This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,332) on Friday, July 2, 2021.
Americans celebrate themselves this weekend, as they should. America has no shortage of problems, faults, and flaws. It also has no shortage of critics, many of whom are Americans themselves. So it should be.
But one thing that Americans prove again and again about themselves is that they can solve problems. The rapid creation of the COVID-19 vaccines would seem to be a miracle except that Americans have done this kind of thing many times before. In 1941, faced with the near total destruction of her naval fleet, America went to work and within six months had a Navy that could face the Japanese on equal terms.
In 1961, when President John Kennedy promised that Americans would land on the moon within a decade, no one had much of an idea as to how that would happen. The engineering problems alone seemed insurmountable. Yet in 1969, Americans were walking on the moon.
America is blessed with abundant resources and a culture that is open to creative thinking and problem-solving. This weekend we celebrate not only our political freedoms but also the culture of a “can-do” spirit.
Happy birthday, America. I hope you have a wonderful Fourth.
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Janet Malcolm: Is journalism really indefensible?
Janet Malcolm put herself at the center of the journalistic world in 1989 when she wrote this sentence:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
That was the first sentence of a two-part series of articles that she wrote for the New Yorker magazine about a lawsuit that convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald brought against writer Joe McGinnis for the conclusions that he drew in his best-selling book, Fatal Vision. Malcolm’s New Yorker series was later turned into a book, The Journalist and the Murderer.
No one sentence has caused so much controversy and debate within journalism in the thirty years since it first appeared.
Good journalists — those who strive mightily to follow the accepted rules of the profession — think of themselves as morally upright quasi public servants who bring to the public’s view accurate depictions of the people and events they cover.
The words written by Malcolm, herself a journalist of the highest standing, stung — and they continue to sting even today. Inevitably, the reaction to Malcolm was furious and full-throated, and criticism was heaped not only on her ideas but also on her personal and professional life.
Malcolm was born in 1934 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old. Her father was a doctor to the small Czech community that lived in Manhattan. When she was old enough to go to college, she fled Manhattan for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
There, she wrote for the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, and the Gargoyle, the campus humor magazine. As managing editor of the Gargoyle, she produced a parody of the New Yorker magazine, which many people believed was one of the finest things any campus humor magazine had ever published.
At Michigan, she met and later married Donald Malcolm. In 1955, they first moved to Washington D.C., where he took a job as a writer for the New Republic magazine. They subsequently moved to New York City, where he joined the staff of the New Yorker.
In the early 1970s, Donald Malcolm contracted a mysterious illness that remained undiagnosed properly until his death in 1975. During this period, Janet Malcolm began writing pieces for the New Yorker. She eventually married Gardner Botsford, one of the magazine’s editors.
Malcolm proved herself to be a distinct and distinguished writer. She was at that time a smoker who tried to give up the habit, but she found the writing and editing process so intense that she could not do it. To help her kick the habit, she turned to an immersive reporting process — one that would give her the confidence to write without being propped up by cigarettes.
The articles that she wrote for the New Yorker were so distinctive, and she developed a set of readers who looked forward to reading anything that she published.
Reaction to what Malcolm wrote in her introduction to the McGinnis – McDonald articles was virulent and personal. She was accused of withholding the information from her readers that she, too, had been sued by a source. The subject of her articles in that case accused her of libel because she had rearranged some of the quotations that he had given to her. That lawsuit hung over Malcolm’s career for more than a decade before it was finally resolved.
Despite the controversies that continued to swirl around Malcolm, she remained a staff writer for the New Yorker, writing deeply reported and insightful articles about a wide variety of topics. Both her fans and her critics never abandoned their separate positions on how they felt about her work.
She wrote several books, and there are at least four collections of her essays in print.
Malcolm died two weeks ago (June 16, 2021) of lung cancer. She was 86 years old.
Is what journalists do morally indefensible?
That question, of course, has no definitive answer. But journalism owes a great debt to Malcolm for forcing the profession to face it squarely.
One of the last things that Malcolm ever wrote was an essay for the New York Review of Books about her own libel trial. It can be found here, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/09/24/jeffrey-masson-trial-second-chance/. A subscription may be required.
Looking at a possible Vermeer with a high-powered camera
Art forgery is a fascinating topic for me, as readers of this newsletter will attest. Just a couple of weeks ago, the newsletter contained an item about Han von Meegeren, a Dutch artist who spent much of the 1930s creating paintings that he then attributed to Johannes Vermeer.
Now it turns out that the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is having doubts about the paintings it owns that have been attributed to Vermeer. One of those paintings it has is “Girl with the Red Hat,” which is confidently thought to be an original Vermeer. Another painting is “Girl with a Flute,” (right) which is also attributed to Vermeer but with much less confidence.
The New York Times reports this and says:
And yet, “Girl with a Flute” shares stylistic similarities with “Girl with the Red Hat” and other Vermeer paintings. On the other hand, if “Girl with a Flute” is not an authentic Vermeer, perhaps “Girl with the Red Hat” is not, either.
“There have been doubts about the attribution for many years,” Dr. Gifford said.
Art experts, aided by a scientist who used to design cameras for reconnaissance planes, are increasingly taking advantage of a technique that is also used to study Mars to help answer questions like this. Source: Peering Under Vermeers Without Peeling Off the Paint – The New York Times
The National Gallery has taken advantage of the Covid shut down to conduct a close examination of these paintings. This examination uses high-powered reconnaissance imaging like that employed by the military for its reconnaissance flights.
