The sharp words of Ida Tarbell, the dilemma of Woody Allen, more on cultural appropriation, and reader reaction: newsletter, March 20, 2020

March 22, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, reporting, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,597) on Friday, March 20, 2020.

The magnitude and rapidity with which the world has changed in the last week lies beyond our complete understanding. Those things that we could confidently predict — high school graduations, opening day of the baseball season, the church service on Sunday, the doors of the public library wide and welcoming — have been snatched away in a few days time.

We gather together for many reasons. Now we are told that, for the foreseeable future, most of those gatherings are unhealthy. They could be fatal. Now we are forced to make adjustments and accept electronic substitutes.

Fortunately, we can still walk in the park. We can still play music. We can still work in the shop, mow the grass, plant the garden, and a thousand other things. And, of course, we can still write and read. I wish you all the very best during this difficult time. If you are so inclined, share you thoughts and report on your activities.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,601 subscribers and had a 29.6 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.

Ida Tarbell — the sharp, powerful arrow of her words

When Ida Tarbell fired an arrow of words at a target, she aimed with the accuracy and power of a book full of facts.

John D. Rockefeller, probably the richest man in the world at the time, was “the oldest man in the world — a living mummy,” a “hypocrite” who was “money-mad.” She concluded, “. . . our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.”

The book of facts with which she supported such conclusions was her own A History of Standard Oil, something that she had spent five years of her life compiling. She had read through thousands of pages of documents, including many obscure court filings where entrepreneurs had filed suit against Rockefeller and Standard Oil for its corrupt and predatory practices. She had interviewed dozens of people — some inside the company itself and many victims of the company — to piece together the methods that Rockefeller had used to destroy his competition. 

Tarbell’s prose in fashioning her 19-part series for McClure’s Magazine was straightforward and workman-like. She never considered herself a great stylist. But she could marshall facts and make them understandable.

The series began in 1902. By the time it was finished, Rockefeller’s reputation had been destroyed. He was at least smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He never responded to the articles or the book, but privately he called Tarbell “poisonous” and “misguided.”

Tarbell’s articles fueled the public’s anger against the “trusts” and eventually led to the breakup of Standard Oil and the strengthening of antitrust legislation.

For Tarbell, the story of Standard Oil was always, in part, personal. She had grown up in Pennsylvania, the daughter of an oil entrepreneur whose business had been ruined by the Rockefeller’s nefarious ways. As a female in the 19th century, Tarbell knew what path most women took — marriage and motherhood — and she decided she’s didn’t want to go there. In 1876 she went to Allegheny College to study biology, but she realized that reporting and writing were her strengths.

After graduating in 1880, she tried teaching for a couple of years but found this less than satisfying. She began writing articles for various publications, and the more she researched and wrote, the better she became at it. She got a job as an editor of The Chautauquan in New York. When the paper ran an article by another woman that claimed that women were no good as inventors and that there were only about 300 patents that had been issued to women, Tarbell wondered if this was really the truth. She traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met someone in the U.S. Patents Office who had compiled a list of more than 2,000 women who held patents.

Tarbell looked at those patents and concluded: “Three things worth knowing and believing: that women have invented a large number of useful articles; that these patents are not confined to ‘clothes and kitchen’ devices as the skeptical masculine mind avers; that invention is a field in which woman has large possibilities.”

For Tarbell, journalism had large possibilities. More next week.

William Styron and cultural appropriation

Amid all the other overwhelming news, the controversy over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt seems to be dying down, but the issue still exists: can an author cross ethnic or cultural lines (and maybe gender and age lines — as well as others) to tell a story.

My answer was contained in a post I wrote not long ago.

Then I came across this piece in The Atlantic by Alexandra Styron, daughter of the well-known and rightly famous writer William Styron, about the controversies her father endured when he published The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967.

The novel, told in the first person, is based on the true events of the slave rebellion led by an African-American preacher in Virginia in 1831. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year it was published. Alexandra Styron tells of the anguish her father felt as he, a white Southerner, was denounced as a racist for trying to give voice to a black man.

He finally stopped defending his work and retired to his writing desk. His subsequent novel, Sophie’s Choice, appeared 12 years later.

Since American Dirt, plenty of wisdom has been dispensed not just on the matter of who can tell other people’s stories, but how it should be done. Sensitively, of course, and without stereotypes or presumption. By rooting your narrative in truth and checking your facts. To these prescriptions, my father might add a couple more, in line with something Hannah Arendt told him when he expressed his worries over whether he could tell the story of a concentration-camp survivor. ““An artist creates his own authenticity,” she said. “What matters is imaginative conviction and boldness, a passion to invade alien territory and render an account of one’s discoveries.” Source: Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today? – The Atlantic

This is an excellent and enlightening article about an author and his work that had a huge impact on 20th century readers.

