Category Archives: History

No Quarter

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The bedroom was barren save some power tools, drywall sheets, and a step stool waiting for the work to begin again. I was home for Easter and my parents were renovating the basement and the basement room I’d called mine when I lived at home. The Cave I called it: in the basement and away from windows it was pitch-black and quiet and cool at night, and I could sleep there much longer than usual if I didn’t set an alarm. That cool and cozy silence induced a sopor my circadian rhythm couldn’t resist.

I was last here over Christmas and everything then was as it had been since high school, it seemed. But now everything was gone. Like the bookshelves. Their books sat in boxes waiting to be sorted, but the shelves had moved on. This disconcerted me most. When perusing my books I rarely considered their keeper, yet where would we be without them? Shelves in any place are prosthetic architecture. Vigilant, sturdy, selfless. Necessary, at times comforting if we regard them at all, but essentially invisible. Now they really were.

Last year I had a dream about this. I dreamt I entered my room to pack things to bring with me on a journey. The floor then turned into dirt and my belongings emerged from the soil as if they were vegetables for the harvest. A week after that dream, I had another one wherein I returned to the room and it was completely empty, along with the rest of the basement and the crawl space where my parents stored the accumulation of our years.

When I had those dreams I’d recently gotten engaged and started a new job. The future, nebulous as always, loomed large. But I’d now arrived in that future, and it looked like a half-dozen boxes of books and bric-a-brac, the props of my distant past, waiting for their sentence.

The sorting began in earnest. “Participant” trophies from youth soccer: toss. A ‘90s-era Brewers pennant: keep. Leftover CDs from my garage band: crawl space. My set of commemorative U.S. state quarters: consider. My grandma, twelve years gone now, got one of these green rigid cardboard display folios for each of my sisters and me. It opened to a vibrant map of the United States, color-coded according to which year each state’s quarter would enter circulation between 1999 and 2008. You’d pop out a quarter-shaped disk and replace it with that state’s shiny new coin as it was released. The United States Mint dropped one every ten weeks, five each year, in the same order the states ratified the Constitution. In 1999 when we first wedged in Delaware’s Caesar Rodney on horseback, Hawaii seemed so far away, and it was. But steadily we accumulated quarters and made our way through history.

The zeal of collecting faded over the years, but the joy of discovery did not. I’d weed through every quarter I could find, eager to see the newest design and see if I could beg, borrow, or steal a new state for the board. They generally fell into two categories. The scenic designs, which featured a key event, figure, or place from the state’s history, were usually better. Like Oregon’s Crater Lake and New Jersey’s Crossing of the Delaware: simple, iconic, and striking. The other kinds I call “greatest hits”; they cobbled together the disparate things you associate with the state into a confused, “floating heads”-style mashup. The pelican-trumpet-Louisiana-Purchase mishmash of Louisiana and cow-cheese-corn combo of my dear alma mater Wisconsin indicate obvious state pride, but they’re too on the nose to be extraordinary.

Whatever the states put forward, the series as a whole hit the jackpot. Bolstered by its “spokesfrog” Kermit the Frog, who did commercials promoting the series, the quarters generated $4.1 billion in revenue and nearly $3 billion in seigniorage (the profit from the difference between the face value of coins and their production costs) to help finance the national debt. Add to that another $136 million in earnings and seigniorage from “numismatic products” like, say, green rigid cardboard display folios. All that to say, they made a lot of these mass-produced tchotchkes, and made a lot from them, so mine wasn’t worth much on the market. But it meant something to me personally.

I pillaged it for laundry fare.

“Grandma would be laughing right now,” Dad said as I plucked the shimmering specie from their snug states. She would be. Do this nice thing for your grandson, a forward-thinking gift that will require of him patience, diligence, and an appreciation of history, then watch from beyond the grave as he pops them out one by one so he can feed them four at a time into a dingy basement washer and dryer. In my defense, she’d seen worse. As the single mother of two unruly sons, she had lots of experience dealing with her boys doing stupid, impulsive shit.

Should I have kept them? They will get me six full loads of laundry with fifty cents to spare, and then I’ll be back to zero. I could have tucked the folio away and forgotten about it for years, unearthing it occasionally to admire the completeness of the enterprise and ponder its market value. But I remembered: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Sometimes it’s hard to decide how literal we’re meant to take Jesus’s aphorisms, but this one made sense on many levels. I like shiny things. And money’s nice to have if you can get it. But I’m not about an altar to mammon, however well-intentioned.

