Political debates and a few thoughts about the election, Harold Bloom on reading, and a century of Christie: newsletter, October 23, 2020

October 25, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, watercolor, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, October 23, 2020.


Political debates in this country have never been especially uplifting affairs. Even the iconic Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 (see below) are remembered because they introduced Abraham Lincoln to the nation rather than for their soaring rhetoric and sweeping phrases. So it is in this year and in this political season. There is a general dissatisfaction with the debates that we have heard, and I sometimes wonder what people expected to hear — and why they have such expectations.

Still, I am thankful for the debates. Even if they are venal — and they sometimes are — they show a genuineness about our politics that we should honor. Politics in this nation has rarely been a happy affair. Still, it is how humans run their civic societies, and no group of humans has done a better job of that than Americans over a long period of time. There is more that unites us than divides us.

It is that thought that I urge you to ponder as you have what I hope will be a division-free weekend.

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A couple of thoughts about the presidential election campaign

Presidential campaigns are hard to ignore, as much as one might try, and while we head into the final fortnight of the current version, ignoring it is impossible and probably not wisely patriotic. So, allow me to succumb to offering a thought or two.

Most presidential campaigns have plenty of “This is the most important election in _____________ (fill in the blank, usually with some time period).”

People who say this kind of thing are not wrong, but they often forget that we said that four years ago and four years before that. The fact is that all presidential campaigns are important. They all have consequences, and they all should be taken seriously.

Rarely, however, do they rise to the level of importance that, in the moment, people believe. Only a handful of presidential campaigns were so consequential as to make us change direction as a nation.

Is the campaign of 2020 one of those? I don’t know — and neither does anyone else. It feels important, but I have learned that I rarely regret skepticism about my own feelings.

As I think back across American history, one of the few campaigns that rose to the level of consequential is that of 1860. It is hard to imagine this nation today had Abraham Lincoln not been elected president. America certainly made the right choice at that critical moment.

That campaign is worth some reading time, if you are so inclined, not just because of its conclusion but also because of its interesting operation. Ted Widmer, a lecturer at the MacaulayHonors College of the City University of New York, and the author of Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, has an interesting article in The Guardian about the Wide Awakes, locally ignited groups of young men throughout the North who sprang up in support of Lincoln.

The Wide Awakes were not, technically, a part of the Republican party. But they loved Lincoln, whose authenticity mirrored their own. Party leaders shrewdly adapted their message to the movement, which peaked in the fall, as the election approached. William Seward, soon to be secretary of state, gave a speech in Detroit promising that “the young men throughout the land are Wide Awake”. In Boston, Lincoln’s running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, marched through the street with “the boys”. On 3 October, a huge torchlight procession and pyrotechnic display dazzled New York City. Tens of thousands came out. Source: Wide Awakes: the Lincoln-era youth movement inspiring anti-Trump protests | US news | The Guardian

I offer this link and these thoughts as a gentle diversion from other things that you are likely to read during the next few days. All the rest I trust you to figure out for yourselves.

From the archives: The Lincoln-Douglas debates, every word. How did that happen?

When political upstart Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic stalwart, for his U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 1858, the campaign resulted in the Lincoln-Douglas debates — seven meetings of the candidates that became the most famous discussion in American political history. The first debate occurred in Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, almost exactly 160 years ago.

Two days after that debate, newspaper readers were able to read almost every word that was uttered during those three hours that were given to each of the debates.

With no modern recording devices at hand for journalists to use, how did this happen?

The answer lies with three now-forgotten journalists: Robert Roberts Hitt (The Chicago Press and Tribune), and Henry Binmore, and James Sheridan (The Chicago Times). They were the pioneers of a new method of reporting called “phonographic reporting,” according to historian Harold Holzer, who edited and wrote the introduction for The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text.

In other words, the reporters used short-hand. Both sides set up a system whereby the reporters’ short-hand could be transcribed and published as quickly as possible after each debate. Holzer writes:

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were the first sustained political encounter to inspire so-called “phonographic” reporting, and in this milestone lay the key to their early and enduring fame, as well as their ultimate distortion. (p. 10)

Holzer gives credit to the reporters for being thoroughly professional and noting what Lincoln and Douglas said as best they could. But the readers of the Press and Tribune, a Republican (Lincoln) newspaper, often read a different version of the speeches from those printed in the Times and other Democratic (Douglas) newspapers. That’s because the partisanship of the editors led them to clean up the language and syntax of the candidate they favored and to leave intact the garbled ramblings of their opponent. Their actions set off a century-and-a-half debate among scholars about who said what and how it was said.