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

Whither Woody Allen, his family, his publisher, his reputation, etc.

In the case of Woody Allen, what are we to think?

Hachette Book Group recently announced that it is canceling a contract with film director Woody Allen to publish his autobiography.

In the last few years, Allen’s reputation has gone from amusing to benign to toxic because of allegations that he molested his daughter, Dylan Farrow when she was too young to remember. The allegations began with actress Mia Farrow, once Allen’s partner, but Farrow, in turn, has been accused of coaching Dylan into remembering the events. Two police investigations have failed to turn up enough evidence to charge Allen with any crime. Allen has vehemently and publicly denied those allegations.

Allen’s credibility, however, has not been helped by the fact that, after his breakup with Farrow, he fell in love with, partnered, and eventually married Soon-Yi Previn, an adopted daughter of Farrow. The romance began when Soon-Yi was in her late teens and Allen was in his 50s.

The allegations of sexual misconduct have been around since the 1990s.

Enter Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged son and Dylan’s brother. Farrow is now a famous and brilliant journalist who played a major role in uncovering the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein. Farrow has come to believe his sister’s story. Farrow also has a book deal with Hachette, and when he heard about Allen’s contract, he wrote an open letter of protest.

That set off an employee walk-out of those who disagreed with Hachette’s decision. The company’s executives met with the protesting employees and announced its decision to void Allen’s contract:

“The decision to cancel Mr. Allen’s book was a difficult one,” a spokeswoman for the publisher said in a statement. “We take our relationships with authors very seriously, and do not cancel books lightly. We have published and will continue to publish many challenging books. As publishers, we make sure every day in our work that different voices and conflicting points of views can be heard.”

But she added that Hachette executives had discussed the matter with employees and, “after listening, we came to the conclusion that moving forward with publication would not be feasible for HBG.” Source: Hachette Says It Won’t Publish Woody Allen’s Book – The New York Times

All of this leaves us, the public (me anyway), scratching our collective heads?

Has a falsely accused man been denied a chance to tell his story? Has a correctly accused man be denied the legitimacy of a well-known publishing forum?

Woody Allen, of course, has not been censored. He has plenty of options (including self-publishing) for telling his story in the way that he wants to tell it, and I fully expect that his autobiography will be published and available to those who want to read it.

But that is not the end of this story. There are too many questions and issues here that are representative of the complexity of our modern life — questions and issues that should be considered carefully.

Notes on the pandemic: American Samoa escaped the Spanish flu with no deaths

The last pandemic to sweep the world was that known as the Spanish flu, which killed people everywhere from 1918 through 1920 — everywhere except American Samoa. That’s because of its governor, John Martin Poyer, a Naval officer who had retired because of ill health but was called back to service in 1915 to serve as governor of the territory.

Poyer had heard about the pandemic through a radio report and moved quickly to seal off the territory, which was the southeastern part of the larger island of Samoa, from anything or anyone that might infect the people there. No ships were allowed to dock during the pandemic. The western part of the island was controlled by New Zealand, and Poyer’s actions infuriated the governor of that part of the island. He believed there was little danger from the pandemic.

He was wrong, dead wrong. The people in his territory suffered a 90 percent infection rate, and 20 percent of the population died. No one died in American Samoa. Poyer was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions as administrator of the territory.


Glynn W.: A note to let you know that the up-side of the Corona plague, is catching up with your stuff. I particularly liked your summary of the Hellman-McCarthy row, which involved the best writers (and the worst) of their time. Write on.

And speaking of catching up, this from a newsletter in January:
Glad to see you are getting back to serious topics, such as Young Winston. I’ve always been proud to have been a member of the Bangalore Club, a club which to this day proudly displays a letter from the club secretary that cancels his membership for his failure to pay his bill.
Fortunately I was just able to pay mine, when I gave up my membership in 1968.

Marcia D.: (from Washington state) Hope that you and your family are ok.

At this time, 40 people have died in Washington State. Schools are closed until April 24th. Our Archbishop closed the churches!

Bill G.: You mentioned Typhoid Mary.  Earlier there was an incident that shows why so many events have been cancelled.  In 1597, the plague was raging in London.  Queen Elizabeth I closed down the theaters, Bear-Bating Pits, and churches and made a command that no more than five people could gather in one place at one time.So this process of shutting down all large venues is not a new thing.

Kitty G.: Ebbing Tide (last week’s watercolor)….WOW! So relaxing to look at. I really enjoy your articles. Knew about Typhoid Mary as I am a retired nurse.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: On the way to the mountains 

Best quote of the week:

We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse: we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. Penelope Lively, writer (b.1933)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now the coronavirus — 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: The Hellman-McCarthy suit, apostrophes again, and an easy-to-use thesaurus: newsletter, March 13, 2020





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