“The Greatest Cartoon the World War Produces is a Photo!”

I’ve posted before about the Great War, including the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and a sampling of political cartoons from the war’s first year. Recently, while searching the newspaper archives for (and failing to find) a certain Russian-Anarchist-themed comic strip, I discovered the following photograph. Titled WAR, it depicts a Belgian woman—grief-stricken, the features of her face lost in dark shadows. Continue reading

Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act

In 1993 Minnesota became the eighth state in the nation to outlaw gay and lesbian discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Unlike other states, Minnesota even went further to ensure these same protections extended to members of the trans* community. No easy feat, this was the culmination of two decades of legislative maneuvering and grassroots organizing orchestrated by people like Sen. Allan H. Spear, Rep. Karen Clark, Steve Endean, and Scott Dibble. Twenty years later, when the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, the story of the Minnesota Human Rights Act was something seasoned activists knew about but of which my generation was oblivious. For those curious about how such legislation could pass at a time when even advocates felt uneasy using the word “gay,” there was little (if anything) to turn to.

Wanting to learn more about this important moment in state history, in 2013 I applied for a Mondale Research Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School. Although my historical interests gravitate toward early-20th century politics, I was inspired to study the life of Allan Spear after reading his autobiography Crossing the Barriers. Published posthumously in 2010, it recounts his childhood, his experience as a gay man, and his careers as both an historian and state senator. Unfortunately, given his passing in 2008, the book was never finished–and even worse, since Spear wrote chronologically, the narrative ends abruptly in the 1980s, years short of his greatest legislative achievements. Although the former-state senator Steve Milton wrote a nice afterward, his was the unenviable (and impossible) task of summarizing the last twenty years of a vibrant life in just as many pages.

When I was awarded the Fellowship, then, I set out not only to produce good scholarship on Minnesota’s LGBT nondiscrimination law, but I also wanted to do Sen. Spear’s life justice. As his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would attest, he was a brilliant, caring man, and someone without whom our state would be lesser.

In doing my research, I relied upon the rich archives available at both the Minnesota Historical Society and UMN Elmer L. Andersen Library. Furthermore, I sat down for several one-on-one interviews with Gov. Arne Carlson, Rep. Karen Clark, Sen. Scott Dibble, and the late historian Hy Berman. It took a while to write (life happens) but my paper “Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act” was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Minnesota History magazine. (The magazine’s staff even went so far as to make the video trailer posted above!)

Now that this project is behind me (always a strange feeling), I hope readers find some hope in the story of Sen. Allan Spear’s 20-year campaign to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination bill. Especially in this political environment, it is worth remembering that progress is often incremental and that while setbacks can be disheartening, it does not mean the cause is foolish, hopeless, or dead. It just means that there is more work to be done. While we should pause and reevaluate our course in light of history’s lessons, we must keep pushing forward. The struggle is a part of movement building, and building a movement is one of the most-powerful tools we’ve got to make this world a more compassionate and accepting place.

You can buy a copy of Minnesota History here.

As an historian, it’s hard to be hopeless

Like many people, I’m still wrapping my head around the 2016 election results. And while I’ve done my fair share of asking, “What happened?” I’ve (fortunately) moved on to the more-useful question of “Now what are we going to do about it?” To that I’m still working on an answer, but here is something I posted on Facebook a few days after the election, explaining why–even for as much as I worry about the next 4 years–it’s hard for me to be hopeless.

(As a side-note: Call me lucky or count me cursed, but this year my 26th birthday fell on Election Day 2016).


herbert-gaston-and-henry-morgenthau

Press photo of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Herbert Gaston with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr., following the latter’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. January 2, 1934.

Thank you for the birthday wishes, everyone. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election, and while I, too, am still finding all the words, let me say this: As a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Here’s why.

For my birthday, I got two sets of gifts. The first was a collection of signed books (both published in 1920) about the insurgent, agrarian-based Nonpartisan League. Included with these was a 1934 press photograph of one of the authors, a former-NPL organizer, serving as FDR’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and shaking hands with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr. This is proof to me that eventually the “outsiders” get their turn, and the proposals that were once “radical” become the programs we take for granted.

herbert-gaston-nonpartisan-league

Two books about the NPL: The Nonpartisan League (1920) by Herbert Gaston and The Story of the Nonpartisan League: A Chapter in American Evolution (1920) by Charles Edward Russell.

