“Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine”: Clarence Thomas, Roe v. Wade and the Precarious State of Just About Everything

First page of a college essay,
dated 17 October 1991

Bitch.  Moan.  Whine.  I certainly do a lot of that.  Always have.  The complaining probably started around the time my mother first pulled away her nipple.  These days, though, there just seems to be more to “bitch, moan and whine” about; from the cumulative fallout of the unending pandemic, the new normal of war in Europe and the aftermath of Brexit and the Trump presidency to the burnout and sense of deflation I experience in my line of work as a newly promoted ‘Senior Lecturer’ whose recent and long-fought-for £8 a week pay increase feels more like a slap in the face than a patronising pat on the back for services rendered, albeit not without bitching.

Quit whining about that last one, you might well say; indeed, I try to remind myself that it is nothing compared to what others are suffering, possibly of necessity in the silence that does not necessarily translate into acquiescence.  Seeing things in proportion – which is proper, according to some – or putting them into the perspective that, by definition, depends on your angle, tends to be more difficult when you feel ever more keenly that everything is related rather than being relative by default.  When you are living in that fragile ecosystem of despair that some might deride as egocentricity, anything is apt to become everything, and it can weigh you down something awful.

“Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.”  That is hardly a comprehensive, let alone compassionate, assessment of the voicing of dissatisfaction by your contemporaries, however motivated.  It is a derision and dismissal of criticism as selfish, pointless and downright destructive.  As the quotation marks indicate, that does not reflect my general views on disaffection.

In fact, those words – “Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine” – were uttered in the 1980s by Clarence Thomas, now a US Supreme Court Justice.  And they were voiced not in response to finicky folks rolling their eyes at just about anything – the kind of ‘why me’ injustices of our everyday – but to civil rights leaders who, in their rejection of the status quo, aim to address actual, momentous and seemingly insoluble inequalities.

“Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.”  It is not the first time I am using those words as a title for a bit of commentary on things as I see them.  The archaic and tone-deaf 2022 rulings of the United States Supreme Court regarding gun laws and abortion, the consequences they will have, and the precedent set by the decision to overthrow Roe v. Wade brought to mind my initial response to the nomination of Thomas – by President George H. W. Bush – to the Supreme Court.

The year was 1991, my first full year of living abroad after moving from Cologne, Germany to New York City.  Deciding not to return to the dreaded fatherland after another prolonged visit to the metropolis I had been visiting pretty much annually since the mid 1980s, I embarked, grandiloquently speaking, on a liberal arts degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) – eventually disembarking, in 2004, with a PhD and a plane ticket to the UK, where I now reside and teach.  

Back then, I could – and did – rely on the financial support of gay friends a generation my senior, while taking on whatever jobs I could get on the side, whether that meant cleaning apartments, caring for elderly residents in their Upper East Side homes, or being a dogwalker for actress Viveca Lindfors, whose confidence had been shaken by a slashing incident in 1990.

Back in the days when the shoulder pads were about to be discarded in favor of commodified grunge, I clung to the former like a make-believe Atlas, anxious as I was about everything from my immigration status to the Gulf War, the rise of nationalism, escalating racial tensions and the AIDS crisis, sexually inactive though I, a gay male in his twenties, was during the early to mid-1990s due to a lack of self-confidence and an uneasiness about the obligations to and motivations of those who supported me.

You’re a ‘worry-wart,’ Harry Heuser

“… you are a worry-wart and see disaster lurking around the corner,” one of my professors at BMCC wrote in her comments on an essay assignment.  She was right, which is precisely why I could not heed her advice to “stop worrying and enjoy what is happening now!” My writing assignments, for English classes in particular, often encouraged critical engagement with that evolving and not altogether joyful now.

It was Joe Distler, who, an online search tells me, is now teaching English in Paris but was – and still is – better known for running with the bulls in Pamplona, tasked me and my fellow students with commenting on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.  I took the assignment by the proverbial horns; and here, in part, is what I had to say:

It is very hard to find a good judge, let alone a successor to the legendary Thurgood Marshall.  However, when President Bush announced that he had found “the best person” for the job, it became obvious that the nomination was nothing but a political coup rather than a moral decision.

During my first year at college, my English was fairly limited, which resulted in arguments that were polemic rather than complex. I am not sure whether it was a lack of grasp on the language that made me choose the word “coup” when I might have meant “stunt”; but, historically speaking, “coup” also refers to an “act of touching an armed enemy in battle as a deed of bravery, or an act of first touching an item of the enemy’s in order to claim it.”   Well, that puts a different spin on the matter – a reading I certainly did intend.  “Clearly,” my essay continues,

there was need for an African-American as a replacement, to avoid racial tensions and to eliminate criticism from the Democrats, who might gain from any miscalculation in the upcoming elections in 1992.  Thomas makes a very promising judge for the Bush administration for he is black but white at heart.  He opposes the civil rights movement and is one member of the new generation of black conservatives who believe that they do not have to be Democrats because they are black.

The “black-but-white-at-heart” remark shows the limitations of my reasoning; but the line that follows expresses my misgivings about ambitious individuals who advance their careers by aligning themselves with their oppressors or, put less contentiously, with those who seek to absorb rather than embrace them.  The next remarks, finger-wagging though they are, express my dismay at the socio-economic inequality and the resulting anger and violence I experienced in New York City during the recession:

In times of economic decline and social decay, US policy becomes increasingly reactionary.  Maybe Nietzsche was right when he asserted that a society, especially a democratic society, produces and supports mediocrity rather than excellence.  This could be one reason for the decline of the American Empire.

“In his mediocrity, Clarence Thomas is indeed the perfect puppet for the Bush administration,” I opined.  “His ideas about “natural law,” abortion and religion are often vague, contradictory and sometimes even obscure.”  Well, there is nothing vague or obscure about Thomas’s views these days. Little did I know then just how formidable and pernicious the man I called a Republican “puppet” would become.

“Only the Liberals strongly oppose Thomas’s nomination,” I wrote,

and they sought a way to “stop” him.  They came up with Anita Hill.   At this point it is very hard to tell whether this was merely a liberal counter attack, fabrications of a frustrated Feminist or a case of revenge.  It was a pitiful showcase, in any event.

Now as then I am wary of methods employed to make the spectre of ideology manifest in a spectacle of politics, resulting in witch hunts by any other name.  “The trial could have stopped Thomas,” I allowed, “but it is questionable whether his replacement would have been a ‘better’ choice because,” I argued rather vaguely in the passive voice, “certain ideas about the position and influence of the judge of the Supreme Court are being held that do no longer allow liberal thinking.”

