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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Winter Comes to Northport


The solstice is still in the future, but we have had snow (along with books) in Northport. We’ve also had some early holiday guests at Dog Ears Books.


Saturday morning (early)
Featured Guest Aaron Stander

Saturday was the long-anticipated book signing with Aaron Stander and his #10 Ray Elkins murder mystery, The Center Cannot Hold. Such is Aaron’s popularity that even before he arrived on the scene, his fans were pouring in, eager for face time with the author.




And so, despite gloomy weather, despite the existential crisis I fear Sheriff Elkins in facing (consider the title), we had a cheerful and convivial day in the bookstore. Aaron came all the way up from Interlochen, and Saturday’s customers were from Omena and Cedar, as well as Northport.




Happy customers!
Another visitor: my son

My son, Ian, was visiting from Kalamazoo, also, having arrived on Thursday evening. As the proprietor of a bookshop, I never have a problem entertaining visitors who are book readers — and happily, all of my relatives are readers. So it was that during quiet moments at home and in the shop, as Ian and I sat reading our respective books, every now and then one of us would pause to share a passage with the other. Readers, after all, are not antisocial. We are happy to read aloud to others and often to pass favorite books along to friends. Can’t do that with a pumpkin latte.



Bruce brought me a book

Bruce Balas, my part-time volunteer of many years, recently traveled to England, Ireland, and Scotland, and as he so often does from these international jaunts, Bruce brought back a book for me. This time it was The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell, a day-to-day account of one little shop selling used books in Scotland.

Each day in The Diary begins with a notation of the number of online orders received, along with how many of the books ordered the bookseller and his crew were able to locate to ship out, thus fulfilling the orders — his rating with the online behemoth selling engine rising and falling accordingly. He notes ruefully that while one of the compensations of self-employment, traditionally, has been not having a boss, the behemoth “is slowly but certainly becoming the boss of the self-employed in retail.” I read that, shivered, and thanked my lucky stars I pulled out of the online selling morass years ago, as prices realized raced to the bottom with no corresponding diminution in time required to process orders. 

(An order for a six-dollar book is as time-consuming as one for a sixty-dollar book, and in an open shop, with a single person working, it makes more sense to focus on live people who have taken the trouble to come through the door. Of course, that means depending on those live people to buy books in the shop so that it can remain open and viable. Word to the wise sufficient?)

The Book Shop in Wigtown sells mostly used books, only a handful of new, and their most popular used books are on the subject of railroads. The proprietor buys considerably more books than I do from private libraries being dispersed and, as I say, is selling online daily. He has a handful of part-time employees (what would that be like?) and a bookstore cat rather than a dog. He lives above his shop. And while he doesn't mention it, I know he drives on the wrong side of the road. All these are differences between his business and mine, but so much of what he experiences is still familiar to me that I keep laughing out loud as I read.

The meat of each day’s diary entry is a narrative including descriptions of weather, stories of shop help’s eccentricities, customer requests and staff responses, expeditions to examine private libraries offered for sale, accounts of local “festival” plans, and the bookseller’s recreational activities on his days off. Following the narrative is the number of customers in the shop that day (he calls them all “customers,” whether or not they spend a shilling) and the total “take” in British pounds.

On the minus side of Shaun Bythell’s observations are the following phenomena, sadly familiar to your bookseller in Northport: people who enter with boisterous proclamations of their love of books and bookstores and buy nothing (so it is not my imagination, and I’m not the only bookseller to have noticed!); those for whom nothing is cheap enough, no matter how much they supposedly “want” it or how many years they have been searching for it; the problem of the behemoth’s pricing algorithm (comments about “cheaper online” made within hearing of the bookseller); etc.

(I am waiting to see if he will mention the dramatic souls who confide with a shudder that bookstores are “very dangerous places” for them, folks who eye me suspiciously, as if I were a dealer in illegal substances luring them, at their peril, into an ambush! And are there in Scotland bookstores the annual visitors who stop by, look around, and sail out each time empty-handed with promises to “see you again next year”? I wonder what they think keeps my bookstore in business from one summer to the next.)

On the positive, brief side of the pro/con ledger — he prides himself on being a “curmudgeon” and tends to accentuate the negative — Bythell describes some of the joys of bookshop life: children who lose themselves in books (“It gives me a glimmer of hope for the future of bookselling  … to see a child reading, their attention rapt in the book to the total exclusion of everything else.”); a regular customer who orders from the shop rather than online (you how who you are, loyal Northport friends!); exclamations he overhears about how “cool” his shop is; the thrill of selling a treasure he’s had on the shelf for a decade and that of discovering another treasure among boxes of books otherwise good for nothing but to sell by weight to a scrap dealer. Occasionally he goes off on a paean of praise for something like historic publishers of quality books or a grump-fest about a planned wind farm he fears would ruin his view. 

