F. Kennedy (caricature)
Best quote of the week:
If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it. Margaret Fuller, author (1810-1850)
Helping those in need
This is my weekly reminder to all of us (especially me) that there are many people who need our help. It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here). When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org)is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Farewell, Philip Roth; Mencken on the language; how we got Sherlock, and more: newsletter, May 25, 2018
What Kennedy said while in office
Kennedy on the importance of the arts in American life:
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” –“Remarks at Amherst College upon receiving an Honorary Degree
“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose…and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” –“LOOK magazine, ‘The Arts in America’ (552),” December 18, 1962, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1962. (Inscribed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.)
Kennedy on the importance of freedom of the press:
Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution–not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
Kennedy on the importance of openness in government
The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control.
Kennedy on seeking peace in a dangerous world (American University speech)
Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles — which can only destroy and never create — is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.
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