Categories
America Film History

Statues and Star Wars

In an email thread about the controversies surrounding the removal of statues, I suggested we relocate all statues to museums and use the space for parks and Little Free Libraries.

But that’s destroying history! First Amendment!

Statues aren’t history, as this Twitter thread by Elle Maruska articulates well:

Statues are mythology. Statues are hagiography. If you care about history as a discipline, as a way of analyzing the past, tear down every single statue.

Somehow, the history of Nazi Germany is available without statues of Hitler in every German square.

We can somehow still access the history of Mussolini’s rule without having statues of him in Rome.

We know about Ceaușescu without his stone visage glaring out over Bucharest.

Statues tell us about how we understand the present, not the reality of the past. Statues teach us nothing but who we find worth elevating into godhood. Statues are about the lies with think are worth believing in. Statues aren’t history.

The recent spate of statue removals run the gamut from coordinated (Theodore Roosevelt’s) to chaotic (Madison’s). But all of them share the same underlying sentiment, as articulated by Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi (the only good Star Wars movie):

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

The irony of this sentiment is Kylo spends the entire movie trying to actually kill connections to his past but still can’t fully shake them. (After all, the past isn’t past.) As James Whitbrook writes:

So maybe “Let the past die” needs to be paired with another great quote about legacies from The Last Jedi—something Yoda says to Luke, as they watch the glowing embers of the burning tree on Ahch-To: “We are what they grow beyond.”

Just as Rey learns and grows beyond what Luke and his failures can teach her—just as she steals away those ancient Jedi texts before they can be destroyed forever, to potentially build upon their ideas herself—so must Star Wars as a franchise if it’s going to keep adding more and more stories to its ever-growing saga. Respect its past, learn from it, and let it go and move on.

As a long-running franchise and “ever-growing saga” itself, America needs to take the best of its past and let go of the rest.

Which isn’t the same as forgetting or destroying it. To me it means severing ties from two contrasting yet equally toxic and “bitter clinging” impulses: nostalgia, which insists the past was better than the present, and resentment, which only finds fault with it.

Let the past be only what we grow beyond.

Categories
Books History Libraries Review

Ideology and ‘Information Hunters’

When I first heard of the new book Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss, I thought it was so far up my alley it should have just moved in.

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories:

  • how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and the Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war
  • how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground

One person’s story that stood out was Maria Josepha Meyer, employed by the Library of Congress and the publisher Hachette to collect books, documents, propaganda, and any other useful material in pre-occupation Paris. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, she found herself trapped in Paris with no money and an expired passport. She eventually got an export permit from the Germans for her professional library, personal effects, and furniture, and at the last minute swapped her furniture for the war collection she would have been forbidden to ship.

Another was Adele Kibre, an academic who found herself spearheading a clandestine microfilming operation in Stockholm as a way to send foreign publications to OSS for intelligence gathering. Microfilm technology was in its infancy, so quality varied generally. But Kibre’s results were clear and consistent despite her limitations and the secrecy required.

A central figure in the book was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. His work with William Donovan to develop the Research & Analysis branch of OSS helped modernize the Library of Congress and push it beyond the traditional understanding of libraries as neutral providers of books and information.

Peiss:

With the growing international crisis, [MacLeish] raised the stakes for books and democracy, calling upon librarians to be not merely custodians of culture but defenders of freedom. Like Donovan, he had perceived the dangers of fascism early and believed in American intervention. As an artist, intellectual, and the nation’s leading librarian, he was convinced, as he later put it, that ‘the country of the mind must also attack.’

As MacLeigh wrote in 1940, the keeping of war-related records “is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”

As much as I’d like to view libraries as places that don’t discriminate or take ideological stands, the right to read is itself an ideology, as are the rights to privacy and access. Despite being taken for granted in democratic and literate societies, they must be believed in, fought for, and defended like any other ideology. (Notice too the war-like language.)

Peiss’s book examines how people and institutions reckoned with that dilemma in extraordinary situations. Overall, I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations, which often get bogged down in the acronyms and esoterica endemic to academia, government, and the military.