There are also nuggets of old-bookish information to enlighten anyone not familiar with the trade, and so, as I read and laugh and share aloud bits to anyone fortunate enough to be nearby (at present, my son and/or the Artist), I keep thinking of others who would enjoy this book. The experienced bookseller would find, as I have, a kindred soul and familiar situations; for the novice or wannabe bookseller, there are useful lessons; and anyone genuinely interested in books and bookstores and human foibles would be amused and entertained.

Books about bookstores, like books about dogs, seem to be increasing in number. Is this indicative of a new and growing appreciation for bookstores and their continued existence? One can hope.


Not that long ago....
And now, Thanksgiving is coming

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for my years of Up North bookselling, despite the occasional frustrations. Making dreams come true is as much hard work as it is joy, but for me it has been worthwhile. I’m thankful for the Artist’s steadfast support from the beginning; for Bruce’s loyal assistance over many years; and for the collegiality of fellow bookstore owners, especially in northern Michigan (real booksellers, in my book, are those with open shops, willing to meet the public face to face). 

I am ever grateful for the generosity and talent and professionalism of authors it has been my privilege to meet and know in the course of the last quarter-century; for parents who bequeathed to me and my sisters a love of reading and respect for books; for other parents and teachers who have done and continue to do the same for children in their lives. 

And always I am thankful to my customers, both local and visiting, first-time tourists and returning summer people, all who continue to show their appreciation for my bookstore by buying books in Northport, at Dog Ears Books, on Waukazoo Street. That’s what keeps my bookstore here! Thank you all! May your holiday be blessed! You have all been blessings in my life!

“Going Forward”


(As if there’s any other way we can go, eh?)

In 2015 I called my winter away from Michigan a sabbatical. I didn’t give it a name in 2018. Now, however, still working long summer and fall days as younger friends and relatives retire, I have decided that “seasonal retirement” is a more meaningful term. 

This year the Artist and I will be away from home and our places of business from December through April, our longest absence from ever. You’ll be able to follow our adventures (as in previous, shorter absences) here on “Books in Northport,” should you be so inclined. Meanwhile, for the more immediate future, here is the plan for Dog Ears Books for the remainder of November:

NOVEMBER BOOKSHOP CALENDAR

Tuesday, 11/20: OPEN 10-2:30 (need to close early to keep an appointment)

Wednesday, 11/21: OPEN 11-5 (Take a bookstore break from mixing up cranberry relish and bread stuffing and baking pies.)

Thursday, 11/22: CLOSED FOR THANKSGIVING

Friday, 11/23: OPEN 11-5 WITH BEGINNING OF HOLIDAY SALE

Saturday, 11/24: OPEN 11-5. OPEN HOUSE IN BUSINESSES THROUGHOUT VILLAGE. HOLIDAY SALE CONTINUES. VILLAGE TREE LIGHTING 6 p.m. LIVE MUSIC

Sunday, 11/25 CLOSED

Monday, 11/26: OPEN 11-5 for CIDER MONDAY — YOUR LOCAL ALTERNATIVE BY SHOPPING ONLINE! HOLIDAY SALE CONTINUES.

Tuesday, 11/27: OPEN 11-5 HOLIDAY SALE CONTINUES

Wednesday, 11/28: OPEN 11/5 HOLIDAY SALE CONTINUES

Thursday, 11/29: OPEN 11-5 HOLIDAY SALE CONTINUES

Friday, 11/30: OPEN 11-5 LAST DAY OF THE BOOKSTORE YEAR???

Saturday, 12/1: Who knows? Not sure yet! Friday, 11/30, may be our last day of the season, so don’t wait for December 1st to do your holiday shopping at Dog Ears Books!


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Do You Need a Weatherman?

Many years ago — and it’s been so many that I don’t want to put a number on them — back when “long distance” was so different from “local” that the former kind of telephone call was still for most of us a special occasion, I was in New Jersey and speaking to a dear friend at the time in El Paso, Texas. An impatient note was pressed into my hand: “Weather is boring.” Yes, my friend and I were sharing weather news, but no, it wasn’t boring. 