So far, the experts at the National Gallery have not come to any conclusion about the authenticity of “Girl with a Flute.”
If you were interested in art forgery, I recommend a book that I am now reading titled Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. It reads very much like a detective story.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: Francis Scott Key: his words shaped our image of America
In honor of the July the Fourth weekend, we dug this one out of the archives:
In just a few masterful lines of poetry, Francis Scott Key in 1814 put together the words that helped define our nation and shape the way we think of ourselves. Despite all of our current differences and disputes, we still believe that we are the “land of the free” and the “home of the brave.”
Key’s words did not come at a triumphal time in American history. The War of 1812 had been a bloody and confusing conflict with battles on several fronts. The British Army and Navy had demonstrated their might by invading the Chesapeake Bay, landing in Maryland, defeating American forces at the battle of Bladensburg, and burning and sacking the nation’s capital city. Even the White House had not escaped the fires that the British had set.
The key target, however, had been Baltimore, a city that was heavily fortified and defended, and there the British invasion stalled. Naval units bombarded Ft. McHenry for 25 hours trying to support the land forces, which had encountered difficult opposition. The bombardment did little damage to the fort, and the British forces withdrew, ending that part of the war.
Key and a companion were on the British HMS Tonnant, negotiating for the release of an American prisoner of war when the bombardment began. Key was a lawyer practicing in Frederick, Maryland, at the time, and he was prevented from leaving the ship because the British feared that he might know too much about their positions and strength. Thus, he could do nothing but watch the battle from the deck of the ship.
The night had been a dark one because lights at the fort and in the city of Baltimore had been extinguished. At “dawn’s early light,” however, Key caught sight of the American flag at Ft. McHenry still atop the flagpole, and when he returned to Baltimore, he was inspired to write the lines of a poem he titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry.”
The poem was published the next week in the American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, a Baltimore broadsheet. Key later set it to the popular patriotic tune, To Anacreon in Heaven, and the song grew into a favorite with the public as the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Key himself continued to practice law and had an active public career. He was a supporter of President Andrew Jackson, who appointed him a U.S. attorney —a position he held from 1833 to 1841. In 1835 he prosecuted Richard Lawrence, who unsuccessfully tried to kill Andrew Jackson on the steps of the U.S. Capitol —the first attempt in the nation’s history to assassinate a president.
The watercolor caricature of Key shown here is part of the Verse and Vision series. A video of the painting along with a recitation of the “Star-Spangled Banner” can be seen at http://bit.ly/key-starspangledbanner.
Elizabeth F. : I loved the last two newsletters. I think along with the Harbrace Handbook all writers and editors need Strunk! In this week’s letter, I especially enjoyed the reference to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “My heart and I: and the portrait of three sisters. Have you seen the chronicle of the Brown Sisters? It is 40 years worth, all 4 taken in the same position if not an exact pose. The photographer is Nicholas Nixon, the husband of one sister and brother-in-law to the others.
Marcia D.: Re: College athletics: The whole thing is mind-boggling. I attended a large university with sports teams.
Glynn W.: Nice account on how college athletes are underpaid. I agree that there is something wrong with a system that makes coaches millionaires and pays the players very little.
I also have to confess that I was not a victim of that system, but rather was one of the beneficiaries.
I was good enough as a high school miler to be courted by Texas A&M, but when I did not win the Louisiana state championship, the offer I finally received was getting to room in the athletes’ dorm, an honor that I easily rejected.
Instead I became a “walk on” runner for LSU, paying the low tuition charged Louisiana residents. Then after two years of running well, the coach put me on what the coach called “a full ride.” This meant getting fed at the special dining room reserved for full scholarship athletes.
That dining room was specially designed to cater to LSU’s football players. The mission: To turn high school running backs into much larger linemen.
That mission didn’t work for the rest of us and was especially challenging for the boxing team, for whom every meal was a challenge and a threat that they might gain weight and find themselves moving up in a heavier division, where larger opponents were waiting for them.
Needless to say, I ate with the boxers, who also were good company on our long runs around the LSU neighborhood.
So it went, with my boxer buddies and I fending off those calories that were all too readily available at the training table.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Cafe society
Best quote of the week:
What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness? Jean Jacques Rousseau, philosopher and author (1712-1778).
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 was 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: Cicadas, postcards, and geography – plus more from the Devil’s Dictionary: newsletter, June 25, 2021
Verse and Vision: Poems and painting from a couple of years ago
(I shared this list last month in a newsletter but later found out that none of the links in the original version of the newsletter work. I have tried to correct that with the list below.)
A couple of years ago a colleague at the Blount County Public Library asked me to record a poem because April is National Poetry Month. One thing led to another, and by September, I had made about 20 video recordings of poems recited as voiceovers for watercolor paintings that had some relationship to the poem or the poet.
Before April 2021 gets away from us, I thought it might be a good idea to reprise that list in honor of this year’s National Poetry Month, and I hereby invite you to revisit any of those videos with the links below:
Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
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
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
Most of these videos were recorded out of doors on a small porch at the side of my house. I did that because the natural light is better than anything I can set up inside. Now that the weather is turning warmer, I may revive this Verse and Vision series. Any suggestions about poems or paintings would be greatly appreciated.
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