But if that sort of thing is your jam, Information Hunters is right on target.

(See also: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell and When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.)

Categories
History Photography

Making Migrant Mother

You probably know of Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother” (aka Florence Owens Thompson), an icon of the Great Depression. Perhaps you don’t know, as I didn’t, just how much the photo was staged and later altered.

Evan Puschak of the video series The Nerdwriter breaks down the photo’s origin, the alterations (ghost thumb!), and the other photos from the session (h/t Kottke):

Categories
History Libraries

Go Pack Horse Librarians, Go!

One podcast that survived my recent purge is The Keepers, a series from The Kitchen Sisters and NPR.  The series features:

“stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians. Keepers of the culture and the cultures and collections they keep. Guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, eccentric individuals who take it upon themselves to preserve some part of our cultural heritage.”

The latest episode is about the “Pack Horse Librarians,” a group of women in 1930s rural Kentucky who brought books to isolated areas. The Depression-era WPA paid their salary of $1 per day; everything else was their responsibility, including renting the horses and collecting donated books and magazines to distribute.

It’s an inspiring, well-told story that shows the value of preserving local history.

Categories
History

The Opposition in the WCTU archives

The Frances Willard House Museum & Archives has an extensive collection of books, articles, reference material, and other educational media on topics of all kinds. I’ve looked through hundreds of books and boxes in the WCTU archives, which hold some material as old as Willard herself. Among these titles are subjects you’d expect: medical treatises, temperance sermons and literature.

But I also found things you wouldn’t expect, like the back catalog of The Brewers Journal and anti-temperance literature. One of these “opposition” titles popped out in my recent archival digging. A Prohibition Primer, published in 1931 by an anonymous author and a “liberty-loving Publisher”, is a short but sharp tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to Prohibition and the temperance movement.

Chapters like “What Is Silly About Prohibition?” and “Why Is It Right To Disobey Prohibition?” are embellished by cheeky illustrations that show the “horrors of drink according to Prohibitionists” and caricature temperance advocates as a ghastly, scolding jack-in-the-box. Conversely, a bootlegger with a dapper three-piece suit is given a halo and deemed “a necessary evil.”

Paired with the illustrations, the simple and didactic writing style is aimed directly at children (or adults looking for a laugh):

“At school, if there is anybody you hate more than a big, bullying candy-stealing boy, it is a tattletale. Well, Prohibition is filling up our country and especially its Government offices with the kind of men and women who were tattletales when they were children and have never learned enough to get over it.”

What’s probably obvious by now is that it’s not terribly generous toward the temperance movement:

“From about 1820 on they began trying to force their ideas on everybody. They made speeches in halls, at lectures, in the churches, on the streets. They had ministers preach from their pulpits that it was wicked to drink alcohol. The more they talked the more excited they got. The more excited they got the more things they said that weren’t true and couldn’t be proved.”

How seriously the WCTU worried about their public reputation is hard to say. The book was published not long before the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, so the movement’s influence was already waning. Regardless, call it opposition research or just plain savviness; the WCTU knew it was important not just to Do Everything, but to Know Everything, especially their rhetorical enemies.

Categories
Film History Presidents

Grant me a Roosevelt biopic

The Oscar winner has Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant biopics lined up, and scholars are using everything from 'Hamilton' to toxic masculinity to make their pitches to the actor.

Why didn’t anyone tell me there are Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt biopics in the works from Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese? And that Leonardo DiCaprio is attached to star in both of them?

The Hollywood Reporter asked a bunch of historians whether Leo should play Grant or Roosevelt. Looking at their pictures above I’d say he could pull off either. My preference is that he plays Roosevelt and Jared Harris plays Grant as he did in Spielberg’s Lincoln.

More important to me, though, is what kind of biopic they will be. Will they be like Lincoln, beautifully made, regal, and safe but not comprehensive, focused on a specific moment instead of the full life? Will they be like J. Edgar—or a Scorsese’s The Aviator for that matter—which tried to pack in decades of history and aging makeup, to the detriment of a cohesive and compelling portrait?