“Small talk” is a label applied, often derisively, to safe topics of general interest. People with conflicting political opinions or religious beliefs antagonistic to each other are unlikely to get into a shouting match over weather reports or forecasts. “Everyone talks … no one does anything about….” the weather, Mark Twain is said to have said, but that’s exactly what makes it a safe topic. We are not called upon to do anything about it, other than prepare for it. Lay in supplies (blizzard) or prepare for evacuation (hurricane), but no one expects us to stop a weather event in its tracks.

Small talk? More to it than that. 

In the course of our evolution and yet today, leaving our homes to venture out on land, sea, and air, knowing about weather conditions is important to our survival. “How are the roads?” is no idle question asked to fill in awkward silence. But while the roots of our perennial interest are undoubtedly in the history of our species, fascination with weather goes beyond our need to know. I in New Jersey and my friend in west Texas had no survival issues at stake in the road conditions of each other’s temporary places of residence. No, what we wanted, we two friends from Michigan, both far from home and missing all that was familiar to us, was to place each other in the alien landscapes we were then inhabiting. 

For several years now I have corresponded with a friend in New South Wales, Australia, a friend who has never been to Michigan, as I have never been to Australia. (We may never meet! But we are friends.) And not only do we experience different weather but also opposite seasons: winter in Michigan is summer in New South Wales. Somehow Kathy and I never cease to be amazed at that. If one of us picks up the phone to call (as she did once, years ago) instead of relying on e-mail and the occasional package, we are speaking together in real time across what feels like a six months’ time difference (instead of only 17 hours). Intellectually, we understand about the northern and southern hemispheres, the tilt of the earth on its axis, but experientially we are all wonderment.

But to backtrack — because already I’ve oversimplified, as you may have noticed. We know very well that the need for response to weather and other natural events (e.g., fire) events is not an argument-free topic, particularly in the wake of catastrophe. Who should have done more to prepare? Who failed to respond adequately? Some of the discussion has to do with improving future preparation and response, but there’s also that pesky business of assigning blame. Oh, we can do that, all right! And I’m only talking here about natural disasters. Whatever happens, there is always some group of people at fault, and that’s just the weather! 

Stakes of the blame game get much, much higher when we shift from “small talk” to anything remotely political. Do you need a weatherman? What direction do you think the winds of change are blowing? Because time, after all, is change, consequently the times are always a-changin’. For better, for worse — it all depends on your point of view. Or does it? 

I guess, though, that the good news (it’s always important to look for a bright spot, if not a bright side, isn’t it?) is that — oh, darn! Now I’ve forgotten what the bright spot was! That we don’t have hurricanes in northern Michigan? What could have flitted through my mind there?

Well, the Artist and I made an odyssey to Indiana last weekend. It felt odyssic (is that a word?) to us, anyway, though Indiana is only one stay away from Michigan, in that we worried about weather and driving conditions and only very reluctantly left our Sarah (dog) with neighbors for four days. (Sarah and the neighbors had a wonderful time — a change of pace for everyone.) Reasons for the trip, however, were happy ones. After losing my mother, a neighbor, and an old friend (three funerals), at last I was going to a wedding! It was lovely. And we made it home on dry roads before Monday evenings snowfall began.

One question in our house, whenever we are preparing for a trip, is: “What are you taking to read?” I took along the book I had set aside over a week before, Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History, originally published over a hundred years ago as separate papers on frontier topics. Turner’s view — new at the time he articulated it, persuasive in its time, hotly debated and rejected by many between then and now — was that American history and the American character were essentially shaped by a westward-advancing frontier. 

I am still puzzling over and wondering about “the American character,” though Turner does list features of his paradigmatic American. It’s interesting that he acknowledges a large percentage of immigrants in his frontiersmen, so his “American” character was not limited to those born in the American colonies or, later, states. Was not each successive wave of immigrants resented in East Coast cities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? Did the frontier accept each ethnic group equally? I do not find answers to these questions in Turner’s papers.

As a research assistant in the 1980s I learned that nineteenth-century Michigan farms were established by waves of settlers first from Pennsylvania and New York and later from the European states eventually consolidated as the German nation. It was common practice for pioneers to settle, “improve” the land (clear the forest, plant crops, fence acreage, build houses and barns), and then sell and move farther west to do the same again, new Western immigrants replacing the older as the frontier moved west.

Turner stresses ongoing conflict between established East Coast colonies and cities and the more sparsely settled agricultural lands on the frontier. Such conflict was part of the differences that led to the Civil War but was also much larger and longer lasting. No doubt if he could return to the United States in 2018 Turner would find evidence to justify himself in holding to his thesis, and it can be a compelling lens or grid, though it is not the only possible or useful organizing principle of American history. And it’s kind of a shell game, each theory presenting some gap or contradiction, so it’s a question of which intellectual problems you want left at the end of your say.