That certainly holds true now: Supreme Court Justices are political animals expected to perform at the pleasure – apparently in perpetuity– not of the public but of the President responsible for their appointment.

“The liberal ideas and ideals,” I concluded, “are lost when a black person becomes – once again – a servant to a society that still fails to see beyond matters of complexion but rather remains stereotypical in the complex matter of social defects.”

All systems are defective; society is in need – and by and large capable – of improvement.  Now, for the first time in US American history, the Supreme Court is taking away a right it had previously granted, thereby actively promoting the recrudescence of inequality. That should – but probably won’t – concern everyone whose rights may likewise be at stake, including those who insist on the right to bear arms without acknowledging that this does not mean the right to bear any kind of firearm unimagined by those who granted that right.

What we are witnessing in the US is history in the unmaking.  In the face of such a threat to democracy, we must not stop the advocacy that reactionary folks might decry as opportunities to “bitch, moan and whine.”  Those cries of outrage and anguish may well be the response to having been stripped of the right to bodily autonomy, to privacy and adequate health care at the very moment when challenging decisions need to be made about life and death – the cries of women who may now be forced to take matters into hands less equipped to carry out procedures that not simply take lives but that save them as well.  

As the words repeated in Thomas’s outburst of “Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine” remind us, what is threatened here – and perceived to be threatening – is gender equality and diversity in a world still largely made in the image of the heterosexual male. Take no rights granted for granted.

History Listens: “The Fall of [No Other] City”

Page from the published script of Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City” (1937)

As the world awaits news from Ukraine and its people awake daily to the sounds of shelling, many of us, having survived the pandemic that at once isolated and united us, become alive anew to our connectedness to world events and to the urgency, the necessity, of connecting dots in plain sight, and of listening out for tell-tale signs, be it the rumble of tanks or the roar of tyrants.  We should have seen this one coming, we might suspect; but such hindsight provides no relief in the face of local destruction and global upheaval.  

I am reminded of the events that came to be known as 9/11 – an attack that did not, as some claimed and many felt, hit us ‘out of the blue’ on that bright September morning – and of feeling both helpless and useless in the wake of the terror that would shape history.  I was teaching writing in the Bronx, and I was researching radio drama of the 1930s.  None of that seemed to matter at a moment when digging in and digging up – literally and figuratively – was felt to be needed to uncover lives lost and recover the history that had gotten us to that point.  I kept on teaching writing, and I kept on researching radio – and I strove to find the usefulness and relevance of both.  That is, I did not carry on “regardless.”  

Instead of retreating into the past of broadcasts decades old, I tried to retrieve messages pertinent to the present.  And while we might think that messages are merely repeated rather than being heeded, we may also find that we did receive them and that we are capable of learning from history even as a world leader insists on repeating it.  

Take, for instance, Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City.”  First produced and broadcast in the US on 11 April 1937 – with a cast including Orson Welles and Burgess Meredith, and a score by Bernard Herrmann – it was a response to the rise of a dictator who, unchecked and unresisted, conquers a city despite warning voices from the past – the ancient and the dead.  In MacLeish’s allegory, the ‘conquerer’ is not a person: it is fear.  It is fatalism.  It is the surrender of freedom to fascism.

In “The Fall of the City,” a radio announcer (played by Welles in the 1937 production) serves as our eyes, an observer by proxy reporting from the scene of an unnamed city.  MacLeish’s plays – from “Air Raid” to “The Trojan Horse” – are never simply plays for the medium of radio but also plays about that medium – about tuning in from a distance, about mediation and reception, and about misinformation and deception.  The listeners are implicated, their role in the event of listening reflected upon in the shared act of telling stories and hearing histories in the making.

“The sun is yellow with smoke,” the announcer informs the audience, “the town’s burning….  The war’s at the broken bridge.”  It is impossible to listen to those lines now without seeing the cities under siege in Ukraine; and yet, “The Fall of the City” – which was broadcast just two weeks prior to the arial bombing of Guernica in April 1937 but written some months earlier, in 1936 – not about the reality of any particular invasion but about the real threat posed by evasiveness.  It caution against giving in to ideas and being enslaved by ideologies, for which it was criticised during the Second World War: “In these last years,” Randall Jarrell, himself a poet, wrote in 1943:

many millions of these people, over the entire world, have died fighting their oppressors.  Say to them that they invented their oppressors, wished to believe in them, wished to be free of their freedom; that they lie there.

Jarrell wrote this in the aftermath of air raids, and the war of ideas were not uppermost on his mind.

I do not know whether I am writing at a moment that future records might document to be days or weeks before the start of a Third World War.  I know I am writing it in wartime.  Unlike in the scenario envisioned by MacLeish, the world is not only watching the atrocities perpetrated by Russians in the towns and cities of Ukraine; it is responding, both to aid Ukrainian civilians (my sister in Germany has welcomed Ukrainian refugees into her home) and to avoid an escalation of military conflict.  Unlike the abstract “citizens” of MacLeish’s play, men and women are resisting.  Cities do not fall.  They are attacked.  They are defended. They are fought over.  And it is citizens – civilians – that are doing the fighting.

How different this fight is from the defeat as MacLeish conceived it.  “The city is doomed,” the Voices of Citizens in his play declare,

The age is his! It’s his century!

Our institutions are obsolete.

He marches a mile while we sit in a meeting.

Opinions and talk!

Deliberative walks beneath the ivy and the creepers!

His doubt comes after the deed or never.

He knows what he wants for his want’s what he he knows.

He’s gone before they say he’s going.

He’s come before you’ve barred your house.

He’s one man: we are but thousands!

Who can defend us from one man?

Bury your arms! Break your standards!

Give him the town while the town stands!

We know the price of such surrender.  Putin might have believed that his invasion would meet with little or no resistance, and that the global community, understood as a community, is powerless in the face of his aggression.  Putin’s methods date from the past; his mind, however made up it may be, was made up last century.  It is no match for what humanity can achieve if we – and that includes the people of Russia – put our minds and methods to it.  Right now, his thinking and his tanks, his misfiring strategies and his unwillingness to listen, are being answered by the rallying cries of the present that will help us secure a future.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Cat and the Canary (1927), Mammy Pleasant and the Outsider Inside

Nothing is innately trifling.  As I put it once, when I had the nerve to make a public display – in a museum gallery, no less – of the mass-produced ephemera I collect, ‘Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter.’  Now, some products of culture are more resistant than others to our realization of them as worth more than a fleeting glance, if that.  Exerting the effort to make them matter may feel downright perverse when there are claimed to be so many more deserving candidates for appreciation around.