Or will they be something else entirely? I hope so. Love me some Lincoln, but Grant was no Lincoln. He deserves a director willing to go dark and gritty and avoid the hagiography that has recently started to envelope Grant.

Scorsese doing Roosevelt is growing on me though. Being a New Yorker himself will help him capture the fiery aspect of TR’s spirit, which has some modern resonance.

I’m gonna watch the hell out of these projects regardless.

Categories
Film History Libraries

For the records

Dan Cohen ponders why some recent sci-fi films prominently feature libraries, archives, and museums:

Ever since Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor extracted the Death Star plans from a digital repository on the planet Scarif in Rogue One, libraries, archives, and museums have played an important role in tentpole science fiction films. From Luke Skywalker’s library of Jedi wisdom books in The Last Jedi, to Blade Runner 2049’s multiple storage media for DNA sequences, to a fateful scene in an ethnographic museum in Black Panther, the imposing and evocative halls of cultural heritage organizations have been in the foreground of the imagined future. …

… At the same time that these movies portray an imagined future, they are also exploring our current anxiety about the past and how it is stored; how we simultaneously wish to leave the past behind, and how it may also be impossible to shake it. They indicate that we live in an age that has an extremely strained relationship with history itself. These films are processing that anxiety on Hollywood’s big screen at a time when our small screens, social media, and browser histories document and preserve so much of we do and say.

Ready Player One is another recent example. And let’s give some love to the historical society in Back to the Future Part III. Read the rest here.

Categories
Books History Review

Quisling: What’s in a name?

In July 2016 I visited the Norway Resistance Museum in Oslo, which told the story of Norway’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II. A name that kept popping up throughout the museum was Vikdun Quisling, the Norwegian politician who collaborated with Hitler and seized control of Norway’s government during the occupation.

I wanted to know more about the man who put himself in that position. What compelled him? What happened in an occupied country during World War II? And how did his name instantly and internationally become synonymous with “traitor”?

Luckily there’s a book on him: Quisling: A Study in Treachery by Hans Fredrick Dahl. It’s definitely niche history—I had to get one of the few library copies via interlibrary loan—but as a part-Norwegian World War II buff this happened to be right up my alley.

The crux of this story is that Quisling honestly believed he was doing the right thing. Highly intellectual, aloof, and humorless, he dreamt of establishing Universism—his homegrown philosophy combining Lutheranism and science—as the “new world religion”, with Norway as the homeland of the supreme Nordic race. In that respect, along with his anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism, his eventual partnership with Hitler made perfect sense.

Once the Nazis occupied Norway, and its King and legislature had fled London with the other governments-in-exile, Quisling and his National Union party quickly filled the power vacuum, working with their Nazi occupiers to establish a fascistic, one-party authoritarian state.

But being an occupied country that officially was neither at peace nor at war with Germany stymied Quisling’s ambitions for a “new order” in Norway. (The goal of this new order? To stamp out the “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”.) And since Hitler refused to discuss peace terms until the Axis had won the war, Quisling in his quasi-legitimate government was left to tussle with his German commissars from above and the Norwegian resistance movement from below.

Throughout it all, Quisling remained naively optimistic about leading an independent Norway into his utopian future. Even when Germany capitulated and the war was over, he assumed he’d take part in a peaceful transition back to the old Norwegian government. Instead, he was arrested, tried, and executed by firing squad at the Akershus Fortress, which, in a delightful irony, now houses the aforementioned Norway Resistance Museum.

Dahl’s book is admirably thorough, so most people will probably prefer the Wikipedia summary of his life story to a 400-page book elucidating the same. But I’m glad for such an in-depth study of a tragic figure at a crucial historical moment.

(And for the realization that one of the few spots the Quisling name lives on is in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, at the super-cool looking Quisling Clinic, which was founded by Quisling’s cousins.)

