This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, February 18, 2022.
Few books touch us like the ones that we are able to read to the children in our lives: sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren, children of friends, etc. No experience I know of can match that of reading to a child.
That’s one of the things I was reminded of by the reactions (finally recovered after several weeks of being hidden) to an article I did about Margaret Wise Brown and her book Goodnight Moon. I have re-posted the article and the reactions below.
Read to a child. If you have never done it, try it. If there are children in your life, don’t let the opportunity pass you by. I am firmly convinced that if you do so, you cannot emerge from that experience as the same person you were.
Have a great weekend.
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Neville Chamberlain: is it time to reassess his role at Munich and the beginning of World War II?
For more than 80 years, the words “Munich” and “appeasement” have been thrown at political opponents who seem to be too naïve or too cowardly to recognize and face up to evil doers.
Those words, of course, refer to the Munich Agreement of 1938 in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German dictator Adolf Hitler signed a declaration that there would be peace in Europe. The price that Chamberlain and his allies were willing to pay for that agreement was ceding the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia, to Hitler and his German Reich. It was a price that many people at the time, and most people since, felt was too high.
Thus, Neville Chamberlain’s name has been inexorably linked to Munich and appeasement. Is it time that we revise our views (assuming we have any views at all) of Chamberlain, Munich, and appeasement?
Novelist Robert Harris and his book Munich: A Novel—now a popular movie on Netflix—invites us to do just that. The novel is a work of fiction, and so is the movie. But it presents Chamberlain in a much more sympathetic light than he normally receives. The book and the movie show Chamberlain to be a warrior for peace, a man who would go to almost any lengths to avoid the disasters that his generation had witnessed during World War I.
He was certainly that. But the book and the movie also show Chamberlain as a realist about Adolf Hitler—an interpretation of Chamberlain that we rarely see. Chamberlain understands Hitler’s bent toward war. He understands that the Munich Agreement may not be the last word on Hitler and his aggressive tactics. The book and the movie make the case for Chamberlain, even though when Chamberlain returned to London he declared that there would be “peace in our time.”
Chamberlain was not only a realist about Hitler, according to Harris, but also about Britain’s ability in 1938 to actually stand up to Hitler. British armed forces were simply not ready for war at that point. The Munich Agreement, even though it seemed cowardly to hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler, provided Great Britain an extra year to build up its armed forces and prepare for war.
Despite the way that history has portrayed Chamberlain, he was a wiley and highly popular politician during his time as Prime Minister. He had an iron grip on his Conservative party, and he had managed to marginalize his opponents, Winston Churchill being among them, to the very fringes of politics.
Chamberlain was born in 1869, and he joined parliament in 1916. He had been too old by that time to join the armed forces that were then engaged in the struggles and slaughters of World War I on the fields of France. It was something that Chamberlain regretted, but as a politician he vowed to do everything in his power not to let that happen to his nation again.
Chamberlain rose quickly through the ranks of the Conservative party, holding a variety of high offices within the cabinet. In 1937 he finally succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister. With the situation on the European continent rapidly deteriorating, things did not go well for Chamberlain or his government.
Hitler’s German forces had been built up to the point where they threatened to overrun any part of Europe that they chose. France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other allies of Great Britain could stand against them only if they all stood together, and that alliance was very uncertain. There was little that they could do militarily to stop Hitler. All they could hope for was that Hitler and his demands for more territory would eventually be satisfied.
That hope eventually turned to dust in the year after the Munich Agreement was signed. Chamberlain had obviously failed in his efforts to satisfy Hitler, and there would not be “peace in our time.”
With Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, war became a fact. Two days later Chamberlain, in a radio address to the nation, declared that a “state of war” now existed for their nation.
The people of Great Britain, and more importantly the members of parliament, had lost faith in Chamberlain. A coalition government had to be formed. The head of that coalition would be Winston Churchill.
Chamberlain continued to be a part of the coalition government that had been formed under Churchill. But his health soon deteriorated. And as the country prepared for war, his reputation was in tatters. People were blaming him for the failure of the Munich Agreement. In September 1940, Chamberlain was diagnosed with cancer, and within two months he was dead. He was 71 years old when he died.
Chamberlain’s death was in some sense a massive convenience to those assessing Britain’s run-up to war. He became a scapegoat and a symbol of “why England slept” (to borrow from John F. Kennedy’s book on the topic). Chamberlain is painted as the stiff-upper-lip British aristocrat who believed that he could “do business” with Hitler.