When looking out for something to look into, I invariably draw on my own sense of otherness, of queerness.  It is not altogether by choice that I am drawn to the presumed irrelevant.  My perceived marginality is both the effect and the cause of my attraction to the margins.  What matters – and according to whom – is always worth questioning.  That is why I created Gothic Imagination, an alternative art history course I teach at Aberystwyth University.

To augment the weekly lectures and seminars, I created a series of film screenings for my students further to explore the territories of the visual ‘gothic’ beyond literary genre Gothic and the Gothic as an architectural style.  The second film in the chronologically arranged series, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is, for all its technical and cinematographic achievements, a rather undemanding old chestnut.  In part, such a view of it is owing to our belatedness of catching up with it, now that much of it strikes us as a grab bag of narrative clichés.

Well, those clichés were up for grabs even back in 1927, as the film draws on its audience’s familiarity with murder mysteries and stage melodramas.  Like Seven Keys to Baldpate before it, The Cat and the Canary is parodic and self-reflexive.  It play with conventions and our awareness, even our weariness, of them.  The Cat got our tongue firmly in cheek; and as much as we may feel sticking it out at the derivative claptrap to which we are subjected, we are encouraged to appreciate that the film anticipates our response, that it is one step ahead, dangling our tongue cheekily in front of us like a carrot intended to keep us playing along.

Is it only a single step ahead? Ahead of what? Is it ahead, retro or perhaps even reactionary? The Cat and the Canary is postmodern before there was a word for it.  Like any adaptation of a text I have not caught up with, it also makes me wonder just how what we get to see has evolved and how the film, in addition to interpreting its source material cinematically, questions, edits and revises that material as well.

One revision draws attention to itself in the credits – and it made me aware of the consequences the seemingly inconsequential can have.  I am referring to the character Mammy Pleasant, a housekeeper played in the film by the scene-stealing Martha Mattox.  Given that The Cat and the Canary was released in the same year that The Jazz Singer stridently hammered a sonic nail in the coffin of silent film – at times simply by dragging said nail screechingly across the surface of an eloquent body of work shaped over a quarter of a century – the reference to the ‘Mammy’ legend stood out like a discordant note.

A slide from my introduction to the screening

What is ‘Mammy’ about Mammy Pleasant, particularly when the role is performed by a white female actor? The 1922 stage melodrama by John Willard, who also acted in the play on which the film is based, describes the character as an ‘old negress.’  Not that Blanche Friderici, who originated the part on the stage, was black.  She performed it in blackface.  

As The Jazz Singer and other early sound films such as the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ vehicle Check and Double Check (1930), blackface and minstrel shows were very much part of Western popular culture at the time, and they were not effectively challenged – that is, were not permitted effectively to challenge – until decades later.

And yet, the film does not partake of that tradition, retaining the character’s name only.  In the play, Mammy Pleasant is a servant who has gained enough independence to choose whether or not to serve the future heir to the fortune of her deceased employer, as is clear from this exchange with the family lawyer, Roger Crosby, prior to the reading of the will:

Crosby.  Six! All the surviving relatives.  By the way—Mammy—your job as guardian of this house is up to-night.  What are you going to do?

Mammy.  It all depends.  If I like the new heirs—I stay here.  If I don’t—I goes back to the West Indies.

There is no such exchange in the film, and the ethnicity of Mammy Pleasant is not made central to the characterisation, which in the play is rooted in stereotypes surrounding superstitions to be rooted out in the act of ratiocination.  The Cat and the Canary is, after all, not a Gothic romance but a whodunit in which weird goings-on are shown to have a logical, albeit preposterous, explanation.  

The name Mammy Pleasant, in Willard’s play at least, carries with it a reference to an actual person – the businesswoman and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, who, by passing as white, managed to become the first African American millionaire.

In the stage play, produced nearly two decades after Pleasant’s death in 1904, the reference is facetious and derogatory.  Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lost the fortune she had made and shared as an activist, and whose character was destroyed when her passing as a white cook and landlady was exposed, is misremembered in the film as a not altogether trustworthy and slightly threatening outsider operating on the inside of a dead white millionaire’s mansion.

Why did the reference remain? How many viewers back in 1927 would have recognised it as a reference to Mary Ellen Pleasant? And how many would have found comic relief in what might have been some sort of white revenge fantasy that renders Pleasant odious while keeping her in her supposed place?

It is a gothic reading, as opposed to a reading of the gothic, that refuses to privilege the center and, imagining alternatives, lets the canary chase the cat for a change.  An unlikely scenario, to be sure; but to expose what is cultural it is useful to conjure what is unnatural.

“… the same unseen beauty”: Music Returns to Gregynog Hall

Members of the Mid Wales Opera performing at Gregynog, July 2021

Like much of the heritage of Wales, and indeed the world, the interior of Gregynog Hall was off limits during the pandemic (ongoing at the time of this writing), even though its extensive grounds continued to provide a welcome retreat for local visitors in the days of social distancing.  Gregynog – pronounced as you would a portmanteau word for an alcoholic yuletide treat named after a Pope getting chummy, with an “un” wedged between the man and the intoxicant – was known for keeping the two apart for the purported benefit of the former.  During its heyday – between the two World Wars – the Hall was owned by the teetotalling and public-spirited Davies sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret, and the recommended stimulant to be taken in there was produced on location during Gregynog’s renowned Festivals of Music and Poetry.

I shan’t rehearse what, in Wales at least, is well-known, as much has been written elsewhere about Gregynog and Davies sisters, who bought the mock-Tudor Hall in 1920 and, even though they did not initially intend doing so, lived there from 1924 until their respective deaths some three to four decades later.  Suffice it to say that, during their residence, the Hall was not only a home filled with art or for the arts.  It was a place devoted to cultural, spiritual and social uplift through the arts, as the sisters – encouraged by their friend and advisor Dr Thomas Jones (TJ) – understood it.  