As I read, for instance, I am dismayed at Turner’s claim that westward expansion was “peaceful.” He sees the pioneers as naturally democratic, holding “equality, freedom of opportunity, [and] faith in the common man” as ideals acted out in their everyday lives, holding themselves independent of state and national power insofar as they could do so without detriment to their own interests. 

…The importance of the result can hardly be overestimated. It ensured the peaceful and free development of the great West and gave it political organization not as the outcome of wars of hostile States, nor by arbitrary government by distant powers, but by territorial government combined with large local autonomy. These [local] governments in turn were admitted as equal States of the Union. By this peaceful process of colonization a whole continent has been filled with free and orderly commonwealths so quietly, so naturally, that we can only appreciate the profound significance of the process by contrasting it with the spread of European nations through conquest and oppression.

There. I have restrained myself and not added italic emphasis to a single word in the passage quoted above. I will simply urge you now to go back and re-read it, slowly, a phrase at a time. What stands out in your mind?

Earlier in the same chapter, “The Middle West,” originally published as a paper in the International Monthly in December 1901, Turner wrote of the “removal policy” that “effected the transfer of most of the eastern [Native American] tribes to lands across the Mississippi,” with later “removal” clearing Kansas and Nebraska for westward-migrating Eastern whites and European immigrants, and he notes — as again I restrain myself and add no emphases:

A period of almost constant Indian hostility followed, for the savage lords of the boundless prairies instinctively felt the significance of the entrance of the farmer into their empire. In Minnesota the Sioux took advantage of the Civil War to rise; but the outcome was the destruction of their reservations in that State…. The systematic slaughter of millions of buffalo … put an end to the vast herds of the Great Plains, and destroyed the economic foundation of the Indians. Henceforth they were dependent on the whites for their food supply, and the Great Plains were open to cattle ranchers. 

How are these two accounts in a single published paper by a single author to be reconciled? Was the frontier pushed west in orderly, peaceful fashion or by a relentless series of destructive forces upon established inhabitants? If Turner had ignored the Indians entirely, we could simply reject his claim of peaceful expansion. As it is, he acknowledges the presence of the Indians, their hostility to the pioneers, and the destruction of their economy, so that, even while he has remained silent on more direct destruction of human populations, we need to explain somehow why it is he sees no inherent contradiction in his story.

Sadly, I think I see the way he interprets pioneer history, and the key is the contrast he asks us to draw between American expansion and “the spread of European nations through conquest and oppression.” Think about it. He does not see displaced Native American tribes as conquered and oppressed. Why not? How can he see them any other way? The key, I believe, is his characterization of the Indians as “savage lords” of the prairies. (That the prairies were not “boundless” is another matter.) In Europe, conflicts of “conquest and oppression” were between what Turner recognized as civilizations, whereas conflict between a civilization and “savages” fell outside the scope of “conquest and oppression.” He does not even defend this aspect of his thesis. It is an assumption rather than an explicit premise or defended conclusion. 

Abraham Lincoln made the public statement that the nation could not survive half slave and half free. Weatherman Lincoln had his eye on the slavery question. Following the Civil War, many displaced Southerners, both white and black, sought new lives for themselves in the American West, and one path open to them was fighting Indians. History frequently refers to the “Indian wars.” Were the “hostilities” not “wars” in Turner’s eyes because the “tribes” were not organized as “States”?

Halfway through the Turner book, once again I set it aside. Though I will finish the reading of it, I have to ration my intake, just as I try to ration my daily intake of national and world news. 

Weathermen look for patterns, predicting the future on the basis of the past. These forecasts work best in the short term. Low chance of precipitation today, sunshine this afternoon and more tomorrow. A 10-day forecast can be helpful in planning life events but will usually be revised during that period, so check it every day if you need to know. 

Has heavy snowfall come this early in the previous seven years? That was the question of one friend, and I looked back over a few blog posts for the answer and quick found this one from 2014. Snow before Thanksgiving — not unprecedented.

Weather patterns are not fixed by human calendars. They are not even identical from one century to the next. How much more uncertainty attends human predictions of economic activity and of war and peace! This is 2018. We have never been here before. 



Wednesday, November 7, 2018

How Are Things in Stinking Creek?

Northport Creek does NOT stink!
Election Day — both long anticipated and long dreaded. It will be so good to have the landscape cleared of campaign signs, won’t it? However things turn out, we have all (I trust!) done our civic duty. Not that it’s “over,” by any means. The work goes on. But at least we can put this decisive aspect of it behind us for a while. 