Harris’ novel and the movie it inspired—as well as many modern historians—have invited us to think again. By 1938, it was too late to do business with the Nazi dictator on any basis of superiority or even equality. That time had passed with Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Stanley Baldwin was the British prime minister at the time, and his failure to persuade his government to stand up to Hitler provided the dictator to accelerate his rearmament program.
Baldwin has gotten very little of the blame for the slide into war. Chamberlain has been left holding the bag.
Here is a short review of Robert Harris’ book Munich by The Guardian.
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce: Gallows, Gargoyle, Garther, Generous, Genealogy
GALLOWS, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it.
Whether on the gallows high
Or where blood flows the reddest,
The noblest place for man to die—
Is where he died the deadest.
GARGOYLE, n. A rain-spout projecting from the eaves of mediaeval buildings, commonly fashioned into a grotesque caricature of some personal enemy of the architect or owner of the building. This was especially the case in churches and ecclesiastical structures generally, in which the gargoyles presented a perfect rogues’ gallery of local heretics and controversialists. Sometimes when a new dean and chapter were installed the old gargoyles were removed and others substituted having a closer relation to the private animosities of the new incumbents.
GARTHER, n. An elastic band intended to keep a woman from coming out of her stockings and desolating the country.
GENEROUS, adj. Originally this word meant noble by birth and was rightly applied to a great multitude of persons. It now means noble by nature and is taking a bit of a rest.
GENEALOGY, n. An account of one’s descent from an ancestor who did not particularly care to trace his own.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Le Mans 1979 Chris Wohlwend
Chris Wohlwend is a magazine writer and editor and author of the memoir Ridge Running: A Memoir of Appalachia. The article below is about one of his experiences pursuing the worldwide field of auto racing.
I was awakened by loud laughter followed by a quieter “shhhh”. The language was French, the voices female. Quietly turning my head, I could see the lower legs and feet of three women, a trio who did not know they were being observed by two males who had been asleep under the truck where they now stood.
The year was 1979, the place was Le Mans, France, and the time was about 2 a.m., approximately 15 hours into the 24 Heures du Mans. And it was raining. The roar of the cars as they thundered past pit row only a couple hundred yards from us provided background. My friend Tom Stokes and I had found the truck when we were searching for a comfortable – and dry – place to catch some sleep. It was large and high enough off the ground for our needs.
Read the entire article here on JPROF.
From the archives: Margaret Wise Brown and the saga of Goodnight Moon
Several weeks ago, I ran an item on Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon. That article provoked a lot of reaction, much of which was lost to me until a couple of weeks ago because of an email glitch. Now that I have recovered the emails, I thought I would share the article and some of the reaction to it together. I would still enjoy hearing from anyone who has anything to say about this author or book.
Chances are, you have given a copy of Goodnight Moon to expectant parents to make sure it was in their child’s library when the time came for them to understand it. Or maybe somebody gave you a copy when you were young. If so, it would have been one of the more than 50 million copies of Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s classic that has been sold since its initial publication in 1947.
The book’s success was not foretold at its birth, however. In fact, quite the opposite. Anne Carroll Moore, the children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, didn’t like the book— she actually hated it—and would not allow it in the library. The NYPL’s ban on the book lasted for a quarter of a century when, in 1972, the keepers of the shelves finally decided the book was okay.
Moore’s position at the NYPL placed her in a role of great influence as to what other libraries would offer to their patrons. Even though Moore was supposedly retired in 1947—she had been appointed to her position in 1906 and had championed many positive advances for libraries stocking children’s books and encouraging them to read—she still essentially ran things at the library.
If you have read the book or read it to a child, it’s not easy to find the reasons for the objection.
In an article in Slate magazine last year, Dan Kois dug into the mystery to find the reason for Moore’s antipathy:
Anne Carroll Moore was not a fan of Margaret Wise Brown’s work. Brown, with her Bank Street training, was “looking at the mind of a child, operating at the level that a child understands,” says (Betsy) Bird (a librarian who has written extensively about children’s literature). “She was trying to get down on their level, whereas Anne Carroll Moore placed herself above the children’s level, handing what she viewed as the best of the best down to them.”
Moore reviewed the book and dismissed it as “an unbearably sentimental piece of work.”
Moore may also have had some problems with Margaret Wise Brown herself (although there is no solid evidence for this). By 1947, Brown was a well-known and prolific children’s author.