The performing arts are returning, and so are the crowds.  On a warm and sunny afternoon in July 2021, the grounds of the estate once again resounded with classical music, as young members of the Mid Wales Opera – sopranos Meinir Wyn Roberts and Llio Evans and tenor Huw Ynyr, accompanied by pianist and Music Director Charlotte Forrest – came to give a crowd-pleasing concert of arias from works as diverse as Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Puccini’s La Bohème and Il tabarro, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (“Glitter and Be Gay”), with Jonathan Dove’s The Enchanted Pig and Disney’s Snow White (Frank Churchill’s “Some Day My Prince Will Come”) thrown into the mix, and appropriately so, considering that, these days, Gregynog is a popular venue for weddings. 

Equipped with a lawn chair, a bottle of champagne and a husband, I was glad to attend that charmed picnic concert, having spent some time behind the scenes in the months and weeks prior to the event to volunteer – despite a lack of practical skills but owing to the decidedly practical prince I wed anno 2014 – in getting the Hall ready to welcome back visitors.

When not lugging books or furnishings, I was ensconced in the library at Gregynog Hall, where I had a browse through the Festival programs and other documents still waiting to be drawn upon for a social history of the place.  

The program for the first Festival of Music and Poetry in 1933 reminded me of the mission of the sisters to put the family wealth to good use:

In these days of unprecedented difficulty and disillusionment, when the very fabric of our civilisation is rent and torn, we are compelled to return again to the unfailing sources of inspiration and delight.  Music and poetry are no longer the luxury of the few but the necessity of the many.

Thousands upon thousands of our fellow beings are dragging out a dark and desolate existence; exhausted and in despair they stand at the corners of the streets, for no man hath need of them.  A bewildered Government doles out to them the pittance which keeps them alive, but their minds and spirit are starved, for man doth not live by bread alone.  They are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, their powers and potentialities are the same as ours, the same unseen beauty is theirs, could we but show it to them.

Held during the depression, that first festival was designed to raise money for Coleg Harlech, a Training Centre for Unemployed, contributions towards which, as the program stated, were “gratefully accepted during the Interval each evening.”  Thomas Jones would later become President of the Coleg.

Many who stayed as guests at Gregynog enjoyed the music and appreciated the spirit in which it was offered – but some found the sober atmosphere less than inspiriting.  “We all went to Gregynog to stay with the Davies sisters,” actress Joyce Grenfell reminisced in her autobiography.  Grenfell, who visited Gregynog as a friend of Thomas Jones, noted how important music was in the lives of the sisters.  “[W]hen new staff were needed for the house, garden or farm,” Grenfell was told,

the sisters advertised for a contralto-housemaid, a bass-undergardener or a tenor-cowman to take part in the Gregynog choir.  All through the winter months the choir, under a professional master, worked on programmes for the summer festival, when musicians like Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Walford came, with their wives, to lead the music.

According to the visitor book, Grenfell attended the final two of the original Gregynog festivals in 1937 and ’38; she also returned at Easter 1939, when, as she recalled, “Elsie Suddaby, Mary Jarred and Keith Falkner sang Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the big white music-room hung with a series of Monet’s water-lily paintings.” When there was “religious music,” Grenfell noted, a “great EI Greco was put on a stand to conceal the choir and the conductor.” Grenfell was unconvinced; not only did it “do more than hide a few of the performers,” the artful cover-up struck her as “more of a disturbance than an inspiration.”

“Staying at Gregynog was a mixed blessing,” Grenfell summed up.  “The music was unalloyed pleasure but the atmosphere in the house was cool, correct and daunting.”

The mood and tone on that July 2021 afternoon was decidedly more relaxed.  After months of home front battle and its concomitant fatigue, the small crowd assembled on the lawn facing the entrance to the Hall felt reassured, no doubt, that “beauty” need no longer go “unseen,” or, for that matter, unheard.  And while those in attendance, unlike Grenfell, were not subjected to the scrutiny of “two maiden ladies” – owing to whom it was “not possible to forget one’s ps and qs” – there also was nothing of the “missionary zeal” Grenfell observed in Thomas Jones and Gregynog as a project.

I am of two minds about such zeal.  It is a worthy cause to make art something other than “the luxury of the few.”  All the same, it is worth questioning just what constitutes – and who determines – “the necessity of the many.” That “necessity” needs to be felt like a yearning rather than being imposed, defined and determined by those presumably best equipped to judge what is proper art in the best possible taste.  

Instead of demanding the “same unseen beauty,” we need to recognise that much remains “unseen” because it is not yet deemed to be art.  Clearly, that is why I am teaching “Gothic Imagination” again this autumn, why I encourage students to engage with “inconvenient objects” in our galleries (more about that in the next post), and why I write about canonically neglected radio plays (more about that in the previous entry).  I don’t wait for the prince, thank you.  I’ll do the crowning, or tiara-ing, using whatever materials are at hand …

“Nance” Encounter: Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965) as a Bad Date

This curated window at the Oxfam Bookstore, Aberystwyth, drew me in.

The themed window of our local Oxfam bookshop here in Aberystwyth was something to behold on that bright July afternoon.  A row of handsome, second-hand but well-preserved copies of once popular fiction beckoned, reminding me of the tag I had chosen for this blog devoted to unpopular culture upon its inception back in 2005: “Keeping up with the out-of-date.”

A novelist friend and avid reader, who had come from London for a visit, treated me to a volume of my choice.  Three of them, in fact, as the £5-for-three deal made it unnecessary to be quite so discriminating.  I passed up on erstwhile bestsellers by A. J. Cronin and Pearl S. Buck, both of whom had vanished from the display a day later, when I returned for another three titles (all six are pictured above).  My first choice, however, had been Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965).

I remember picking up Wouk’s tome Youngblood Hawke (1962), in a German translation, from my parent’s sparse bookshelves.  My grandfather, likewise, was a Wouk reader, even though his chief interest lay in the writer’s Second World War subjects, to which Opa Heinrich, a former POW, could relate.  In my late teens, desultory though my readings were, I enjoyed Wouk’s earlier City Boy (1948) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955).

Volumes I recent additions to my bookshelf

My next encounter with Wouk’s writings dates from my years of graduate studies in New York.  I had decided to ditch Thomas Carlyle as a subject and instead write a PhD study on US radio plays.  Wouk, as I discussed here previously, had started as a radio writer or gagman.  He satirized the industry in Aurora Dawn (1947) and reflected on his experience it in his autobiographical novel Inside, Outside (1985).  From the latter I snatched the phrases “Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?” – a reference to laxative commercials on the air – for the title of one of the chapters of Immaterial Culture to capture the dismissal of commercial radio as a legitimate literary forum by those who had written for broadcasting during the 1930s and 1940s but who gained prominence later as published writers and dramatists.