Both the day before and the day of voting, I did what I had to do but also found time to immers myself in other worlds, that of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, seeking some organization for themes and corresponding page numbers before our reading circle gets together on Wednesday, and also re-reading a little sociological treatise (from back when sociology was qualitative, i.e., interesting, rather than quantitative, i.e., boring), namely, Stinking Creek: The Portrait of a Small Mountain Community in Appalachia, by John Fetterman. Stinking Creek the book (the place is in Kentucky, and it’s a real place) was first published in 1970, the author having copyrighted it in 1967, so descriptions of people and place are outdated, but you know I am hardly averse to slipping the bonds of time, especially in times of mental crisis (see first paragraph of this post).
There were several things I noted in the Appalachia of the 1960s. People had lost jobs in the coal mine already back then — not because coal wasn’t being mined. The locals hadn’t lost their jobs to immigrants providing cheaper labor or to newer alternative energy sources, either. No, it was machinery doing the work previously done by men. Bulldozers, power shovels, augers. “Automation has made the miner jobless.” Lumbering jobs were nearly nonexistent by the 1960s, too, because good timber had all been removed. Living off the land was no longer possible, either, as creeks in which fish had formerly been plentiful were now so polluted by acid from old coal mines that even traditional baptizing holes had been abandoned. With trees gone and soil washing away comes also flooding — yet another hardship for those at the bottom of life’s heap.
To reach the coal seams now, a bulldozer strips the earth from the seam…. Power shovels scoop up the coal that lies exposed. Augers … bore into the mountain to bring out the remainder of the seam….
The resulting tons of waste — earth, slate, and slag — are hurled over the mountainside in an orgy of monstrous ruin. 
Sulfur, associated with coal-bearing formations, enters the streams, and a solution of sulfuric acid results. This silt washes down the mountainsides to fill the stream beds, and during heavy rains the valleys act as huge funnels, hurling the unchecked waters along to inundate town after town.

Timber, fish, game gone, along with mining jobs and logging jobs — their homes periodically flooded out — nothing was as good as it had been for the earliest settlers. “‘There ain’t even a crawdad around here,’ an old-timer observed.” There were jobs in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Detroit, but who wanted to leave the freedom and quiet of the mountains for noisy, expensive, hemmed-in city life? Stinking Creek folk much preferred to stay where they were, if they possibly could.



Distrustful of the “govmint” as most of them were, those disabled by accident or illness were happy to “draw” welfare checks and receive free “commodities” — and let’s remember that those free commodities were as much subsidies to overproducing farmers as they were benefit to the hungry poor, something people who rail against “handouts” often forget — while the chance of “project work” gave hope to young men, hope that they could stay on the mountain and get paying work, rather than having either to leave home or stay and “draw” [welfare checks]. 

Farming had never been a path to prosperity in this hard, rocky country of thin, poor soil, but in the 1960s most families still had their own garden plots and raised corn, beans, tomatoes and such for their families, while those who could afford to keep a cow had fresh milk. The boys hanging out at Ellis Messner’s store drank much more “pop” than a dietician would recommend, and boys and girls both took to chewing tobacco at a young age. There was, however, no “opioid crisis” back then. Church attendance might not be regular among all residents of the various hollows, but religion had a hold on many, nonetheless, and even adolescents who quit school before the eighth grade showed respect for their elders, Fetterman observed. Although there was almost nothing in the way of recreation for young people, Fetterman says this of the community where he spent time getting to know the inhabitants one by one and family by family:
On Stinking Creek there are no muggings, robberies, stabbings, rapes. Yet every boy carries a pocket knife — not as a weapon, but as a symbol of responsible manhood. On Stinking Creek you can leave your car unlocked with its load of cameras, typewriter, and personal belongings without fear. Where else can you do this?
This is certainly not the Appalachia one encounters in recent books. It was poor then, too, most families living in two rooms, the young not all that optimistic, and yet —?

What makes the difference between then and now? Not unemployment, my liberal friends, because jobs had already been long lost. Nor welfare, my conservative friends, because they already had that, too. Intrusion from the outside world, however, was still minimal: Television sets were just reaching Stinking Creek but were not in every home, and the one fuzzy channel pulled in would not have brought anything like the mayhem available on cable today. Moonshine could be a tempting danger, but it wasn’t cheap, and international pharmaceutical companies had not yet realized what a lucrative, captive market the poor could be. Degraded popular culture and aggressive marketing? You tell me. 