Notes & Quotes from the book

  • At military academy Quisling scored highest average examination in 100 years
  • Held high regard for Soviet organizational skills, if critical of Bolshevik policies
  • Skills were more organizational and staff-bound rather than executive and creative
  • Developed theory of Universism, which combined Christianity with modern natural sciences, especially physics
  • Original manuscript over 2,000 pages; final 700-page version from 1920s; dense and ambitious but not good
  • Dreamt of establishing Universism as ‘new world religion’, Norway as homeland of Nordic race; like “a combination of the United Nations and the Catholic Church”
  • Became a scholar of Soviet Union, studied Russian, and was appointed military attaché of Norwegian legation in Petrograd in 1918
  • Present during Terror, and sent back reports that were widely read including by the King, before he was forced home
  • Book about Russia shot him to fame in Norway, and began slide toward fascism; founded movement aimed at overthrowing Marxism, enhancing Nordic race
  • Defense minister of new Agrarian Party, then new National Union (NS) party
  • Little sense of irony, not much humor, crippling shyness, aloof, but highly respected for his mind
  • Knew Norway wouldn’t be able to remain neutral in war due to its strategic significance and low defense spending
  • Urged cooperation between British naval hegemony and German continental ambitions
  • His growing anti-semitism signaled ideological sympathy with Hitler; thanked him for having “saved Europe from Bolshevism and Jewish domination”
  • Thought Hitler was wrong to sign pact with Stalin given how advanced Germany already was, and knew Red Army was weakened by purges so wouldn’t be able to conquer Finland
  • Envisioned Germany would topple Soviet government and reestablish nation-states with German capital
  • Met with Hitler December 1939 while reported Britain to use Norway as transit country to aid Finland; Quisling offered loyalty from his party
  • Preferred neutrality but didn’t think it possible, so would act in Germany’s interest to prevent British establishment
  • Hitler saw value to occupying Norway before Britain could
  • Naval skirmishes between Germany and Britain in April: King and government relocated, but Quisling characterized as fleeing and initiated coup
  • Quisling hoped for legal appointment understanding from King, but King refused to accept man twice beaten at the polls
  • Wide campaign to get rid of Quisling as he sought legitimacy
  • Hitler supportive at first but then in setting up “government commission” put Quisling in reserve; when commission failed Hitler sent Terboven to command Norway occupation
  • Miscalculated public’s feelings and sense of morality
  • Quisling name almost immediately became international byword for traitor
  • Curried Hitler’s favor as they strategized voting in new occupation government; became prime minister due to his warning of Britain
  • Quisling’s “New Order” in Norway stamped out “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”
  • Unresolved whether Norway and Germany were at war or peace; Quisling wanted full NS government to provide legitimacy and eventually got it, though with Reichskommissar
  • Sincerely believed he was doing the right thing for Norway and eventual Nordic dominance
  • Oslo University source of strong anti-NS “Home Front” resistance, along with prominent bishop Berggrav, who had tried to broker peace in Berlin and London
  • Photos of “Fører Quisling” everywhere, became authoritarian state sans functioning legislature and King
  • Quisling sought to limit NS membership despite one-party rule to strengthen quality
  • Edict to make youth service in NS Youth Organization compulsory backfired, as did new teachers corporation; when backed by bishops, revolt began
  • Mass teacher resignations followed by large-scale arrests
  • Lobbied Hitler for peace treaty but was denied and remained occupied country, also lost direct contact with Hitler
  • Had different ideas of future than Hitler, whose world domination plans were more improvisatory
  • Began rounding up and registering Jews in 1942
  • Hitler refused to negotiate peace because then other occupied countries would want it, and Quisling’s dreams of Norwegian supremacy dashed
  • After Hitler died, naively assumed there would be peaceful transition of power back to exiled government
  • Arrested May 8; said he knew suicide would be easiest but wanted to “let history reach its own verdict”; thought he’d be deified
  • Quisling Clinic in Madison founded by cousins in interwar years; otherwise name has disappeared
Categories
America History

From defeat, not victory

In his book Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fisher writes about how the colonists responded to the dark days of the American Revolution in 1776:

This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote. “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”

Rush, a sort of honorary Founding Father and very distant relative of mine, was speaking to his present times but I think he also speaks to ours. I’ve said before that if we make it out of our current darkness alive, we’ll be better for it.

Categories
America Books History Music Nature Review

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.