Long story short, I have a kind of casual relationship with Wouk as a writer, a relationship that at one point turned serious (or academic) due to my interest in radio.  So, when I spotted that copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival, an old book new to me, I felt inclined to get reacquainted.  It turned out to be a bad date.

Don’t Stop the Carnival is a story of middle age.  The action, of which there is plenty, is mainly set on an imaginary island in the Caribbean, anno 1959.  The novel relates the misadventures of a New Yorker – Norman Paperman – who falls in love with what strikes him as a tropical paradise and decides to take over a hotel, having had no prior experience either with the business or with life on a tropical island.  Complications abound, some less comical than others.

Paperman is a Mr. Blandings of sorts, a familiar figure in American fiction.  He’d rather lay an egg elsewhere than suffer his ‘disenchantment with Manhattan’ a day longer:

the climbing prices, the increasing crowds and dirt, the gloomy weather, the slow bad transportation, the growing hoodlumism, the political corruption, the mushrooming of office buildings that were rectilinear atrocities of glass, the hideous jams in the few good restaurants, the collapse of decent service even in the luxury hotels, the extortionist prices of tickets to hit shows and the staleness of those hits, and the unutterably narrow weary repetitiousness of the New York life in general, and above all the life of a minor parasite like a press agent.

Perhaps, as his name suggests, Norman is not to be looked at as man but as a page – scribbled on, rather than blank, over the course of nearly fifty years.  He may feel like turning over a new leaf – but his life is already scripted in ink that is indelible.  Don’t Stop the Carnival sets us up for its conservative moral: stick with what you know, stop kvetching, and don’t even think that the grass could be greener than in Central Park in May.

While it responds to the modernity of its day – to the threat of nuclear war and the growing doubt in the progress narrative of the 1950s – the novel nonetheless shelters in the makeshift of retrospection: it looks back at the end of the Eisenhower years from the vantage point of the violent end of the Kennedy presidency to reflect on the so-called modern liberalism of the early to mid-1960s.  

Was this choice of dating the action meant to suggest the datedness of the views expressed by the characters? What were the attitudes of the author toward race relations, civil rights and liberalism? In other words, what comments on the turmoil of the 1960s did Wouk make – or avoid making – by transporting back the readers of his day and dropping them off on an island that, for all its remoteness is nonetheless US territory, and that is about to be developed and exploited for its exoticism and natural resources?

The titular carnival is both figurative and metaphoric – an extended topsy-turvydom (or chaos) in which black mix and mate with white, queer live along straight folks, and Jews like Wouk’s protagonist Norman Paperman mingle with Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, pagans and atheists.  He encounters bad infrastructure, worse bureaucracy, and political corruption.  This island ain’t that different from Manhattan – which argues getting away from his former life to be futile and pointless.

The Carnival is not only shown to be a dead end but a deadly one.  In the final pages of the novel, two characters are killed in quick succession – one central to the narrative, the other – the decidedly other – being marginal.  The central one is Norman’s island fling, Iris Tramm, whom he knew as a celebrated actress two decades earlier and is surprised or reencounter, washed up but still alluring, as one of the guests in the hotel he decides to buy.  

The island carnival is exposed as a tropical fever that means either death or cure – a cure for an uncommon warmth of non-traditional bonds and realized desires.  Paperman recovers, and his understanding wife takes him “home.”  His lover, meanwhile, must first lose the companionship of her dog, and then, trashing Paperman’s car while trying to reunite with her wounded pet at a veterinarian’s, her life.  Was this the only out Wouk could conceive for a white woman who was the mistress of a black official who dared not to marry her?

It is the treatment of the marginal character of Hassim and his swift, unceremonious and unlamented disposal that lays bare Wouk’s fear of change: the antique dealer Hassim, introduced as a “rotund bald man” with a “bottom swaying like a woman’s,” who openly flirts with young men.  In fact, the island is awash with middle-class homosexuals of all ages.  Even Paperman’s hotel is pre-owned by a gay couple. And although he must have come across some of them in his former job as a Broadway press agent, Paperman is uneasy in their presence when he and Iris, his illicit love, visit an establishment frequented by gays:

Norman found the proprietor amusing, and he was enjoying the songs of his youth. But the Casa Encantada made him uneasy. Men were flirting with each other all around him; some were cuddling like teen-agers in a movie balcony. The boy in the pink shirt, biting his nails and constantly looking around in a scared way, sat at a small table with one of the rich pederasts from Signal Mountain, a pipe-smoking gray-haired man in tailored olive shirt and shorts, with young tan features carved by plastic surgery, and false teeth. Norman was glad when the proprietor finished a run of Noel Coward songs and left the piano, so that he and Iris could politely get out of the place.

Hassim is shot dead by a policeman, despite posing no risk and committing no crimes.  The killing, which occurs in Paperman’s hotel and bar, the Gull Reef, is described in few words and elicits less of a response than the stabbing of a dog a few pages before this incident near the close of the novel.

“As a matter of fact, […] I feel sorry for the poor bugger,” is the response to the death of  Hassim by one character, “munching on his thick-piled hamburger” not long after the killing.

“I’ve known thousands of those guys, and there’s no harm in ninety-nine out of a hundred of them. It’s just a sickness and it’s their own business.  Though gosh knows, when I was a kid working backstage, I sure got some surprises.  Yes ma’am, it was dam near worth my life to bend over and tie my shoelace, I tell you.” He laughed salaciously.  His once green face was burning to an odd bronze color like an American Indian’s, and he looked very relaxed and happy.  “Actually, Henny [who is Paperman’s wife], I almost hate to say this, but I think this thing’s going to prove a break for the Club.  I bet the nances stop coming to Gull Reef after this.”

Such views are unchallenged by the narrator and the main character, who decides to sell his business – to the man expressing those views, no less – and return to New York.  “People thought that this [his death] was a bit hard on Hassim,” the narrator sums, “but that the cop after all had only been doing his duty, and that one queer the less in the world was no grievous loss.”  Case closed. Business open as usual.

Clearly, queers like me were not considered by Wouk to be among his readers.  Targets, yes, but not target audiences.  Even the academic treatment of homosexuality – the suggestion that famous writers of the past, too, might have been homosexuals – is ridiculed in the novel, with one PhD student, the lover of Paperman’s teenage daughter, nearly drowning in the sea.  

Wouk, who died shortly before his 104th birthday in May 2019, lived beyond the middle age of Don’t Stop the Carnival for more than half a century.  I doubt that I shall make him a companion again on whatever is left of my journey.