Thinking now of the dusty road in front of my grandmother’s little house outside Springfield, Ohio — barefoot children, lack of indoor plumbing, but neighborly, with plenty of room and freedom for those barefoot children at play — I realize my grandmother’s neighborhood was a suburban version of Stinking Creek. Some of her neighbors might even have come from those very Kentucky hollows. There was a kind of dignity to poverty in those times, in those places. If such exists yet today, it must be where the poor are fortunate enough not to be victims of addiction or famine or war.

One final note from Stinking Creek in the Sixties, relevant this week when Americans are going to the polls once again: Though many were illiterate and almost no one trusted politicians, residents of Stinking Creek were still eager to vote. On the fourth Tuesday in May, the author tells us, there was no school, because the school building served that day as the polling place for the Sixth Precinct.
The crowds came early. They stood on a rocky point up on the road and looked solemnly down at the ancient school; they gathered in knots in the few shady places down by the creek and stared up at the school…
Democrats and Republicans alike were determined that the fiasco of four years ago would not be repeated. In that earlier election, Democrats were elected, then unseated after a court battle. It all came about over a Kentucky law that decrees that voters who cannot read and who require assistance to flip the levers of the voting machine must sign an oath that “by inability to read English … he is unable to vote without assistance.”
In that election four years before, half of all Stinking Creek voters had been assisted, and 68 of them had “signed” the oath only with an X. And because their precinct could turn the entire county one way or another, on this fateful Tuesday evryone is watching Stinking Creek. And Stinking Creek people knew they were being watched.
Voter after voter cautiously approached the door, as though fully expecting to be turned away. Every eye was on that door, and each voter came out into the blazing glare of the sun and the more penetrating glare of his fellow citizens. And each voter shielded his own reactions from this intense scrutiny with an expressionless mask he draws over his face at such times.  

The linking of the ability to read and the right to vote is an annoyance of great proportion to the people of Stinking Creek. The ability to read has little to do with a man’s ability to fell a tree, move a stone, or decide whom he wants to dabble in the public funds as his duly elected servant.

Over the past year, 2018, gerrymandering (on the ballot in Michigan) and accusations of voter suppression have been big topics across the United States. What faith even those skeptical, suspicious Appalachian voters had to have to get out and cast their votes! For most of us today it is so easy! Most, that is, not all, and the attempts to make voting more difficult for whole blocks of Americans is nothing short of shameful. But we keep trying to figure out this democratic process, and God forbid we should ever stop trying!

And now, back to The Magic Mountain I go.



P.S. the day after drafting post: Election results are mostly in by now, and the only thing I’ll say here is that in Leelanau County 65% of eligible voters cast votes in this election. Sadly, 65% is considered a “massive” turnout. Too many Americans are still all too prone to take rights and freedoms for granted or think one person can’t possibly make a difference, when the truth is that every election (leaving out presidential races and the Electoral College) is won and lost by an aggregate of individual votes. So whether your preferred candidates won or lost in this midterm, f you voted yesterday — or earlier — you counted. 


Saturday, November 3, 2018

“Life Was Simpler Then.” Was It?

A book with a title like Sylvia’s Lovers, especially when the author’s name is given as “Mrs. Gaskell,” no first name whatsoever, seems to promise escape from our contemporary social strife, and all the more so as the story is set in another country, England, and well over 200 years ago. The setting is a small village called Monkshaven and the nearby northeastern shoreline. The local economy at that time was solidly based on whaling, though farming also went on in a small way, and naturally there was buying and selling. The River Dee divided the little town in have-littles and have-mores, the latter having made their fortunes in the whaling trade, while remnants of hereditary aristocrats kept aloof in their estates on the “wild bleak moors” outside town and inland from the sea cliffs. The novel opens just after the close of “the American war,” that is to say, our own successful Revolution.

But times are seldom simple to those in the midst of them, and the end of the eighteen century was no exception. England was still at war, this time with France, and troubled with a shortage of manpower for its navy. Where were men to be found to sail and fight? The military solution was press-gangs.

The sea-coast was divided into districts, under the charge of a captain in the navy, who again delegated subdistricts to lieutenants; and in this manner all homeward-bound vessels were watched and waited for, all ports were under supervision; and in a day, if need were, a large number of men could be added to the forces of his Majesty’s navy. … Men were kidnapped, literally disappeared and nothing was heard of them again. The street of a busy town was not safe from such press-gang captures…. Nor yet were lonely inland dwellers more secure; many a rustic went to a statute fair or “mop” [hiring fair], and never came home to tell of his hiring; many a stout young farmer vanished from his place by the hearth of his father, and was no more heard of by mother or lover; so great was the press for men to serve in the navy during the early years of the war with France, and after every great naval victory of that war. 

