This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,374) on Friday, April 30, 2021.
Nature is doing its random best, as usual, to confound us. Where I live, we had two nights of frost last week — unheard of after mid-April. Fortunately, the cooler temperatures this spring have prevented us from putting anything into the garden just yet, so we didn’t have to scramble to cover anything up.
Despite everything (including the hard work involved), I look forward to gardening because there is no thrill on earth that matches that of seeing the first sprout of something you’ve planted stick its head above the soil. If you are a gardener, you know what I mean (I hope). If you have never done that — planted a seed and watched it sprout — try it. But with this warning: it can be addictive.
However you get your thrills, I hope that you have plenty of them this weekend.
Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,358 subscribers and had a 23.8 percent open rate; 0 people unsubscribed.
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Norman Mailer: Larger-than-life colossus of 20th century American letters
When Norman Mailer was 20 years old in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. A precocious student, he had just graduated from Harvard University. He had initially majored in engineering, but he took writing and literature courses as his electives. During his undergraduate days, he had published his first story, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” in Story magazines and had won its college writing contest.
Showing the brashness that would define his public persona over the next 60 years, Mailer asked for a deferment based on the fact that he was writing an “important literary work” about the war.
The Army turned down his request and in doing so did both Mailer and American letters a great favor.
After basic training, Mahler was sent to the Philippines where, at first, he served as a typist. He then volunteered to go on reconnaissance patrols and eventually completed more than two dozen missions, during which time his unit engaged in several firefights with the enemy. When the war ended, he was sent to Japan. There, he wrote his wife Bea — they had been married just a month before he left for the service — almost daily and described his experiences in the Philippines.
Those letters became the basis for The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s first and most successful novel, which was published in 1948 and sold more than a million copies in its first year in print. The book is considered one of the best war novels of the 20th century and made Mailer’s name a household word.
Mailer’s life is a fascinating one to trace. His words, sentences, subjects, and ideas were powerful and commanded attention. So did his personality. He continued to show the brashness, egotism, and combativeness that was evident when he boldly asked to get out of military duty. (Later, he described his time in the Army as the “worst experience of my life, and the most important.”)
Mailer published two more novels during the 1950s, but novel-writing alone did not offer him the immediate forum that his ego grew to need. Mahler became one of the innovators of a form of journalism that employed deep reporting and literary techniques; it came to be called the New Journalism. Along with several other investors, he founded the Village Voice in 1955. His essay, “The White Negro,” described the hipster culture that stood against the conformity of the 1950s. The essay has been reprinted and anthologized many times and is seen as one of his breakthrough works.
Mailer lived a turbulent private and semi-public life. In 1960, he was convicted of stabbing his second wife, Adele, with a penknife and nearly killing her, but for this act, he received only a probationary sentence. In all, Mailer was married six times and had nine children.
In 1967, Mahler took part in a massive anti-war march on the Pentagon. He wrote a long piece about the march for Harper’s magazine, and that article was later expanded into a book titled Armies of the Night. That book won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 1968.
That same year, Mahler wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago, an account of the political conventions of that year. That book also brought him many accolades.
Mailer’s writing lost none of its power as he continued into the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979 he published The Executioner’s Song, a fictional account of the real-life execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore in Utah. For that book, he won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In addition to his life as a writer, Mailer was also briefly a screenwriter and filmmaker and an actor, and he once ran as a serious candidate for mayor of New York City. His most commercially successful book apart from The Naked and the Dead was a supposed biography of Marilyn Monroe. He did relatively little research for that book and admitted that much of it was speculation. Throughout his life, Mailer wrote a number of second-rate biographies and novels, especially when he needed money for alimony, child support, and taxes.
Still, Mailer’s style and approach to writing were gripping and powerful, and his ability to engage readers and hold their attention remained singular among his contemporaries until his death in 2007.
My latest literary and artistic efforts have come to fruition with the publication of a new book: Heads and Tales: Caricatures and Stories of the Famous, the Infamous, and the Just Plain Interesting. The book is now in paperback and ebook form, but also accompanied by something else: a podcast series.
This week’s episode is about Rebecca Harding Davis and the beginnings of American realism.
The book is currently on Amazon and can be accessed with this link: http://bit.ly/headsandtales.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt: Master of Radio
When Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, news of the event filtered into the American psyche and conversation throughout the afternoon.
It was, by any measure, a momentous, life-changing occurrence.
Yet, during the afternoon and into the evening there was a silence from the White House. News bulletins were issued, but President Franklin Roosevelt stayed in the Oval Office, meeting with his cabinet, talking with aides and officials, gathering information and news, and working on the speech he would deliver to Congress on the next day. That Roosevelt said nothing to America that day seems to us today unusual, but no one thought much about it then.
Across the hall in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, was re-writing the remarks she would make on the radio that evening. Eleanor had a regularly-scheduled radio show on Sunday evenings
In fact, the first Roosevelt Americans heard from that day was Eleanor, the president’s wife. It was 6:45p.m. Eastern when she spoke these words:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m speaking to you at a very serious moment in our history,” she said, explaining that meetings were occurring in the White House and elsewhere in preparation for war.
In the meantime we, the people, are already prepared for action. For months now, the knowledge that something of this kind might happen has been hanging over our heads. And yet it seemed impossible to believe, impossible to drop the everyday things of life and feel that there was only one thing which was important: preparation to meet an enemy, no matter where he struck. That is all over now and there is no more uncertainty. We know what we have to face and we know that we are ready to face it.