‘I Think or Not to Be’: Getting All Cogitative Halfway Through The Murder of My Aunt

So historical, I probably won’t finish it.

I have long come to the conclusion that I never quite know what I will say next.  I am determined however, that whatever I say last shall be more memorable than anything I said first or during any of the intervening years, which is probably not saying much.  

So that I don’t end up mouthing what has already been said, I am brushing up on notable quotations to discard.  Like ‘I think or not to be,’ for example, which has already been said first by at least two different people.

I also need to brush up on history – roughly from the Common Era to the somewhat less common Golden Age – which is decidedly more challenging, as history mainly consists of memorable things said by people who do not trouble themselves to say them memorably,  which is why I tend to recall facts largely fictitiously, to say the least.

The vast majority of histories, especially those I have not consulted, are altogether too long, I find.  Things are blow out of all epic proportions, with dates, names and crowned heads – some heavy, some severed – thrust at you, relentlessly (they) and unawares (you), in both quick and bloody succession, ‘succession’ often being synonymous with ‘bloody.’  The saying ‘Uneasy lies the head that facts wear thin’ comes to mind, if vaguely. 

At any rate, I am apparently not epicurean enough – or is ‘epidural’ the word? – which is to say that I have been numb to the pleasures of history since birth, an event that occurred so long ago that I have forgotten most of that, too (that last ‘that’ being different from any other ‘that’ in that sentence).  I am of an epigrammatical persuasion myself, although more so in my reading than in my writing, I have been told.

Speaking of which (reading, I mean): I was turning the pages of The Murder of My Aunt (1934) the other day (Thursday, I think), and I was reminded by its almost forgotten author, Richard Hull, of a history to end all histories – at least British ones, which used to cover more ground than latterly, with more shrinkage more likely than not.  To think that it took a work of detective fiction like Hull’s – which is not, by the way, a continuation of and fatal conclusion to Travels with My Aunt – to point me to a history in which wit is the very soul of brevity, to paraphrase somewhat!

Anyway, according to the narrating nephew of that titular relation, the latter, while yet living (in Wales, no less, to which I can relate, albeit reluctantly at times), had ‘been reading some absurd comic history of England, full, I gather, of elementary humour of the schoolboy variety.’  Apparently, the aunt enjoyed that ‘history’ so much that she named her two dogs after two men – the great and the good – mentioned therein. Just wherein that was the author lacks the accuracy and goodness to state.

The two dogs, meanwhile, are Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth.  After several failed attempts at spelling those names correctly, I scoured the internet, filthy place that it is, to discover that they refer to two ancient rulers that most histories have consigned to oblivion, a state that rulers generally make considerable efforts not to end up in, opting – vainly, as it turns out – for largely unread tomes instead.  

How could I have never heard of Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth, or, having heard, not recall them by name? I am not a native of any of the British Isles, I should point out in my defense – a word, incidentally, that I insist on not spelling with a ‘c,’ as many British people do, unless they are students of mine, in which case they generally do not concern themselves with spelling at all.

But I divagate, as only the Latin still say now.  The point is that the history the aunt made such good use of is 1066 and All That and that it is so good I am quite rooting for her now, even though her survival would make Hull’s ostensible Murder mystery somewhat less of one.  What I like most about 1066 – as a book, not a date – is that it is a) short, b) determined to be memorable (a word frequently used by the authors, Sellar and Yeatman), and c) interspersed with ‘tests’ to help me remember what I just read. 

About Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth, for instance, it asks readers:

Have you the faintest recollection of

1) Ethelbreth?
2) Athelthral?
3) Thruthelthrolth?

I puzzled for a while, but found the next question encouraging: ‘What have you the faintest recollection of?’ Indeed.

1066, somewhat confusingly, was written quite a few years later than its title suggests and published not until 1930, when it must have been hit so hard by the Depression (the great and not so good) that it disappeared under the rock it came to share with me, eventually.  Just before that happened, if ever it did, the book was highly regarded by H. V. Kaltenborn, who, in turn, was a big name in the history of radio, which is the only history that I have not only read but written, a fact that should be reassuring to at least someone, surely.

To get back to those last words of mine, for the breathing of which I am rehearsing at present without any particular urgency. Clearly, I need to cross out another two as unusable: Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth.  Had I thought of them to begin with, I would have been confident that they had not already been uttered.  Not that I am quite capable of uttering them, at least not with any great confidence or without a tissue to hand.

No matter.  I am undaunted by the challenge of having those last words ready for folks to go gentle on me on my last good night.  After all, who was it that said ‘Fools brush past where angels fear to sled’? Rosebud, I think.  Which reminds me to check whether he was Plantagenet or the House of Elsa Lanchester.  I am hoping 1066 and All That will have all the answers.

[This was my eight hundredth post. Most of the others are equal to however you might find this one to be, should you happen to find it at all.]

Destinées Imagined: Film Stills and Storylines

The most recent additions to my collection of movie memorabilia – and of images featuring the likeness of stage and screen actress Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996) in particular – are stills for the 1954 motion picture Destinées.  The French-language film, released in Britain as Love, Soldiers and Women and in the United States as Daughters of Destiny, is one of the few works in the Colbert canon that I have not yet seen.  Rather than relying entirely on plot synopses provided by Colbert biographers William K. Everson, Lawrence Quirk, and Bernard F. Dick, I am imaging and imagining the film’s story, or, rather, the story told in one of the three vignettes that constitute Destinées.

Even before I determined on an order for the five film stills, what came across is that this is a story about absent men and relationships between the women they left behind.  From the image I chose to begin my stills-inspired version of the story, I can tell that Destinées is as much about the future as it is about the past: fate, fatality and a fatalism to be challenged.  The number of aligned grave markers, impersonal yet collectively inspiring awe, distinguish this site as a war memorial.  This woman might be a war widow.

What stands out in the field of Christian crosses is the prominently positioned star of David behind her, suggesting a memorial to those who were killed during the Second World War.  Either the narrative of this mid-1950s film is set in the recent past or Colbert’s character, for whatever reason, is only belatedly coming to terms with her loss.  She may have come to bury the past, or else to uncover it.  

Yet this is not the story of her loss and of her past only.  The flowers on the ground are not placed there by her hand, at least not at that moment.  They are dry and withered.  Someone else may have been at the site before her – someone else may be mourning the loss she is experiencing.