So I continued sorting. My dreams of room excavation felt more like prophecies as I weeded through the musty relics, plucking out the valuables like I did the quarters and packing them for another migration. A few things I didn’t have space for but didn’t want to throw away I sent to the crawl space, but everything else I either tossed, donated, or brought to my new place, which I’ll share with my soon-to-be wife. We’ve got stuff scattered around our apartment needing a shelf, drawer, or closet to call home.

One artifact that has made the journey is the glass Carlo Rossi wine jug I’ve been sporadically filling with spare change since Grandpa Cy, LaVonne’s husband, cut a slot in the cap, fastened a personalized leather tag to it, and gave it to me who knows how long ago. (My sisters got their own too: such always seemed the way of things.) It’s about half-full right now: the accumulation of the dozens of times over the years when I’ve both had spare change on me and remembered to deposit it. LaVonne and Cy’s humble Madison duplex apartment hosted an unfathomable number of wine jugs and liquor bottles through the years; the ones we got were probably whatever were handy when Cy got decidedly visionary and repurposed some for his grandkids.

A bit ironic, right? I rather flippantly disabused the state quarters of their hallowed status, despite the possibility they could grow in value as a complete set—all the while adding at a slow drip to the unassuming wine jug’s interest-free account. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept it around. The jug doesn’t demand attention. It isn’t frozen in time or tender. It’s never complete; it contains multitudes. The jug abides. And boy, the years it has seen. While the quarters languished in the darkness of my former room’s closet, the jug sat in the corner between a bookshelf and the out-of-service brick fireplace and bore witness to my adolescence and early adulthood. Given the glacial rate of my deposits, it’ll witness still more.

My older sister, who had a longer and much deeper relationship with Cy, she said she’ll never spend the money she’s put into her jug because she put it in there while Cy was still around. Me? I’ll spend it. If it takes another twenty years to fill up the other half, I’ll be pushing fifty with a few kids and more stories to tell, God willing. Memories make us rich, not money. So I’ll fill the jug as high as I can, and on that day I’ll upend it into a bag, bring it to a bank, and watch the sum of my decades-long depositing transform into a slim stack of leathery bills. Then maybe I’ll get some ice cream, or put it towards a trip, or give it to the first person who asks for some spare change.

And then I’ll start it over. My wife, my kids, we’ll drop whatever remains in our pockets and purses into the clear glass chamber and hear the sharp ping of possibility every time we do. Those first few coins to hit the bottom will be there for the long haul. Imagine what they will see.

So Runs the Man Away or (The Unexpected Virtue of Synchronicity)

The theme that has defined my 2014, I only now realize, is synchronicity. That Jungian concept (“the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related”) bubbled up several times this year, especially in what I was reading, watching, or listening to concurrently. For instance:

  • Seeing Interstellar as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein;
  • Nicolas Carr’s The Glass Cage manifesting itself in my library work;
  • The fascinating freedivers in James Nestor’s Deep swimming in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu;
  • Marilyn Manson lending some insight into John McDonaugh’s wonderful 2014 film Calvary;
  • Disparate writings from N.D. Wilson, Francis Spufford, and Wendell Berry saying pretty similar things;
  • and seeing the Dorothy Day in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own pop up in the bombastic yet beautifully rendered Noah

To name only the ones I blogged about. But I’d like to add one last synchronous moment to this list, which arrived courtesy of John Wilkes Booth and an avalanche.

John Wilkes Booth Runs After Assassinating Lincoln, 1865 - Illustration

In Force Majeure, the new film from Ruben Östlund, a Swedish family vacationing at a French ski resort eats lunch in an outdoor restaurant flanking the majestic, snow-laden mountains. The resort performs routine controlled avalanches to regulate the snow’s movement and safeguard against a truly deadly avalanche, and the lunchgoers witness one while they eat. Except this one careens right toward them. The father, initially wowed by the view, suddenly senses danger and ditches his wife and two children for cover (after making sure to take his phone). Turns out it was just the snow-dust that crashed into them, not the avalanche itself, so everyone returns to their tables, including Tomas, the father who just abandoned his post—literally and figuratively. The rest of the film documents the unraveling from this moment, which each character remembers differently yet causes shared emotional upheaval and provokes a deep and unsettling reconsideration of masculinity, human nature, and the incumbent expectations of gender.