In truth, neither candidate filled the air with profound truths or soaring rhetoric, and reading through the speeches today is a hard slog. It is better to read about the debates than to read the debates themselves.

Still, we have three journalists to thank for creating a near-perfect record of this most important event in the life of the Republic.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

A century of The Mysterious Affair at Styles

This month marks the 100th anniversary of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel published by Agatha Christie. It was an auspicious debut for the woman who would define and dominate a popular genre.

It came about because of a bet.

Agatha Christie’s sister Madge had challenged Christie, saying that she could not write a mystery where the reader was unable to “spot” the killer. Agatha, determined to prove Madge wrong, took up the challenge. It was 1916, and Britain was in the midst of the Great War (aka World War I). Christie was living in Torquay where she was volunteering at a local hospital that dealt with wounded servicemen and Belgian refugees. Those experiences helped her formulate Hercule Poirot, her fictional detective who would eventually become so famous that he got an obituary in the New York Times when Christie allowed him to die.

Once the book was written, Christie started pitching it to publishers without much initial success. It was rejected six times and finally accepted by John Lane and the Bodley Head. The book actually appeared in the U.S. (October 1920) a couple of months before it was available to the British reading public (January 1921).

The initial reviews were very good:

The Times Literary Supplement:  “The only fault this story has is that it is almost too ingenious.”

The New York Times: “Though this may be the first published book of Miss Agatha Christie, she betrays the cunning of an old hand… ”

The Sunday Times: “It will rejoice the heart of all who truly relish detective stories . . . . I have heard that this is Miss Christie’s first book, and that she wrote it in response to a challenge. If so, the feat was amazing, for the book is put together so deftly that I can remember no recent book of the kind, which approaches it in merit.”

Reviewers from the very beginning could see a unique talent in writing mysteries, and for once they were not wrong.

The book had a number of illustrations including this map.

Harold Bloom on reading and why it’s important

One of the effects of this pandemic seems to be that more people are spending more time reading. That’s what I hear friends say, and that is the case in my personal situation.

So, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a bit of time thinking about and reading that great advocate of reading, the late Harold Bloom.

Bloom possessed a remarkable mind and remarkable abilities for reading. He could read a 400-page book in an hour without any loss of understanding. He had a photographic memory and could quote massive passages of poetry, including the entire Shakespeare canon.

Bloom wrote prolifically, publishing more than 50 books, 20 of which were devoted to literary criticism, and his works were translated into more than 40 languages. Bloom was a controversial figure, defending the traditional Western canon against what he called the “school of resentment” that included feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives, and multiculturalists.

Bloom’s book, How to Read and Why, was the focus of a recent Farnham Street blog post that contains valuable excerpts such as the following:

“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure.

. . . I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering. Read deeply, not to believe,not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.” Source: Why Read? Advice From Harold Bloom

And there’s this on how to read Shakespeare:

“Reading Shakespeare’s plays, you learn to meditate upon what is left out. That is one of the many advantages that a reader has over a theatergoer in regard to Shakespeare. Ideally, one should read a Shakespeare play, watch a good performance of it, and then read it again. Shakespeare himself, directing his play at the Globe, must have experienced discomfort at how much a performance had to neglect, though we have no evidence of this. However instructed by Shakespeare, it is difficult to imagine the actor Richard Burbage catching and conveying all of Hamlet’s ironies, or the clown Will Kemp encompassing the full range of Falstaff’s wit in the Henry IV plays.”

Bloom died in 2019 at the age of 89. His passion for literature is still vibrant in the things he wrote, and he should not be ignored or forgotten.



Vince V.: I talked to an editor several years ago at Penguin Random House about the popularity of Jack Reacher novels. Her contention was that the character appealed to the American male because of his lack of baggage — no house note, no car payment, no address, no belongings except for his toothbrush. A free man.

I identify with Reacher in another way. Lee Child’s character knows exactly what time it is — all the time — even though he doesn’t own a watch. I pride myself with being able to know the time within five minutes anytime I wake up during the night. I rarely am off by more than 3 minutes.
But don’t ask me to help you when 6 big goons are beating on you. I won’t be much help, other than letting you know what time it is!

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Delicate touch
Bonus watercolor: Listen to the sounds

Best quote of the week:

Words, when written, crystallize history; their very structure gives permanence to the unchangeable past. Francis Bacon, essayist, philosopher, and statesman (1561-1626)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now 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 (UMCOR.org) 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: Washington’s biggest Big Foot, the origins of Jack Reacher, more Bach and more baseball Hall of Fame deaths: newsletter, October 16, 2020



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