While a strong young farmer might be grabbed by the navy and pressed into service, however, it will be quickly understood that experienced sailors taken from returning whaling vessels were the more highly sought catch. And so these ships, having been off to Greenland waters for all half the year, were particularly vulnerable as they returned home “laden with rich cargo,” for the press gangs awaited them “within a day’s distance of land” as they neared the end of their journey. The Americans got off easy, it looks like, compared to the way the English treated their own people! 

Press gangs are introduced early into the story of Sylvia’s Lovers, shortly after we have learned that Monkshaven’s economy is based on whaling, and the first dramatic sequence related, though taking place “offstage,” tells of a returning whaler boarded by a press gang … the resistance of the sailors to being taken … the bravery of one young local man and violent death of another … and by the time of Darley’s funeral we have met all the principals of the story and gotten a good idea of local sentiment concerning government seizure of their men. Generally law-abiding and conservative as they are, yet the locals must live, and they live primarily by whaling and — surprise! — smuggling.

And then there was politics….

Politics in those days were tickle subjects to meddle with, even in the most private company. The nation was in a state of terror against France, and against any at home who might be supposed to sympathized with the enormities she had just been committing. The oppressive act against seditious meetings had been passed the year before…. Even the law authorities forgot to be impartial, but either their alarms or their interests made too many of them vehement partisans instead of calm arbiters, and thus destroyed the popular confidence in what should have been considered the supreme tribunal of justice.

Opinions on the war and on government policies and how justice was or was not served ran high. Thus while conversation might occasionally touch on topics of history of government, all involved "took care to be very sure of their listeners before such arguments touched on anything of the present day" and more often confined themselves to how many Frenchmen a single Englishman could “lick” or what name should be given to the royal baby soon expected.

On the matter of impressment, York’s fiercely independent residents were not bothered for a while after Darley’s death, but eventually the navy’s need, plus a desire for vengeance after humiliating treatment of a press gang by local merchant sailors, resulted in an inescapable cordon being drawn tight around the town of North Shields, where two hundred and fifty men were taken forcibly into the navy. The results reached as far as Monkshaven, such that when the whalers returned in autumn there was none of the usual festive gaiety and spending. Instead a mood of “gloomy anxiety” filled the town.

The shops were almost deserted; there was no unnecessary expenditure by the men; they dared not venture out to buy lavish presents for the wife or sweetheart or little children. 

… Indeed, all along the coast of Yorkshire, it seemed as if a blight hung over the land and the people. Men dodged about their daily business with hatred and suspicion in their eyes….

Such is the situation halfway through the novel. I should also mention that by this point one of Sylvia’s “lovers,” a sailor on a whaling ship, has been taken by a press gang but is thought by all but the single man who knows better to have been drowned, that man being her other “lover,” a shopkeeper who has worked his way into a position of prosperity but who can neither win the heart of Sylvia nor see the more eager, willing heart right by his side in the shop. The plot is thick, with individual, social, and political conflict where I had to set it aside this morning.

An 18th-century Unitarian, Elizabeth Gaskell herself — because yes, she did have a first name — is interesting enough that you may want to read more about her. 
And I should also give a plug for Everyman’s Library, a series similar to Modern Library. On the back of the dust jacket of my copy of Sylvia’s Lovers is this 1928 rave from Raymond Mortimer of the Sunday Times

A cosmic convulsion might utterly destroy all the other printed works in the world, and still if a complete set of Everyman’s Library floated upon the waters enough would be preserved to carry on the unbroken tradition of literature. 

There’s a reason modern classics are called classics and are always worth reading, no matter how many years go by.



Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Tragedy and Comedy in the Life and Writings of Thomas Mann

I came across something interesting the other day in a biography of Thomas Mann that I picked up to read alongside one of Mann's novels. Well, naturally, there were interesting facts on every page, but a couple of passages in Chapter 25 jumped out at me, perhaps all the more since the ideas addressed there were not elaborated on or discussed at length.

Ten years after the end of the war [WWI], French troops were still occupying the Rhineland, and reparations payments were still outstanding. In August 1928, Stresemann [German chancellor] finally persuaded France to consider early withdrawal and to authorize a new review of reparations. In February 1929 an American banker, Owen Young, headed an international board which in August submitted its assessment to a conference at The Hague. The plan was to give the German economy a chance to expand by allowing reparations to be spread over the next thirty years, and the date settled for the evacuation of the Rhineland was June 30, 1930. [Hayman, p. 391. Italics are my emphases.]