The second gift is something I bought for myself, via international auction. It’s a handwritten manuscript page by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, best-known for his work “On the Social Contract,” a cornerstone for democratic thought. Written sometime between 1748-1751, it includes a few notes Rousseau was taking for a planned work on the history of women (unfortunately, it was never finished). Holding the page in my hand, its edges brittle and the ink clearly visible through the other side, I feel I’ve gone back in time 260 years and am looking over Rousseau’s shoulder.

To engage with time in this way changes one’s whole relationship to the world, and without going too much into what I mean by this, let me focus on the following. There are few arrogances like declaring The End of Ideology or The End of History, both of which allegedly occurred the 1950s and 1990s, respectively, because as both people and economies change, so too must change our political institutions. The broader, timeless principles of liberty, justice, and republicanism must always be our cornerstones, but what we build upon them will necessarily vary. To have engaged with history as I have is to discover there have been many “End Ofs” in the last 260 years, and to declare the present The End must be categorically rejected, for where the principles I’ve listed are absent, there will always be tension, struggle, and eventually revolution.

jean-jacques-rousseau-handwritten-manuscript-page-preston

My personal copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract and a manuscript page of Rousseau’s unpublished book on the history of women.

What I like the most about this manuscript page is that when Rousseau was writing it in the mid-18th century, there were a few unquestionable presumptions about the state and economy, these “End Ofs.” One was the divine right of kings. Another was the institution of slavery. Both of these abhorrent concepts were so deeply ingrained in western culture that even to most enlightened minds they were perceived as impenetrable.

But by the end of the next century, both belonged to the dustbin of history.

Similarly, there are institutions and ideas around us now that seem impenetrable – so much so that that one can barely imagine what a society would look like if it embraced true gender and racial equality, organized around economic principles of equity, and substituted citizenship with cosmopolitanism. But 260 years ago the same could be said about many things we take for granted – this is because, as with the Nonpartisan League, over the centuries the outsiders have gotten their turn, and what was once radical became conservative orthodoxy, again and again and again.

So, as a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Because regardless of how many thinkpieces come out proclaiming what happened another “End Of,” as long as we keep fighting, nativism and authoritarian populism will fall. Don’t worry, millennials, we’ll get our turn.

John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

Continue reading

Joining Sinclair Lewis on the Trip from Main Street to Stockholm

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930

“From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930” edited by Harrison Smith, 1952.

BOOK REVIEW: From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 edited by Harrison Smith, 1952 (full text on the Internet Archive).

“[D]on’t be such a damn fool as ever again to go to work for someone else. Start your own business,” the 34-year-old Sinclair Lewis advised his friend Alfred Harcourt. “I’m going to write important books. You can publish them. Now let’s go out to your house and start making plans” (p.xi). That business became the publishing house Harcourt, Brace, and Company, and the next year, in 1920, it published the book that made Lewis famous: Main Street. Thus began the decade-long trip from the prairies of Minnesota to Stockholm, when Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As the only volume of Lewis’ letters, From Main Street to Stockholm was published in 1952, the year after he died, and collects together his correspondence with Harcourt’s publishing house. Given their relationship the letters just as often pertain to business as they do Lewis’ European travels and the politics of the literary world. While the reader may not close the book with a richer understanding of Lewis’ psychology, they will have witnessed an iconoclast at work. Through these letters one follows Lewis through the “Big Five” and the public’s response, from Main Street (1920) being declared the most monumental book of the century to Boston’s District Attorney banning Elmer Gantry (1927) from the city. (As a response to the latter, we find out, Lewis and Harcourt forewent a lawsuit and instead bought billboards capitalizing on the controversy …  at a Methodist convention in Kansas City).

What stands out the most in his letters is his self-confidence and keen sense of what will stick in the public mind. One sees firsthand, for example, the amount of care he took in naming his character. Writing about a middle-class businessman and booster, he considers Pumphrey and later Fitch but at last settles on a name he predicts will enter the lexicon (and it did)!

The name now for my man is George F. Babbitt, which, I think, sounds commonplace yet will be remembered, and two years from now we’ll have them talking of Babbittry (12/17/1920; p.57). 

Here and elsewhere his confidence is prescient. Even while still working on the manuscript for Main Street he doesn’t hide his ambition. Anticipating the book’s success he asks,

Would it be perfectly insane and egotistic to suggest that you .. send a copy of the book to the [Pulitzer] prize committee, suggesting that the dern thing is a study in “the wholesome atmosphere of American life” etc. (11/12/1919; p.18)?

And he’s writing that before the book’s even finished.

“You mustn’t suppose … 70,000 [words of Main Street] means it’s almost done though. I’m afraid I shall be doing well … if I keep it down to 180,000 words, even after cutting first draft” (12/15/1919; p.19).