A sense of probing into a dark past is communicated by the still of Colbert holding a lamp.  Light of day makes way for dead of night, the open field for the enclosed space.  The rough and worn interior contrasts with the sophistication of the woman’s clothing but corresponds with her careworn expression.  The scratches on the wall suggest that smooth surfaces are being challenged: anger and despair are on display in this place.

The image that continues my version of the story is of Colbert and the boy.  In a dark and seemingly cheerless place, she comes face to face with innocence.  Colbert’s character seems to be reaching for the child’s hand; but they are not touching.  Her hands are encased in gloves.

The boy staring at her is clutching a toy.  At first I thought it was she who placed it in his hand; but the apparently hand-crafted object – a cheerful fantasy figure, not a mass-produced toy soldier – is too singular to suggest that she has bought it for him.  More likely, she has just learned of the child’s existence.

The image I chose to come next in this sequence is of Colbert sitting on the bed opposite a woman (played by Eleonora Rossi Drago) who is younger and plainly dressed.  What they have in common is grief, as their facial expressions and postures tell me.  Are they grieving for the same person? Are they sitting on a bed that was once shared by a man whom they both loved? This might be the site where the child was conceived.  These women are joined in yet separated by more than grief. 

The image to complete my story suggests reconciliation.  The two women are breaking bread, and the lamp on the table is the same light that, in the other image, communicated a desire for clarity that is now being achieved.  Colbert’s character remains reserved, even skeptical.  The clenched hand, with its wedding band on display, suggests her clinging to the claim of legitimacy, even though that legal right seems to provide no comfort besides financial security.

But the woman sitting next to her is so lacking in guile that she might ultimately convince her unannounced visitor that theirs is not a destiny of contest but a bond of love: the war that has separated one woman from her husband has created another love that, in turn, begot what used to be called a love child.

Close to the battlefield, a life was created, while far from the war zone – in the cosmopolitan setting of a remote metropolis, New York rather than Paris, suggested by the affluence, and the affront, even, of Colbert’s designer clothing – a woman being left by a husband-turned-soldier could only see loss.

Initially, my story unfolded somewhat differently.  I had Colbert’s character confront the lover of her husband first, then learn about the child and change her attitude as a result.  Then I noticed the gloves, which have not yet come off when Colbert’s character meets the boy that might be her dead husband’s son; and, looking again at that other image, I noticed the rough, barn-like setting of their encounter, which more closely corresponds with the scratched wall and the lamp shedding light on the issue of a heretofore hidden love.

However inconsequential Destinées might have been, in terms of box office or impact on Colbert’s waning career in film, these images are remarkable in their ability to make readable what matters about this common story – a story told without Sirkian melodrama but with the neorealism of post-Second World War European filmmaking.  

French-born Colbert who, years earlier on US radio, had proudly and publicly exclaimed “I Am an American,” may have embraced this assignment as an opportunity to return to her roots.  Instead, cast as a visitor in Destinées, she was obliged to rehearse her estrangement and uneasy reintroduction.  France and cinema were moving on, away from the Hollywood paradigm of It Happened One Night; this is not the ersatz old world of Colbert’s I Met Him in Paris or Midnight.  And yet, the destiny that the new Europe was forging in the 1950s remained inextricably intertwined with the United States.  As the dresses of the two women make plain on one side and up-to-date on the other, there were destined to be clashes in style as well as in substance.

[Since posting this entry, I came across a download of Destinées on YouTube.]

What Was I Thinking?: English 101, Phil Donahue and the Politics of Identity

I started college in the spring of 1991.  I had been visiting New York City since April the previous year, returning only once to my native Germany to avoid exceeding the six consecutive months I could legally stay in the US on a tourist visa.  The few weeks I spent in the recently reunited Vaterland that October had been difficult to endure, and for years I had nightmares about not getting back to the place I thought of as my elective home, the realities of the recession, the AIDS crisis, Gulf War jingoism and anti-liberal politics notwithstanding. 

The cover of my 1991 journal, with an image collage
borrowed from a copy of Entertainment Weekly

I was determined not to repeat the experience of that involuntary hiatus once the next six-month period would come to an end.  A close friend, who worked at Lehman College in the Bronx, suggested that I become a student and generously offered to pay my tuition for the first year.  We decided that, instead of entering a four-year college such as Lehman, I should first enroll in classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), an option that would cut those “foreign” tuition fees in half.

Having gotten by thus far on my better than rudimentary German high school English, I had doubts nonetheless about my fitness for college.  My first English instructor, Ms. Padol, was both exacting and reassuring.  She worked hard to make her students try harder.  Not only did she give us bi-weekly essay assignments, and the chance to revise them, but also made us keep a journal, which she would collect at random during the semester.

“This requirement for my English class comes almost as a relief,” I started my first entry, titled “A journal!” That it was only “almost: a relief was, as I wrote, owing to the fact that, whatever my attitudes toward my birthplace, I felt “so much more comfortable in my native language.” Back then, I still kept my diary in German.  

What I missed more than the ability of putting thoughts into words was the joy of wordplay.  “My English vocabulary does not really allow such extravaganzas,” I explained, “and even though the message comes through – in case there is any – the product itself seems to be dull and boring to read.”  This reflects my thoughts on writing to this day.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I write to entertain myself and strangers.

In the days of the lockdown – which were also a time of heightened introspection – I scanned the old journal to remind myself what I chose to entertain notions of back in 1991.  Many entries now require footnotes, if indeed they are worthy of them: who now recalls the stir caused by Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography? Not that I had actually read the book. “Nobody will use this book in a history class,” I declared. Being “a compilation of anecdotes” it had “no value as a biography.” Autobiography, being predicated on the personal, cannot be similarly invalidated, as I would later argue after taking a graduate course in ‘self life writing’ with Nancy K. Miller at Lehman. What I knew even in 1991 was that a journal was not a diary.

Unlike the diary, the journal provided me with a chance to develop a writerly persona.  I was playing the stranger, and what my reader, Ms. Padol, may have perceived to be my outsider perspective on what, in one entry, I called the “American waste of life” was in part my rehearsal of the part I thought my reader had reason to expect from me.  However motivated or contrived, that performance tells me more about myself than any posed photograph could. 

In an entry dated 3 May and titled “O temporaO mores!” I shared my experience watching Donahue, a popular talk show at the time, named after its host.  The broadcast in question was “People Who Change Their Sex to Have Sex with the Same Sex,” the sensationalism of which offering served as an opportunity to air my queer views as well as the closet of a journal that, for all its queerness, opened by lexically straightening my life by declaring my partner to be a “roommate.”