I was always told — and maybe you learned it this way, too — that Germany’s motives in supporting Hitler and launching a Second World War stemmed from the burden of reparations exacted on them from the First World War. And I’m not saying that isn’t part of the story. But what of this plan to ease the burden? Further down on the same page of the Mann biography came another event from the same year that seems to have exacerbated greatly economic conditions in Germany. 

Streseman died early in October 1929, and at the end of the month the Wall Street crash precipitated an international crisis. During the winter, unemployment in Germany reached the point at which the state’s insurance scheme could no longer pay benefits. …Mein Kampf was selling a steady fifty thousand copies a year. With unemployment rising, morale sinking, extremist demagogues and uniformed thugs active in the streets with truncheons and collecting boxes, membership in the Nazi party rose from 120,000 in 1929 to 800,000 in 1931. Members were contributing 300,000 marks a month, which few of them could afford, to a party that was acting less in their interests than in those of the large-scale capitalists, some of whom were helping to finance it. [pp. 381-382]

I draw no general but at least two minor conclusions and questions from this story. First, perhaps it was not necessarily reparations alone that broke Germany’s spirit and drove its people to desire revenge. Had an international financial crisis not been set off by the crash of Wall Street, who is to say that the new terms for payment of reparations would not have been a solution, allowing time, as the international board in The Hague hoped, for the recovery of the postwar (post-WWI, that is) German economy? In addition, note that the National Socialist party, while “socialist” in name, was not a grass-roots workers’ movement but was largely financed by “large-scale capitalists.” The object of their support, of course, was to hold communism at bay.

Long after Thomas Mann and his wife had moved to the U.S. and taken American citizenship, and after World War II finally came to a close, the novelist had this to say about his native country: 

‘There are not two Germanies, a bad one and a good one, but only one, in which the best qualities have been corrupted with diabolical cunning into evil. . . . The evil Germany is the good one in misfortune and guilt, the good Germany perverted and overthrown.’

Hayman, his biographer, notes Mann’s undying resentment over what Germany had allowed itself — and been allowed by others — to become: 

His biggest grudge against humanity was that the civilized countries hadn’t merely failed to scotch the growth of Nazism but had encouraged it. ‘My resentment about this I shall take with me to the grave.’

Our reading circle, initiated back in 20xx to read and study James Joyce’s Ulysses together, is meeting soon to discuss Mann’s The Magic Mountain — hardly a book to be absorbed on first reading or adequately considered in a single evening’s conversation, but 2018 is running out, so we’ll do what we can now and maybe come back to Mann later. He is a fascinating writer, not only for his novels but also for the way he wrote (longhand, about a page and a half a day), the time he spent on a work (The Magic Mountain was begun before World War I and not finished and published until 1924), and the way his beliefs and commitments altered with the passage of time and events in Europe. A “reactionary” in the First War, a man who declared he “hated democracy,” he came around to working for the survival of democracy and freedom and doing all he could to support refugees from the nightmare of Hitler’s Germany. Initially, worried that his novels might be banned in Germany and that he might lose his German citizenship (fears that were, unsurprisingly, eventually realized), he hesitated for a long time to speak out against the Nazis. What to say, when to speak, and how -- these were questions that tormented him. He finally made a public statement against Hitler after six years of living “in exile,” and his biographer comments, “A braver man than Thomas might have come out into the open sooner, but Hesse never came out.” 

The Magic Mountain, however, begun before the First World War, was finished and published in 1926, some time before the rise of Hitler. The Magic Mountain is the first work of Thomas Mann’s that I have ever read, and coming to it with little idea of what I would find, I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud in later chapters, even given some of the book's heavy themes of death, decay, and corruption. When you look at a portrait of Mann, he hardly looks like a humorist (and I don’t mean to suggest that he was some kind of German Mark Twain — hardly!), but he found much in human life and civilization ridiculous. When spiritualism overtakes the residents of the Sanitorium Berghof, for example, or when the charismatic Dutchman Mynheer Pieter Peeperkorn (modeled in part, at least physically, on the author’s friend Gerhart Hauptman) holds forth at a picnic by a thundering waterfall, declaiming and gesturing to an audience that can’t hear a word he is saying, a reader feels that Thomas Mann was having a wonderful time poking fun. If you’re a traveler, you may be interested in this New Yorker piece about other travelers making a pilgrimage to find the setting of the novel.

All in all, I’m very glad to have read this novel by Thomas Mann and expect to take his advice and read it a second time. It also occurs to me to mention, in light of current world events, that Mann and his German-Jewish wife were immigrants to the United States. 

The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann: A Biography
by Ronald Hayman
NY: Scribner, 1995