She was born in 1910 in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Hollins College in Virginia. She came to New York in 1932 to teach and to study art and became part of the Bank Street Experimental School, one of the locations for the city’s bohemian community. She began writing children’s books and managed to get her first publication in 1937 with When the Wind Blew. She tried to recruit famous authors to write children’s books, and while Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck turned her down, Gertrude Stein did not. Stein’s book, The World is Round, was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who would eventually work with Brown on The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon.
Brown had numerous romantic flings and had a long-running and tempestuous affair with Blanche Oelrichs, a poet, playwright, and actress who had been the wife of actor John Barrymore. Oelrichs died in 1950, and Brown became engaged to a Rockefeller heir in 1952. Before they were married, she went on a book tour and was hospitalized in Nice, France, where she died of an embolism. She was 42 years old, and she did not live to see Goodnight Moon become a children’s classic.
By the time of her death, she had published more than 100 books, and she left behind more than 70 unpublished manuscripts. Her sister tried unsuccessfully to sell them and then stored them in a cedar chest where they lay forgotten for nearly 40 years. Many of them have since been published.
Jacy D.: 15 years ago, when my daughter was born, you sent me a copy of Goodnight Moon and a white blanket in the mail. We still have both of those items, though they are both looking a bit ragged nowadays. I read that copy of Goodnight Moon hundreds—if not thousands—of times. When my son was born a few years later, it became a very soothing part of his bedtime routine. We read many different books, of course, but eventually we all had Goodnight Moon memorized and any of the three of us could recite it to him as he fell asleep. It was nice to read this and remember those moments.
Jennifer S.: I found both comfort and joy in your piece about Margaret Wise Brown! I have many fond memories of reading her books, especially Goodnight Moon, to my children, but I blush to disclose that I didn’t know much about her. What a fascinating person behind the books! Goodnight Moon is just surreal enough to stand alone as a sort of tone poem for adults, but, obviously, its deceptively simple style appeals to small children. I remember, especially, reading it to my daughter, and when we got to “Goodnight air,” she would reach up and touch her own hair, misunderstanding the word. It was so funny, but also impressive, to see her working out the sense of the words in ways that she could understand, connecting the book to her real life.
Carolyn M.: I have such fond memories of reading Goodnight Moon to my son, David, before bed every night. We both delighted in his finding the mouse on each page. I have been amazed at the number of people I have encountered through the years who do not value the beauty of the prose as well as the artwork. Interesting that the NYC librarian missed the beauty of this work when it was first published.
Additional reaction from previous newsletters
Cindi K.: I want to thank you for your wonderful newsletters every week. I look forward to them because I learn something new and interesting every time I open them.
Bonita B.: Discombobulated was one of my dad’s words. He also liked whopperjawed. Cattywhompus. Bumfuzzled. Cattycornered. Not sure how many words that he just made up. He liked any odd word that would cause people to chuckle. I can still see his eyes light up with a mischievous look whenever he would say them. This is our 3rd Christmas without him. Mom will never be the same. It’s hard to watch her decline. Your newsletters often remind me of him, not because of the books you talk about, but because of the description of what’s going on in your Appalachian life. Dad was from Eastern KY. I love to hear about your garden projects in spring and summer.
Sandra G.: Thank you for your interesting write up about Pearl Harbor. About that dictionary—I was a bit disappointed that “hand” only received one sentence! Why, without the hand the “brain” and the “heart” might not accomplish all their goals. However, coupled with them, they make a great team: multitudes of wonderful inventions that make life easier for modern man; art & music of all kinds to enjoy immensely; writings in all forms to teach & expand the mind; a simple pat on the back to encourage a child or friend; a handshake to begin a life-long friendship; all kinds of labor that results in means of providing for a family; meticulous surgeries; grooming & braiding a grandmother’s hair; bathing your newborn baby; making Christmas cookies with your grandchildren; hugging your sweetie under the mistletoe; and a million other things that hands are. I remember everything about my husband’s, parents’, grandparents’, children’s & grandchildren’s beautiful hands. Also, I’m thankful that I have two hands—one is quite awkward & overworked without the other.
Finally . . .
This week’s pen and ink: Edinburgh, Scotland
Best quote of the week:
What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth: life always spills over the rim of every cup. Boris Pasternak, poet, novelist, Nobel laureate (1890-1960)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
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 mother of the detective novel, a different view of the first president, baseball’s aborted move west: newsletter, January 21, 2022
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