I watched this movie while in the midst of James Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. It’s a gripping if a bit overheated retelling of the Lincoln assassination and aftermath, which indeed is stranger than any fiction. The moment of synchronicity here occurred during the assassination itself, when Booth shot Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre presidential box and leapt onto the stage. Harry Hawk was the lone actor on stage at that moment and got an up-close view of Booth’s famous cry “Sic semper tyrannis!” and “The South is avenged!” Then, the key moment, recounted by Hawk himself in a letter to his parents written soon after:

[Booth] ran toward me, and I, seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door, directly in the rear of the theatre, mounted a horse and rode off. The above all occurred in the space of a quarter of a minute, and at the time I did not know that the President was shot; although, if I had tried to stop him, he would have stabbed me.

In Manhunt, Swanson subtly criticizes Hawk for turning and running, linking his supposed moment of cowardice to one at the end of the chase for Booth, when John Garrett, owner of the barn that housed an armed Booth in a standoff with the cavalry, fled from the barn after thinking Booth was going to shoot him.

All of these moments might provoke some knee-jerk judgments but beg the same question: What are you prepared to do? Harry Hawk was not prepared to fight an armed assassin after the shock of that moment. But should he have anyway? Other times in Manhunt, men show courage in moments of terror and some pay the price for it in blood. Tomas in Force Majeure had time to take his family to shelter or at least shield them. But why didn’t he? He pays the price later on: not in blood like the people in Manhunt, but in self-esteem and dignity.

It’s easy as a viewer or future observer to question the decisions these men made or didn’t make. It’s not so easy to make them ourselves in real life, man or woman. What are you prepared to do? What cost are you willing to pay?

Happy New Year!

Jasper Adalmorn Maltby

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

“A friend of Grant’s is a friend of mine,” said Abraham Lincoln, probably. This quote (were it real) holds true today as we consider Jasper Maltby, an Ohio boy who like 99.9% of the Civil War upper echelon served in the Mexican War in the 1840s, and then moved to Galena, the stomping grounds of pre-glory Ulysses Grant. The Civil War erupted while working there as a gunsmith, leading him to join the 45th Illinois Volunteers, aka the “Washburn Lead Mine Regiment.” He was immediately bumped up from private to lieutenant colonel, which seems like a huge jump. Was Maltby really that awesome, or did they just throw out commissions like hardtack back then?

Regardless, Maltby fought with the 45th at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vickburg, accumulating promotions and wounds concurrently. Also happening concurrently was the service of Jasper’s younger brother, William, who was a Confederate captain and prisoner of war. In one of those meta “civil war within the Civil War” situations, when Jasper found out his brother was imprisoned, he arranged for him to be brought to the newly conquered Vicksburg and placed under his charge. “Love you bro, so much so that I get to order you around again!”

Jasper served out the war in Vicksburg and remained there postbellum as the military mayor until he died in 1867 from yellow fever or cardiac arrest, or from having a too-massive beard. Seriously, look at that thing!

Up next on CCWN, the flip-flopping Amos T. Akerman.

(sources: 1, 2)

Destiny of the Republic

In Assassination Vacation, one of my all-time favorite books, Sarah Vowell calls the circumstances surrounding the Garfield assassination “an opera of arrogance, a spectacle of greed, a galling, appalling epic of egomania dramatizing the lust for pure power, shameless and raw.” After reading Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which details said circumstances, Vowell’s characterization now almost seems like an understatement.

The things I did while reading Destiny ranged from yelling at Dr. Bliss’s casual (and admittedly good-faith) malpractice in his care of the wounded president, cringing at the horrific realities of nineteenth-century medicine, admiring Garfield’s resilience and character in general (as well as his beard), and considering how naturally New York senator Roscoe Conkling could have excelled as a cable-news talking head today.

Many factors influenced the outcome of this high drama, all of which Millard captures and deftly welds together in service of this strange, tragic, and largely forgotten pocket of U.S. history. Each subplot—Garfield’s rise to prominence, the perky madness of the assassin Charles Guiteau, Conkling’s political machinations, the dunderheaded care of Dr. Bliss—deserve its own book, but this one (wisely) keeps its focus on the assassination itself. Even the detours showing the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell, fresh off inventing the telegraph with a contraption he thinks will help locate the bullet still lodged inside Garfield, help serve the larger narrative of how disparate elements (science, politics, medicine) can combine into an extraordinary mezcla.

