This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,293) on Friday, August 20, 2021.
A friend of mine who is, unfortunately, no longer with us used to express a personal theory concerning public personages. They were, he contended, cosmic clowns. Cosmic clowns, he would explain, are people that the Almighty placed on earth purely for the amusement of the rest of us. They might aspire to, or even achieve, public office or positions of power, but in the long term they meant very little.
I was reminded of his theory this week when a news organization to whose newsletter I subscribe carried two substantial pieces on a couple of today’s cosmic clowns. What they were saying was so outrageous and nonsensical that they had rendered themselves meaningless, and I decided that once again my friend had been proven correct in his theory. These people were indeed in existence only for our amusement.
They are aided and abetted mightily by the journalists who pay attention to them and write about them. That’s the journalists’ problem. Our problem is how much attention should we pay to them?
Maybe we should spend a weekend paying attention to the things that matter and not to the cosmic clowns. Whatever you are paying attention to, I hope that you have a great weekend.
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Alex Haley: his life leading up to Roots (part 1)
Alex Haley had a simple idea. The stories that he had heard his family tell when he was growing up might be more than just stories. They might be history—or at least a version of history that had never made it to the history books.
Haley knew that history was written by the winners, and his family, though individuals in it had accomplished much, were not considered winners. They were Black, they were from the South, and they were the descendants of slaves. Even after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Black people were not thought to have a history. Not one worth telling anyway.
Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York, but his mother had come from Henning, Tennessee, and Haley spent significant time there as a boy. Henning is a small community near the Mississippi River, an insignificant place where nothing had ever happened. But the stories that his family told of their ancestor who had been brought to America in the 1700s and of his descendants were a different version of the American story. They stuck with the young Alex. This was a story of America that Americans needed to hear.
In the late 1930s, Haley tried college for a couple of years, but it didn’t take, so, at the urging of his father, he joined the Coast Guard as a mess boy (cook’s helper). He was on board a ship in the Pacific during World War II, but the major enemy, he said later, was boredom rather than the Japanese. It was during this time he discovered he had something most other people did not possess: the ability and the inclination to write. He put it to good use immediately by composing love letters for his shipmates to their back-home girlfriends.
As the war progressed, Haley was promoted to signalman. As such, he was stationed where he could look down on the ship’s mail call—an experience he turned into his first story titled “Mail Call Scene.” The story was first printed in the ship’s newsletter, and several of his shipmates sent it home, where some newspapers picked it up. The story eventually became widely distributed throughout the United States.
Haley stayed in the Coast Guard after the war and in 1950 found himself in New York as part of the service’s public relations team. His writing so impressed one admiral that he petitioned the Coast Guard to create a new rating (in military terms that’s a job position) for a “journalist.” Haley was the first person to receive that rating. Later he was promoted to Chief Journalist.
Haley began sending freelance articles to popular magazines and achieved some success in getting them published in publications such as Yachting, Flying, and Reader’s Digest. An article about his Aunt Liz in the Atlantic Monthly mentioned that his grandmother had “a paper tracing her family back to a freed slave.”
In 1959, Haley retired from the Coast Guard and took up writing full time. He joined Reader’s Digest as a senior writer and editor and later moved to Playboy Magazine where he developed a feature that printed in-depth interviews of famous people. It quickly became one of the publication’s most popular items (but not, of course, THE most popular one). Haley interviewed people such as Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., attorney Melvin Belli, and Cassius Clay, who mentioned that he might change his name to Muhammed Ali.
In one instance, he sought an interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell, in a phone call with Haley, agreed to the interview as long as Haley could assure him that he wasn’t Jewish. During the in-person interview, Rockwell placed a handgun on the table beside them as Haley asked his questions.
The most significant interview for Haley personally was with Malcolm X in 1963. That interview led to their collaboration on a book about Malcolm X’s life, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965. It was Haley’s first book-length publication, and it was a powerfully written account of the activist’s life. The book was a phenomenal success, eventually selling more than eight million copies, and Time magazine later named it as one of the most significant books of the 20th century.
Had Haley stopped there, he could have counted his writing career as a great success. But he had another idea that he wanted to pursue. He wanted to write about his family.
Next week: The Roots phenomenon
Abraham Lincoln: mystery writer
One of the things we know about Abraham Lincoln is that he could tell a good story. He was famous for that. But could he write one?
He tried that once, and what he wrote was interesting, if not completely compelling.
Before he was elected president in 1860, Lincoln was a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and he handled many cases involving a wide variety of people, situations, and legal controversies. He was also a reader and known to admire Edgar Allan Poe, often thought of as the inventor of the modern detective story.
So, during his 20-plus-year legal career, Lincoln would have inevitably been involved in situations that would have lent themselves to an interesting mysterious narrative. Why not write that up? Lawyers did that all the time back then, and it was often good for business.
