Monday, November 23, 2009

Wrapped in the Flag

An eternal favorite of mine (and a book that should be required reading for every American), Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here (1935).

"Buzz" Windrip, a power-hungry politician, is elected President of the United States on a populist platform. He promises to restore the country to prosperity, as well as promising each citizen five thousand dollars a year.

Once in power, however, he becomes a dictator who outlaws dissent, putting his enemies in concentration camps, and creating his own militia force called the Minute Men who terrorize dissenting citizens. By making changes to the Constitution, he gives himself sole power over the country and renders Congress obsolete.

This is met by protest from outraged citizens, but Windrip declares a state of martial law, throwing protesters in jail with the help of his Minute Men. As Windrip dismantles America and democracy, most Americans either support him wholeheartedly or reassure themselves that surely this is not fascism, and if it is, it surely cannot happen in America.

A brief excerpt:

"Why, there's no country in the world that can get more hysterical -yes, or more obsequious!- than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns his State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio - divine oracles to millions. Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding's appointees?

"Could Hitler's bunch, or Windrip's be worse? remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut 'Liberty cabbage' and somebody actually proposed calling German measles "Liberty measles'? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the - well, feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist...

"Remember our Red Scares and our Catholic Scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G. P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimize their children?

"Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?

"Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition - shooting down people because they *might* be transporting liquor - no, that couldn't happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We're ready to start on a Children's Crusade - only of adults - right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!"

"Well, what if they are? It might not be so bad. I don't like all these irresponsible attacks on bankers....Why are you so afraid of the word 'Fascism'? Just a word- just a word! And might not be so bad, with all those lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays and living on my income tax and yours -not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini - like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good ol days - and have 'em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.

"Cure the Evils of Democracy by the Evils of Fascism!

"But- it just can't happen here in America.

"The hell it can't!"

My favorite quote by Sinclair Lewis, from It Can't Happen Here:

Remember Mr. Lewis and his only semi-satirical book of 1935 when you read of tea parties and death panels, and watch those hysterical American people marching in front of the U.S. Capitol carrying Nazi swatikas.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Lady of Shalott

Several weeks ago at a library sale we found this 1882 edition of The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson, beautifully bound with detailed florals on the front (and a snail shell intertwined with the T in Tennyson), and detailed engraved ilustrations throughout all 843 pages.

The endpapers are a tiny precise brown floral, and each of the poems starts with an elaborate engraved capital letter that morphs into a work of art.

On the front loose endpaper, a previous owner has made a notation that they acquired this volume when it was "Bot at sale of A.W. Carmike, Dec. 1912". Eight months after the Titanic sank, which has nothing to do with this volume, I just enjoy placing items within their time.

At the time of this volume's publication, Lord Alfred Tennyson was still alive and writing. Two years later, in 1894, he would be created a baron by the Crown, and eight years follwoing, in 1892, he would be buried in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey.

No artist is listed for the engraved illustrations, but they include forest paths, full-rigged ships sailing stormy oceans, ravens soaring between Gothic arches, medieval beggars and maids and other flights of artistic fancy.

My favorite Tennyson, from page 83, and possibly Mr. Edgar Allan Poe's judging from his allusion to it in the December 1844 Democratic Review: "Why do some persons fatigue themselves in endeavours to unravel such phantasy pieces as the 'Lady of Shallot'? As well unweave the ventum textilem":

The Lady of Shalott, Part II:

There she weaves by night and day

A magic web with colours gay.

She has heard a whisper say,

A curse is on her if she stay

To look down to Camelot.

She knows not what the 'curse' may be,

And so she weaveth steadily,

And little other care hath she,

The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro' a mirror clear

That hangs before her all the year,

Shadows of the world appear.