I sometimes wonder how historical events would have been colored differently if Twitter and other social media had been around. But it turns out coverage of a major news story in 2014 isn’t all that different from one in 1880. With the telegraph and newspapers churning out daily, even hourly, updates on Garfield’s health and prognoses from his chief doctor, the coverage seemed just as anxious and overheated then as it does now.

It’s worth reading Destiny of the Republic not just to get a detailed picture of this “opera of arrogance,” but also for an illuminating look at an oft-forgotten pocket of U.S. history.

Today In Nerdery

In my continuing work at the Frances Willard House Museum and Archives, I’ve started working with the Willard correspondence, which begins in the mid-1860s and continues through the turn of the century. Because of this, and because of Frances’ high stature as a public figure during that time, there are a few letters I’ve happened upon from some well-known people that gave me that special feeling historians, archivists, and other history lovers feel when they encounter a gem from the past.

Today I came upon letters from another central women’s suffrage figure (Susan B. Anthony), three former First Ladies (Frances Cleveland, Lucy Hayes, and Sarah Polk), Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay, and a famous author (Louisa May Alcott). And I haven’t even entered the 1890s yet.

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The Spirit of American Experience

This might be one of my all-time favorite things. It’s an older version of the American Experience opening and theme (composed by Charles Kuskin) that so beautifully juxtaposes things I love dearly: film, American history, and music.

One reason I love reading about American history is this country’s ability to make music out of dissonance. The diversity of stories and characters in this video’s parade of images is but a dip into the great lake of trial and triumph this country and its people have swam in since the beginning. We’ve been at war with ourselves in a million little ways since before we were even a country. The producers of American Experience got that, and illustrated that in this montage.

A buffalo stampede and a Native American, followed by a white pioneer. A nineteenth-century African-American couple, followed by footage of Jackie Robinson. Theodore Roosevelt’s kiddish grin dissolving into the Sierra Nevada, followed by footage of the Dust Bowl, a factory, and a steam engine. Abraham Lincoln split-screened with Martin Luther King. A triumphant General Eisenhower fading to troops in Vietnam.

But the most poignant moment for me is toward the end (at :36 in the video). After a few soaring orchestral lines, the piano takes over the plaintive melody that underscores footage of kids chasing and waving goodbye to a passing vehicle, and then a swooping shot of the Statue of Liberty, America’s long-serving Greeter-in-Chief.

Goodbye and hello. Division and duty. Dissonance and harmony. In documenting this nation’s formative moments and movements, this wonderful PBS program (along with its celebrity brother Ken Burns) has captured the spirit of America. Likewise, this beautiful theme has captured the spirit of the show it represents, and I’m happier for it.

Where There’s A Willard…

I’ve recently started volunteering at the Frances Willard House Museum, specifically in the archives/library, which holds material from and related to the life of Frances Willard, the suffragist and temperance advocate who led the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the late nineteenth century. I got to see the museum’s recent exhibit, titled “Rights or Responsibilities? The WCTU and Woman Suffrage in Illinois”, which documents the development of the women’s suffrage movement in Illinois and the many players involved.

The exhibit spotlights an occurrence, documented in Willard’s journal, that she said helped to “stir up my spirit into a mighty unrest.” It’s 1856 and Willard, who was 17 at the time, along with her sister saw her brother and father off to vote while they had to stay at home:

This is election day and my brother is twenty-one years old. How proud he seemed as he dressed up in his best Sunday clothes and drove off in the big wagon with father and the hired men to vote for John C. Fremont, like the sensible “Free-soiler” that he is. My sister and I stood at the window and looked out after them. Somehow, I felt a lump in my throat, and then I could n’t see their wagon any more, things got so blurred. I turned to Mary, and she, dear little innocent, seemed wonderfully sober, too. I said, “Would n’t you like to vote as well as Oliver? Don’t you and I love the country just as well as he, and does n’t the country need our ballots?” Then she looked scared, but answered in a minute, “‘Course we do, and ‘course we ought,—but don’t you go ahead and say so, for then we would be called strong-minded.”