One shares in Lewis’ joy when at last the book is published and, as he snoops around book stores to eavesdrop on what people are saying, Harcourt is rushing to get more off the press. None of this confidence wanes over the years and by 1925, with the publication of Arrowsmith, Lewis wonders if it will be the book that finally gets him the Nobel Prize. Someday–but he’s still got a few years to go.

Interestingly, for as much as Lewis dreamed of these major prizes almost nothing is said of the two he almost received. As the events unfolded, nothing was said of the fact that both Main Street and Babbitt were chosen by the Pulitzer Prize committee and both were vetoed by the Columbia Board of Trustees that oversee it. It’s only when there are rumors of Arrowsmith winning the prize that he acknowledges these “matters”:

I hope they do award me the Pulitzer Prize on Arrowsmith — but you know, don’t you, that ever since the Main Street burglary, I have planned that if they ever did award it to me, I would refuse it, with a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for any one ever to accept the novel prize (not the play or history prize) thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out. There are three chief reasons — the Main Street and possibly the Babbitt matters, the fact that a number of publishers advertise Pulitzer Prize novels not, as the award states, as “best portraying the highest standard of American morals and manners” or whatever it is but as the in every-way “best novel of the year,” and third the whole general matter of any body arrogating to itself the right to choose a best novel (4/4/1926; p.203).

The next month when it was announced he’d in fact won the prize, that’s exactly what he did. Over the next five years, two more novels followed, their successes culminating in his being awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. But upon achieving the success he predicted, it wasn’t enough and he was letdown by how Harcourt handled the news. In one of his last letters to the publisher, he writes as both a disappointed author–and a hurt friend.

To put it brutally, I feel that the firm let me down, let my books down, in regard to the prize award. It seems to me that you failed to revive the sale of my books as you might have and that … you let me down as an author by not getting over to the people of the United States the way in which the rest of the world greeted the award. It would have meant the expenditure of considerable money on your part to have done this, but never in history has an American publisher had such a chance.

… If you haven’t used this opportunity to push my books energetically and to support my prestige intelligently, you never will do so, because I can never give you again such a moment (1/21/1931; p.300-1).

Harcourt’s final words are moving:

I know you have some idea of how sorry I am that events have taken this turn. You and we have been so closely associated in our youth and growth that I wish we might have gone the rest of the way together. If I’ve lost an author, you haven’t lost either a friend or a devoted reader (2/3/1931; p.302).

In the end, the book’s a wonderful case study of the relationship a writer has with their publisher. These letters show us firsthand everything that goes into the writing process, from hard work and support to, yes, an insatiable ego. Turning the last page, one finds they’ve walked with Lewis and Harcourt the long road from Main Street to Stockholm, and even if it ends with a sigh, along the way neither needed to stop to catch their breath.

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 is available for free on the Internet Archive here.

“Made while under fire”: Elijah E. Edwards’ Civil War sketches

Elijah Evan EdwardsBefore there were cameras to document warfare, there were sketchbooks. So imagine then sketching a battlefield and, as smoke filled the air and bullets zipped past, trying to keep your pencil straight. This, though, was the experience of many artists, including Elijah Evan Edwards (1831-1915), who served as chaplain of the 7th Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War (1864-1865).

The Minnesota Historical Society has three volumes of Edwards’ journals, including a 1910 typescript he wrote synthesizing his pocket diaries from the war. In it he discusses daily camp life, the people he met, different battles, and so on. Besides being an invaluable, firsthand account of the Civil War, what makes the text rich is its being accompanied by several dozen sketches made from “hasty outlines finished from memory when I had leisure.” “This is especially true of the battle scenes,” he added, “since I had during the critical moments of the conflict neither leisure nor opportunity to make sketches.” (p.1). It’s these that distinguish Edwards’ written account from others.

In describing how he made his sketches, he noted that at least a few “were made while under fire, but none to the neglect of any of the duties devolving upon me as Chaplain.” Describing a few such cases,  he reflected upon “the difficulties in the way of an ‘artist on the spot’ who attempts to depict war scenes.” (p.1).

His art is a dangerous pastime. It will also suggest a reason for the differences between his sketches and those of the professional artist, who immured in his studio paints battle scenes from the descriptions of others aided by the suggestions of his own fervid imagination. (p.2).

The consequence of this, Edwards continued, is that

Conventional ideas of both the artist and the public require battle scenes in which human agents are conspicuous and active. There must be heroes in the fight. There must be martial music, the roar of artillery, the waving of banners, soldiers marching in serried gaily uniformed and keeping exact time as they march. There must be romantic accessories to the scene, or it is no true picture. This ideal is undoubtedly a survival of the old Ossianic and Homeric conceptions of war, and has but little foundations in the conduct of modern warfare. (p.2).