There she sees the highway near

Winding down to Camelot:

There the river eddy whirls,

And there the surly village-churls,

And the red cloaks of market girls,

Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,

An abbot on an ambling pad,

Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,

Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad,

Goes by to tower'd Camelot;

And sometimes thro' the mirror blue

The knights come riding two and two:

She hath no loyal knight and true,

The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights

To weave the mirror's magic sights,

For often thro' the silent nights

A funeral, with plumes and lights,

And music, went to Camelot:

Or when the moon was overhead,

Came two young lovers lately wed;

"I am half-sick of shadows," said

The Lady of Shalott.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Strange Man of the Oglalas

In 1942, Mari Sandoz wrote a biography of the great Native American leader Ta-Shunka-Witko,known to white America as Chief Crazy Horse.

From her own childhood:

"The home of my childhood was on the upper Niobara River, the Running Water of the old-timers, at the edge of the region they called Indian County. It was close to the great Sioux reservations of South Dakota - the final places of refuge for many of the old buffalo-hunting Indians...such men are often great story-tellers, and these my father, Old Jules, drew to him as a curl of smoke rising above a clump of trees would once have drawn them...

"Around our kitchen table, or perhaps at the evening fires of the Sioux camped across the road from our house, I heard these old-timers tell ...stories of hunting the buffalo, the big-horn, and the grizzly, and of Indian fights and raidings... but most often they talked of the battles in what the whites called the Sioux wars, from that climatic summer day on the Little Big Horn all the way back to the beginning...

"As I listened to these stories it seemed that through them, like a painted strip of rawhide in a braided rope, ran the name of one who was a boy among the Oglalas the day the chief of his people was shot down. He must have been twelve then, quiet, serious, very light-skinned for an Indian, with hair so soft and pale that he was called Curly...but by the end of those wars, twenty-three years later, he was known as the greatest of the fighting Oglalas, and his name, Crazy Horse, was one to frighten the children of the whites crowding into his country, and even the boldest warriors of his Indian enemies, the Snakes and Crows.

"In 1930 I made a three-thousand-mile trip through the Sioux country, locating Indian sites and living among the people. We interviewed the few old buffalo-hunters still alive, including such friends and relatives of Crazy Horse as Red Feather, Little Killer, Short Bull, and particularly He Dog, his lifelong brother-friend. It was well that this was done then, for now He-Dog is dead.

Crazy Horse was born about 1840; he was killed treacherously through betrayal by his own people in 1877. This is the story of that betrayal, and the woman for whom the great warrior would one day risk everything he knew of his people and their earth.

The author August Derleth called this book: "a portrait of a man and a people so vividly drawn that no reader will ever completely forget of the great biographies."

Crazy Horse- Sacred Warrior Original artwork by Cherokee artist Michael Gentry

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, Mari Sandoz, Sold by Chewybooks on November 8, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

An American Saga

Carl Christian Jensen, was born a Danish peasant in 1888, and ran away to sea at age 12. Eventually arriving in New York, then setting out for the western frontier in Minnesota he joined a Doomsday Religion and then studied physics. An American Saga, published in 1927, is a one-of-a-kind autobiography, only possible in America.

A brief excerpt:

"During the mackeral season I hired out in Bette-Fanden's cutter...Late at night we put to sea...The silence of night was broken by the splash of mackeral upon the surface, by the cutter, creaking under the weight of fish, and by the distant shoal waters...The nets were like bundles of silk, dyed in gorgeous tints and hues. The glazed eyes of themackeral glowed like heaps of pearls. Their scales glittered like diamonds.

"During dark nights and during moonlight nights, while we waited to heave the nets aboard, the sea was like a magic crystal ...There was one sea, but nine varieties of tides and winds to change the sea. When a storm chased the surges into the bowlders' arms, they laughed and wept in their first love.

"At the age of sixteen I began to live on the high seas in a small room with two potholes on the hull side...whatever I possessed I kept in my bunk. At dawn a sunbeam stole through the porthole...atnight I lay awake, gazing down into the magic depth...The starry sky twinkled above;pitch darkness ahead."

An American Saga, Carl Christian Jensen, Offered for sale, as of November 2, 2009, by Chewybooks.