Willard did say so. She made saying so her life, which ended in 1898, before the women’s suffrage movement hit its crescendo but not before she had made an indelible impact on it. In addition to the Frances Willard House becoming a National Historic Landmark, she was posthumously honored as the first woman to be represented in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.

Amazing what you can learn from museums (and archives and libraries), huh?

Seeing In Black And White

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Rod Dreher recently wrote about Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s comments about, essentially, how happy he believed Black Southerners were in the 1950s before the civil rights movement. To Dreher, Robertson’s comments demonstrate the power of narrative, of the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect how we see the “truth” of our own situations, even when we don’t see the whole truth:

You can tell a lot about who has the power in a particular culture by what you are not allowed to talk about without drawing harsh censure. And in turn, the thoughts you are not allowed to have become internalized, such that you train yourself not to see things that violate those taboos. In the 1950s rural South, a white man was not allowed to speak out against the injustices inflicted on blacks; is it any wonder that he wouldn’t “see” them?

This is a very insightful way at contextualizing Robertson’s ignorant and hurtful comments. Dreher spotlights Alan Ehrenhalt’s (excellent) book The Lost City to add further context to Robertson’s remarks, but I’m finding just as much relevant background and insight in my current read: The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

This amazing book takes an angle I’d never considered before when thinking about and studying the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — that of the journalists, publishers, and other press figures who were instrumental in wrestling the civil rights struggle to the front page as the movement simmered after World War II to its boiling point in the ’60s. In newsreels and history books we’ve seen a great deal of the figures directly involved in the decades-long civil rights fight: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the Little Rock Nine, Bull Connor, George Wallace, and many others. But what of the people behind the cameras, the ones braving the fire hoses of Birmingham and angry mobs in Greensboro right along with activists to capture the moment for print, radio, or the nascent television news?

For a thesis statement of sorts, Roberts and Klibanoff go back to what they view as the foundational work from which all academic and journalistic interpretations of the postwar civil rights movement emerged: An American Dilemma, a comprehensive study of race in America underwritten by the Carnegie Foundation and spearheaded by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist. The study found the central problem to be an overwhelming ignorance among Whites (in the North and South alike) about the lives and living conditions of Black Americans. It was easy for Whites to ignore the discrimination Blacks faced every day because they didn’t see it. White newspapers completely ignored the Black community and the Black press along with it. Myrdal believed that to overcome “the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance,” the Black community needed one thing: publicity. “There is no doubt,” he wrote, “that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”

Facts, they say, are stubborn things. But so were the segregationists. And the thought of high-minded out-of-towners coming into the South to tell good Christian people what’s wrong with them and upend generations of tradition didn’t sit well with angry sheriffs and townspeople, who would have every judge and jury (all white, of course) on their side should they decide to teach someone a lesson, or worse. As a Mississippi attorney put it to Freedom Summer volunteers venturing into the South: “a dark highway at midnight was no place to lecture a Mississippi deputy sheriff with a second-grade education on the niceties of constitutional law.”

Still, the whole point of the civil rights movement, and one that Martin Luther King understood deeply, was to shine a light into the dark places. To walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and bring reporters along for the walk. King knew, as did the other movement leaders in SNCC, CORE, and NAACP, what Myrdal knew: publicity meant power. The more White America would be exposed to the everyday injustices Black Americans faced, the more likely they would be to sympathize and inspire positive action. The Emmett Till trial was the catalyst. That gruesome murder and clear miscarriage of justice coupled with the earth-shattering Brown v. Board of Education decision to start the movement snowballing toward bus boycotts and Little Rock, through the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins and Ole Miss, each encounter seeming to attract more attention than the last.

While the Freedom Riders and marchers were enduring fire hoses and batons and angry mobs, journalists were close by to report on it. They understood as much as their subjects the power of the pen and camera, and had to wield that power in unexpected ways. Peter Kihss, a New York Times reporter who was reporting the Autherine Lucy saga at the University of Alabama, decided to abandon traditional journalistic remove and intervene when an elderly Black man became surrounded by an unruly mob. “If anybody wants to start something, let’s go,” he told the crowd. “I’m a reporter for The New York Times and I have gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama. Now I’ll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time.”