In 1841, Lincoln defended William, Henry, and Archibald Trailor. Early in the story, Lincoln tells us:
“In the neighborhood of William’s residence, there was, and had been for several years, a man by the name of Fisher, who was somewhat above the age of fifty; had no family, and no settled home; but who boarded and lodged a while here and a while there, with the persons for whom he did little jobs of work. His habits were remarkably economical, so that an impression got about that he had accumulated a considerable amount of money.
“In the latter part of May in the year mentioned, William formed the purpose of visiting his brothers at Clary’s Grove, and Springfield; and Fisher, at the time having his temporary residence at his house, resolved to accompany him. They set out together in a buggy with a single horse. On Sunday Evening they reached Henry’s residence, and staid over night.”
You can read the rest of the story in this article in the Smithsonian Magazine. It takes only a few minutes, but it might provide a new insight into our most revered president.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Jeeves: P.G. Wodehouse’s enduring character
Jeeves, the omniscient valet of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories, began life in the author’s mind as a one-off character. He appeared in a 1915 story titled “Extricating Young Gussie” and was supposed to have only two lines: “Mrs. Gregson to see you, sir,” and “Very good, sir. Which suit will you wear?”
Had Wodehouse kept with his original intention, Jeeves might have disappeared into the literary mists.
But Wodehouse kept writing about Bertie Wooster. In the story “The Artistic Career of Corky,” the author got Wooster and his friend Corky into a scrape and could not figure a way to get them out.
And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That’s how a character grows.
And grow Jeeves did. During the next six decades, Wodehouse wrote about Jeeves, mostly as Bertie Wooster’s valet but occasionally as a character on his own. He is constantly saving Bertie from his mixed-up view of the world and his hare-brained schemes. At one point, Bertie fires Jeeves because Jeeves instigates the break-up of an engagement to a young lady into which Bertie has ill-advisedly entered. Bertie quickly hires him back when he realizes that Jeeves has once again saved him from himself.
In another story, Jeeves quits Bertie’s employ because Bertie won’t give up his banjolele. Of course, he eventually does so, and the two get back together.
One of the running jokes through many of these stories is that while Bertie recognizes Jeeves’ abilities and genius, he never quite comes to grips with his own incompetence. The relationship between Jeeves and Bertie is sometimes thought of as the comic side of a Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson partnership. Even Wodehouse himself made some reference to this idea.
Two more things about Jeeves:
– He had a first name, something that Wodehouse did not reveal until his next-to-last novel, Much Obliged, Jeeves. Bertie is shocked to hear another valet greeting Jeeves with “Hullo, Reggie.” Bertie had never considered that Jeeves might have a first name.
– Jeeves lives on despite the death of his creator in 1975. More than 30 years after that date, Ask Jeeves became the name of an internet question-and-answer search engine now known simply as Ask.com.
The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)
A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:
BIGAMY, n. A mistake in taste for which the wisdom of the future will adjudge a punishment called trigamy.
BIGOT, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
BILLINGSGATE, n. The invective of an opponent.
BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters. As to the nature of it there appears to be no uniformity. Castor and Pollux were born from the egg. Pallas came out of a skull. Galatea was once a block of stone. Peresilis, who wrote in the tenth century, avers that he grew up out of the ground where a priest had spilled holy water. It is known that Arimaxus was derived from a hole in the earth, made by a stroke of lightning. Leucomedon was the son of a cavern in Mount Aetna, and I have myself seen a man come out of a wine cellar.
BLACKGUARD, n. A man whose qualities, prepared for display like a box of berries in a market—the fine ones on top—have been opened on the wrong side. An inverted gentleman.
Anne V.: I liked the drawing of the Maryville courthouse! My grandfather, Oliver Thomas Stanley, helped to build a portion of the courthouse. He moved here from Indiana in the 1860s as a young boy with his family from Indiana.
Elizabeth F.: Your latest edition points to both love of words—which is dying to some degree, in my opinion—but more than that the complete death of style. Your mention of Bloomsbury and the comments on Strachey reminded me of a great course I took on those writers as an undergrad. The comments on history and style brought me to reminisce about one of three papers for my dissertation as a candidate for an M.A. in American Studies. Keep on making us aware of past and present and how important it is to keep good writing in all its aspects on the radar.
Eric S.: Your commentary on the over-use of “existential” sent me down the rabbit hole of “rabbit hole.” Defined as a bizarre situation or getting distracted on an internet search, we create a certain intimacy with each other by expressing ourselves with current “in” words and phrases that evolve to mean something quite different than they once did. Have I gone overboard? “Give me a break.”
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: My Friend James
Best quote of the week:
Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die. Herbert Hoover, 31st U.S. president (1874-1964)
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: A new approach to biography and writing and dying in public view: newsletter, August 13, 2021
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