Thus, in his writing as well as his sketches, he aspired “to report only what I saw or learned from observers of what I saw myself, and in no case to create or vary from its realism for the sake of effect.” (p.2).

Elijah Evan Edwards - On the Road to PontotocElijah Evan Edwards - On the Way to TupeloElijah Evan Edwards - Imago Mortis

Elijah Evan Edwards - Body of Lewis Hardy

“Body of Lieut. Hardy carried from the Battle-Field of Tupelo, July 15th, 1864” and “General A.J. Smith, The Last to Leave the Field of Tupelo.”

While reading through the typescript, I was drawn to Edwards’ account of the Battle of Tupelo (July 14-15, 1864), a Union victory. After a vivid description of his experience (working primarily with the wounded) he writes of surveying the field and coming upon a Lt. Col. Lewis Hardy. Inspecting him, it was clear the young man was “was mortally wounded and could not be moved.” (p.27-28). So as ambulances and medics passed Edwards asked for their help, being told there was either no room or no hope.

Staying with Hardy, as the artillery came up followed closely by Union General Andrew J. Smith, the general looked over Hardy and “answered by a great oath that sounded like an evidence of Grace in heart, saying as he did […] that no brave soldier of his, man or officer, should be left living or dead on the field.” General Smith then halted a nearby artillery wagon and ordered Hardy be fastened to the box–but “by the time we had fastened the Lieutenant to the caisson, he had breathed his last.” (p.28).

Elijah Evan Edwards - Burial of Lewis Hardy

“Burial of 1st Lieu. Lewis Hardy, of Co. 7t Minn. July 15, 1864.”

Riding beside the corpse, when Edwards arrived at camp the unit came together and buried Hardy “near midnight and by torchlight.” As they did so, Edwards made a few sketches in his notebook of the scene as the Confederate artillery “continued shelling our deserted battlefield […] But he was too badly beaten to pursue us any great distance.” (p.28). The next morning the unit rose early and marched on toward Memphis.

When Sunday morning passed without service, the chaplain gloomily recorded:

My sole religious duties thus far have to speak a word of cheer to some soldier on the march, to commend the dying to the infinite mercies of God and lastly

“to carry off the wounded-
to cover up the dead.” (p.30)

Although I’ve read several history books about the Civil War, I’ve always been more interested in personal accounts like Edwards’ (i.e. letters, diaries, and journals). While (good) historical writing offers context and analysis and from many particulars draws designs of an era and its influences, it is just one of many ways to engage with history. The reason why I love personal accounts so much is precisely because it lacks these grand schemes and doesn’t hide its quirks, biases, and urgency. It’s this last trait that revives the dead and, for me, humanizes history–that very real, very human obsession to pick up a pen or, in Edwards’ case, sit down at a typewriter and say: I need to tell this story.

Philip Larkin on reading versus hearing poetry

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Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

In order to familiarize myself with the work of English poet Philip Larkin, I recently read his 1982 interview with The Paris Review (its famous “Art of Poetry” series is a resource I encourage all writers to check out). Regarded as one of England’s top poets, during his lifetime Larkin shied away from his fame, working as a librarian at the University of Hull. A proud page poet, he refused to give readings (though he did record a few of his books) and had this to say about their growing prominence in the United States:

Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.

There’s certainly a parallel here with the current state of poetry, which in its most-popular form gravitates toward spoken-word/SLAM. The prominence of both of these is a net positive for the literary community because by blurring the lines between poetry, oratory, and music (i.e. hip-hop), it’s made the genre more accessible to a wider audience. But it’s not without its stylistic problems (which I could lecture on at length).

Often the medium overtakes the content, which as Larkin notes can lead to “easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax” that, when transcribed, just don’t work on the page. Conversely, some of the best poetry ever written must be read — to name one example, John Berryman’s Dream Songs. There is just so much in his odd syntax and phrasings to be appreciated that it requires a slow read; when read aloud, it flashes past and by the end it feels as though you’ve only seen the surface beneath which something greater rumbles. Spoken word may allow the performer a spectrum of sounds and body movements, but the page offers just as much, if not more.

This short note isn’t meant to privilege one approach over the other but is instead a reminder to think about the tools in our hands. Ask yourself: Why am I writing a poem and not prose? Is this piece meant to be performed, heard, or read? Simply asking these questions is what separates writers from those who merely write.