A similar situation involved John Chancellor, newspaperman turned NBC broadcaster, in the infancy of television news. Chancellor was gathering reactions in Mississippi after the Till trial when “a flying wedge of white toughs” descended on him and a Black woman he was interviewing:

Chancellor squared off against them and held up the only object he could find to defend himself, an object whose power he had not, until that moment, truly fathomed. Thrusting his tiny microphone toward the men, Chancellor blurted out, “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.”

He later called his microphone “the technological equivalent of a crucifix.” The microphone and the newspaper and the camera collectively became a tool and a weapon. They performed the basic service of documenting reality, ugly and unvarnished as it was, while also fighting back against the South’s deeply entrenched culture of silence and racial hegemony. Their power seemed to coalesce in the fall of 1963 when they broadcasted Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and then the news of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black children. Having the nation witness events like those up close, according to Jack Gould of the New York Times, was a major hurdle overcome for the Negro race as a whole, because until then its biggest challenge had been “communicating and dramatizing” its struggle: “Not to the integrationists, not to the unyieldingly prejudiced, but to the indifferent white millions for whom integration or segregation was of scant personal concern.”

In other words, to the Phil Robertsons of the day. The story White Southerners like him had been telling themselves (and anyone else who had dared to disrupt the narrative) about race and their culture disagreed with the reality of being Black in America. It took over a decade of protests and violence and struggle and political hand-wringing, but finally, Myrdal’s prescription for publicity was working. It wasn’t a panacea, but it was progress. However, when hit with the reality of someone else’s story, some, like Gov. George Wallace, ignored the cognitive dissonance and dug in their heels. While Phil Robertson is no George Wallace, their shared inability to see beyond the stories they told themselves left them blind to what the cameras were showing in bright lights.

It’s easy to judge from afar in situations like this without thinking about the blind spots we’ve self-imposed today. Racism isn’t over, nor discrimination writ large. The press is different today, as is its power. We’re not so enthralled by television or newspaper editorials anymore. Publicity itself seems an inadequate solution for dealing with the problems we face today when all people do in our selfie-obsessed world is publicize. Simply getting a hashtag trending on Twitter won’t solve homelessness or end abortion. In that way, our problem is the same as that of generations before us: we need the courage to hear new stories, to not wait for tragedy to spur us to action, and to follow the Atticus Finch model of walking (or marching?) a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The Race Beat goes into great detail about the individuals and institutions involved in this decade-long story. Courage, cowardice, and great copy abound on every side of the tales told that, all together, paint a lush picture of how the movement and its press worked together to change the country forever.

(photo via NYT)

12 Years A Slave

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I was having a bad day. And then I saw 12 Years A Slave and regained some perspective.

Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s incredible memoir was remarkable in its restraint. Though a strange thing to say about a film that has been lauded for depicting the horrors of slavery accurately and harrowingly, it’s not surprising given McQueen’s adeptness in showing versus telling, and capturing a moment’s deeper truth without resorting to platitudes or judgement.

An example (with spoilers): years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Northup meets a white man who is serving as an indentured field hand on the same plantation. Downtrodden after years of humiliation and forced labor, Northup finally works up the courage to ask the white man whether he would be willing to send a letter for Northup without telling his plantation master. The man agrees but quickly betrays Northup, which almost gets him killed by his sadistic, mercurial master if not for Northup’s quick wit and evasion. Nonetheless, McQueen shows Northup burning the letter, focusing on his face as the light from the alit letter — his desperate grasp at liberation — slowly extinguishes, along with his dwindling hope.

It’s a small moment, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that in other directorial hands could have been something lesser, like the protagonist shaking his fists at the sky or angrily monologuing. Instead, it was the perfect image of what slavery’s power did to beat down the slave’s hope and determination for freedom. Northup overcomes this oppression, but he was fortunate compared to his fellow slaves. The film is full of other subtly strong moments like this, driven by a cast of heavy-hitters. It also follows Northup’s memoir very well, though I hope viewers will be compelled to go back to the book to read the details of this story in Northup’s strong literary voice.

Rhinelander, Russia

Pushing through Command and Control, Eric Schlosser’s new book about America’s history with nuclear weapons. A fun tidbit: Strategic Air Command, the agency in charge of the Cold War bombers and missiles after World War II, used American towns for training their pilots:

The town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, became one of SAC’s favorite targets, and it was secretly radar bombed hundreds of times, thanks to the snow-covered terrain resembling that of the Soviet Union.

There’s a reason Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the upper Midwest were a Scandinavian haven. I guess they missed home.