After expressing my initial confusion about the title and my indignation about the “exploitation” of the subject, I considered my complicity as a spectator and confronted the narrow-mindedness of my binary thinking:

Like the audience in the studio I asked myself why anybody would go through such a procedure only to have a lesbian relationship.

But then I realized that this is really a very shallow, stupid and yet typical question that shows how narrow-minded people are.

It also reflects ongoing intolerance in this society.

The woman in question made it clear that there is a difference between sexual identity and sexual preference.  When a man feels that he is really a woman most people think that he consequently must be a homosexual.

I refer to myself in the journal as gay.  What I did not say was how difficult it had been for me to define that identity, that, as a pre-teen boy I had identified as female and that, as a teenager, I had suffered the cruelty of the nickname “battle of the sexes,” in part due to what I know know (but had to look up again just now) as “gynecomastia”: the development of breast tissue I was at such pains to conceal that the advent of swimming classes, locker rooms and summer holidays alike filled me with dread.  I had been a boy who feared being sexually attractive to the same sex by being perceived as being of the opposite sex.

Reading my journal and reading myself writing it thirty years later, I realise how green – and how Marjorie Taylor Green – we can be, whether in our lack of understanding or our surfeit of self-absorption, when it comes to reflecting on the long way we have supposedly come, at what cost and at whose expense.  We have returned to the Identity Politics of the early 1990s, which I did not know by that term back then but which now teach in an art history context; and we are once again coming face to face with the specter of othering and the challenge of responding constructively to difference.  I hope that some of those struggling now have teachers like Ms. Padol who make them keep a journal that encourage them to create a persona that does not hide the self we must constantly negotiate for ourselves.

There is no record online of a Ms. Padol having worked at BMCC.  Then again, there is no record of my adjunct teaching at Lehman College from around 1994 to 2001, or at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center thereafter.  The work of adjuncts, and of teachers in general, lives on mostly in the minds and memory of the students they shaped.

I was more surprised at not finding any references online to that particular Donahue broadcast, except for a few mentions in television listings – two, to be exact.  The immediate pre-internet years, that age of transition from analog to digital culture, are a time within living memory to the access of which a minor record such as my English 101 journal can serve as an aide-memoire.  Whatever the evidentiary or argumentative shortcomings of anecdotes, by which I do not mean the Kitty Kelleyian hearsay I dismissed as being “of no value,” historically speaking, they can be antidotes to histories that repeat themselves due to our lack of self-reflexiveness.

Those of us who have been there, and who feel that they are there all over again – in that age in which the literalness of political correctness was pitted against the pettiness of illiberal thinking – can draw on our recollections and our collective sense of déjà vu to turn our frustration at the sight of sameness into opportunities for making some small difference: we are returning so that those who are there for the first time may find ways of moving on. Instead of repeating the question in exasperation, we need answers to “What were we thinking?”

Forecasts in Hindsight: Wrongly Predicting the 1948 Presidential Election

As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat.  Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.

Many articles in Crosby’s column made it into this 1952 volume, which is on my bookshelf. The item discussed here did not.

I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time.  Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance.  Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately.  “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:

‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’  Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there.  As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.

‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’  To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’

Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’  

Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’  Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.  

A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.

Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’  Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’  Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.

Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism,  provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’  Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.

‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’  The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.

The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’  Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.

Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’

Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future.  And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness.  As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.

Joan Blondell in Dachau

I am no historian. At least not in a traditional facts-and-figures sense. Early in life, I became doubtful of efforts to account for the present by recounting the past of a place or a people. Growing up – and growing up queer – in Germany during the 1970s and 80s, I was not encouraged to find myself in such accounts.  After all, how could I have developed a sense of being part of a national history? The present did not make me feel representative even of my own generation, while the then still recent past was presented to me as the past of a different country. A different people, even. A people whose history was not only done but dusted to the point of decontamination.

Visiting Dachau, June 2015

That many of those people – those old or former Nazis – were all around me and that the beliefs they held did not get discarded like some tarnished badge was apparently too dangerous a fact to instill. Pupils would have turned against their teachers.  Children would have come to distrust their parents.  They might even have joined the left-wing activists who were terrorizing Germans for reasons about which we, endangered innocents and latent dangers both, were kept in the dark.

As I have shared here before – though never yet managed adequately to convey – I left Germany in early adulthood because I felt uneasy about my relationship with a country I could not bring myself to embrace as mine. It’s been a quarter of a century since I moved away, first to the US and then to Wales.  For over two decades, I could not even conceive of paying the dreaded fatherland a visit. 

Eventually, or rather suddenly, that changed. In recent years, I have found myself accepting offers to teach German language, history and visual culture, assignments that made me feel like a fraud for being second-hand when imparting knowledge about my birthplace.  I realized that I needed to confront the realities from which I had been anxious to dissociate myself.

Beaten to death, silenced to death”:
A memorial to the homosexuals killed during
the Nazi regime, made in the year I came out.

This summer, I visited the Dachau concentration camp for the first time.  There, in the face of monumental horrors, I was drawn to one of the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential object on display: a cigarette card featuring the likeness of 1930s Hollywood actress Joan Blondell.

Dates and figures are no match for such a fragile piece of ephemera. To be sure, the macabre absurdity of finding a mass-manufactured collectible—purchased, no less, at the expense of its collector’s health—preserved at a site that was dedicated to the physical torture of real people and the eradication of individuality could hardly escape me.  But it was not this calculated bathos alone that worked on me.  It was the thought that I, too, would have collected such a card back then, as indeed I do now. Investing such a throwaway object with meaning beyond its value as a temporary keepsake, I can imagine myself holding on to it as a remnant of a world under threat.

Lives taken, identities recovered at Dachau.
Unexpectedly, a picture of Joan Blondell

Looking at that photograph of Joan Blondell at Dachau, it was not difficult for me to conceive that, had I been born some forty years earlier, I might have been sent there, or to any one of the camps where queers like me were held, tortured and killed.  That minor relic, left behind in the oppressive vastness of the Dachau memorial site, speaks to me of the need to take history personal and of the importance of discarding any notion of triviality. For me, it drives history where it needs to hit: home—home, not as a retreat from the world but as a sense of being inextricably enmeshed in it.

Joan Blondell, meanwhile, played her part fighting escapism by starring in “Chicago, Germany,” an early 1940s radio play by Arch Oboler that invited US Americans to imagine what it would be like if the Nazis were to win the war.