Ken Burns, Klaus Fuchs, Wesley on money, and the time it took to write Grapes of Wrath: newsletter, Aug. 23, 2019

August 26, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,689) on Friday, August 23, 2019.

Summer is the traditional time for travel and vacations, and many of the people we know have taken flight, either literally or figuratively. But traveling seems to be more difficult than it has been in a long time. Airline schedules, in reality, offer only suggestions about when planes might take off and land, and no one that I know of looks forward to being enclosed in a tightly-seated airplane.

Road travel — particularly interstate highways — presents a variety of delays and hazards. Near where I live, no route to anywhere allows you to bypass construction sites, mistimed traffic lights, or drivers whose piloting skills are sorely subpar.

Still, the desire to pick up and go remains hard to suppress. If you are on the road, in the air, out at sea, or in a train, enjoy yourself as best you can. Breathe deeply, and take it all in. If you have a travel experience that you want to share, let me know. Meanwhile, have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,696 subscribers and had a 27.6 percent open rate; 4 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Ken Burns: ‘We’re a strange and complicated people’

Americans are, according to filmmaker Ken Burns, a “strange and complicated people.”

That, in its essence, is the idea behind all of the documentaries that he has made in the last two generations. They have included the Civil War, the Brooklyn Bridge, baseball, jazz, Vietnam, and national parks.

PBS will air his latest series — this one on country music — in September.

In each of his series, the blend of camera work — with still photographs mixed with video, mixed with interviews, mixed with music — is meticulous. But the research is relentless. Some may argue with Burns’ choices, but few have ever disputed his information.

Such as the case with his series on Vietnam, a subject of heartfelt importance to many living Americans,

“In anticipation of what we thought would be our most controversial film, The Vietnam War, we assembled what we called our war room of Republicans and Democrats on different sides of the debate, who were skilled in putting out fires. We did not need to use them because we were so fiercely loyal to facts. If you do that, people trust you. We tried to show that there can be more than one truth in war.” Source: Ken Burns on America: ‘We’re a strange and complicated people’ | Television & radio | The Guardian

Burns got his start in documentaries when he turned 17 and a senior in high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He got an 8 mm movie camera for his birthday and was immediately hooked. He had made his first documentary before graduating, and he turned down a scholarship to the University of Michigan to attend the small Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

After college, he teamed up with a couple of friends in 1975 and started a production company called Florentine Films and in 1977 began a production about the making of the Brooklyn Bridge based on David McCullough’s book The Bridge. It was on this film that he developed his signature style, and it earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1981.

His major, nationally broadcast breakthrough, The Civil War, was aired by the Public Broadcasting System in 1990. Most of Burns’ best works are deep dives into history, a subject that has fascinated him since childhood.

Burns generally sticks with the facts, but he doesn’t shy from taking a partisan stance.

According to the Guardian profile cited above:

In an address to the graduating class at Stanford University in California in 2016, shortly before Trump became the Republican nominee, Burns warned that the reality-TV star had “a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong … The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.”

His series on country music is eagerly awaited by this reader.

John Wesley and money

John Wesley was a thoroughly modern, Westernized individual. He advised his followers to do three things with money. The first two were

— Make all you can.

— Save all you can.

So far, so good. The advice is financially sound and rings responsibly (and happily) in our ears. The third piece of advice might not:

— Give all you can.

Sometime early in his ministry, Wesley found that he could live comfortably on about 30 pounds a year. He determined that after earning that sum, he would give everything else away. And so he did — for the rest of his life.

Wesley stayed on the road for most of his life. He never owned a house, and he never had a family or children to provide for. (His marriage later in his life was to a widow with four children who was financially well off when they married. He made sure that she kept her income and that he used none of it.)

As Wesley gained fame and as he published more and more pamphlets and books, his income increased. He never deviated from his income limit, however, and at the end of his life, it was estimated that he had given away more than 30,000 pounds. He once wrote:

“Not, how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?”

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

The Grapes of Wrath, written in 100 days, by a man with a mission

It took John Steinbeck less than 100 days in 1937 to write one of the 20th century’s great novels, The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck was a writer and resident of Salinas, California, at the time. It was a town located near a migrant worker camp, and Steinbeck had witnessed the poverty, degradation, and oppression of those workers who had sold everything to get to the California fields to find work.

When they made it with their families — often numbed and half-starved — the growers had no qualms about taking advantage of them.

Steinbeck saw all of this because he had been hired by the San Francisco News to write a series of articles on the camps. Steinbeck visited the camps, talked with the workers, and described what he saw in the series called The Harvest Gypsies.

Journalism wasn’t enough for the writer, however, and Steinbeck determined to make the workers and their families the focus of a novel. He wanted, he said, “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.”

The story of how the novel came about is contained in this succinct article in The Guardian: ‘My nerves are going fast’: The Grapes of Wrath’s hard road to publication | Books | The Guardian


Klaus Fuchs: ‘the spy of the century’ book review by The Guardian

He was quiet, soft-spoken, and introverted. The children of the family he boarded with — their father was his good friend and fellow scientist — enjoyed playing with him, and he always seemed to enjoy them.

He had come from Germany, a refugee fleeing the Nazi regime. He worked quietly, never calling attention to himself.

All that made him the perfect spy, and that’s what he was — probably the most important spy of the 20th century. He was Klaus Fuchs, and during the Manhattan Project, he continually fed information to his Soviet handlers.

Now there is a new book about Fuchs and his espionage role in the building of the atomic bomb. It’s by Frank Close, and its title is Trinity: The Treachery and Pursuit of the Most Dangerous Spy in History.

It was recently reviewed by Graham Farmelo in The Guardian, who wrote:

Close’s narrative is clear and fluent though some of it reads like a chronicle, burdened by inessential detail. However, his account of how an admission of guilt was gradually prised from Fuchs is a masterclass in thriller writing, and bears comparison with the most gripping spy sagas of Ben Macintyre. Source: Trinity by Frank Close review – in pursuit of ‘the spy of the century’ | Books | The Guardian

Fuchs had been a dedicated member of the Communist Party in Germany, a fact that British intelligence officials had kept from the American FBI. But the FBI bore considerable blame for Fuchs’ success by allowing him frequent trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico, from Los Alamos, where he was working on the Manhattan Project. Fuchs met more or less openly with his Soviet handlers and kept them well supplied with information about the project.

He returned to Great Britain in 1946 and continued to work on atomic research. He also continued handing over information to the Soviets. By 1950 suspicions that there was a Soviet spy in the atomic program focused on Fuchs. He initially denied it but later confessed. Fuchs was convicted of espionage in a trial that lasted less than 90 minutes and sentenced to 14 years. Good behavior got him out of prison after about nine years, and he immigrated to East Germany, where he worked on scientific research projects. He died in Berlin in 1988.

If you’re interested in true-espionage stories, the tale of Klaus Fuchs is one of the biggest of all.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Ken Burns (caricature)

Best quote of the week:

The door of a bigoted mind opens outwards so that the only result of the pressure of facts upon it is to close it more snugly. Ogden Nash, poet (1902-1971)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them 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 ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Nigel Hamilton’s FDR, where Joseph Campbell began, John Wesley, and banana peels: newsletter, Aug. 16, 2019

Verse and Vision

I am always open to suggestions about poets, poems or topics for videos. I’ve received several and would love to have more.

Meanwhile, here’s the complete list of videos I have made since the beginning of April:

The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson here:

1492 and The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace:

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The House of Rest by Julia Ward Howe

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott

Ole Bert: In His Own Words by Bert Garner:

In the Highlands and Consolation by Robert Louis Stevenson:

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer:

The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

And more are on the way.


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