I should like to say just a word to the women in the country tonight. I have a boy at sea on a destroyer. For all I know he may be on his way to the Pacific. Two of my children are in coast cities on the Pacific. Many of you all over this country have boys in the services who will now be called upon to go into action. You have friends and families in what has suddenly become a danger zone. You cannot escape anxiety. You cannot escape a clutch of fear at your heart. And yet I hope that the certainty of what we have to meet will make you rise above these fears.
We must go about our daily business more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can. And when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it. Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.
It was a stirring speech with words that Americans undoubtedly wanted to hear.
By this time — the ninth year — the Roosevelts were in the White House, both Eleanor and Franklin had become masters of the medium of radio. Franklin had a soft but strong modulating voice. His was a natural. He sounded like your favorite uncle: serious, cheerful, informed, and confident.
Eleanor’s voice and accent were entirely different. She was at first loud and screechy, as if trying to be too many things at once. But, just as she did in many other areas of her life, she stuck with it and improved. She improved so much that by the time she delivered her talk on Dec. 7, 1941, she was able to sound determined, sincere, and reassuring.
Even though she spoke with confidence that evening, she was beset by personal worries. After the broadcast, she spoke with one of the daughters, Anna, who lived on the West Coast. She urged her to bring herself and her two children back to the East.
Eleanor, along with many Americans, believed that the attack on Pearl Harbor had left the West Coast vulnerable to a Japanese invasion. We know now that the Japanese had no such invasion in mind, but that wasn’t known in 1941 and 1942. Anna declined her mother’s request and told her she would remain in her home with her husband.
American Public Radio has produced an excellent audio documentary on the Roosevelts’ use of radio. You can listen to it here or by going to the American RadioWorks link below.
Henry Ward Beecher and the love triangle that gripped the public in the 1870s
If your feelings were buffeted by the off-again on-again relationship of J.Lo and A-Rod . . .
Then you should have been alive in the 1870s when public domestic squabbles were very good.
A few weeks ago in this newsletter, I made reference to Victoria Woodhull, publisher of the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly and America’s first female presidential candidate. A major incident in her life involved putting into print for the first time rumors that had been twirling about in New York City circles concerning the infidelity of one Henry Ward Beecher, a Brooklyn minister and abolitionist who was one of the most famous non-politicians of his day.
Beecher came from a famous family. His father, Lyman Beecher, was an ardent and well-known evangelist of his generation, and his sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beecher was the senior minister at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, a huge congregation that included many of New York City’s most powerful and influential people.
In the years before the Civil War, Beecher had raised money to buy freedom for slaves in the South and to send arms to abolitionists who were fighting in Kansas. Those guns were commonly referred to as “Beecher’s Bibles.” During the war, Beecher toured Europe speaking in support of the Union. When the war ended, Beecher championed social causes such as women’s suffrage and temperance. He was also an advocate of evolution, seeing no conflict between it and the gospel that he preached.
Beecher was against some new ideas, however. One of those was the “free love” movement espoused by Victoria Woodhull. Beecher denounced the movement and Woodhull from his pulpit, and Woodhull finally had enough. She knew from stories that had been circulating among the suffrage movement that Beecher was likely being hypocritical. Consequently, she ran a story about Beecher’s relationship with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of a good friend, Theodore Tilton, and a member of his church.
The story appeared in early November 1872, and Woodhull, her husband, and her sister were arrested on the charge of trying to send obscene material through the mail. Their arrests were demonstrations of Beecher’s ability to call upon powerful friends when he needed them.
But, of course, the genie could not be put back into the bottle, and what ensued among Beecher, the Tiltons, and their friends was a series of charges, counter-charges, rumors confirmed, rumors denied, confessions made, and confessions recanted. The situation split the Beecher family with Harriet Beecher Stowe defending her brother and another sister, Isabella, denouncing him. Plymouth Church stood solidly behind Beecher and excommunicated Tilton for slandering him.
Tilton believed that he had no other recourse except to sue Beecher on civil charges of adultery, which he did in late 1874. Beecher’s trial begin in January 1875 and lasted until July. It received daily coverage from the many newspapers in the New York area, and those reports or flashed around the country to hungry readers in every part of the nation.
A long New Yorker article by Robert Shaplen detailing many events of the trial can be found at this link.
The trial ended with the jury, after several days of deliberations, unable to reach a verdict.
That was followed by more investigations by Plymouth Church, all of which exonerated Beecher. The minister died two years later in 1877, and he was never able to completely blot out the stain on his character left by the controversy. Yet while he was active, Henry Ward Beecher was one of America’s most important voices for social reform and Christian ideals. His voice was thunder at a time in America when, it seems, only thunder could be heard.
Theresa C.: I have been enjoying your newsletters for a couple of years now – I was the subscriber who confessed to reading the whole thing in the preview pane, without actually “opening” it!
Your “Verse and Vision” videos are wonderful! It is such a treat to hear your voice and watch you paint. Those are truly some of my favorite poems from my college days – such classics!
Thank you for bringing some literary sunshine into my days.
Glenn S.: Thank you for pointing out the importance of keeping public records available to everyone. Some public entities and officials have tried, sometimes successfully, to restrict access to public records by requiring people to justify their need to view such documents, limit the times of availability, or charge outrageous fees for making copies.
Jonathan J.: Thank you for shining the spotlight on Sherwood Anderson. From 2008 to 2014, I was pastor of First United Methodist Church in Marion, Virginia, where Sherwood Anderson is buried in Round Hill Cemetery, only about 20 miles from his Ripshin Farm.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: First movement
Best quote of the week:
“My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.” Ernest Hemingway, writer (1899-1961)
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, 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.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The first man in space, a controversial Union advocate, and possibly reviving the Verse and Vision videos: newsletter, April 23, 2021
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